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HIV disclosure creeps into mainstream discourse

Xtra interviews the National Post's Barbara Kay

Fréquence VIH president Albert Martin is outraged by a Quebec judge’s decision to convict a woman for having unprotected sex without informing her sexual partner that she is HIV-positive.

The conviction, Martin wrote in the French-language publication Le Devoir on Jul 31, will only increase the stigma against HIV-positive people.

“Can you blame a person who is discriminated against for protecting themselves by silence when it is the only weapon that remains?” he asked. “Who would promote the idea of blaming Holocaust victims for lying about their status as Jews, Gypsies or homosexuals?”

If the “witch hunt” continues, he wrote, “the red ribbon will come to be regarded like the yellow star.”

National Post columnist Barbara Kay rejected Martin’s over-the-top Holocaust analogy. She wrote a typically blunt response on the National Post website on Aug 4 under the headline, “HIV-positive people have the right to hide their status from sexual partners: You’re a Nazi if you think otherwise.”

Kay decries what she calls the “AIDS-romancing business.”

“Casting any blame on AIDS victims for their situation, even though AIDS is 100 percent preventable (not the case with TB), is, thanks to gay artists and their media minions, culturally unacceptable,” she wrote snidely.

One National Post reader, who asked not to be identified in this piece, wrote directly to Kay and passed Xtra a copy of the subsequent email correspondence.

“HIV/AIDS attacks many kinds of people, in many different circumstances, predictable and otherwise,” the man reminded Kay.

“Sorry, my friend, but HIV/AIDS here in North America is a gay disease,” responded Kay. “Rape victims? Name me some. I bet there are very few women, unless they were sodomized. And yes, that is too bad. HIV is spread through anal intercourse. The vagina has a natural barrier that prevents infections of that kind. But they represent such a nugatory percentage of the afflicted that they are statistically immaterial.”

Kay is right insofar that HIV continues to disproportionately affect gay men in North America but she has a dangerously narrow and unsophisticated understanding of how the virus can be transmitted.

“[Kay’s view] is completely scientifically inaccurate,” says Murray Jose, executive director of the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation. “If she’s giving out information like that she is contributing to HIV infection.”

“I didn’t say every person who gets AIDS deserves it,” Kay told Xtra in a telephone interview. “I’m saying every case is preventable…. I still blame a person for acting stupidly.”

But this, says Jose, “just demonstrates the level of ignorance about the impact of stigma and discrimination on people’s ability to make choices…. You can’t be so black or white as to say having unprotected sex is simply irresponsible behaviour.”

Martin, who did not respond to Xtra’s interview requests before press time, made an argument similar to Jose’s in his Le Devoir piece. “Got that?” Kay wrote mockingly in her column. “It’s our fault that the gays don’t wear condoms.”

Kay says gay men are undeservingly “lionized and adored” in North America. She says homosexuality is “unnatural” and seems genuinely confused by my irritated reaction to her suggestion that I and most of the people in my life are unnatural.

“Well you have to admit it’s abnormal,” she told me. “You and I may not agree on everything, like I don’t believe in gay marriage, but I’m a better friend to your community than this guy [Martin].” Kay seems completely sincere in her beliefs.

It’s this kind of pervasive bias — often brutally exhibited by people much less polite than Kay — that creates the culture of secrecy and shame in which HIV stigma thrives.

In her anger about Martin’s Holocaust reference, Kay failed to recognize the roots of the analogy in the reaction of social conservatives to AIDS in the early years of the epidemic.

Rightwing US pundit Pat Buchanan infamously proposed a “culture war” against homosexuals. William F Buckley suggested that all HIV-positive people should be identified and tattooed.

“Do you really believe that will happen?” Kay scoffs.

It’s not impossible. One possible step in that direction, for example, is that the Canadian government is considering mandatory reporting for all HIV-positive immigrants. It’s a move Toronto immigration lawyer Michael Battista says comes with “huge privacy concerns.”

Kay points to the stringent reporting requirements faced by those with tuberculosis.

“Why would I have more respect for an HIV-positive person’s privacy if my daughter or my son is out there getting romantically involved with people?” she says. “Why should I depend on the goodwill of that person alone to make sure my child doesn’t get infected?”

But not depending on that goodwill is exactly what Martin argues. He and Kay actually agree that everyone should be responsible for their own sexual health. But in the dim threat of infection from some AIDS-infected liar, Kay insists, “I’d want to have the state on my side with a little more rigour.”

And the circle is complete: It’s the notion of more rigour that led Martin to write the inflammatory column that Kay condemns.