New website caters to bi Latinos
by Heather Cassell
The Latino BiCultural Project, a new website specifically for bisexual Latino men, seeks to demystify bisexuality in the Hispanic community.
For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics indicate that Latino gay and bisexual men have been a high-risk community for acquiring HIV and having high rates of AIDS-related deaths.
According to the CDC, Latino men who have sex with men accounted for 81 percent of new HIV infections among all Latino men and 20 percent among all Latino gay and bisexual men. Younger bisexual and gay Latino men, those under 30 years old, accounted for 45 percent of new HIV infections in 2009, the most recent information available.
HIV was the fourth leading cause of death among Latinos aged 35-44 and the sixth leading cause of death among Latinos aged 25-34 in the U.S. at the end of 2008, according to the CDC.
To combat the high transmission rate of HIV and AIDS-related deaths among bisexual Latino men, Miguel Munoz-Laboy, a 38-year-old straight researcher who has a doctorate in public health and focuses on sexuality, gender dynamics, urban cultures, and health risk behavior, created the Latino BiCultural Project.
He hopes the information on the website will eventually reduce the rate of HIV/AIDS among bisexual Latino men.
His strategy is not to focus on HIV prevention messages, but to break down findings from his four-year study of bisexual Latino men in the New York area. The study, looking at relationships and sexual behaviors, was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Munoz-Laboy wants to turn the findings into digestible information and make it widely accessible for health care providers and the public through the website.
The website is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
"We are trying to take a comprehensive approach that these men are more than sexual entities, that they are human beings where family matters, religion matters to them, money and love and all these things," said Munoz-Laboy.
A $2.1 million NIH grant supports four projects Munoz-Laboy is currently working on. He is also working on several other projects funded by the NIH, according to Susan Newcomer, a NIH program officer who is familiar with his projects.
While the website isn't directly related to his HIV prevention research, Munoz-Laboy found through his studies that most of the men used the Internet to communicate, get information, and find sexual partners outside of their main relationships. With that knowledge, he decided the best way to interact with the men was virtually through an interactive, multimedia, bilingual website.
He also found that a holistic approach might be better than targeting the men's sexual behaviors and relying solely on traditional preventative information to reduce the spread of HIV.
"There is not enough understanding of the sexual aspects of that group," said Munoz-Laboy, referring to bi Latino men. He noted that bisexual men were often lumped into studies with gay men.
Munoz-Laboy's findings are similar to findings in a number of studies focused on bisexual Latino men conducted by a handful of researchers that have been published within the past year. Many of the studies are also funded by the NIH.
After a decade of going through the competitive process of obtaining funding and doing research experts are emerging with a better understanding and publishing their findings about bisexual men.
In 2011, the CDC awarded $55 million over five years to 34 community-based organizations to expand HIV prevention services for young gay and bisexual men of color and their partners. The CDC gave a $10 million boost in funding for community organizations focused on HIV prevention among Latino populations, according to the CDC website.
A majority of the studies were conducted on the East Coast and in the Midwest, where populations of migrant Latinos are emerging, in spite of the fact that a majority of Latinos live on the West Coast, noted Eduardo Morales, Ph.D., executive director of Aguilas, a San Francisco-based LGBT Latino organization.
In spite of the geography difference, researchers found that the hundreds of Latino bisexual men who were studied faced similar obstacles to expressing their sexuality and risks for acquiring HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Furthermore, because their relationships with men are often secret, they put their female or transgender partners at risk.
A majority of the Latino bisexual men in the studies were in their 30s and many of them were born in the U.S. or new to the U.S.
Yet, the same obstacles and stressors Latino bisexual men faced appeared in each of the studies no matter what angle the researchers were examining: family relationships, economic hardship and level of education, and expression of masculinity and heterosexuality. Oftentimes managing these stresses and their attraction to both sexes translated into risky sexual encounters and substance abuse. Compounding the issue is that culturally appropriate mental and sexual health information isn't reaching these men, who often don't identify as bisexual, but as heterosexual, said experts.
