When Sun Media published the column “A twisted pro-HIV agenda” A twisted homosexual world” in some online editions) in early January, it was a wake-up call for Edmonton queers to take a stand against sensationalized coverage of gay men’s health issues.
In the column, Jacobs writes about barebacking, as well as bugchasing (willingly seeking HIV infection) and giftgiving (offering HIV to someone seeking infection) — phenomena that Phillip Banks, director of the Vancouver-based Health Initiative for Men, points out are often used as a “red herring” in dialogues about gay men’s sexual health.
“If it’s true that some men are intentionally seeking to become infected with HIV,” considers Banks, “then public health and community services must be resourced adequately in order to better understand why and to be able to offer appropriate supports to prevent this where possible.”
But the way it is most often reported in the media, adds Banks, is “scandal-mongering at its worst and distracts from the real issues contributing to poor health outcomes for gay and bi men and increasing HIV diagnoses.”
John Maxwell of the AIDS Committee of Toronto agrees. “The media reports were often from mainstream media, not gay media, sensationalizing stories about unprotected sex amongst gay men,” says Maxwell of the stories that came out a few years ago when ACT was first hearing about bugchasing and giftgiving.
Many members of Edmonton’s queer community felt that the column was homophobic, framing AIDS and risky behavior as only gay issues and by not properly representing the realities of giftgiving, bugchasing and barebacking.
But since the column’s publication, a conversational renaissance has blossomed around gay men’s health in a city that has seen syphilis outbreaks in recent years and rising HIV infections among gay men.
By way of participating in our reductionist culture, one that asks is Britney the new Madonna; is Obama the new Lincoln or Kennedy; I ask, is it fair to draw parallels between Jacobs and Larry Kramer?
Kramer was an outspoken gay rights and AIDS activist. In the spring of 1987, he gave a speech, based on his essay “1,112 and Counting,” that was a rally call to action for gays in the face of the AIDS epidemic. It was Kramer’s speech that inspired the creation of the influential activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power).
Jacobs says that she first thought about writing the column in 2008. She planned to attend the Western Sexual Health Conference and came across a paper entitled Bareback Mountain: Is This Today’s Sequel to the AIDS Epidemic? She says she couldn’t believe what she was reading. Jacobs was not able to attend the conference but knew at some point she would write on the paper.
In a recent interview with Jacobs, she said that she is not “anti-gay” but that she is “anti-irresponsible sexual behavior.” She said her words were an extension of her belief that “we need to try and stop” the act of people knowingly giving or receiving HIV.
But many say that Jacobs’ motivations were misguided. Her unintentional call to action for Edmonton queers started with the online circulation of the column. Within two days of the column’s publication, a discussion on Facebook had responses from around North America. People were encouraging others to write to the editor and they shared links to better-researched articles about gay men’s health.
University of Alberta student Marshall Watson wrote a letter-to-the-editor of the Edmonton Sun in response to Jacobs’ column. In the letter, Watson wrote, “The goal of the writers at the Sun — hung up on using ‘twisted misnomers’ — seems to be nothing more than passing judgment on what is a very small group of the HIV-positive population while omitting decades of safe-sex research and activism.”
In one letter that was published in the Sun, Edmonton artist Kirsten McCrea posed the question, “Rather than push the frankly stupid idea that gay men are courting HIV infection out of loneliness or in order to fit in or ease their fear of infection, why didn’t Jacobs do a little more research or actually interview some people living with HIV?” to which the editor responded, “She only had 550 words” — a defence that Jacobs echoed.
Aside from the letters-to-the-editor and Facebook posts, the column also created a lot of face-to-face conversation. An example of which was during the talk that followed the screening of artist Peter Kingstone’s film The Amazing Adventures of Strongman and Quickboy at HIV Edmonton.
Kingstone and the 20 people gathered for the screening discussed frustrations with how gay men were represented in Jacobs’ column. They also lamented the lack of queer sexual health education that was being done within Edmonton.
It is of course a ridiculous assertion that Jacobs is anything like Kramer, least of all for the fact that Jacobs is not from the queer community, and from reading the column, she does not have the best interest of the queer community in mind.
Yet the comparison bears consideration. In a similar way that Kramer’s speech inspired action, the queer residents of Edmonton have taken Jacobs’ column as a wake-up call to become more proactive in sharing queer perspectives and ensuring that sexual health education is happening.