August 22, 2016

When HIV Divides, It Multiplies

I recently met Adam Singer at his shop, Adam’s Nest, in Provincetown. What drew me in were t-shirts he had hanging in the display window. One was “Silence = Death”, the message that first hit the scenes back in the 1980’s when much of the non-gay, mostly-religious powers of society (such as President Reagan) were largely silent about HIV while people were dying. It was this shirt that drew me in. I was curious to whom Adam was addressing and was pleased to see that it is the gay community. In June, as I watched the DC Pride Parade, I noted that there was not one message about HIV-prevention, getting tested, or giving homage to the pandemic as a vital player in the advancement of gay rights and all those who lost their lives in that cause.

But it was the t-shirt that said “HIV÷: The Virus Divides. It Doesn’t Have To” that really drew my attention. We so often hear of “HIV+” or “HIV-“, which is a great divider. In the gay community, both silence and division seem much more prevalent than open and frank conversations about how to negotiate HIV. As an example, there is the dreaded “DDF” that is so prevalent in the on-line world. Stating that one is “Disease and Drug Free” does not make it so, and proclaiming that one is only looking for a DDF partner does nothing to promote conversation. It just encourages silence. 

HIV has long-been a source of power for unification and division. Families came together as family-members died of AIDS in some cases, whereas in other cases, people died painfully separated from their families. The pandemic forced the issue of homosexuality to the surface for individuals and for society. I have long-maintained that the AIDS pandemic sped up the clock on gay rights by at least a decade as it rapidly expanded the network of allies and forced people to prioritize life and love over judgment. Further down the road, HIV helped to bring the very people who had been largely silent and/or scornful on HIV to the fold of activism and service as people like Rick Warren, Henry Hyde, Jesse Helms, and George Bush entered the fray. But the blind spots were also stark, as many of these people – by focusing on far-away places – nurtured a continuing division that the real horrors of HIV are “over there”, conveniently ignoring the gay community and even nurturing homophobia.

And now the gay community has its own issue with silence and division. In a world where there are ways to self-test, and where treatments and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis can reduce the risk of infection dramatically, it is disturbing that there is still the silence. AIDS organizations themselves are part of the problem by continuing calcified protocols around testing, as an example. For too many decades, the status quo and fight for turf has not allowed for the kind of democratized innovation and creativity for the new generation. Not promoting HIV awareness at gay pride parades to a captive audience is a lost opportunity. We can do better.

Here’s another mathematical analogy: by being silent to the HIV+/HIV- division, HIV will continue to multiply. It doesn’t have to be that way.