In a conversation with Dr. Alex Barrera, we dive into the intersections of oral healthcare, advocacy, and the LGBTQIA+ experience. To learn more about Dr. Barrera, follow him on Instagram at @thedowndogdentist
Can you share a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and what led you into the field of dentistry?
I was born and raised in Laredo, Texas- a small border city just a few minutes away from Mexico. My grandparents were immigrants and my parents worked so hard to provide for our family. With this, they always emphasized the importance of education and always held doctors to such a high standard of respect within their community. In high school, I was able to learn about the dental field and even began working part time at a dental clinic and that’s where my journey began.
Was there a turning point where you realized you wanted to work with underserved communities? If so, can you describe that moment and how it felt?
I watched my mom receive dental care for the first time in decades when she was in her 50s. She was seen at a local community health clinic and was treated with the utmost compassion and care. This started to spark an interest within me that soon became a passion- to give back to the communities that have given so much to me.
Were there any LGBTQ+ mentors or role models in the medical or dental field that you looked up to or who supported you during your journey?
Growing up, there really weren’t a lot of queer role models for me to look up to. Most gay people in the media were usually depicted as a joke or the comedic relief of a situation. But luckily, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by a group of queer friends that to this day are my chosen family. So instead of having to look for role models, I realized I was already surrounded by people who inspired me, loved me, and wanted me to grow into my best self. That’s why it’s now so important to me to be visible for the next generation and proud of who I am today.
Can you share any moments where your personal identity intersected with your professional life in a way that drove you to advocate more fiercely?
I was terrified to start dental school. Being a first-generation college student who was both gay and Latino, I was scared of not fitting in with my other classmates and anxious about having to be someone that I am not. Reflecting back, I now realize that no one can show up as their best selves if they are living in the shadows. It’s because of this that I advocate for both health equity and LGBTQIA+ rights because we all deserve to feel comfortable not only in our personal lives, but in our educational and professional lives as well.
Tell me more about the formation of the Houston Equality Dental Network (HEDN). What led to the creation of this group? What is the goal of the network?
The Houston Equality Dental Network was created in 2020 as a way to connect LGBTQIA+ dental professionals in the Greater Houston Area. What first began as a social network quickly became so much more. Our mission was to connect queer dental providers so that we could discuss dentistry in a setting where we were comfortable being ourselves. We soon realized the power that our group held and began to advocate for LGBTQIA+ health while also educating the dental community on what it means to be queer and how to better treat this population. We began hosting continuing education courses, volunteering at queer organizations, and created an online network so that local LGBTQIA+ patients could find an affirming and supportive dental provider.
Can you share some of the most impactful initiatives you’ve been part of and the changes they’ve spurred?
With the support of HEDN, I’ve entered a new phase of my career where I’ve realized the power I have to educate others and support my community. I now travel the country to educate dental teams on LGBTQIA+ health disparities, trends, and how to be a better ally for this community. I think overall, feeling the confidence to speak on this topic has been the most impactful for me at both a personal and professional level. Being visible at dental conferences and events has helped spark interest in the importance of these topics for dental professionals and I’m now seeing a change with the willingness of dentists to step outside of their comfort zones to learn more.
Have you leveraged partnerships or collaborations to amplify your advocacy efforts? Are there any organizations or initiatives you’re particularly proud to have collaborated with?
CareQuest Institute for Oral Health has been an amazing ally in our efforts to bring awareness to LGBTQIA+ topics in dentistry. With them, we have hosted continuing education webinars, social media initiatives, and have been given the platform to share our mission with more of the world.
For dental professionals reading this, what are three immediate steps they can take to advocate for better LGBTQIA+ care and representation in their practices or institutions?
- Learn and understand the hardships faced by this community. The queer community faces higher burdens of certain physical health issues and disproportionate rates of mental health concerns. Take the time to learn what it feels like to grow up in a world being afraid of who you are. Think about the implications that has on someone’s livelihood and their opportunity for success.
- Be okay with being wrong. Take time to reflect on the language you use and your reactions to people that are different from you. Revisit your past interactions and ask yourself what you could have done to be kinder or more compassionate. At the same time, evaluate your office, staff and workflow. Are there certain things you can change to make your practice more affirming for the LGBTQIA+ community?
- Be visible as an ally. Create a safe and welcoming environment so that all queer patients know your practice is a safe space for them to be themselves. This can be done by diversifying your staff and how you advertise. Additionally, it’s important to make sure your patient intake forms are inclusive. Have more gender options than just male and female and include a space for patients to share their preferred name and their pronouns. Do things like volunteer with local gay organizations and celebrate Pride in June and LGBTQIA+ History Month in October.
Looking forward, what are some dreams or aspirations you have, both in terms of advocacy and on a personal level?
With the advocacy work that I do, I want to continue to spread awareness and understanding of the LGBTQIA+ community among the dental community while also encouraging queer youth to pursue a career in dentistry. Personally, I hope to continue my work providing oral health care for marginalized communities and help train the next generation of dentists on how to better serve a diverse group of patients.
Outside of your professional commitments, how do you unwind? Are there any hobbies or activities that you’re passionate about?
I fiercely believe in the importance of a work/life balance. I think we should all have at least one hobby and time in our week in which we do something for sheer fun or pleasure. I unwind by exercising, going on walks, playing with my dog and spending time with my loved ones.I’m also a certified yoga teacher and very passionate about helping dentists better care for their bodies by both the physical and mental practices of yoga.
What advice would you give to dental professionals who want to make a difference but don’t know where to start?
First think about what matters most to you. What are your values and what type of mark do you want to make in your community? Once you have an idea of what you’re passionate about, see what organizations have the same mission as you and ask how you can get involved. Be creative. What can you bring to the table even if it’s never been done before?
What message would you give to young LGBTQIA+ individuals aspiring to enter the healthcare profession?
The only way you can truly care for others is to show up as your true, authentic self. So be confident in who you are and don’t tolerate being in a situation where you have to hide or edit yourself in any way. The healthcare system in this country needs you.