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Look At Us Dammit! We're Not One Color, We're a Flaming HIV Rainbow!

By Dave R.

October 16, 2013

This article originally appeared on, Canada's Online HIV Magazine.

Sometimes I look at the gay lemmings springing joyfully off the social acceptance cliff, clutching their wedding bouquets in one hand and new spouses (hate that word!) in the other and I can't help but think ... well I'm speechless actually. Why are we doing it? Why do we want equal billing on everything from prime time TV shows, to Olympic podiums? Why do we feel the need to prove that we're as good as the straights in reality TV dog-eat-dog competitions and why do we desperately need the affection and respect of our neighbours when we set up our Martha Stewart shrines in suburbia?

I don't get it. Since when were marriage, a hubby/wifey; SUV; 2.4 dogs/cats; holiday cabins in the woods and well-paid jobs in the city, role-model aspirations for proud gay men and women? When exactly did we buy into the heterosexual dream, which has more or less shattered on the jagged rocks of divorce courts and the unemployment queues of crisis economies anyway? Maybe we'll be the ones to save marriage as an institution but somehow I doubt it.

Everything revolving around LGBT culture these days seems designed to achieve homogenisation and blending in seamlessly to 'normal' society so that we can be treated like equals and accepted as Tea Party candidates. The fight for so-called freedoms to have legal and social equality, may actually be a fight to put on the chains that the rest of society have had to put up with. Is our own culture so bad that we have to abandon it through misplaced shame!

Amongst the many things wrong with this quest for hetero/homo Utopia, is that there's a real danger that minorities within minorities, (people with HIV for instance), will end up being inconvenient reminders of the bad old days, when things were 'nasty and dirty' and we'll be discriminated against by our own as well as straights. Oh wait, that's already happening. It can be subtle but what happens when the first LGBT parents' group in the neighbourhood notices that there a couple of gay positive guys, or gay positive women having 'parties' which go on long into the night and young Justin or Susanna are asking questions before they go to school? Well we can't have that sort of thing now can we! Wisteria Lane has a lot to answer for!

Silly example I know but I sometimes I wonder if the growing conformists in our communities wouldn't really rather that we all shuffled off this mortal coil, or at least go and live in downtown apartment blocks, or shabby-chic lofts where we won't disturb them, or better still disappear into the low-grade tenements that still exist for the socially displaced. Some people want Dickens back for the Victorian chic, some want to restore Dickensian social segregation.

We're being expected not to rock the boat and get behind the equality flag and by definition, HIV-positive people are being forced into ever-shrinking shadows in the hope that we'll all eventually fade away. However, Mr or Mrs LGBT mayor, or local business association president, or head of the local LGBT youth movement; we never asked for this damned virus but it's here and our existence is being lumped with rampant alcoholism, biological warfare, societal disintegration and Yahoo-behaviour (not the search engine) as being indicative of what's wrong with society.

I'm beginning to wonder if modern LGBT thinking is more often than not a variety of paranoia confirmed by history, so maybe it's time for us 'less-equal' LGBT virus carriers to take a flight back to the '70s and be out and proud and shouting it from the rooftops again. I personally don't want to be stigmatised for my sexuality and I sure as hell don't want to be stigmatised for the virus I'm carrying but at the same time, I don't want to be absorbed by osmosis into society, LGBT or otherwise, so that I become an anonymous drone judged by my salary, the stuff in my house and my designer pill boxes. I'm gay and have HIV and am different - why should that be wrong and why should I be seen as a lesser contributor to the sort of society wanted by my peers as a result?

"If straight people empower more pride in your sexuality than queer people you need to start searching for queer role models who show you that you don't need validation from straight people to be successful." -- Touko-fukawaii

So what do us little bug-carriers have to be proud of and what can we trumpet from the rooftops as being additions to society rather than adaptations to fit in? I know, I know, the old 'pride' thing; it's a tired, old cliché these days but pride is being measured by many LGBT people in terms of marriage equality, legal rights, permission to speak, media visibility and uber-hunky, super hero role models who finally come out as being gay if it's career-expedient and yet there's so much more to be proud of. To my mind, we people with HIV need to rediscover our pride in being different!

What's so special about being gay and HIV positive?

