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NIH-Hosted Panel Addresses GLBT Health Disparities

By Eddy Ball
January 2009

Justin Hentges
Hentges is a budget analyst at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). (Photo courtesy of NIH)

NIH Acting Director Raynard Kington
NIH Acting Director Raynard Kington expressed NIH support for Salutaris and commitment to equal employment and healthcare opportunity for members of the GLBT community. (Photo courtesy of NIH)

Deborah Bowen
Bowen applauded the growth of NIH support for GLBT health disparity research, but she also noted, "We're still in the dating phase of our relationship." (Photo courtesy of Deborah Bowen)

Jesus Ramirez-Valles
Ramirez-Valles noted that many questions remain about the long-range impact of GLBT health disparities. He said, "We are seeing the first generation of aging [self-identified] gay people." (Photo courtesy of Jesus Ramirez-Valles)

Ron Stall
Stall, above, and Bowen serve on NIH review sections. Stall called for creation of "an NIH office to advocate for research in this area." (Photo courtesy of Ron Stall)

As part of its annual "Noons in June" series recognizing Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GBLT) Pride Month, NIH hosted a panel discussion on June 17 on "Addressing Health Disparities in GLBT Populations" at Lister Hill Auditorium on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. NIH made the presentations available for remote viewing via webcast.

The event, which was sponsored by the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management (OEODM) and Salutaris - the NIH GLBT Employees' Forum - opened with a welcome from NIH Acting Director Raynard Kington, M.D., Ph.D.

In his remarks, Kington recalled the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in 1969 that began the GLBT rights movement and described the legacy of Stonewall and other civil rights movements of the time. "I personally benefited," he said, "as so many people came together to refuse to tolerate the inequities that existed and then worked so tirelessly for social justice for all." He thanked the event sponsors for helping to raise awareness of the work yet to be done in pursuit of equal opportunity.

Chair of Salutaris and event moderator Justin Hentges next introduced the event's panelists - Boston University School of Public Health Professor Deborah Bowen, Ph.D. ( Exit NIEHS , University of Illinois at Chicago Professor of Community Health Sciences Jesus Ramirez-Valles, Ph.D. ( Exit NIEHS, and University of Pittsburgh Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences Professor and Chair Ronald D. Stall, Ph.D. The speakers, who are NIH grantees, then spent 15 minutes each describing their work in the field of sexual minority health disparity and the problems that investigators encounter in this emerging area of public health research.

Bowen, who studies the higher rates of obesity among lesbians that she argues are linked to sexual orientation, proposed that the "GLBT health disparity movement should think of itself in terms of all other kinds of health disparity." She identified the paucity of demographic data about sexual orientation as a problem that still hampers investigators who pursue grant support. "To get funding, you have to have evidence that you have a problem," she explained. "If we don't have these data published, we're not on the radar screen."

Ramirez-Valles focused on the role played by what he called "internalized stigmatization" by GLBT people in creating health disparities. "These GLBT health disparities are not innate," he said. "They are socially constructed" around notions of gender conformity. He added that when GLBT people "see themselves through the negative lenses of society," they are more prone to experience substance abuse, unsafe sexual behavior and increased exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. "We need to think about ways to bring the individual and the society together to investigate these health disparities" and impact the problem through cultural and institutional change, he concluded.

In his presentation, Stall pointed to "substantial and life-threatening health risks among gay men that go beyond HIV/AIDS," including the documented higher rates of smoking among gay men and suspected increased risk for cardiovascular diseases and cancer. He discussed his work developing a graduate-level public health training program in GLBT health issues at the University of Pittsburgh that is helping prepare the next generation of researchers and creating a model for programs at other institutions.

The discussion concluded with a question-and-answer session and final remarks by Hentges, who presented the panelists with tokens of appreciation from NIH and Salutaris.

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