Home The view from service providers


Heterosexuality and Black Men

Service providers described Black male heterosexuality as something taken for granted in the context of service provision. This inclination to treat Black mens gender and sexuality as fixed made it difficult, they said, to imagine Black men as gay or bisexual.

“… the issue of heterosexual men or straight men does not usually arise because, I think, especially working with the African, Caribbean and Black communities in most of the cases they assume that they are seen as straight or heterosexual, men who have sex with women. So in the first place when I see them that is an assumption ….” (service provider)

“… the term heterosexual black men, it almost seems like almost oxymoronic when I think about it, when a lot of people think about what a black man is it often doesnt enter into their consciousness that he might be gay, so you know, heterosexual men and black men are almost equivalent almost. So often in our community we dont spend a lot of time recognizing that, you know, black men are also gay.” (service provider)

In general, communities play a vital role in perpetuating normative ideas about heterosexuality. This applies to Black communities and to Black men themselves. In the focus groups with Black men,

participants often enthusiastically endorsed ‘heterosexual’ as a natural sexual preference for women. To some extent, the same is also true for service providers.

“For me, when someone comes to me as a straight man I dont even think that he can be bisexual at all. This is not in my conscious, I dont …I dont realize that!” (service provider)

But service providers also considered stereotypes as highly problematic. For example, monolithic categories like “gay” and “straight” were in their view simply too restrictive to account for the interesting ways in which masculinity and heterosexuality are played out in ACB communities.

“They’ll say I’m actually gay but as an African man I have to have a wife and children. So publically they will never come out as gay, but they tell me “I’m actually gay”. And on the flip side we’ve had women who say ‘my husband is actually gay’ we dont even have sex, you know, because he is gay but we are married.” (service provider)

Access to HIV services

Service providers reported that heterosexual Black men were less inclined to access HIV services, compared to Black women and white men. One explanation for this was that HIV is commonly seen by Black men as a ‘gay disease’. Another possible explanation was that Black men cope with vulnerability as solitary individuals. However, one service provider explained that if Black men are disinclined to seek help unless they were in a state of crisis, this was not simply a Black cultural issue.

“I think its true among many cultures. Its around, you know masculinity and asking for help

I think its, you know for men in general, I think its a hard thing to do.” (service provider)

A particular enduring theme was that Black men, like many other men, will try to contain their vulnerability to protect their masculine ego, which ultimately diminishes their ability or willingness to seek help.

“… And sometimes, its the whole idea of “men are men” and they dont need a lot of help and can take care of themselves and also because they may sometimes rely on their women partners to come in and get whatever it is that they need.” (service provider)

According to one service provider, some men can be so self-conscious about being seen by other service users that in some cases they will refuse to enter the agency.

“They dont want to be seen seeking help except when they are really, really in crisis and they need help. My experience is a lot of times they will call me and say “I’m at the parking lot come and meet with me and then go to [café] or some other place.” And I suggest come and pick it up from here and they say ‘No I will not come. I need food but I will not come for my food voucher. Please come and bring it to me.’ So its their comfort level and the stigma associated with HIV, so they dont want to be anywhere near the organization.” (service provider)

While service providers recognized that culturally inscribed ideas about being a man, as well as the

stigma surrounding HIV, made it difficult for men to seek help, they were also concerned with the

lack of HIV programming available for heterosexual Black men. There was a generalized sense that, to some degree, Black men were being ignored by ASOs. According to one service provider, the problem was not so much the fact that Black men didnt want help, but that agencies claiming to be inclusive were failing to acknowledge their own disconnect with ACB communities.

“… agencies need to internally look at what they have that is of use or productive or resourceful to an African, Caribbean straight man. I think thats a big question that needs to be seen into by agencies if they want more involvement or engagement by that particular group of people. I think a huge responsibility is on the agencies.” (service provider)

“… we have womens workshops for example, we organize workshops only for women but we never had one only for men. So in my view, we also have to produce some more interventions that really address the specific needs of heterosexual men.” (service provider)

In addition to the lack of programming targeting Black men, service providers also claimed that agencies were not doing enough to ensure that heterosexual Black men were visible in their support staff and volunteers. Service providers spoke at length about the discomfort that heterosexual Black men associated with spaces that they considered predominately White and gay.

