For the last year and a half, I have been working within gay men’s sexual health research. For the most part, I love my job. I respect and value our participants and their raw and honest contributions to the research. I have formed many incredible relationships and bonds with colleagues, collaborators, researchers and community members, many of which will supersede the job I’m currently in.
Working in gay men’s sexual health in Toronto, and more specifically, HIV prevention research, has been an incredibly fulfilling experience and opportunity that has allowed me to contribute to a community which I feel a special affinity for as a queer woman. It has also presented me the opportunity to continue to do ally work and to provide support where/when needed.
In terms of HIV work in Canada, given how disproportionately gay, bisexual and other MSM are impacted by HIV, as an HIV researcher, it makes a lot of sense to direct my energy and professional contributions into gay men’s sexual health.
What I didn’t account for when deciding to accept the role that I’m in was the level of sexism and gender-based disrespect I would encounter as a woman working in gay men’s sexual health. As a queer, feminist, critically-minded HIV researcher, I felt that working in gay men’s sexual health would be a community I would be welcomed into, with open arms and one in which my experiences and contributions would be valued in a meaningful way. To some extent and largely dependent on whom I’m working with, this is true. My ideas, insights, and critiques are heard, implemented and respected. In other cases, I am dismissed simply because I wasn’t endowed with a penis.
Perhaps I should have taken off the rose-coloured glasses before starting in my current role. After all, the shared history that gay men and lesbian/queer women have hasn’t always been a walk in the park. Misogyny and sexism have historically played a role in the broader LGBTQ communities of yesteryear and in many ways, continues into our communities today (this is not to suggest that I think all gay men are sexist and/or misogynistic as that couldn’t be further from the truth).
After seeing “How To Survive A Plague” (a film I loved and have a huge amount of respect for), I remember thinking how absent the women were from this film. While I can’t speak anecdotally about what the activist scene was like at this time, I would guess that there were a lot more women active and present in the AIDS movement than what was depicted. Yes, the HIV epidemic at the time wiped out scores of gay men and gay men were largely responsible for mobilizing at the time. But women were there. As allies. As supporters. As caregivers. As friends. As political activists. Yet they were made invisible.
Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’s “United In Anger: A History of ACT UP” did a more thorough job of highlighting the female voices present at the time (perhaps significantly due to Schulman’s involvement as co-producer in the project) which demonstrates that women were there and can be portrayed as allies without taking anything away from the work done by gay men at this time.
When talking about sexism amongst gay men, there are a few factors at play here. First, male privilege. Second, age is often a factor. Third, race is also comes into play (as most of the men that I work with are white).
Then there’s the gay. For whatever reason, I’ve encountered many a gay man who seems to feel that he’s incapable of sexism because he’s gay. Perhaps this is a simple case of conflation, where in the mind of the gay man in question, sexism and homophobia are synonymous and therefore, by virtue of being gay, he cannot perpetuate sexism. Without question, there is a relationship between sexism and homophobia but it’s important that the distinction between these forms of discrimination/oppression is made. They are related but they do not play out in the same ways and therefore, need to be acknowledged and addressed separately and accordingly.
As a feminist, I completely understand and support (in most cases) the need for women-only spaces, particularly when dealing with issues around physical and sexual assault/abuse or other subjects which can be deemed sensitive in nature and gender-based. To this end, I can also understand the need and importance of gay men’s spaces and the work of peers, particularly in the context of sex, sexuality, and living with HIV.
For example, one of the research studies I coordinate is GPS, which involves gay men who are HIV-positive. This program involves 8 weeks of group counseling provided by peer co-facilitators (gay men who are also HIV-positive). This program would be nowhere near as successful as it’s been if it did not have the peer facilitator component to it. GPS is an example of why having peers/other gay men who can relate to the participants’ experiences is paramount and could not be done in the same way with someone other than peers.
In writing this article, I know that I’ve put a bull’s eye on my back and risk alienating myself from my colleagues, co-workers, and the community more broadly yet I feel compelled to start the conversation, as I believe it to be necessary and frankly, a conversation that I seldom see happening publicly.
I know that my experiences are not unique and believe that other women like me could probably also benefit from engaging in a critical dialogue about how we can continue to work in this field in a way that feels simultaneously fulfilling and respectful.
I understand that bringing sexism to the forefront can be challenging, intimidating and scary for many. I have toyed with writing this article for months allowing my fear of the consequences to override my need to share, problematize and strategize around my experiences. Again, I must stress that I am not painting all gay men with the same brush. I have numerous relationships of the personal and professional variety with a slew of gay men, all of which are incredibly respectful, open-minded and utterly lovely. Sadly, those relationships don’t make the instances of sexism disappear.
So where do we go from here?
A great starting point is addressing sexist comments and behaviours as they happen! Do this yourself and encourage other women to do it too (and support them in it)! Easier said than done, I know, particularly when sexism is insidious and difficult to pinpoint. In order to do this effectively, you should equip yourself with some tools that will enable you to communicate effectively, in a way that will (hopefully!) not elicit a defensive reaction from the person you’re addressing. For example, understanding the difference between what someone said/did (That comment you made was sexist) and who they are (You are sexist) is an important starting point. You want to address what was said/done, hold the person accountable and explain why it was problematic.
Jay Smooth, a critical blogger and commentator on hip hop, social justice issues and politics made an excellent video entitled “How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist”. While I’m certainly not conflating sexism and racism, Jay Smooth’s video offers a lot of transferable suggestions that can be applied to addressing and stifling sexism. For the men: when you witness sexism, call the offender out! Unfortunate as it is, sometimes being called out by another man has more of an impact than if it comes from women.
Lastly, learn to identify when the conversation is being derailed and moving in an unproductive direction. Derailment bingo is a great tool for recognizing when the conversation is getting off-track. When you hear any of these comments (or something similar to them), you’ll know you need to rein the conversation in and back to what was said/done and why it was sexist in nature.
I love the work that I do, the relationships that I’ve formed through my job and the experiences I’ve had. I also value incredibly the contributions I’ve been able to make. I feel very honoured and fortunate to be able to work with the incredible people that I do.
That being said, feeling disrespected and underappreciated takes it toll over time and a huge part of that is about sexism. Addressing it is challenging but necessary and will hopefully lead to an even more fulfilling and satisfying work experience for women more broadly within gay men’s sexual health.