Are We Ready To Trust Black Men When They Speak?


New qualitative research has shown that Black gay couples report using condoms more often than racially white gay men in the US, especially for limiting HIV transmission. The study, You & Me, looked at Black and white gay men as well as interracial couples (racially Black and white) and their condom usage. Findings show that white gay couples talk about condom use more often than Black gay men, but that does not translate into practice in the same way it does for Black gay couples. Researchers from the San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) You & Me study presented these findings at the XIX International AIDS Conference this week. 

Many folks online who are reading this data are questioning the validity of the research. Questions such as what are the ages, location, and identities (i.e. queer, bisexual, pansexual, gay, men who have sex with men (MSM), etc.) of the participants have been asked. I agree these are valid queries and would add other questions: How are they assessing if the men are using the condoms correctly each time? Were Black transgender men not included (as the language used on the You & Me study site reference sex-assigned at birth, i.e. “male”)?  The You & Me study site indicates they are looking at “same-sex male couples” and use MSM language. What I don’t agree with are folks who claim that qualitative data is not useful because of how some respondents may lie, or may say what they believe researchers want them to say. These are all usual attempts to debunk qualitative data. 

What I’ve noticed is that many people of Color share information during the collection of qualitative research that humanizes us in a way that is not found in quantitative-based data studies. Yes, quantitative is more about having a larger sample size, however, the information we gather from qualitative data about our communities is often one that demonstrates our strengths, positive, and challenges stereotypes about us. It’s a constant reminder that sharing our stories and narratives are still seen as questionable and not valued.

I’m glad to have data like this to use and reference in my work. This data makes me wonder how to use these findings today and in the future. As Chad Campbell, an SFSU researcher shared with ScienceCodex:

“We found that black and white gay men process the information they receive about HIV in different ways, and for black men using condoms is the default choice…. The black gay men we surveyed were aware of the high rates of HIV among their demographic and were taking steps to ensure they don’t become another statistic.”

The finding that Black gay men use condoms more regularly is a “product of unspoken agreements where it was ‘just understood’ that condom use was non-negotiable” is a strong example of culturally and racially strength-based practices and modes of communication. I believe this means Black gay men define and practice what health and safety mean for them in ways that are comfortable and effective, even if outsiders do not understand or disagree. Often, we assume that if we talk with partners about condom usage (or other barrier methods) that means action will follow. You & Me study findings demonstrate this is not necessarily the case, especially among racially white gay men. The phrase “actions speak louder than words” comes to mind when reading about You and Me. I also think of how in this situation verbals and non-verbals are not contradicting one another for Black men. The data reminds us that non-verbal communication is essential among many communities of Color. 

How may this data influence our work with communities of Color? If for Black gay men condom usage is an “unspoken rule,” how may this challenge our understanding of HIV infections among Black gay men of all ages? This is one area where the question of identities is important because the sample included MSM this data could be a useful to challenge ideas that Black women having sex with Black men who are on the “down low” lead to our increased HIV rates today. 

What do we do with new data that challenges so many of the ways we’ve been told to imagine, work, reach, and interact with certain communities, especially queer communities of Color? When will data like this be enough to change our ideas and practices as providers and educators? When will be finally be able to trust queer communities, communities of Color, and communities that are oppressed that they speak honestly about their sexual lives and experiences?

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  • ckcampbellsf

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I think that the questions you raise and the points you make are not only valid, but important in the journey to end this epidemic and to gain deeper, more respectful understanding of various communities and cultures. I especially appreciate your highlighting the importance of qualitative data for “sharing our stories and narratives” 

    I wanted to answer a few questions in your piece and make a couple of points.

    • The men in the study ranged in age from 18 – 66, with a mean of 33.6 years)
    • Half of our sample was recruited from the New York City Metropolitan Area, and the other half from the San Francisco Bay Area
    • 98% of the White men identified as ‘gay’ followed by ‘queer’ (2%). 
    • 79% of Black men identified as ‘gay’, followed by ‘bisexual’ (15%) and the final 6% evenly divided between ‘queer’, ‘same gender loving’, and ‘pansexual’.   
    • We did not assess whether men were using condoms correctly every time. This study is focused on getting narratives from couples about how they make decisions, and negotiate risk.
    • There were no transgender men included in this sample.

