The Marketing of AIDS

"He looks too good not to be sick," John said, and I joined my workout partner's stare toward the deeply tanned, completely luscious man across the gym floor. At the moment he was doing bicep curls, his arms like enormous grapefruits in a spandex tube. His shorts could have belonged to his little brother and his tank top provided a thin string of fabric to coyly mask his nipples. And he had no trouble getting away with any of it.

He was a queer marvel.

"Yeah, no doubt," I answered at last, and we returned to our labors on the butterfly chest machine -- the only piece of equipment that is an absolute necessity. Should a gym ever catch fire, you can be assured of one thing: at some point early in the rescue, five gay men will emerge with the butterfly chest machine, carrying it aloft like Cleopatra in an Egyptian fantasy sequence as envisioned by Colt Studios. If there is more than one machine, you can expect repeated feats of courage worthy of the eleven o'clock news.

The man doing his bicep curls suggested to John and me, again, what had become our new theory on gay men in 1998. It seems that all the hot ones have AIDS.

Of course it isn't fair to generalize, and we all know that illness and death rages on for many people with AIDS. But for two men living with HIV, working out on a typical weekday at the gym, the visuals suggest otherwise.

"That guy goes to my doctor," John says, pointing to a man with a stomach I could wash my socks on. "He wasn't half that big a year ago. Looks pretty good, huh?" Everywhere we turn we spot men from our support groups or pharmacies or from a quick glance in the lobby of the local AIDS agency.

Gay men who went out on disability but never got sick -- or got well again -- so they collect insurance checks and have their days free to work out. All that extra time, all those cloying International Male ads daring them to be hunky. You do the math. Meanwhile, their doctors are prescribing steroids and testosterone, purely medicinal mind you, and these men are bulking up faster than Bill Bixby in a bad mood.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, John and I are intimately familiar with this phenomenon. John has been on disability for years and recently began his gym routine in earnest, aided by various drugs prescribed by his doctor. I still work full time, but after a blood test showed my levels were a teensy bit low a few months ago, I've been getting regular doses of testosterone. Woof. With a little work, I might aspire to become one of the fastest growing gay "types" of 1998: the AIDS Clone. It would include the beefy upper body and fabulous arms, but may also include, if I'm not careful, the flat "AZT butt," the extended "Crixivan belly," or the spindly legs from muscle wasting.

Due to pure laziness, I already have the spindly legs but, as I keep telling John, I do not care to work out my legs, thank you very much. "But you have to have overall health, Mark," John will say, and I will answer, each time, that it is my intention to look incredible from the waist up and I'll wear jeans and I don't care what the rest looks like. Ever mindful of the holistic nature of exercise, am I. When is my next testosterone shot again?

In the topsy turvy world of AIDS these days, nothing is as it once was. Death rates are down, sex clubs are back, and many of us living with the virus have taken "empowerment" to the next level, which might include practicing a new form of viralcentricity. Why bother sleeping with men who are negative? Who needs the added anxiety?

A friend of mine had a very attractive man in hot pursuit of him recently. They chatted in the bar and were negotiating plans to leave when my friend mentioned he was negative. The face on his object of desire fell like a tousled pound cake, and he finally said to my embarrassed friend, "Really? I figured you were positive.... I have kind of a rule about that."

My friend does have some awfully fine arms and a slight belly he's been working on, so that might explain the confusion. But only in 1998 could a man be rejected for being negative and feel apologetic for his status.

The AIDS media, propelled by the marketing of drugs to treat HIV, seems to believe that memorial services are out of style and everyone with AIDS enjoys rock climbing. Pages of advertisements in gay media are devoted to handsome, chiseled men with AIDS, happily taking their drugs while keeping up a hectic schedule of pumping iron and fantasy dates. After checking out some of the fine men in these ads, if I didn't have HIV, I'd sure want it.

Where did all the sick guys go? Not far, just out of sight. When a friend died recently, it was after months of isolation, during which time he grieved that the gay community, and AIDS media, seemed ashamed of him. "I open these magazines and don't see anyone who looks like me," he would say. His wasted look had gone out of style.

It has been replaced in our world view by gym buddies, biweekly testosterone injections, sleeveless shirts and generous insurance benefits. And it comes with its own, utterly misleading marketing campaign.

AIDS. It's not a disease. It's a Club Med vacation.

Mark S. King lives in Atlanta, and has just completed his first book, In A Place Like This. He can be reached at