Jim Graham is still haunted by the early days of the AIDS epidemic. As then-director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, an AIDS service organization in Washington, D.C., Graham watched with horror as gay men succumbed to the disease with alarming regularity. Equally terrifying were the antigay crusaders who used the suffering to sermonize about the supposedly damnable consequences of sex between men. "The poor homosexuals," opined right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan. "They have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution."
At the time, in 1983, AIDS educators were able to fend off such slurs with prevention campaigns that cut the rate of new HIV transmissions to close to zero and with appeals to compassion. But with recent reports about increases in unsafe sex, particularly barebacking, among some gay men, Graham frets about a return to a nightmare scenario.
"In the beginning we were able to explain that the vast majority of HIV infections were the result of ignorance--no one knew," says Graham, who resigned from Whitman-Walker after he was elected to the Washington, D.C., city council in November. "The public generally responded with compassion. Now ... I'm starting to hear people--and not just right-wingers--say, `Why should we support you guys if some of you are going to be so irresponsible?' The potential for backlash is frightening."
Of course, there have always been a tiny minority of gay men who engaged in unprotected anal intercourse for a variety of reasons, including substance abuse and depression. But now that a small but resolute group of men have begun to actually tout the forbidden pleasure of the practice, some veterans of the earlier AIDS wars worry about the damage that could be done to the caring, responsible image gay men established during the epidemic.
Mathilde Krim, founding cochair and chairman of the board of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, is concerned, though she believes that as of yet the image has not been tarnished. "So far, thank God, barebacking has not become part of our common language, and I hope it doesn't come to that," she says. "But I can almost see it coming." She notes that AmFAR will hold a fundraiser in Dallas the same month a national barebacking party was scheduled to take place in the same city.
"These people at our fund-raiser are part of the establishment who now understand that AIDS is not a problem of gay people alone but a problem for all of us," Krim says. "Two weeks later they might be reading about barebacking in the papers. This could be very dangerous. The old days of homophobia are still too near, and they may not understand that this is only a very small part of a much bigger group."
While a political backlash has yet to take shape, the potential for one has many AIDS activists scrambling for a response. And with AIDS appropriations still highly susceptible to legislative scrutiny and scissors, there may be little margin for error. The Clinton administration's AIDS prevention budget has remained relatively flat four years running, and service groups such as Gay Men's Health Crisis and AIDS Project Los Angeles experienced budget shortfalls even before the term barebacking was coined.
The religious right is already highlighting reports of unprotected sex to justify defunding pro-gay AIDS service groups. HIV prevention programs have "failed because no money has been allocated for efforts to curb the voluntary, high-risk behaviors that spread the disease," the Family Research Council, a religious conservative group, declares on its Web site. "Instead, AIDS funding has been directed to organizations that promote the very behaviors that enhance the infection." Still, the issue is fraught with risk for the religious right as well. Polls have consistently shown that Americans overwhelmingly support current levels of AIDS funding and reject punitive measures directed at people already staring down illness and mortality.
Those attitudes would not prevent antigay conservatives from trying to make political hay from barebacking. "I can just see [Sen.] Jesse Helms taking to the Senate floor, waving one of these barebacking articles, and saying, `Why should we be spending money on people who can't even protect themselves?'" says an executive at a marketing consulting firm that has worked on corporate sponsorship for nonprofit groups. "We made a deal early in the epidemic with the larger society: If we would take care of our own, we could keep the government out of our private lives. That's why AIDS was never treated like tuberculosis, for which you can be jailed for not taking medication. The publicity over barebacking calls that deal into question. Now politicians will come to us and say, `You people are fucking like rabbits again.'"
More than public monies are at stake. Corporate sponsors have long been leery of tying themselves to controversial causes. The private "AIDS funding streams are dependent on a certain amount of goodwill," says the marketing executive, who did not wish to be identified by name for fear of alienating clients. "It was very easy for corporations to withhold sponsorships from the Salt Lake City Olympics because it had become such a mess," he said, referring to the bribery scandal involving the city and the International Olympic Committee. "If they can back out of the Olympics, there is certainly nothing stopping them from holding back grants to the AIDS quilt or other causes."
But others see barebacking as little more than a media phenomenon that distracts gay men from issues that transcend public image. "There has been unprotected sex by both homosexuals and heterosexuals since the beginning of the epidemic," says Michael Bronski, author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom. "The main difference here is that all of a sudden we have a sensational name put on it by people who want to sell magazines. The problem with barebacking is that it's creating misunderstanding and backlash. It takes us away from what should be the central questions: Why do people have unprotected sex, and how do we get them to stop?"
Those difficult questions have rekindled an age-old debate about sexual responsibility, an attribute of gays that impressed many straight people in the 1980s. Some leaders argue that it's time to embrace that quality again, not just for the image it conveys but for the lives it can save.
"The AIDS leadership needs to stand up and tell the truth: Barebacking is irresponsible behavior, and there is no excuse for it," Graham says. "I'm not 22 years old, so it's hard to know what's going through their minds. Some say a wide-open sexual lifestyle is what we are about. Well, if we are to survive, that can't be what we are about. We have a responsibility to each other."
But working to present a positive image to straight people could have the unintended effect of putting off gay men who most need to discuss unsafe sex. Alan Dowell, a 24-year-old gay outreach coordinator for AID Atlanta, an AIDS service group, says moralizing could unleash its own backlash. To combat the rise in new infections among gay men under the age of 25, the group has launched an emergency workshop called "Boys Will Be Boys" that avoids judging the participants' sexual behavior while discussing safer-sex practices. But that behavior, Dowell says, may not be everything that Graham and others hope for.
"These young men--and they are coming out earlier and earlier--won't respond to the argument that they are stabbing the rest of the community in back with their behavior," Dowell says. "They are from a very self-absorbed generation that does not relate to the politics of the older generation. They just want to enjoy their share of the sexual revolution before it's over." For Buchanan, who in March announced his third GOP presidential bid, and other antigay activists, that may be just the ammunition they have been seeking.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||unprotected anal intercourse|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Apr 13, 1999|
|Previous Article:||risky business.|
|Next Article:||she said, she said.|
|Unprotected anal sex is not uncommon among men with HIV infection.|
|Why not gay 'marriage' in Canada?|
|No gay blood in South Africa.|