Dane Whicker Featured in School of Medicine EDI Spotlight

This article originally appeared on the Duke School of Medicine website.

Dane Whicker, PhD, grew up as a gay person in Arkansas during a time when marriage equality was a decade away, slurs were both common and accepted, and allies or members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) communities were hard to find or nonexistent. Those experiences taught Whicker the value of support, acceptance, and open communication while inspiring him to make a difference for other people growing up in difficult circumstances. 

Now, Whicker is working to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community in the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. For his EDI Spotlight interview, Whicker talks to us about his work in each of these roles. He also shares how he came out at age 14, and how that experience informed his perspective as an LGBTQ+ advocate.

What are your responsibilities within the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the CTSI, and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences?

Like many, I wear many different hats at Duke; however, I am lucky because equity, diversity, and inclusion is a common thread in each of my roles.

As the Director of Gender and Sexual Diversity Initiatives for the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (OEDI), I am responsible for supporting the administration of work that is a) related to our LGBTQ+ community, and b) that impacts or involves our SOM faculty, staff, and students. My overarching goals are to help build “One Duke” partnerships and collaborations, as well as to inform and influence internal and external policies to improve LGBTQ+ health, culture, and wellbeing.

As the faculty Co-Director of Equity in Research of the CTSI’s Center for Equity in Research, my responsibilities include engaging in systems-level opportunities to infuse equity across Duke’s research enterprise, providing consultations with researchers about their specific research projects - asking questions and offering recommendations about areas where an EDI lens might be created. I also provide presentations and education on best practices around collecting sexual orientation and gender identity data, and look for opportunities to increase how we can do this more efficiently. Other responsibilities include bringing awareness of the work we are doing in CTSI across Duke, maintaining open lines of communication with NIH’s Sexual and Gender Minority Research Office, and participating as a member of the NCATS DEIA Enterprise Committee.

As an Assistant Professor and clinical health psychologist within the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, I primarily work with transgender and nonbinary patients who are preparing to initiate or pursue the next steps in medical gender transition. I am proud to be the first psychologist to have joined the Child and Adolescent Gender Care Clinic team and our Adult Gender Medicine Team. Working on an interdisciplinary care team is fascinating to me. I learn so much from my colleagues in endocrinology, plastic surgery, OBGYN, primary care, PT, dermatology, otolaryngology, and experts in other areas!

What does a typical day look like for you?

Aside from regular meetings and patient slots, each day brings new projects, meetings, and challenges. Generally, the only thing typical about my days is that they are never alike!

There are many acronyms used to describe people with a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities (LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, and LGBTQA among others). Which acronym do you use and why?

Yes, there are! I do not think that there is necessarily a “right” one to use, but whatever you choose to use, I think it’s important to balance being concise and inclusive.

During my neuropsych training in graduate school, I learned that the average number of letters that a person could store in their working memory was usually 6 or 7. With that in mind, I typically use “LGBTQ+” or sometimes “LGBTQI+” to also explicitly include those with intersex identities. Sometimes people will also add an “A,” but depending on who you ask, the “A” could mean “asexual” or “allies,” so I prefer to stop at “Q” or “I” and make sure to include a “+” to acknowledge the many additional identities, which are not named.

You have been an active leader in Duke’s EDI space for a long time, especially in the LGBTQ+ space. How did your passion for this work begin?

I grew up as a gay person in Arkansas at a time when marriage equality was still 10+ years into the future, anti-gay slurs were part of common vernacular, it was illegal to be an out LGBTQ+ person in the armed forces, and still against the law to have a free and fully loving relationship with a partner of the same sex.

At the age of 14, I “came out” as gay in my junior high school. Typically, I was the only “out” LGBTQ+ person among my peers. Navigating being “the only” was not easy. However, these experiences taught me about the value of having strong social support networks, power dynamics, culture change, and how to have conversations with people with very different perspectives, and how those views are informed.

One experience that I will never forget is being in high school when an extremist anti-LGBTQ, anti-government hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church, picketed my high school. We had the only “Gay Straight Alliance” in Arkansas at the time.

