02 August 2008

Another Inconvenient Truth

Spent a few days out on Fire Island last week, a grateful guest in a waterfront house that, I discovered, cost more than my annual income to rent for the season (May to September). "It's only that cheap," my host breezily assured me, "because it doesn't have a swimming pool or central air."

I found it more than luxurious enough for my needs, however, luxury for me having, after a couple years in New York, being any place where it's possible to get eight hours of sleep uninterrupted by car alarms, ten-ton trucks threatening to careen into one's living room, drunken, screaming neighbors, or the mingled inadvertent symphony of televisions, radios and stereos emanating from fourteen different apartments.

On the Island, the only late-sound to be heard apart from the gentle lapping of the water against the pier was the distant thump-thump of the disco in "downtown" Cherry Grove (downtown being the intersection of two boardwalks (no streets, no cars) where you can find a handful of bars and restaurants, the Lilliputian post office, and the only grocery store in town.

I use "disco" in the classic sense of the word, as there was a very 70s feel to Cherry Grove, not just in terms of the music, but also in the mores. It felt very pre-AIDS, which was odd, since the Island, like New York City in general, was hit very hard when the epidemic was at its most deadly. And even though it's rare these days to hear of someone dying from AIDS, it's equally rare to encounter a group of gay men in which several of them, if not the majority, are HIV-positive.

Yet it just doesn't seem to be much of an issue anymore. Which is good, great, in fact, on one level. I've met many men who've been positive for 20 or 25 years and are still in good health; some of them have never even had to take drugs for their condition. Most of them are carrying on with their lives as though HIV were barely an issue at all.

What's not so good is that quite a few of them are also carrying on with their sex lives on the same premise. Perhaps I'm guilty of being naive, but for many years I simply assumed that most people who were HIV-positive either had protected sex only, or, if they did have unprotected sex, only with others who were already positive. Okay, I'm not totally naive, and I figured there were bound to be some who were either too antisocial, too drug-addled, or too oblivious to care, but that they were a tiny minority.

Also, there has been an image, built up during the darkest days of the epidemic, not least through movies like Philadelphia, of AIDS victims as martyrs, almost saintlike in their forbearance and acceptance of their fate. When people were dying left and right and there was no available treatment, it seemed almost churlish to view them any other way, or to dwell on the fact that some - not all, certainly, but quite a few - had acquired the virus by way of sexual proclivities in the face of which Caligula might have blushed (sorry, Morrissey).

So it came as a rather rude awakening to me when I discovered that having promiscuous, anonymous unprotected sex has once again become so common on the gay scene that many men find it barely worth commenting on. Granted, I'm basing this on largely anecdotal evidence, but given the proportion of gay men who've unhesitatingly acknowledged having unprotected sex all or part of the time, despite having no knowledge of their partners HIV status (or, in many cases, their names), I think it's safe to say this is more than an occasional aberration.

And given the fact that most gay men I know are neither crazed drug addicts nor sociopaths, and more often than not are from the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum, I'm guessing this is a phenomenon that cuts across the whole of the gay community. And it's not something that's being talked about very much, at least not to my knowledge. Yes, a couple years there were a number of anguished discussions over why certain men would specifically seek out bareback websites or venues, but the subtext was always "certain men," i.e., some mysterious, shadowy group whose existence or motivation couldn't be explained or understood by the majority of "normal" or "responsible" gays.

But if, as it appears to me, unprotected sex has gone mainstream, it's worth asking whether there's a conspiracy of silence around it for political reasons, in much the same way that AIDS is treated differently from all other communicable diseases (it's the only one I know of, for example, in which it's not standard operating procedure to track down the partners of infected individuals). In the 1980s there were, or at least seemed to be, sound reasons for this special treatment; things are very different today. Especially in light of today's news that new HIV infections may be up to 40% more numerous than was previously believed, it's almost certainly time for a bit more candor in and from the gay community. And if you're having sex with men - regardless of whether you're male or female - you might want to think about being even more careful than you thought you had to be.

No comments: