Q&A: Errol Fields on Young Black Gay Men and Perceptions of HIV Risk
May 11, 2011
To me, the trend of the more masculine partners having more power and making the decisions about condom use seemed very similar to the gender power dynamics that heterosexual women face. Did any of the men make mention of gender roles in their relationships?
Yes. Gender norms certainly came up in the interviews. Some of the young men did identify as being the female in the relationship, or the "bitch" in those lines. But this dynamic was found mostly in young men who had older, insertive partners. They used heterosexual gender norms and described them in how they interacted with their partners.
What was particularly troubling for me was this deferring control of condom use to the insertive older partner. We see this in the heterosexual data about girls having sex with older partners and them being at greater risk for HIV because of the power dynamics.
With some of the younger men, they were having sex with men who were 5-10 years older than them. They didn't describe these relationships as problematic or said that they were coerced into sex-it seemed normal to them and that's disconcerting. Because a 14-year-old having sex with a 28-year-old is not normal.
While cultural differences are important in understanding why people do what they do, some media outlets have taken these findings and have made some problematic assumptions about all gay black men-basically pathologizing them.
Exactly, our findings are not new or solely linked to black gay men. Whether it's the Bear or the Jock, this idea of hypermasculinty is present in the white gay community. On the online sex sites, gay men of all races are writing, "no femmes or fats."
In terms of choosing sexual partners and HIV, these issues date back to the '80s and '90s, when being muscular and working out was preferable because people thought that meant men weren't sick. That's when the twink went out of flavor.
And while this preference for men who are perceived as more masculine is not unique to black gay men, I think unlike men of the majority, black men have historically had less access to the American idea of masculinity and socioeconomic empowerment. Perhaps this lack of access has created this notion that black masculinity is more about what they can access: physical strength, sexual prowess and thug mentality.
I am not sure what that means to this population, or how that changes their risk relative to each other. We don't have enough information at this point.
What do you hope this study will usher in for the future?
You know, this type of research begs for more research so that it can be generalized and used on a larger scale in the future. I hope that more work will be done on understanding what masculinity means and how can we measure that for different populations. What rings to 20-year-old white males doesn't mean the same for the young gay black population.
It's also important that we do more research on what the different expectations of masculinity are for different communities, why people desire it and how masculinity is something that's valued in certain communities. Looking at the men we interviewed, being masculine was valued and there was this huge drive in maintaining it.
Did the men in the study discuss any expectations that straight black people had for them to act masculine?
Yes. There was a lot of talk about family members trying to change their effeminate behavior and mold them into being something more masculine. There were stories about being punished for being effeminate, parents trying to play sports with them or trying to encourage them to sleep with women.
A number of men interviewed told us that their sexual orientation was a secret from their families, hence this piece about having a masculine partner to help them maintain nondisclosure. For a lot of these young men, being out with their sexuality could lead them to being isolated from their family and loved ones. One person said in order for him to be accepted, he knew that he couldn't change his sexuality, but he had created strategies of putting on a certain image in order to maintain the connection with his family.
Any final thoughts you want to share about this study?
Just that the most important thing for me is that there are these young men who have these important things to say about their lives and experiences and it's important research because it points to potential problems out there that need to be addressed. It's not clear how big or small these problems are, but they exist and we need to work to address them.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Copyright © 2011 The HealthCentral Network, Inc. All rights reserved.
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