“I’m a Republican. I’m a doctor. And I’m a soldier.” So began a 30-second advertisement featuring Vanderbilt physician and medical faculty member Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld, a commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve and a combat veteran. The spot grabbed national headlines in June after a Tennessee television station refused to air it for supporting legalization of same-sex marriage. Three weeks later the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision allowing same-sex couples to marry.
That wasn’t the first time Ehrenfeld’s advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) issues made news. In February 2015—during a town-hall event with newly appointed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in Kandahar, Afghanistan—Ehrenfeld, who is openly gay, asked the secretary about transgender soldiers serving in the military. The question prompted a national debate on the topic, and by July the Pentagon announced it would begin to allow transgender people to serve in the military in 2016.
Jessica Pasley, information officer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center, recently talked to Ehrenfeld about the past year’s events.
Your question jump-started a national conversation and policy change on transgender service in the military. What prompted you to ask it?
When I was in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Carter had been in office for six days when he made a surprise visit to our base. With the press pool present, I stood up and asked him if transgender troops should be able to serve in the military. I knew I had to ask the question because the person sitting next to me, who was a transgender service member, didn’t have a voice, couldn’t have a voice. I had the opportunity to ask an important question that would hopefully drive change. There’s an estimated 15,000 active-duty transgender service members. What people often don’t realize is that the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” did not repeal the ban on transgender service. That only applied to gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the service.
Did you come out when you were growing up in Delaware?
Honestly, I was never closeted. I just never figured things out until I was in college. I was 19 years old. The ironic thing is that I attended a fairly liberal school and was head of the College Republicans, and I discovered I was much more accepted as a gay man at Haverford College than I was as a conservative Republican. I remember telling my mom, and she was really upset—not because I was gay, but because she was worried I wouldn’t be able to have all the things she knew I dreamed of: a marriage, a family.
How have attitudes changed during the past 20 years?
A great majority of Americans have learned more about what it means to be gay. They have become more comfortable with gay and lesbian people. Many people are recognizing that others in their community, their neighbors, their public servants, their doctors, their first responders, in many cases are gay. I don’t think people recognized that 10 years ago. They are realizing they have outdated ideas about who they think gay people are. But the work toward equality for all Americans is not complete. The freedom-to-marry issue has been transformative in helping Americans understand who gay people are. It is one of the reasons I agreed to be featured in the “Freedom to Marry” ad with my partner, Judd Taback.
How did that ad come about?
We wanted to speak to an audience that had not been engaged in a conversation in ways that many others had. I am gay. I am a physician. I am in the military, and I am a conservative Republican. It never crossed our minds that a TV station would not air the ad. We were disappointed and sad, but at the same time we were pleased the decision ultimately led to more people seeing the ad because of the attention that their refusal to air it brought to the issue. It worked out in our favor.
How has the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex couples can marry affected you personally?
We were ecstatic beyond belief that we got a full win guaranteeing the freedom to marry for all Americans. We had been eagerly awaiting this decision. I recall, when I was preparing for my deployment a year ago, having a long conversation with Judd about whether to go somewhere out of state and get married. We decided to wait. But it was something that was on my mind the whole time I was overseas. Judd and I did not have the same protections that our straight, married counterparts enjoyed, such as the use of Red Cross messages or the ability for Judd and me to see each other in case of an emergency or a medical issue. Those were very practical concerns that I carried with me during my time in Afghanistan.
What other areas of LGBTI equality concern you?
There has been a long path to acceptance of LGBTI people that has taken a great deal of time to march down; however, we have not yet arrived. Unfortunately, no federal employment or housing nondiscrimination protections exist for LGBTI people today in America. A person could get married on Sunday and then be fired from his job on Monday just because he is gay in Tennessee.
You helped launch the Vanderbilt Program for LGBTI Health in 2012. How have you integrated your commitment to LGBTI issues into your work environment?
As a medical resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I took care of LGBTI patients who were not getting the care they deserved. I wanted to make a difference. I made a commitment that I would continue to do whatever I could to work on the issue. Vanderbilt has a long history of commitment to diversity and equality for our patients, students and employees. I have been able to focus my work around health equality, culminating in the formal launch of the Vanderbilt Program for LGBTI Health. We have a number of research projects focusing on LGBTI health. The local and national policy work we have been doing here has been incredibly rewarding, and we have already seen the fruits of our labor. Providers are becoming better educated. Patients who previously would not enter the system are getting care. A greater awareness of LGBTI issues now exists in our clinics. We are energized and inspired by the progress.
Are you surprised to find yourself at Vanderbilt?
Never in a million years would I have dreamed that I would be a faculty member in Tennessee at Vanderbilt working on LGBTI equality. But it has been the most rewarding part of my experience and certainly gives me the drive to continue the work. A tremendous impact has been made on LGBTI health issues because of the support and resources Vanderbilt has provided. I am proudest of the fact that I found a way to have a voice, and to stand up for myself and for so many people in the LGBTI community who can’t.
A graduate of Harvard and the University of Chicago, Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld is an associate professor of anesthesiology, biomedical informatics, health policy and surgery.