Let's Talk About AIDS: The Erasure of Gay Activism
By Zachary Howe
The scariest thing about gay politics these days is not the ongoing stupidity of extremist Christian homophobia or setbacks in the march towards marriage “equality.” The scariest thing about gay politics is still AIDS.
Yes, people continue to die from AIDS-related causes. In 2012, 2.3 million people worldwide contracted HIV and 1.6 million people died of HIV-related causes. But rates of infection have slowed, especially in some of the countries with the highest prevalence rate. In the United States, too, the rate of the disease’s spread and its mortality rate have dropped tremendously since the ’80s and mid ’90s, and this is cause for celebration.
But maybe what is scariest about AIDS in the United States is that it has become only a cause for celebration. When the mainstream media does address the virus, it is often to show “how far we’ve come” or “how much things have changed.” Long ago, we read, AIDS was an unstoppable epidemic that was ignored by the government and led to a lethal ostracization of gays from their families and communities. Now, we have come so far that the gays are even getting married! America used to not understand gay people and their gay diseases, but now it does!
I would like to assert that America still does not understand gay people and our gay diseases.
Instead, America erased our gayness — the sex we have — and, in the process, erased our gay disease. These had to happen together: to acknowledge AIDS is to acknowledge that gay men have sex.
This erasure is readily seen in the media’s reception to ‘The Normal Heart’, a recent HBO movie about the initial outbreak of AIDS in the early ’80s, based on a play by activist Larry Kramer. The choice of a Kramer play as this year’s Big Engagement with AIDS is already problematic — as the movie itself dramatizes, Kramer was always rather anti-sex, having written a book in 1978 denouncing gay men’s promiscuity (‘Faggots’). He also insisted, in much of his activism, on gay men preventing the spread of the disease by reducing their sexual activity.
The main problem with both the movie and its reception is that, in celebrating the heroic work activists did in the ’80s and ’90s, activism, and especially gay activism, begins to sound like a quaint, outmoded idea. Nowadays, we read in the New Yorker that it’s right-wingers who “claim they’re being bullied” by gay lobbyists, not the other way around. How silly the idea of gay activism must be! The New York Times similarly makes activism seem unnecessary by asserting that the achievement of mainstream gay rights objectives — marriage and positive media representation, for example — have ended the AIDS crisis: “epidemics of isolation and loneliness have given way to same-sex marriage and the Michael Sam kiss. ‘The Normal Heart’ plays into this progress myth all too happily: it ends with the protagonist “marrying” his lover as the latter dies of AIDS-related causes. To an audience in 2014, the message is loud and clear: then, they had AIDS and just wanted to get married; now, we don’t have AIDS and can get married.
But AIDS and married people are not mutually exclusive. Despite that heartwarming kiss, huge numbers of queers in America are still isolated and lonely. Queers go to jail and become homeless at higher rates than their straight peers, largely because trans* women and gender-non-conforming people of color are targeted by police for low-level offenses more often than others. Often expelled from their families and support networks, they have no safety net to fall back on.
In the media’s obsession with state-by-state gay marriage contests, there is little discussion of these issues. Equally erased is the ongoing HIV crisis, whose current iteration is HIV criminalization. Thirty-three states have laws specifically targeting HIV-positive people. Such a law might persecute someone who “failed to disclose” their HIV status to their partner, even if the virus wasn’t transmitted. Even acts that pose no risk of transmission, including acts not specific to sex such as spitting and biting, can be criminalized. For example, spitting at a cop is considered “assault with a deadly weapon” if the spitter is HIV-positive, despite the fact that HIV cannot be spread through saliva. Such a charge could be brought against someone even in a state without HIV-specific criminal laws: because the disease is often still thought of as a “weapon,” one could be called a murderer anywhere.
Reviews of ‘The Normal Heart’ make these continuing problems invisible. They make gay people and people living with AIDS sound like fully integrated and accepted parts of the American population. But, in addition to legal persecution, people with the virus continue to face huge levels of stigma, based mostly in ignorance of the disease — it’s not at all uncommon for folks to refuse to hook up with positive people, even if the specific sex acts involved would pose no risk of transmission. Or for people to not get tested or not disclose their status for fear of ostracization. Or for people to be unable to afford their HIV medication. Or, yes, for people to go to jail because they are HIV-positive.
By talking about gay marriage victories instead of these problems, the media makes further gay and AIDS-based activism sound pointless. They historicize gay suffering and gay fighting so that we only think the battles that were already won are worthwhile.
Indeed, the only space given to activism in either the New York Times or New Yorker reviews is equally toxic to further fighting. In the New York Times, Kramer is asked about Truvada, a pill long used to treat HIV and that has now been approved by the FDA and recommended by the CDC to prevent HIV. A pill that protects your body from a deadly virus seems, to some people, like a miracle. Such a pill could also be seen as the fruit of three decades of activism, which has sought to force the government to address the AIDS epidemic as gay men themselves wanted it addressed — not with morals about the values of monogamy and safety, but rather with tools that would allow us to live our lives (have gay sex) without fear and danger.
Larry Kramer rejects this understanding of Truvada, saying:
“There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom.”
If the goal of Kramer’s activism was always to prevent the spread and reduce the fatality of this disease, why is he so opposed to a new mode of attack? And why does the press give him space to talk about that?
Because Kramer puts all the responsibility on individuals. Calling gay men “cowardly” for trying out new methods of prevention? How about the pharmaceutical companies that took 30 years to offer something besides condoms for prevention? Or the state governments that are incarcerating — rather than treating — people who have a disease? Indeed, much of the mainstream discussion around AIDS centers on individual responsibility: if people aren’t using condoms, they are going to spread the virus.
The problem is that this is simply no longer true. In fact, the CDC has stopped using the phrase “unprotected sex” to mean “condomless sex,” recognizing that, when it comes to HIV, there are many ways to reduce risk: people who are positive can keep their viral load “undetectable,” hugely reducing the risk of spreading the virus; the positive partner can choose to be the bottom, because tops are less likely to contract HIV; one or more partners can be on Truvada; or, you can not have intercourse.
By making the crisis all about individual choices, we erase the need for further advocacy and activism. If HIV prevention is all up to the individual making the right decisions, there is no need for people to come together and demand better choices and solutions (like funding for medication, housing subsidies, or even a cure). This is especially damaging considering that most of the progress that has been made toward controlling the disease has been a result of community solidarity and activism: from ACT UP protests in the ’80s that focused on developing new treatments more quickly, to the anti-criminalization agitation by groups like Queerocracy and the Sero Project that recently resulted in Iowa being the first state to repeal its HIV-specific laws.
Truvada represents a generation of gay men reclaiming sex on their terms and insisting that they can be both healthy and promiscuous, that their sexuality doesn’t have to be contained within a legally-married spouse in order for it to be healthy. Truvada is the result of a community advocating for care on its terms.
But we still need AIDS activism now just as much as ever. This virus still doesn’t have a cure, and people still die from it, and not just “over there,” where the New Yorker relegates gay-related conflict: “just read the news from Russia or Brunei….” People’s lives are ruined by it when they are incarcerated or have increased prison sentences due to being positive. This problem will not go away without communities coming together to demand care instead of incarceration, education instead of stigma. Despite what outlets like the Times and the New Yorker want you to think, AIDS activism isn’t over, queers aren’t yet “equal,” and the spread of gay marriage isn’t going to prevent the spread of AIDS.