[oasis] [columns]

Michael Walker and Dr. Katherine Fordham

December 1996

 

Life, Love and AIDS

 

Well, this is the first edition of our new column for Oasis, and off the top we’d like to say that we are both proud and excited to be here. The human immundeficiency virus (HIV) and the terrible disease which it causes, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, have become THE major public health problem of our time. It’s a disease which can infect anyone and certainly has infected people from all walks of life and all races and ethnic populations, but is also a disease which has been associated with gay men from the earliest cases of AIDS in the United States. While this link between AIDS and gays has caused unjust fear, misunderstanding, and hatred towards homosexuals; it is important to realize that gay men still make up a large percentage of all people who are infected with the disease, and if you are gay and sexually active, AIDS should be a very real concern in your mind.

What we intend to do for this first column is provide some common questions and answers concerning AIDS, sex, and related issues. These questions come from teens and young adults -both gay and straight- whom we’ve had the chance to talk to in various instances. We have tried to present the questions which we were asked time and time again; the questions that seem to be on the minds of many young people.

If you have a question for us, please let us know! We’ll try to answer it in an upcoming column and if we don’t, we will attempt to contact you directly (if you want us to) and provide you with the information you need. We both feel that even though AIDS has been a huge health problem for well over a decade; there still are not enough places where teens can get accurate and non-judgmental information concerning the dangers of the disease and the practice of safe sex. When you’re young AND gay, it makes things even worse, because unless you know the person whom you are asking for help will not judge you based on your sexuality; you may be risking a lot just by asking for information.

But remember, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to ask about a difficult topic like this, it is always far better to get useful information than to risk something far greater: your life. Now for the questions:

Q: We have sex ed. in our school, but they never cover gay sex at all, and since I’m not “out”, I don’t feel comfortable about asking questions about it (gay sex) in front of my whole science class. Besides, our teacher’s a conservative Baptist. I mean, she’s got a “Dole/Kemp” bumper sticker and everything! Do most schools offer better sex ed. programs and programs which are helpful to queer youth? And why don’t they offer better sex ed. for queer kids if they don’t?
A: Mike Walker

Sex education varies so much from one school district to another; decisions regarding any school curriculum can be made at either the state level or the local school board level. And then the schools have some choice about exactly how they want to teach the information that they are told to convey to their students. Unfortunately, the way the process for developing and instituting curriculum like sex education is run there is often ample opportunity for people who don’t want gay issues -or even sex ed., period- in the schools which their kids attend to vote against such curriculum. They can come to school board meetings in many cases and try to convince the board not to adopt sex ed. curriculum which the state board of education has suggested, and as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes such conservative activists win through their sheer numbers or local influence. Even when their opinions make no scientific or practical sense!

Q: Okay, so where are queer youth supposed to get factual info if they can’t get it in school? It’s not something many of us can talk to our parents or friends about.
A: Dr. Kate Fordham

Even if you felt comfortable talking to your parents or friends, that would not mean that they would have the most accurate information about AIDS or safer sex. In speaking with groups of young people, I’ve heard some of the most unfound rumors about AIDS and sexual practices in general. It is far better to get your information from a source which is going to have all of their facts together. A public health agency is a good place to start. You can call them on the phone and they don’t even have to have your name; you’re not asking for them to examine you or treat anything; you just want accurate information about a valid health concern. You may feel a bit shy talking about sex -and gay sex in particular- to a complete stranger, but remember that it is the job of these people to provide this kind of information. Planned Parenthood is an international organization dedicated to providing assistance to people in matters regarding safe sex, birth control, and family planning. The have local offices in most cities and while they are best known for their support of abortion rights, they can help with questions concerning safer sex. I suggest Planned Parenthood for two reasons: first, they are more widely spread than a lot of other helpful agencies, and second, while not focused towards gay concerns specifically, they have a quality reputation and no one whom you speak with there is likely to be a staunch conservative, because most conservatives deplore Planned Parenthood for their stand on abortion. Of course, in larger cities, there are youth centers and hot-lines which are targeted towards gay youth, and should be able to provide accurate information. Still, I tend to recommend public health authorities and nationwide, established, organizations like Planned Parenthood because they are more likely to have the latest information on issues like AIDS.

