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Study: Patterns of Community Connectedness Among Gay and Bi Men

Gay and bisexual men who connect with others primarily online are more likely to be single, closeted, and have higher HIV stigma compared to men who connect mainly in-person, according to a study released last week.

The Momentum Health Study, a longitudinal survey of 744 gay and bisexual men in Vancouver, Canada, asked men about their participation in online and offline venues like gay bars, dating apps, community groups, etc. From this data, researchers found that there are patterns in ways folks connect with others in the community.

The results from the study show that men can be classified into three categories based on their patterns of connectedness. About 26% of men primarily connected to others through in-person interactions (“Traditionalists”), 35% of men primarily connected to others online (“Techies”), and 39% of men were highly connected to others both online and in-person (“Socialites”).

Between these three groups of men, there were significant differences in sexual behavior and HIV/STI prevention. Compared to Traditionalists, Techies were almost 20% more likely to have been tested for HIV in the past two years and 18% more likely to ask sexual partners about their HIV status. On average, Techies reported twice as many sexual partners in the past 6 months.

Although Techies were more likely to take care of themselves through regular HIV testing and communication about STIs, they also scored 14% higher than Traditionalists on the HIV stigma scale. This scale was based on men’s agreement with statements such as “HIV-negative men treat a guy differently when they know he is HIV- positive.” This finding shows that it’s possible to practice healthful prevention strategies (e.g. HIV testing) while simultaneously holding attitudes that stigmatize HIV-positive individuals.

Kiffer Card, a doctoral student at Simon Fraser University and lead author of the study, emphasized that these findings may help public health professionals better understand the communities they are working within. He highlighted that community organizations who specialize in HIV and STIs, for example, should be mindful of patterns of HIV stigma as they conduct outreach to different segments of the LGBTQ community.

“The ways we connect, the social worlds we find ourselves navigating through – these things shape the decisions we make about stuff like testing, condom use, and whether or not we talk about STIs before hooking up,” said Card. “Our communities aren't just some side-show for public health, it's on the main stage, and I think that this research underscores the importance of advocating for our communities – making sure they're adequately funded and that they offer meaningful services that help guys to make the decisions that are best for them.”

In recent years, there has been plenty of discussion among gay and bisexual men regarding the impact of dating apps and websites on the community. This study demonstrates that the ways gay and bisexual men connect with their communities – either online or offline – are associated with their HIV stigma, partner count, and HIV/STI testing behavior.

“You don't really get the full picture if the decision you're trying to make for an HIV prevention campaign is ‘Grindr vs. the local gay bar,’ added Card. “Our lives are much fuller than that.”

As Card points out, these findings only scratch the surface on the importance of community for gay and bisexual men. Future studies in this area need to continue monitoring patterns of community connectedness to make HIV and STI prevention services more accessible for folks often left out and marginalized.