"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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.