Oct 052015

480px-RGB_LED_Rainbow_from_7th_symmetry_cylindrical_gratingI’ve been saying for years now that the phrase “LGBT community” is insufficient when it comes to health. It’s not one community — it is multiple communities. The social issues and health issues that a gay transgender man faces every day are different from the issues a bisexual cisgender woman faces every day. There are some similarities and grouping the communities together has been politically useful. But it should never be forgotten that L, G, B, and T all face different types of health concerns and have different civil rights battles to face.

A study came out in August that has to be one of my favorites this year. Researchers in Georgia surveyed over three thousand lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, gender non-conforming, and queer people. They asked about health behaviors of all kinds. And then they did statistical analysis, comparing the various genders (cis male, cis female, trans male, trans female, genderqueer) and sexual orientations (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, queer, straight). Let’s look at what they found!

  • Diet and exercise: The researchers asked about fatty foods, eating while not hungry, quantity of vegetables and fruits eaten, and about hours and types of exercise. Transgender women had the least healthy diet of all genders. As a group, they were less likely to eat many fruits and vegetables, and more likely to drink sugared drinks and eat when they weren’t hungry. Both cisgender and transgender men were also less likely to eat many vegetables compared with other groups. Genderqueer people and gay cisgender men were most likely to exercise.
  • Substance use: The researchers asked about smoking tobacco and alcohol consumption. Cisgender men were the most likely to drink alcohol, binge drink, and to drink even when they didn’t want to. Participants who identified as queer were also more likely to drink. When it came to tobacco, transgender men and straight participants were the most likely to smoke.
  • Motor vehicle risk: The researchers asked about seatbelt use, speeding, and texting while driving. No clear differences for speeding were noted. Transgender men and straight participants were most likely to drive without a seatbelt. Texting while driving varied considerably; gay and lesbian drivers were most likely to text while driving.
  • Sexual behaviors: The researchers asked about frequency of unprotected sex and sex while intoxicated. Gay men were least likely to have unprotected sex while lesbian women were most likely to have unprotected sex. When it came to sex while intoxicated, only the bisexual participants stood out as being most likely among the groups to have sex while intoxicated.
  • Violence: The researchers asked about self harm and expressing anger at others. Overall rates of interpersonal anger were very low. Transgender men and pansexual people were most likely to self harm.
  • Medical risk taking: The researchers asked about delaying medical care and not following physician advice. Transgender women were least likely to seek care; 1/3 reported that they regularly delayed seeking medical care. Both transgender women and transgender men were more likely to not follow medical advice when it was given. Bisexual people were also more likely to delay seeking medical care compared to lesbian and gay participants.

That’s a mouthful, right? There are a lot of details I left out of this summary and it still threatens to be overwhelming with detail. So how we can break this down even more simply? By talking about the conclusions.

The researchers go into some possible causes for all these different results. Maybe gay men are safer about sex because of HIV risk. Maybe transgender men eat few vegetables because of cultural expectations that “men eat lots of meat and not many vegetables.” Maybe gay and lesbian people text more while driving because of the lack of community-specific messages.

Maybe. And they’re all good thoughts.

I tend to look forward more to what we can do with these data. I’m pretty happy with this study — it’s one of the broadest I’ve seen for inclusion. Few health-oriented pieces of research include pansexual and genderqueer individuals.

It’s important to remember that these results are at the group level. Any individual person who is a gender/sexual minority will have their own health behaviors and risks. They should be evaluated and treated as individuals. From a public health perspective though, this research brings valuable data. Only by knowing what each group faces can prevention, screening, and treatment campaigns be created. Only by knowing, for example, that transgender and bisexual people avoid seeking medical care can we then examine “why?” and act to remove the barriers so that appropriate, respectful medical care is available.

So — can we change the conversation? Instead of talking about “the LGBT community”, let’s talk about “the LGBT communities”. Or, even better, “gender and sexual minority communities” — removing the alphabet soup and expanding the definitions at the same time. This research is only the tip of the iceberg. We have so much more to explore.

The paper is published online ahead of print. The abstract is publicly available.

Sep 212015

This week’s post is a reader request! Ricki B asked for more information on gender dysphoria before and after transition. While I can’t speak from personal experience, I can dive into the literature and answer the question that way. Luckily there’s a summary article that talks about this very topic!

Gender dysphoria is a term that refers to the distress associated with having a mismatch between gender identity and physical sex. It’s a hallmark of being transgender or transsexual. People with gender dysphoria are often in intense distress. Some (but not all) individuals try to commit suicide, self-castrate, or self harm because of their distress.

This summary was published in 2010. The authors looked at studies that examined dysphoria and other psychological factors before and after medical transition (hormones or surgery or both).

Across all the studied the authors looked at, this is what they found:

  • 80% of the individuals found relief from their gender dysphoria by transitioning — some even to the point that they had no dysphoria at all.
  • 78% had relief from other psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression. They also had relief from psychiatric symptoms that had not been diagnosed as a disorder. Suicide attempts also dropped, though they were still above that of the general population.
  • 80% had a significant increase in their quality of life. At least 2/3rds found that they had an improvement in concrete factors in their life. Their relationships improved. Their job prospects improved. They were generally happier.
  • More than half were satisfied with their sexual life after transition.

While life did not improve for everyone on hormone therapy or after surgery, it was a strongly positive influence in the vast majority.

This particular summary article did not go deep into potential differences in the benefits of surgery and hormones, though individuals studies do. The current consensus is that both are beneficial for the alleviation of suffering.

