Other Side of the Dream

Other Side of the Dream

For some immigrant groups, the stress of migrating to the United States can lead to substance use and abuse.

In the process of migrating to the United States, Latino men who have sex with men (MSM) face the additional burden of having to redefine their sexual identity to meet the cultural norms of mainstream white gay culture, says Jose Bauermeister, a research assistant professor in health behavior and health education and supervisor of the newly founded Sexuality and Health Research Lab at the School of Public Health.

Although many MSM experience prejudice in their home countries or have to live a closeted lifestyle to prevent prejudice, their reasons for migrating to the U.S. are not necessarily about sexual identity. They also migrate, as do thousands of Latinos, to improve their economic prospects. Once in the U.S., many Latino MSM experience discrimination due to their minority and immigrant status, as well as discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

Some Latino MSM perceive U.S. cities like San Francisco—considered a gay safe haven—as a dream come true, where they can express their sexual identity. But even though they live in what they hope will be an accepting environment, studies show that the stress of being an immigrant and a minority can lead to high levels of substance use and abuse among Latino MSM.

To analyze this trend, Bauermeister interviewed 70 Latino gay and bisexual men in the San Francisco area about their sexual and substance-use practices. He found that Latino gay men often use drugs during their coming-out process, as well as at social events, in order to make it easier to connect with others and to enhance their sexual performance. Some Latino gay men noted that drugs helped them feel part of the glamour of mainstream white gay America.

For many immigrant MSM, substance use is a way of alleviating the pressure, fears, and insecurities they experience as immigrants going through stressful social experiences such as coming out or meeting new people. Bauermeister found that when socially isolated, Latino MSM who use substances may be more susceptible to drug abuse and addiction.

Sexual activities can also be a catalyst for drug use. Some MSM use drugs to prolong ejaculation, enhance pleasure, or avoid discomfort during anal sex. Many Latino MSM also use drugs in an effort to live up to the stereotype of a “Latin lover” or to be more “macho”—traits they believe white Americans expect of them.

Unsafe sexual practices, such as not using a condom during anal sex, are a problem throughout the MSM community, but the disparity in new HIV/AIDS infections is greatest among black and Latino MSM. The reasons for this vary but can include the burden of an immigrant identity, drug use itself, and insecurities about negotiating condom use. The lack of a culturally and linguistically appropriate infrastructure poses a further problem for Latino MSM trying to adjust to new “sociocultural realities,” Bauermeister says. Migration to the U.S., he adds, can be like a joyride without a seatbelt.

Story by Valentina Stackl

Bauermeister found that Latino gay men often use drugs during their coming-out process, as well as at social events, in order to make it easier to connect with others and to enhance their sexual performance.