    Finally, I would like to be clear about one point in your piece:

    “Findings show that white gay couples talk about condom use more often than Black gay men, but that does not translate into practice in the same way it does for Black gay couples.”

    -and-

    “Often, we assume that if we talk with partners about condom usage (or other barrier methods) that means action will follow. You & Me study findings demonstrate this is not necessarily the case, especially among racially white gay men.”

     To be clear, for white couples who explicitly discussed condom use but did not use condoms, deciding NOT to use condoms WAS the action they took. I don’t want to leave the impression that these men planned to use condoms and then failed to follow through with that intention. While the finding that Black couples reported greater condom use is an important one, the intention behind my analysis was to highlight the decision-making process over the outcome. So, from our perspective, deciding to use condoms and deciding not to use condoms are equal in terms of how they “translate into practice”.

     

    Thanks again for the great and thoughtful piece!

     

    Chadwick Campbell

    Project Director, You&Me Study

  • biancalaureano

    Thanks for your thorough comment Chadwick! I appreciate you taking the time to share more information about the study that was not completely readily available to folks who did not see the poster presentation at the conference.

     

    I think your point re: practice and deciding NOT to use condoms is important. I wonder why we (sex educators, sexologists, providers, etc.) don’t take a similar approach to this type of practice when people of Color make the same decision. I’ve read far too much that identifies us as being irresponsible, not educated, and the like (I’m sure you know them) but when racially white men do the same practices they are treated/met with dignity, respect, and are still seen as making a good choice/decision. The racism (i.e. white supremacy) in this “distinction” is fairly clear to me, a woman of Color who has had those names/characteristics/labels put upon me and my choices and experiences and those of my community. Perhaps your study can be one of the steps to move in this direction?

     

    Also, it seems still that trans* identified people may not have been included in the study; is this accurate or was it not a question that was asked?

     

    Finally, and I didn’t mention this in the original post, but I wonder if there were questions regarding ethnic background. Were any of the racially Black men those who identified as ethnically Latino (i.e. LatiNegros, Blaktinos, etc.) and were any of the racially white men those that also identified as Latino? One of my very huge concerns regarding data in general and with a racial lens is that there is rarely an ethnic lens. Data is either focused on us as Latin@s, but not us as LatiNegr@s or us as Black but not as LatiNegr@s. It seems those two identities are often pulled apart when really the lived realities are we cannot separate them.

     

    I look forward to reading more about the study as things progress. Good luck!

  • biancalaureano

    Thanks for your thorough comment Chadwick! I appreciate you taking the time to share more information about the study that was not completely readily available to folks who did not see the poster presentation at the conference.

     

    I think your point re: practice and deciding NOT to use condoms is important. I wonder why we (sex educators, sexologists, providers, etc.) don’t take a similar approach to this type of practice when people of Color make the same decision. I’ve read far too much that identifies us as being irresponsible, not educated, and the like (I’m sure you know them) but when racially white men do the same practices they are treated/met with dignity, respect, and are still seen as making a good choice/decision. The racism (i.e. white supremacy) in this “distinction” is fairly clear to me, a woman of Color who has had those names/characteristics/labels put upon me and my choices and experiences and those of my community. Perhaps your study can be one of the steps to move in this direction?

     

    Also, it seems still that trans* identified people may not have been included in the study; is this accurate or was it not a question that was asked?

     

    Finally, and I didn’t mention this in the original post, but I wonder if there were questions regarding ethnic background. Were any of the racially Black men those who identified as ethnically Latino (i.e. LatiNegros, Blaktinos, etc.) and were any of the racially white men those that also identified as Latino? One of my very huge concerns regarding data in general and with a racial lens is that there is rarely an ethnic lens. Data is either focused on us as Latin@s, but not us as LatiNegr@s or us as Black but not as LatiNegr@s. It seems those two identities are often pulled apart when really the lived realities are we cannot separate them.

     

    I look forward to reading more about the study as things progress. Good luck!