Pride in Progress: LGBTQ+ History Month Reflections

October 17th, 2023 | Viewpoint


With the summer months officially behind us and a new season on the horizon, October marks an important time to celebrate the work we have done and looks ahead to what comes next. How appropriate, then, that October also marks LGBTQ+ History Month—a time to celebrate our role models, uplift and build community, and recognize the immense contributions of the LGBTQ+ community throughout history.

Started in 1994 by Rodney Wilson, a high school history teacher from the U.S. state of Missouri,  LGBTQ+ History Month is now celebrated around the world. Sometimes it is honored under alternative names like ‘Queer History Month’ and occasionally during different months–but always with plenty to celebrate.

Not long ago, LGBTQ+ identities were often kept hidden, medicalized, and, in some cases, criminalized. While progress in these areas is still needed in many places in the U.S. and around the world, there have been immense advancements in celebrating and recognizing these identities as vital components of our society and our work. The gay liberation movement, which came to prominence in the late 1960s across the western world, paved a path forward that continues to strive for recognition, inclusion, and acceptance of those with LGBTQ+ identities.

We’ve witnessed significant strides in achieving these goals, particularly in public health and other sectors. LGBTQ+ folks now not only have a seat at the table, but also find themselves in influential positions where they can make meaningful change. For example, Admiral Rachel Levine, who serves as the Assistant Secretary for Health in the United States Department of Health and Human Service (HHS), is the first openly transgender person to serve in this role and at this level of leadership in the United States. Admiral Levine, nominated by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2021, advocates boldly for LGBTQ+ inclusivity in all of HHS’s programs and policies.  Likewise, there are other high-ranking individuals in the public health and policy sectors who are making a significant impact. Harold Phillips, an openly gay man and person living with HIV, is the Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. He works to ensure that the national HIV/AIDS response prioritizes the communities most impacted, including BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, Acting Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, also an openly gay man, has been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ health through his work.

LGBTQ+ heroes are making significant contributions in the public health world across organizations and governments, large and small, and right here at JSI there are trailblazers who have left an indelible mark. In June, Andrew Fullem, our former Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer, wrote a piece reflecting on LGBTQ+ rights, acceptance, and safety around the world as well as on his time leading the HIV Center at JSI. Other prominent LGBTQ+ leaders at our organization have contributed to projects both large and small that have had lasting impacts on the lives of the LGBTQ+ people they have served.

JSI itself has a rich LGBTQ+ history, thanks to the dedication of countless team members, both past and present. Our work related to LGBTQ+ health and education has continuously set standards for our efforts across all content and technical areas. Nearly 30 years ago, our journey began with a small-scale needs assessment conducted in partnership with an LGBTQ+ health center to better understand the primary care needs of LGBTQ+ patients. Since then, JSI has made progress in supporting LGBTQ+ health initiatives and working to improve health outcomes for all people, no matter how they identify.

Our commitment to this work has remained steadfast across various technical areas, including HIV and Infectious Disease, Behavioral Health, Healthy Communities, and more. Through projects related to LGBTQ+ youth and substance use, STD/HIV social marketing campaigns, and technical assistance for provision of HIV care, our staff have worked with partners to advance understanding of LGBTQ+ health care experiences and provide training and technical assistance to improve care delivery systems for LGBTQ+ folks. Through our work in HIV and infectious disease prevention, as well as in health communication and education, there is a deep history of working both for and with LGBTQ+ partners and allies to ensure that better health outcomes for all really means for all.

When asked to reflect on the significance of LGBTQ+ History Month, JSI staff expressed a shared sentiment: we must recognize that LGBTQ+ folks have always been a vital part of our society and have always done the critically important work of advocating for LGBTQ+ folks in public health policy and programming. As one staff member said, “We’ve seen the negative impacts that come about when we don’t recognize and celebrate our history—health disparities, discrimination, hate crimes– so it is important to take time to realize that we’ve always been here and always will be here, moving the needle forward in improving the lives of LGBTQ+ people.”

Today, there is heightened importance in recognizing the histories and advancements of LGBTQ+ people in our current landscape of book-bans, a surge in anti-LGBTQ+ bills, and, particularly relevant to our work, attempts at eliminating health care access for folks within the LGBTQ+ community. We must stand together to uplift the voices of those who advocate for LGBTQ+ people in health care both in the United States and across the globe. Within JSI, we have a dedicated group of JSI employees actively engaged in this work and continuously exploring new opportunities to improve access to culturally competent care for this diverse and intersectional community. Our LGBTQ+ Working Group also provides year-round education and programming to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community and foster an enduring culture of acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks in our areas of work.

As October comes to a close, we hope you have taken some time to learn more about LGBTQ+ history, celebrate the many achievements made so far, and look forward to the work that lies ahead. Happy LGBTQ+ History Month from all of us here at JSI!

By Connor Griffiths, JSI Project Associate

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