Reflecting on “MSM” and Identity at the MFierce Kickoff Event

Emily Pingel: The coffee was steaming.  The nametags were displayed and ready to be freshly pinned. And the University of Michigan Detroit Center had truly rolled out the red carpet with a beautiful photo tribute to Nelson Mandela lining the entryway.  It was October 10th and we were officially kicking off MFierce!  For those not yet in the know, the Michigan Forward In Enhancing Research & Community Equity project is a new community-based participatory initiative funded by the CDC. The kickoff brought together an incredibly talented group of youth leaders, community activists, researchers, and health professionals collaborating to reduce STI disparities among young gay and bisexual men and trans* women in Southeast Michigan.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter.  Big news! We finally had the talk.  You know, the one about gay/bisexual men AND/OR men who have sex with men (aka MSM) AND/OR where does this leave trans* women?  Confused yet? In public health circles, MSM rolls off the tongue of most professionals to refer to people engaging in “risk behaviors.”  But that’s changing, as gay and bisexual men and trans* women push back, arguing that the term MSM reduces people to a set of behaviors, is often incorrectly used to categorize trans* women, and is simply passé.  Everyone agrees that being inclusive is important, so what is the most inclusive way forward?  It’s not as simple as you might think, and like most things, we can learn a lot from the histories and voices of our communities.  So with that, I’d like to ask one of the MFierce Youth Advisory Board Members, Ben Rogers, to give us his take on the conversation that was inspired by our youth panel at the kickoff event:

Ben Rogers: When Emily posed the question “What does the label ‘MSM’ mean to you?” to the panel, the audience took notice. It’s not an identity, I thought aloud – it’s a label that describes behavior. My strong belief is that ‘MSM’ renders more complex sexual identities invisible. As Emily noted, ‘MSM’ lumps gay and bisexual men with transgender women into one meaningless category. Sure, we may share similar risks for HIV infection and transmission, but we have different struggles, stories, and identities.

But ‘MSM’ is not a new acronym. Going around the room, our community stakeholders noted that ‘MSM’ originated during the early years of the epidemic where AIDS was first known as ‘gay cancer.’ Amidst the intense homophobia and HIV-related stigma of the 1980s, ‘MSM’ made good sense: it protected members of a marginalized community from media barbs and public ignorance. ‘MSM’ allowed test counselors to tick boxes and assess HIV risk; it allowed program directors to set aside funding for programs serving gay and bisexual men without the animus of a homophobic society.

Look how far we’ve come! This very project is testament to the importance of dismantling institutional homophobia and ending structural barriers to HIV prevention and treatment access. With advocates and allies in nearly every media outlet, gay and bisexual men have a lot to say about their sexual identities and lived experience of discrimination. And transgender women are gaining their rightful voice in television, film, and media, taking a transphobic society to task on the front page of Newsweek! Lumping us all together as ‘MSM’ doesn’t make sense – it diminishes our right to an identity and the agency of a voice. I’m a proud gay man – not just an ‘MSM’ – and ultimately I choose an identity that connects me with my foremothers and forefathers, not a clinical label.

Advertisements