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"Religious" Black Gay and Bisexual Men Battle Substance Abuse, Depression

Black men who have sex with men and who identify as “religious” are more likely to use cocaine in both crack and powder form as well as suffer from depression.

And those factors lead to the riskier sexual behaviors that have helped propel gay and bisexual men to the top of the most at-risk demographics for HIV infection in the nation.

These findings are a part of a new study led by the Rev. Tommie L. Watkins Jr. published Aug. 19 in the Journal of Religion and Health. Watkins, a student at General Theological Seminary in New York, will be ordained next year as the first openly gay priest in the Diocese of Alabama Episcopal Church.

But aren’t people who consider themselves “religious” supposed to live lives free of illegal drugs and enjoy a sense of happiness fueled by inner peace?

Not if you’re gay and have been brought up in the black church, Watkins asserts. “The black church always has harped against homosexuality as wrong and bad,” Watkins explained in an interview with HIV Equal. “What happens is you invite those ideals to allow you to begin to think ‘Who I am and what I do is problematic,’ and it causes a dissonance.”

In short, black men who have sex with men and who identify as religious are often led to hate themselves based on conflicting interests and emotions. Instead of embracing the church’s healthy living teachings, like living a drug-free life, this group is often led to rails against them.

Watkins research defined “religious” as those who practice rituals such as praying before meals and regularly reading the Bible or Koran. Conversely, his study found that black men who have sex with men who identify as “spiritual” have much lower rates of depression and substance abuse, thereby putting themselves at a lower risk for contracting HIV.

Analyzing the data from the CDC’s Brothers and Hermanos Survey

Watkins findings came from analyzing responses to the 2006 Brothers and Hermanos Survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Watkins and his colleagues looked at answers from 1,106 black men who have sex with men from New York and Philadelphia.

“Spiritual” refers to a belief in a high power. And according to Watkins, spirituality has little to do with the traditions of the black churches. Survey respondents who answered affirmatively to questions like “My spiritual beliefs encourage me to do everything I can to stay healthy” reported less drug and alcohol abuse than those who identified as religious. But those who responded affirmatively to statements like “My religious beliefs make me feel bad about having sex with other men” reported weekly bouts of depression and high levels of illegal drug use.

Watkins said the scientific community generally has scoffed at looking at how religion influences public health. But in communities where the church is looked upon with institutionalized respect, ignoring religious and spiritual influences doesn’t allow for a proper understanding of a demographic’s attitudes toward healthy living, Watkins argues.

“The dichotomization of public health in our culture is decimating our community,” Watkins said. “In other areas of the world there is no defragmentation of spirituality and health. We are our environment.”

Related news: Daughter, sister of black pastors blasts homophobia in church

Watkins is well known for authoring the book “Living Out Loud” in 2006. He made headlines in 2000 after resigning from the U.S. Naval Academy amidst allegations he was gay. He later went to work for an HIV/AIDS ministry in Miami but said he was forced out of that position “because I would not marry a woman.”

Watkins said white gay men who grew up in conservative religious families likely face some of the same self-loathing caused by church teachings that blasted homosexuality. Such disdain of self often leads to drug and alcohol problems.

Making a case for mixing religion and public health

Watkins said his findings demonstrate the importance of implementing spiritual and religious components into harm reduction practices centered on drug/alcohol treatment and HIV prevention. He said one study of HIV-positive black men who have sex with men already has shown that those with a higher level of spirituality are more adherent to their medications.

“Very few people are doing this kind of work among black MSM,” he said.

Watkins, who is now sober, noted that he turned to the bottle after he was “kicked out of Annapolis” because “I would not lie about who I was.”

He said interventions for substance abuse treatment and HIV prevention need to work at helping those at risk love themselves. “Spirituality can help ameliorate a lot of the disparity.”

He said public health professionals and black churches need to work together to solve problems among black men who have sex with men. Addressing issues such as substance abuse and HIV education from inside the church is a great way to affirm those at risk. “It has to begin to become normative to discuss one’s health in lieu of other disparities.”

Watkins said he helped run a program among 11 churches in the Bronx where congregants could attend seminars on health topics such as breast cancer and gun violence, for example.