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3 min

Wente twists the truth about HIV

Flawed Globe piece fails to examine moral and legal implications of criminalization

For the Apr 18 edition of The Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote a cover feature entitled, To Tell or not to Tell: The HIV Dilemma. The article was accompanied by a photo of an HIV-positive man (the caption identifies him as such) standing in front of one of the HIV Stigma campaign billboards; in this case an image of two men embracing and the line “If you were rejected every time you disclosed, would you?”

Most of Wente’s piece focuses on issues connected to HIV disclosure in the gay community, in particular the campaign featured in the photo. I’m not going to dispute all of her point of view here but the piece is nevertheless deeply flawed.

What makes it problematic is not what she writes so much as what she leaves out. She stresses that people who are HIV-positive should face criminal consequences for failing to disclose their status but she fails to examine or even acknowledge the moral and legal implications or repercussions of criminalization.

She fails, for example, to examine the possibility that someone could make a false accusation about disclosure, that someone could lie about whether or not a poz sex partner disclosed or whether or not condoms were used, and that because of the stigma about HIV, because of sensationalized media coverage of failure-to-disclose cases, a false accusation can be enough to wreck a person’s life.

I call her to ask if she’s aware of this concern from her research. She says she’s very busy and can give me only three minutes of her time but she says she is aware that false accusations are a real concern. Why not talk about it in her piece then?

“It was left out because of space,” she says.

Wente also completely ignores the real focus and intent of the HIV Stigma campaign. The campaign advertisements all feature a link to Hivstigma.com. The site is rich with information, message boards and other tools designed to help gay men manage and understand their choices about sex and HIV disclosure. The overwhelming message of the site is not — as Wente would have us believe — that HIV-positive people should not tell their sex partners about their serostatus. Rather it stresses that asking someone his status is unreliable partly because such a high percentage of those who are HIV-positive simply don’t know it.

The campaign also points out that because of the high infection rate among gay men every one of us has likely had sex with someone who is HIV-positive at some point, whether or not we know it, and that safer sex is the best means of protecting yourself against infection.

Wente never once mentions the website in her article even though she says she’s looked at it. So why not examine the website and its content?

“I wasn’t talking about the website,” she says. “I was talking about the advertising campaign.”

But the intention of the advertising campaign is to direct people to the website. Wouldn’t it be valuable for the public to know the actual intention of the project?

“I wasn’t talking about the website,” she says again firmly. “I was talking about the advertising campaign. That’s what’s in the public eye.”

For the average Globe reader (many of whom are outside of Toronto and lack experience with gay and HIV-positive communities) Wente paints gay men as irresponsible, promiscuous drug fiends who are fighting for the right to go around deliberately exposing people to HIV without consequences.

Even worse perhaps, she portrays HIV advocacy groups as defending people’s right to do this while in reality the HIV Stigma campaign aims to curb transmission by making people aware of the realities of the pathology of the disease.

Wente constructed a homo-phobic and HIV-phobic opinion piece which she presented as a news story on the front page of The Globe and Mail that has the effect of misleading her readers into sharing her profoundly flawed point of view.

Wente and The Globe should be incredibly ashamed of the choice to publish this piece. Stooping to this level of sensationalized faux-journalism has lowered the standard of The Globe to that of Sun Media and Fox News.

The damage that Wente has done to the general public’s perception of HIV-positive people and advocacy groups is immeasurable. I have never been so ashamed of another member of my profession.

I call on the Globe’s editors to assign a rebuttal piece to Wente’s work to run on the front page of a future Saturday edition of that paper.

It’s time for the Globe to put things right.