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Stuart Gold

Stuart Gold was destined to become a doctor. At the tender age of just two, he had a prescient realization while observing his pediatrician uncle making house calls. So impressed was he by his uncle’s demonstration of service to their Atlanta community, that young Stuart declared his intention to become a doctor himself and never wavered. By the time he entered Vanderbilt University for his undergrad and medical education, Stuart would regularly join his uncle at the public health clinics that he ran. There, he would learn how to listen to hearts and other basic medical techniques, ultimately solidifying his belief that medicine was his future. “There were a lot of bad things that took place during that era,” he noted, “but one of the good things was that medicine was different. It was kind and gentle. I would like to see medicine revert to a kinder, gentler era.”

Since arriving at UNC in 1989 as a Professor of Pediatrics, Stuart has made every effort to ensure that not just a kinder, gentle practice of medicine prevails, but that a sense of belonging is part of the fabric of UNC. As Chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology, Vice Chair for Diversity and Patient Engagement in the Department of Pediatrics School of Medicine, Member of the inaugural Diversity Committee for the School of Medicine, first Diversity Liaison from Pediatrics, and – most recently – member of the Inaugural Council for Diversity & Inclusion for the Health Care System, he has used his voice to institute equity, diversity and inclusion under his purview. “We have a long way to go as we promote moving towards a truly inclusive school – which I think is incredibly important – and state,” he said. “It starts with education: telling people who people are and what they stand for.”

Stuart was born in Atlanta, then moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, where his father owned a small Five and Dime store, and later, to Savannah, Georgia.  His intersecting identity as an Orthodox Jew who embraced his sexual identity in adulthood allowed Stuart to view diversity and inclusion through a unique lens. He shares his story often with various audiences in the School of Medicine and elsewhere, in hopes of bringing awareness and visibility, while educating faculty and staff.

How tough was it, dealing with anti-Semitism in the South when you were growing up?

People don’t think of southern cities as having large Jewish populations, but Savannah had three synagogues – including the second oldest one in the country – a kosher butcher, kosher deli and kosher bakery and even a Hebrew day school. So, it was quite a large Jewish community, and it still is. Even so, there was a fair amount of anti-Semitism. [Back then], there were Black and white waiting rooms, and there were Black and white water fountains. You knew where you could go and where you couldn’t. I couldn’t go to the Oglethorpe Club. I couldn’t go to the Savannah Yacht Club. The first time I realized there was anti-Semitism, it was sixth grade. A classmate was having a graduation party and I came home very excited and showed my mother the invitation and she said, “Well, you can’t go. Because it’s at the Savannah Yacht Club.” And that was my introduction to anti-Semitism, in sixth grade. I was pretty sheltered until then. But there was plenty more anti-Semitism [that I faced] later on. When busing started, I was bused to an all-white school in a blue-collar neighborhood in the outskirts of Savannah and they had never seen Jewish people before and were very anti-Semitic. My Jewish schoolmates who were bused with me were all college-bound and studious so the teachers loved us, but it was a bad dynamic [with the local students]. When we started getting bused to the Black schools, it was fine.

With the intersecting identity of also being gay, how did you deal with homophobia?

I dealt with it for many years by not dealing with it. Growing up, I knew one person who was gay, who was quite a bit older than me. He was also Jewish and lived down the street. He was killed. I can’t tell you why he was killed, but in my mind, it was because he was gay. It may not be true, but it had this everlasting impression on me. I didn’t come out until I was 39. And back then, it wasn’t discussable. I had one friend who was a couple of years ahead of me in residency who is gay. He wasn’t open, but everybody knew it. He would invite me to his New Year’s party every year and I would sit there, pretending like I was straight, which was very difficult. I dated women and even lived with one until I was 38. I was living in Denver during my medical training and they offered me a lovely job, but I’m a Southerner and wanted to come back here to reinvent myself and try to be who I needed to be. It wasn’t easy – probably harder doing so in the South.

Stuart Gold with husband
Stuart (L) and his husband, Don Steinberg, on the steps of NY’s City Hall after their marriage ceremony.

How did your lens of diversity, equity and inclusion take shape as you grew up and entered adulthood and the workforce?

It was a constant evolution. I almost don’t like the word “diversity” anymore because it’s used like water. In particular, what’s been going on [recently]. I like the word “uniqueness” better than diversity. We all bring something unique to the table. So while I’m so glad [issues of diversity are] in the forefront – because none of this was discussable in the past, whether it was racism or gender issues or religious issues, which we still don’t talk enough about – I’m waiting for the day when you don’t talk about it anymore and it’s just part of our life and the way it should be, blended into our every day. We wouldn’t have to talk about it so much if we were all reasonable people. But we need to highlight all of diversity. We do ourselves a disservice when we highlight just racism or just LGBTQ or just religious [issues]. It’s all the same thing, right? It’s [about people] not tolerating differences in other people, and I think it’s because people are threatened by those groups. So, my goal is that we talk about everyone.

Did anything in particular challenge your view of others?

My college roommate was kind of an “out there” guy for the times. His mother was on the Executive Board of the ACLU and the National Democratic Chair for Mississippi. He would push me to do things and once convinced me to [infiltrate] a KKK meeting. It wasn’t a hooded meeting or anything like that – just a town hall in downtown Nashville. My father taught me that if someone didn’t like me because I was Jewish, then it was because they were ignorant and my job was to educate them. But he was wrong about ignorance. David Duke spoke that night, and he was so incredibly articulate. It was an eye-opening experience for me and changed my concept that if someone was a bigot, they were not intelligent. That was borne out later that year when I was invited by my best friend to Thanksgiving. His father was an accomplished academic, yet as soon as he found out I was Jewish, I was disinvited. So much for intelligence!

