Taking Care

It does not take a rocket scientist to see how the culture of barebacking and the stealthy reemergence of gay bathhouses play so elegantly into the hands of people and forces hostile to gay men and women.

The word "barebacking" makes me sick. If someone is HIV-negative, the practice of barebacking may make him sick.

I am sorry that for too many gay men -- many of them young and bursting with hubris -- the wearing of condoms is too much to ask. I have been affronted by the abject willingness of some of my more casual sexual partners, knowing full well that I'm HIV-positive, to have anal sex without a condom. What's up with that?

It does not take a rocket scientist to see how the culture of barebacking and the stealthy reemergence of gay bathhouses play so elegantly into the hands of people and forces hostile to gay men and women.

Two years ago, Oklahoma Republican Congressional Representative Tom Coburn's proposed "HIV Prevention Act of 1997" was justifiably met with resentment by AIDS activists and others to whom the proposed law represented unjustified and coercive federal intrusion into private matters. [Editor's note: While not identical in content, the Coburn bill contained provisions similar to the Orwellian surveillance provisions in New York State's new law and other proposed legislation around the country.] Rep. Coburn is a medical doctor, and his motives may not have been malicious, but I do not imagine he was acting from a surfeit of compassion and goodwill toward people living with HIV, or toward gay people in general.

Log Cabin Republican Rich Tafel's comments about the Coburn bill were cogent and on target: "Overall, I do think the gay community has to become more sophisticated in its approach to AIDS in the next decade and deal with the reality of notifying partners.... If we don't take responsibility in stopping the spread of this disease, somebody will. I can feel that coming."

Ominous but true. However, I was struck by a profound irony in Tafel's remarks. IN THE NEXT DECADE? Who says anyone will have the luxury of the next decade?

As a man in his 40s living for seven years with HIV, I cannot help but reflect, with much regret and some bewilderment, on the last decade. In addition to fighting the HIV virus within my own body, I have joined with thousands of others fighting it on many fronts. I volunteered for two years at New York's Spellman Center, one of the earliest dedicated AIDS wards; the growing number of patients with TB forced me to quit rather than to compromise my own health. I served for three years on the board of Body Positive, a major AIDS service organization. (Let me note here that my opinions are strictly my own.)

None of this makes me special. I mention it only because I feel I've paid my dues, and I want to get a few things off my chest.

I wish I could wait until after the elusive "cure" to contribute my two cents to the historical record and perspective of AIDS. But HIV itself, as always, demands urgency.

Rep. Coburn's HIV Prevention Act is the product of a stubborn misconception too many straights have had for too many years: Virtually all gay men have AIDS and are spreading it like wildfire, with abandon. Gays have a misconception all their own, and it has been a crippling one: Straight America, from day one, saw AIDS as a God-given opportunity to arrest the disgusting practice of anal sex among gays.

These two misconceptions have allowed many straights and many gays to throw broad blankets of hostility and mistrust over one another. They have camouflaged, and sometimes suffocated, the humanity and goodwill of heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.

The gay misconception, I feel, had its genesis in the dark and terrifying days of the early '80s. Death was striking without reason or warning, and hysteria was mounting. Embryonic organizations were forged in the crucible, most notably New York City's Gay Men's Health Crisis. Two powerful messages, urgent and unfocused, were sent out to the gay community: SOMETHING IS KILLING US AND WE HAVE TO STOP IT! That was the right message. WATCH OUT! THEY'RE GOING TO STOP US FROM HAVING SEX! That was the wrong message.

I have, or course, the benefit of hindsight, and it's hard to consider nuances when Pearl Harbor is being bombed. But strategic missteps were made, I think, and the price is being paid to this day.

I am enormously respectful of Gay Men's Health Crisis, yet enormously critical. Early on, rather than putting the focus solely on stopping the transmission of AIDS through willful behavioral changes of those at risk, GMHC gave as much time and effort to the politics of AIDS as to its clinical and health imperatives. The organization gave itself a virtually impossible task. Battling Ronald Reagan's callous indifference and Jesse Helms's disinformation was a full-time job. Educating the gay community and partnering with physicians against the spread of AIDS was another.

In many ways, gay men were left spiritually and morally adrift amid all the politics and medicine -- and perhaps many remain so even now. When Rich Tafel talks about "the reality of notifying partners," isn't he talking about moral choices?

Am I to understand -- in 1999 -- that it's debatable whether a person with HIV should reveal his or her status to a prospective sexual partner? I thought gays were living an alternative lifestyle, not an alternative morality (the barbs of the Christian Coalition notwithstanding).

I am haunted by Dylan Thomas's words:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My problem is we've dampened our rage and replaced it with complacency. A lot of people with HIV smoke and drink like there's no tomorrow. And I keep hearing this absurd analogy between HIV disease and diabetes. Excuse me, but you can take my HIV back -- I'll take my chances with diabetes.

Let me toss out a provocative little thought: Do gay men, including myself, understand that they might NEVER AGAIN be able to have "unprotected" anal sex without transmitting known and as-yet-unknown diseases? This is how epochal, how profound, how extraordinary this all is.

I take Rich Tafel's words as a wise warning: "If we don't take responsibility ... somebody will." I'm optimistic enough to feel, and to say, that if we fully loved one another, AIDS would be stopped dead in its tracks. To paraphrase Smokey the Bear, Only you can prevent AIDS.

Dennis Rhodes is a poet and writer who lives in Provincetown and who serves as Poetry Editor of Body Positive magazine.

Back to the March 1999 Issue of Body Positive Magazine