A couple of weeks ago, PositiveLite.com editor Bob Leahy suggested that I write a “rebuttal” to the August 2014 reprint of Kristian Johns’s article from FS Magazine, "Bug chasing - The ‘gift’ of HIV?". (I hasten to add that Bob’s invitation did not imply an endorsement of what follows by either him or PositiveLite.com, nor did I infer their agreement.)
I was immediately intrigued, but told Bob that I preferred the word, “response,” to describe my contribution: a respectful, playful response. Accordingly, I am happy to enter into conversation with Kristian or any reader who may wish to offer comment. Alas, I fear that the conversation will be one-sided insofar as disclosure of my bug-chasing past has invariably elicited silence, stunned or otherwise, from all but my trusty therapists and the publisher and editor at PositiveLite.com. As my mother taught me, however, “if at first you don’t succeed….”
“I hope you kept the receipt, bug chasers.”
I did indeed, Kristian; it’s inscribed on my soul. Like most gift receipts, it is literally price-less. Unlike most, it proclaims, “No returns. No refunds. No exchanges. Fuck that 15-day shit.” I don’t anticipate a reversal of that policy in my lifetime. Not for HIV. Perhaps, though, for HCV.
“Why on earth would someone deliberately seek to become HIV-positive? I can’t fathom it. Nothing in even my kinkiest fantasies…”
Then again, some things are unfathomable — by you, by me, by anyone. Isn’t that the very nature of kink, of queer even? Some things just are. I’d hazard a guess that I couldn’t fathom a fantasy or two of yours. I mean, like, “Eww! You’re turned on by that? You do that?”
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke has, I believe, the most sanguine approach to the unfathomable. “I should like to ask you, dear sir, as well as I can, to show patience towards everything in your heart that has not been resolved and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like sealed rooms and books written in a language that is very foreign. Do not hunt for the answers just now—they cannot be given to you because you cannot live them. What matters is that you live everything. And you must now live the questions. One day perhaps you will gradually and imperceptibly live your way into the answer.” (Rilke, R. M. [2011.] Letters to a young poet. [M. Harman, Trans.]. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. [Original work published 1929]). (Or click here for an alternative translation.) Please note that I’m not trying to distract you with the abstract. This bit of wisdom is as real to me as … as … as … well, as real to me as HIV.
“With a positive diagnosis also comes an automatic membership of perhaps the only gay subculture that still recognizes the word ‘community’. Poz blokes are a nice bunch; we’re a cohesive and judgement-free group….”
Excuse me? Are you saying, Kristian, that all HIV-positive gay men—never mind men who have sex with men but don’t identify as gay, and men, women, and children infected in one of the many ways it’s possible to be infected—belong to one big happy community? If it’s a community that embraces and celebrates deviancy, including, for example, bug-chasing—a community of not belonging I’d call it—then I’d tend to agree with you. But in the relatively brief period that I’ve known myself to be positive, I’ve found that a person’s relationship with HIV is as singular as the persons themselves and therefore a potential source of emotional or physical intimacy on the one hand, distance on the other, of curiosity or disinterest, of trust or suspicion, of pride or shame, of pure and simple like or dislike. I’ll confess that, right here, right now, I’m feeling much more jaded than I want to be. Community schmunity.
Perhaps I’m missing your point, the subtlety of what you intended to be an anti-anti-bug-chasing opinion piece. Perhaps I’m failing to appreciate your exquisite use of irony, ignoring my usual disposition to be careful to read between the lines, nudge-nudge-wink-wink. Regrettably, all I hear are overtures of judgment. Even your conclusion, “instead of demonizing people and thought patterns we’re never likely to understand”—is that the royal “we’re”?—morphs in the next keystrokes into a plea to “concentrate our efforts on empowering and equipping those men who want to stay HIV-negative.” Sounds to me like a variation on the long reviled and long-ago rejected theory and practice of conversion or reorientation therapy, this time targeting bug-chasers rather than “homosexuals.” I can’t fathom it.
Canadian journalist and writer Ian Brown puts it far more succinctly and beautifully than I ever could: “There are many ways to be human, and … judgment is our least valuable human capacity.”
(To digress for a moment on the topic of mixed messages, I’m reminded of the first and last meeting I attended of an ostensibly pro-LGBTQ group for Catholics. The chair began with an overview of the organization’s non-conflictual values: “We accept all of the teachings of the Catholic Church. And by all of the teachings, I mean all of the teachings. And we do not in any way question the sexual theology of the Church.” What the fuck?” I raged (inside) as I high-tailed it out of there and stomped the hour’s walk home. “Even the pope, the current one anyway, questions the sexual theology of the god-damned Church!” Judgment. It’s all about where we draw the lines.)
“Deliberately infecting yourself is the ultimate taboo, the most extreme sex act left on the planet, and that’s got to be pretty erotic for those who have tried pretty much everything else.”
Did I eroticize the taboo? Yes, definitely. But is bug-chasing “the ultimate taboo, the most extreme sex act left on the planet”? Who knows? Who’s to say? Not I, for I have assuredly not “tried pretty much everything else.” Truth be told, my sexual repertoire is pathetically limited. Hell, “vanilla” is my middle name.
In light, however, of the newfound infamy in Canada (and apparently worldwide) of broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi , I’ll grant that notions of deliberateness and extremeness raise interesting questions of consent regarding bug-chasing. Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled that “if a sexual activity causes bodily harm, a person cannot consent to it.” Anyone alleged to have caused such harm could face criminal charges. Ergo, could a person — me, for instance — lawfully consent to being infected with HIV? Could my “gift givers” face a trial and jail time were I to lodge a complaint with the police?
The questions of course are, for me, rhetorical. I will allow nothing and no one to deny the agency I exercised in pursuing HIV. Because that’s the agency I will exercise in continuing to live, in at last living life as fully as I can. Besides, I don’t even know the names of the men who acceded to my wishes.
“You might argue that bug chasers are wasting our precious tax money. After all, people with HIV are a drain on resources. Why should we support those who go out and catch it deliberately?”
Oh my god, don’t get me started on this point.
First, “you might argue”? Yes, one might. A costive-souled Ayn-Randian might. How about you, Kristian? Might you? Seriously, might you? For it’s not at all clear to me what you, as a self-proclaimed UK citizen who goes to work and pays his taxes, are advocating.
Second, you and I are blessed to live in countries with publicly-funded health services founded on bedrock principles of universality of care and accessibility to all — including those who, for whatever reason, are unable to work and pay their taxes. Those who, come to think of it, are the raison d’être of public healthcare.
Third, oh, I don’t know, crazy ideas like the inherent worth and dignity of the human person, equity and justice, freedom and liberty, keep on nagging at me. For what it’s worth, I have no doubt that they nag at you too.
“I don’t claim to understand [bug-chasing], nor do I endorse it.”
Ditto, and ditto. It’s always nice to end a conversation on a note of agreement, don’t you think? It opens us to the endless possibilities of being human.
I’ll leave the closing word to my new spiritual director or, better, spiritual accompanist, whom I met for the first time a few days ago. Not insignificantly, he’s a Catholic brother. I basically shared with him all that I’ve shared with you above. And as our session ended, he gently, lovingly said, “It seems to me that you’ve entered into a period of grace in your life.”