Bridging the Gap to Belonging

In the midst of more conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging than ever before, people with whom we share critical patients and break room donuts are being forced to hide who they are, flee their homes, and live in fear simply for existing as they are. A conversation with Ewan D.S. Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM, sheds some light on this critical problem.

By Katie Berlin

A Conversation with Ewan D. S. Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM

We are living at a critical juncture in 2023.

In the midst of more conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) than ever before, people with whom we share critical patients and break room donuts are being forced to hide who they are, flee their homes, and live in fear simply for existing as they are. Ewan D. S. Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM, internist at BluePearl NE Portland, industry liaison for PrideVMC, and coauthor of their Gender Identity Bill of Rights and Gender Diversity Guide, did not mince words in describing the extent to which anti-trans legislation is affecting our peers both in and out of veterinary medicine.

Katie Berlin: [In your own experience] in veterinary medicine, are our attitudes toward the gender-diverse community and gender-diverse coworkers and clients different than they are in the general public and the world at large? Are we more tolerant, more accepting? Are we less so?

Ewan Wolff: I think we have a large portion of the field that just hasn’t thought about it, and like so many things when people haven’t thought about it, the initial reaction may be to not be inclusive. But once people start to think about gender-diverse people outside of abstract stereotypes or movie stuff, or things that are being said in memes they may be sharing around, then I think people start to change their point of view.

If I look at the amount of support that has been building over the last two years for the Gender Identity Bill of Rights [GIBOR], I think it’s a testament to people actually starting to think about the fact that there are actually human beings within the field who are gender diverse, and that those people are no different than anyone else and worthy of respect and basic rights within the field. And the second people start to rationalize them as human beings just like themselves, then that instinct to immediately “other” people starts to wane. I actually have significant hope for the veterinary profession that with ongoing efforts and education, we can be the most welcoming profession that there is.

KB: I’m glad to hear that. I think a lot of us [in vet med] can identify with the feeling of standing out, or not wanting to stand out, because of the things that make us different. And that, I think, does lend us to be a little bit more accepting of people we might view as a little bit different. But in this climate now, things are tense, and from what I understand, you have had personal experience where that has affected your life and your choices about where to live and work.

“Within the first three weeks of 2023, there were 120 bills before the legislature, including things that banned gender-affirming care for adults up to the age of 26.”

—Ewan D. S. Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM

EW: Absolutely. I’m nonbinary, my husband is trans, and we have a kid who’s nonbinary. And to keep things short, the Florida legislature and governor made it abundantly clear in the beginning of 2022, in April, that they would not allow children to be supported in social transition or medical transition. And a bunch of other different rulings, things like erasing LGBTQ history from teaching, preventing teachers from discussing that a child had two parents of the same sex, not allowing providers to use appropriate pronouns and names for kids, and stuff along those lines—and now things like outing children to the entire school if they want to use the restroom. Those sorts of things really led to a climate of hatred and heightened risk of violence that made it unsafe to have our family stay there.

Same-sex couple sitting on floor with their young girlsAnd our concern, more than anything else, was that the state might take the same steps that Texas had taken and start actually taking kids into the foster system and charging parents with felonies for supporting trans kids, which includes nonbinary under the same umbrella. So I contacted BluePearl. I slept on it for the night after the April 20th health department notice came out. And I wrote this long letter and said, “Look, I don’t think it’s safe for us to stay here anymore, and here’s why.”

And I was very fortunate that the company got back to me within five minutes of writing them, and we sat down and talked, and I ended up interviewing out in Portland, and then they helped us move out there. We had our house on the market two weeks after that notice. We left without having a house on the other end; it was an incredibly fast exit. So fast, in fact, that there were friends of ours who didn’t even realize that we had left, because we had been so busy packing everything rapidly. But I was very fortunate that BluePearl supported that move, and by extension Mars.

KB: That’s an incredible story. It makes me think about all the people who cannot leave, who are in that environment and working in our veterinary hospitals next to us, and we may not know that they’re going through that.

With the increase in support that you’re seeing for the Gender Identity Bill of Rights, I want to believe that inside of [those hospitals] is a safe space, and that even if the outside climate is inhospitable, gender-diverse people, say in Florida or Texas, can still feel safe at their place of work. Do you think that’s true?

EW: I think being able to have a refuge inside your workplace is incredibly important. And I want to stress to everyone that it is very much not just Florida and Texas; it’s well over half the states at this point. Within the first three weeks of 2023, there were 120 bills before the legislature, including things that banned gender-affirming care for adults up to the age of 26.

LGBTQ+ activist holding rainbow flags

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. I also think that having some degree of flexibility to ask people how they’re doing, to see what can be done for people, that’s also very important. Basic human rights are essential, and a high level of allyship and emotional intelligence is essential right now too.

There have been moments in history when individual hate laws have been put into effect, the sum total of which resulted in the extinction of a community, the LGBTQ community included. And it’s very difficult for people who are not being directly impacted to see that a community is being wiped out until it is gone.

