A Q&A with Penn Medicine’s Jason Freedman for National Coming Out Day

The assistant professor of clinical pediatrics discusses being out at Penn and shares some of his own experiences as a gay man.

Jason Freedman (foreground) on his wedding day to his husband, Neil, in 2016
Jason Freedman (foreground) on his wedding day with husband, Neil, in 2016. (Image courtesy: Jason Freedman)

Friday, Oct. 11, marks the 31st annual National Coming Out Day, born from the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and celebrated around the world as a reminder of the ability of storytelling and sharing to change hearts. 

In celebration of the day, Penn Today caught up with Jason Freedman, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine and attending physician in the Division of Oncology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Much of Freedman’s clinical work involves bone marrow transplant and hematologic malignancies at CHOP and, as medical director for inpatient oncology, he leads administrative efforts in harm reduction and improving quality of care. 

Here, Freedman, one of many faculty, staff, students, and alumni listed in a Penn Medicine Outlist, recalls his own coming out experiences, meeting his husband, and how his perspective affects his work at CHOP and as an educator. 

What is your coming out story?

It’s a little anticlimactic, actually, because I had figured out who I was quite early. In high school and college, I had amazing friends and social networks and was pretty much out to everybody except my immediate family. I had a hang-up about telling my family. I chalked it up to there being a lot going on with my family, my grandmother being sick, and of course not wanting to disappoint my family. I internally felt that my family didn’t need another stressor at the moment. Early in my training, that’s when I came out to them officially. I had been dating my now husband for several months, and knowing it was a solid committed relationship, I felt it was time to be completely out and share my joy with my family. It was a much later coming out than I had wanted, but I did it when it felt right and authentic to me. 

How did you feel after?

I felt great. There were some rough moments, of course, but it made me realize I wish I had done it earlier. Even my parents said they wished I hadn’t waited or delayed any of it, because they would have loved and supported me, and shared in my joy, and coming into my own. They did understand it’s an individual process and a step you take in your own time. 

I think, looking back, would I do it differently? Absolutely. Am I upset with how it played out? No. I just think we all have hang-ups about certain things, seeking approval and wanting to be the person we think others have envisioned. Coming out is really an individual experience and timed when one sees fit. It wasn’t that I was completely inhibited or wasn’t able to experience life, but just not openly with everyone. When I came out, my mom even joked, ‘Can I still dance at your wedding?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered with happy tears, and happily, that happened in 2016 when I married my husband, Neil.

Did you ever need a professional coming out?

I didn’t, really. I was always out at work because I was comfortable with myself. I never had to say to somebody else, ‘I’m gay,’ but at times it was slightly uncomfortable. I remember one situation at the hospital where a faculty member made a comment about my clothing and how I ‘almost looked straight,’ as I was wearing jeans just before leaving for vacation. I knew deep down she meant no harm by this comment, as we have a great relationship, but I was completely embarrassed. It was one of the only times I felt like I had a ‘public outing’ in the workplace, or ever, for that matter.

I just laughed it off in that moment and everyone probably realized how awkward that was for her, too. But I made a decision that I had to stand up for myself. Either I was going to sit with this frustration, and let someone make comments about me like that, or I was going to be honest with her and explain how this had affected me. However, I was a trainee, and it was uncomfortable to have to speak up to a senior mentor and discuss such a personal situation with her. However, with the encouragement of friends, I did it. The essence of the conversation was that her words and actions outed me and reflected stereotypes that are inappropriate. I explained that coming out and sharing that information with those around me is 100% my decision. She was absolutely apologetic, owned it, regretted saying it, and never meant to hurt me that way. 

In general, being gay has never been an issue for me at work. In fact, it is not solely what defines me. People are generally very supportive of me as a person, and I know I am lucky. I am always unapologetically myself no matter what. 

You met someone at work?

When I was a fellow—literally the first week of training—I walked into rounds and saw someone who intrigued me. I said to a nurse practitioner, ‘Who is that?’ It turned out he was our clinical pharmacist at the time. After a year of friendship and getting to know each other, we started dating at the end of my first year of training. We have now been together for eight-and-a-half years, and married for over three years. Meeting him and having such an amazing, supportive husband is the best thing that has ever happened to me. 

Our journey together is an amazing story because he’s Indian, and culturally being gay and Indian, it was really a struggle for him and his family. My family is Jewish, and though supportive, Neil and I weren’t sure how our same-sex multicultural relationship would be embraced. Our wedding was proof that people come around. Both sides were incredibly well represented and openly shared in our joy. Even his great grandmother was dancing and smiling ear to ear on the dance floor. We wrote our ceremony combining elements of both cultures and embracing a central theme that ‘love is love.’ Many family members came up to us and commented on how much love was in the room and they could feel how much we loved each other. That night, we broke cultural barriers and we broke stereotypes, able to demonstrate it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man and woman, man and man, or woman and woman. When you love somebody and you are your authentic self, life happens and it’s beautiful.

How do you think your LGBT perspective contributes to your work?

I think it gives me a unique perspective in caring for adolescent patients and those coming of age. People have asked me how to approach or help patients who have expressed concerns about coming out. I think each of our personal experiences shapes how we approach and appreciate patient concerns in a unique way, where you’re able to give some of yourself and your background to the clinical encounter. I have often thought, if my pediatrician asked me about sex or sexuality, perhaps it would have normalized my feelings, and I wouldn’t have waited so long to come out to my family. To that end, I am committed to discussing this with patients to help them know they have a safe space to talk about anything they want. Even patients I have treated for cancer or have had a bone marrow transplant years prior know they can call me or email me anytime. I make myself available to them knowing that one day, a struggling teenager will reach out and it may make a difference in their life to have someone who understands. 

It’s also been nice to take care of patients who are the children of parents in same-sex families. As my husband and I are embarking on the family-building process, it’s easy to relate to families in similar situations. An unspoken compassion and understanding the difficulties and challenges of creating a family in the LGBTQ community help form a bond between us. Sadly, our world does not always accept families where there are same-sex parents. 

I also enjoy being a part of medical education and mentoring trainees, fellows, residents, and students. I’m on the Outlist, and people can and have contacted me. Also, as part of the PENN LGBTQ People in Medicine program, I mentor two medical students longitudinally; one now a fourth-year and another a third-year. Together, we have developed an on-campus family where we meet to chat about all things from research and career planning, to how they are doing as people facing LGBTQ challenges in academia. I feel proud to be a small part of their medical school journey, and again, wish I had this when I was a medical student. It’s awesome to be part of a community at Penn which promotes diversity and discussions around it. I think Penn Medicine has done a lot of work to really support the LGBTQ community and I am excited to play a small role in helping students along the way. 

You’ve had people reach out to you from the Outlist?

I have. I’ve had several people reach out to me, and one who wanted to shadow me clinically. It is a really great service, and I encourage more students and members of the Penn community will join the list and take advantage of its potential.

Anything you’d like to add?

When you’re able to embrace your true self, love yourself, and live confidently as your authentic self, navigating life is easier. Though this sounds both trite and hard to do, you truly will thrive on the other side. Do I think there might be people who take issue with who I am? I am sure there are. But do I let it upset me or get in my way? No. I am myself with every single person; I don’t change who I am or how I act with anybody. And I think being that way has allowed me to succeed and advance in my career. 

Penn students, faculty, and staff can refer to a new Outlist compiled by the Penn LGBT Center to refer to out faculty in various schools and departments.