Let's face it, being gay in the early years is not easy for most people; it's a rocky road to self-acceptance but we should still be proud of our 'journeys' (I won't use the 'J' word again) because by hook or by crook, we get there in the end. Having 'got there', becoming HIV positive can shake you to your foundations but again, getting through that is a character-builder that we can really be proud of. Instead we're very often propagandised into being ashamed, rather than proud of achieving viral balance and living on afterwards.

I'm sorry but no negative people of any sexual persuasion can make me ashamed of who I have become through having HIV but bless them for trying. People who come through cancer, or other life-threatening diseases aren't made to feel ashamed of the struggle to get well are they? They're praised for their fortitude and courage. Oh but wait, it wasn't their fault was it … ! Be proud if you have HIV; you've achieved maturity through fighting against a viral blitzkrieg whilst others have shown their immaturity through their ignorance.

Okay, given that we have something to be proud of in surviving HIV and being an LGBT person, why should we be taking to the streets with our megaphones to establish our pride in who we are? What have we got to offer that makes us so different and why should we refuse to retreat to the shadows?

Sex for instance!

"My god, they've got HIV and they still want to have sex!!"

Give that a minute's thought, all you heteros and conservative homos. You want to deny us what? You think that having a virus should mean that we automatically turn the switch off. Think again.

Are heterosexuals actually jealous of our sexuality and maybe more importantly, are some homosexuals ashamed of HIV-sexuality? You bet they are. Maybe not the physical acts (I'm not so keen on heterosexual sex either!) but they can see how we have developed sexual activity so that it's practically an art-form; full of sensuality, imagination, excitement, variety and unashamed pleasure and they can't wait to try it out in suburbia. Oh but hang on, not with the HIV tag thanks very much.

They notice that the missionary position is not the only possibility and that whilst for them the Kama Sutra is an aspirant dream, for us it is a kiddy-guide to the real book of fun. 50 Shades of Grey has opened up whole new worlds but excuse me … yawn … been there, done that in the '80s, moved on! LGBT people explore sex and try things out that straight singles and couples can only imagine in their wildest under the covers fantasies.

LGBT people with HIV, on the other hand, are forced by necessity to take it a step further and be more imaginative than ever, in order to protect their immune systems the best they can and keep the cops from the door. For us, sex isn't dirty, far from it; it's a physical expression of a natural need that yes folks, even the 'diseased' have! We know the difference between casual sex for sex's sake and relationship sex with inbuilt intimacy and depth and people with HIV know how to add safety without compromising eroticism … way ahead of you! Most of us can enjoy both without guilt whilst heterosexuals are still encumbered by guilt engendered by upbringing, cultural pressures and expectations.

More to the point, dare I say it; some LGBT people who are busy redesigning their closets to slip back into with their new bestie straight neighbours, are seeing HIV as the guilt that dare not and should not speak its name.

No wonder hetero marriages have a 50% chance of ending in divorce; the hang-ups about sex cripple many a couple's chances of developing their true physical potential. Let's hope that LGBT marriages can avoid those external pressures that lead to the divorce courts but the divorce courts are seeing their first gay divorces already -- something rotten in the state of marriage much?

Heterosexuals are not dumb; they can see how much we enjoy sex and how our culture has so much eroticism at its base. Many young straight men and women would like a part of it, if not a part of us, and they're trying hard to catch up, but social disapproval of anything that strays from the norm leads to frustration, cheating, guilt and all the rest. Do we really want to take all that on board in our rush to be 'normal'?

Finally, we know that sex is a spectrum and we take our pick from the shades of grey; mix and match and not limit ourselves to society's rules of who can do what to whom? We have looked at sex and made new rules to suit new times and it has created new freedoms and behavioural structures as well as fervent opposition from those who long for a bit of a rest from the HIV thang. If LGBT people want to rush into marriage, we need to build the same freedoms and common sense rules into the marriage constitution and then maybe marriage will end up as being a construct closer to reality and work better.

So what else makes people with HIV think they're so darned special?

