by Aleks Martin -
Special to the SGN
The 2012 Gay Men's Health Summit was held July 20-21 in Washington, D.C., at George Washington University's Marvin Center. More than 40 workshops and presentations from various activists, educators, advocates, and health professionals from across the country were offered. D.C.'s Christopher Dyer, founder of the Youth Pride Alliance and former director of the Mayor's Office of GLBT Affairs, served as host, facilitating plenary sessions and providing comic relief as his alter ego, Cookie Buffet. Summit organizers, in addition to Dyer, included David Mariner, executive director of the DC Center, the city's LGBT community center; Raymond Robbins, also of the DC Center; attorney Blake Cornish; and HIV activist David Phillips. More than 200 activists attended, including individuals from England and Australia as well as Canada's Mark Randall, coordinator of the HEAT (HIV Education and Awareness Today) program for the AIDS Calgary Awareness Association.
Special events included a social mixer, the Bear Happy Hour at the Rock and Roll Hotel; an art reception at the DC Center for the LGBT community, which featured collaborative mixed-media originals by John Gascot and MG Stout, self-identified Gay and straight artists, respectively; a benefit concert by actor/musician Jay Brannan of Shortbus fame; a benefit stage performance of Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart; and the opening reception of the 19th International AIDS Conference at the Cobalt Bar.
The first Gay Men's Health Summit was held in 1999 in Boulder, Colorado, with more than 300 attendees, focusing on health and wellness for Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender men. Boulder hosted again the following year, and Raleigh, North Carolina, hosted in 2003. Subsequent summits have been held in Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The event now takes place every two years, with the next one scheduled for 2014.
Seattle has long had a strong presence at the summit, and this year was no exception. The Emerald City was well represented by Todd Hull, assistant manager of prevention education at Lifelong AIDS Alliance; Bertram Johnson of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Aric Lane, M.P.A., research coordinator at the University of Washington STD Clinic and disease intervention specialist at Public Health-Seattle and King County (PHSKC); Brett Niessen, M.P.H., health educator with PHSKC's HIV/STD Program; and Jeff Rinderle of Gay City Health Project (host of the 2008 summit). David Beard, formerly of the Seattle LGBT Commission, assisted with this year's summit as a program committee member; and Kyle Peppers, formerly of the MPowerment Project at Lifelong, reunited with current Seattle representatives at one of the special events.
Johnson presented 'Is That a Microbicide in Your Pocket or Are You Just Happy to See Me?: Advances in HIV Prevention Research and How to Protect Ourselves.'
Rinderle co-presented with Adam Steiner and Andres Hoyos on 'Not Quite Ready to Quit: Motivating Gay and HIV-Positive Men to Quit Smoking,' 'Smoke-Free Queer Man: Eliminating Health Disparities in Our Communities,' and 'Policy & PrideFest: Impacting the Health of Our Queer Communities Through Effective Tobacco Prevention and Control Policies.'
Workshops conducted by Philip T. McCabe of the National Association of LGBT Addiction Professionals and Brian McAleney of Argosy University stressed the importance of Gay-specific services that address addiction and mental health concerns. Cultural considerations are vital in successfully addressing the needs of Gay men when dealing with these issues. Locally, Seattle Counseling Service has been a pioneer of these services, including HIV, domestic violence, coming out, and crystal meth addiction counseling. Sister Constance Craving, along with Hawk Kinkaid of New York and Jorge Vieto of San Francisco, co-facilitated a discussion of the value of peer-to-peer outreach, a model that Seattle's own Project NEON adheres to through its Peer Education Network of community outreach volunteers. One of the participants' favorite workshops was a live staging of monologues spearheaded by Monte J. Wolfe of Brave Soul Collective, which highlighted Trans issues and couples' issues surrounding HIV and self-esteem, including testing.
Hull, who began his HIV prevention work in 1999 at Minnesota AIDS Project in Minneapolis and transitioned to Lifelong in 2004, facilitated a discussion on barebacking. He stressed that recently the FDA approved Truvada, an HIV antiretroviral medication, for preventive use by HIV-negative individuals (such use is also known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP). He added, 'Recent studies have shown that HIV-positive individuals who are on a treatment regimen and have an undetectable level of the virus in their system are unlikely to pass HIV to a sex partner. These are huge breakthroughs in terms of medical technology and will fundamentally change the landscape of HIV prevention, but they are not 100% effective and should be viewed as new tools in the prevention toolbox, along with condoms.'
