Openly Gay University Dean Seeks to Shatter Perceptions, Improve LGBTQ Health
When Perry N. Halkitis, the incoming dean at Rutgers School of Public Health, is asked to discuss the accomplishments that make him most proud, his research in HIV/AIDS, his mentorship of young scholars and practitioners, and his roles as senior associate dean of New York University’s College of Global Public Health and director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies come to the fore. But equal to those achievements is his identity as an openly gay man in academia and a first-generation college student.
Halkitis, who will join Rutgers in August, is enthusiastic about furthering the research he pursued at NYU, which includes a longitudinal investigation delineating the risk and resiliencies of young gay and bisexual men as they emerge into adulthood; a study examining how young gay men relate to health care as they transition from adolescence to young adulthood; and a study of the health and resilience of HIV-positive men and women over age 50.
Rutgers Today spoke with Halkitis about what it means to be an openly gay leader in higher education, the importance of LGBTQ role models and the state of gay and bisexual men’s health in post-AIDS crisis America.
Discuss the significance of being an openly gay man in higher education leadership.
There is still a glass ceiling for LGBTQ people in higher education. We like to believe that academia is a liberal bastion, but in fact it is not. It has taken women and racial and ethnic minorities decades to achieve some stature in higher education administration. Although gay men have had leadership roles throughout the history of academia, in our country, being an openly gay man who conducts work on gay health-related issues is a very different phenomenon. Few of us have been able to achieve the level in higher education administration that I have been so honored to have with this position at Rutgers.
It is one thing to be an LGBTQ person in higher education administration who exhibits only a sliver of that as your identity and another to have your LGBTQ identity as the cornerstone of your work. My work is defined by LGBTQ public health. So, yes, to have an openly gay man as an administrator is a big deal. We only got to this point in 2017 because of the fight for rights that LGBTQ people have been undertaking for decades. I hope I’m just the beginning of openly proud LGBTQ people in university administrations.
How does your appointment position you as a role model for students?
Like many of the students at Rutgers, I am a first-generation college student. My parents came to the United States from Greece in the 1950s with minimal education. It’s empowering for students with similar family backgrounds to see what I have achieved in one generation. I want to commit myself to those types of students and let them know they can succeed.
During my time at NYU, being an openly gay man made a real difference in the lives of LGBTQ students. They could say they had a role model who is a successful, respected academic who also could talk about his life openly without any shame. I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences, challenges and knowledge with Rutgers students.
What initiatives are you planning at Rutgers?
Since New Jersey experiences health disparities at extremely high rates, I see the school playing a critical role in delivering programming and advocating for these populations. For example, the school has a Newark location that has the opportunity to develop into a great urban public health program.
I’ve been talking to HIV researchers across Rutgers about developing a center on HIV research like the Fenway Institute in Boston, which does policy work, research and health care provision for the LGBTQ community. I also plan on developing a research center similar to the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies at NYU. The tenets will be the same: community-based, participatory public health research for LGBTQ people and an interdisciplinary team of professionals in public health, psychology, social work, medicine and nursing. At CHIBs, one of the things I treasured the most was watching my students going out and being hands-on in the world. I want this new center likewise to be a training ground for the next generation of scholars.
What are the most pressing issues today in gay men’s health?
There is a misunderstanding in society about HIV – that it’s not there and is not a problem. Let’s be clear: We don’t have a cure. Each year, there are 40,000 new infections in the United States – mostly gay and bisexual men of color in the south. The good news is that we have tools besides condoms to fight this disease. There are antivirals to treat people who are HIV positive; when people are on medication and are virally suppressed, they cannot transmit the virus. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is an antiviral that prevents HIV-negative people from acquiring HIV. It’s close to 100 percent effective when taken on a daily basis.
Despite these advances, only about 40 percent of Americans who are HIV positive are virally suppressed, and only 10 percent of HIV-negative gay men are on PrEP. It’s shortsighted of us to expect a new generation of gay men to worry about HIV the way my generation did. While it’s still a problem, it’s not a death sentence. Public health needs to play a key role in determining how we ensure that we get these tools in the hands of health care providers and remove the impediment for people to access these powerful tools.