Here's a few names for you to think about:

From writing:

Gordon Stewart Anderson, Canadian writer; Isaac Asimov, Russian-born US author famed for his science fiction work; Bruce Chatwin, British novelist; Sam D'Allesandro, US poet and fiction writer; Michel Foucault, French philosopher and writer; Larry Kramer, US author and activist; Vito Russo, US activist, Film historian and author; Randy Shilts, US activist and author; Edmund White, US novelist. There are dozens more who are as well-known or better.

From politics:

Edwin Cameron, South African Supreme Court judge; Roy Cohn, US lawyer; Chris Smith, British member of the House of Lords and ex minister; James K Dressel, US state representative for the Republican Party in the Michigan legislature; Ryuhei Kawada, Japanese member of parliament who sued the government for failing to prevent HIV transmission through tainted blood products; Nicholas Eden, British Conservative politician and son of Prime Minister Anthony Eden; Makgatho Mandela, South African attorney and son of former South African president Nelson Mandela. There are probably dozens more who are as well-known or better.

From sport:

Magic Johnson; Arthur Ashe; Greg Louganis; John Curry, UK Olympic figure skating gold medallist; Tim Richmond, US NASCAR racing driver; Ji Wallace, Australian gymnast; Michael Westphal, German tennis player; Roy Simmons, US athlete who played for the National Football League; Esteban De Jesús, boxer. There are dozens more who are as well-known or better.

From business:

Vasily Aleksanyan, Russian lawyer and businessman, former Executive Vice President of Yukos oil company, jailed as a suspected accomplice to tax evasion and money laundering, allegedly denied treatment in jail; Stephen D. Hassenfeld, US businessman best known for being the chairman and chief executive officer of Hasbro; Chuck Holmes, US businessman, founder of gay pornography studio Falcon Entertainment; Steve Rubell, US owner of New York City disco Studio 54. There are probably dozens more who are as well-known or better.

From music:

Freddie Mercury; Andy Bell (Erasure); Jorge Bolet, Cuban pianist and conductor; Cazuza, Brazilian singer and composer; Stuart Challender, Australian conductor; Eazy-E, US rapper, member of gangsta rap group N.W.A; Youri Egorov, Soviet classical pianist; Tom Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater revival; Andy Fraser, Free; Ray Gillen, Black Sabbath; Liberace; Klaus Nomi, German performance artist; Sylvester; Divine; Holly Johnson, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. There are dozens more who are as well-known or better.

From visual art and fashion:

Richard Amsel, US graphic artist; Robert Mapplethorpe, photographer; Keith Haring; Herb Ritts, US photographer; Gia Carangi, supermodel; Perry Ellis, US fashion designer; Halston, US fashion designer; Tina Chow, US model. There are dozens more who are as well-known or better.

All these people have lived or are still living with HIV. There just isn't room to print all the possible names and you will have spotted so many omissions but the point is not to collect a list of names but to show just how proud we as a group can be of the contribution we have made to society. These people are not all gay but they are or were all HIV positive, Should their names be quietly forgotten as well so as not to ruffle the feathers of those who just want us to fit in? I don't think so.

We've revolutionised the social scene. Pop culture and highbrow culture have been enriched by our presence and would have been even richer if some of those people had lived longer. You may say that most of these names come from celebrity niches but that's only because we can't name the millions who lived and are still living with HIV and are contributing at their best level to their own communities and in their own fields of work but haven't been given Warhol's 15 minutes in the spotlight.

For every celebrity name there are thousands of HIV-positive people getting on with and making the best of their lives and of those around them, each to the best of his or her ability. My point is that the lives of people with HIV are not something that should be ignored, or denigrated or stigmatised, just because others don't want to be embarrassed by our presence.

HIV is an accident waiting to go away but in scientific terms it's a fascinating one. It could have happened in any corner of society -- another virus, with another name, via another entrance to the body -- but to turn your back on it and stigmatise its people is a betrayal of human courage in the face of adversity. We're different because we've been infected with a virus that may have a very short lifespan in terms of human history, but that in itself is what makes it and us special.

We should be being lauded not condemned; but if that's not going to happen in society as a whole, those who've had the good luck to have avoided it should give us a little credit for having lit a few flames along the way. If they don't, people with HIV should stand up, shake our tail feathers and remind them. I'm HIV positive; I'm different; I'm proud of that difference and don't patronise me by looking down your nose again. Pride doesn't have to come before a fall now does it!

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