Dr. Gail Elizabeth Wyatt
Mention the phrases “Black woman” and “a lucrative career involving sex and sexuality” and one might be tempted to think of actresses and entertainers.
Try Ph.D., wife of 40 years, mother of three, author of several books, and blazing pioneer in the AIDS pandemic.
“I’ve been a sex researcher at UCLA for 31 years,” says this hero in the struggle when asked what motivates her efforts. “I’ve been Black and female every day of my life. I’m involved in this work because it needs to be done by people who understand.”
Dr. Gail Elizabeth Wyatt is Associate Director of the UCLA AIDS Institute, a unique, multidisciplinary think tank for top-flight researchers who are assailing HIV from a dozen disciplines and directions. Institute members include faculty who work in the fields of virology, immunology, genetics, cancer, neurology, ophthalmology, epidemiology, social science, public health, nursing, and disease prevention. Their studies are carried out on the UCLA campus, in community settings, at half a dozen major medical centers in greater Los Angeles, and at scores of locations in India, China, Brazil, and sub-Saharan Africa.
By bringing together this extraordinary aggregation of scientists—each specializing in a different aspect of HIV infection—the Institute encourages the active cross-fertilization of new ideas, ideas that are leading to new approaches to containing, and ultimately conquering, the virus. Through laboratory research and coordinated patient care, the UCLA AIDS Institute is leading the worldwide effort to eradicate HIV. The Institute’s dedicated scientists are committed to developing more effective education and prevention strategies for at-risk communities around the world, and better treatments for all people living with HIV. Innovative programs that aim to develop a safe and effective HIV vaccine are among the UCLA AIDS Institute’s very highest priorities. In addition, breakthroughs in the field of HIV research have helped to propel advances in the understanding and treatment of diseases such as hepatitis B and C, influenza, and cancer.
The first African American woman to be licensed as a psychologist in the state of California, Wyatt is a Clinical Psychologist, Sex Therapist and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. She manages over ten million dollars in research grants worldwide from the National Institute of Mental Health. Wyatt has conducted her research in a number of areas, including women and AIDS, sexual abuse among African American women, rape, sexual socialization and sexual behavior, influences on adolescent sexuality, sexual decision making, contraceptive patterns, and abortion services for women. She currently is implementing a major prevention study with women at risk or infected with HIV, and is a specialist in developing culturally sensitive interventions, particularly with African American populations.
“We need to build a bridge to a new understanding,” says Wyatt. “It is easy to label people as engaging in risky behavior and pass out condoms. But we need to understand sexuality to make the breakthroughs in prevention.”
Wyatt was a NIMH Research Scientist Career Development Awardee for 17 years. Her research examines the consensual and abusive sexual relationships of women and men, the effects of these experiences on their psychological well-being and the cultural context of risks for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. She has conducted national and international research since 1980 funded by the NIMH, the National Institute of Drug Abuse, state and private funders. The recipient of numerous awards, Wyatt has over 110 publications in journals and book chapters, and has co-edited or written 5 books, including “Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives,” “No More Clueless Sex: 10 Secrets to a Sex Life that Works for Both of You,” which former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher called a “a tremendous contribution,” and “Lasting Effects of Child Sexual Abuse.”
With so much of her work dedicated to the underserved, Wyatt is well aware of the potential to be overwhelmed by the nature of her work, especially when it comes to dealing with AIDS.
“No doubt it’s difficult,” says Wyatt. “I just have to pace the way in which this work affects me. I’m always gratified by people who say nice things and people who’ve changed their behavior. It’s great to have someone come up to me down the line, telling me how great their lives are, how their relationships have changed for the better. People in the community are listening. I feel the reward if people can survive and thrive, if families can get stronger.”
Wyatt’s work has not gone unrecognized. She has received numerous awards and honors for her scientific accomplishments, mentoring and teaching. She has also testified before the United States Congress eight times on issues related to health policy.
“Our biggest challenge is poverty and the health care disparities,” says Wyatt. “People need information. We have to empower people, let them know they do have a right and a voice. Each of us is an agent for change. Each person has a personal responsibility to protect themselves and those connected to them. We have the opportunity to come together.”
Dr. Wyatt has been happily married for 40 years to Dr. Lewis Wyatt, an obstetrician-gynecologist in private practice. They have two adult children—Lance, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, and Lacey, a Family Medicine physician on faculty at UCLA—and one beautiful granddaughter, Kamile. The family enjoys a commitment to health and to each other.