Rick Weinmeyer came out as gay when he was a 19-year-old University of Minnesota student, and he had depression on and off for years afterward.
Having supportive friends and a strong interest in public health kept him from engaging in high-risk activities, he said, but he knew many young, gay American males who did not have the same experience.
A national study from Harvard University published in Pediatrics Digest earlier this month found that adolescent gay and bisexual boys in the United States are almost six times more likely than straight adolescent boys to use muscle-enhancing steroids. Although it was the first national study comparing steroid use in these
communities, data has shown an elevation of high-risk behavior and health disparities in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for years.
This contrast is evident at the University, where gay and lesbian students reported 10 times higher steroid use — and bisexual students reported three times higher use — than straight students, according to a Boynton Health Service survey on lesbian, gay and bisexual student health.
“When you’re talking about a community of men who are attracted to men, masculinity is very much important,” Weinmeyer said. “And that’s very much tied to how you look.”
University associate pediatrics professor Dr. Marla Eisenberg said steroid use is often related to a more muscular appearance, in keeping with the “Western ideal.”
Dr. Aaron Blashill, one of the leaders of the new study and a psychology instructor at Harvard, said the disparity in steroid use could also exist among college-age men because the median age of initial steroid use is about 20.
Steroid use is linked to a number of serious health issues, like cardiovascular and psychiatric complications, Eisenberg said. Chronic steroid use in males can also lead to hair loss, breast development and genital shrinking, she said.
Additionally, steroid use without a prescription is illegal, said University law professor Ralph Hall. Muscle-enhancing steroids can be prescribed for certain medical conditions, but possession of any amount of these steroids without a prescription is a felony in Minnesota. Selling or sharing a prescription is an even more serious offense, Hall said.
Second-year law student James Castle, who is gay, said LGBT individuals sometimes try to overemphasize their gender or identity because others may not recognize their sexuality as an identity.
Castle is a former Minnesota Daily columnist.
“[Gay men] try to adopt these masculine characteristics,” he said. “For example, identifying as a Republican or taking an interest in sports or bulking up, I guess, but overdoing that and not just doing it in the way a straight guy might.”
This identity uncertainty often leads to mental health issues in the LGBT community. Researcher Blashill and his colleagues hypothesized that these mental health issues and victimization can lead to higher levels of high-risk activities, like steroid use.
According to a 2010 Hennepin County survey, LGBT adults reported experiencing mental distress, depression and psychological distress about two times more frequently than straight adults.
Additionally, some LGBT adults reported experiencing discrimination in the health care system — nearly 6 percent said they’d felt discriminated against in the past year, compared to about 2 percent of straight adults.
A third of LGBT adults reported in the survey that they had delayed or unmet mental health care during the past year, compared with about 14 percent of straight adults.
Stef Wilenchek, director of the University’s GLBTA Programs Office, said education and preventative measures can reduce perceived pressure to conform to certain gender roles, and thus reduce related mental health and substance-abuse issues.
Often, research calls for more research, Wilencheck said, and more studies and conversations about LGBT health are necessary.
Eisenberg encourages students engaging in steroid use to get help from Boynton or other health providers.
“The message that I try to communicate to people young or old, particularly gay men, is to really think in the long term about the health consequences and that a lot of us tend to underestimate the risk that we’re taking,” Weinmeyer said.