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

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 03:  A homeless U.S. military veteran has blood drawn for a free HIV test at a "Stand Down" event hosted by the Department of Veterans Affairs on November 3, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. A week ahead of Veterans Day, more than 500 homeless veterans were expected to attend the event, where they received free medical care, winter clothing, employment assistance and were able to see a judge to resolve legal issues, among other services. Organizers say the homeless veterans population has surged in recent years with the high national unemployment rate. Stand Down is a military term that means a temporary stop of offensive military action.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

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

Hypermasculinity may help drive up infection rates.

Published July 3, 2014

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, “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)

Written by Kellee Terrell


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