Standing in the lobby of the School of Social Work at UNC-Chapel Hill two Saturdays ago, I was the only woman surrounded by dozens of men. Groups of men of all races and ages huddled together, completely absorbed in conversation over bagels and orange juice.
They'd come to Chapel Hill for the North Carolina Gay Men's Health Summit, a chance to explore issues that affect gay men's health and wellness. Since the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, gay men's health issues have become synonymous with HIV and AIDS. But while AIDS is a continuing threat, treatment and education have allowed the gay community to shift its focus toward other important health concerns.
"Our aim is to really aggressively work on all kinds of gay men's health issues," said activist and author Eric Rofes, the keynote speaker at the summit. "These include mental health and substance abuse. I think all kinds of cancers are really important."
The first gay men's health summits were held in Boulder, Colo., in 1999 and 2000 as national events. This year, organizers wanted to focus attention at the local level. The Chapel Hill summit was one of about 16 local and regional summits held across the country last month. The "low-budget, all-volunteer" event featured workshops on topics such as public-health policy, risk behaviors, depression, addiction, age and race.
Publicity for the conference highlighted the need to move the discussion beyond HIV and AIDS prevention. But speakers noted that before that can happen, there needs to be more attention paid to health issues in the gay community.
"It seems that North Carolina has a chunk of work to do in bringing together people who are interested in working on gay men's health and wellness issues," Rofes said. "North Carolina, while it has a lot of history of gay organizing, doesn't focus on gay men's health."
Among the problems to be addressed are unexplained health disparities gay men experience compared to other groups, such as higher rates of tobacco use. In addition, many gay and bisexual men won't discuss health issues with their doctors because they fear being judged, or that doctors will try to convince them to change their sexuality.
The summit was aimed not only at making gay and bisexual men more aware of the health risks affecting them, but encouraging them to discuss those issues more openly with their doctors.
"I think it's very important for people to be engaged in their health and to consider their lifestyles, their behavior and their experiences to improve themselves," said Glenn Grossman, a member of Carolina Alternative Meetings of Professional and Graduate Students (CAMP) which helped organize the local summit.
Duke University student Christopher Pedigo said he hopes the summit will be the beginning of greater awareness and activism around gay men's health issues across the state. And, he added, "it's also another way for the gay community to meet other gay men outside of a bar to network."