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Psychology grad conducts research on gay men's body image
by Liz Baudler

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Psychology is a relatively new career for Dan Flave-Novak.

The recent Roosevelt University doctoral graduate had been involved in politics as U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown's ( D-Ohio ) LGBT aide around the time Brown was working on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ( DADT ). Even though his efforts were fruitful—Flave-Novak helped write Brown's "It Gets Better" Senate speech and assisted him with work around DADT and the Matthew Shepard Act—eventually, he got restless.

"The political process is very frustrating," said Flave-Novak. "I've seen the forest, now I want to go see the trees, and I really want to work and help people one on one."

The recipient of a highly selective US Veterans Administration ( VA ) fellowship focused on LGBTQ health, Flave-Novak is primed to help veterans at the Milwaukee VA center in the coming year. "I'm excited that they have this opportunity, and I got this opportunity. There are so many people, especially in the psychology field, who are interested in LGBT mental health, but also the opportunity to change the system from the inside," he said.

Flave-Novak attributed the fellowship's existence to DADT's repeal. "I certainly think all along there were people with the VA system who were forward thinking, open minded, progressive people, but now, I think there's a lot more awareness and openness," he said.

In his current role at a VA hospital in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Flave-Novak runs a therapy group for LGBTQI students. He said he foresees more changes for the VA in terms of staff training and LGBTQ competency.

"Clients a lot of times would be very wary about coming out to begin with because they weren't sure how the healthcare provider would respond," Flave-Novak recalled from his previous time with the VA in Chicago. "I would see sometimes employees who behind clients' backs would make antigay comments, make anti-trans comments. Certainly I don't want to say it's a systemic issue, but there are people. A lot of it's about education."

A prime example of the need for more education is how the VA staff dealt with trans veterans: Flave-Novak remembered patients being misgendered in official charts. Yet he's optimistic about change; of the 30 people who have had the fellowships before him, most have stayed within the VA system to continue their work—and Flave-Novak said he thinks their efforts can set a higher standard for dealing with LGBTQ patients. "The VA takes the lead a lot because it is such a huge healthcare organization. A lot of what they do, other people follow," he said.

His time in Chicago—first working with Howard Brown Health Center ( now Howard Brown Health ) and then with DePaul students as a counselor—left Flave-Novak with lasting impressions of the mental health issues the LGBTQ community faces. "There's so much feelings of isolation amongst the community because they feel they don't fit a certain ideal, they don't look a certain way," Flave-Novak said. "Especially with a lot of people who are first coming out, they see an image through the media, which leads to this feeling of, 'Oh, I'm an outsider, I'm a double outsider. I already feel like an outsider because I'm queer, but now also I don't match what I'm seeing.'"

In addition to observing loneliness and substance-abuse issues as a counselor, during his studies at Roosevelt, Flave-Novak conducted research about gay men's flawed views around body image. "A long time ago, I made the non-scientific observation that a lot of gay men would personally say, 'I'm pretty open to a lot of different body types, I'm not too picky,'" Flave-Novak explained. "Anecdotally, guys would be, like, 'I don't care if somebody isn't perfect, but everybody else out there wants the perfect body.' That actually has a scientific name—it's called 'pluralistic ignorance,' and it's the idea that everybody believes that everybody else believes this, and so they thus start acting along with what they believe is the consensus. When the truth is, everybody disagrees with that."

It turns out that gay men are heavily swayed by pluralistic ignorance, which Flave-Novak pointed out can have huge effects on individuals. "Gay men believe that everyone else wants someone who is thin and muscular and perfect," he said. "People who are most adherent to that sort of false belief are the ones who are going to have high amounts of body image problems. It's really interesting research because you can do a lot with it, and even in basic therapy you can talk to people about it." He has hypothesized that this sort of false belief might contribute to eating disorders in the community.

According to Flave-Novak, this is the first time pluralistic ignorance has been studied in gay men, as women are the typical subjects. He and his department chair are looking to publish their findings soon. In the meantime, Flave-Novak looks forward to his future role in Milwaukee and his continued efforts for the LGBTQ community. His motivation comes from growing up in working-class Cleveland and attending a conservative all-male Catholic high school where a gay classmate committed suicide.

"I know how hard it was where I grew up, and the coming out process of people I knew, and I just wanted to give back," Flave-Novak said. "And also, I just find it a fascinating subject. Gender and sexuality are fascinating."

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