Drunk Nurses and Scantily-Clad Men

By Mark Schneider


God spoke.  Then he was silent.  Eight years later, he spoke again.  Then, all hell broke loose.  Her mother accused her of having “a secret love affair with some ‘low vulgar surgeon (44).’”  Others told her that they had “never known a nurse who was not drunken” and that immoral behavior was widespread “in the very [hospital] wards (47).”  Some of them supplemented their incomes with prostitution.

Florence Nightingale had identified what God wanted her to do and her family was none too happy about it. What followed for Florence was six years of fierce opposition during which she was blocked from her calling except for some study she snuck in at odd hours of the day. Nursing was not always matter-of-factly seen as the moral, humane undertaking it is today.

With societal attitudes changing quickly around them and close friends changing their perspectives, Fanny, Florence’s mother, though still distraught, finally caved. Although family relations remained tense, Florence was allowed to be educated in her chosen profession in a formal setting and then pursue positions in the field (75, 80).  After some professional experience, including serving as superintendent for the Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances, Nightingale would ultimately be selected by a group of reformers to lead a contingent of nurses, both secularly and religiously affiliated, to the Crimea where the British had recently joined others in a war against Russia to care for the troops. The government had never done this before.

Nightingale’s contingency was as welcome to the military establishment as being prescribed a root canal.  Beyond the issues of moral discipline, hospitals in England were dirty, unsanitary places at the time, in part due to ignorance of basic hygiene and in part due to lack of prioritization.  This was the case even more so in makeshift army hospitals in Turkey.  In conjunction with ignorance, the army was operating through a paradigm of duty that was excessive and neglected the basic needs of individual soldiers because of the concern of making them—and by extension, the army— soft.

It is natural to be concerned about duty and toughness, especially when one party sees the opposing party as out for its destruction.  Toughness and duty can be virtues if one can answer the implicit questions attached: To whom?  For what?  It was out of devotion to the values of toughness and duty British Army medical officials often ignored Nightingale’s supply requests thinking of them as “preposterous luxuries (120).” You know, things like clean bedding, soup, and hospital clothing.  The kind of things that might have helped stave off the devastating epidemic incurred by the military during this war.  For all of their attention to the values of duty, self-sacrifice, and toughness I imagine these military officials could not have thought a disease-caused mortality rate of 73 percent during a six month period had beneficially served the army’s or the country’s interests (211).

Florence Nightingale was also tough in contrast to common representations of her. “Beneath the fascination, the sense of fun, the gentle hesitating manner, the demure wit,” Nightingale’s biographer writes, “there was the hard coldness of steel (93).”  She had a sense of duty that extended from concern for the average soldier to her larger goal of reforming the nation’s field of nursing, beginning with the military.  Sometimes, in service to the latter, she would temporarily overlook the former, recognizing that she must build trust with her antagonists in the military to achieve her higher goal.  While maintaining a strong, independent will and clear objectives, she “rigidly obeyed regulations” even when “for weeks she stood by in silence while the skill of highly efficient nurses was wasted” and soldiers suffered (126).   This sometimes put her at odds with the less strategically minded, though arguably more humanitarian impulse of would-be renegade nurses.  Wisely selecting her battles, however, would be what would lead to the overall success of her operation.

Not all of the nurses’ interests were purely humanitarian.  While religious nurses did not carry the stereotype of immorality, they could be more concerned with a soldier’s spiritual salvation after death than his physical welfare in life, especially with sisters of other “competing” faiths roaming about.  At one point, Florence, a devout believer, would gently yet pointedly critique this type of religious nurse, noting that many were “fit more for heaven than a hospital, they flit about like angels without hands among the patients and soothe their souls while they leave their bodies dirty and neglected (109).”

When the Crimean War finally came to an end, Florence Nightingale, whose influence had touched countless soldiers, was considered a hero.  Nightingale mostly rejected efforts to cast her in this role except when her fame could influence her broader healthcare goals.  For the most part, Nightingale was haunted for the rest of her life by the many lives that could have been saved had necessary reforms been implemented.  This sense of duty to the soldiers who died in her hospital pushed her to work harder even as her own health deteriorated.  One of her primary accomplishments was making this shame-inducing profession respectable. Today she is memorialized in England and internationally known for revolutionizing the field of nursing.

Nowadays, shame does not even enter the equation when thinking of someone who wants to care for cranky sick people with their bed sores and bowel movements; their aches and their pains. This profession once associated loosely with sex and therefore sin and consequentially shame has turned itself into one whose dignity is practically unquestioned by all but the few who find the idea of that type of work that keeps incapacitated bodies clean and well cared for distasteful.