If you’re looking for a more personal account of how dysphoria improved with treatment, I highly recommend visiting the transgender communities on reddit, or picking up one of the many books written by trans people.

Sep 142015

A cluster of studies came out this week looking at different aspects of mental health for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Rather than do a deep dive on each one I thought it’d be fun to do a birds eye view of all of them and talk about the results as a group. Ready?

Why look at mental health in lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB/GLB) people at all, and why might their health be different from their straight peers? Because of minority stress! If you’re a long time reader of the blog that term may sound familiar. Minority stress is the concept that solely by being a minority in a culture you have a higher level of stress. That stress is even worse when you’re a minority that is discriminated against. It’s also worse if you are a member of multiple minorities. Stress is associated with certain mental illnesses, including eating disorders, substance use/abuse, depression, and anxiety. Stress also makes it harder to cope with life’s everyday events.

So what about these studies?

Study #1 looked at disordered eating patterns in young women and compared that eating between gay, bisexual, and straight men and women. The researchers didn’t look at diagnoses or treatments of eating disorders directly. Instead, they screened patients in a primary care clinic for eating patterns and thoughts about eating that are associated with eating disorders. The researchers found that gay and bisexual men were at higher risk for disordered eating than heterosexual men. Among women, bisexual women were at higher risk for disordered eating than both lesbian and straight women.

Study #2 looked at both mental and physical health in LGB and heterosexual people seeking treatment for substance use. They found that gay and bisexual men and women were more likely to have a psychiatric diagnosis (in addition to substance use) than their heterosexual peers. Gay and bisexual men and women were also more likely to have psychiatric prescription medications. Gay/bisexual men and bisexual women, but not lesbian women, were more likely to be receiving psychotherapy and were more likely to have physical health problems and to be using health care services. Anywhere from 1/2 to 3/4 of LGB people seeking substance abuse treatment have had other psychiatric diagnoses, indicating that there is a potential need for additional care beyond substance abuse treatment in LGB people.

Study #3 examined the effects of domestic violence in same sex and opposite sex couples. The researchers found that domestic violence in same sex couples resulted in more symptoms of depression and physical violence than in opposite sex couples.

What does all this mean, and how do we think about this?

First, these studies add to the research that shows that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are at higher risk for mental health difficulties than their heterosexual peers. However, they add an interesting wrinkle. Gay and bisexual men and bisexual women may be at higher risk than lesbian women. We’ll have to wait for more studies to come out to see if this is a true difference, or just a random quirk of the data. But it’s an interesting thought.

And secondly, that people in same-sex relationships may fare worse when domestic violence happens than people in opposite-sex relationships. This is likely because of the lack of resources and public awareness around domestic violence than anything to do with the relationship itself.

What do you think about these studies?

Sep 072015

In its August 27th issue, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a paper reviewing primary health care needs of men who have sex with men. NEJM is one of the most prestigious American medical journals. It was home to the first paper detailing HIV infection in gay men. It’s one of the two major medical journals that my class has been urged to read weekly — part of our professional development as medical students.

What kinds of things does this review article recommend? And was it complete? Let’s take a look…

First is the recommendation to discuss a comprehensive and open sexual history. This should not stop at the classic “Are you sexually active?” question, but ask how the patient self identifies (gay, bisexual, etc), the kinds of sexual activity, the forms of protection used and the consistency with which they are used. Why? Because of HIV. Other sexually transmitted infections are a concern as well, but the big fear is HIV. Of all new infections in the United States each year, just under 2/3 are among men who have sex with men.

Other infections to be wary of include gonorrhea and chlamydia, Hepatitis A/B/C, and HPV. There has also been a rise in meningitis infections among gay men, caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. Of these infections, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, HPV, and meningitis all have vaccines. Where possible, men who have sex with men should be vaccinated against these diseases. HIV and hepatitis C have no vaccine. To prevent them, barriers such as condoms and gloves can be used in sexual encounters and screening tests should be performed. Pre-exposure prophylaxis and antiretroviral therapy for HIV+ individuals can also be helpful for preventing HIV spread, but cannot and should not replace barriers.

Thankfully, this article was not all about the sex lives of men who have sex with men. Too often the lives of gay and bisexual men are distilled down to just their sex lives, particularly because of HIV. The author points out that men who have sex with men should be screened for substance use, depression and anxiety. However, they stop there. While asking about tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs is very important, there are other important aspects of the lives of gay and bisexual men that should be addressed. In particular, I would ask about…

  • Social support and living situation, particularly among young gay/bi men and older gay/bi men. Young men are at higher risk for being homeless because of family discrimination. Bullying also happens frequently among young gay/bi men. Older men may have lost their support group during the 1980s-1990s and may be facing the challenge of growing old alone. LGBT elders may face the prospect of going “back into the closet” to receive nursing home care.
  • Domestic violence. Same-sex domestic violence is under reported and specific resources are scarce.
  • History of assault or violence. Violence against men perceived to be gay/bi can have lifelong health consequences, including post traumatic stress disorder.
  • Attempts to self harm or suicide. These must never be ignored, no matter who one is talking to.
  • Diet and exercise. Eating disorders are known to occur in gay/bi men. Diet may be poor and exercise may be too low or too high, depending on the individual and his situation.

Yes, screening for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is important. And this article did bring some specific health issues to a large audience. However it’s important not to distill men who have sex with men down to a cluster of diseases. Let this article be a spark for discussion, and not the be-all and end-all of primary care for men who have sex with men.

What do you think? Did I miss anything important in the things I would add?

A preview of the paper is publicly available.