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Community Health Issues

Health has been on my mind lately.  Not because I am feeling ill, but rather because as I visited my usual gay media outlets during the week, I realized that there were not many articles concerning LGBT health.


Much of the mainstream LGBT media spends the bulk of their time covering politics, the latest developments in celebrity/pop culture, and lifestyle issues like relationships (i.e., how to maintain or find one) or how to improve your appearance.   It’s not surprising that these topics dominate media aimed at our community; they tend to be the focus of the straight media as well, reflecting the great deal of interest people have in these subjects.


But isn’t having information on developments regarding our health as important as dishing the latest tea on reality shows?  After all, LGBTs can have health issues that are a bit different from heterosexuals, and straight media can’t be counted on to give us the information we need.


To that point, I did some research and came across a couple of stories that I hope you find interesting.


A story originally printed in the Chicago Tribune in late July but only now getting wider distribution reported that their Public Health Department estimates that seventeen percent of Chicago’s gay men are HIV positive, with half of them being unaware of their status.  The news is particularly bleak for black bisexual and gay men, as the study declared they have a HIV seroconversion rate twice as high as Hispanic and white men.  Nearly 70 percent of the black men in the group did not know they were infected.


The Chicago study confirms a 2008 report from the Centers for Disease Control that analyzed data from 33 states and found that rates of HIV infection rose twelve percent annually from 2001 to 2006 among gay and bisexual men between the ages of 13 and 24.  To bring a local perspective to these figures, the Nashville Cares website states between 300 and 370 new cases of HIV and AIDS are reported in middle Tennessee each year.


These are sobering statistics to be sure, and they leave me with many questions. After well over a decade of safe sex messages and distribution of free condoms, many gay and bisexual men are still choosing to have unprotected sex.   Does bareback sex feels so good that we are not willing to compromise?  Is it a self esteem issue, where people’s opinions of themselves are so low that they don’t care if they get infected?  Do we believe that we’re somehow immune from HIV, or that it isn’t a big deal anymore thanks to improved treatment options? It’s very frustrating, as it sometimes feels as if we haven’t learned anything since the late 80s.  


In lesbian health, the University of Illinois recently received a $3 million grant to identify risk factors for excessive drinking among lesbians.  The study will include interviews with over 600 lesbians and examine how issues like sexual assault, childhood abuse, and discrimination based on sexual orientation or ethnicity are related to hazardous drinking.


I think this is important research because previous studies have found that lesbians have a higher rate of alcoholism than straight women, with 35 percent of lesbians having a history of alcohol abuse compared to 5 percent of heterosexual women.  Indeed, the entire LGBT community is believed to have a higher rate of drug and alcohol addiction than heterosexuals.  It is easy to speculate as to why this is, but clinical research should clarify the factors and hopefully lead to more effective treatment and recovery options for us.


Finally, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a statement on August 5 declaring that mental health professionals should not tell LGBT clients that their sexual orientation can be changed by reparative therapy or other means.   Instead, they should direct clients towards social support and educational services.  Considering that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from their list of mental illnesses in 1974, this can be seen as a long overdue statement, but better late than never. 


Despite the growing acceptance of LGBTs in society, there are people who continue to struggle with their sexuality, typically as a result of a strict religious background.   Organizations like People Can Change, Exodus International, PFOX, Witness Freedom Ministries, and Homosexuals Anonymous (yes, that is a real group, I visited their website) all exist to “help” these individuals return to heterosexuality.  Thankfully, the APA delivered a stinging critique of these programs, recommending that mental health care providers help struggling patients "explore possible life paths that address the reality of their sexual orientation, reduce the stigma associated with homosexuality, respect the client's religious beliefs, and consider possibilities for a religiously and spiritually meaningful and rewarding life."

From “Blackout” for 8/10/09 by Anthony Rucker


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