Famed Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders Says Bisexuals Must Be Counted

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Joycelyn Elders with Mike Szymanski



Dr. Joycelyn Elders—one of the most outspoken and controversial U.S. Surgeon Generals—says that it is important that bisexuals be open about who they are, and tell their doctors in order to get the best care and treatment.

In an exclusive interview with BiMagazine.org in Minneapolis, Minn., Dr. Elders says she is well aware of the increased health risks that bisexual men and women have over other parts of the community. She also says she doesn’t understand why, and that more studies need to be done. But, she says identifying yourself is the first step.

“Bisexual people must not be afraid to tell their doctor what they do and who they are,” Dr. Elders insists. “And I know that there’s an issue about the doctor not knowing how to handle that information once they have it, but the first step is to identify yourself. We’ll train the doctors.”

Dr. Elders, now 81, was the first African American and second woman to be appointed as Surgeon General, which is essentially the top doctor in the United States. She was appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton who knew her from working with her in Arkansas.

She resigned a little more than a year into her service following her controversial statements about drug legalization, abortion and masturbation. She suggested that legalizing certain drugs may reduce the crime rate, and she once said, “We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children” when asked about abortion.

As far as the masturbation issue, she says she is often misquoted as saying that it should be taught in schools.

As she tells it: “I was at a United Nations conference on AIDS and a reporter asked me if promoting masturbation would be a better way to prevent young people from engaging in riskier forms of sex. And I said, ‘I think that it is a natural part of human sexuality and maybe it should be taught’ and I meant it should be taught as a natural alternative of our sexuality. I never said that it should be taught in schools. Nobody has to teach anyone how to masturbate.”

And decades later, after kicking up a firestorm with the right-wing Republicans in the day, her views haven’t changed much. She teases, “You never get hair on the palm of your hands when you masturbate, and you’re having sex with somebody you know, and hopefully like.”

She adds, “Not every sperm is destined to be a baby.”

Dr. Elders was at the University of Minnesota in May to dedicate the Joycelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health, which is the first endowment of its kind in the nation for a professor to study human sexuality. Dr. Michael W. Ross, from New Zealand, will be representing the chair at the university. Donations came from 23 organizations, 26 states and eight countries. Part of the $2 million for the chair came from the California Institute of Contemporary Arts, which was created by Dr. Fritz Klein, who also created BiMagazine.com and the American Institute of Bisexuality.

“Bisexuals weren’t identified separately in many studies when I was Surgeon General, but they should be,” Dr. Elders recalls. “They were lumped in with gays and lesbians, and that was wrong. They should identify themselves properly.”

Too many labels confuse the issue, she says, but for scientific and medical reasons it is important.

“It’s a simple question. Do you have sexual interest in men and women? OK, you’re bi,” Dr. Elders explains. “That’s important for your doctor to know.”

Dr. Elders knows about the statistics for bisexuals. “Yes, it may be obvious why bi youth are more prone to depression and suicide—they get discriminated by the gay community, too. But why do bisexual women have more incidents of breast cancer, I don’t know? Why do more bisexual men have anal cancer? Are they having more anal sex?”

“We need to know what bisexuals are doing, and break them out from the others, but the community has to feel comfortable about coming out about it first,” Dr. Elders insists.

In an unprecedented historic move, Elders was honored by three other Surgeon Generals in the dedication of the chair, and a day-long panel discussion about human sexuality. Dr. David Satcher, the first black male to be surgeon general; Dr. Richard H. Carmona who served under George W. Bush; and Dr. Kenneth P. Mortitsugu, the first Asian-American Surgeon General, were all in attendance.

“No matter what our politics, we are all Surgeon Generals and we are for life,” says Carmona, pointing out that his colleagues have different ideas on abortion and other issues. He also felt that the press often baited the Surgeon Generals with sticky questions, like they did with Dr. Elders.

Sather pointed to the controversial “Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Behavior” which came out in 2001 and they all participated in, but faced widespread political disapproval. “We almost didn’t get that out, and it is an important document and I appreciate that it is being displayed here,” he said.

Dr. Mortitsugu says that Surgeon Generals have an important responsibility to let the general public know about health issues. “Right now, obesity is the number one reason why people get rejected from the military and foreign service. I don’t think many people know that.” He said he was also concerned about the availability of sexual misinformation on the Internet and worries about his 12-year-old daughter.

“In this YouTube generation, porn is not a positive portrayal of sexual health,” Mortitsugu says.

Dr. Carmona adds, “It is the responsibility of the media to do more about education of sex and sexuality and not just the prurient nature of it. The media need to be more positive about sexual health.”

At a reception at the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota campus, Elders talked about being a great-granddaughter of slaves and raised by a sharecropper family in Arkansas. She still lives in the same family house.

Dr. Michael Ross, whose position is being funded by the Elders chair, says, “So much sexual health education is devoted to adolescents but, in my experience, adults are simply large adolescents. In many cases, they’ve had less sexual health education than adolescents have.”

Dr. Ross’s focus of his science-based sex research will reflect Elders’s long-held belief that sexuality is from birth to death.

“One of the things that surprised me from some research a few years ago,” Ross says, “is that for adolescent males, the average age at which they saw porn on the Internet was 11. That’s a really important finding.
We don’t have the choice between sexuality education or no sexuality education. The choice is between responsible education or sexuality learned from pornography.”

Eli Coleman, who spearheaded the four-year drive for the Dr. Elders Chair, explains, “We don’t just talk about contraception or HIV or sexual dysfunction. Our students learn about all sexual health issues they will encounter as physicians, from pregnancy to the impact of chronic illness and medications on sexual functioning, to sexual violence and assault, which often get overlooked.
There are not a lot of individual donors ready to attach their name to sexual health, It is still a stigmatized area. Dr. Elders was willing to lend her name, and we honor her.”

Dr. Elders interned in 1960 at the University of Minnesota’s Medical School and then served as the director of the Arkansas Health Department where she worked to reduce teen pregnancy, HIV infections and infant mortality.

Ross points out, “Only half of medical schools in the United States have courses on sexual health education for physicians. That is a disturbing figure. There’s a groundswell of opinion that this is something we’re falling short on.”

But, Dr. Elders announced that the University of Arkansas is also now trying to raise money to create a similar chair on Human Sexuality at their school under her name.

“Let’s put one in every school!” she declares. “The best contraception in the world is good education.”

Dr. Elders concludes by saying that “the most important part of sexuality is ‘pleasure’ and that could be as simple as holding hands or a kiss on the face. Pleasure is key.”

At that, none of the other Surgeon Generals added to Dr. Elders’s conclusion and the symposium adjourned.

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About Author

Mike Szymanski

Mike Szymanski has written about bisexual issues since 1989 and has one of the longest-running regular bisexual columns as the National Bisexuality Examiner. He came out as bisexual in a cover story of Genre magazine, which resulted in more than 50 television appearances, including Ricki Lake, Phil Donahue Show and 20/20. Szymanski won the Lambda Literary Award in 2007 for co-authoring an informative humor book “The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe: Quips, Tips and Lists for Those Who Go Both Ways.”

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