Q: So are you saying that maybe even a gay hot-line or home-page could have inaccurate info.?
A: Dr. Kate Fordham

Well, I would hope that anyone offering information to the public has done their homework, but I can’t promise that everything out there which you will encounter is the absolute truth. It’s difficult even for doctors to stay updated on matters concerning AIDS, and someone who might have a home-page dedicated to gay issues just because that person is well-meaning and wants to help would not mean that all their information is correct. That’s why I always suggest seeking out a professional source: someone who is likely to have some formal health education and is also aware of the issues facing gay youth.

Q: I notice that some people say “safe sex” and some others say “safer sex”; what’s up with that?
A: Mike Walker

Sex is never completely safe unless you are one hundred percent sure your partner is not HIV positive or infected with another sexually transmitted disease. For most gay youth, we don’t have the kind of information when we first become involved with someone whom we might get serious with; so sex can be described as “safer”, but we can’t really say anything is completely “safe”.

Q: I’ve heard that oral sex is safe and anal sex isn’t? Is this true? What about using a condom, should I use one just for anal sex or for oral sex, too?
A: Mike Walker

In theory, you can get the HIV virus through any type of sexual contact where bodily fluids are exchanged. In anal sex, the chances of getting the virus are higher because of the type of skin tissue inside of the anus; it’s soft and easily bleeds, so you could have an open wound, a little tear in the anal lining, which would allow the virus to be transmitted quite easily. Therefore, a condom is a must unless you are sure BOTH you and your partner are not HIV positive. And just when did y’all have those blood tests done, anyway? Let’s be realistic here: you should always use a condom when engaging in anal sex, always.

Dr. Kate Fordham

I want to add to Mike’s comments something about oral sex: your chances of getting AIDS are lower but the chance is still there all the same. To be frank, if someone ejaculates inside your mouth and he is not wearing a condom, you stand a chance of contracting AIDS, providing he’s HIV positive, and you probably don’t know for sure if he is or he isn’t. Conversely, if you come inside someone’s mouth, that person could have AIDS and the virus is carried in the saliva as well as in blood and semen. It takes a fair amount of saliva to transmit the virus from person to person, but you still could get it through oral sex.

Mike Walker

Let me add that if his penis is in the back of your mouth, touching the back of your throat, it can tear the skin in the back of the throat, -which is pretty soft- and cause bleeding. Any place you have bleeding you have a greater chance of the HIV virus being absorbed into the blood stream directly. So it’s a really good idea to wear a condom while having either anal or oral sex.

Q: What if I’m fooling around with another guy and we don’t have either anal or oral sex but he comes and it gets on my skin or something? If you get it (semen) on your skin can you get infected?
A: Dr. Kate Fordham

The HIV virus cannot live outside of the human body or another medium which will encourage its growth for very long. Some other viruses CAN live outside a host for long periods of time, but HIV is one which really needs a good growing environment or it will die. Therefore, if you got some of his semen on your skin and immediately washed it off with soap you would be fairly sure that the virus would be killed. Still, it would be possible in theory that if his semen got in an opened wound it could transmit the virus (providing that he was infected). So, you want to avoid getting into that situation in the first place. A solution of water and chlorine bleach diluted ten parts water to one part bleach is proven to kill HIV and this is what is used in many labs where they do research on the virus. But I suggest the chlorine solution idea only as an emergency precaution because chlorine bleach is not something you really want to have on your skin, anyway. Some antibacterial soaps will kill viruses, but not all. Realize that a virus and a bacterium are different organisms and that many soaps made for household use may claim to be “antibacterial” but are not “antiviral”. In fact, most truly antiviral soaps are made for hospital use and aren’t available at the local supermarket. So if you are “fooling around” a condom still is a good idea; at least cover all cuts and other areas of exposed, raw, skin.

