Canada
5 min

Wente overboard

Reactionary harangue is common nonsense

If you’re not sure why HIV is on the rise, ask Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, because she knows. The answer is selfish, horny people with HIV, hell-bent on getting their rocks off at any cost.

Wente made waves a few months ago with a week-long attack on harm reduction for drug users. Now, in “Do the Right Thing: Disclose,” she weighs in the sex lives of people with HIV.

“Many HIV-positive people resent the obligation to disclose their health status,” writes Wente. She acknowledges the impact of stigma on people with HIV. But she’s not talking about the impact of prejudice, discrimination, fear and misinformation on people’s personal and professional lives, or on their health. Stigma is “awful,” she quips, because “it’s a lot harder to get dates.”

The Globe columnist attended a recent public meeting on HIV and the law. Wente tagged along with her friend Peter, who is living with HIV. To both of them, the answer to preventing HIV transmission was clear: all people with HIV must tell the world. “I’ll always disclose,” he says. “I couldn’t do this to someone else. How could anyone?” It’s about “their moral obligation to another human being,” Wente chimes in.

Wente says HIV rates are climbing because people who know they are positive keep their status a secret — but she’s wrong. Most people who know they are HIV-positive are intensely concerned with protecting their partners, and many but not all of those people disclose as part of a risk-reduction strategy. Meanwhile, multiple studies have shown that in fact, the vast majority of new infections are happening in cases of unprotected sex where people believe themselves to be HIV-negative when they’re actually not. Wente’s blame game is off-base.

The idea that all people with HIV have a moral obligation to disclose their HIV status to all sexual partners has some traction in the gay community as well. In fact, studies conducted by Stigma Research have shown that 70 percent of HIV-negative gay men expected disclosure if a sex partner was positive. Their research also indicates that the men with the least amount of knowledge or awareness about HIV are the ones most likely to demand to know.

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As I sit down to write this column on the eve of World AIDS Day, I think about how much has changed with regard to HIV in the past two decades. On the level of medical advances we have come so far, but frankly when it comes to awareness and understanding, I sometimes think the queer community is moving backward.

When I came out as a young gay man in 1988 at the age of eighteen, the AIDS crisis was in full and terrifying bloom. Gay men — along with IV drug users, sex workers and people from Haiti, where some of the first US cases seemed to originate — were personae non gratae. Gay men facing an unexpected mortal crisis found themselves abandoned by their families, neglected by medical practitioners, and demonized by the media. There was talk of quarantine.

So how did we respond? We stuck together. With the devoted support of many of our lesbian sisters and some straight allies, gay men founded social and support networks to try and empower people who were fighting for their lives. We lay down in the streets to protest government inaction that deterred people with AIDS from accessing the treatments they needed.  Most important, we brought this practical solidarity into our intimate lives in a responsible way as well.

Back then, as now, we knew that gay men formed a high-prevalence community when it comes to HIV — and that this had nothing to do with homosexuality being immoral or unnatural. Back then, as is also true today, we knew that the key to reducing HIV transmission is safer sex. We learned that many sexual acts offer zero risk for passing on HIV, and others offered risk that was infinitesimally small. We developed a (sometimes love-hate) relationship with condoms, and adopted their use at high rates that, even today, are unimaginable in other populations.

We learned that developing a rational understanding of the risks surrounding HIV, instead of giving in to the fear and paranoia society had aimed squarely at us, offered the best chances for our survival as a community and as individuals. We sensed that turning against one another offered little protection.

All these years, I’ve never demanded that partners disclose their HIV status to me. On the few times that it happened, my response was to say “I’m really glad you felt comfortable telling me that — but it doesn’t change anything.” And we would practice safer sex. I fully supported the choice of positive guys to share that information with me, but I did not have an expectation that they were obligated to do so.

When I was 19, I dated a handsome man who had Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions all over his body. We played safe. No harm whatsoever came to me. Other men I knew intimately in those days were HIV-positive, and sometimes I didn’t find out until I saw their names on the AIDS memorial. My reaction? Sadness at their loss — not a sense of betrayal that they had not revealed their personal health information. Again, no harm came to me.

So when I witness or participate in current discussions around the question of HIV disclosure, I wonder where this shift from shared responsibility to a fixation on personal blame has come from. We all know — and if we don’t know, we should — that demanding disclosure so you can just avoid people with HIV is not an intelligent risk-reduction strategy. In fact, it can be a dangerous one, if you let your guard down with people who say they’re negative, since sometimes they can be wrong.

As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing unethical about people with HIV who play safe and keep their status to themselves. Why do so many people — including so many gay men — seem to hold the opposite opinion today? Maybe we don’t have as much sympathy for gay men with HIV as we did when so many were dying. Maybe with the advent of increased visibility, acceptance and mainstreaming of gay men, it doesn’t seem so critical to stick together any more. 

 

***

I lost a friend a few years ago. I’ll call him Daniel. We’d known each other for many years, though we hadn’t been as close the past few. You know how that can happen. He moved away and we were both a bit lax about keeping in touch.

For many years, Daniel and I had been “friends with benefits.” We had been intimate countless times and it was a lot of fun, though eventually we settled in to a happy celibacy with one another. I’d meant to give him a phone call on his birthday, but I forgot. Then I heard from a mutual friend that he had died.

My friend learned from another mutual friend that Daniel had died of HIV-related causes — and that he had been positive for decades. A flurry of mixed emotions went through me. I felt guilt that I hadn’t been there for him in the end. On one hand, I wished he had felt comfortable disclosing to me, so I could have offered him some additional love and support. Weren’t we close friends, after all? When I thought about it further though, I absolutely respected my good friend’s decision. His medical history was his own business, and who he shared it with was his own decision.

As I said, Daniel and I were intimate many times — and there was nothing unethical or dishonest about his choice not to disclose his HIV status. No harm came to me. I did not need that information to decide how we would relate to one another. We respected each other by playing safe. That’s part of his legacy for me. Rest in peace, my friend.