I remember my first few weeks in Toronto. I was always amused when people would say to me, “But you don’t look or sound Jamaican.”
I would take it as an opportunity to enlighten my intrigued acquaintance, usually starting off with “Well, there are many different shades and accents on the island.”
I must admit I liked the attention. I sometimes thought I might even be considered a bit exotic. However, as I became more comfortable navigating gay spaces, whether online or in a public setting, I found that not fitting the expectations of people’s perceptions of a Jamaican man made my dating life more challenging.
I’ll never forget later chatting with a friend at Woody’s who described the physical attributes I was lucky to have because I am a black man. He’d never seen me naked, and would never.
In our current gay culture, which has been transformed by online social sites and mobile apps such as Manhunt and Grindr, there is much less ambiguity in terms of what people desire. Unfortunately, what is often revealed in online profiles highlights, and perpetuates, racial stereotypes.
People make assumptions and requests linked to a person’s physical traits, everything from penis size to body shape or sexual role, based on ethnicity.
“Little is known about how this impacts someone’s health and well-being,” says David Brennan, a researcher at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto. “Racism is an ongoing and persistent experience which people are actively trying to figure out and navigate.”
Brennan and his team are conducting the Imagine Men’s Health Study to learn about those issues related to body image and sexuality encountered by gay and bisexual men of colour. Because there is little information that speaks to this, there is little known about the health issues (both mental and physical) that sexual minorities experience.
In a separate study into the impact of racism on mental health, New York University’s Sumie Okazaki found that “we know much more about the psychological processes of white individuals who hold varying levels of racial bias than about the psychological processes of non-white individuals who are directly or indirectly affected by racism.”
Brennan says the impetus for his study comes from a random sample study related to body image and eating disorders that was conducted during Toronto Pride in 2008. The feedback from many respondents indicated that the questions were directed at white men and didn’t address how one’s body image is affected by how one is perceived because of one’s race.
He wants to find out if gay people of colour take more risks, sexually or otherwise. Does it change the way they think of meeting the needs of their sexual partners?
“In my own personal experience as a gay man of [Japanese descent], and [in my] professional experience of working primarily with LGBT people as a therapist, I have a sense that our social environments have not particularly embraced a racially diverse representation of bodies,” says Kenta Asakura, a PhD student working on the study.
In the multimedia short film Seeking Single White Male, Toronto artist Vivek Shraya explores this topic by looking at his Indian heritage and how it links to his encounters in the gay community. “You are too attractive to be Indian,” one person tells Shraya. Another says, “You must be mixed.”
Marco Posadas, bathhouse counsellor and program coordinator with the Aids Committee of Toronto (ACT) says that one of the issues gay and bisexual immigrant men from visible minority groups face is a harder experience adjusting to the new gay community environment in Toronto.
Community partners involved in the study include ACT, the Alliance for South Asian Prevention, Asian Community AIDS Services, the Black Coalition for Aids Prevention, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples. The results will be used to develop policies and enhanced training programs for support organizations.
The study will also explore racial bias. In an initial qualitative study, a respondent mentioned that he would never date a white man because of issues arising from power differences and pressures from within his own community. Conversely, other participants noted they would not date a person of their own race.
Additional themes the study will explore include alcohol, drug and porn usage. The latter category will help researchers understand how one’s sense of self is affected by what one sees in pornographic media.
The team is looking for 400 men who have sex with men who identify as black/African/Caribbean; East or Southeast Asian; South Asian; or Latino/Hispanic/Brazilian.
Participants must be 18 years or older and residents of the Greater Toronto Area. Thirty-dollar gift certificates will be provided to those who are eligible and complete the study. It takes one hour to complete online.
Brennan emphasizes the need for a mix of respondents from all age groups, as well as persons with physical disabilities. For more information, follow this link.