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Compared to heterosexuals, individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) are more likely to develop chronic health problems. LGBTQ seniors have an earlier onset of disabilities. Gay men have higher cancer rates, and lesbian women have higher obesity rates compared to other women. Those who identify as LGBTQ also are two-and-a-half times more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

What causes these painful, troubling disparities? No one really knows, mostly because of a lack of available data. “Public health surveillance systems have not been designed to report disease incidence in LGBTQ populations,” says Max Michael, M.D., UAB School of Public Health professor and former dean. “And there hasn’t been much of an organized focus in research to help us find answers.”

That could soon change. Michael has teamed up with fellow UAB faculty, staff, researchers, LGBTQ community members, and their allies to rally support for an endowed chair for LGBTQ health studies in the School of Public Health—to be held by a leader who will champion research, education, and service in the field.

Meeting of the Minds

Cameron Vowell, Ph.D., known in Birmingham for her work advocating for women, the elderly, and environmental protection, has pledged $1 million to the effort. Now the goal is to raise another $500,000.

Some UAB faculty already conduct LGBTQ-related research, but “their work is under the radar,” explains Vowell, who taught environmental health sciences courses at the School of Public Health in the 1980s. “I hope to give a focus to their work, to form a gathering place for it. I hope to find a professor who will bring all those minds together in a way that will address the complex issues that affect this vulnerable population.”

LGBTQ individuals are especially vulnerable in the deep South, notes Charles Collins, another member of the team who is a School of Public Health alumnus and a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to lower health indicators overall, “in Alabama, dialogue around LGBTQ issues is not as open and as transparent as in other parts of the country, so people may be more subjected to the effects of stigma,” Collins explains. These needs combined with UAB’s expertise makes Birmingham “the perfect place for this project to take off,” he adds.

Community Connections

Architect and activist Bob Burns, who has supported LGBTQ-focused research and care for decades, remembers the devastation that took hold of Birmingham more than 30 years ago with the AIDS epidemic. It’s important to make sure nothing like that happens again, he says. Fighting AIDS “took a lot of bright people trying to do the right thing for a long period of time. It captured all of our attention. We haven’t had the chance to look at other pressing concerns.”

At the same time, people and organizations throughout the region are “doing remarkable work” to get people the care they need, Burns adds. “Birmingham is tough. We’ve been providing services in difficult places for a long time.” That history and progress will be an asset for the expert who holds a future endowed chair, he says.

The Birmingham community will play a role in choosing that expert. That is one of the stipulations Vowell included with her gift—something for which Karen Musgrove, M.Ed., executive director of Birmingham AIDS Outreach (BAO), is grateful.

Joining forces with the School of Public Health for the LGBTQ health studies initiative is “a perfect fit,” says Musgrove, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in health education and health promotion at the school. BAO is home to Alabama’s only LGBTQ medical facility. The organization provides support for LGBTQ youth and serves more than 300 transgender individuals with hormone replacement therapy and other health needs.

Transgender needs are especially understudied, Musgrove notes. “We don’t have a full grasp of how many transgender individuals are in our community and what their needs are.”

She echoes the cry that health disparities in the LGBTQ community—particularly in Birmingham—are vast. “One reason is that members of the community are afraid of their doctors and afraid of judgment,” Musgrove explains. The new endowed chair could make a major difference, not only in researching gaps in health, but also in bridging gaps in acceptance and understanding, she says. Showing the next generation of care providers “how to work with the LGBTQ community, how to talk with them, and how to be affirming is a great place to start.”

Learn more about giving to the LGBTQ Health Studies Endowed Fund: Mona McCarty, director of development: (205) 934-7799, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

UAB is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irrespective of race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities and veterans.
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