Earlier this year gay men and lesbians were granted the right (in the UK) to marry. This was the last major piece in a broad legislative jigsaw, which started with partial decriminalisation in 1967, gained velocity under the 1997 Labour Government, who equalised the age of consent and repealed Section 28, with the finishing touches being added by the current coalition government, with the support of all major party leaders.
These rights were not easily won. It took the determination and courage of thousands of men and women who marched for equal rights, wrote to their MPs or simply came out to their friends, colleagues and families. It took the activists of Outrage and the lobbyists of Stonewall, who played off each other to ensure that our demand for rights could not be ignored or dismissed. Anything less than full equality was not good enough. It still isn’t.
So, what now? Is it ‘job done’ and time to go home? Sadly, no. The LGB&T communities remain far from equal. Gay men, lesbians, bisexual and trans people are suffering and dying needlessly. Until we have equality in health, we are not equal.
Just a few examples: Gay men are twice as likely to be dependent on alcohol than heterosexual men. We are twice as likely to suffer from depression or anxiety with particularly high rates of suicidal ideation among young gay men. We are more likely to smoke and so we are more likely to suffer from cancers and heart disease. Does this make you angry? It should. The number of gay men who die from smoking related illnesses alone, well over 10,000 each year, dwarfs the number of gay men who die as a result of HIV.
And these fundamental health inequalities are inter-related. Poor mental health can lead to increased use of drugs and alcohol which increase the likelihood of sexual risk-taking, leading to poor sexual health. Men living with HIV, the most highly stigmatised disease of the modern era, are more likely to suffer from depression and so the cycle starts over again.
I won’t claim that all of these health inequalities are the result of homophobia; life is more complicated than that – and so are we all. But as gay men we grow up in a society where many will not consider us equal, where many are rejected by their family or by their church. Politicians and religious leaders speak out against equality, the media debates whether we should be allowed to celebrate our love in the same way as heterosexuals and people claim that they’re oppressed because they’re not allowed to discriminate against us (well boo-hoo!). Does this help us become confident people who value our own lives? It does not.
Acknowledging the health inequalities we face serves as a reminder that those bigoted attitudes contribute massively to this inequality, where high numbers of men of all ages feel unable to be open about their sexuality or are made to feel ashamed or diseased for being gay.
I believe that some things are getting better. Attitudes are changing, alongside the equalities legislation. But the battle is far from won. The changes that we see are still largely centred in particular metropolitan areas, where gay communities have been built and can flourish. But these pockets of acceptance are also home to men who have come from less tolerant areas or countries and who carry those burdens with them.
I’ve always believed that GMFA is, at heart, an equality organisation. We were founded in 1992 by a bunch of gay men who saw that the HIV prevention campaigns of the time did not address the particular challenges that gay men face. We created campaigns that were by gay men, for gay men, using the same language when we talked about sex that gay men used with each other. In that, we were fighting for our health to be taken as seriously as the health of heterosexuals. That remains our mission now.
As a community we have fought for marriage equality. We have fought for an equal age of consent. We have fought for the right to serve in the armed forces. We have won these battles but until we have health equality, our fight is not over.
About the author: Matthew is the Chief Executive of GMFA. This article is Matthew’s own opinion and not necessarily the view of GMFA as an organization.
This article was taken from FS magazine issue 143. To read the DIGITAL VERSION click here.