At the Interface: Exploring theory in the practice of gay men's health

Written by Sarah Chown

I have been blogging on theories related to gay men’s health at the Community-Based Research Centre for Gay Men’s Health (CBRC) since September 2012. This project started with the goals of sharing the conversations that were happening in our reading group with broader audiences, and bringing a Canadian perspective to gay men’s health theories. In the past three years, I have looked at some theoretical frameworks and key concepts within the scope of gay men’s health.

While my position as a theory blogger and theory reading group co-convener may suggest otherwise, I am not always convinced of how these theories relate to men’s real lives, and gay men’s services, programs, and research. Throughout my involvement in gay men’s health as an outreach volunteer, a researcher, an educator, and a program coordinator, I have been both appreciative of, and underwhelmed by, the tools these theories have to offer.

I am clearly not alone in wrestling with the role of theory in our communities and movement. A notable theory scholar, bell hooks (1994), also acknowledges several concerns about theory and the ways it is used within academic and community settings. For example, she recognizes that theory is also often presented in such a way as to reproduce insider and outsider status within academia and movements.

hooks (1994, p. 63-64) also describes the potential that theory has as an intervention that can liberate and heal when made “accessible to a broad reading public”. She emphasizes that theory at its best avoids jargon, dense academic language, and abstract ideas and critiques. In hooks’ experience, theory is generated from lived experience, and thus at its core, must be understandable within those with shared experiences.

My continuing blog series, Under the Lens at www.cbrc.net/blog, attempts to relate theory in ways that are accessible and applicable to the work and research within gay men’s health. My new publication, At the Interface: Exploring theory in the practice of gay men’s health is a compilation of eleven blogs from the past few years. It is by no means an exhaustive list of theories relevant to gay men’s health, and is notably missing stand-alone entries on concepts such as minority stress, greater and meaningful involvement of people living with HIV, concepts of indigenizing and decolonizing our movements, and anti-oppressive practice. These topics will be the subject of future blogs.

The gay men’s health theories discussed in At the Interface consistently point to the necessity of addressing structural aspects of gay men’s lives. Over and over again, these theoretical perspectives point to structural factors that affect gay men, and the ways men are engaged in service provision. Despite the need to respond to structural inequities, these types of interventions produce change over the long term, and thus leave men’s immediate needs unmet. Theories presented here include opportunities for multiple approaches in our advocacy and service provision.

These theoretical perspectives illustrate the complexity and multiplicity of issues we need to respond to in our collective efforts to support and strengthen the health and wellbeing of gay men. Many of the theories and subsequent discussions in this publication are not new. The ongoing nature of these conversations highlights the depth of these issues, the challenges we collectively face in trying to address them, the need to continue to learn, and the importance of adopting diverse strategies to achieve shared goals.

However, the challenge remains in implementing these ideas into day-to-day work and collaborating with our partners across sectors and disciplines to ensure men’s needs are met. It is my hope that these theories can provide us with tools and language to hold ourselves and each other accountable in our work to strengthen the health and wellbeing of gay men.

At the Interface: exploring theory in the practice of gay men’s health is available here online in the Resource Centre. Print copies will be available through CATIE.ca.

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