New Rutgers School of Public Health dean sets out to remove social inequities

June 19, 2017 | Education
At the Rutgers School of Public Health, Perry Halkitis hopes to improve public health in the LGBTQ community.

The gay men’s health crisis is sill with us. HIV/AIDS are now treatable, but not yet curable. One of the pre-eminent AIDS/HIV researchers into the disease and advocate for those it has infected is the incoming Dean of Rutgers School of Public Health, Dr. Perry Halkitis. He joins Correspondent Brenda Flanagan.

Flanagan: Your identity is a big part of your mission of your job here. You call yourself the first openly gay dean of a major college and this is going to be how you approach your job, isn’t it? Tell me what’s your mission?

Halkitis: My identity is part of who I am, and part of who I am is how I help to direct the school. For a very long time schools of public health have been concerned with social inequities and how marginalized groups experience health disparities at extremely high rates, be it gay people, be it African Americans, be it immigrants. So the way I approach my work in public health, and the ethos that I hope to bring to the School of Public Health at Rutgers is one that realizes that discrimination and that bigotry and that social inequities drive health conditions. And we have to keep that in our hearts and in our minds as we do effective work to eradicate the public health problems here in New Jersey, in the United States and across the world.

Flanagan:  How big of a deal is it that someone who essentially is out there with their identity in front in terms of having a position of this magnitude. Is this rare?

Halkitis: It’s critically important. I think women for decades have attempted to rise up in higher education. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups have attempted for decades to rise up in higher education. We still have a long way to go in both those regards.

Flanagan: Is there a glass ceiling?

Halkitis: There is a glass ceiling and there is a glass ceiling for LGBTQ people. It’s one thing to be a gay man and to hide your identity, but I am an openly proud gay man. I am a model for my students, I am a model for my colleagues and so I bring this pride, my pride of my gay identity, my pride of being the child of immigrants to the work that I do.

Flanagan: So your research focused on young, gay and bisexual men as they transitioned into adulthood. What programs or initiatives do you envision bringing to Rutgers that is going to forward this research and provide some results that are going to be beneficial?

Halkitis: Thanks for that question. I think that 35 years into the AIDS epidemic we still define the health of young gay men by HIV alone. HIV is still a problem, there’s no doubt about it. Forty thousand new infections a year in the United States, primarily gay men, primarily young gay men, primarily young gay men of color. So you look at places like Newark and New York City and that’s where the epidemic continues to exist. So, the work that I hope to bring here to New Jersey and to Rutgers is work that understands how the struggles of young people in 2017 differ from the struggles of my generation. When I was 18 years old in 1981, HIV was our primary presenting problem. If I was 18 years old now, HIV would still be a concern for me as a gay man, but finding a job, a place to live, finding work, having a career, those would be much bigger problems. The work that I hope to do, NES health issues, HIV and other health issues for gay men and for other marginalized groups within the larger context that considers the totality of their lives.

Flanagan: You’re looking at legal issues, issues of discrimination.

Halkitis: Absolutely. We know from research that in states that protect the rights of LGBTQ people, their health increases. We know that marriage equality is going to have a beneficial effect on the future generations. This is true for any marginalized group. Anytime we see policies and laws that give protections to that group, the same protections that anybody would expect, health conditions ultimately improve.

Flanagan: Whats your gauge of the status of the group legally now in Jersey? What kind of protections do you see are still needed?

Halkitis: Jersey and the northeast are way ahead of the game compared to other parts of the country. But still there are aggressions that are macro and microaggressions that people experience on a daily basis. If you’re an African-American gay man, you’re experiencing microaggressions because you’re gay and because you’re black and sometimes because of your low income status. There is no perfect situation right now, right? What it requires is an ongoing dialogue to realize that in every aspect of our lives LGBTQ people deserve the same rights as every other human being in this country.

Flanagan: HIV and AIDS though are still a major threat. As you said 40,000 new infections every year, which is just mind boggling. The most at-risk population, talk about that, what you can do and how prevalent is the situation involving this group in Jersey?

Halkitis: It’s highly prevalent in Jersey. Young gay men of color, that’s where most of the disease is lodged right now. So when you think about the AIDS epidemic in the early days, it was sort of spread out along the socioeconomic stratum. What do we see now, we see young, poor, black and Hispanic gay men — sexual minority men — most at risk. So what do we need to do? We need to empower these communities with the tools that they need to protect themselves. We need to bring medications to them. We have effective medications. Somebody who is HIV positive can go on medications, and if they adhere to those medications live a normal life expectancy. In addition, individuals who are HIV negative can take one pill once a day in the form of something called PrEP, Pre-exposure prophylaxis, which prevents them from acquiring HIV. But, think about this: you’re a young, poor man going to the doctor consistently, right? It’s a challenge. Paying the copay is a challenge. All of those structural inequities that make accessing care difficult for people are at play here. We shouldn’t have an epidemic in this country — we can prevent it.

Flanagan: And that’s going to be your mission now come August when you become the Dean of the School of Public Health at Rutgers. We are out of time, this was great. I wish you the best of luck Perry Halkitis.

Halkitis: Thank you so much.