Two days ago, The New Yorker’s Daily Comment blog published an essay by Michael Specter titled “What Young Gay Men Don’t Know About Aids,” in which Specter points to the increase of “unprotected anal intercourse among gay men,” claims that “the rates of HIV infection will surely follow,” and then identifies the cause of this shift as the ignorance of my generation, who weren’t around to see the AIDS epidemic for themselves. The piece is a call to arms of sort, stating the need for increased public funding for HIV/AIDS prevention, and concludes by quoting Larry Kramer’s famous 1983 warning, “1,112 and Counting.” It’s a familiar argument—one that, in my lifetime, I have heard repeated ad nauseam and, I fear, largely misses what AIDS means to me and many other young gay men.
I don’t take issue with Specter’s intent—I would certainly like to prevent the second coming of an American epidemic—nor do I disagree with all of his points. More public funding for prevention education is absolutely needed, particularly in underserved communities; there has, in fact, been a rise in HIV infections among young MSM of color in recent years. But his argument that “the rates of HIV infection will surely follow” an increase in unprotected sex jumps to a quick causative conclusion without considering a number of other factors. While I think this is certainly a possible, even likely, consequence, I think there are other important questions to be asked: How many of the gay men engaging in unprotected sex today are positive and sero-sorting? How many are in monogamous relationships with a single partner? How many are taking preventative HIV medication like Truvada?
Within the old-school discourse around HIV prevention, the powers that be would likely not consider any of these acceptable prevention methods. Admittedly, they are not 100% effective, and research has demonstrated time and time again that using condoms during every penetrative sexual encounter is the single most effective way to prevent HIV infection—I don’t dispute this. However, what people should do is rarely a good predictor of what they will do, and I believe we should be in service to the reality of our community, rather than an elusive ideal. (Every time I go to the doctor, for instance, I’m reminded that I really should use condoms for oral sex.)
Moreover, Specter’s piece radically misunderstands my relationship to HIV as a young gay man. In my lifetime, being gay has always been associated with HIV. As soon as I learned what it means to be gay (age seven or so) I also realized, from watching the news and reading the paper, that there was a terrible disease that disproportionately affected these kinds of men. When I came out at twelve, my mother flew into a panic that I would follow the path of her gay older brother, who was HIV positive (though he lived with the virus for almost twenty years and outlived multiple doctors before dying himself in 2006). My grandmother—who I saw regularly throughout my adolescence—could never resist the opportunity to remind me to use condoms, and that no man can be trusted. As long as I have articulated my sexual desires, I have been told that they could cost me my life.
In my experience as a gay teen, this message was a greater burden than the homophobia I encountered in my peers. So when Specter asks “What twenty-year-old man, enjoying his first moments of sexual adventure, is going to be scared because, ten years before he was born, people like me saw gay men writhe and vomit and die on the streets where he now stands?” I am deeply insulted.
When I was a fifteen-year-old enjoying my first moments of sexual adventure, Iwas scared—and I wasn’t using condoms. At sixteen, seventeen and eighteen, I was still scared and still not having protected sex. But it certainly wasn’t because I didn’t understand the very real and grave prospect of HIV. At the time, I justified it to myself in the typical ways, downplaying my own very vivid fear: I was living in suburban Connecticut, mostly topping and mostly sleeping with virgins. I also have a innate self-destructive streak that went largely unchecked during my adolescence—unprotected sex was one of many risky behaviors in which I engaged.
When I moved to New York for college, aware that the city was a much bigger and more promiscuous pool, I became a more responsible sexual citizen, using protection and getting tested regularly at the school’s health clinic. I also took a number of classes that looked to the social, political and scientific aspects of HIV; my first assigned text in college was the searing documentary Silverlake Life: The View from Here, for a lecture on intersectionality with Gayatri Gopinath. In terms of sociopolitical consciousness, the class changed my life—and while I’ll never forget the images of Tom Joslin’s wasted body in that film, they didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.
And since then, I admit, I have had unprotected sex. Infrequently—but that hardly matters. As several years of safe-sex education have taught me, once is all it takes.
I’m sure Michael Specter would want to know why. While some of that would surely involve parsing my own psychology, I can’t deny how I feel HIV prevention education actually worked to increase my temptation to have unprotected sex. The “safe sex or die” rhetoric has become its own brand of moralism—a force that both young people and queer people have pushed against throughout history.
I guess what I want to tell Michael Specter—and the countless gay men of his generation who have been sharing his piece on Facebook, applauding him—is that the essay, which interpellates me in its title, has very little to do with me. In this kind of discourse, gay men who lived through the AIDS epidemic are simply talking to each other while wagging the finger at the younger generation down below. To not comprehend what it is like to grow up gay in the shadow of HIV/AIDS is to be unable to best prevent new HIV infections in young gay men.
Teenagers are always going to have unprotected sex—because they are programmed to be horny, reckless and defiant, not because they don’t have a clue about the horrors of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. By all means we should continue to encourage the use of condoms, but HIV prevention education should also be teaching young people about PrEP, PeP and TasP. We should be funding research toward a vaccine and working to make Truvada as affordable and widely available as birth control pills. And never should we use public forums to shame or blame young gay men for doing what—one has to acknowledge—feels good.