Is the Pressure to Be Masculine Putting Young Gay Black Men at Risk for HIV?

Homophobia and hypermasculinity are helping drive up infection rates. 

Posted: 07/03/2014 09:45 AM EDT

It’s not a secret that African-American gay and bisexual men bear the brunt of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. A 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that HIV rates among young men who have sex with men (MSM) ages 13-24 were up 22 percent between the years 2008-2010, with young Black MSM making up 55 percent of those infections.

Why is this the case?

Well here’s what we know: Poverty, lack of access to quality health care, homophobia, not knowing one’s status, stigma and the lack of sex education geared toward young gay teens all play a role. But what else might be at play?

One recent study suggests that the pressure to prove one’s manhood could also be fueling this epidemic among Black gay and bisexual men. Lead researcher Errol Fields, M.D., Ph.D., interviewed 35 Black gay and bisexual men ages 18-24. All of the young men were raised in homes that cosigned on traditional expressions of masculinity: strong, heterosexual, and hyper-masculine.

Fields saw that participants who were more effeminate were more likely to be bullied, teased and ostracized by others, especially in their families. The young men also noted that this type of surveillance on their sexuality and certain mannerisms created huge pressure to hide their sexuality from friends and family members out of fear of how they will react.

So what does this have to do with HIV risk?

Fields found that this pressure and isolation encouraged riskier sexual behavior.

The participants admitted that they were more likely to not use condoms, reject monogamous relationships and partake in riskier sexual behavior. Not to mention, for gay and bisexual Black men hiding their sexuality, traditional HIV prevention methods and campaigns are not reaching them.

But Fields also found that the young men in his study looked at condom-less sex as a sign of love and trust — something they didn’t necessarily get at home from homophobic parents.

Fields told TheBody.com, “The findings of our study reveal a clear clash between internal sexual identity and external expectations at a critical developmental-stage age. This clash creates loneliness and low self-esteem and appears to drive these boys and men to risky behaviors, sexual and otherwise."

This study and this conversation about masculinity and Black men are particularly important given how they impact all aspects of Black men’s health from HIV/AIDS, self-esteem and even mental health. But they also highlight how much our men are in pain and how we need to change our homophobic attitudes in order for them to heal. 

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(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

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