Advocates take issue with 'MSM'

Published: March 6, 2014

 As more and more baby boomers age, some gay men are feeling a whole lot more than the physical challenges of growing older, especially in a youth-obsessed culture, perhaps more pronounced among LGBTs than overall society at large.

For HIV-positive gay men now entering their 50s, some of whom have lived with HIV for decades, being alive is an achievement. And yet stigma around HIV-positive status, let alone gayness, persists, along with the general overall invisibility of long-term survivors of the epidemic, some of whom often experience trauma, depression, and isolation, even survivors’ guilt.
Just as the numbers of gay seniors are increasing, some of these gray-haired gays are organizing to press local AIDS service organizations and health care providers for better mental health and medical services to meet a host of health care needs of older people living with HIV.
And along with organizing comes some push back against a widely used term by epidemiologists and researchers: MSM, or men who have sex with men. At issue is nothing less than preserving gay male (and bisexual) identity in the midst of MSM’s widespread use.
MSM was coined in 1994 and "moved beyond HIV literature to become established in both research and health programming," according to Rebecca Young, Ph.D., and Ilan H. Meyer, Ph.D., in a July 2005 article from the American Journal of Public Health, in which the authors suggest the term MSW, as well as WSW (women who have sex with women), erases sexual-minority persons from public health discourse.
"MSM and WSW often imply a lack of lesbian or gay identity and an absence of community, networks and relationships, in which the same-gender pairings mean more than merely sexual behavior," the authors write, explaining, overuse of those terms "adds to a history of scientific labeling of sexual minorities that reflects, and inadvertently advances heterosexist notions."
While not suggesting an outright jettisoning of the MSM or WSW terminology, Young and Meyer advocate "public health professionals should adopt more nuanced and culturally relevant language in discussing members of sexual-minority groups."
Voicing agreement, local and national HIV/AIDS activists, organizational leadership, and medical researchers flesh out in further detail the problematic nature of MSM terminology and usage.
"Nobody says, ‘Hi, I am an MSM,’" said Tez Anderson in a recent telephone interview. Anderson is a founder of the San Francisco grassroots group (The acronym ASS stands for AIDS Survivor Syndrome.)
Anderson readily acknowledges MSM came into acceptance with the changing face of the epidemic, particularly the rise of HIV infection among African Americans and Latinos, many on the down low and reluctant to identify as gay although enjoying sex with other men.
Nonetheless, he said, "As a gay man, I kind of resent it because let’s face it: AIDS has been, is, and probably will be a largely gay men’s epidemic."
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