Patricia Robertson

Baccalaureatte 2014

Patricia Robertson ’72, MD

Thank you for the honor of being here to celebrate your graduation with your family, friends, faculty, trustees and alums.

Thank you Mount Holyoke, for your courage to honor my work in lesbian health. I learned a lot at Mount Holyoke, not only in my pre-med classes and others, but also how to get things done. I arrived in 1968 from Texas, to gracious living on Wednesday evenings, a rule that freshmen were not allowed off campus on the weekends, and a law in Massachusetts that only married women could access contraception. So I played tennis on Wednesday afternoons and ate early in the kitchen to avoid wearing stockings and high heels to dinner, and I joined the debate team so I could get off campus on the weekends. When I graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1972, a lot had changed. I had been a part of that change through my work with the Student Government Association: we had stormed a faculty meeting to encourage the faculty to be more transparent in their decisions that affected us students, we instituted January term, and many of us demonstrated against the Vietnam War. The fall after graduation, I entered medical school. I was very lucky to get a spot at all, as there was a cap of 10% women and 5% Jewish students. There were 10 women in my class of 125. At times, we acted together to change things. For instance, in a hematology class, one professor interjected Playboy Bunny slides in the middle of his lectures. When I asked him in private why he did this, he explained it was to keep the male students engaged. So I talked with my female classmates and the next time the slides surfaced, all of the women got up and left in the middle of class. Those slides were never shown again. That action was a risk, just like some of the risks I have taken with my work in lesbian health. I have been doing this work since I was a resident in obstetrics and gynecology when I was evaluating a lesbian patient with pelvic pain. I tried to figure out if lesbians could have pelvic inflammatory disease. There was nothing in the literature, so I decided to study it. We opened a clinic and recruited lesbians to come in and get tested. I begged and borrowed the supplies, and convinced my straight resident friends to work in this evening clinic once a month, which has now evolved into Lyon-Martin Health Services in San Francisco, serving thousands of lesbian, bi, trans and straight low-income women each year. I was 27 years old with an idea without resources, but with a passion.

Once we published the results of our research, I started giving lectures on lesbian health, but we had very little other research. So I co-founded and co-directed a number of organizations, and networked with others to encourage and fund research in lesbian health. I have now spoken to a variety of audiences over the past 30 years about lesbian health, sometimes wondering if I should have worn a bullet-proof vest when addressing a particularly challenging audience, or, being exhilarated, when a parent understood that their reaction to their young adult’s “coming out” to them as lesbian, bisexual, gay or trans, does makes a difference to the future health of their child. It is especially wonderful when that parent then makes the decision to stand by their child. My work in lesbian health has never been part of my formal job: I deliver babies to support myself and my family, as well as teach medical students. Despite this, my lesbian health work is my most important legacy, besides my children, as this work has made the most difference for this underserved population.

This is my charge to you today:

-       Be authentic! Recognize and develop your passion, even if it does not make money. You are an astute judge of what needs to change in the world. Pick something, work with it and see how far you can take it. You have something unique to contribute.

-       Surround yourself with people who believe in you and enjoy being with you, who will not limit you as you pursue your dreams.

-       Push yourself into zones of discomfort, as that is when you will grow and learn the most, fail at times, and pick yourself up.

-       As you create your own families, know there are many models, and adapt one that makes sense for you. Be flexible as change happens, and your model may need to change too.  

-       Make self-reflection a part of who you are. Journal.

-       Reach out for help when you need it. As Mount Holyoke graduates, we are typically strong women. That doesn’t mean that we have to be super-women. Reaching out for help is smart.

-       Finally, be kind to others. Love your family, your friends, and your communities. Find pockets of joy in each day.