Make History: Support the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project

AAOHPMy friend, Dan Royles, is raising money via Kickstarter to support his work on the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project.

Speaking as an HIV+ gay man who is white and solidly middle-class, I think the work Dan is doing is incredibly important, valuable and necessary. African Americans are disproportionately represented in new HIV infections, yet few of us have much understanding of what is being done to change this. Dan is preserving the voices and stories of those who are educating their communities about AIDS and HIV and working to keep this epidemic from being further marginalized – and giving historians the opportunity to learn from those whose work is not only unsung, but often unknown.

I hope you’ll join me in making a pledge to Dan’s project. And, perhaps even more importantly, I’d be extraordinarily grateful if you could share the link to his Kickstarter page among your various networks. I suspect most of my tens of readers have much larger social networks than I do. As I post this, there’re nine days left to raise nearly $3000, so the more people who see Dan’s project, the more likely he’ll reach his goal. Please share his link or this post far and wide. Thank you.

How to Survive a Plague

Fascinating. Inspiring. Heartbreaking. Amazing. And, for me personally, a searing tribute to the men and women who are quite literally responsible for my being alive today. (And, just to digress a bit, yes, I am distinctly aware that these men and women are generally white and middle- or upper-middle-class. Am I complaining? N0 – but it’s quite difficult not to notice, particularly given that, today, new HIV infections in the U.S. disproportionately affect African-Americans and Latinos. Oh, and as long as I’m digressing, my title for this post originally had a typo and was Hot to Survive a Plague – which is kinda funny enough to have left as-is, but then kinda not so much. Is there a limit to how long a parenthetical phrase can be? I’m sure there is and I’ve violated said limit long ago. Ah, shit – I suck at writing. OK, not really. Well, I mean I do, but I just refer to it as my “style.” Also, I am not so hot. But enough about me…) This film is available on Netflix streaming. Watch it now. It is excellent.

plague

I suppose I’ve established a level of comfort with being HIV+… Certainly, anytime I meet a fellow with with whom I may be physically intimate, I let him know that I’m poz (that is, I’m neither “clean” nor “disease-free” – such charming terminology we gays have! Ugh). This is not particularly burdensome, given the paucity of my intimate encounters (not attempting to elicit sympathy – just sayin’…). And I’m OK with discussing it in a general sense, though I’m not exactly shouting it from the rooftops. This is due more to my discomfort with sharing genuinely personal components of my life than it is with HIV itself. Or so I tell myself.

The fact is, having HIV remains somehow different than being diabetic or having cancer or multiple sclerosis or just about any other disease. While I certainly don’t want to become some bore, constantly talking about my medical condition, I think my reticence in talking about it on the regular serves to reinforce my own internalized view that I am indeed somehow a lesser person because I am HIV+. As much as I hate to admit it, I do regard my status as a negative (no pun intended) thing – and this is certainly (and depressingly) reinforced by many in the gay “community” here in SF. By this I mean that my being upfront and very candid about my status is, for many (I would even venture “most”) single gay men I meet, a dealbreaker – despite shared interests, mutual attraction or any of the other number of things that might lead to a date or a series of dates or even an ongoing relationship. My HIV status defines me above all else – and not favorably.

So, will my writing about this in a decidedly public (though not especially widely-read) forum help me get more comfortable with this component of myself? I have no idea – but I suppose it’s my own small way of recognizing that “Silence = Death” has a meaning that is both literal and figurative.

And don’t get me wrong. I am extraordinarily aware of how lucky I am to be not just alive but healthy and with my medical conditional extremely well-managed. I live in SF, where I have access to some of the best HIV care on the planet; the side-effects from my meds are tolerable; I have health insurance; I have a supportive family and friends; I have a reasonably secure job and income; and I have the skills and perseverance necessary to navigate my medical care, treatment and insurance coverage. But, still – you know, what with dukkha and all – it can feel like a tough row to hoe.

It’s Hard Out There for a Gay

I’ve always been a fan of Rich Juzwiak’s writing (not to mention the hilarious Pot Psychology and the genius Shit gay guys say to their cats). He’s been posting Pride & Shame pieces to Gawker, “a semi-regular series exploring sex and sexuality from the perspective of a newly single, 33-year-old, gay-sex enthusiast.” His recent piece in the series was about HIV. It’s definitely worth a read – as my friend Dan pointed out, Rich seems to be a lot more reflective than many gay men about his own status as HIV negative and how that affects (and, in fact, generally precludes) his sexual involvement with men who are open about being HIV positive.

As I was reading it, though, something bothered me and it took me a while to figure it out. At first glance, it seems quite servicey, recounting Rich’s discussions with HIV+ men and how they deal with the sexual negotiations that are part and parcel of life for those of us who are positive. And he discusses his own discomfort with the idea of engaging in sex with HIV+ men. He also provides some perspective on the risks of HIV transmission by getting some input from an HIV counselor.

But finally, it struck me – despite the PSA-ish tone, the underlying message that I got was pretty depressing – namely, that it’s kinda, maybe OK to be HIV+ and maybe guys might want to have sexy times with you – but obviously only if you’re objectively hot with a cut body and can easily score on Grindr; but, still, HIV is really more “ew gross!”

I’d already read some of the Rich’s other posts in this series – and had also felt the same vague sort of distaste for the underlying tone. I get that the writing is quite personal insofar as it’s about Rich’s own particular experiences – but it’s hard to overlook the “OMG, look at all these glamorous social events I attend, where I then meet other hot guys who want to sex me! HOT!” In another piece from the series, Rich is waxing philosophical about his long Pride weekend of socializing and sexing – but it’s hard to know what insights into gay life and culture he is providing when so much time is spent reminding us that he hooked up with a “thick slab of boy — 6-foot-4, 220 pounds” and also tricked with a 23-year-old  who gave him a hickey: “That hickey, as burgundy as Kaposi’s sarcoma, was mortifying.” Wow, really?

I suppose much of my discomfort with both the tone and the content of his post is my recognition of the underlying truth of it – namely, that if you meet the objective gay standard for attractiveness, have defined abs and pecs, are under the age of 40 (possibly older if you have lots of money) and are HIV-, well then, life with the A-gays can be pretty dandy. And as an HIV+, not-very-happily-single, not-hideous-but-certainly-not-porn-star-material, solidly middle-class 48-year-old, this is a pretty depressing, albeit accurate, portrayal of my “community.”