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Kirk Read

August 2000

AIDS in San Francisco

Infections may not really be up, but the curtain certainly is

Activists are squabbling over whether AIDS is over, but no one can argue that there is any shortage of AIDS drama these days. The national media has suddenly realized, after all these years, that there is indeed an AIDS epidemic in Africa, and, by golly, maybe it ought to be covered. This has everything to do with a series of badly documented media song and dance routines, including Al Gore's waltz with the pharmaceutical companies, the South African president's tango with alternative HIV theories, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health's "Crisis cha-cha," replete with Ginger Rogers-style backstepping. You people make me feel like dancing.

ACT UP San Francisco has provided some of the most entertaining, albeit corrosive, media stunts in recent memory. The latest, a co-production of David Pasquerelli of ACT UP San Francisco and Michael Petrelis under the retro moniker Queer Nation, was to publicize the sex lives of two local HIV prevention workers. The joint attendance of Petrelis and Pasquerelli at any meeting can usually guarantee an arrest, headline, or restraining order.

The men, Vince Vince Gaither, a.k.a. Sister Mary Mae Hemm of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, of the HIV Prevention and Planning Council (HPPC), and Keith Folger of the Stop AIDS Project, have advertisements on Bareback Central, a website where men into barebacking meet one another. Petrelis and Pasquerelli showed up at the July 13 HPPC meeting brandishing copies of naked pictures and personal ads featuring Gaither's page on the site. Their next stop was a Stop AIDS Positive Force meeting, where they displayed color xeroxes of Folger's page from Bareback Central. They explained that they, as Queer Nation, were exposing hypocrisy and "outing" the fellows. In an email release from Petrelis, he threatened that the two men were the "first of many who would be similarly outed."

Petrelis and Pasquerelli make particularly odd bedfellows here because they are at odds over whether HIV causes AIDS. Pasquerelli and ACT UP San Francisco contend that HIV is a lie used to demonize gay men and that HIV testing is a corrupt industry. Petrelis, on the other hand, believes that HIV causes AIDS and criticized the Department of Health for sex-negative campaigns which, he said, kept people away from testing sites. During his arguments before the HPPC, Petrelis accused Gaither of "infecting [his] brothers" and possibly being the cause of the much-publicized, falsely reported rise in San Francisco HIV rates.

It's just too easy to blame barebackers for spreading HIV. For all practical purposes, HIV isn't spreading any differently than it has since day one, except that now there's a sexy new term for it. Back in the day, people just called it fucking.

Hysteria and mudslinging aside, there is a valuable question in all of this. Should men who engage in barebacking serve at organizations whose goal is HIV prevention? Does their personal behavior constitute a conflict of interest with their prevention work? John Newmeyer, chairman of the HPPC, apparently believes so, since he called for Gaither's resignation.

I think people like Folger and Gaither could make extremely valuable contributions to HIV prevention efforts. I don't doubt their sincere commitment to reducing HIV transmission. Neither man is interested in infecting HIV-negative men. Besides, people don't generally put up with non-profit public eye jobs for the hell of it.

This is a complicated issue and demands a discussion longer than a soundbyte. Barebacking is not something one is for or against. This is sex, kids, not the Super Bowl. We're talking about a cultural phenomenon that is pervasive among gay men, especially in San Francisco. To reduce barebacking to statistics and judgmental soundbytes from well-heeled public officials is to miss out on the staggering complexity of the issue. Barebackers have been demonized as perverted murderers in the press, which has mostly failed to present the issue with even a modicum of sophistication.

As an HIV-negative man, I face the increasing challenges of staying negative. Especially in San Francisco, I notice many men going at it without condoms in their bedrooms, at sex clubs, and at private parties. Going to a sex club with this going on around me makes my own condom use especially difficult. It also complicates my partner selection process. If someone is looking for sex without condoms, they have a better chance at meeting those needs with someone like-minded. If someone approaches me and asks to bareback or tries to initiate condomless anal intercourse, I simply redirect them. Judging them for their choices isn't beneficial to anyone.

To stay negative and avoid other STDs, I've made a series of choices regarding boundaries and barriers. I certainly could have used some honesty and assistance from prevention efforts in this process. I need prevention efforts to speak to me about how I'm really having sex, not how I should be having sex. Note to the CDC: calling people names isn't a good way to convince them you're trying to save their lives. Those people are in Atlanta and they still haven't learned the one about flies and honey? They must all be transplanted Yankees.

Like me, many barebackers have thought carefully about their health, negotiated with others, and chosen whether to use condoms for anal sex. There are as many different health and ethical considerations involved in barebacking as there are barebackers. This is an intensely personal choice that is informed by that individual's health concerns, who his partners are, where and how he's playing, and his relationship with the virus, i.e. how long he's been positive and how he feels about that.

Telling an HIV-positive barebacker with an undetectable viral load that he's getting reinfected is a tough sell. And using guilt of infecting negative men isn't helpful, either. When it comes right down to it, we're only responsible for ourselves. People who get infected, regardless of the source, aren't victims. I thought we finished that conversation in the 1980s.

The media coverage of barebacking has done little to facilitate a reasonable and informed conversation. Seeing an opportunity for hot-button controversy, stories about barebacking are framed so that the issue is treated like abortion or the death penalty. The result is that gay men are divided into volatile pro-con stances. Theories about self-esteem are bandied about. Older gay men accuse younger gay men of being stupid and suicidal. Health officials accuse gay men of being irresponsible and reckless.

But no one's talking about the elephant in the room. Sex without condoms feels better, period. I don't care how many well-designed safer sex pamphlets get distributed. If prevention efforts can't be honest about that, then they're wasting everyone's time and money. Barebackers are saying this out loud. It's scary to hear, because it's so contrary to everything we've been taught to believe over the past twenty years. Safe sex may be hot sex, but unsafe sex feels better. Gay men, first and foremost, are human. So what the hell do we do with that?

"Use a condom every time" was a nice slogan in 1988, but many men don't follow that prescription. They make calculated decisions about not using condoms in particular instances based on a number of different factors. Making them feel like murderous lawbreakers or bad kids is counterproductive. We need prevention efforts that help gay men navigate the increasingly muddy waters of a sexual culture where men of negative, positive, and unknown serostatus coexist and have sex with one another.

Consciously including barebackers and kink-aware, sex-positive men in the infrastructure of AIDS organizations could bring prevention campaigns kicking and screaming into this century. Sexual tastes, like any sort of demographic indicators (race, gender, etc.) don't alone qualify anyone for a position. But neither should they be cause for dismissal. We must create a prevention strategy that reflects the way people are really having sex.

Yes, it would be much simpler if telling gay men repeatedly to use condoms led to absolute condom compliance. But it doesn't work, and such campaigns undermine our intelligence. The truth is, avoiding HIV in the current sexual culture is a daily struggle. It's confusing. It's situational. It's complicated. And it certainly can't be reduced to a snappy slogan or a bus stop poster.

Acknowledging that men are barebacking and treating those men with humanity is a step toward adapting for survival in the midst of a shifting epidemic. Being freaked out and judgmental is the equivalent of being culturally stuck. One of the main reasons people have car accidents is that they freeze up at critical moments. We as gay people are an incredibly adaptable and resilient bunch. We must learn to talk about barebacking in a complex, non-hysterical way, because it certainly isn't going away.

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Kirk Read lives in San Francisco and can be reached at KirkRead@aol.com and www.temenos.net/kirkread


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