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Study: Many Gay Men Not Out to Their Doctors

By L.K. Regan

Here's a number the gay community shouldn't be happy about: A whopping 39 percent of gay men surveyed in New York City by the CDC in 2004 and 2005 had not disclosed their sexual orientation to their physicians, the New York Times reports. This information was the result of a study conducted by the city's Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The study surveyed 452 gay men interviewed in clubs and bars. The men were tested for HIV and offered medical and mental health services as needed.

The 39 percent of men who chose not to disclose their sexual orientation was actually an average—but there was a high degree of variance within that number. African-American men were the least likely to report their same-sex histories to doctors, with only 40 percent choosing to do so. Asian and Latino men were roughly evenly split, with 53 and 52 percent respectively reporting having discussed their sexual status with their doctors. White men were the most likely to bring up the topic, with 81 percent reporting a candid relationship with their physicians.

Dr. Monica Sweeney, the assistant health commissioner for HIV prevention and control, associated these variations with remaining stigmas against homosexuality in minority communities. "There is a frequent phenomenon in the black community in which a man who is gay, by the conventional ways that we all know to identify somebody as gay, identifies himself as bisexual," Dr. Sweeney said. And, the study found, none of the men who identified as bisexual reported their same-sex activities to their physicians.

The study found further correlations along lines of age and nationality. Men over the age of 28 were 17 percent more likely to have an open relationship about their sexual preference and history with their physicians. A greater degree of education and having been born in the US were also found to be predictors of being out to one's doctor.

The study's other major finding concerned the consequences of these choices. Men who disclosed their sexual activity with other men were twice as likely to be tested for HIV as their more secretive counterparts. This has major implications from a public health perspective, since encouraging men to talk more to their doctors could lead to more comprehensive HIV testing, and to more men practicing safer sex.

How to encourage men to open up to their doctors? Aside from telling men that they should not be afraid to be honest with their medical providers, Dr. Sweeney thinks much of the responsibility rests with doctors themselves. "When the doctor initiates the subject, no matter how sensitive, most people talk about these things," she said. "They're reluctant to initiate, but once you bring up highly emotional issues, patients will talk about it if you're not judgmental."

If you don't feel comfortable talking to your doctor about your sex life, you need to find a new doctor. To find a GLBT doctor, ask your gay friends for a referral or visit the GLMA (Gay & Lesbian Medical Association) web site; there you can also find a list of 10 Things Gay Men Should Discuss with their Health Care Provider to get the conversation started.