HIV and Homophobia: Not So Strange Bed-Fellows

During a workshop that I facilitated tonight, one of the participants began discussing the dangers of sexual activity. Of course, the culmination of his argument was about the danger of HIV, which is both valid and also just another old fashioned scare-tactic that sometimes falls short. While most people ask me about the origin of HIV, this man knew what had happened. It was this gay flight attendant from Canada that was having sex with everyone that spread the disease all over (including our beloved San Francisco).

I was shocked. I had never heard this explanation for HIV and it all just seemed like a bunch of homophobia. I personally spend hours of my life clarifying for people that HIV is not a “gay disease” and that no matter who you are and who you’re having sex with, you are at risk. I discuss the history, that HIV was originally called “GRID” for Gay Related Immune Disease until folks figured out that it wasn’t just affecting gay folks, it was affecting Haitians, intravenous drug users, people getting blood transfusions, and more. It became clear that the disease and its transmission is far  more complicated. I looked it up and in fact there had been a “patient Zero” described below from avert.org

“Much was made in the early years of the epidemic of a so-called ‘Patient Zero’ who was the basis of a complex “transmission scenario” compiled by Dr. William Darrow and colleagues at the Centre for Disease Control in the US. This epidemiological study showed how ‘Patient O’ (mistakenly identified in the press as ‘Patient Zero’) had given HIV to multiple partners, who then in turn transmitted it to others and rapidly spread the virus to locations all over the world. A journalist, Randy Shilts, subsequently wrote a book based on Darrow’s findings, which named Patient Zero as a gay Canadian flight attendant called Gaetan Dugas. For several years, Dugas was vilified as a ‘mass spreader’ of HIV and the original source of the HIV epidemic among gay men. However, four years after the publication of Shilts’ article, Dr. Darrow repudiated his study, admitting its methods were flawed and that Shilts’ had misrepresented its conclusions.

While Gaetan Dugas was a real person who did eventually die of AIDS, the Patient Zero story was not much more than myth and scaremongering. HIV in the US was to a large degree initially spread by gay men, but this occurred on a huge scale over many years, probably a long time before Dugas even began to travel.”

I was both appreciative of the opportunity to learn more about this origin theory, and internally apologetic for framing the older gentleman as a homophobe while perhaps he was just using the language of another era. This whole experience has me really reflecting on the ideas of truth. Many damaging myths regarding HIV have small splinters of truth that somehow reinforce the fear and hatred of the Gay community.

“Patient Zero” was a historical figure that may have participated in the transmission of HIV to sex partners he had, but removing this information from the rest of the context (No one understood what HIV was. Can you hold someone accountable if they didn’t know they had something? Are two people responsible for using safer sex supplies?) It just makes it sound like some malicious sex-fiend of a flight attendant created a monster of an epidemic.

The other belief is the inverse truth that Only Gay People can Get HIV and sometimes also that All Gay People have HIV. This fear of the “infectious” has been mirrored in the idea that queerness in itself is contagious. This is the ever present fear of letting young people around LGBTQIQ folks, letting them think about gender and sexuality, and letting them explore their own unique identities. Both lies fed into one another. The physical illness was a sign of moral failing –  (Which is a common theme when referring to differently abled, physically different, and sometimes fat people.)

The splinter of truth here however is that the rates of HIV infection are often higher among communities of MSM (men that have sex with men). But what causes it? Perhaps risky behavior (ie not using a condom/not ensuring partner(s)’s status) following the trauma of being regarded by the world around you as diseased? Homophobia that prevents the space to discuss how to engage in different sexual expression while still holding the responsibility of your own health and the health of your community. We can’t even get past the discussing how to engage in different sexual expression. . .

And what about when folks believe they aren’t at risk because they aren’t gay? This is perhaps one of the most harmful outcome of the Gay/HIV connection- the oversimplification leads people to believe, even in the face of opposing facts that “It can’t happen to me.” In the Bay Area, the fastest growing population of new HIV infections is young, heterosexual, women of color. This means between racism and homophobia, two communities are being strongly affected by this virus, but aren’t given the opportunity to discuss it.

All this, I wish I could’ve said to that gentleman in the workshop, but sometimes you have to pick your points, sacrifice one  learning moment for another. I’m thankful though that I do have many opportunities to discuss these ideas with young people around the Bay on a somewhat regular basis (as I do HIV workshops). While change is slow, it still feels like every conversation is one step closer to really understanding the complexity of HIV as a sexual and social virus- releasing Gay folks from the charge of manslaughter to millions.

Perhaps our real job as educators and community members is to remove the splinter of truth and help heal the surrounding wounds.

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