Excerpts from Eric Rofes's Reviving the Tribe:
After an avalanche or a trainwreck, the deceased are buried, but all are acutely aware that those still standing harbor tremendous need for comfort and support. Yet because of a failure to conceptualize the AIDS epidemic as a catastrophic disaster visited upon very specific and vulnerable populations, gay men who are uninfected are expected to have endured with neither psychological scars nor emotional damage. By underplaying or denying the full range of impact of the epidemic and its power to transfigure emotions, memories, and psyches, the souls of gay men are kept locked in a perpetual winter.
Many gay and bisexual men stopped telling our stories after the initial years of the epidemic. We repress specific memories and avoid quantifying our loss... At best we choose euphemisms over graphic
detail, broad generalities over specific description, off-the-cuff remarks and
caustic asides over direct and serious testimony. In part, this explains why it appears to some as if we've normalized the epidemic -- we have an investment in acting as if the avalanche had never happened. Yet methods of healing from trauma are predicated upon self-examination and revelation. Casual references do not have the healing potential of full disclosure.
One of the first casualties of the professionalization of gay male prevention efforts was candid discussion about men's sex lives. In the face of a mounting epidemic and a burgeoning brochure industry cranking out lists of do's and don'ts, men began lying, dissembling, and telling half-truths. It became clear very rapidly which subjects were appropriate to discuss and which ones, under the constraints of safe sex guidelines, had become heretical . . .
The vast majority of education work with gay men has not even attempted to encourage authentic dialogue and has focused on leader-directed delivery of information and manipulation of gay men through 'exercises.' Models developed in this arena skillfully have displaced gay men from subject to object in sexual discourse and have viewed gay bodies and erotic life as at-risk territory to be colonized by health educators . . .
We are bombarded with messages telling us to always wear a condom when having anal sex. How much risk is involved in anal sex if I am uninfected and am getting fucked by a lover who is also uninfected? How does my risk change if he hasn't been tested for a year and has been fucked without condoms by several tricks? If he tells me he's monogamous, but isn't, am I likely to become infected? What if he was afraid I'd leave him if he told me he's positive, so he lied and told me he's negative?
If an HIV-positive man wants to fuck me, how do I evaluate the comparative risk of his wearing no condom and pulling out before orgasm with the risk of his wearing a condom and ejaculating inside me? What is the actual level of my risk of infection, if I penetrate a friend whom I know to be infected? The prevention leadership's assumption that any level of infection risk provides enough rationale and motivation to stop the activity altogether might be motivated by sincere desire to protect us and keep us alive, but may reveal false assumptions about the easy expendability of anal sex. Surveys which show that over one-third of the uninfected urban gay men are occasionally engaging in unprotected anal intercourse, while being fully aware of the risk involved, provide evidence that knowledge of infection risk is inadequate motivation.
Are gay men able to take in significant information, sort through intricacies and conflicts, and implement new patterns of behavior, or are they simply too fried at this stage of the epidemic? Do prevention workers believe that educated, middle-class gay men might be able to handle complicated information, but that uneducated, working-class, and poor men need things simplified? Have prevention efforts considered marketing as a critical adjunct to education, or have they followed contemporary America's penchant for replacing education with marketing?
Many gay men hear a subtle but familiar message from safe sex campaigns: the meanings gay men find in their sexual congresses are spurious, trivial, or expendable. Homosexual desires are not worthy expressions of affirmation for life and connection -- they are perverse, corrupt, and decadent, like homosexuals themselves. The integrity of esteemed erotic acts is devalued and men are ordered simply to find other methods of fulfillment.
Walt Odets: "We have to acknowledge that there are positive reasons that people have unsafe sex, that there are emotional reasons, that aspects of a relationship and intimacy are expressed in unsafe sex. For some people, the 'exchange of bodily fluids' is what sex is all about...If some feel that the fullest, richest possible life demands behaviors that may also expose them to HIV, who are we, as educators, to tell them they are wrong? To attempt to morally shame such individuals who put no others at unwilling risk, to attempt to coerce them into conformity to allay our own anxieties seems to me humanely reprehensible. As educators do we really propose that men live through this tragedy only to be told by us how to feel about it, to have their real feelings denied in public education, and have them described as -- or assumed to be -- an expression of pathology?"
It has become common to claim that gay liberation is about gay men's right to love other men. The right to love has historically posed less of a threat to Western societies than the right to fuck. Particular expressions of male love in America have been highly esteemed for a long time: entire institutions such as the church, military, Congress, and competitive sports are constructed around the elevation of manly love. Gay liberation was ignited by a drive to free the erotic power between men. Activist pioneers were advocating not solely affection and 'domestic partnership' but the right to be fucked.
How viable have the goals of safe sex education proven to be and how successfully have they been fulfilled? What biases do they contain about responsibility, authority, and power? Do we face the same challenge today as we faced in the early years of the epidemic, or have circumstances changed radically? Are we willing to consider new directions which seem unorthodox and daring? Are we willing to consider anything other than 'halting transmission' as the central mission of education? . . .
Organizations working with gay men might adopt the model of research dissemination developed around HIV treatment issues: newsletters focused on expeditiously presenting cutting-edge research in all its complexity, public forums and time-limited support groups discussing particular sexual transmission issues, informational materials focused on presenting data rather than drawing rigid conclusions about conduct. If snippets of information are going to be produced and widely distributed, it would be best to focus on specific "facts" rather than providing suggestions about behavior:
*What is the seroprevalence rate among gay men in the area in which I live?
*During unprotected anal intercourse, what is the likelihood that an HIV-negative bottom will become infected from a HIV-positive top? What is the likelihood that an HIV-negative top will become infected from an HIV-positive bottom? On what does this depend?
*What is the chance that a trick will be lying about his serostatus?
*If my mouth contains no sores or bleeding, what is the likelihood for infection if I suck off an HIV-positive man?
These questions are some examples of the kind of information many men might find useful in managing their transmission risk. Some might argue that it is difficult to present accurate data on these topics and that if any risk of infection is present, it is the responsibility of the system to discourage men from ever engaging in the act. This is what we have been doing for almost 15 years -- making critical decisions for gay men and discouraging their active participation in the prevention process -- and it hasn't worked. We decide that men will make the 'wrong' decision if given too much ambiguous or inconclusive data, so information is withheld. It is time to question the ethics of such practices.