No one likes to go to the doctor. No one leaps out of bed, excited by the prospect of sitting in an airless reception room with snivelling, miserable people who look much too contagious to be mingling with the general public.
No one enjoys shooting the breeze with their doctor so much that they cancel meetings and make a special trip through the traffic to see him when they barely have the time to see their friends.
Going to the doctor is awful. You’re either going because you feel shaky and sore and fragile, or you’re worried that something horrendous is happening to you. If you are anything like me, you’ll have convinced yourself that you have something terminal before you’ve even made the appointment. (If you trawl the internet for long enough, any symptom you have leads to death – and it usually takes quite a bit of work for my doctor to convince me otherwise.)
Doctors meet us when we’re at our most vulnerable and anxious. They have all of the power in that relationship and they often like to remind us of that: making us wait at least half an hour after our scheduled appointment in the Cesspit of Coughs while they make coffee or read a magazine or do whatever it is that they do on the other side of that door.
I find going to the doctor for sexual reasons even more unpleasant. There is the general awkwardness of talking about sex with someone who is neither my partner nor my shrink. There’s the terror that I’ve contracted something really nasty – either life-threatening or something that will disfigure my crucial bits and end any hope I have of mustering sexual allure with the lights still on.
And then there are the specific worries that being a gay man carries: maybe the doctor will be a homophobic bigot who gives me second-rate medical care. Maybe he’ll be completely unfamiliar with gay sexual health issues and fail to check for the right things.
I think I’ve had experience with both. When I lived in the UK I remember going to the GUM clinic (short for “Genitourinary Medicine” – what the British call sexual health clinics) and being told by the woman running the tests that I almost certainly had HIV. “You do know that your partner is probably cheating on you,” she said at one point, before giving me a cold, steely look and asking how my mother was going to take the news that I was HIV positive.
It turns out I wasn’t, but I was too shocked and frightened by her approach to get angry about it until I got home. She had taken one look at my sexual history and country of origin (as an infuriating side note, they ask on the form how many South Africans you have slept with to help them make a risk assessment!) and decided she needed to scare the hell out of me.
I imagine she thought she was doing me a favour, encouraging me to be more responsible with my health in future. But you can’t change someone’s homeland or sexual history by telling them they have HIV before you’ve even run the test.
What that clinic lacked in bedside manner, though, it made up for in thoroughness. I left that round of tests with every part of me scraped, probed and screened. I felt like a cooking pot that had been scoured with hot water and steel wool to get it clean. Whether she was doing that to freak me out too, I’ll never know, but I did feel that if they hadn’t found anything with those tests, there was nothing to find. That hasn’t been my experience at all clinics. At some they’ve run a blood test or two and sent me home. No anal swab, no metallic torture device up the urethra. It’s like they don’t even know what bits we use to have sex.
I’ve finally managed to find a doctor now who makes the whole thing a lot less embarrassing. He uses his power for good, not ego trips. In fact, despite being straight and good-looking, he makes it easy to bring up really intimate and awkward sex injuries without feeling like a big gay slut.
The other day I was in his rooms at 9am after I had spotted a bit of blood post sex. Although my partner and I had been perfectly vanilla, not doing anything rough or unusual, I had somehow torn myself a little. And so I had the characteristically apocalyptic fear that I was going to bleed to death through my colon. He had to do that thing that straight male doctors probably have nightmares about doing and yet he managed to channel all of his energy into putting me at ease.
“Seriously, don’t worry,” he said as he lubed up his gloved finger, “I have done this so many times I’ve lost count. It must be thousands of times. It’s no big deal.” I relaxed and he did the deed. And after breaking the news to me that I wasn’t bleeding to death, he was even cracking jokes. “Well at least you have more fun than most people have on a workday before breakfast!” I realised on my way to work that he had been the second man to put his finger up there that morning, so perhaps he was right about that.
It’s amazing to have found a doctor who is so relaxed and breezy, reassuring and non-judgemental. I don’t know why they can’t screen applicants to medical school on those criteria as well. It seems pretty important to me.
The battle for dignity and equality isn’t just about gay marriage or the odd gay character on Isidingo. We will only be free when we can drop our pants at the doctor without being lectured on the moral flexibility of our partners and we can leave without thinking: but did he check the thing I’m really worried about but too awkward to ask? We all have sex. We all worry about our health. We’re all frail little humans with bodies that need care.
Visiting the doctor will always be shitty, but I hope that one day it will at least be no shittier for gay folk than it is for those who have sex the ‘conventional’ way.