“… there is some level of discomfort observed when they are in a setting that is primarily gay. There is a certain level of discomfort ... a certain level of disassociation because they do not want to be identified in that category—even if they might be, you know, involved with men as well.” (service provider)

Another enduring theme was that agencies needed to do more to reach out to heterosexual Black men. This could involve targeting heterosexual Black couples and families, conducting more ethno-specific media campaigns, and reaching out to faith communities for support. The bottom line, however, was that agencies need to be more reflexive about their services and about their commitment to serve communities that might not have traditionally formed their user base.

“I think agencies should also take on that responsibility and be more accountable to make sure that heterosexual African, Caribbean men are comfortable. Its up to the agencies to build that comfort zone. Yes as an individual service provider, if I dont have a comfort zone I cant just let that be. There has to be ways and means to build that comfort zone, or we are just going to see this problem get bigger.” (service provider)

Notwithstanding their hesitation accessing services and the possible limitations of service access, Black men demonstrate an interest or even readiness to be more involved in the organized response to HIV.

“I did have good number of Black heterosexual men participating in activities. Their status is unknown so they were not coming in as service recipients. For example when we did the [event] we actually had quite a number of them taking part. We were able to recruit them from the community and ... most of them were actually leaders in the community, leading different ethno-cultural communities ... So I think the issue, we did a lot of training HIV training so they got a bit more comfortable with that ... When we said we were gonna take the play to the community, then they said ‘I’m interested as long as its within the community. I’m interested’.” (service provider)

“I have probably like two active clients from the ACB community who volunteer and participate in every event that we do. But, in most cases I have volunteers, which is a group that I call African Caribbean and Black committee which try to help me advocate in the community thats one of the objectives. So, they either state their status or whether they’re positive or not, but they like to do activities during Black History Month and also [event]. (service provider)

Accounting for the circumstances of heterosexual Black men

Service providers articulated that the social issues facing Black men were considerably different from those experienced by White men. This was not to suggest that White men do not have important issues of their own, but rather that the issues affecting Black men are experienced in a particular culturally-specific way. As one service provider commented, social pressures take many different forms in Black communities.

“It could be stigma. It could be you know, being seen in an agency, being seen among people, you know being identified among people who are of other sexual preference or gender preferences or even HIV. Or it could even be family pressure or it could be pressures of having to work and really not being able to actually have the time or the opportunity to go to agencies to seek assistance or it could even be lack of knowledge. Theres so many people in communities today who have no clue about the services available out there.” (service provider)

In the case of Caribbean and African newcomers the pressure can be even more acute. Faced with the challenge of finding housing and work, as well as family responsibilities, newcomers do not always know where to find HIV-related information and services. One service provider reported that many newcomers also do not have sufficient understanding of HIV risk in Canada.

“… some of the people are puzzled when you tell them the statistics for living with HIV in Canada… they’ll start telling you stories ‘oh I thought it was only back home’ which means they dont see anything, any messaging on HIV here in Canada and then become, not reluctant but they dont really care as much as they would probably back home.” (service provider)

Several service providers emphasized that it was crucial not to assume that African and Caribbean newcomers, particularly men, were automatically more risky than settled immigrant and Canadian- born Black men. Most Black male newcomers, they claimed, do care about their health even if they are relatively unaware of HIV in Canada.

“I think too they are responsible. Probably from the [male] newcomers’ perspective when they come here they are regarded as bread winners, right. So they dont have time to take care of their health and be involved in the HIV movement for example. Because they have to work like two, three jobs to make sure their family is well taken care of and stuff like that. So I think that they are responsible. Its just that we expect too much maybe from them and then its hard to balance all those things.” (service provider)