AIDS, Health and Community--American Style: Interview with Eric Rofes

Eric Rofes is one of the undersung heroes of contemporary gay American culture. He is an educator by profession--he received his Ph.D in social and cultural studies from the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Education--and is an assistant professor in education at Humboldt State University in Northern California. Additionally, he is a lifelong community activist. Founder of the Boston Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance, he's served as executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center and San Francisco's Shanti Project. In the summer of 1999, he convened the Boulder Gay Men's Health Summit, an historic gathering that launched a new movement devoted to gay men's health; a similar conference took place this year.

More important, Rofes is an exceptional writer and thinker whose nine books include two that rank among essential books about contemporary, gay male culture, Reviving The Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men's Sexuality and Culture in the Ongoing Epidemic (Harrington Park Press, 1996) and Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures (Harrington Park Press,1998) . To call them essential reading might suggest the kind of volumes that everybody considers dutiful and important but nobody actually reads--wrong! Rofes's books are exhilarating and pleasurable because they burn with the passion of a writer with strong, contentious, and often provocative things to say about gay male culture, many of which we recognize in life but rarely see in print. His writing combines insightful sociopolitical analysis with passages of intensely personal ruminations on sex, loss, community, and the joys of Abba.

Reviving The Tribe focused on the post-traumatic stress experienced by a generation of gay men who suffered catastrophic losses from AIDS and the necessity of remembrance and mourning in healing those wounds. Dry Bones Breathe stirred tremendous controversy by speaking the unspeakable: That for most gay men in the United States, AIDS is no longer an emergency. A crisis mentality no longer serves us, Rofes argues, and he delivers in thoughtful detail new perspectives on how to deal with HIV/AIDS and the other challenges in our lives.

I've known Eric Rofes since we were baby activists together as college students in Boston and contributors to Gay Community News. As a participant in the Boulder summits, I have had many opportunities to observe his eloquence and humor as a public speaker, as well as his compassion and savvy in creating a new field where lively discourse is not only welcome but cherished.

We conducted the following interview by email.

I know you've just come back from "Creating Change," the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's annual conference. With that experience fresh in your mind, how would you describe the current state of AIDS activism in this country?

I would consider the state of AIDS activism to be similar to the state of most activism today. Sad. (I am writing this before the Florida officials have decided who will be the next president.) For most progressive movements, we have been in a pre-movement stage for many years. AIDS had been an exception, but...

Wait a second--could you clarify what you mean?

Social movements rise and fall. Since the movements of the sixties, a powerful conservative wave has washed over the U.S. and most social movements have been in hibernation. We are now in a pre-movement period where the work of activists must focus on seeding the environment for the rise of movements in the coming years. This means our tactics are likely to be different now than in a few years when we are moving forward fully.

As I was saying, AIDS had been an exception. But because many activists moved into formal institutional leadership roles, and other activists failed to notice important shifts in the grassroots' experience of HIV/AIDS, we are at this odd moment. The remaining activists try to guilt trip gay men into emotionally retreating to a crisis mentality and most gay men won't go there. AIDS activists seem to have a single approach to their work--crisis, panic, terror. This indicates lazy organizing. We need organizers who can work with masses of people even as their experience of the epidemic shifts.

And where you do you place yourself in relation to AIDS activism?

These days my activism and organizing focus on two issues--public school reform and gay men's health. I keep my distance from AIDS activists because they seem toxic, self-destructive, and their analysis of HIV/AIDS does not match my own.

Would you would elaborate on this, please?

AIDS activists generally seem frustrated because many gay men no longer occupy this mindset of crisis, terror, panic, and madness about the epidemic. They insist we're "in denial," or must not care. I argue that a crisis mindset is able to be sustained for only a limited time-period and then people adjust to their reality and in some ways normalize it. Rather than trying to corral gay men back into the crisis mode, I recommend activists either find a population which currently experiences AIDS as a crisis and make them the foundation of their activism, or meet gay men where we are at, rather than where they'd like us to be.

I also have a different relationship to medical science and treatments than many activist groups. I have long been skeptical of Western treatments, don't worship at the altar of the FDA, and believe more holistic approaches to fighting HIV should receive greater attention.

You were the one who pretty much "broke the story" that for most gay men in America, AIDS is no longer a crisis. In Dry Bones Breathe, you describe the experience of travelling across the country on a book tour, meeting lots of gay men and observing that there were very different AIDS experiences, depending on which group of five populations you belonged to: gay men with HIV, gay men who have remain uninfected with HIV throughout the epidemic, gay men of color, gay men under 35, and gay men who live in rural areas and small towns. What response have you gotten to this assessment? I'm particularly curious to know what signs you've received that people have learned from and incorporated your analysis when it comes to AIDS activism?

For the most part, AIDS activists have disagreed or resisted the thinking in Dry Bones Breathe and argue that "AIDS is still a crisis, goddamit!!!" Meanwhile, I think the book becomes more relevant every day. The folks within the AIDS system who have found it most useful are prevention workers--the realities described in the book seem to match what they are seeing and the analysis helps them make sense of the environment in which they are working.

What's happening in AIDS prevention these days?

The most exciting thing I see going on in prevention involves shifting from an HIV-prevention focus to a more holistic gay men's health- focus. This is happening all across the country and takes the form of health projects tackling everything from cancer to body image, depression, sexual dysfunction, addiction, and HIV/AIDS. The most effective prevention work is embedded in a broader program of health promotion targeting the entire gay man within the context of his broader life.

What is the relationship between the emerging gay men's health movement and the current state of AIDS activism?

A number of us throughout the U.S. are attempting to catalyze a gay men's health movement that includes HIV, but is not limited to it, and that does not see "gay men's health" as a metaphor for HIV/AIDS. We want to tackle a range of health challenges facing gay men and restore the link between service provision and political activism. At this point, there is little connection with AIDS activists, although many of the up-and-coming leaders of the gay men's health movements were AIDS activist leaders a decade ago.

You convened two summit conferences in Boulder, Colorado, in 1999 and 2000, to launch this gay men's health movement. How did that happen?

I was part of a team organizing two summits in Boulder attempting to draw together folks interested in igniting a movement for gay men's health nationally.

What came out of those conferences? And what do you see in the immediate future for activism around gay men's health?

The most exciting thing that happened was the commitment by over a dozen local organizing groups to organize local/regional summits in the year 2001. These local/ regional summits will have their own focus and their own flavor, but I hope they will continue the work we did at Boulder linking service delivery to political activism. We can never again allow them to be separated!

Artery, November 2000