Since 2002, Lane has been providing HIV education, testing, counseling, research, and programming. He was actively involved with this year's summit as part of the program committee. Lane believes that 'as Gay, Bi, and Trans men, our relationship with our health is complex. We face challenges around our health and bodies that are not always communicated between each other, our health providers, and those who provide funding and help shape policy.' He added, 'The movement is broader than just HIV and STDs - it includes our mental health, the way we form and interact in community, and how we treat ourselves, our friends, and our partners. Engagement [at the] national and local levels around our health is one thing that I get to do to help our community remain healthy, informed, and empowered.'
Lane co-presented with Niessen on their collaborative efforts working with Seattle's commercial sex venues (e.g., bathhouses) over the past year. They worked on a community engagement and needs assessment project to better understand the patrons who go to these venues, as well as how to improve HIV and STD testing services and improve communication between PHSKC, business owners, and community-based organizations like Gay City and Lifelong.
Niessen found the session on crystal methamphetamine the most interesting, because, he said, 'I know it is intimately involved with HIV infection, but wanted to better understand why. Beforehand, I didn't know that crystal meth users were three times more likely to be HIV-positive than non-meth-using MSM or that meth increases the rate of HIV replication and makes users more susceptible to HIV. That was fascinating and scary.'
While there were a wide range of topics, including body image, healing, living long-term with HIV, and health issues for Trans men, Hull said, 'one that really stood out for me was about racism on dating/hookup sites and apps - profiles containing comments like 'not into blacks/Asians & sorry, just a preference' - and how that makes people feel and the responses that it generates. It is a touchy subject to be sure, but one worth having.'
Hull felt that the summit offered a safe space to explore these issues and interact with a wide variety of people and perspectives. He added, 'It was an opportunity for me to refresh and check in with myself about the way that I treat people, and myself as well. I think that is part of the value of the summit and the Gay men's health movement, and that is what I bring back to my life and work in Seattle.'
Lane brings back to the Seattle Gay Men's Health arena that 'our health is about more than just disease. It is about collective responsibility, how we make decisions as a population that experiences stigma and marginalization from outside, and within our community, and how we care for one another are important factors in our lives; the strengths of our community and resilience in facing and overcoming stigma and obstacles.' He added, 'we have health needs that are beyond just HIV and STDs. Health issues like depression, body image, substance use, cancer, heart disease and other broad health issues are important for us to be informed about and invested in.'
Niessen feels that, 'we need to come up with solutions for the gay community that target health rather than always focusing on disease status. Gay men are losing the condom vigilance that I think we had in the 1990s.' Like many of Seattle's providers, he feels, 'HIV is not decreasing but remaining steady, and there are great health disparities when it comes to HIV and STDs. We need to figure what messages work for gay men that will help them stay safer whether infected with HIV or not. These are the same issues around the country, and a conference like this is helpful in finding out what gay men are doing in other cities to try and accomplish these health goals.'
The summit ended with a closing plenary with a facilitated discussion of what attendees felt worked best and ideas for moving forward. The host committee recognized the lack of consistent structure to produce and organize the biannual summit, and stressed the need for ongoing communication to ease into the next one. It is important to note that the small team of volunteers made this year's summit a successful event, despite its coinciding with other local events such as the National Queer People of Color Conference, the International AIDS Conference, and the March on Washington. Planning has already begun for the next summit, which will be held in Missoula, Montana, in 2014.
A closing activity featured Sister Glo of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Abbey of St. Joan, highlighting love, gratitude, and community. For more information on the 2012 Gay Men's Health Summit, visit www.gmhs2012.org.
Aleks Martin, who also attended GMHS 2012, is program coordinator of Project NEON and a chemical dependency professional at Seattle Counseling Service. SCS has been serving LGBTQ communities since 1969, providing mental health counseling and addiction services. For more information, please visit www.seattlecounseling.org and/or www.projectneon.org.
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