by Alex Iantaffi, Guest Blogger
Reporting on The 8th National LGBT Health Equity Summit (Kansas City, MO)
After a day of talks and networking, this queer was definitely ready to party when the Summit ended on August 14th! I was excited to be invited to attend “Beyond Fabulous”, an event organized by rescueSCG+ especially for Summit participants. The fact that it was labelled “The LGBT Anti-Tobacco Event Experience” only increased my enthusiasm for this event. Although I am mainly a sexual health and HIV prevention researcher, I am passionate about tobacco prevention and cessation. I was brought up by a heavy smoker who eventually died of lung cancer, and both my mother and I suffer from asthma. When I came out (a few times, in three countries), it broke my heart to see how deeply my communities had been targeted and affected by the tobacco industry. I witness the daily struggles that too many LGBT people close to my heart face when trying to quit smoking. The LGBT Anti-Tobacco Event Experience could only be beyond fabulous, as far as I was concerned.
I am sad to report that instead I ended up feeling invisible, unwelcome, and quite stressed at the end of the event. Despite the best of intentions, the images, and the language used by MC and performer/special guest alike did not reflect the existence of B or T in our communities, in my opinion. The lack of visible, accessible, all-genders restroom in an unfamiliar venue only added to this sense of alienation. After a day of feeling energized, included, and visible, it was challenging to face the shadow sides of our community once again. I thought long and hard whether to blog about this, as I didn’t want to be negative about a generously sponsored event for the Summit. In the end I decided I needed to.
For me, it was just a couple of hours of annoyance, disappointment, and temporary stress. I am 41 years old and I have trodden a long road towards embracing just how fabulous I am. However, on entering the venue, we were invited to imagine being a 21+ LGBT young person. If I had been that person, I believe the event would have had a deeper impact on me. I imagined feeling alone, and possibly scared, in a place that should have been a safer place. I imagined how badly I might have wanted a cigarette, a drink, or anything else that could have possibly helped to ease the pain of invisibility among “my own people”. I asked myself whether it would have made a difference if I had been an L/G, rather than a B/T person in our rainbow. Then I remembered the perfectly toned and partially nude bodies in the room, and on the screen. Bodies that did not look like me, not even at 21, or like many people I know. I thought of the eating disorders that are so sadly common among young gay/bi men. I thought of the body image issues that are so rife in our communities. What is the impact of celebrating those same bodies that the overculture tells us are beautiful? Not smoking is indeed sexy. I could not agree with the message more. But could sexy be also larger, darker skinned, gender non-conforming, (dis)abled, bi/queer/fluid, trans*?
I know that The LGBT Network for Health Equity is committed and devoted to our communities, to our health and to our right to thrive in an overculture that does not often give us space to be our fabulous selves. I have seen that commitment and devotion throughout the day at the Summit. I hope that next year there can be a truly fabulous event, where we can bring our whole selves to celebrate our whole movement.
One thought on “Just too fabulous for Beyond Fabulous?”
Thank you Alex for sharing your concerns about the event. Your points are valid, there wasn’t a strong B/T focus at the event, nor were there unisex bathrooms. Being part of the planning team for this event, I can tell you we had some challenges working with an unfamiliar venue in an unfamiliar city, but we were happy overall with what we were able to achieve.
While I completely agree that there needs to be something for everyone in tobacco prevention, I am personally not convinced that trying to create a single effort that encompasses everyone is the way to go. While my experience working with the Trans community is limited, I can draw on just my experiences from the Gay and Lesbian communities to illustrate this point. When working on our campaigns, we have found very few images that appeal to both groups. In fact, when we have tried to make something “generically LGBT,” it is actually uninteresting to both groups. Instead we have found ourselves teeter-tottering between Gays and Lesbians with everything, whether it is events, print ads, or entertainers to include in our message. For example, we have found that making 2 generically LGBT ads will achieve much less reach, response and impact than if we made one of those ads specific to Gay men, and one specific to Lesbians. This is a lesson, though, that commercial marketing has already taught us. The more specific your market segment, the more effective your message can be.
The straight community already thinks that everyone in the LGBT community is the same and can be reached with the same message. We should show them that this is not true. There are very distinct groups in our community, each with unique needs. And the same goes for tobacco prevention.
Next time, I think we should look for strategies that have worked with the B/T audiences and demonstrate those as well. But I don’t think we should discredit one approach because it only works with a portion of our community. It is more likely that eliminating LGBT tobacco use will take multiple strategies than a single, silver bullet strategy. I agree with you that we should try to demonstrate more of those next year, but at the same time, I am proud that the approach demonstrated at Beyond Fabulous has had documented success with a portion of our community and think everyone working in LGBT tobacco control should get a chance to see it.
In response to your concern about the images on the materials and the use of models, it is a concern that our clients have also expressed in the past. I wish you would of had a chance to attend one of my workshops at the summit, because we presented data on why those kinds of images were necessary. In summary, though, our research with LGBT people ages 18 – 30 in four different states showed that when sexual images were used in advertising, both commercial and public health advertising, LGBT people were more likely to look at the ad and rate it positively. The “sexiness factor” seemed to contribute to all types of messages. In terms of messages, we found that those connecting tobacco-free lifestyles to an authentically LGBT experience were the strongest message. Then, when we combined sexy imagery with an authentically LGBT experience message, the responses went through the roof. In the dozens of focus groups we have done, we have not had comments from smokers stating that the images made them feel bad about themselves or deterred them from looking at the ads. In fact, when asked specifically about it, some community members point to a celebration of sexuality as being part of what it meant for them to be LGBT, and how they saw themselves different from the straight community. Because of this research, we use these images in a responsible way, paired with authentic LGBT messages to achieve maximum impact with our strategies.
I will be the first to admit that Beyond Fabulous demonstrated a strategy that is not designed to reach every person in our community. But we know it reaches some large portions effectively. And many of those who attended the event expressed their interest in learning more about the strategy to use it in their own community. Let’s celebrate what we have found that works, and find innovations to address the holes that remain in our toolbox of strategies.
Thanks again for presenting your views and experience.