The emotional and social isolation has been reflected in the CDC HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infection statistics of gay and bisexual Latino men for years.
Bisexual Latino men echoed each other in study after study. Articles being published in academic journals echo what Brian M. Dodge, Ph.D., 39, associate professor at the School of Public Health-Bloomington at Indiana University, said he continues to hear over and over again from bisexual men.
Bisexual men, no matter their ethnic or national background, repeatedly told researchers that they feel like they don't have a "community," experience "acculturation issues," express that "I'm the only one," that they "don't know any other men," and they aren't able to "talk about it with gay friends," or straight friends, and feel rejected from both gay and straight communities, said Dodge.
Like Munoz-Laboy, who he has worked with, Dodge, who declined to identify his sexual orientation, specializes in transmission of HIV/AIDS and STIs with a focus on bisexuality.
"There is just more need for finding ways to bringing guys together to let them know that they are not alone, to share stories, resources, and coping strategies," said Dodge.
"Hopefully ... we can start getting men linked to [the website], so that they can at least, as a first step, see that they are not alone and that there are other men like them," he added. "Hopefully, they can start sharing their own information."
A virtual community
Currently, the website only provides information about bisexual men's family, gender and masculinity, mental and sexual health, socioeconomics and substance abuse, but this is only the first phase of the project and cost $10,000.
He estimates that another $25,000 will be needed to create the interactive bilingual multimedia website that he envisions. He plans to raise the money to develop and maintain the site through other grants, he said.
He's also asking for feedback on the website from bisexual Latino men and individuals who might use the site. So far people have responded, he added.
The website is not connected to Munoz-Laboy's work as a professor in the School of Social Work at Temple University in Philadelphia, he said, yet it is being managed by an associate he works with and a student at the university.
Nicolette Severson, a research scientist who works closely with Munoz-Laboy at Temple University, is spearheading the production of the website, he said. The content is being broken down for the public by Shauna Banna, the multimedia content designer of the Latino BiCultural Project, who is also a journalism student at Temple University.
Since the website's launch at the end of April it has garnered some attention, Munoz-Laboy said, but he couldn't confirm how many hits the site received over the last three to four weeks.
Dodge praised Munoz-Laboy for attempting to reach a difficult population using appropriate imagery and language and taking a unique approach by developing a potentially "really nice tool."
At the same time some researchers expressed that personal interaction might be more beneficial.
"I think this is a great tool," said Omar Martinez, 28, a gay man who is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the HIV Center at Columbia University and who works with Dodge. "[It's a] great resource for providers as well, but I also think that face-to-face contact is needed."
From his more than 20 years heading Aguilas, Morales agreed. He has seen sexual behavior risks drop significantly from men who get involved with and engage in the organization's services.
Perhaps the most significant challenge is reaching the intended population.
Bisexual Latino men don't typically congregate in gay bars or go to gay websites or organizations to socialize and find sexual partners, said Dodge. He's interested in finding out how bisexual Latino men find the Latino BiCultural Project website and who visits the site.
Martinez added that it appeared the Latino BiCultural Project website was "doing a good job targeting out bisexual men."
"It's a good comprehensive website," Martinez said, but he expressed concern about individuals who continue to slip through the cracks, such as recently arrived immigrants and those who don't have access to the Internet or have a name for their sexual attractions. "I'm scared of that and we need to be aware of who are we missing."
Yet, the men were hesitant not to try an innovative HIV prevention approach.
"Anything that will get the message out is worthwhile," said Morales. "What kind of impact it will have depends on who will access it."
"Honestly, there is only one way to find out is to try it and we may find that it turns out to be the greatest intervention approach for dealing with these particular guys or it may not, but really if we don't try to at least make an effort at understanding we won't know," Dodge said.
For more information, visit http://www.latinobiculturalproject.org.