In Sickness and in Health
New York Joins the National Gay Men's Health Movement
A Roman emperor once said: "Promise to do in health what you promise to do when sick." That's exactly what activist and author Eric Rofes had in mind when he convened the first Gay Men's Health Summit in Boulder in 1999, attracting 300 activists and health organizers from around the country.
"We want to bring to health and wellness issues the same activist enthusiasm that created AIDS service organizations worldwide when that crisis hit," Rofes said. He cautiously reminds fellow travelers that focusing on health and wellness doesn't mean abandoning AIDS.
Rofes told The New York Times recently, "With HIV, we've looked at emergency conditions and have taken crisis-driven approaches. But if AIDS is going to be with us for 50 years, it would be wise to have a long-term strategy that addresses the broader foundations of good health."
Followed by a second national Summit attended by 500 individuals, promises to "do in health the same as when sick" became a reality when 15 cities and regions nationwide carried Rofes' message home. New York State Gay & Bisexual Men and People of Transgender Experience Health Summit drew nearly 100 participants to more than 40 workshops last October.
It's Here, It's Queer
"Our volunteer collective worked for nearly 10 months to pull together the event," said New York co-chairs Erik Libey of AIDS Rochester and John Magisano of the New York AIDS Coalition. As in New York, volunteer "collectives" organized all 15 regional conferences after making calls for abstracts. Many collective members who attended the national Boulder Summits met for the first time with interested parties from their home regions.
Rofes is now spearheading the first National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Health Summit, also to be held in Boulder, Colorado, August 21 to 25, 2002. This event will include a one-day pre-Summit institute on organizing gay men's health movements, as well as a four-day track of workshops and activities focused on health and wellness.
As the regions developed their own events, the circle broadened. While most collectives focused narrowly on gay and bisexual men, some expanded their work to include transpeople, bisexual women, and lesbians.
"Eventually, we envision a broad-based movement of queers from every sexual precinct, queers of every gender and sexual identity taking charge of their health issues," Rofes forecasts.
Added momentum was gained by efforts to include queer issues in the federal health planning document known as "Healthy People 2010." Every decade federal agencies establish citizens' health goals. In cooperation with the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association, queer academics and others wrote a 500-page companion document to the official federal plan.
"We are a community with needs and we have been vocal," Randall Sell told the New York Summit. He is a key player in developing the companion document from his perch at Columbia University's School of Public Health. "As a growing movement, we must insist that medical providers understand our unique needs," Sell points out, adding it is imperative that "sexual orientation" be perceived as a legitimate demographic variable when conducting health research.
Moving Beyond "Pathology"
Besides what makes us sick, New York Summit speakers stressed the importance of healthy outcomes. "We must move beyond pathology to recognize that health also includes pleasure and wellness," author and lecturer Daniel Wolfe told participants. His Men Like Us: The Gay Men's Health Crisis Complete Guide to Gay Men's Sexual, Physical, and Emotional Well-Being is fast becoming the bible for men seeking answers to their health questions.
Wolfe urged participants not only to focus on gay men's health disparities -- smoking, anal cancer, substance abuse -- but also on their strengths and pleasures, neither of which are standard fare in medical schools. "It's been easy, in the name of health, for straight doctors to prescribe away pleasures that aren't important to them personally," he said, describing the many men whose doctors still tell them that if they wanted to stay healthy they wouldn't put anything "up there."
In other areas too, such as friendship, Wolfe says, gay men have shown particular strengths to which research has paid little attention. "Part of this movement is recognizing the connections between the words 'health' and 'whole,'" says Wolfe. "How do we conceive of health models that incorporate mind, body and spirit? That's not to say disease prevention isn't important. But if your only gauge of success is freedom from illness, then every life ends in failure. There's got to be a better model than that."
Perhaps a better model revealed itself in the stirring words participants read when they opened the New York Summit booklet: Resistance, Affirmation, and Celebration. "Magisano and I chose 'Resistance' because we live in a culture that fails to value our lives," Libey says.
A Long and Winding Road
In retrospect, Libey advises others planning queer health events to "keep their eyes on the prize. This effort was long and arduous. Honestly, I questioned my participation along the way, but eventually I always bounced back." He notes, too, that "working through a 'collective' is not a style to which some professional individuals may be accustomed. Coordinating with people from diverse backgrounds statewide was challenging. During difficult moments, we'd refocus by asking: Why is a queer health summit important? Inevitably, we'd return to the value of such an event and move beyond our differences."
Libey says to keep goals simple when organizing a health event. "Be honest about your reasons for being involved. Remain true to yourself. Say 'Thank you' a lot. And, most of all, get all your communities involved," he stresses.