One thing that I want to say to people who are not necessarily paying attention—because everybody has very busy lives, everyone is under a lot of strain, and I recognize that. And I want to say that for those people who are not seeing this happen, they should understand that what is happening is communities are starting to be wiped out.

KB: I am trying to wrap my mind around what you said, and I just can’t do it.

EW: When you dehumanize individuals, when you villainize individuals, when you do not permit their name to be said on a page, when you don’t permit their history to be said, when you refuse to recognize their existence, their names, when you make it difficult for them to be employed, when you employ medical conscience so that they can die on a pavement outside of hospitals without people treating them, when you refuse to provide them with medical care that they need in order to stay healthy, when you impact their jobs so that they can be discriminated against, when you impact their schools so that they may not be able to be in an environment in which they can be themselves, there is one result of all of that.

There was a leader for the Southeastern ACLU, for the LGBTQ rights there, who said that it’s beginning to look a lot like the intent is for us not to exist.

The ACLU has a bill tracker where they show all these things happening. There’s only one interpretation that you can come to when trans healthcare is being removed gradually, initially for little kids, then for adolescents, then for people up to 21, then for people up to 26. This is a gradual and insidious strategy, and it is very effective. I never expected to be a political refugee within my own country, and yet here we are.

Judge wooden mallet resting on lgbtq rainbow flag

“I never expected to be a political refugee within my own country, and yet here we are.”

—Ewan D. S. Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM

KB: It’s staggering to think about in those terms.

EW: And I think that the shocking thing about all this is that there’s no cost involved in any of this. This is just a matter of being kind and decent to other human beings, because they’re another human being with a different life than your own. And enough of us spend time reading novels and watching movies and stuff along those lines that we know that there’s this human desire to understand how other people exist. Other people are more like us than we suppose.

KB: Belonging is the part of DEIB that you told me you really wanted to talk about. What makes belonging different from discussions in general about diversity, equity, and inclusion?

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, but 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.Veterinarian wearing a progress pride flag pin on white coat

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 I want to circle back to something that I said—that I have a significant hope that the profession will continue to be a more inclusive place. There’s one caveat in that; that’s why it’s important to get to the belonging piece. 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: [There are plenty of rooms in vet med] that used to have one woman in them—and in a relatively short time, we’ve become a profession that is predominantly identifying as female. It would be wonderful to be able to see that happen with the gender-diverse community also; that we quickly decide that we are all not just going to be tolerant, but go out and look for ways to invite people in. And I love that image in my head of the arms of the profession reaching out and saying, “This is a place for you, you belong here, come work with us. We want to work with you.” We have a lot of heart in this community. We have big hearts for our patients. And sometimes I wonder if we need to turn them a little bit more to ourselves.

“Ally is not a ribbon that you can wear or a bumper sticker. It’s something that requires an effort every single day.”

—Ewan D. S. Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM

EW: Oh, I couldn’t have put that better. I think that in so many different ways, we’re learning that the piece that is missing from veterinary medicine is that we have failed to recognize that we’re all people. We have put output as such a giant priority, whether you’re talking about output for research or teaching or production or things coming through the door, that we’ve forgotten about the fact that this is also a profession that operates entirely by humans. There are no trained dolphins that are running this profession. This is a human-run profession. And as part of that, we have to deal with each other as people.

And so when people say that our efforts on DEI are wasted efforts and we should be focusing on the animals, I think they should look around them and realize the rate at which people are exiting the field, having suicidal ideation, having to take long absences from their jobs. And maybe they should think a little bit more about the fact that there might be multiple different problems that are leading to that in the first place. We need to care for ourselves as a profession.Technician consoling his fellow co-worker

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. At a systemic level, 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 bring people in, then it’s very difficult to move forward.

Veterinary industry holding a megaphone with rainbows coming out of it

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 in 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 who 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.

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:

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

If you’re in states where people are affected by legislation, be willing to say, “Are you okay? Is there anything that I can do to help?” [Take] a minute to read the Gender Identity Bill of Rights and sign it. [Take] a minute to see what the benefits are in your company and if gender affirmation benefits are not offered, be willing to say, “Hey, I just wanted to inquire, is this something that isn’t listed or is it something we’re not offering and if not, why?” [Take] a moment to intervene when somebody makes a remark that’s transphobic or homophobic. Casual transphobia happens all the time. Correct someone when they don’t use someone’s pronouns correctly—and that may not be transphobic, that may be just a mistake. Be willing, if a client is harassing someone at work, to say, “Hey, we respect this person. This is our vet tech, Sandy, and her pronouns are she/her.” Being willing to take those steps is incredibly important; just 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.

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

Ewan Wolff
Ewan D. S. Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM, is an internist at BluePearl NE Portland, industry liaison for PrideVMC, and coauthor of their Gender Identity Bill of Rights and Gender Diversity Guide.
Katie Berlin
Katie Berlin, DVM, CVA, is AAHA’s Director of Content Strategy.

Photo credits: xavierarnau/E+ via Getty Images, Vladimir Vladimirov/E+ via Getty Images, djedzura/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Nadzeya Haroshka/iStock via Getty Images Plus, PeopleImages/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Dusan Stankovic/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images,



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