LGBTQ Dental Students Create Sense of Community

LGBTQ Dental Students Create Sense of Community

A new group for LGBTQ students and allies at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine is part of a growing trend

From left to right: Tina Tong, Melissa Mazlin, Amanda Yee, Andres Gonzalez, Joseph Zaino
Photo: Courtesy of Dental Association for Equality

'I’ve always been accepted but it’s nice to have a supportive presence on campus, making sure that people are aware that this is a safe space, that it’s ok to express yourself.'
– Joseph Zaino

They came from campuses filled with Pride Weeks, rainbow flags and dozens of LGBTQ clubs and organizations.

But when some students arrived at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, they had to readjust.  There were no LGBTQ groups at all. At dental schools nationwide such groups are a rarity.

“It was different than what we had at college, where it was a very supportive setting and here there was no representation at all,’’ said third-year student Joseph Zaino.

That changed in 2012, when Christopher Disla founded the school’s Dental Association for Equality, a group of LGBTQ students and allies.

“When we got here, there seemed to be this huge void,’’ said Disla, who graduated last year and is now a dentist in Austin, Texas.

Although a few dental schools now have LGBTQ groups – and there seems to be a burgeoning movement – the trend is still new. When association members attended this year’s LGBTQ Health Workforce Conference in New York City, there were only two other dental school student groups there.

The association at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine has grown to about 40 members, including allies.

Zaino said he and other LGBTQ students were searching for support and a sense of connection when they started taking classes.

Dental school can be grueling – students attend class all day and often work into the night honing technical skills, like how to perform a filling or make a crown. Unlike many undergrads, they don’t have much time to socialize or explore their identities. The experience can be isolating, especially for newcomers, said Zaino.

“I think for first-year students it’s harder and there can be some struggling,’’ he said. “I’ve always been accepted, but it’s nice to have a supportive presence on campus, making sure that people are aware that this is a safe space, that it’s OK to express yourself.  It’s more of a community than a club.’’

Members say both the dental and medical profession are on the conservative side, although that’s starting to change as the field becomes increasingly diverse.

Association member Tina Tong, an ally, has noticed the gradual transformation reflected in the class portraits of alumni lining the RSDM hallways, stretching back to the first graduates in 1960.

 “It starts out as all white males, and then you see more women and people of different ethnicities,’’ she observed.

Tong is a fourth-year student who joined the group after a gratifying experience as an ally during her undergrad years. “The whole queer-straight alliance thing was a huge deal, and it’s still in the news.  When we got to dental school, we didn’t see anything about that,’’ she says.

Since it started two years ago, the association has held a fundraiser for a New York City homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth damaged during Hurricane Sandy and will begin outreach to LGBTQ residents in Newark. There also will be a joint health fair with members of GLAM, the Association of Gay, Lesbian and Ally Medical Students at the New Jersey Medical School and the School of Nursing.

Their goal is to help LGBTQ patients recognize that there are LGBTQ dentists and doctors, in addition to allies, and they can feel comfortable being themselves during treatment.

“A lot of LGBTQ patients might not know that some of us are accepting of their lifestyle,’’ said Zaino.

Association adviser Rosa Chaviano, assistant dean of admissions and student recruitment,  praised the group for helping to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment at the dental school. “They work towards educating students, staff and faculty about issues specific to them and promote acceptance of all students, including LGBTQ individuals in our clinics,’’ she said.

Disla hopes the presence of the association will let prospective LGBTQ students know that Rutgers School of Dental Medicine is a good place for them. “They want to go to schools where they’ll feel comfortable, and they’ll know they can find that at Rutgers.’’