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Moving Beyond the Crisis

HIV Watch

July 1998

"AIDS, as we have known it, is over."

When L.A. County epidemiologist Peter Kerndt spoke those words in 1997, he was pilloried by the HIV community. Will Eric Rofes, who makes the same claim the backbone of Dry Bones Breathe, experience the same fate?

I hope not. Both men are correct.

Crises don't last forever

Many realities -- uncertainty about who was infected, the explosive growth of new diagnoses and lack of effective treatments -- made AIDS a health crisis in the mid-1980s. But no health crisis lasts 17 years. When it does, it becomes a chronic situation, not because the abnormal become normalized, but because of the condition's duration.

AIDS in L.A. peaked in 1993. Today we are on the downward slope of the AIDS curve. New cases last year were close to 1986 figures. AIDS has become an endemic disease of gay men and others. The crisis is over. The long haul has begun. Dry Bones Breathe narrates the struggle between those who perpetuate the crisis myth and those who have moved beyond it.

Rofes, a past executive director of the former L.A. Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, understands AIDS as both a biomedical syndrome which marches forward, and an event which has been constructed as a crisis. The crisis experienced by gay men in the 1980s is over.

Why? An AIDS diagnosis in 1998 rarely means an imminent, hideous death. New urban sex cultures have re-emerged in the 1990s. And AIDS deaths have declined markedly. Rhetorical efforts to continue the fiction of an AIDS crisis are both debilitating and inauthentic.

Another voice added to the debate

Dry Bones Breathe refers to a prophetic vision given to the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. Originally used as a cipher for the renewed Israel that was to emerge after the Babylonian captivity, Rofes sees in the vision an image of the diverse, powerful post-AIDS cultures gay men have created. Dry Bones Breathe continues the debate between "neo-conservative" writers like Michelangelo Signorile, Gabriel Rotello and Larry Kramer and Sex Panic, a libertarian movement devoted to protecting gay men's sexual spaces and the culture which supports them. Rofes, writing from the Sex Panic camp, makes the first book-length response by a Californian to this debate.

This controversy is of little interest to me, largely because it habitually overlooks the Los Angeles experience. L.A. consistently has provided gay men with commercial sexual encounter spaces throughout the epidemic. The issue of access to baths and sex clubs has never been the issue it has for New Yorkers or San Franciscans. More importantly, as a Los Angeleno, in spite of our obsession with physical perfection, I do not find sexual liberation as defining of gay identities as age, race, class, geography and substance use. Maybe in Los Angeles we don't construct convoluted discourse about sex, we just enjoy it.

Challenges for AIDS organizations

Rofes is at his best when he discusses the implications of moving beyond a crisis mindset for HIV prevention activities and the work of AIDS-service organizations. He argues persuasively that prevention programs must be inclusive of a variety of gay health concerns. AIDS-service organizations will have no future if they perpetuate misleading crisis messages, fail to develop realistic services consistent with a chronic disease and explore core questions about their mission and purpose in a new age.

For all the assertions that gay men are out of the crisis mode and have moved on, Rofes is confronted with a paradox he never addresses. As his subtitle indicates, he must still use AIDS as a way of defining yet another generation of (post-AIDS) gay men.

The qualitative research used in the book, largely personal interviews not governed by any rigorous methodology, is of dubious merit. How many people were interviewed and from where were they recruited? Didn't Eric find at least one person who strongly disagreed with him? He gives the technical term "convenience sample" a new meaning.

A few reservations

Also, the nearly obsessive need for self-disclosure enervates Rofes' argument. The discussion of his annual rimming quota is a Seinfeld-esque example of sexual taxonomy and gratuitous exhibitionism. More importantly, does he really think the experiences of a person of his intellectual and political privilege could possibly be normative of any of the many gay communities in which he claims membership?

Although I find segments Dry Bones Breathe questionable and self-involved, I also found it engaging and thought-provoking. In a subculture which idealizes youth, it is refreshing to read the thoughts of an out middle-aged man. Those who ponder the ongoing convergence of HIV disease and gay cultures will benefit from a thoughtful reading of this book.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.