The rainbow pride flag

For nursing dean, LGBTQ+ advocate, professor emeritus Ken White (CERTI ’13), the best career mistake he ever made was using the wrong pronoun.

Teaching one day in the early 2000s, he let slip that his partner was a “he.” Always careful to keep his personal life private, particularly in the classroom, White waited for the fallout. “Nothing happened. It was not a big deal,” he recalled in a 2019 interview in the Journal of Healthcare Management. “It turned out to be the best mistake I ever made, because the students found me to be more approachable, more real. LGBTQ students then felt like they could open up to me and receive mentoring and guidance they might not have gotten otherwise.”

“When you’re making policy, it’s about incremental changes. Sometimes you have to go to the table and agree to a compromise, and then come back at another time and agree to a little bit more, a little bit more.”

Kenneth R. White, PhD, ACNP, FACHE, FAAN

White, an influential pathbreaker in the nursing profession, has had a multifaceted career encompassing clinical, academic, and executive roles. A former associate dean for strategic partnerships and innovation at UVA’s School of Nursing, he is currently dean of the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions School of Nursing and current president of the American Academy of Nursing. Throughout, White’s bedside experience as a palliative care nurse has deeply informed his efforts at health equity for LGBTQ+ patients.

The Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry recently acquired the Kenneth R. White Papers. Together, with White’s oral history, conducted in 2021 with Bjoring Center director Dominique Tobbell, this collection documents some rare examples of the mainstreaming of LGBTQ+ issues in professional healthcare circles. It also lays bare the many obstacles met along the way. 

One of the oldest LGBTQ+ organizations in the health professions is the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, founded in 1981. The Gay Nurses Alliance, established in 1973, was defunct by the early 1980s.  Within the conservative healthcare executive field, this history is much more recent: an important space for the LGBTQ+ community didn’t gain a foothold until 2013, when White helped establish the Rainbow Healthcare Leaders Association.

It was a milestone reached through innumerable small steps.

In 2004, White became the first openly gay member elected to the Board of Governors for the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE). During this time, White directed the graduate program in health administration at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“While I was on the board, they brought forth, as they do routinely, policies for review and updating,” White recounted in his oral history. “And they brought forth their policy on diversity. And the policy was about race, ethnicity, and gender. Their goal was to get more people of color and more women into the college.”

When White suggested that it was time to consider broadening the definition to include LGBT diversity, he was told “we’re not going in that direction.”

But White didn’t drop it. Eventually, the policy became more inclusive, but it didn’t happen overnight.

“When you’re making policy, it’s about incremental changes,” he said. “Sometimes you have to go to the table and agree to a compromise, and then come back at another time and agree to a little bit more, a little bit more.”

Informally, people in the profession were coming out to White because he was openly gay and highly visible. They worried about getting hired as hospital administrators—let alone being accepted in the community in which they would live—given that the majority of hospitals are outside large, urban areas.

“I would be truthful with them and say, ‘Our profession needs you, but you need to select your administrative residencies and experiences in places where you feel welcome and safe . . . Don’t drop out of the program. Just find a place where you can thrive.’ I was on the sidelines a lot of times. A lot of times it was quiet, one-on-one conversations.”

The nonprofit Rainbow Healthcare Leaders Association that White helped to create supported career development and networking needs among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer healthcare executives. With funding from Stanford Health Care, it sponsored educational seminars and speaker forums. In 2016, the organization moved under the umbrella of the ACHE and became the LGBTQ Forum. White served as its inaugural chair, focusing on raising its visibility and capitalizing on sometimes small wins.

Early on, people hesitated to sign up as members. “People didn’t want to be identified because they would be fired” if their name appeared in a directory that they were a LGBTQ+ Forum member, White recalled. But the huge turnout at their events was a clear indication that there were many like-minded people who wanted to change the culture at their hospital who wanted to support equity of care for LGBTQ+ patients.

The LGBTQ Forum (since renamed the LGBTQ+ Healthcare Leaders Community) today is a robust component of the ACHE. One of its current priorities is creating curriculum-specific requirements for Masters in Hospital Administration (MHA) degree programs to include knowledge for how to be an LGBTQ+-sensitive advocate in a leadership position.

“When you get to the point where it’s taught in the graduate programs, that’s where I feel like you can really make a difference and have a legacy going forward,” says White. And since he’s writing the textbook—he is co-author of The Well-Managed Healthcare Organization, now in its 9th edition—those important issues of diversity, inclusion, and health equity have moved from the margins into the mainstream.


Today's #FlashbackFriday is brought to you by the Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, one of just three history centers in the world devoted to the study of the history of nursing and medicine.