I am well aware of the idioms that warn of the devil erasing shame by turning sin into sophistication.  I am well aware that the dashing good looks of the Marlboro Man or Joe Camel are not what I have to look forward to if I take up smoking, though this might not be a good example of what sin is in these days.  Still, recognizing that the principle of these idioms is true in many cases, I wonder if some of the things that many find shameful today are culturally based and have the potential to become genuinely respectable like nursing did?  I am particularly thinking of gay marriage.

Like nursing, the rudiments of gay marriage began shrouded in shame due to its connection to a brand of sexuality that society deemed unacceptable.  In both cases, negative public perceptions can be attributed the laissez-faire approach in which society approached both the nursing profession during the 1800s and homosexuality to the present day.  In the case of nursing, there was a lack of leadership and basic professional standards.  As Woodham-Smith explains it, “It was universally assumed that the only qualification needed for taking care of the sick was to be a woman (43).”  Wipe a few fevered brows and you were good to go.

Similarly, while great attention has been paid to the regulation of heterosexual relationships over the past several hundred years, homosexuality has not received the same attention. Any time that homosexuality did enter the public arena, the participants were shamed, harshly condemned, and often physically punished to stamp out what larger society viewed as a threat. Today, after considerable scientific research, many societies are realizing that whom one is attracted to is mostly an intrinsic or unalterable part of one’s identity. Homosexuality was historically seen as the equivalent of an all-consuming lust, so unbridled that it could not be contained within the confines of natural heterosexual relations.  Absent meaningful moral leadership and regulation, and facing hostility by both governments and religious organizations, sexual minorities made do in a sort of moral anarchy.  Rejected of man, many instinctively and protectively distanced themselves from religion and God. They welcomed the emergence of states that were less influenced by religious principles.  The results of this moral anarchy, created by their rejection from acceptable society, are pointed to as evidence against marriage equality today.  Marriage is a powerful social and moral regulator.  For the vast majority of sexual minorities, the fight for marriage is a fight to live by the same code of ethics as everyone else and to enjoy the benefits that come therefrom.  Marriage equality is a fight for morality.

What can Florence Nightingale and the normalization of nursing as a respectable profession teach us about pursuing marriage equality in the context of our shared Mormon faith?

First, in my best amusement park speaker voice, “you will get wet.”  In other words, if you get on this ride, you can expect to encounter some degree of culturally derived shame, whether it comes from within you or is inflicted upon you by others.  This shame could come from the basic issue of being in discord with the official position of the Church.  It could come from your proximity to or sympathy towards the practitioners of what is considered an egregious sin in our community.  It might just be because Mormons don’t like talking about (I’ll whisper it for you)…sex.  If the s-word has to be spoken about in public in our community, it is usually not for good reason.  Yet if you’re going to advocate meaningfully for the LGBT community and marriage equality, their right to meaningful sexual intimacy is something you kind of have to defend, at least implicitly.  A recent Pride Parade put the Mormons right behind a float full of scantily clad men, which naturally got a few chuckles on Facebook.  It is the comedy of contrasts.  Along with the attendant symbolism of shifting power dynamics, their location in the parade also speaks to the uncomfortable position in which the more conservative LGBT Mormons and their allies sometimes find themselves within the broader LGBT movement.  Already feeling they have to defend a minority position in their communities, sometimes LGBT Mormons and their allies are called to play the “straight” man in the gay man’s joke and to take it in stride.  Florence Nightingale wasn’t a soldier, but she risked degrading herself in the eyes of her family and society to pursue a career that would save their lives.  This risk of degradation is often the lot of LGBT Mormons and their allies as they attempt to translate Mormon values to gay relationships.  Not everyone understands on either side.

Second, cultural softness can be damaging, but so can cultural hardness. The trick is in finding the reasonable compromise.  In the case of the British Army, this compromise probably would have come in the form of a policy change that would have considerably lessened the mortality rate of the soldiers by disease, such as cooperating with requests to provide clean bedding.  In the case of the LDS Church, some would say that the current position of lifelong singlehood is the compromise. That is a compromise that expends energy on a struggle that, at least in my view, produces little positive output.  One could argue it builds character, though the same way me hauling around a bag of bricks for no reason builds character.  Duty and self-sacrifice are noble principles, but it depends on to what end they are applied.  Some would say that it is awful (and maybe very Mormon of me) to compare being single to death during war time, but here goes: Some people die as casualties in war; that is an awful fact, but it is a problem inherent to being in a war.  Dying in your own country’s hospital from preventable disease should not be a problem inherent to being in a war.  Similarly, some people, in spite of their effort and desire, do not find someone with whom to share their life; that is an awful fact, which is a conceivable for many people who want a family.  However, like dying from preventable disease, policies that artificially create conditions whereby two otherwise compatible individuals are obstructed from sharing the burdens of life together or forming a family are unnecessary and damaging both to the individuals targeted as well as to the group.

