Despite living in a culture that is saturated with sexually-explicit video games, pop music, advertising, and more, there is a paucity of honest dialogue about sex. Enter Schweitzer Fellows Alexander Martos and Jeffrey Williams. The University of California School of Public Health students are working with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center to implement a sexual health program geared toward gay and bisexual men. Given that gay and bisexual men are at least 44 times more likely than the general population to become HIV positive, the need for honest talk about sex isn’t just a matter of emotional and spiritual health, but it’s one of physical health as well. Beyond Boulders spoke with Martos about the project.
ASF: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
AM: Jeffrey and I both had an interest in serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community throughout the course of our Master’s in Public Health (MPH) program. We both had several years of experience working for community organizations and were bursting with ideas, so when the Schweitzer program came about it was an obvious fit. We reached out the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center through some prior contacts, and it was not long before we settled on a sex-positive, sexual education curriculum for gay and bisexual men. As our site mentor put it, the scarcity of sexual education in schools makes conversations about sex, sexual health, and sexual expression a challenge for anyone. However, what is available is often not applicable to those engaging in same-sex sexual behavior, and these same individuals generally do not feel comfortable asking questions about sex to others. Focusing on gay and bisexual men in particular occurred after recognizing two points: a) there were some resources available at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center for lesbian and bisexual women interested in educating themselves on and dialoguing about sex, and b) as two men, my project partner and I did not believe we could speak to the sexual experiences of lesbian and bisexual women. In other words, our project has room to grow for anyone interested in contributing in the future!
ASF: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
AM: Our lofty, ambitious vision of the future is one where members of the sexual minority community are not ashamed of their sexuality. Seeking information that makes sex less of a mystery, asking sexual health-related questions of doctors, teachers, parents, and mentors, and the validation of emotional and physical relationships with members of the same sex should come just as easily to those under the sexual minority umbrella than to anyone else. Our curriculum alone cannot possibly be the solution, but it is a step toward that future.
ASF: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
AM: I truly believe that discrimination can be linked to the majority of our most pressing health-related issues, be it suicide, poverty, sexually-transmitted infections and diseases, or any number of other public health concerns. Health today is tied very closely to social contexts and experiences. By addressing discrimination, we stunt major pathways to each of these outcomes and likely to many more we have yet to realize.
ASF: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
AM: How far it has pushed my own comfort levels. Creating a sex-positive sexual education program was challenging enough. But to deliver that curriculum, and to recognize the times when I was uncomfortable talking about certain elements of that curriculum in front of a group of strangers, taught me a lot about myself. Many of my own biases have been deeply ingrained, and confronting those for the good of those attending our workshops was very difficult.
ASF: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?
AM: It means that I will always have access to a network creating change on the ground. The trajectory of my own career has yet to be finalized, but one thing I am certain of is that I never want to give up having a direct link to the communities I represent. I want nothing more than to work with those communities toward a better future. The fact that there are so many Fellows, and Fellows for Life, throughout the country creating change means that I will always have a place to look for innovative ideas. I cannot wait to see what the future cohorts of Fellows come up with, and I am excited to interact with the Fellows for Life and learn from their many, many achievements.
Click here to learn more about the Los Angeles Schweitzer Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.