Reviving The Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men's Sexuality and Culture in the Ongoing Epidemic, by Eric Rofes (Harrington Park Press, 1996)
Very rarely does one read a book that is of immediate and extreme personal and professional relevance, and at the same time challenges some basic assumptions causing you to rethink certain concepts. Veteran gay activist Eric Rofes has written such a book. Reviving the Tribe has the potential to become one of the most important works to emerge out of the AIDS epidemic. Gay men and younger "queer" identified men are all bound to resonate with the content of this important, delightfully written and wonderfully provocative book. Mental health professionals, AIDS prevention workers and sex educators working with gay men will all benefit tremendously from the issues raised, and visionary suggestions offered.
Rofes is neither an apologist for nor revisionist of the sexual Camelot many gay men forged during the years prior to AIDS. With a perspective firmly rooted in over twenty years in the gay liberation movement, he brilliantly contextualizes gay men's sexual experimenting with a respect that is all too sadly lacking in many of today's analyses. He describes the impact that the "mass catastrophe of AID" is having on gay men psychologically, interpersonally and communally. Rofes frequently cites pioneering psychologist Walt Odets' work on how AIDS effects uninfected gay men. Odets states: "I would place in the area of homophobia the entire idea, promoted in so many subtle forms, that the gay community "is doing well in the epidemic." Why should we do well in this situation, and what could that men?" Rofes chides the structures of our community and culture that with "few exceptions, seem hell bent on avoiding the depth of the impact of the epidemic." He describes the reverberations that the decimation of two generations of gay men is having on a community level. He poses disturbing questions about the absence of forums in which open discussion within the community outside of therapists offices about these realities can take place. He states that "until recently, I believed that the epidemic's impact on gay male culture had been limited to our intimate, interpersonal and communal relations- as well as hundreds of thousands of lives. But I have come to believe that we have our own "corpses of history" as poignant and meaningful to us as specific burned out shells of landmarks were to residents of cities that experienced mass bombings during WWII."
Rofes, very courageously and very persuasively offers explanations of why current attempts to halt new HIV infections among gay men have been such a failure. Just to make this statement is considered by many to be heresy and certainly controversial. Yet once he reviews and interprets the statistics, it becomes obvious that the greatly heralded "great change in gay men's sexual behavior" was not as sweeping as we were led to believe. As someone who designed several of the initial safe sex interventions for gay and bisexual men, this book provided me with a crucial understanding of why brief, simplistic behavioral workshops are not able to help gay men stay uninfected in the second decade of this plague. One of the great strengths of Reviving the Tribe is the author's consistent ability to pose difficult and perhaps unanswerable questions that have not had enough public discussion. He asks "Is an unambivalent commitment to survival possible in the face of a continuing cycle of infection, illness, deformity and death? Do men with AIDS who are long term survivors and long term asymptomatic HIV positive men share survivor guilt with HIV negative men? Is it desirable for gay men facing a future filled with suffering and loss to embrace survival above all else?"
Rofes questions how have we managed to create systems of gay male HIV prevention and mental health without strong components designed to support community wide trauma recovery? The early part of the book uses trauma theory to articulate a community mental health perspective describing living within the maelstrom of AIDS for the past fifteen years. Much of the focus is on the psychodynamics and realities of HIV negative men, and yet the community wide issues are relevant regardless of antibody status. "In the midst of a continuing epidemic, what possibilities exist for the resurrection of gay men's psyches? What resources are available to us and what kinds of programs need to be developed? Does the special nature of the AIDS epidemic introduce unbreachable barriers to psychological stability for highly affected gay men?" He laments the lack of any comprehensive, managed system of treatment supporting a community wide psychological revival.
With experts agreeing that following a trauma, no other therapeutic work should even be attempted until a reasonable degree of safety has been achieved, it is of critical importance when Rofes ponders "what is required for gay men to feel safe in the contemporary environment?" He continues by asking "can one feel anything that approximates safety in one's mind, body and relations during an ongoing epidemic? And can one do this without running away from the epidemic?" In addition he ponders whether gay men as a class ever enjoyed lives of safety? When exploring issues pertaining to men who are becoming infected with HIV in the 1990's Rofes cautions us not to pathologize them, nor simply blame this behavior on low self-esteem or sex conducted under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Nobody expected to have to change the way they had gay sex for the rest of their lives, and there in lies part of the explanation for new infections.
Some men may simply be prioritizing quality of pleasure over longevity of life. The role of both AIDS education and prevention (and Rofes distinguishes between these two concepts and efforts) is to make certain that gay men have all of the information about the risks of various sexual behaviors so they can make informed individually responsible choices. In addition programs need to be simultaneously attempting to help generations of gay men feel better about themselves so they will more often choose to make decisions that insures their survival.
In a liberal democratic society, Rofes posits, don't individuals have the right to, with complete understanding of the ramifications of their behaviors, engage in risky actions? Quoting Nora Kizer Bell, he states, "by its very nature democratic education -that is,- education that occurs in the context of a liberal democracy- will eventuate in something less than complete compliance with, or complete assimilation to its instructional message." What has been lacking in so many of the AIDS prevention efforts, he argues, has been any exploration of the meaning of various gay male sexual activities.
How important is it for some men to have a man inside of them without a condom, and to experience receiving (or giving) of semen as an intimate and possibly sacred act? Thus Rofes suggests that "a prevention strategy which recognizes many men's powerful desire for penetration and receiving semen might consider a long range, multigenerational approach to reducing transmission. Existing priorities which place prevention, halting transmission, and survival by any means necessary, must be superseded by education, empowerment, and acceptance of the diverse ways men will come to terms with life in the epidemic."
Rofes ends with some thrilling challenges for all of us who love the gay community in general and gay men in specific. "A change in strategy may lead us to assume a broad mission, focused on assisting a gay population besieged by death and discrimination to create forms of life that are worth living. An emphasis on quality of life, rather than length of life, may offer a modicum of hope and engagement now lacking; simultaneously it also may support a prevention agenda and ultimately lead to reduced HIV transmission. Reconceptualizing work with gay men's sex opens many new questions." Rather than inquiring, "how can we educate gay men to have only safe sex?" Or "Can we shift peer pressure so as to influence private acts as well as public?" We need to ask "How can gay men create lives worth living?" Or "What can community offer to gay men which is engaging, affirming and life-sustaining?" Rofes optimistically believes that "a rethinking of strategies with gay men may contribute to the regeneration of gay male sexuality as we approach the twenty first century. It requires the acknowledgment that gay men as a class do not embrace a single answer to the existential questions posed by the catastrophe of AIDS."
Rofes has given the gay men's community and those who care for and about it a profoundly important gift by challenging us to talk with each other about our most basic and intimate desires, hopes and dreams. Out of these discussions is the potential for a powerful transformation of gay men's lives in the midst of the ongoing epidemic that balances realistic hope with a practical acceptance that AIDS will most likely be with us for the rest of our lives.
From The Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services
© 1997 Michael Shernoff