For Libey's organizing colleague Magisano "the plenary sessions were amazing. We shared conceptual links and ideas across disciplines and interests," he said. He also realizes afterwards that "working through a collective is a learning process." Magisano advises other activists interested in organizing collectives in their cities to consider how they might delegate duties, a step that initially puzzled him. "While everyone pulled their weight, many beyond the call of duty, I still found that whenever people asked me what they could do to help, I couldn't always answer them clearly because we were moving from 'ideas' to 'reality' in a way that was new to us all," he notes. Now with 15 collectives having successfully pulled off events, Magisano is confident that "we'll all know better next time we try."
Right on Time
For the 15 collectives re-invigorating gay men's activism, Andrew Webb's November article in The Washington Monthly, "When Rubbers Hit the Road," came at just the right moment. In his article, Webb covers as "problems" many of the same issues summit organizers present as "problems with solutions," including routine loneliness, one reason why Webb wrote he sometimes has unprotected sex. Either unaware of the burgeoning gay men's health movement or in disagreement with it, Webb cited familiar spokespersons such as Michelangelo Signorile, Gabriel Rotello, Larry Kramer, and Andrew Sullivan as if their ideas were the only alternatives to lessening HIV infection among gay men or for forming more perfect unions and healthier communities.
In fact, summit discussions of "healthier and safer" don't always look like what Messrs. Signorile, Rotello, Kramer, and Sullivan would proscribe. During the last year, summit participants have talked more about taking charge of their health and sexual needs from the perspective of staying healthy, staying uninfected with HIV, or not infecting others. All of these new learnings and behaviors were discussed with or without monogamy.
Participants were less concerned that others conform to their own views on how one ought to conduct relationships. Rather, Summit participants focused on how to promote their own and others' health in the context of healthier gay male communities regardless of choice of partner or partners. To many participants, how many partners or combinations they have along the way is a private choice. "To me, it's not about the number or type of sexual partners, but the practices themselves that can lead to more satisfying relationships on a number of fronts, not only sexual," one Summit participant wrote on his evaluation form.
Reducing Harmful Behaviors
Summit men also have talked candidly about reducing behaviors that seem to explode in gay male populations, such as tobacco use, drug and alcohol abuse, and teen suicide. They organized their events so that gay men would have safe, nonjudgmental spaces to discuss their health needs.
Webb also mentions San Francisco "health czar" Dr. Jeffery Klausner's coercive measures aimed at reducing HIV infections, including the quarantine of individuals who are surmised to be the infecting agent of others but who refuse to use condoms. What's the next suggestion? Quarantining individuals who were negative before a particular sexual encounter, but who end up infected, because they chose to have sex without demanding use of a condom? Where does this slippery slope begin and end?
Webb's singling out gay men as if they were the only source of new infections and the only practicing barebackers is reminiscent of Michael Scarce's Smear the Queer, in which he demonstrates the decades long pattern of pathologizing all gay male sex. If gay males are the only barebackers, then how does Webb explain the dramatic rise of HIV infection in heterosexual communities of color?
The commonality between Webb's article and the 15 Summits is the mutual acknowledgement that perhaps lack of civil rights has as much to do with sexual behavior as any other social variable. On this point, Summit organizers nationwide and Webb seem to agree. Many gay men with AIDS think the single biggest factor that contributed to the early spread of AIDS was the decades-long, strident opposition of the "heterosexual dictatorship" to any civil rights gains made by queer men.
Given the irrational, deep hatreds that existed then and continue to exist now, is it any wonder that gay men made a fetishized, sexual circus (bathhouses, back room bars, and tearooms) around something so natural as wanting to love and be loved? For many men, participation in the sex scene back then -- and now -- was and remains a way of saying: At least behind closed doors at night, we can do what our cultural masters disallow us in the open light of our communities, where we work, pay taxes, and donate to the United Way (which in turn donates to The Boy Scouts of America who then shuns gay men).
Summits being organized all across the nation are now openly paying attention to a range of issues that would improve many aspects of gay men's lives. At these summits, men, many for the first time, talked about how being culturally shunned affects their mental health, drug and alcohol use, and safe and unsafe sexual practices. There is a desire stronger than sexual need out there to build communities that reflect healthier models for gay men, even though many organizers and participants aren't as sure as Signorile, Rotello, Kramer, and Sullivan that they have the answers.
Perhaps just as gay men have outgrown the single-minded "Condom Code," they've also outgrown the one-way-only proscriptions of their well-meaning colleagues Signorile, Rotello, Kramer, and Sullivan. It may be time to come together to focus on quality of life issues, including the advancement of civil rights, rather than "my way versus your way."
Frank Pizzoli is a freelance writer whose work appears in Positively Aware, POZ, OUT's HIV Plus, HIV Positive, and city papers nationwide. His booklet "It's a Queer Life" is available for free at email@example.com.
Back to the March/April 2002 issue of Body Positive magazine.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.