Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Forum seeks 'healthy homo' ideas


Dr. Kevin Fenton from the CDC speaks at Monday's forum. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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One hundred gay men came together this week to dialogue about the health and social needs of themselves and their peers. They brainstormed on solutions and sought ways to improve the mental and physical needs of gay men.

The goal is to help gay men be "healthy homos."

"We have an opportunity through our ideas to create changes. We want to make real things happen and not another binder that will be stuck on the shelf," said Buzz Bense, the former owner of Eros and a health department consultant on the forum. "What is the environment that will cause the healthy homo to flourish in our city? We are bringing back the healthy homos."

The daylong, invite-only event took place Monday, February 5 and was modeled after a 2001 gathering. Out of that two-day forum came ideas that led to the creation of Magnet, the gay men's heath center in the Castro, and the Gay Men's Community Initiative, a health department project that is now its own nonprofit entity.

Unlike the last forum, held for healthcare professionals and service providers with speakers from around the globe, only gay men attended this one, two-thirds of whom did not work for a government agency. More than 11 percent lived outside San Francisco.

The only guest speaker was Dr. Kevin Fenton, who last year became director of the National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An African American gay man, Fenton had served as chief of the CDC's National Syphilis Elimination Effort since January 2005.

Fenton's stop in San Francisco was the third site visit on a listening tour he is dong across the country. Echoing the sentiments from earlier in the day, Fenton said his main goal is to move his center's focus "away from a message of using condoms every time you have sex to a more holistic approach."

Asked if he is concerned by HIV prevention messages that have a negative tone, Fenton said, "No, not particularly. So many of these ads are done with a lot of homework behind them." He added that if a certain campaign "is causing harm, we as individual practitioners, we should pull it. Sometimes focus groups don't give you the right feedback.

"Sometimes, we just get it wrong," added Fenton.

He did say he had made evaluating how the center spends it money a priority "so we are ensuring we are much more accountable with our investments."

The day began with an overlook of who makes up San Francisco's gay male population. The city estimates there are 63,577 gay men living in San Francisco, an increase of more than 10,000 over the last five years. About 75 percent of those men are between the ages of 21 and 40, while 14,000 are HIV-positive.

The majority are Caucasian, at 66 percent, with Latinos the next largest group at 13 percent. African Americans and Asians comprise 6 percent each.

The issues confronting gay men today differ from back in 2001, when use of crystal meth was on the rise and the city was dealing with an outbreak of syphilis cases. Health officials feared the combination of the two would lead to a spike in HIV rates.

Instead, HIV rates have started to decline, albeit slightly, STD rates have stabilized, and data suggests meth use has also dropped. Today, it is cocaine use and alcohol consumption that is on the rise.

And on the HIV prevention front the old condom code has fallen by the wayside. Many gay men have turned to serosorting, where they seek someone of the same HIV status for sex, or determine what kind of sex they will engage in based on their partners' serostatus.

"Lots of men don't want to use condoms and are looking for more complex prevention strategies," said Stop AIDS Project spokesman Jason Riggs. "Some gay men have a sense of inevitability about getting HIV so they are not using condoms."

While the health department's HIV section covered the forum's $18,000 cost, "It is not only about HIV," Bense instructed the men.

The men focused on six areas of concern: mental health, aging, healthy sexuality, community, and addiction. Among the group discussing healthy sexuality, most said they would like to see a change in focus in the social marketing campaigns produced.

"We are stuck in a negative prevention model. We need to find a way to present a holistic sexuality," said Oakland resident Gabriel Clark, who conducts Body Erotic workshops. "Sex is just not about the physical act. That seems to be where we are stuck."

While some of the men said they feel it is okay to be judgmental with regards to sex, others complained that HIV and STD testing facilities in the city "are putting us down when it should be a positive experience."

Daly City resident Orin Johnson defined healthy sexuality as sex that is "guilt free" and "improves your self-esteem." Employed by the California STD/HIV Prevention Training Center, Johnson said, "I liked the talk about sex being integral to your life."

Meeting the needs of an aging gay male population was also a key concern at the forum, and not just among older men.

"We need some type of resource for the gay aging population," said Mike Nguyen, 30, a health educator at the Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center. "Aging in the community is something that is often overlooked."

Some of the ideas that came out of the forum included reopening a lounge space for people with AIDS where they can meet one another; having a fair with community groups; opening a satellite of the alcohol-free Castro Country Club space in the Tenderloin; and creating a gay version of AARP.

Other ideas included increasing the diversity of body images used in advertising; a gay Big Brother program where older men could serve as mentors; and ensuring the city implement's the recommendations of the Mayor's Task Force on Crystal Meth.

Organizers said they held the forum on a workday because of Fenton's schedule. Also, it was the only time they could rent out both the second and fourth floors of the LGBT Community Center. Most of the men in attendance said as long as the ideas produced at the forum are widely circulated, they saw no problems with the timing of the event.

"I am thrilled it is being held. If it were held on a Saturday who would come?" said Ggreg Taylor, a former party and events promoter, who took the day off from his marketing job to attend. "It is necessary. The community is unraveling to some degree. People are being even more socially isolating."

Hank Wilson, a longtime AIDS activist, said he hopes a nighttime forum is held to present the ideas the men came up with Monday.

"It is good whenever you bring people together to share visions," he said. "This is a work in progress. It is not an end point."

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