Q: Do you think that there will be a cure for AIDS in like, the next ten years or so?
A: Dr. Kate Fordham

I really doubt that there will; I am not involved directly in AIDS research but from the articles I’ve read in medical journals, there is nothing currently being investigated which could be a true “cure”. Now, there is progress being made in developing better drugs to combat the effects of AIDS, but these drugs cannot cure the disease, but only hinder its progress. Right now, there is still a great deal which scientists need to learn about HIV and how it interacts with the human immune system.

Q: Why does it take so long for them to develop these drugs and get them out to people who have AIDS? When they find a new drug, why can’t they get it to the people who need it faster?
A: Mike Walker

When a new drug is discovered to have an effect on the HIV virus, it must be tested first through experiments in a lab, kind of like the type of chemistry experiments you do in a science class, but much more complex. Through these experiments the researchers can see if the drug will do what they want it to, but that only proves that it works in a lab, and nothing about what it does to the entire body has been proven yet. Next, they test the drug in animals, which is a long and complicated process. Measures have to be taken to make sure that the animals are not mistreated and do not suffer. These animal tests can easily take a year or longer to perform.

Dr. Kate Fordham

Then, if the drug seems to work in animals and no negative side effects show up in these tests, the drug may be tested on humans. To get approval in order to test the drug on humans, a scientist must have a great deal of data proving that the drug itself is not particularly dangerous. Remember, the cardinal rule of medicine is to “first, do no harm” and a drug cannot be tested until the people who are developing it can prove that it is not a harmful substance itself. The Food and Drug Administration of the United States government is very careful in its efforts to protect the public from harmful drugs. When your doctor prescribes a drug for you, you can trust that research has gone into making that drug and that the drug is considered safe for it intended use. We can’t just say “oh, maybe this will help fight the HIV virus, but we don’t know what else it could do to someone’s health” and let that drug out into the hands of the public without knowing everything we can about its overall effects. But learning that information takes a long period of time, unfortunately.

Q: So what do you think of people with AIDS going to Mexico and places to get drugs they can’t get here?
A: Dr. Kate Fordham

I can understand that they want something which will cure, or at least reduce, the effects of the disease they are suffering from, but going to another country and buying drugs which are illegal in the United States is a rather foolish idea. If these drugs were safe and proven to do what those who sell them south of border claim they can, then they would be available in this country. Some of these supposed “wonder AIDS drugs” might have some potential, but many of them have been examined and tested by scientists and found to be totally worthless. Some of them are nothing more than useless powders and pills! Pure old-fashioned quackery designed to make money off of people who are desperate for a cure. I am glad that our nation is concerned enough about the health of its citizens to investigate drugs before they become available.

Q: How likely is it that my boyfriend will really have AIDS? I mean, we’re both still in high school! It’s not like either of us have been sleeping with every man in town.
A: Mike Walker

It’s not as likely that your high-school aged boyfriend will be infected, as it is that, in way of example, an older man who has been sexually active a long period of time is likely to be infected. But that’s just the general statistics we’re talking about; in your individual case, your boyfriend might have only had sex once before in his life but he could have contracted AIDS from that one encounter. It can only take one encounter with someone who is infected. You might have sex with someone who says he has never had sex with another guy before and therefore you feel safe, but he could have acquired AIDS through heterosexual contact with a girl, or through IV drug use, or a blood transfusion. You should always be careful because you don’t know for sure based on someone’s word alone. A person may very well have AIDS and not even know it. Personally, I think anyone who is sexually active owes it to themselves and those whom they have sex with to be tested.

Q: Have you met queer teens who do have AIDS and know it? What are they like? How did they get the disease and what are they doing about it now?
A: Mike Walker

I have met several openly gay, HIV positive guys who are all under twenty. One is an ex-boyfriend of mine who contracted the virus through sexually contact with another guy his age. He never suspected that this person was positive, and he had just broken up with me and was dating this person. So, yeah, it is real and it is out there. AIDS can strike anyone, and it does.

Dr. Kate Fordham

Most HIV-positive gay teens -and we are only talking about those who know they have the disease- live fairly normal lives. They realize they have a fatal illness and they do what they can to protect their health and prolong their lives. It can take a number of years between the time that someone acquires the HIV virus and when they develop the symptoms of AIDS.


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