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September 17, 2015

Acceptance Journeys: GSPH researcher works to counter stigma experienced by LGBT people

Pitt research specialist Sarah Krier, who is directing the Acceptance Journeys program, in front of part of the program’s exhibit at the Carnegie Library’s main branch. Featured in the photo are Faith, Michael and Michelle Massie.

Pitt research specialist Sarah Krier, who is directing the Acceptance Journeys program, in front of part of the program’s exhibit at the Carnegie Library’s main branch. Featured in the photo are Faith, Michael and Michelle Massie.

Sarah Krier is aiming to counter the negative health effects of stigma against LGBT people by promoting their acceptance in the larger community.

As a research specialist with the HIV prevention and care project in the Graduate School of Public Health’s Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, Krier is directing the Acceptance Journeys program.

The Pitt program is the first duplication of an effort piloted in Milwaukee, and hopes to normalize LGBT people in the eyes of the public by highlighting stories from their parents, siblings, friends and teachers that illustrate the love  uniting them.

The campaign has been rolling out here since the end of 2014: surveying gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people and other community members and leaders about the state of prejudice in Pittsburgh; putting photographs of LGBT people and messages about their families’ love for them on billboards and bus shelters and in an exhibit at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s main Oakland branch; and bringing the program’s message of acceptance to community groups throughout the city.

“We really wanted to promote the positive in our message,” says Krier, “and encourage families to stand up for LGBT loved ones.

“We’re trying to inspire conversation,” she adds.

Michelle Massie, who is featured prominently in Acceptance Journeys photos with her brother Michael, who is gay, and their mother Faith, says people may voice their positive opinions about LGBT people among themselves or on social media, but “a lot of people are afraid to speak out on what they believe in. If you want to get a point across, you have to be visible, you have to put action behind your words. I think the most visible thing we could have done was put our pictures all over Pittsburgh.

“The other important thing is to support my brother,” she adds. “I can tell him all day that I love him,” but a larger, more public gesture has even more impact, she says. “By seeing a picture of a family that’s loving and just looks like everybody else, we are beginning to affect those perceptions. Not only does it have a large political and social impact but it has a personal, familial impact.”

Their family photo — in this case, taken on a lookout on Mt. Washington — looks like anyone else’s family photo, except they’re acknowledging that a family member is gay.

Michele Massie is particularly pleased about the billboards: “They’re seeing it in communities where it is often not talked about,” she says. “I had people who are contacting me, reaching out to my brother, seeing my mother at the bus stop.”

“Then I’ll tell them what it’s about,” says Faith Massie. Given such an opening for a more personal conversation about families accepting their LGBT members, she hopes “a lot more people will be more accepting of lesbians, gays, transgender people — just everyone, instead of looking at their sexual preference.”

Says Michael Massie: “The campaign has definitely gotten attention” — even from one member of his immediate family who had not previously been able to address his status. He noticed that this family member posted the Acceptance Journeys photo to Facebook.

“Having grown up in Pittsburgh, it was a very provincial city and wasn’t exactly gay friendly, or at least wasn’t seen that way,” he notes. Although he now lives and works in Philadelphia, he returns here often. “It’s still my hometown; I love it,” he says. And, he adds, “I thought it was important to show a person of color.”


Indeed, recent studies, along with the surveys done in preparation for Acceptance Journeys, show that prejudice or ignorance are highest, and most damaging, when it comes to young LGBT people, especially African Americans.

Acceptance Journeys was begun in Milwaukee due to a troubling increase in new HIV infections among young black LGBT people a decade ago. A study of this outbreak by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that several related social factors were at its root, including stigma and discrimination that led to black men becoming infected at younger ages and reduced the likelihood of them seeking testing and then medical care.

A 2014 study featured in LGBT Health, co-authored by Krier and lead author M. Reuel Friedman of public health, found that “stereotypes and stigma may lead to dramatic disparities in depression, anxiety, stress and other health outcomes among bisexual individuals in comparison to their heterosexual and homosexual counterparts.”

The Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (which includes the Pitt Men’s Study) has charted the same trend for all LGBT groups in Pittsburgh compared to heterosexuals. The study found that stigma increases the risk among young LGBT males, especially black males, for drug and alcohol use, victimization by violence, and the development of stress and other health conditions.

“Interventions focusing on health care settings that support the development of greater awareness of stigma and mistrust are urgently needed,” the study concluded.

“Failure to address psychosocial deterrents will stymie progress in biomedical prevention and cripple the ability to implement effective prevention and treatment strategies.”

That’s why Krier and colleagues first began looking to implement Acceptance Journeys by talking to LGBT youth at Project Silk, a recreational health space downtown. Silk participants reported that “Pittsburgh has a vague awareness that LGBT discrimination is a problem,” Krier says — only three out of 10 people in the general Pittsburgh population were aware of the issue, their survey found.

“It’s encouraging families to stand up for LGBT loved ones,” Krier says of Acceptance Journeys. “We continue to collect stories. It’s a big thing to stand up.”

The billboard messages have been duplicated on cards, along with lengthier stories from those pictured. Krier and other Pitt faculty and students involved with Acceptance Journeys will be distributing those cards at community centers.

Says Krier: “Our dream is to incorporate these photo cards in diversity training at various social service agencies that might be in contact with people [such as] a client who might be struggling with a child who is gay.”

The program also will resurvey those to whom they spoke originally, to assess the impact of the campaign, and will hold community group discussions through October.

“The photos I think make a difference,” she concludes. “We’re trying to create: ‘These are people you know. This is your community.’ Hopefully people can see themselves in these stories.”

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 2

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