How many LGBT individuals and families would have remained in the Church and contributed actively to the building up of Zion with reasonable moral expectations? How many of those are now excommunicated, self-exiled, in a state of moral anarchy, contributing positively elsewhere but hardened towards the Church, or dead?  Has any of the cultural hardness we have seen toward LGBT persons benefited the Church?

Some would say the benefit is spiritual and the ultimate end is exaltation.  Coming from a religious tradition that in its purity seeks to reconcile the physical and spiritual, it is worrisome to me when we disregard the important and intrinsic need people have for close human bonding. For me, it comes a little too close to the mindset held by some of the religious nurses in Nightingale’s hospital, well intentioned but harmful all the same.  Indeed, that the same spirit that exists in this life will continue on in the next seems more an argument for encouraging committed, loving relationships, including those of the same sex. Especially in a heaven that is as family-dependent as ours is.

Third, many people in our church don’t see a need for or respect this type of advocacy and LGBT Mormons and their allies have to deal with it.  From the Church as an institution to many of its members, gay-led families are seen as an affront to civilization and the plan of salvation.  Many leave the Church because of these attitudes, but many stay seeing the affirming hand of God both in the Church and in their own lives.   For those who choose to stay in this environment, I like Florence Nightingale’s approach: be nice—but be as tough as nails; care about people’s welfare (and your own welfare) but be smart in how you fight for it.  Know when to follow rules and, with prayer, when not to.  And when you fail in the countless ways people fail, know that God understands and will help you make it right.

Fourth, Florence knew God and developed overtime an absolute conviction in her calling and personal mission.  This sustained her in the opposition she faced from at first her family and then society; some of that opposition persisted into her old age.  We, as individuals, can also know God and be open to the communication we receive even if it goes against cultural norms.  We shouldn’t dismiss other people’s opinions out of hand or leave our views unquestioned. However, if we know that God is guiding us, then what other people think should become irrelevant.  I can’t explain why good people’s sincere, heartfelt prayers lead to differing conclusions.  Certainly, some of it comes down to different life experiences, life missions, personalities, and the fact that God will “never force the human mind (LDS Hymn # 240).”

We want a simple world where wills seamlessly align and it is clear who is on the good side and who is on the bad side, but in doing so we sometimes forget God’s role as a test administrator.  Yes, He is omniscient, omnipotent, a comforter, amongst other things, but he is also out to see what we will do individually and collectively when the answers aren’t in the back of the book.  For a church serious about being guided by a God who sometimes is absent for the sole purpose of testing people and that is led by individuals who feel that they will be held personally accountable for the governance of that church, bucking tradition can be a painstaking choice, notwithstanding the belief in modern revelation.  I do not envy their position and that institutional responsibility does not lie with me.  Still, noting these limitations on my authority, I recognize that as a child of God, I share with my brothers and sisters certain cultural responsibilities.  One such responsibility is to be true to the knowledge God has given us even if it conflicts with the institutional position.  Two is to influence how others are treated regardless of persecution outside of our control.  Like Florence Nightingale and her nurses, we cannot “make” the Church do anything, but we can do our utmost to influence our culture and to minimize the damage we see resulting from the policies currently in place.  Our best hope is that over time the institution and the culture we help to create will merge, a culture that lovingly adapts to make room for the historically marginalized, which is what I believe Christ would do.

To pass through shame, ignorance, and indignation.  To be seen with disparate cultural foreigners, such as scantily clad men on parade floats, and to explain to your fellow congregants what you are working for. To have awkward conversations and civil disagreements with those we love, respect, and in some cases sustain.  To do so regularly for an extended, undefined period of time while openly working for change.  To witness and support the people who have been harmed by these current policies.  To mourn the loss of the positive contributions many could have made to our communities had they been welcomed.  To realize that even in the places they are more welcome, there is still the attendant ambiguity of “how to deal with them.”  Then to realize all of this work comes down to one objective, simple, banal, boring really: so that families can come to church together and be at one with the household of God.  This is our test.  I hope, for our sakes, we pass it.


Woodham-Smith, Cecil. Florence Nightingale: 1820-1910. London: The Reprint Society, 1952.

Mark Schneider graduated from American University with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. He learned French as an exchange student in Belgium and Haitian Creole on his LDS mission in Florida. Mark also volunteers for Affirmation, an organization for LGBT Mormons and their allies. An idealist at heart, he hopes for a day when LGBT families will feel at home in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


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