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Silence still equals death

When political correctness results in death

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When Jack Pelham dropped a copy of The Gift by my house last week, he told me it was "technically rough ...but powerful." The video is being screened Nov. 16 during the Out on Film festival. Jack, my editor at the now defunct Etcetera, had asked me to participate in a panel discussion following next week's screening.

I'd read about the documentary. It concerns a subculture of gay men called "bug chasers." The bug they are chasing, nicknamed "the gift," is HIV. Yes, it's about men who are intentionally infecting themselves with the AIDS virus.

Jack's description was accurate. There is much about the documentary that is tedious. Its emotionality often feels so contrived that it can add to the disbelief one brings to the content at the outset. Nonetheless, you are left feeling you've encountered something so radically strange you keep asking yourself, "Why?"

Unfortunately, filmmaker Louise Hogarth doesn't engage much with that question. Her intention was not so much to delve deeply into a peculiar aspect of the AIDS epidemic as it was to bring general attention back to the disease with a sensational topic. After 10 years of decline, infection rates are rising again -- especially among young gay men who have become sexually active since AIDS became widely represented as a wholly manageable disease. This fiction, promoted by the AIDS care industry and drug makers in particular, has turned AIDS into such a condition of normalcy that it has become politically incorrect to speak negatively about the disease as more than a lifestyle variation.

Thus when Jim, a positive gay man in his 40s, explodes angrily to say that contracting AIDS now, when safe sex education is so prevalent, is "stupid," it's almost shocking to hear. Because it's exactly the same thing right-wing religious types have said for years, gay men have learned not to give voice to such sentiments.

Of course, gay men know that "stupidity" is beside the point in making a compassionate response once a person has become infected. But perhaps, as Hogarth is suggesting, we have become so sensitive that we don't speak the harsh truth any more: HIV is relatively easy to avoid. For the most part (accidents do happen), those who seroconvert have made an irrational decision not to protect their health. The infection, despite vaunted drug therapy, puts their health on a roller coaster that will end in early death.

Jim wonders why the uninfected don't speak out more: "Somewhere, there's a fabulous 45-year-old guy who has stayed negative -- all these years. I don't know him. I haven't met him. Why isn't he an icon? Why isn't he on a poster? He's out there, and we need to find him. He's not a prude. He's not an ugly nerd who spends his life in the library. He's a vital, alive gay man who cares about himself, and he has stayed HIV negative."

The truth is that there are many such men -- but there is enormous pressure for them to keep silent. When an HIV-negative man criticizes the behavior most responsible for HIV infection -- "barebacking," the nickname for unprotected anal sex -- he is frequently accused not only of insensitivity to people who are positive but to be violating the live-and-let-live sexual ethic that became foundational to gay sexuality inside a hostile broader culture. We have forgotten the admonishment of early AIDS activists: "Silence equals death."

Undoubtedly it's a small minority who practice bug chasing. Hogarth's documentary follows an article published last February in Rolling Stone. It turned out to feature some very fuzzy math, and its primary health-care source recanted his published statement that bug chasing accounts for 25 percent of new infections. One clue to how overstated bug chasing is -- despite the many Internet sites that fuel its fantasy -- is the fact that Hogarth's lead bug-chaser, Doug, is the same man featured in the Rolling Stone piece. Surely she could have found someone else. And when you parse Doug's language, you can't tell if he was explicitly seeking infection or behaving indifferently.

Another man, Kenboy, does set out explicitly to infect himself during the video, feeling that it is inevitable anyway since he lives in a house that hosts continual sex parties. Indeed, he ritualizes his infection by hosting a "conversion party" at which HIV-positive men are invited to fuck him without condoms. "I hate condoms," he says as he shoots pool, as if that were adequate reason to contract a fatal disease.

This blurring of intention between the two main characters makes one doubt that bug chasing, as an explicit wish to be infected, is that common. But it does signify something important: There isn't a hell of a lot of difference in setting out to intentionally infect yourself and doing it through indifference. Nobody doubts the latter is happening again to an alarming extent.

But we are still left with the question, "Why?" I'll try to answer that next week.

cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com

The Gift will be screened at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16, at the Landmark Theatres Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive. Discussion follows. Visit www.outonfilm.com for more information.

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