“Some people are going to think, ‘Oh god, why did he not take steps to prevent HIV? Why did he act recklessly, and who the hell does he think he is, I saw people die from AIDS!’” A friend and colleague whose candor is always helpful said this to me over lunch recently, and his words have stuck with me over the past day
Most interestingly, I’ve noticed that those most receptive to my messages are under 30, those 30-50 are generally receptive but ask more poignant questions, and those over 50 are oftentimes, not always but often, openly hostile to my writing on bareback sex and HIV. In the next few months, I’m going to be speaking at several sexual health seminars and symposiums, and I’ve been assessing my own writing and essays on sex, barebacking, HIV, and personal responsibility, and I’ve reached the same conclusion that I originally had when I began writing on HIV and sex; that is, we are inadvertently sustaining HIV infections and continuing this epidemic because we are unable to confront our past honestly and without emotion.
I was born in 1984. Personally, I have no firsthand recollection of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Ryan White, Arthur Ashe, the AIDS quilt’s beginnings, Rock Hudson, C. Everett Coop, or the obscene neglect the United States government took in relation to HIV/AIDS throughout the entire 1980s. Rather, all of my knowledge of these things, people, and movements comes from oral histories from LGBT elders that are my friends, exhibits at places like the William Way LGBT Community Center’s stellar John J. Wilcox, Jr., Archival space, named after a man I am heartened to have called a friend, and from textbooks and documentaries. In addition, when I began to go through puberty and learn about the physical and sexual changes taking place in my body, it was the late 1990s, Bill Clinton was president, HIV/AIDS organizations and infrastructure had been in place for over a decade, and my teachers, parents, and mentors knew how HIV was transmitted, how HIV was not transmitted, and HIV’s timeline of progression in the human body.
When I was growing up, there was no plague where funerals were being attended every week. There were no candlelight vigils, there were no large scale protests interfering with traditional institutions of power and policy in the United States; rather, there was knowledge, there were early concepts of treatment that are still being used today, and there was a local, state, and federal government trying its best, guided and sometimes provoked by activists and advocacy organizations, to respond most effectively to HIV/AIDS.
Instead of learning about HIV through my own experiences or through seeing friends or loved ones suffer or die too early, I learned about HIV as an abstract concept far removed from my own life. Of course, this abstract viral boogeyman was as frightening as it was imaginary; after all, when our own innate fears are coupled with histories, real or not, of our elders and teachers, we manifest these fears in irrational terror and paradoxical behavior, like posting links on Facebook to condom campaign websites but barebacking someone we met on Adam4Adam because he said he was “clean.”
For years, I was terrified of this virus because it had seemingly no effect on me or my own circle of friends and family; rather, it was something that we knew existed, we knew how to prevent, and we knew how it attacked the human body, but this knowledge was predicated on the idea that I was born, luckily, at a time where I did not become a man or a sexual being until long after the early days of the virus spreading rapidly through the gay community. Of course, the only reason HIV/AIDS took off throughout the gay community is because gay men engage in anal sex which allows for easy access for the blood barrier to be crossed between sexual partners because of, often entirely unnoticeable, usually microscopic abrasions and tears around the skin on the penis or inside the anus.
Contrary to the belief of some misguided idiots who think HIV/AIDS was god’s divine judgment toward those of us who like to kiss men, HIV only seemingly “picked” the gay community because of this fact; if straight women were clamoring to engage in anal sex like gay men typically do, they would have been the ones who bore the brunt of HIV/AIDS. Instead, because gay men are the ones who engage in this, admittedly fun, activity, we were the ones who suffered the most during the early days of HIV/AIDS. And, to this day, the LGBT community overall, including transwomen and gay men, are dramatically disproportionately affected by HIV because of this fact.
So, like the Holocaust, the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic are a mere idea my generation and the generations after mine have to learn about from our elder peers, from our teachers, or from our books. We have no concept of the human tragedy endured by millions; we have no firsthand account of what things were like. And, this is why our experience as HIV+ people born post-AIDS outbreak is entirely different than that of those who lived during this time as sexual adults. Now, this is not to say that either experience is better or worse; rather, our experiences are equally as valuable and equally deserving of a seat at the table when it comes to outreach, prevention, and care.
Notwithstanding, if we are to successfully combat the tide of rising HIV infections brought on by what older folks like to call “recklessness” but what I like to call “natural human behavior,” we must be willing to honestly look at ourselves and admit that nobody has a monopoly on HIV/AIDS, and the fact that someone lived through something does not automatically give them deference on opinions just as the fact that I am HIV+ most definitely does not give me absolute authority on all things related to HIV. Rather, on the logical and science-based merits should we approach HIV/AIDS today without the baggage and trauma, both experiential on part of our elders and vicarious on part of my generation.
This is the current approach of the more misguided folks in our LGBT elder generation, generally, in relation to HIV: tossing out HIV stigmatic slurs like calling me, literally, a “murderer;” browbeating young men who bareback as “reckless;” advocating condom use over everything else; making people who bareback feel bad about themselves; shrilly obsessing over death when telling 20 year olds about the 1980s instead of honestly admitting that you were at the DCA club also getting topped on the truck bed at the bar; claiming falsely that dental dams are used widely to prevent hepatitis and so should condoms for anal sex; ignoring the fact that part of sexual liberation means engaging in natural human sexual activity like bareback sex; and, ignoring all scientific literature that refutes every single backward notion born out of 1990 and early treatment that effectively was more toxic than HIV itself.
If this approach worked, then we would not be seeing a steady rise in HIV infections.
So, let’s stop damaging the lives and futures of young people today by taking a step back and stop forcing other people to obsess over our own memories, effectively refusing to allow these men and women to experience life on their own without the specter of a de facto Holocaust; the time of this period is over. We have antiretroviral treatment with no side effects that literally both gives us life expectancy into our 70s while simulanteously preventing us from being able to transmit HIV whatsoever (when we adhere to this medication); we are not dying, we are living. And, we are not frightened anymore because now that some of us have seen HIV for what it is. In particular, we know that HIV is a virus that will kill us if left untreated but that it is also a virus that is, today, incredibly manageable with the right governmental approach toward treatment availability like exists here in Philadelphia.
Human tragedy should never be swept under the rug or forgotten. And, we should strenuously remind folks that these things went on, that good men and women died needlessly and far too soon. But, we should not predicate our public health efforts and prevention efforts on the idea that we should force people to remember our dead friends or a tragic decade that future generations had nothing to do with. After all, if this fear-based approach was effective, nobody would get HIV anymore.
The fact that I’m writing this and HIV+ refutes that hypothesis.
This article originally appeared on Josh’s own blog here.