Med student shines light on LGBTQ health with new group

Second-year medical student John Cummins was recently awarded the Mizzou Inclusive Excellence Award for his contributions to the LGBTQ community.

He said it was always the same thing.

Every Thursday night, for three hours, second-year medical student John Cummins would go to a gay man’s bathhouse and wait in an office with a partner. As volunteers, they would wait for people wearing only towels to come up to them for counseling or HIV testing.

Sometimes he set up shop in a bar with a bowl of condoms and a stack of brochures next to him. Cummins said sometimes it was creepy old men. Sometimes it was a person who just wanted to be tested with no counseling. He said it was “always the same cast of characters,” but then there’d be someone different, and that’s when Cummins felt he was doing something substantial.

Since then, Cummins has continued to harness the issues facing the LGBTQ community. Last Wednesday, Cummins received the Mizzou Inclusive Excellence Award for his contributions to the LGBTQ community, most notably for the founding of MizzouMed Pride, a group that is focused on raising awareness and understanding of LGBTQ health issues.

“It means I’m on the right track, that what I’m doing matters,” Cummins said. “What I’ve stated our goals as MizzouMed Pride are, are something that the med school and the entire university care about, and that I’m in the right place to be doing this work.”

The week-to-week process of being a counselor was something that Cummins always looked forward to, and then he realized he liked the medical side of volunteering. Along with his husband, Cummins came to MU planning to graduate from med school and become a teacher of medical education. He hopes to shine light on LGBTQ health issues that he said many physicians neglect, primarily due to discomfort and fear of invading privacy.

Although Cummins has yet to graduate, Debra Howenstine, assistant professor of clinical family and community medicine, who nominated Cummins for the award, said in her written nomination that he has “done more within the medical school in regards to LGBTQ inclusion than any other individual, past or present.”

“Even though others were aware of the need, it took John to step forward to make it happen with his humor, and willingness to share his perspective and to help us all move forward,” Howenstine said.

Before coming to MU, Cummins led a string of academic accomplishments. He attended Grinnell College in Iowa where he received a bachelor’s of sociology and gender studies and then Columbia College in Chicago where he received a master of fine arts in creative writing. He went on to teach English for a few years but he said none of it felt right until he began to volunteer. It wasn’t until he came to MU, created MizzouMed and won the award that it struck him: being an LGBTQ advocate had always been the thread for his life.

Cummins was 15 when he came out. He did projects on homophobia as a sophomore and junior in high school. Originally from a part of Chicago that wasn’t the most accepting, he went down to the capitol in Springfield, Ill., and talked to representatives.

“When I’d first come out and I had started talking to my own doctor about it, he was supportive, but very uncomfortable,” Cummins said. “He just didn’t know what to do.”

Cummins said his mission is to teach physicians how to be better physicians, filling in the gaps regarding LGBTQ health.

“I think, at least in Chicago, the epidemic was still quite terrifying,” Cummins said. “I was scared, but I was like, well, if I’m going to be terrified of it, I should at least learn about. At least I should do my best to fight against that fear.”

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