Toronto
5 min

Barebacking is a cherished act

A younger generation takes a new approach to HIV & AIDS

Ultimately, I understand the AIDS epidemic as the most perplexing, yet edifying, event of my life.



Four years ago, I tested HIV-positive. I was 26 years old. Strangely, it felt like a relief. The moment I learned my new status, I felt freed of the angst that consumed my adolescence and young adulthood with fear and dread of infection.



Some older queers gasp at hearing these feelings, though they’re not uncommon among my peers. For some of us, there is a peculiar, bittersweet liberation in becoming HIV-positive, a double-edged sword that slices away the anxiety and hard work of staying

negative, but forces one to face mortality.



In seroconverting, I began dissecting and scrutinizing the mantras of HIV prevention that had gripped my youth activism as strongly as an orthodox religion. For the first time ever, I experienced a sex life free from the distress of becoming infected, and I stopped using condoms with consensual partners.



However, I was now HIV-positive, with the possibility of dying young, the reality of devastating my family and the labour of taking medications for the rest of my life. The process is anguishing and the hopelessness of carrying a potentially deadly virus through my bloodstream ebbs and flows, even with the promising light of science. These last four years have been the hardest of my life.



In sharp and emotional attacks, older lesbians and gay men berate young gay men for not understanding the epidemic as the catastrophe it was for them. Yet, how is this possible? If AIDS was the Holocaust to older urban folks, for most of my urban peers, HIV has been the Cold War: annihilation versus the looming possibility of destruction; physical suffering versus illness kept at bay by an arsenal of medications; survivors versus the largely abstract, psychologically loaded labels of “negative” and “positive.”



If AIDS, for them, meant losing one’s life, one’s physical abilities, or many of one’s friends and lovers, HIV for most of us has meant only imagining it. If AIDS allowed for the mass grieving of lost loved ones at funerals, vigils and quilt displays, HIV for most of us has meant an unrecognized and profoundly solitary mourning for what might be.



These distinctions have led a new generation of gay men to understand our relationship to community, sex, pleasure, disease, death and life in fundamentally different ways than those who, as adults, lived through the transition between the pre- and post-AIDS eras.



I am part of the second generation of HIV, the one that came of age with AIDS, the one that “knows better,” the one whose losses cannot be counted on tombstones, but whose history has still been haunted by the virus.



But it’s the history of others which makes it so hard for younger gay men to speak and write honestly about sex and HIV. It’s daunting because what we say might alarm or offend older community members who have painful histories of loss attached to the epidemic.



But we have no other choice. We also have suffered, but differently, accommodating the fright of HIV into our lives. Without discussing how AIDS has authentically impacted our generation, we cannot hope to make sense of our unique place in its history.



I entered gay activism in college in 1990, in the midst of a tidal wave of gay male deaths. I was distanced from witnessing the suffering first-hand, because my friends were not the people who were sick. I skimmed the endless obituaries, watched AIDS movies and documentaries, and witnessed frail gay men walking slowly down gay ghetto streets.



My peers were the “queer” generation of direct action activists, on campus, in the streets, debating politics, wearing Freedom Rings, yet not really knowing those being devoured by disease. The closest I ever got to an AIDS death was imagining my own. It was nearly impossible not to do so at the time. It felt like the course of life for gay men – a caveat to coming out in that particular historical period. What is being interpreted as cavalier by older lesbians and gays may be a demonstration of our relationship to HIV as a hard fact of gay life.



Most urban gay men younger than 32 years have a unique relationship to HIV, beginning our sex lives after the epidemic had already taken hold of the community. When many characterize young gay men as “cavalier” and “reckless” to the dangers of HIV, they do so not because we are these things, but because our feelings and behaviors towards the virus are incongruent with theirs.



Rarely is the context explored in which younger gay men initially formed their relationship to the epidemic. Nor is there any consideration of how harm reduction strategies, or the past decade of significant medical advances, have allowed for evolved and informed negotiations of risk-taking for all gay men, not just the young.



Instead, if I do not state explicitly that being positive is painful, then to speak, or write, about sex that does not obey condom absolutism is misinterpreted as advocating or “glamourizing” HIV infection, especially to “impressionable youth.”



These arguments, as currently played out in the media and community centre auditoriums, are both convoluted and simplistic. Much of the trouble stems from grouping what needs to be a dozen separate discussions into one narrowly defined argument, which insists that the reasons for unprotected sex, and its ramifications, are the same for all gay men. They are not. They vary, sometimes dramatically, depending on whether someone is HIV-positive, negative or unsure of their status; 25 years old or 45; a top or a bottom.



An entire list of misunderstandings arises from simply discussing unprotected intercourse without a condom. For example, in doing so, I do not dispute the science that warns the current medical treatments for HIV might fail. While I hold mixed feelings on issues such as reinfection and drug-resistant viruses, I do not dismiss them blindly.



From media reports to private conversations, barebacking is fallaciously reduced to the premeditated act of HIV transmission without concern for oneself or others.



In fact, the opposite is true: advocating this dialogue is precisely about community responsibility. We cannot successfully address HIV prevention without coming to terms with unprotected intercourse, a cherished act prevalent not only among gay men, but between women and men, regardless of sexual orientation, across the globe.



Moral judgments against sex without condoms are irrelevant unless one recognizes that not all unprotected sex is dangerous and not all people who have risky sex are immoral.



Ethics regarding sexual behavior and HIV transmission are exceedingly complex and paradoxical. In high-risk sexual situations, I believe someone HIV-positive should disclose their status, as I believe a negative person should also ask. Realistically, this is challenging for me to do in all such sexual situations, so I have found it important to develop a specific code of ethics in which I minimize the potential of transmitting HIV to another person.



The process of working towards sexual responsibility demands we speak truthfully about the areas in which we fall short, without being chastised. My sexual decision-making is not free from error, yet it is also full of concern for others. My willingness throughout my work as an activist and writer to be extremely candid about my HIV status and sexual behavior is a deliberate attempt to engage in an open process.



Will public tolerance of a harm reduction approach to unprotected sex cause gay men to become lax in their practices and result in more infections? If our community stands firm on the unacceptability of sex without condoms, will we save lives? Or will frank, honest and difficult discussions help us understand our behaviors better and lead us to healthier and more responsible decision making?





Tony Valenzuela is a Los Angeles based activist and writer.



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