Friday, May 8, 2009

Accentuate the positive

[more nice press on our little campaign...]

To your health...
via The Guide, by Tony Valenzuela

My friend Bill Jesdale, an epidemiologist in San Francisco, recently told me about preliminary research revealing that a higher percentage of gay men than straight men report being in 'excellent health.'

Surprised? The notion that gay men are exceptionally healthy seems to contradict much of what comes out of public health research, namely that gay men are plagued by physical and mental health problems from drug addiction to low self-esteem. Could we finally be turning a corner from an era when disease and death defined our lives?

We may have already.

Developed by Project CRYSP, a consortium of Chicago-area health organizations, 'How Are You Healthy?' is the name of a new ad campaign that reflects this salubrious self-image. Ads on subways, buses, newspapers and posters around the city show gay men in healthy states of being: holding an apple, doing yoga, flexing a bicep, and lovingly embracing a boyfriend. You get the idea.

Jim Picket, director of advocacy at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, told me in an email that the project 'is one of the first, if not the first, social marketing campaigns in Chicago to take an assets-based approach to gay/bi men's health.' Instead of focusing on what's wrong with gay men -- the 'deficits' approach -- an assets-based view shifts the emphasis on the things we do to thrive despite living with HIV or in homophobic and racist cultures.

'Unlike many health campaigns directed towards gay men,' Picket tells me, the new Chicago campaign 'does not resort to using fear tactics, is not directive, and does not promote hysteria.'

The gay men's health movement distinguishes itself from traditional AIDS activism by recognizing that our health is about much more than preventing HIV. I've thought about this for a long time, especially in light of having tested positive myself in 1995. By the criteria of the prevailing public health goals promoted in the gay community for a generation, I had failed.

This singular focus on preventing HIV made sense when gay men were dying en masse, but since 1996, with the advent of antiviral medications, the concentration of our community's talent and resources on one disease has come at the expense of every other.

So what are some of the ways I am healthy? To start, I have used my gym membership for more than 20 years and lately have expanded beyond weights and cardio to include mat Pilates and yoga. I eat well (often too well). I see my doctor regularly and get bi-annual STD checks and a yearly anal pap smear.

There's more to health than the physical, of course. There's social support and having a sense of purpose. In this vein, 'How Are You Healthy?' is profiling regular guys at (check it out for some of the web's best eye candy). In their own words, these men describe their healthful strategies. 'I remember the phrase, 'Don't sweat the small stuff,' says one guy with a sweet smile. 'The most important way I keep myself healthy,' says a sassy looking cutie, 'is by surrounding myself with energetic, fun people with a zest for life.'

Accentuating our positive behaviors as a health philosophy is not intended to replace valid prevention messages with uncritical gay male boosterism, but instead asks us to recognize that being healthy is a holistic endeavor that depends as much on what you do as on what you try to avoid doing.

Incidentally, the 'CRYSP' in Project CRYSP stands for 'crystal prevention.' Its overall aim is to curb the spread of HIV, but this singular goal is deliberately underplayed and is not explicitly stated in the campaign.

'While HIV is very much a gay man's disease in this country, gay men are tired of having this be their defining health issue,' Picket tells me. 'We're seeing the forest here, not just the trees.'

Amen to that.

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