"... you want to talk about 'morality' with me? Well, there is no greater 'moral reason' than to further the good health of a young person and no greater a breech in moral rectitude than to allow a young person in good health to lapse into comprised health simply because of the petty whims of politics or a fear of 'what people will say' when they know that you're talking about sensitive issues. No issue is more sensitive than the fact that we have kids near death due to a disease that they might have prevented themselves from acquiring if only they had accurate safer-sex information." -- Dr. Kate Fordham
In December of 1996, together with Kate Fordham I inaugurated a column in Oasis entitled "Life, Love, and AIDS". The purpose of this column was to provide a forum for Oasis readers to send in their questions regarding safer sex, HIV and AIDS, and other health matters so that these questions could be answered and shared with other Oasis readers who might well have similar questions in mind. In addition to this primary goal, the column was to serve as a place where Kate and I could periodically present news and information regarding innovations in medicine and the biomedical sciences that might be of interest to young gay readers. Advances in AIDS research and prevention, the on-going debate on the possibility of HIV transmission via oral sex, and dangerous trends in drug abuse made up part of this side of our mission: to allow Oasis readers to have access to health-related information that might make a real difference in their lives, recognizing that such information is often overlooked by the mainstream mass media due to so-called moral reasons and fear of criticism. To put this concept in other words, just see Kate's quote above.
Overall, the column and our involvement in Oasis has been even more successful than we ever imagined. The column has generated questions from Oasis readers as far afield as Sweden, Israel, Germany, and Hong Kong. These questions have averaged seven to ten per month and have covered a wide spectrum of concerns from AIDS to loss of virginity to the emotional traumas inherent to relationships. We have had readers write with thoughts of suicide or fears that friends might consider suicide and we have had readers report sexually inappropriate advances from older persons --including teachers; in all cases, all we could offer was a listening ear, some thoughtful advice, and the express urging for the person writing to seek help from appropriate sources at the local level. When necessary, we helped find that help. What's amazing is that in all cases all of them where a serious threat to health was apparent, the reader has been able to write back to us and communicate that he or she did indeed get in touch with counseling professionals or other health care providers in his or her community who could offer guidance and assistance with these problems. Aside from the column itself, Kate and I have also written editorials, co-authored a major study of gay youth and their sexual and social behaviors, authored another study of the effectiveness of Internet-based systems such as Oasis in sexual health education of gay youth, and offered our so-called "State of the Union" address on the status of AIDS and HIV-related research (October 1997). Our involvement with Oasis has been indeed a varied undertaking, but definitely a worthwhile one.
Kate's involvement in gay youth-related research and health care research in general extends beyond Oasis, and her other commitments have taken up an increasing amount of time to the point that writing her column is downright impossible: she simply cannot write the column and give it the amount of time it rightfully deserves, and she is not the sort of person who would attempt to do something if she can't do it right. For that reason, she is stepping down as the Medical Editor of Oasis and I will be assuming that role for the time being. My time is also pulled in every direction and I cannot promise that I will have enough time to write a monthly column, however, I will make every effort to guide Oasis's provision of health-related information, especially in the case of information about AIDS and safer sex. I believe that all aspects of Oasis are important, unique, offerings to the young queer community, but I see safer sex education as an imperative role for the magazine because we reach so many people and a lot of those youth have no other source to turn to for reliable, accurate, information. I hope that I will not be doing this alone and if any health professionals or educators happen to read this editorial and would like to contribute their time and expertise to Oasis's mission to better the health of gay youth, please contact me because I certainly could use your input in this!
Now, why is health larger than you and I? It's because health is that one great common denominator, that one thing that can disallow all else: no matter how much money you have, nor how smart you are, nor how beautiful you are, or anything else, good health is essential to the basic existence that makes all else possible. Most young people reading this column, I would expect, are free from grave and serious congenital health problems (problems that a person is born with). I am sure there are exceptions, but most of you are probably pretty healthy, or at least have the possibility of having good health without that much to overcome. Good health for you, for me, is additive: you are not looking to remove some horrific disease from your body to obtain good health but instead are looking to add qualities (safer sex, better nutrition, abstinence from drug use, abstinence from smoking, better exercise) to obtain better health. It's a possible reality for most of you, keeping in mind that poor health due to AIDS, due to other sexually transmitted diseases, due to drug abuse and other negative health factors can be avoided. I think of the things Kate has often written in her columns, her implorations for gay youth to look at health beyond just sexual health and see well-being as something all-encompassing of your body, mind and soul. Certainly people writing columns like Kate and I, nor doctors and nurses or teachers or coaches can meet all of your health needs or even offer advice that will help meet these needs, but we can act as a basis, a starting place for where you need to go to get to where you want to be: in the best possible health.
I also recall Kate writing that "HIV (AIDS) is a one hundred percent preventable disease". That's true, yes, one hundred percent prevention would mean one hundred percent abstinence (or only having sex with someone whom you're sure is HIV-negative and will remain so) as well as not engaging in risky behavior like sharing needles in intravenous drug abuse. But it's possible to stay HIV-free, and it's something that totally in your hands. I don't think many of us really always view it that way, though, I know many young gay men who see AIDS as something that's lurking out there and that may come their way or may not, kind of like a thunder storm on a far horizon. They see AIDS as a fact of their lives, even if they are currently HIV-negative. They see being HIV-positive as something decided by chance and not by their own actions. But you know what? They're wrong and Kate was right: AIDS is one hundred percent preventable and it up to us to prevent it within ourselves and help prevent it in our friends.
Furthermore, AIDS is not the only serious health concern among young gay men, as I personally know several young guys who are gay or bisexual and who have had their lives and health negatively affected by drug abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United State's primary national-level health monitoring agency, has focused a great deal of its varied efforts on drug use in youth populations for years, but I have yet to see the CDC or any other government-funded agency produce a consummate position paper or other document regarding the connections between homosexuality, safer sex, social conditions, and drug abuse. This research and analytical work cries out for attention and I hope that it will receive that attention soon because drugs are a very major problem within the gay community. Policy must follow reality to effectively serve the needs of the people, and I mean all the people. Again, see Kate's quote above I cannot put it any more clearly than she already has.
As I continue Kate's efforts, I want to hear from all of you who read what I am writing. Tell me what issues you want me to cover, what questions you have, what you need to know. Work with me on this because we all can do something to see that we ALL have healthier futures.
Mike Walker is, for the time being, Oasis Magazine's Medical Editor, and also the Science Editor, which should amount to his being the resident non-computer-centered geek of Oasis. He has also written for a number of other popular and scientific publications and has contributed to Oasis since late 1996.
He can be reached via e-mail at: MCWalker@hotmail.com
His personal website is: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/1277