Experiencing hatred at such an extreme level, and in a space that is supposed to be safe to learn and thrive was painful. And I also found hope in this experience. So many of my fellow classmates came together outside the school in opposition of the hate group. Even classmates whose beliefs were not affirming of LGBTQ+ people, still rejected the hateful messages of this group. Seeing those around me oppose this hatred was extremely powerful. I felt safer knowing the people I spent my day-to-day life with ultimately “had my back.”

When and how did you begin working to help members of the LGBTQ+ community?

I have always been interested in gender. As an undergraduate, I took an advanced research course on the Psychology of Gender. Before entering graduate school, I worked in adult outpatient and pediatric inpatient clinical settings and had the opportunity to work with LGBTQ+ patients.

In graduate school, I had the opportunity to really hone my skills working with LGBTQ+ individuals in a DBT model. When I came to Duke, I began working with our interdisciplinary teams focused on transgender care, and this is where my primary focus has remained. My role typically involves helping trans and nonbinary patients and their families navigate steps when they are prepared to begin medical gender transition.

Transgender and nonbinary people have been under attack since I arrived at Duke. In 2016, the notorious NC HB2 (i.e., “the Bathroom Bill”) was signed into law. In my clinical work with trans and nonbinary patients, I saw sharp increases in anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidality, and psychiatric hospitalizations.

Because this law made going to the bathroom unsafe, many of my patients would avoid going to the bathroom for long periods of time. Strategies they used included sharply reducing or eliminating their fluid intake during their school or work days, or holding their bladders throughout the day. Medical problems associated with dehydration (e.g., chronic headaches, fatigue, dizziness, fainting) and urinary retention (e.g., urinary tract infections, renal impairments, etc.) began to appear in my patients’ charts. Every year since, we’ve struggled with political and physical violence, particularly aimed at people who are transgender and nonbinary.

When and how did you decide to come to Duke?

I came to Duke in the summer of 2015. Like medical students and residents, clinical psychologists also have an “interview season” and a “match day.” On a designated morning, you wake up (if you’ve slept at all) and wait for an email that tells you if you match and where you match!

In March of 2015, I woke up and received an email that informed me I had matched at Duke! I was elated. Especially for clinical psychologists who specialize in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), Duke was known for its long and prestigious history of being a top-tier DBT training site. I loved the people I met during my interviews, and was excited to be returning to the South. By mid-June, I had moved with my fiancé, from Wisconsin to Durham.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Having the opportunity to make connections with people across Duke. There are so many members of the Duke community who share my values: helping others, a passion for lifelong learning, advocating for change, and (when needed) a willingness to get into “good trouble.” Together, we have been able to do some pretty great things!

What’s the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is making sure that members of the LGBTQ+ community feel safe at Duke – in clinical settings, in research settings, at work, and in the learning environment.

Our community generally views Duke as a single entity (i.e., “One Duke”). However, Duke is a highly matrixed environment, where climate, cultures, and knowledge can differ depending on where you are. When LGBTQ+ community members interface with different clinics, wards, hospitals, schools, working units, etc., they sometimes have very different experiences. If an LGBTQ+ person experiences discrimination in one Duke space, that often leads to a generalization that “all of Duke is unsafe.”

When a patient, student, employee, parent, or community member shares an experience with me where they or someone they care for, was hurt at Duke (e.g., by being deadnamed, misgendered, called a slur, etc.), I take that seriously. I will do everything I can to make sure that the issue is identified and fixed, and that the person(s) affected receive some sort of repair.

So, the hardest part of my job is doing all I can as a clinician, researcher, educator, and administrator to ensure that all spaces at Duke are “safe” for LGBTQ+ people - meaning that they can be relatively assured that they will not be deadnamed, misgendered, called a slur, or otherwise be discriminated against in the spaces we share.

I also recognize that Duke is a huge organization, which as an academic medical center, is innately transitory, and that we need everyone at the table to continually work together to make sure that our LGBTQ+ community is safe at Duke. This is where I rely on my partners across Duke entities… I know together we can make great things happen.