Gay bowel syndrome

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Gay bowel syndrome is a term that was first used by Henry L. Kazal and colleagues in 1976 to describe various sexually transmitted rectal infections seen in Kazal's proctology practice, which had many gay patients.[1] The term is considered obsolete as the issues it describes are not gay-specific, confined to the bowel, nor a syndrome. In 2005, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control described the term as informal and no longer in use.

Early history[edit]

The term was first used in the pre-HIV era, by Kazal et al. in 1976.[2] After Kazal, the term was used sporadically in medical literature from the 1970s to refer to a complex of gastrointestinal symptoms affecting gay men.[3] The term was not specific to any particular disease or infection, and was used clinically to describe proctitis and a variety of other complaints caused by a wide range of infectious organisms. Reported causes include herpes viruses, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, campylobacter, and shigellosis, as well as a variety of protozoal infections.[3] The concept of "gay bowel syndrome" was later expanded to include various opportunistic cancers. Transmission of disease was considered to take place by two routes: anal sex, and fecal-oral route. Sometimes, difficulty in specifying the method may be a result of transmission by both methods.[3] Following the onset of the AIDS epidemic, the reported incidence of these complaints has declined, likely as a result of safer sexual practices.[4] Those with the ano-rectal disorder experience increased incidents of diarrhea.[5]

Criticism and decline in use[edit]

In 1985, an article in the peer-reviewed journal Gut said that gay bowel syndrome was not a syndrome, and had limitations in medical use:

The "gay bowel syndrome" was first used to describe not a syndrome, but a list of conditions. The term hides the problems facing the gastroenterologist. Firstly, the sexual orientation of a patient may not be easily ascertainable in the setting of a general outpatient clinic. Secondly, many infections of the gay bowel are asymptomatic and are missed without full microbiological screening. Thirdly, coinfection is common and the organism isolated may not be causing the symptoms and signs. Finally, the bowel has limited and non-specific clinical and histopathological responses to many infections.[6]

A 1997 article in the Journal of Homosexuality argued that use of the term should be abandoned:

It is apparent that Gay Bowel Syndrome is an essentialized category of difference that is neither gay-specific, confined to the bowel, nor a syndrome. The use and diagnosis of Gay Bowel Syndrome must be abandoned.[7]

The term "gay bowel syndrome" was withdrawn as "outdated" by the Canadian Association of Gastroenterologists in 2004.[8] The activist Michael Petrelis said "it is very much a defamation to say ‘gay bowel syndrome', when what they’re really talking about is parasites", and Marty Algaze of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis argued: "Sickle cell anemia is primarily seen in African Americans, but would you call it African American anemia? People would never accept that."[8]

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control confirmed the term was already informal and no longer in use by 2005.[9]

The 2009 McGraw-Hill Manual of Colorectal Surgery states that gay bowel syndrome is considered obsolete and derogatory:

Coined in the pre-HIV era, the term "gay bowel syndrome" comprised a rather unselective potpourri of unusual anorectal and GI symptoms experienced by homosexual males... with better understanding of the underlying causes, this term is outdated: the derogatory terminology should be abandoned and more specific entities and terms recognized and used.[10]

The gay activist and author Michael Scarce criticized the concept of "gay bowel syndrome" in his book Smearing the Queer: Medical Bias in the Health Care of Gay Men (1999), saying that "gay bowel syndrome has been, and remains today, a powerful tool for the specific surveillance, regulation, definition, medicalization, identification, and fragmentation of gay men's bodies."[11] Scarce's work has been cited in the Journal of the American Medical Association with a positive review.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kazal HL, Sohn N, Carrasco JI, Robilotti JG, Delaney WE (1976). "The gay bowel syndrome: clinico-pathologic correlation in 260 cases". Ann. Clin. Lab. Sci. 6 (2): 184–92. PMID 946385.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Kazal HL, Sohn N, Carrasco JI, Robilotti JG, Delaney WE (1976). "The gay bowel syndrome: clinico-pathologic correlation in 260 cases" (PDF). Ann. Clin. Lab. Sci. 6 (2): 184–92. PMID 946385.
  3. ^ a b c Kenneth A. Borchardt; Michael A. Noble (1997). Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Epidemiology, Pathology, Diagnosis and Treatment. CRC Press. pp. 296–305. ISBN 978-0-8493-9476-8.
  4. ^ Bartlett, John (March 15, 2004). "New Look at "Gay Bowel Syndrome", Etiology of Clinical Proctitis Among Men Who Have Sex With Men". Medscape.
  5. ^ "Textbook of medicine", Robert L. Souhami, John Moxham. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2002. ISBN 0-443-06464-4, ISBN 978-0-443-06464-7. p. 817
  6. ^ Weller, I. V. (1985). "The gay bowel". Gut. 26 (9): 869–875. doi:10.1136/gut.26.9.869. PMC 1432868. PMID 3896960.
  7. ^ M, Scarce (1997). "Harbinger of Plague: A Bad Case of Gay Bowel Syndrome". Journal of Homosexuality. 34 (2): 1–35. doi:10.1300/j082v34n02_01. PMID 9328857.
  8. ^ a b Garbo, Jon (December 21, 2004). ""Gay Bowel Syndrome" struck from textbook". Archived from the original on 2005-01-04. Retrieved June 24, 2009.
  9. ^ Lee, Ryan (April 8, 2005). "Activist fights 'outdated' medical phrase: Effort to debunk 'gay bowel syndrome' may face new challenge". Washington Blade. Archived from the original on May 7, 2009. Retrieved June 24, 2009.
  10. ^ Kaiser, Andreas (2009). McGraw-Hill Manual of Colorectal Surgery. p. 205. ISBN 978-0-07-159070-9.
  11. ^ Scarce, Michael (1999). Smearing the Queer: Medical Bias in the Health Care of Gay Men. Routledge. p. 13. ISBN 978-1-56023-926-0.
  12. ^ "Gay Men's Health". JAMA. 284 (15): 1986. 18 October 2000. doi:10.1001/jama.284.15.1986-JBK1018-2-1.