The new study, conducted as a series of interviews with 35 young/teen Black men who have sex with men ages 18-24 shows that they:
Almost exclusively prefer romantic and sexual partners they perceive to be masculine.
Reluctant to allow a man they consider to be feminine to "top" them during sex.
Allow men they perceive to be more masculine to control the terms of what kind of sex happens, including condom use.
Consider masculine men to be less likely to have HIV, and feminine men to be more at risk.
According to the CDC's last published incidence data from 2006, "among all black MSM, there were more new HIV infections (52%) among young black MSM (aged 13–29 years) than any other racial or ethnic age group of MSM in 2006. The number of new infections among young black MSM was nearly twice that of young white MSM and more than twice that of young Hispanic/Latino MSM."
This study, while a very small sample, is interesting for several reasons. First, this study, unfortunately, speaks to the ways in which misogyny is very present in Black gay men's spaces. Anyone who's ever seen Black Gay Chat or Adam4Adam or any of the other outlets where Black gay men frequent for dating or sex, these notions about masculinity are abound. People still frequently post requirements about "must be masculine" or "no fats no femmes." I am always curious about what does masculine mean? 50 Cent?
Michelangelo Signorille wrote a book many years ago called Life Outside, which dealt with the muscle and "straight acting" obsession in white gay male culture -- and the ways in which muscle culture was used to also signify healthy and not having HIV, whether that was true or not, and I would say Phillip Brian Harper's book Are We Not Men? is one of the closest Black gay books dealing with this issue. It was a reaction to AIDS and the more femme and androgynous aesthetic of the 1980s (like Boy George and George Michael for white gays, Sylvester, Prince and Jermaine Stewart for Black gays).
For white gay men, they often use sports imagery like "athletic" or "jock" to connote the kind of hypermasculinity most desirable. For Black and Latino gay men, that same hypermasculinity is expressed in hip-hop terms -- the "thug" and "downlow (not necessarily as bisexual but as able to pass as heterosexual to other black people in public)." Most other kinds of black queer male aesthetics (afro-punks -- as in punk rock, afro-centric, bohememians/neo-soul, Buppies, etc.) are always trumped by hip-hop notions of masculinity.
But this study also points to the ways in which womanhood, or in this case, femininity, or one's proximity to it, marks one as the vector of disease, as promiscuous, having dangerous sexual desires, and more deceptive of their partners. It's similar to the ways in which women are most often blamed, and sometimes killed for the spread of HIV when straight men contract the virus.
This study points to a need to go beyond individual behavior models for preventing HIV, but undoing structures that impact people's vulnerability or the contexts under which people are making decisions. We have to really have to find ways of confronting and challenging misogyny in our society (across sexuality and gender identities) that disempower those who see themselves or are labeled as woman, femme, or feminine.
Will the re-emergence of Black queer men in popular media change how young black queer men view gender and desire?
I think Yolo Akili's short video and poem "Are We the Kinds of Boys/Men We Want?" are the kinds of interventions we need for Black gay youth and for public health researchers which explores these issues of power, desire and gender for Black queer men to interrogate our desires.
Kenyon Farrow is a journalist who resides in Brooklyn, N.Y. Farrow is the co-editor of Letters From Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out (Nation Books 2005), A New Queer Agenda (Queers for Economic Justice 2010) and the upcoming Stand Up! The Politics of Racial Uplift (South End Press). His work has appeared in publications such as theGrio.com, Bilerico.com, AfterElton.com, Utne Reader, Black Commentator, The Indypendent, City Limits, and in the anthology Spirited: Affirming the Soul of Black Lesbian and Gay Identity (Red Bone Press 2006).