Are We Ready To Trust Black Men When They Speak?

New qualitative research study, You & Me, shares findings that Black men who have sex with men use condoms more often than was thought. Many are questioning if they are telilng the truth about their practices. What does this say about us as providers and educators?

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?