“It’s not a one-time thing, coming out – you are doing it constantly”
Optometrist Karan Vyas on how the profession must tackle homophobia to truly care for the community it serves
24 August 2022
Through the Time to speak series, OT profiles how discrimination in the workplace is affecting eye care professionals. If you would be willing to share your experience, please contact [email protected]
Trigger warning: This article contains unacceptable racist and homophobic language that readers will find disturbing and offensive. The language used in this piece has been experienced by this optometrist at university and in practice.
Optometrist Karan Vyas: “We spend about 60% of our adult lives in work – imagine if you had to hide who you are all that time”
For my whole first year at Bradford University I didn’t come out. I think only about three people knew. It was only in my second year that I started coming out of my shell. It was ridiculously scary coming out at university. There seemed to be a perception that if you are gay and you are Asian, that is wrong. I would hear people talking about it – how being gay as an Asian was weird or maybe the person had a bad upbringing.
Luckily the vast majority of people I told didn’t care or were happy for me. There were some people in my year who were less accepting. People wouldn’t interact with me in the same way, they would only stare at me. One time I was speaking at an Optometry Society hustings event and someone behind me said ‘Nobody cares what you think, you faggot.’
I would hear that kind of thing sometimes walking down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand. But you don’t expect to hear that at university. The next day I was in clinic with a couple of people I thought were my friends, saying how annoyed I was at the comment. This other student said, ‘Well you should really learn to expect that now.’ What was worse is that my other friend sat there quietly. It was only when we got back to the flat that she said ‘I completely disagree.’ I asked, ‘Well why didn’t you say anything?’
Of my family, only my siblings knew when I was at university. I didn’t tell the rest of my family until I had qualified and I had money. In my head, I thought if I had a job, then even if things went really badly, I could still go out and support myself. It turned out that I didn’t have anything to worry about with my mum because she took it very well, but there is that uncertainty – especially within the Asian community.
I would love for the day to come where you don’t have to come out
When I first qualified, I would never talk about my personal life at work. People are curious and will ask ‘Have you got a partner?’ I had been with my boyfriend for two years at that point but when people asked if I had a partner, I would say no.
Now I am quite open in the practices where I work that I am gay, and I’ve never had any issues with my colleagues. We once had a locum optometrist who refused to shake my hand when I introduced myself. I didn’t think much of it, but then later the contact lens optician told me the locum had asked him ‘how he could work with someone like me.’ Sometimes it is the things people do behind your back rather than to your face that are the worst.
Patients have their own views as well. I’ve heard it all now. One time I put a trial frame on the patient, and they said ‘These look a little bit like Elton John’s glasses. I liked Elton John before he became a pervert.’
If people had the courage to say ‘That is not acceptable’ it would make things easier. It is difficult to do that when you are in a business environment. Although my practice is quite good at telling patients to leave if they become abusive, I know there are practices that accept it. That can make it more of a toxic environment to work in.
I think it would be helpful if companies had a clearer policy on discrimination. A lot of practices don’t have a policy, or it is not on display in the open. You don’t see a notice saying that abuse will not be tolerated in the same way that you might in a pharmacy or a GP practice.
Our job isn’t to marginalise people. It is to make sure that we provide care to every person in society
I would love for the day to come where you don’t have to come out. It’s not a one-time thing, coming out – you are doing it constantly. I think I will always be a bit on guard because of past experiences. It becomes easier every single time but those thoughts will always be in the back of my mind. How will people react? Is it necessary for this person to know? When I started, my team was really forthright in trying to find out about my life. I think after working with me, my team has learned to let people reveal things in their own time.
Tackling discrimination is important for the patients we see too. The business that we are in isn’t just selling glasses, it is people. Our job isn’t to marginalise people. It is to make sure that we provide care to every person in society.
I think there is an awkwardness within the profession where people feel that LGBTQ+ issues aren’t something they need to deal with. But if we don’t have a profession that is representative of the community around us, then we are not truly going to be able to serve the population. I’m not saying we should slap a pride flag on every other window but if people are able to be who they are within the profession, then others can learn from that. We spend about 60% of our adult lives at work – imagine if you had to hide who you are all that time.
It is getting better but there is still a long way to go. The whole problem with discrimination is that no one talks about it. Because of that, it just carries on and we pretend it doesn’t exist. For years, when I first qualified, I just accepted that this was the way it was. Occasionally a patient would come in and say they didn’t want to see a ‘Paki.’ I would just move on with my day. You start developing a thicker skin and pretend it doesn’t bother you. That isn’t right. If enough people speak out, then something will change.
- The AOP has launched its 100% Respect campaign, which calls on all those working in the profession to make a pledge to unite against all forms of discrimination
- The AOP’s employment team can advise you on all forms of discrimination and discuss your options with you. If you are experiencing discrimination or know someone who is, you can contact the employment team or read the AOP guidance for employees
- Anti-discrimination resources for practices, including posters, are available for download on the AOP website.
● As told to Selina Powell.