Shame = Death: HIV/AIDS Complacency in the Gay Community
I can remember sitting in health class when I was 14, watching a video about AIDS. It was a humid 90 degrees outside, and there was no air conditioning in the building. An image of a man, no more than 100 pounds and covered in lesions, appeared on the screen, and I suddenly felt nauseated. I broke out into a sweat and watched it pool into a tiny puddle on the surface of my desk. I went to the boys' room and stood at the sink, looking at myself in the mirror. Growing up in the '90s, we were taught that sex equaled death. Specifically, gay sex equaled death. And to my fragile, impressionable young mind, that meant being gay equaled death, too. When you believe death and disease are your destiny, what's to stop you from being promiscuous, doing drugs, or even taking your own life?
Of course, it gets better. And it did, at least for me. But as an adult, I encounter younger gay men who didn't grow up seeing the things my generation saw. So much has changed in just a few short years. HIV is no longer a death sentence; it's a "manageable condition." And the number of gay men practicing unsafe sex, out of recklessness, complacency, or even deliberate self-injury, continues to grow. The CDCreportsthat infection rates among men who have sex with men, particularly blacks and Hispanics, are on the rise.
As a filmmaker, one of my goals is to tell stories that inspire people to think differently about the world around them. I want my work to challenge our perception of identity and reality, and the people who inhabit our world. When I made my first short film,Requited, in 2010, one of the actors, Max Rhyser, and I began sharing stories about men we'd met who are intentionally trying to become infected with HIV. They're called "bug chasers," and we mutually expressed our confusion and dismay about the subject. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community doesn't want to talk about it. The activist community is afraid to admit it. The straight world doesn't know about it. And so Max and I decided to make a movie calledChaser.
Last summer,Requitedscreened at NewFest, the New York LGBT Film Festival. I attended the screening of the opening-night film,We Were Here, an extraordinary documentary about the arrival of AIDS in San Francisco in the early 1980s, directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber. I'm always eager to find out how the men and women who experienced the beginning of AIDS -- who literally watched their friends, lovers, and patients succumb to the disease one after the next -- feel about these men who are actively seeking out the virus today. During the Q&A session, I asked the cast and crew about their thoughts on the subject and was politely but swiftly shot down. I was told it was too controversial an issue and that I should speak with them privately at the afterparty. Of course, I did, and the reaction was exactly what I expected (Weissman told me it "infuriates" him), but the incident was the impetus I needed to move forward withChaser.
At that point I was sure the film would be more than just provocative. I told Max we should be prepared to defend it, that our decision not to condemn our main character's behavior, but instead just tell a story and let the audience make their own judgment, would make people uncomfortable. What I didn't expect was the pushback that came before we'd even raised the money to make the film, or that it would come from sources seemingly dedicated to eradicating HIV from our community. When we approached one of the country's oldest and most respected AIDS organizations about partnering with us for our upcoming fundraising event on March 30, a representative accused us of "sensationalizing" the issue, decrying that it was a small "fringe" of the gay community who were engaging in this behavior. Another prominent LGBT organization seeking funding for their HIV support services ignored my offers to join forces.
The fear is understandable. When I talk to my straight friends about bug chasing, a look of horror and disbelief washes over their faces. "Why would someone do that?!" is the most common response. The people who have dedicated their lives to fighting AIDS are afraid of how this issue will reflect on their work and the LGBT community as a whole. There's enough prejudice and bigotry directed at gays already; we don't need the behavior of some tiny fringe making matters worse. And we certainly don't need it affecting the funding of our research and prevention efforts. Right? But in the beginning, it was only a small group of gay men who were afflicted with AIDS, then known as "gay cancer." It took years of tireless dedication and organization by trailblazing activists, whose work is now emulated by those at the forefront of countless other medical causes, to get where we are today. And now those very same people, or at least their successors, are engaging in a similarly reactionary response.
We can't make progress without asking questions. Who are these "chasers"? Why are they doing this? Some of them are men whose families and cultures have shamed them into anonymous, unsafe sex, who have devalued them to the point where they believe their lives aren't worth protecting. Some are boys sitting in classrooms, watching videos like the one I watched, believing they have no future. These areourpeople. This isourcommunity. This isourfamily. And if a member of your family were acting in a self-destructive way, would you ignore it? Would you deny that it was happening? Would you shun those who tried to help? Or would you confront him, find out why, and try to figure out how to stop it?