two notes on MSM

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Dec 22 19:35:22 UTC 2004

1.  first, an antedating, though only from 2001 to 1996.  this from a
correspondent in england:
‘Wanted: Aids Education Field Worker(s) for Men who have Sex with Men
(MSM). […] The Cottaging or Cruising Project (COC) is an experimental
health promotion […] seeking to employ two gay or bisexual men to
conduct fieldwork in identified public sex environments (PSE’s) in
Barnet, Brent and Harrow.’
–Barnet Healthcare NHS Trust advertisement, reprinted in The Guardian
Weekend, 28 December 1996, 22

again, in a social services context.

i don't have the resources or the experience to do searches of the
required sort, so this antedating exercise is open for anyone who'd
like to try it.

2.  now, some very muddy stuff about expressions and their uses.  i
begin with another 1996 contribution from my english correspondent:
‘Men who have Sex with Men is not, as David Rowan implies, a trendy new
term for homosexuals. The term most commonly refers to those of a homo/
bisexual orientation who do not identify themselves as gay and whose
sexual contacts are almost universally made outside the gay scene. The
sex these men have (in ‘Public Sex Environments’, eg public toilets) is
often furtive, hurried, poorly negotiated, guilt-ridden, and so more
likely to be unsafe.’
–Alan Morgan, ‘Letter’, The Guardian Weekend, 24 August 1996, 8

note the distinction between "orientation" (which apparently is
determined on (relatively) objective criteria, like sexual practices
and sources of sexual arousal) and some sort of self-identification:
objective vs. subjective homosexuality/gayness.  both straight people
and frankly gay/bisexual men are deeply dubious of this distinction and
are inclined to treat MSMs simply as gay/bisexual men in denial.

for a really recent manifestation of this attitude, see Keith Boykin's
article "Not just a black thing" in The Advocate of 1/18/05, pp. 31-3.
(boykin, an openly gay and politically very active black man, has a
book Beyond the Down Low soon to be published.)  according to boykin,
... for every black man on the down low, there is a Jim McGreevey, an
Ed Schrock, a Rock Hudson, or a no-name white man who is also on the
down low. (p. 33)

first note: boykin doesn't seem to know the term "MSM" (or want to use
it) and talks instead about "the white down low".

more important: though i can't say anything about schrock (and he's not
saying anything about himself), mcgreevey and hudson were, in their own
terms, gay/homosexual.  they were closeted gay men, like many men i
have known in my life (over the years, i've posted quite a lot about my
life on soc.motss, and this has led many people to write to me, in
confidence and often very frankly, about their lives).  ditto michael
ontkean's character in the 1982 film Making Love, who boykin also
mentions.  so boykin takes the position that MSMs, of whatever race or
ethnicity, are simply gay/homosexual men.

as i said in my postings on "down low", i don't have a lot of
empathetic insight into MSMs, but if we're describing sociocultural
categories as ordinary people configure (and name) them, we should be
willing to make a distinction between MSMs and closeted gay/bisexual
men, at least in some contexts.  it's presumptuous to claim that MSMs
are *really* gay/bisexual men, just as it is to claim that mtf
transsexuals are *really* gay men who fetishize femininity.  it's like
claiming that sociocultural categories in general aren't *real*: that
because there's no objective difference between races, or between
"jocks" and "freaks" (or whatever the local terminology is) in american
high schools, or between witches and non-witches, or whatever, there's
no difference at all.

boykin is trying to remove the stigma from black men on the d.l., *in
particular*, as vectors of AIDS; he's arguing that white guys engage in
similar practices and concludes:
If the white down low is not leading to new outbreaks of AIDS in the
white community, then maybe, just maybe, the black down low is not
responsible for the spread of AIDS in the black community. (p. 33)

the injunction to stop pointing fingers is good.  still, we have no
real idea of the extent to which various groups -- MSMs, closeted
gay/bisexual men, openly gay/bisexual men, hustlers, white men, black
men -- engage in risky sexual behavior (certainly, a significant
portion of each of these groups do) and contribute to the spread of
AIDS, and, given the hostility in the U.S. to research on such things,
we're never going to know.  the pressing practical problem is to reduce
the risk as much as possible, and that means reaching people where they
are, which in turn means accepting a difference between MSMs and
frankly gay/bisexual men (whether closeted or out) and tailoring
approaches accordingly.

so, the distinction should be made both for the purposes of doing
social science and for practical purposes.

meanwhile, there's plenty of social science research to be done here:
the categories and their labels ("gay", "homosexual", "queer",
"bisexual", "straight", "MSM", "out", "closeted", not to mention
"black", "African American", etc.) are all contested to some degree,
and contested categories and labels almost always repay study.

arnold (zwicky at

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