AIDS hysteria

AIDS and (recreational) drugs. It's a dangerous mix, but the danger is not just that described by the media lately; the danger lies also in our media's obsession with drugs and the impact that obsesssion has on all of our society.

The latest wave of hysteria over what is still presented as "the gays' AIDS" was inspired by the tentative discovery in one person of what may be a drug-resistant strain of HIV. Regardless of whether fears of a new mutation turn out to be justified, we should be asking some questions about the report itself and the public's reaction to it.

Today's NYTimes features a very frightening (although for reasons other than the paper intended) story in the center of the front page with the headline: "Gays Debate Radical Steps to Curb Unsafe Sex; Fear of a Severe AIDS Strain stirs talk of Intervention"

[Gay activists and AIDS prevention workers say] They want to track down those who knowingly engage in risky behavior and try to stop them before they can infect others.

It is a radical idea, born of desperation, that has been gaining ground in recent months as a growing number of gay men become infected despite warnings about unsafe sex.

Although gay advocates and health care workers are just beginning to talk about how this might be done, it could involve showing up at places where impromptu sex parties happen and confronting the participants. Or it might mean infiltrating Web sites that promote gay hookups and thwarting liaisons involving crystal meth.

Other ideas include collaborating with health officials in tracking down the partners of those newly infected with H.I.V. At the very least, these advocates say, gay men must start taking responsibility for their own, before a resurgent epidemic draws government officials who could use even more aggressive tactics.

Scared yet? That's the agenda. But actually, in addition to the weakness of its basic premises, there's a problem with most of the documentation used by the Times writer, Andrew Jacobs.

The piece discusses AIDS as if it were identified solely with the (American, male) gay "community," and every measure discussed for fighting its spread is directed to those "others" who supposedly comprise that community. Moreover, as usual this paper enlists the support of some of gaydom's more conservative "spokespersons." The result is some pretty scary stuff for the eyes of an activist who has survived the first 25 years of the epidemic (every one of them as a person with HIV disease) without succumbing to the hysteria of our "drug" laws.

Historian Charles Kaiser: "A person who is H.I.V.-positive has no more right to unprotected intercourse than he has the right to put a bullet through another person's head."

GMHC's executive director, Ana Oliveira: "It makes a community stronger when we take care of ourselves, and if that means that we have to be much more present and intervene [my italics] with people who are doing this to themselves and others, then so be it."

Treatment advocate David Evans: [who thinks gays are safe today] "You have to remember that was the era when Jesse Helms and others were saying that gay people got what they deserved, and that the government shouldn't spend any money to help them. There was a time when people thought, 'Oh my god, they're going to put us in camps.' "

POZ editor Walter Armstrong: [playing much less loose with our rights and with common sense, would leave the policing to gay organizations, but he thinks they should use widespread screening and a partner-notification effort to track users of crystal meth who have been infected] "I think there are ways to do interventions [again, my italics] ethically, sensitively and compassionately. There's a huge window of opportunity between criminalization and empty prevention messages." recently


The most reasonable voice included is that of author and clinical psychologist Walt Odets:

He and others said it would be more effective to try to identify the underlying causes of drug abuse and self-destructive behavior, including the difficulty of living in a society that rejects committed gay relationships while condemning homosexuals for having sex outside those relationships. Gay men, he said, are using methamphetamines as an anti-depressant.
Finally, at the bottom of the article we hear a reassuringly calm announcement from New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene about plans for
a more vigorous return to conventional H.I.V. prevention. Deputy commissioner Isaac Weisfuse says that his agency is planning to place information banners on gay Web sites and devote more money to hard-hitting ads about methamphetamine use.

And, he noted, the free condom has largely disappeared from public places. "Unfortunately, condom use has fallen off the radar screen," he said. "We need to do something we did well 20 years ago, which is to get condoms in every place people socialize or have sex."

In the end it's still about knowledge and condoms - for everyone, not the totally discriminate use of "screening" procedures, prohibitions against sex, drugs (always the drugs the establishment doesn't admit to), on line hookups, medical records or whatever they may come up with tomorrow.

Thanks for unpacking all this, James. I gave my own go at the mess on my "Wilma's Webworld" blog cited above.

principessa, who posted the comment above, really does have a terrific go at the hysteria I wrote about in this post and the one immediately succeeding it. To see the full text of the post he refers to go here.

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Published on February 15, 2005 2:06 PM.

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