Pitt Research Focuses on Health of Gay Men

By: Allison Hydzik

University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health scientists are turning health research about gay men on its head.
Instead of focusing on what is going wrong to cause poor health in this population and trying to fix it, the Pitt-led research team is looking at what is going right – and how to promote it.
“A research focus on resiliencies within this population may greatly benefit health promotion,” said Amy Herrick, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Center for LGBT Health Research at Pitt Public Health.
“We’re finding that there’s this subpopulation of gay men who have negative experiences, such as childhood bullying and homophobia, but they don’t go on to have the poor health outcomes – such as depression, substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases – that we would typically expect,” said Dr. Herrick. “Discovering what gives them this resiliency could really help in designing strategies to promote health and well-being.”

Amy Herrick, Ph.D.
Dr. Herrick is the lead author of a report on this phenomenon in a recent issue of the journal AIDS and Behavior. The research grew out of last year’s Center for LGBT Health Research “Summer Institute,” where the center brings in top researchers from across the country to tackle a hot topic in LGBT health.

The team explored a pattern of resilience known as “internalized homophobia resolution.” Internalized homophobia refers to a gay man taking negative societal perceptions about homosexuals and thinking badly of themselves. The ability to overcome, or resolve, these feelings is a form of resilience.
Over 1,500 gay and bisexual men were surveyed for the study. Less than a third of them reported never experiencing internalized homophobia. Of those who did report internalized homophobia, a greater proportion were younger, racial and ethnic minorities with less education and lower income than those who weren’t struggling with it.
“Something we found interesting is that the likelihood of these men overcoming their internalized homophobia increased with age,” said Dr. Herrick. “So, even though our society has made significant strides toward accepting sexual minorities with campaigns like the It Gets Better Project, it doesn’t seem to help with resiliency – that comes naturally with time. We know that maturity tends to bring more of a reliance on internal factors in forming self-perception, whereas youths put more emphasis on external cues to determine their self-worth.”
Nearly 81 percent of the men surveyed who were older than 56 reported no internalized homophobia, whereas only 69 percent of the men ages 20 to 35 were able to say that.
“Now that we know these resiliencies are occurring, we need to determine the process by which they happen,” said Dr. Herrick. “From there we can look to incorporate such strengths into life-saving intervention efforts.”