At what point did you start feeling that there wasn’t fairness or equity at work or in your personal life?

Probably in my first week at UNC. We went out to lunch as a division and someone at the table decided to talk about how God brought AIDS to the world to kill all the gay people. And no one at the table said anything. Sometimes, it takes bad things to bring things to light. It really hit me when [my husband of 24 years and I] were having dinner at a major restaurant in Durham early in our relationship. I got the sense that someone was staring at me, so I looked across the restaurant and there’s this very large man just staring at me with pure hatred. And then he starts screaming across this very large, very crowded restaurant, “You f***ing fag!” and he kept doing it. It wasn’t once, it was multiple times. No one in the restaurant said or did anything. No customer, no employee. Nothing. I was afraid to leave the restaurant, that he would follow us. It changed me.

In what way?

Ever since that night, I’ve used my voice for others. I’d travel all across the state as the Co-Chair of a dinner with the Human Rights Campaign, speaking about these things.

Last year’s THINKposium: “Voice” [hosted by the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion] changed how I speak about things. When I think about some of the bad things I’ve gone through – a person bringing up HIV and being maligned across a huge, full restaurant – when people don’t use their voices, it’s the most painful thing in the world. You want someone else to stand up for you, and I think the best thing we can do in diversity and inclusion work is that I should be talking about racial issues, not LGBTQ issues. I should be talking about women’s issues, not Jewish issues. I know LGBTQ. I know Jewish. I think I make a bigger impact when I talk about and support other people, not myself.

Stuart Gold with Patient

You’ve been involved in numerous diversity committees and councils at UNC. How has the dialogue changed over the years?

I was on the inaugural Diversity Council to the first Vice Dean of Diversity at the School of Medicine. At our very first committee meeting, they were talking very appropriately about gender issues and racism. After about 45 minutes, I just said, “You know, there are other things we need to talk about – like LGBTQ, like our Hispanic friends, like religious diversity” and the gentleman who was talking said, “Yeah, I think Stuart’s right. The LGBTQ ‘lifestyle’ is very important.” Lifestyle??? So everyone needs to educate themselves. Diversity is such a hot topic and everyone thinks they’re a diversity guru. So, I asked the council, “How many people have taken Safe Zone training?” Not one person, except for me, had. “Anyone been to Opening Doors?” They never even heard of Opening Doors. I’d been the only person who had been to it. As a result, we are now setting standards for education for members of our DEI councils.

What issues of diversity and inclusion did you recognize early on in your position at UNC as needing immediate attention and how did you address them?

That there was no diversity was the issue. I think our division had one of the very few Black physicians – Rupa Redding-Lallinger – and she handled our sickle cell work and she was fabulous. There was no diversity back then. Until a couple of years ago, I was the only out gay man in the School of Medicine that I knew of. When a gay person applied to other departments and they wanted someone to take him out to dinner, they asked me to do it. None of the [applicants] came to UNC [because they probably thought,] “They have to go to another department to get a gay person to take me out? It’s an issue?”

What are some of the accomplishments from the various diversity and inclusion groups that you have been involved with that you are most proud of?

I think it’s what we’ve been able to accomplish in Pediatrics, where we have a Diversity Committee. We publish a monthly newsletter that’s really very cool and professional, thanks to some people who are in our office that are very good at putting newsletters together. We list all the important diversity days or topics for each month, and I pick one topic and write a couple of paragraphs on it. During Hispanic Heritage Month, I had one of our pediatricians who is Hispanic write it. I think it always means more when [the commentary] comes from someone who is of that ancestry. So, we try to make it educational. We also make sure that on every search committee, our hiring practices are appropriate and we have a member of the Diversity Committee sit on each search committee. We’ve starting holding town hall meetings and the first one was very successful. We also have several grand rounds a year on diversity topics. We just had one about the broken pipeline. As these develop, I’d like it to be a real sounding board where people are comfortable coming to the committee with gripes and issues. People are still fearful of expressing things and talking about inappropriate events. I want to be proactive.

How do you convey the University’s priority of Building Our Community Together to the division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology?

We’re working to make our clinics a more welcoming environment. We have a Spanish interpreter just for our clinic. When we can, we try to hire bilingual people to help our families out. We translate all of our consents and educational materials into English and Spanish. We’ve ordered unisex signs for our bathrooms. This is “low hanging fruit,” but important. Also, having pictures of same sex couples and mixed-race couples and people who are obviously Jewish or Muslim in pictures will make it a more welcoming environment when people walk in. People have to be able to see themselves in the environment, pictorially or otherwise. That’s one of my big goals. I want people to be able to walk in and breathe a sigh of relief and feel comfortable.

What do you find most rewarding in your work?

When I see change. Being able to talk about being Jewish and gay…it’s taken too may years, really for that to happen. Just having the dialogue and being open about things and creating what I truly hope will be a more inclusive environment. The School of Medicine created a policy last year that addresses racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic behavior by patients. It’s quite lengthy, but essentially says, “We respect the diversity of our providers, our caregivers, our staff and the hospital and healthcare system. If you aren’t comfortable with that, we’re happy to find you care elsewhere.”

Are you feeling hopeful about progress in the area of diversity and inclusion?

Even though the trajectory towards diversity is not fast enough or good enough, at least it’s heading in the right direction. Did I ever think in my wildest imagination that I would be legally married? I had to elope to New York because the environment in North Carolina was not good at the time…and it didn’t look like it was ever going to happen here. To have it be legal here now is truly a dream. So good things do happen. The consciousness of America and the world is changing. It won’t be fast enough, but one day – probably not in my lifetime – it will be complete.

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