Trans Language Awareness

Increasingly in the field of addiction research, we are seeing a commitment to acknowledging and understanding the “relevant contours” of addiction for people from different social locations. We often seek to understand the cumulative advantage or disadvantage that can occur at distinct intersections of human experience, based on such factors as socioeconomic status, age, geographic location, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and of course gender. Most researchers now acknowledge that gender does not exist within a neat binary (i.e., “women” versus “men”), and is likely to shift over the lifecourse. More and more we are seeing the inclusion of trans people in research, and in some rare cases, people who identify as “gender fluid” – i.e., those who do not readily identify with normative gender categories. While this trend signals a commitment to understanding a rich diversity of experiences, researchers’ interest in gender issues, and trans issues in particular, is not always up to speed with the evolving language and politics of being trans*.

Given the power of language to reduce people to labels and in the process, stigmatize them (as is the case with terms like, “drug addict”, “HIV positive” and “prostitute”), it is important for us to think carefully about how we use it. When it comes to speaking about trans people there are a few issues to consider. First, we often inadvertently use incorrect grammar. People often refer to “transgendered” women or “transgendered” men. This is akin to calling someone a “younged woman” or a “younged man”. As such, the correct language would be “transgender woman” and “transgender man” or more simply, “trans woman” and “trans man”. In many cases, people prefer the term “trans*” as it includes those who identify as transgender and/or transsexual.

Another term sometimes used in popular discourse is “transgenders”. This kind of language constitutes a form of “othering”, which is the process whereby people draw a distinction between themselves and “others” based on perceived differences. These others often become defined by, and reduced to, a fixed set of assumed characteristics. This process inevitably leads to bias and stereotyping. Many trans people experience this kind of language, and the actions that go along with it, as deeply discriminatory in the same way that racist language is experienced.

Similarly, there can be a tendency among researchers to write about trans people’s experiences as if they are homogenous. Because of our desire to better understand how gender shapes addiction in our research we attempt to separate the experiences of men, from women. Sometimes we create a third category of trans people. However, just as there is no universal experience of being a cisgender¹ man or a cisgender woman, there is no singular trans experience. What’s more, some trans people do not want to be seen as a distinct group as they aspire to more general gender categories. For instance, many trans people wish to “pass” and simply be called men or women, or boys or girls as the case may be.

Finally, there is a tendency to conflate trans identity with sexual identity. For instance, researchers will often refer to “gay, lesbian, and trans” populations. While trans identity politics are often intimately tied to gay, lesbian and queer politics, a trans identity is not a sexual identity. Trans people may consider themselves “gay” or “straight”, or they may prefer to identify as “queer” to signal their resistance to heteronormative thinking and categorization.

Admittedly, all these issues can make writing up research results complicated. Even more so given that the language continues to evolve alongside gender politics. As researchers the onus is on us to evolve alongside these kinds of important social and political movements. In part this means acknowledging and including trans people and trans issues in our research. But it also means being attuned to the meaningful distinctions between, and the implications of, the labels and the categorizations we use. There needs to be an explicit recognition of the power of words to both empower and disempower people.

¹ The term cisgender refers to when a person’s biological sex (e.g., being born female) matches their gender experience (e.g., living as a girl or woman).

Leah Shumka

Author: Leah Shumka, sessional instructor,  Gender Studies, University of Victoria; doctoral candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto.

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC

Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Group Sex

 Queer and Questioning Men as Pleasure-Seeking Harm-Reduction Experts

Moving forward, particularly in HIV/AIDS prevention, and gay men’s health overall, we must not reduce members of our community to problems that need to be solved and thus rush to establish prevention strategies without any genuine grasp of our desires and sexuality.  -Charles Stephens

Group sex events (GSE) have been a social, albeit mostly secretive, phenomenon throughout history. From ancient Dionysian mystery cults to today’s commercial sex clubs, intense communal sex-capades have attracted segments of the populace. GSE may involve anywhere from five to many lovers in a variety of private and public settings. According to early data drawn from the Vancouver’s 2014 Momentum Health Study, a Canadian Institute of Health Research and National Institute of Health funded longitudinal study of Vancouver gay men’s health, nearly a quarter of gay/bisexual/question (GBQ) men participate in GSE. Of these, 74 percent of participants used anywhere from one to a combination of 12 substances with the intention to disinhibit, prolong and/or enhance pleasure; while the same number of participants of the same study expressed interest in safer sex parties. How do queer and questioning men negotiate seemingly competing needs between sexual pleasure and health?

Few would deny the known risks to GBQ men associated with group sex. Nearly 60 percent of all new HIV diagnoses here in BC are from within this population. Do we know enough about the potential rewards of sexual exploration? More nuanced, culturally sensitive information is needed to provide a richer understanding of what constitutes both “risk and reward” in areas of queer and questioning men’s health.

Resiliency Theory advocates for strength-based HIV programs for men who lust for men. A new study of GSE out of Vancouver in partnership with community organizations including Health Initiative for Men suggests such programs should be internally navigated from within the specific contexts of GSE.  Momentum Health Study data indicates a subculture of intensive sex partying associated with GSE, and importantly reveals evidence of personal harm reduction practices (e.g. always being the top in anal intercourse to reduce HIV transmission). The Momentum study seeks to determine what other indigenous prevention tactics are associated within this subculture. The mixed-methods study will gather more information about who attends GSE, what motivates participant’s risk-taking/reward-making choices, and their harm-reducing and pleasure-amplifying practices. Between 20 and 30 participants, interviewed twice over a three-month period will inform researchers and community practitioners about the cultural characteristics and intrinsic values GSE offer participants. Project participants will ideally recommend potential customized event-level sexual health concepts for implementation.

Researchers also intend to meet with sex party hosts to better understand their needs and strategies for offering higher quality, safer and sounder sexual experiences to their guests. By engaging queer and questioning men in conversations about their chosen sexual practices and culturally explicit erotic spaces, future health strategies may more successfully evolve by both honouring men’s need for sexual adventurism while supporting their efforts for self and communal care. Your thoughts are most welcome.

robert birch

Robert Birch, MA is a doctoral student with the Social Dimensions of Health program at the University of Victoria, a new qualitative researcher with the B.C. Centre for Excellence Momentum Health Study for gay/bi men, and writes for the award winning national HIV/AIDS blog

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC