Cruising With Lazarus
The Fifth Annual "Just Shut Up" Awards
Every year, people around the world say all kinds of dumb things about HIV and AIDS. Are they misinformed, aggressively stupid or just plain insensitive? Here's a list of some folks who make you wonder what they were thinking before they opened their mouths in 2005. Their comments are best met with three little words: Just shut up.
Rep. Al Edwards
You can always count on something colorful from the state of Texas. Last year, veteran lawmaker Edwards (D-Houston) drafted legislation that would prohibit "sexually suggestive" performances at athletic events and other extracurricular competitions. Yeah, that's cheerleading. Why? "It's just too sexually oriented, you know, the way they're shaking their behinds and going on, breaking it down," proclaimed Edwards, a 26-year veteran of the Texas House. "And then we say to them, 'Don't get involved in sex unless it's marriage or love; it's dangerous out there,' and yet the teachers and directors are helping them go through those kind of gyrations." Edwards argued that bump 'n' grind cheers are so distracting, they lead to teen pregnancy, dropping out of school and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV. Apparently, in Texas, cheerleaders are indistinguishable from exotic dancers and have more impact on people's lives than, say, the Bush family.
It's against the law to have sex in a Tennessee prison. Do you think that stops inmates from having sex in Tennessee prisons? In fact, "sexual misconduct" is on the rise in Tennessee prisons, so health and HIV prevention advocates there called on the state to allow inmates access to condoms. Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Sluss responded by saying that would "send the wrong message" and encourage sexual activity. "If we were to provide them, it would be condoning a violation of policy," she said. Or, Ms. Sluss, another way to look at it is that you might prevent an HIV infection or two. The message might be that sex can have some pretty scary consequences and there are ways to protect yourself in prison and in the real world. The role of spokesperson tends to imply that you have some knowledge of a particular subject. It's doubtful Ms. Sluss knows that two state prison systems, Vermont and Mississippi, make condoms available to their inmates. At least five jail systems -- New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington -- distribute condoms to inmates. Condoms have been available in Canadian federal prisons for more than a decade and over 80% of European prison systems provide them. Got anything to say about that, Ms. Sluss?
Since 1992, Florida's Palm Beach County school system has offered students an abstinence-only program called Be the One (BTO). Huge federal grants of up to $800,000 made it possible to offer four- and six-hour BTO programs to health and science classes at over 40 public and private county schools. Last summer, its three-year grant expired, forcing the program to lay off the majority of its staff. Without new grants or donations, BTO will be forced to scale back and eliminate county school courses like the one Larry Baker teaches. BTO promotes bogus statistics and misinformation -- for instance, claiming falsely that condoms only reduce the risk of contracting gonorrhea to one in four and HIV to one in six. "If a pilot tells you there is a one in four chance the wings are going to fall off, are you going to stay on that plane?" Larry Baker asks students. Well, no, Larry. A reasonable individual would get off the plane anyway, because the pilot sounds like a crazy person. Larry certainly doesn't need to be teaching kids how to avoid STDs, and let's hope he doesn't take up flying, either.
Rep. Gary Beard
What is it about the male latex condom that sends some people over the edge? Last summer, Louisiana lawmaker Beard (R-Baton Rouge) introduced an amendment to the state's budget forbidding the Office of Public Health from using federal dollars to buy and distribute condoms. According to Beard, "The state doesn't need to be in the condom distribution business." Since 1993, the state has made condoms available in public places, including bars, restaurants, barbershops, liquor stores and motels. Beard said the money spent on condoms -- about $530,000 -- should be spent on prescription drugs for the elderly. Um, yeah ... there's a huge new Medicare program for that, buddy. But what's really bothering him? It's his deep conviction that condoms should not be distributed in schools. Okay ... except that Louisiana doesn't distribute condoms in its schools -- although it might not be such a bad idea, since the state's sexually transmitted diseases rates are among the highest in the nation and Baton Rouge ties with Miami for the second-highest AIDS case rate in the U.S. We hear you loud and clear, Rep. Beard, despite the fact that you have your head in your ass.
The lead singer of the popular European techno-pop band Erasure announced via his band's web site -- how very new millennium of him -- that he's been HIV positive for over six years. "Being HIV (positive) does not mean that you have AIDS," Bell wrote to fans. "My life expectancy should be the same as anyone else's, so there's no need to panic." Whom are you trying to convince, Andy? Maybe it would be terribly unhip of Bell to freak out, even a little bit. But it's odd, and frustratingly ironic, that Bell -- writer and performer of some of the most emotionally overwrought pop songs of the last twenty years -- would be so publicly indifferent about living with HIV. Erasure's biggest 1980s hit was called "A Little Respect." If you're a long-term survivor of HIV and AIDS, give yourself permission to have a little less respect for Bell, a celebrity whose message about HIV would seem to be So what?
Let's review the former Republican U.S. senator's record. In 1987, he said, "The only way to stop AIDS is to stop the disgusting and immoral activities that continue to spread the disease." 1988: "There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy." In 1995, when AIDS was the leading cause of death for both men and women aged 24-44, he wanted to cut funding for medical research and stop reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act because people with AIDS got sick as a result of "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct." In the waning months of his last year in the U.S. Senate (2002), Helms said, "I have been too lax too long in doing something really significant about AIDS." In addition to that grievous understatement, he promised, "I'm not going to lay it aside on my agenda for the remaining months I have." He did nothing -- unless you count a photo opportunity with rock star Bono -- to reverse the two decades he spent demonizing HIV-positive Americans. Last year, he released a memoir, Here's Where I Stand, in which he writes, "... it had been my feeling that AIDS was a disease largely spread by reckless and voluntary sexual and drug-abusing behavior, and that it would probably be confined to those in high-risk populations. I was wrong." Yes, Mr. Helms, you were wrong. We already knew that. The only question remaining is why it took you nearly 25 years to get that.
Last May, Church & Dwight Co., Inc., manufacturer of Trojan® brand condoms, announced they wanted to advertise during primetime network TV broadcasts. They promised their television spots would differ substantially from their comical radio ads featuring "Trojan Man," the baritone-voiced superhero who interrupts horned-up lovers to offer them a condom. Daniels, Trojan's vice president of marketing, claimed, "Our drive is not necessarily to get on primetime, but to get an important public health message out." Sure, Pinocchio. You want us to believe your company suddenly decided, 25 years into the AIDS epidemic, that now is the time to spend millions of dollars on public service messages in primetime? That particular spin lacks all credibility. What Mr. Daniels, or someone at Church & Dwight, should have said is this: Hey look, people, if sitcom characters can milk laughs from condom jokes and big pharmaceutical companies can advertise their boner pills and genital herpes drugs, then you better start thinking up some mighty compelling reasons to keep us off the air.
Even though no formal government or industry restrictions prevent condom ads from being shown on primetime network television, they were deliberately banished to late-night hours or cable networks with fewer viewers. The usual logic prevailed: Let's not air them when children might be watching. By 2005, networks could hardly purport to care about what children might see when the airwaves are now filled with ads for erectile dysfunction drugs and contraceptive patches. Last May, Trojan makers Church & Dwight asked ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, UPN and The WB to reconsider. By June, NBC and The WB agreed to run an ad Church & Dwight deemed to have "a poignant and sobering message." The message? 40 percent of people who are HIV-positive don't tell their partners. ... According to Craigie, Church & Dwight's CEO, it's all about changing people's perceptions around unprotected sex. "We're trying to shock them and shake their confidence." Most shocking is the fact that there is, in fact, no evidence to suggest that 40% of people with HIV don't disclose to partners. There's plenty of research about disclosure, conducted by everybody from the National Institute of Mental Health and Centers for Disease Control to Emory University and the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies. The 40% figure isn't there. Hey, Craigie and the rest of you Church & Dwight rubberfreaks! You made it up! Busted!
No, we're not done with the Trojan condom debacle yet. Apparently, no one at NBC, The WB or any of the cable networks that agreed to air Church & Dwight's Trojan ad questioned the commercial's claim that 40% of people with HIV don't tell their partners. NBC spokesperson Jacobs said the network had reviewed several Trojan spots and would air them, "given the health-oriented nature of this particular campaign." Now just suppose the Trojan ad said something like, "40 percent of women get pregnant on purpose to trap men into marrying them." Bet that would have made Shannon Jacobs pause from swilling her nonfat latte long enough to make some calls.
Did the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene discover a new, drug-resistant strain of HIV -- a "supervirus" -- that leads to AIDS in four to twenty months after infection? Last February, New York City Health Commissioner Frieden says they did and that bombshell announcement caused a predictable Chicken Little reaction in media around the world. Frieden even offered up an irresistible hook: the patient in question was a middle-aged gay man who flirted briefly with crystal meth at sex parties where he concedes he had more than a hundred sexual partners. To the man's credit, he was able to provide the New York Department of Health with enough contact information to locate many of those partners and subsequent testing failed to locate any patient with an identical strain. Leading scientists had been skeptical of the "supervirus" claim all along. By June, NYC's top AIDS official, Scott Kellerman, admitted that the single case of drug-resistant virus that Frieden publicized wasn't so super after all. In fact, the patient's "untreatable" virus eventually responded to HIV combo therapy and by year's end, not one additional "supervirus" case had arisen. Whatever Thomas Frieden's motives, that kind of melodramatic, premature public disclosure ultimately undermines the credibility of public health officials and makes him look like a publicity-sucking whore who would exploit any new development, proven or not, to frighten or shame people into practicing safer sex or quit having it all.
David Salyer is an HIV-positive journalist, educator and activist living in Atlanta, Georgia. He leads safer-sex presentations for men and has facilitated workshops for people infected or affected by HIV since 1994. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.!
This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News.
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