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Harvard med school remains tight-lipped about transgender overhaul of curriculum

Reformers ‘rewriting the stories and the language’ for LGBT patients

Several months after announcing the major new initiative, Harvard Medical School remains silent about revisions that will radically re-orient the school’s approach to medicine, bringing the institution’s curriculum in line with modern LGBT ideology.

In January, The College Fix reported on the school’s Sexual and Gender Minorities Health Equity initiative, a program created to conduct “a comprehensive review of the School’s four-year curriculum…identifying areas that are ripe for enhancement with material on [sexual and gender minority] health or that contain assumptions or errors about sex and gender.”

The program has been described as an attempt to “overhaul the entire [Harvard Medical School] curriculum to integrate sexual and gender minority health equity” according to a blurb on the personal website of Jessica Halem. While Halem, the school’s LGBTQ Outreach and Engagement Director, refers to the curriculum initiative as an “overhaul,” she also told Simmons University in May: “I do not envision a top-down model where we deliver a big book of answers, but rather, we will listen and learn about how their school works, helping them integrate this curriculum in their own unique way.”

At the time of the initiative’s launch, representatives of Harvard Medical School failed to answer numerous requests for information on the program. The Fix recently followed up with medical school personnel to learn more about the initiative’s progress over the past eight months.

The Fix attempted to contact Jessica Halem through numerous channels, including emails and phone calls; none were successful.

An auto-reply from Halem’s email account directed The Fix to Emeline Jarvie, identified as the Curriculum Coordinator for the Sexual and Gender Minorities Health Equity Initiative. Jarvie did not respond to multiple emails seeking information about the initiative. Jarvie’s LinkedIn page indicates that she has been in that position for less than a month.

The Fix also reached out to Ekaterina Pesheva, the medical school’s top spokeswoman, to learn more about the initiative’s impact, specifically on the general curriculum of the school. Multiple calls and emails were not returned.

Few program updates have been published since the initiative’s launch, but a December 2018 Harvard Gazette article detailing the program’s goals notes that it was created to equip medical students with the knowledge necessary to treat LGBTQ individuals effectively. At that time, Halem told The Harvard Gazette: “It’s about rewriting the stories and the language we use, built around a better understanding of how sex and gender really work in people’s lives.”

It is unclear whether the medical school curriculum has changed since the launch of the initiative. John Dalrymple, the Dr. Mark and Karen Lawrence Director of Humanism in Medicine at the school, told The Gazette that once the updated curriculum is implemented, it will apply to every medical student, “not only those with a pre-existing interest in caring for this segment of the population.”

This extension of transgender education to medical school curriculum is part of an ongoing effort to evolve with “changing times,” the article notes.

“It is precisely this spirit of continuous improvement that allows us to integrate critical new material and ensure its effectiveness for current students and generations of physicians to come,” Ed Hundert, the dean for medical education, told The Gazette.

A January 2019 NPR article noted that the initiative is on “a three-year plan to assess the core medical school curriculum and to identify opportunities to better instruct on the health of sexual and gender minorities.”

According to HMS’s website, the initiative was made possible by a $1.5 million gift from the Cohen and Bull-Cohen families, motivated in part by Perry Cohen’s difficulty finding physicians. Cohen, who is transgender, recalls that finding doctors with the practical knowledge to treat transgender patients proved difficult, not because of discrimination, but rather, a gap in their medical knowledge. “It wasn’t about malice; it wasn’t about not affirming me, but rather, they had this look of, ‘Oh, no, I don’t know if I’ll be able to help this patient’,” Cohen said.

That significant donation may prove consequential not just to Harvard but to medical schools everywhere. Halem told Simmons University: “Because we have financial support, we can replicate our curriculum and bring it to other medical schools across the country — maybe even around the world.”

MORE: LGBT activists gearing up to rewrite Harvard Medical School’s curriculum

MORE: Over 100 schools now offering trans medical coverage for students

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About the Author
Elizabeth Nealon -- Clemson University