Unique Considerations in Counseling Black Men who Have Sex with Men
In many ethnic minority communities, particularly within the black/African-American community, the term “gay” is viewed as pertaining solely to the white male experience; for all intents and purposes, gay equals white. This word has no important personal meaning or significance for many boys and men of color.
This can be hard to deny once you come to terms with it. Who do you picture when I say the phrase “gay man”? We can all see that the face of the gay male experience, undoubtedly influenced heavily by the media, is indeed a white face. The pioneers of the national gay rights movement (that we’ve ever heard about) were all white men. Our nation is trying to come to terms with what it will be like to fully eradicate structural discrimination, racism, sexism, and classism (among others), but it is unfortunately a long and winding road toward progress.
Racism is still alive and well in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, so many black boys and men may not feel that they even have a place in the LGBT community as it stands today. The same community that should understand the painful consequences of discrimination so acutely actually ends up propagating this discrimination within itself. This distancing from the organized LGBT community that many black sexual minority men experience can lead to increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, which of course can lead to anxiety and depression, among many other mental health issues.
Sexual minority boys and men who are black/African-American face unique struggles in society. On top of tackling racism on a daily basis, they also have to deal with homophobia and heterosexism, and what it actually means to be a sexual minority person of color today; there are very few positive role models in the mainstream media for them to look up to, after all.
In addition to all of this, HIV/AIDS-related stigma is quite common with regard to black sexual minority men; it is mistakenly assumed by many that black men, on the “down-low” sexually with other men, knowingly or unknowingly end up spreading HIV to their female partners. These hurtful stereotypes serve to further distance these boys and men from the communities that should be supporting them in the first place.
This is important to understand for many reasons. If you are a counselor or therapist who works with clients in the LGBT community, it can be tough to target men who are attracted to other men but who don’t identify as gay or bisexual. Some black men may self-identify as same gender loving (SGL) or men who have sex with men (MSM). Some may not even self-identify as anything or be “out” at all, due to the stigma in the black/African-American community concerning same-sex orientation.
If you are working with clients in the LGBT community, the importance of self-identification cannot be overstated. Words are powerful; people don’t like to be labeled unless it is a label they use themselves and, in doing so, have power over. If you think you are being inclusive simply by providing intake forms for your clients with a list of possible sexual orientations (straight, gay, or bisexual), think again. Competence in working with the LGBT community takes work and vigilance; as an ally, I am always exploring what is going on within the community at large. Honor your clients by always asking them how they self-identify (even if you think you may know already). Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know the terms they may use. Politely ask them to elaborate to find out more about this facet of their identities and what it means to them. Coming from a place of genuine care for your client allows this conversation to be non-threatening in nature and can deepen the bonds of the therapeutic alliance.
The intersectionality of oppression that black sexual minority boys and men experience needs to be understood and emphasized in the context of the counseling relationship. In society, these boys and men are doubly cast as outsiders in terms of their skin color and partner. They need validation and support from you. After all, you may be one of the only people in their lives who don’t come to them from a place of judgment or distrust, but from a place of empathy and respect.
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