4 min

The deadly degaying of AIDS

Do gay men have to be bumped off the HIV agenda to make room for others?

As World AIDS Day approaches, people around the globe are busily planning how they will commemorate this day. Around the world, communities are preparing to ask governments, institutions, and individuals to reaffirm their commitments to end AIDS and to affirm the lives of so many loved ones lost to this unnatural disaster.

In many gay communities around the world there will be silence on Dec 1. Not the moment of silence where we reflect and remember. Just silence. Dead silence.

Is HIV over for the gay community? Have we become entrenched in a “post-AIDS” mindset of acceptance? Is HIV no longer an issue that we need to collectively own and act on? Or is HIV an issue that affects only some gay men because it infects only some gay men?

I know what I think. And I know I’m biased.

When I was a kid I derived enormous pride and strength from what I saw as the powerful struggle led by gay men to end HIV-not just for ourselves but for everyone. I was so moved by the compassion and the anger that was focused on bringing dignity and hope to so many infected and affected by this fucked-up disease that I’ve been active in HIV prevention ever since.

When I was younger, I found community here. As time passes, the community grows smaller and smaller.

When I was younger, HIV work was community work. Now I find people react to what I do with either platitudes of “keep up the good work” and “wow, must be rewarding” or, at the other end of the spectrum, a kind of anger or hostility reflected in “stay out of our sex lives-get a real job,” or “can’t you just leave us alone? I’m so sick and fucking tired of hearing about AIDS, it’s not just a gay disease, you know.”

But while the gay community’s response seems to grow weaker, the response from other communities grows stronger and stronger.

I recognize how important it is for other communities to take ownership of this issue and organize to fight HIV, but it’s not hard to see homophobia in their strategies.

All too often, due to the competitive nature of funding and research attention, a growing response to HIV in other communities comes at the expense of gay men.

In Canada, where statistics generally reflect that an a alarmingly disproportionate number of people living with HIV and cases of new HIV infection are borne by gay men, governments and health bureaucracies have been molasses-in-winter slow to respond. I mean, c’mon, it’s been 25 years. They either want to do something to halt this or they don’t.

It seems super clear to me that as long as gay men don’t do anything to hold them accountable, they won’t even try.

At the recent International Conference on AIDS in Toronto, significant and long-awaited attention was finally given to the impact of HIV on women and girls in Africa and in other populations. But nary a nod was given to either the impact of HIV on gay men, and other men who have sex with men, or to the contributions of the gay community to the fight against HIV.

At a conference expecting over 20,000 participants, there was so little attention paid to gay men that a separate conference had to be organized in order to ensure gay men’s HIV-related issues would be addressed. Is the only way to include other communities in the HIV agenda to bump us off of it?

This “degaying” of AIDS has been happening slowly for almost two decades. This “degaying” was started within the community and has continued from outside.

Gay AIDS activists struggled in the mid-to-late ’80s to get the world to accept the threat HIV posed to heterosexuals in the hope that self-interest would save gay lives. The “degaying” of AIDS was believed by many to be an important step towards addressing AIDS in the gay community. Is it possible we went too far?

In Canada, research institutions like the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV have virtually abandoned gay men in their research agenda.

Outside of Canada, international organizations working in developing countries won’t even include gay men on the agenda for fear governments and communities will shut them out.

So in countries around the world where HIV is assumed to be almost exclusively a heterosexual disease, men who have sex with men are not getting access to information. They’re not getting access to relevant health care. And they are certainly not telling the nurses who give them the HIV tests that they’re having sex with men so that information can be marked on the questionnaire and reflected in statistics.

Not if it means they won’t get any health care. Not if it means they might end up in jail. And definitely not if it means they could end up dead at the hands of the state or other community members.

It’s one thing to say that HIV is not just a gay disease. It’s another thing to say HIV is not a gay disease. If we don’t act in our own interests I’m not sure we can expect anyone else to.

It’s time the gay community re-invested in the fight to end HIV. It’s time to actively participate in organizations that work to prevent HIV. It’s time to support a new, invigorated strategy to eliminate HIV so we don’t leave it as a legacy to future generations of gay men.

To quote a controversial campaign produced for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Centre: “HIV is a gay disease. Own it. End it.”

As World AIDS Day approaches, think about what we can do as a community to win the fight against HIV.

It could be as simple as making sure that your attitude doesn’t help perpetuate HIV-related stigma and shame within the gay community.

It could be signing up to volunteer with an AIDS organization or gay men’s health project. Or you could participate in the Gay Men’s Health Summit on Dec 1. But whatever you do, don’t let 25 years of HIV destroying gay men’s lives go by without notice.