The president of the American Medical Association has sparked criticism for defending a Roman Catholic-affiliated medical school's decision to bar a gay student group from campus. John Nelson was quoted in a suburban New York newspaper as comparing the ban at New York Medical College with Brigham Young University's decision to suspend four former football players accused of rape and with the Mormon school's refusal to allow caffeinated soft drinks on campus.
Joel Ginsberg, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, said Nelson's comparison, which prompted dozens of complaints to his organization, criminalizes and trivializes homosexuality. "His comments were inappropriate and hurtful," Ginsberg said. Nelson issued a statement Thursday saying his views "were grossly misrepresented." "I apologize to anyone who may have been offended by what they read," but the article "does not represent my views or the policies of the AMA," Nelson said. The AMA says it does not support the gay student ban.
Nelson was quoted in the February 12 edition of The Journal News, a newspaper in White Plains, N.Y., in an article about New York Medical College's refusal to allow a gay student group to organize on campus. The college, in Valhalla, N.Y., is affiliated with New York's Roman Catholic archdiocese. As quoted by reporter Keith Eddings, Nelson said gays should be treated with dignity and respect, but he also said gay students' rights should be balanced against the private school's right to set its own policies: "For example, if you come to Brigham Young University, where my children happen to go to school, there are certain things you do not do, among which is, you do not drink Coca-Cola on campus because that's against the rules." He then mentioned BYU's suspension of the former football players. "They said, 'You're off the team,"' Nelson was quoted as saying. "The point is, you have to follow the rules."
Queerday.com is among several blogs that posted the article online. Philo Hagen, the blog's editor, said the comments, coming from the head of the nation's largest group of doctors, are hypocritical and disappointing. "This is the person that's responsible for really setting the tone of the cultural norms for medicine in America," Hagen said. "It's kind of crazy." CynDee Royle, the newspaper's senior managing editor, said the reporter taped the interview and that neither Nelson nor the AMA had requested a correction. "We absolutely stand by the story," Royle said.
Jane Petro, a professor of surgery at New York Medical College who serves as the group's faculty adviser, said she is glad Nelson's comments have attracted so much attention. "It opened up an important dialogue that obviously the school needs to have," she said. Joshua Sahara, 27, an NYMC student and president of the gay student group, said Nelson's analogies are offensive. He said the group, which supports health-related issues for gays, was banned last fall after changing its name from the Student Support Group to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People in Medicine. NYMC spokeswoman Donna Moriarty said that under the former name, the group did not stress a "homosexual agenda," adding that that agenda conflicts with the school's Catholic affiliation. She said the college does not discriminate but has the right "to preserve its identity...in the Catholic tradition."