Beyond HIV/AIDS: gay men expand outlook at B.C. Gay Men’s Health Summit

Health summit seeks to address how health professionals can adapt care to address the experiences of different generations

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      In the Jewish community, it was the Holocaust. In the Japanese-Canadian community, it was the Second World War internment. In numerous other communities that have experienced widespread devastation or loss, the fallout from such traumatic historical events can engulf a huge amount of the community’s focus, energy, and even identity for decades afterward.

      For gay men, it was the AIDS pandemic.

      While HIV and AIDS continue to be significant concerns in gay communities, numerous individuals and organizations are drawing attention to how other health issues, ranging from prostate cancer to addiction, have been systemically neglected.

      This year’s B.C. Gay Men’s Health Summit, being held on Thursday and Friday (November 7 and 8), is one such awareness-raising entity. Rick Marchand, the managing director of Vancouver’s Community-Based Research Centre, which organizes the conference, explained why they chose life-course theory—which looks at how each generation is influenced by unique factors in the time period in which it grew up (rather than universal life stages or biological markers)—as this year’s theme.

      “We see now big differences between young gay men just coming out and senior gay men who have lived through the [AIDS] epidemic and the kind of prevention or…approach that you might take when trying to communicate with them,” he said by phone.

      Although he doesn’t want to minimize HIV issues, he noted that they can overshadow funding for other gay-health issues, not to mention those of concern to lesbian and transgender people. He cited, for example, how Qmunity, B.C.’s queer resource centre, serves the full diversity of local LGBT populations yet struggles to get funding compared to HIV/AIDS organizations. He noted that funding for even his own conference comes primarily from HIV–related sources.

      Summit speakers will cover demographics as varied as millennials, male sex workers, and ethnic communities.

      “We’re trying to keep this conference broad because we’re trying to make inroads into the health-care system,” he said. “We see all these inequities in terms of how gay men approach the system and are dealt with in the system and how we can address that.”

      Consequently, Marchand said, they’ve invited Phillip L. Hammack—an associate professor at the University of California Santa Cruz and a leading scholar on life-course theory and gay men—to be a keynote speaker.

      Hammack, in a phone interview from his home in San Francisco, echoed Marchand’s concerns.

      “Seventy percent of the studies that are being published in gay men’s health today are focused on HIV, and I think this is really problematic,” he said. He noted that estimated rates of depression among American gay men rival HIV rates but they’re given unequal research attention. “From my perspective, we are stuck in an AIDS paradigm for thinking about gay men’s health and we’re really struggling to get out of it.”

      Hammack said that while working in youth programs in Washington, D.C., in the ’90s, he saw rapid generational changes to which medical models were not responding.

      “The frameworks that we had for understanding gay youth and gay-identity development, I realized, were all constructed in pretty much the ’80s and the ’90s, and it was clear that they were already becoming completely outdated with social and political changes, with changes around the meaning of HIV.…What I quickly realized was that we really didn’t have good frameworks in the scientific community for thinking about social change and how to look at development in relation to social change.”

      Hammack said that although younger generations often don’t have the view that “gay sex equals AIDS equals death that the generations in their 30s and 40s had”, the latter generations are conducting the research and controlling the funding. Accordingly, he said that health issues particular to both younger and elder generations tend to be overlooked.

      “The men who have survived the AIDS pandemic have unique aging issues related to the nature of the times when they have grown up,” he said. “For example, the generation of men that are in their 70s and 80s, they experienced their childhood and adolescence in a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness.…But they’ve also witnessed the gay and lesbian civil-rights movement, the AIDS epidemic; they’ve lost their entire kin network. They don’t have the kind of networks that younger generations are likely to have when they’re at that age.”

      Integrating youth into the gay men’s health movement is where Olivier Ferlatte, CBRC research education director, comes in. His second annual B.C. Young Gay Men’s Health Summit (on Saturday [November 9]) will unite young gay men and allies—from activists and students to professionals, all under 30 years of age—to talk about issues in a “solutions-focused way”.

      Last year’s inaugural meeting, Ferlatte said by phone, identified four main areas that will be addressed this year: how to engage young gay guys in activism; how the gay community can include people who are marginalized or stigmatized due to class, HIV status, ethnicity, geography, and more; how to foster more relationships, such as friendships, partnerships, and mentorships; and how to build a stronger youth coalition.

      Ferlatte said he’s heartened by change he’s seen due to some increased efforts, particularly in Vancouver, to include younger generations by organizations such as Health Initiative for Men.

      All three men emphasize that their main intent is to expand the community’s outlook on health to become more inclusive, rather than exclusive.

      As Marchand puts it: “HIV is really critical, but how can we add in other elements?”

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