New projects target HIV couples testing, lesbian ‘stud’ health The GA Voice Editors April 1, 2011 Today in Gay Atlanta MORE INFORMATION: Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiativewww.thehealthinitiative.org404-688-2524 “She presses me all the time to go. I can’t get anyone to identify with me. When they [doctors] see me, they’re like, ‘Hmm,’” Wells said. “And they’re looking at your most intimate parts.” A trip to a gynecologist is recommended annually for women to test for cervical cancer and breast cancer, as well as other female health-related issues. But it can be uncomfortable for studs, butches or masculine-identified women. To try to find ways to make going to a gynecologist easier for studs, the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative is starting a Stud Health Project to reach out to African-American lesbians. At a March 26 event at the Rush Center, a small group of black lesbians sat at tables and recounted their experiences in open and frank discussions. Partnering with ALHI are the Vision Church, AGenda Benda Justice, the Center for Black Women’s Wellness and the national lesbian fraternity for studs, Sigma Omega Phi. State Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta) also works as a health consultant and facilitated the meeting on March 26, sharing her own fears of going to the gynecologist. But health has to be a top priority, she noted. Focus groups are planned in the future to discuss such things as what can be included on a doctor’s questionnaire, such as do butch women prefer “chest health” rather than “breast exam,” Bell said. “People need to understand we need a safe space to go,” said Cole Thomas, who identifies as butch and is founder of AGenda Benda Justice. “Everyone needs a safe space to go. My thing is, ‘What can I do.’ It’s not easy. The word has to get out.” Thomas said one way she is able to handle the ordeal of visiting a gynecologist is to have her femme partner with her. Other couples at the March 26 meeting agreed going to the doctor together eased tension. The Stud Health Project will focus on specific breast and cervical health outreach and education. An Emory University researcher is working on the project this spring by developing focus groups to discern what health-related messages will draw responses from masculine-identified women and their femme partners, according to Linda Ellis, executive director of ALHI. Gay couples needed for HIV prevention research Another gay health study is underway titled “Men Testing Together,” conducted by the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. The study seeks gay men who have been in a relationship for at least three months to undergo HIV testing together. “The whole concept of testing together was developed in Africa 20 years ago. The HIV epidemic in Africa is similar to the MSM [men who have sex with men] epidemic in the U.S. — the main risk [of contracting HIV] is from your main partner,” said Robert Stephenson, who heads up the Atlanta study. The African study showed that by heterosexual couples testing together, HIV risks were lowered from 25 percent to 7 percent, he said. The local study has enrolled couples for the past nine months and looks to test 100 couples total for the study. The goal is to find out if couples testing together leads to behavioral changes that reduce risks of contracting HIV, Stephenson said. Tackling assumptions is also part of the research, he said. For example, a person may assume his partner is negative. But being tested together and discussing intimate issues with a trained counselor can erase assumptions. Stephenson and other colleagues from the Rollins School of Public Health, as well as researchers from Chicago and Seattle, published “Attitudes Towards Couples-Based HIV Testing Among MSM in Three U.S. Cities,” in the journal “AIDS & Behavior” in February. According to the published article, there were 39 participants in the study consisting of four focus groups. The current study in Atlanta wants to expand on what was learned in earlier research. “[Couples testing together] provides an opportunity for MSM to talk about sex, and to make plans for safer sexual behavior as a couple in the presence of a counselor; participants reported that these are highly desirable characteristics,” states the article. Being tested for HIV is “nerve-wracking,” said Stephenson, who is gay. “How awesome would it be if you have the person who cared for you the most be there with you with a trained counselor?” he said. Stephenson said the study is not about forcing couples to disclose past sexual experiences in a “gay confessional” manner. “We don’t talk about recent risk. This is a very different model of counseling where the status of the relationship is discussed and we talk about agreements — this study is very forward thinking,” he said. “This way we double prevention messaging. To me it makes perfect sense.” AID Atlanta is one of the study’s HIV testing sites for couples. “This is such an intriguing study,” said Lamont Scales, prevention programs manager at AID Atlanta. “Couples seem to be very receptive.” For more information on the project, call Jasper Barnes at 404-849-5534 or email him at Jasper.L.Barnes@emory.edu. Top photo: Tynesha Wells (left) and Cole Thomas attended the first of many focus groups as part of the Stud Health Project that is being organized by the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative. 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