It should really go without saying, but note to medical science: LGBT people are more than just their genitals.
Though there has been research into health conditions that disproportionately affect the LGBT community, most of the focus has been on sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS; Dr. Ron Stall calls it “the knee and the navel problem.” In an interview with the Pittsburgh CityPaper, he explained that “Everything in LGBT health, the whole scientific agenda, is to study the area between the knee and the navel. There are multiple health conditions that affect LGBT populations. We sort of know the prevalence rates—how common they are—but that’s about it. And we certainly don’t know how to stop them.”
As director of the Center for LGBT Health Research at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, Stall intends to do something about that. The current Center is only about a year old, but it has its roots in the Center for Research on Health and Sexual Orientation, which dates back to the 1990s.
Like the LGBT Health Initiative at New York’s Columbia University Medical Center, the Pittsburgh center’s ultimate goal is to conduct research that allows medical providers to better serve the LGBT community by identifying their unique risk factors and health challenges. For example, compared to their straight counterparts, many LGBT people face a higher risk of health problems brought on by stress due to factors like discrimination, threats of violence, and social stigma, as well as indirect consequences such as substance abuse and depression.
Stall said, “What we’re finding is the experience of very early marginalization… sets people up, even in adolescence, for a disadvantage. They’re more likely to have a series of psycho-social problems that set them up for medical conditions.”
However, with sufficient research, interventions can be developed to lessen the impact of such stresses, or even prevent issues altogether. Some of those associated with the center have already published peer-reviewed publications, and the center even offers courses towards a certificate for LGBT health, something very few institutions offer. It’s also the site of a training program, funded by the American Foundation for AIDS Research, that hosts scholars from other nations to teach them how to write grant proposals to fund LGBT health studies in their own countries.
This is not to say that the United States is especially supportive of such studies; just in 2003, then-U.S. Representative Patrick Toomey called sexual behavior research “much less worthy of taxpayer funding” than studying “devastating diseases.” Social taboos can also play a part in restricting what scientific research is even considered; another LGBT health researcher, Dr. Randall Sell, an associate professor and director at Drexel University, has said that in meetings at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), they were told to avoid the word “transgender.”
Still, though progress is slow, there are some signs of it; since then, according to a January 2013 statement by NIH Director Francis S. Collins, the Institute has assigned a team of researchers to find ways to support LGBT research and “increase the knowledge base for promoting the health of the LGBT community.” More recently, on June 27, it held a LGBTI Health Research Listening Session, now free to watch or download.