Bridging the gap to belonging: A conversation with Ewan D. S. Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM

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“I never expected to be a political refugee within my own country, but here we are,” Ewan D. S. Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM, internist at BluePearl NE Portland, industry liaison for PrideVMC, and co-author of their Gender Identity Bill of Rights and Gender Diversity Guide, said in an interview for Central Line: The AAHA Podcast.

A little over a year ago, Wolff, who is nonbinary and whose husband is trans, fled the growing number of anti-LGBTQIA+ rulings in Florida to start a new life in Portland, Oregon, fearing for their family’s safety—in particular, for the safety and wellbeing of their nonbinary child.

“Everyone is under a lot of strain, and I recognize that,” said Wolff, “. . . [but] people should understand that . . . communities are starting to be wiped out.”

What our veterinary colleagues really need at this critical moment goes beyond basic inclusion and tolerance, Wolff said. They point out that whether or not we realize it, most of us know someone who is personally affected by the current climate of hatred and violence towards the trans community, and, they add, “I have hope that with ongoing efforts and education, we can be the most welcoming profession there is.”

Here is an excerpt of the conversation. You can catch the full episode at aaha.org/podcast.

Ewan Wolff: The reality is that people need a really high level of allyship right now; they need it in states where they're being affected like this very badly. I think making work as welcoming a place as possible is very important.  . . . Basic human rights are essential, and a high level of allyship and emotional intelligence are essential right now too.

Katie Berlin: Belonging is the part of DEIB [diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging] that you told me you really wanted to talk about. What makes belonging different?

EW: Belonging is something that is less tangible than DEI efforts. People know when they belong. It's kind of like people used to say the definition of obscenity is that people know it when they see it.

The definition of belonging, very similar to the definition of discrimination for that matter, is that it's something that is understood from the perspective of the people involved. In the case of discrimination, just because people may not perceive microaggressions, they may not perceive stereotyping, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

But belonging, coming to a place and feeling like that is your place rather than a place that you have been invited to, and a place that is somewhat under your control as an active participating member in that place: that is, I think, just vital. And we're still very focused on the first three elements (DE&I), [which] are very important. [But] from the standpoint of importance, I think belonging can't be overrated. And a lot of the times, that's the portion that we don't really get.

KB: That feeling of being embraced by a place and the people in it is one of the best feelings on the planet and something that everybody should have a right to and be able to go and look for. And that really brings into perspective how much this has to do with wellbeing, not just of people in the gender-diverse community, but people they work with. Everybody is going to be happier and healthier if they're a team that all feels like they belong.

EW: I absolutely agree with that. One of the things that's often cited in corporate discussions of DEI work is that teams are more productive when they're more inclusive. And I think that's very much true. [But] unless we actively go out and build a pipeline whereby more people from underrepresented communities can end up being represented within the profession, whether that's coming through vet tech school or veterinary school or people who are being brought up into management positions and stuff along those lines—unless we make those efforts, that belonging piece will never happen. Because people will always be the one queer person in the room, or they'll always be the one person from that particular underrepresented minority. And then, yes, it does feel very difficult to belong.

KB: It seems like there's a big gap between signing [the Gender Identity Bill of Rights] and creating a space that is not only safe but allows you to be who you are. What are some things our community can do to bridge that gap between the signing and the belonging?

EW: Education is a tremendous first step, and education has to be more than something that you did at one point in time. It has to be continuing to learn where you can. People have to be willing to make mistakes and occasionally get called out on those mistakes and learn and grow.

People have to start looking around them and saying, "If I don't see gender-diverse people in this space, if I don't see black queer people in this space . . . and I know these people exist in my community, why am I not seeing them on this committee? Why am I not going to big conferences and hearing talks from people who are neurodiverse and nonbinary, intersectional individuals within the community?" If people don't educate themselves and build and bring people in and bring people up, then it's very difficult to move forward.

Ally is not a ribbon that you can wear or a bumper sticker. It's something that requires an effort every single day. As far as being an ally to the gender-diverse community right now, we're at a point in time at which being an ally means being willing to be a little bit bruised, because we're really beyond the point where we can simply have allies that say things that are helpful. We need people who are really willing to put some skin in the game, and there are going to be times when this is very uncomfortable. There are going to be times when it feels like there is some risk involved with being an ally because those are the times that we live in. But like many other times that have come before where there has been risk in helping communities that were underrepresented, that risk is not forgotten. Taking those risks is not forgotten.

What Wolff says we can all do to help

  • Be willing to say, “Are you OK?” especially if you live in a state where people are being affected by legislation.
  • Sign the Gender Identity Bill of Rights.
  • Read the Gender Diversity Guide to educate yourself.
  • See what the benefits are in your company. If gender affirmation benefits aren’t offered, ask why.
  • Intervene when somebody makes a remark that’s transphobic or homophobic. “Casual transphobia happens all the time,” said Wolff.
  • Correct someone when they don’t use someone’s pronouns correctly—even if it’s just a mistake.
  • Be willing to stand up for your people at work. If a client is harassing a coworker, step in and say, “Hey, we respect this person. This is our vet tech, Sandy, and her pronouns are she, her.”

Above all, the most important thing, Wolff said, is “never forgetting that people are other human beings, and remembering to treat them in the way that they have said they want to be treated.”

Pride VMC has an enormous library of resources for the entire veterinary community.  

If you or someone you love need support, visit this list of hotlines and other resources: https://pridevmc.org/support/  

Visit this page to learn more about and sign the Gender Identity Bill of Rights (GIBOR). 

Catch the full episode, and every other episode of Central Line: The AAHA Podcast, on major podcast platforms, YouTube, and at aaha.org/podcast.

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