Rainbow health initiative launches GLBT health week

The week will involve taking a closer look at health issues facing the GLBT community.

by Devin Henry

This week marks the sixth annual Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Health Awareness Week, hosted by the Rainbow Health Initiative, an organization seeking to improve the health of the GLBT community in Minnesota.

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To learn more about the Rainbow Health Initiative and GLBT Health Awareness Week, go to www.rainbowhealth.org.

Eric Meininger, the board chair of the Rainbow Health Initiative, said the week will look at health issues facing the GLBT community, ranging from sexually transmitted infection risks to public policy.

Meininger cited high syphilis and HIV rates among men who seek sex with men, known as MSM, as major health issues facing the community.

“A lot of the research in the GLBT community has been about HIV, and very little else,” he said. “I think HIV is still a very important health issue, it’s not the only one for the community.”

Meininger said because of the growth in the GLBT community, “the visibility will help, but there are multiple layers of what needs to happen to remove those disparities.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 71 percent of all HIV cases in men in 2005 occurred in MSM.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, MSM also accounted for 103 of the 114 cases of syphilis in the Twin Cities in 2007.

Elysa Hays, co-chairwoman of the Queer Student Cultural Center, said she thinks the changing culture has put GLBT health issues in the forefront.

“The community is always evolving and changing,” she said. “I think now that queer issues are out in front in politics and in society Ö it’s not just a matter of people in the GLBT community just asking for acceptance in a sexual identity.”

Hays said smoking rates among the GLBT community is another major issue.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 41 percent of gay men smoke, compared to about 29 percent in the straight male population.

There are projects at the University monitoring GLBT health risks.

University computer science professor Joseph Konstan is using a program on the Internet to track dangerous behaviors of MSM in the digital world.

Using a program called “Men’s Internet Study,” Konstan looks to identify risk-taking behaviors of MSM online, and then put them through an interactive program to attempt to make people aware of their risky behaviors.

Konstan said the number of users on “sex-seeking” Web sites has increased over the years.

“One of the things that seems to be the result of that is that it’s much easier for people to find sexual partners if they’re looking for them,” he said.

While the Men’s Internet Study isn’t trying to combat online sex-seeking behavior, Konstan said that may be a side-effect of the study.

“It might lead to less going online for sex, it might lead to going online for sex but insisting on safe sex,” he said.

Student groups, as well, are working to improve health issues.

Cortez Riley, a member of QSCC, said the group looks to increase safe-sex awareness through pamphlets, free condoms and workshops through Boynton Health Service.

“I believe in safe sex,” he said. “That goes right along with (GLBT health).”

Hays said another overlooked issue involves tolerance among doctors.

“One of the major health issues is adequate access to health care for transgendered people, and being able to find safe and affirming doctors who will aid in their health issues without prejudice,” she said.

Meininger said he wants to see better training for health care providers to meet the GLBT community’s needs.

“I think the bias exists in the broader community, and certainly there is no reason why it wouldn’t exist in the health community,” he said.

Meininger said the week is meant to make people aware of the issues.

“One of the reasons we want to spend a little bit of time talking about it next week is to raise that specter for discussion,” he said.