For a quarter-century, Nanette Gartrell, MD ’71, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco (and a distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law), has been following lesbian moms who planned to become pregnant through artificial insemination. In the current issue of Pediatrics, she and a colleague in Amsterdam reported that the offspring in their National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study were more likely to rate higher in academic performance and less likely to break rules and behave aggressively. Gartrell--a former Harvard Medical School faculty member and the author of My Answer Is No--If That’s OK with You: How Women can Say No and (Still) Feel Good About It--talks about Stanford’s role in her research and in her life. Excerpts:
Your study received a lot of publicity!
I’ve never had the experience before of having a research article go viral. It’s been quite overwhelming, and there has also been some opposition within the United States on the part of people who are opposed to same-sex couples adopting children. The opponents are also having great difficulty with the fact that I have impeccable credentials. Thank you, Stanford!
And at the Stanford of the East, too?
I was the first out lesbian physician on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. In my practice, some of the people I saw were these very prominent lesbians who also wanted to have children. As donor insemination became available, they faced the whole issue of are they going to have children within the lives they’ve been living, staying in the closet, or would they make that decision to come out.
What were you doing during your time at Harvard, from 1979 to 1987?
I was doing research on physician abuse of patients. I went to Mitch Rabkin, the head of the hospital at Beth Israel. I said if it’s going to be a problem for me as an out lesbian physician to do work on lesbian topics or abuse topics, please let me know, and I will not use my Harvard Medical School affiliation. He said, “Your research is outstanding.” I told all of the closeted physicians that the president of our hospital has said it’s okay for me to be out, to be a lesbian, to use my affiliation. You need to think about coming out.
You were a hum bio major.
My mentor was Keith Brodie, a young professor of psychiatry who later became president of Duke. He started me on this path of research and convinced me to go to medical school as well. I was wavering when I hated organic chemistry! He was just the greatest. I was in the first human biology group. He gave some lectures about brain biochemistry that just fascinated me. He’s a really charismatic guy. I asked him if I could do my special project with him. He was telling me what the cutting-edge topics were. He said something along the lines of, “You know, Nanette, you can really think about what would be of interest to you. There are a lot of interesting and important areas that need more research. It could be anything from something about homosexuality to brain biochemistry.” It was before homosexuality had been removed from the DSM [the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]. It was still considered a psychiatric illness. He suggested I could do some research in that area.
What research projects did you end up doing as an undergraduate?
There was a big pressure to have homosexuality taken out of the DSM. I did a survey of psychiatrists inquiring about their attitudes toward lesbians and whether they thought it was inherently pathological. The majority thought it was not and should be removed. The other one was the really hot topic. Masters and Johnson had published a paper right when I was working on the first project. [Robert] Kolodny, who led their project, said they had taken blood from gay men and straight men and measured their testosterone levels, and the gay men had lower testosterone levels, and that’s why gay men were gay. They were then saying, “Now we know it’s a hormonal abnormality.” He thought that the explanation was low testosterone in gay men and high testosterone in lesbians. Keith said, “We really need to do this study here and see if we can replicate it.”
The gay men had much higher testosterone, which was just hilarious. Then other researchers around the country simultaneously replicated it. They either found something in our direction or no difference. Then I went as a senior medical student to the NIMH [National Institute of Mental Health], and I did the same test with lesbians and compared them to heterosexual Mormon women who were trying to become pregnant. We found that all the women had normal testosterone.
What’s it like to be a lesbian at Stanford?
Now we have Rachel Maddow ['94] on TV! Stanford was on the cutting edge of openness and acceptance. My freshman English TA was Arturo Islas. He was the first person I came out to aside from my lover because I wrote about my relationship in my final paper for freshman English. I had no idea he was gay. Personally, I never felt it was a bad thing to be a lesbian, but I did fear discrimination.
Did you experience it?
Negative comments about gay people just were everywhere. It was assumed to be okay to do and say. Certainly I bore witness to those kinds of disparaging comments. But did it change any part of my self-concept in terms of feeling good about who I was? No. My senior year at Stanford, another woman wrote a letter to the Stanford Daily and came out as a lesbian and talked about her experience of being a lesbian at Stanford. I got in contact with her, and we had the first-ever meeting of lesbians at Stanford in my apartment off campus. It was my senior year, in 1971.
Your partner for the past 35 years has been psychiatrist Diane “Dee” Mosbacher, M.D., the director and producer of Straight from the Heart, nominated for an Academy Award in 1995, and daughter of the late Robert Mosbacher, George H.W. Bush’s secretary of commerce. The New York Times wrote that you got married at City Hall in San Francisco in February of 2004, and then again in British Columbia in January of 2005. How does being married feel different?
I cared deeply about having the same civil rights as every other couple who are committed in this country. If your husband were to pass away, you would automatically get everything without paying a single dime of tax. If Dee were to die, paying the tax on the estate may mean that I would lose my home. We own this home 50-50, but the estate tax is so enormous. It’s a federal law. I can’t imagine going through the loss of her and simultaneously having my home taken away. The federal government does not recognize any same-sex marriage for the purposes of estate tax or survivor benefits, or Social Security.
Recently you wrote in the Advocate about your father-in-law, who died in January.
He adored Dee. And he and I were very close. Dee is really very much like her father, except that she has always had radically different politics. When he became head of President Bush 41’s re-election campaign, he allowed the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force to meet with him and talk about concerns of LGBT people in relation to the Republican Party platform, and that had never been done before. He believed in our right to marry. I have always been introduced as his daughter-in-law and Dee’s spouse. The first time we went to the White House [in 1991], Dee introduced me to Secretary Baker and President Bush 41 as, “This is my lover, Nanette Gartrell.” Everything else was too vague. We had long before figured out that the only word that was not confusing was “lover.” Dee’s dad said, “The word ‘lover’ seems so sexual.” He said, “Why don’t you use the word “spouse.” I said, “To me, it connotes heterosexual.” Quickly we went to the dictionary and saw there’s no gender reference to it. That’s what it’s been ever since.
Are you a mom?
I am a mother of one Maltese dog--and an aunt of seven.
How often do you see patients?
I see patients one day a week--Mondays. I work on my research the rest of the time and teach and give guest lectures. In the 1980s, I worked on sexual abuse of patients by physicians. I knew we had to document it. All the professional organizations refused to support me. I, and some colleagues at Harvard, did it on our own. We got it published in the highest-ranking psychiatric journal, the American Journal of Psychiatry. Essentially about one in 10 psychiatrists acknowledged having sex with their patients. They said the other physicians are doing it, too. We did those specialties and found a similar percentage. Since then, we’ve passed laws. There’s no tolerance for it now.
What role has Stanford played in your life?
Stanford has opened doors for me everywhere. I’m not a person who likes to announce all my credentials because I tend to be a little bit shy, and I also don’t want to seem too self-congratulatory. But as a 61-year-old, I’m surprised to say how routinely I’m still asked where I went to school. It provides a tremendous amount of legitimacy. I went on a full academic scholarship--100 percent financial aid. I continue to pay it back in my contributions. I just feel like it has given me a leg up in life.
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