Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I just got back from the Seattle Gay Men's Health Summit, and I've got a lot on my mind. I think this is a turning point for me.
I've reached a level of prominence in the gay men's health movement that has taken me utterly by surprise. A bunch of people who don't know me personally have heard or read something about me. I have, if you will, a reputation.
Up to this point, my participation in the movement has been based on a series of individual relationships, so this is new and strange territory for me. The fact that there are people who know something about me before meeting me is both thrilling and disconcerting. Thrilling because I don't need to go through as much background with each new person, and disconcerting because I really have no idea whether what they've heard and the impression they have of it is, so I feel a bit exposed.
I think that generally the reputation I've developed is a good one, but of course a reputation is not a singular thing. I guess I never really thought much about having a reputation before. In a naive sense, I thought of it as a cloud around a person, but more or less an entity with shared meaning. But this weekend has made starkly clear to me that a reputation is not a thing, despite the use of the singular, that is we speak of a person's reputation, not a person's reputations.
It is, rather, a series of individual relationships, each its own thing between me and each individual I have yet to meet, mediated through mutual friends, a chain of friends, or my writing.
It's not that I've never had a reputation, or been concerned with what my reputation 'is'. It's just that I didn't come prepared to think about having a reputation within the gay men's health movement. As a college professor, albeit a recent one, I'm very interested in what my students think of me. Of course I want all of them to love me, but I also walk into class on the first day expecting that some won't. We are after all strangers with no expectation of shared ideals or values, and I'm asking them to work hard, and my evaluation of their work may well not match their aspirations or expectations.
One day, when I was googling myself (I guess maybe I'm more concerned with my reputation than I was conciously aware of), I saw that there was a page at about me. Everyone had warned me not to bother looking at RMP, but I was too curious, and had to check it out. I braced myself for some bad reviews, but was pleasantly surprised to find one relatively positive review. Later (after the grades went out), there were more... and braced as one might be, being called "the worst professor ever" carries a bit of a sting.
So, I'm not new to having a reputation, and not new to the idea of it being highly variable from one person to another. And not new to learning what I can from criticism, but not dwelling on the emotional weight of it. But walking into a classroom, you know you're a public persona, not a private person.
But at the health summits, I had gotten used to being a fairly private person. At the first summits, I went to some sessions, flirted on the sidelines, and nobody 'important' payed attention to me, and I was fine with that. If somebody came up to me and said "aren't you the guy who..." it would have been about my runner-up performance in the pool party kissing contest. I have to say, I'm still proud of the stagecraft K_____ and I employed for that.
Even at the Philly LGBTI summit, where I was on the opening plenary panel, helped design that panel, and helped develop the program, thereby having at least an email relationship with all the presenters. I had a couple of sessions myself, "Queer Blood" was one of them... the other is escaping my little brain at the moment, but I'm sure it had something to do with risk narratives in public health. More people knew me, or knew of me, but I didn't have any sense of people talking about me without also talking with me. It felt like my series of individual relationships was just getting bigger.
So in the wake of this summit, there are things that went on that made me aware of having a reputation, and it's taking me a little time to get used to that.
In the end, I think I like having a reputation. Even if someone hyperbolically believes that I am out to destroy the way they individually practice public health.
Because I am, after all, interested in fundamental change in how public health research is conducted, and how public health interventions are undertaken, by pretty much everyone in the field, especially me.

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