By Celia Farber

Impression Aug. 1999

AIDS dissidents take their message to Capitol Hill while the establishment pretends there's nothing to discuss. Plus, more on barebacking.

The war between the opposing factions rages on. It is, as author Martin Walker has said, an ''informational war." This makes it difficult to gauge. Who's gaining ground? Who's losing ground?

To extend the Titanic metaphor I've used before, it's a little like this: The ship is very far from sinking, but now there are pieces of ice on the deck. The good gentlemen of the establishment will continue to puff on their cigars and insist there is nothing to worry about, but the truth is that the dissident movement is growing exponentially and can no longer be snuffed out by a few insulting quotes from some AIDS goon about how no ''thinking person'' would ever think to question HIV as the cause of AIDS.

The rhetoric of these thugs speaks volumes about their intellectual as well as spiritual impoverishment: Declining an invitation to participate in a forum sponsored by the dissident group ACT UP San Francisco, Martin Delaney, founding director of Project Inform, said: ''The scientific debate on the relationship of HIV and AIDS ended in the middle 1980s. No serious scientific group has accepted any new evidence since then that suggests HIV is not the cause of AIDS.''

Classic Delaney. Like many people who have a hard time thinking for themselves, he resorts continually to authoritarian notions and uses words such as ''serious scientific group,'' like some voodoo charm he hopes will stave off inquiring minds. Serious? The Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis has some 600 signatories, most of whom hold Ph.D.s or M.D.s. Two of them are Nobel laureates, including Kary Mullis, who invented a technology that has revolutionized DNA science.

So that the goons don't have to bother, I'll tell you what their retort to that is: ''Scoff, scoff. Kary Mullis is a womanizer and believes in astrology, OK? I think that about says it all.''

The problem with AIDS thugs is that they simply are not very smart. They have as much imagination as root vegetables. Yet they rule the world -- for now. (By the way Delaney, the HIV debate didn't even begin until the late '80s, when Peter Duesberg fired his first shot.)

Well, let them fume. Let them pretend there is ''no debate.'' Whether they like it or not, the world is changing all around them.

Last Wednesday, a dissident blitzkrieg hit Capitol Hill. Every member of Congress received a special delivery: A white bag with a red cross on it containing a copy of Duesberg's book Inventing the AIDS Virus, an excerpt from Mullis' book Dancing Naked in the Mind Field and a letter calling for the reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS hypothesis and a General Accounting Office audit of all AIDS programs and services. The following day, a full-page ad appeared in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. The ad urged congressional leaders to question HIV and support GAO audits of all federally funded AIDS programs.

The blitz was masterminded by Deane Collie, the executive director of the International Coalition for Medical Justice (ICMJ), and made possible by San Francisco venture capitalist Bob Leppo, who is emerging as a reluctant hero of the underground and who has contributed more than $1 million to the dissident cause.

It was Leppo who saved Duesberg from utter dissolution after the National Institutes of Health severed his federal funding as punishment for advancing a scientific hypothesis that differed from that of the establishment. Leppo's funding enabled Duesberg to continue to function as a scientist and also gave a much-needed shot in the arm to both ICMJ and the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis.

I love Bob Leppo. In fact, in moments like this I even love capitalism. Leppo and Collie managed to meet with several members of Congress to discuss the HIV issue and plant seeds of discourse.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco the unstoppable enfant terrible activist chapter ACT UP San Francisco has been busy plastering the city with fliers and spray-painting Castro sidewalks with their dissident battle-cries. They have also staged several forums, featuring speakers like Duesberg, and actually received some fair coverage in local publications like the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Of course, there's the typical goody-two-shoes style of SF Weekly, where Joel Engardio, before he has even reported what ACT UP SF is saying, smothers the embers with a panoply of quotes from the establishment, which is now so desperate that it is willing to play the Holocaust card.

''Mainstream AIDS organizations are appalled by ACT UP's new message, flying, as it does, in the face of two decades of science, medical research, and experience," Engardio writes.

He then quotes AIDS Foundation spokesperson Gustavo Suarez: ''We have no qualms denouncing people who say the Holocaust never happened, yet why are we so tolerant of this group?''

Oh, this is vile. To compare the dissidents with Holocaust revisionists is so distortive and constitutes further proof that the AIDS goons are not very bright. If any side is in fact making a claim that a great crime against humanity has been perpetrated, it is the dissidents. Nobody's denying the corpses. The question is what did these people die of? A common retrovirus called HIV, a toxic overload of recreational and pharmaceutical drugs or perhaps some yet-to-be determined factor or factors?

There are thousands of cases of documented ''AIDS'' -- meaning severe immune suppression -- which have no detectable HIV whatsoever. None. The AIDS establishment held emergency meetings when this fact emerged at an AIDS conference some years back and quickly excluded the cases, making a whole new disease category out of them, one which ''has nothing to do with AIDS.''

Of course.

Barebacking, revisited

The letters I received about my January column on unprotected sex among gay men -- also known as barebacking -- made me want to write a bit more on it and clear up a few things, as some readers were confused about my perspective.

The death of intimacy in the age of AIDS is a subject that has always fascinated me, and when I read about barebacking, it made perfect sense. The idea that we, as a society, had lost, in one axe blow, the right to touch, the right to merge, the right to true intimacy, is something so desperately sad that it fell into the realm of the wordless. Who dared even mention it, amidst the marching and chanting and horn-blowing righteousness of ''AIDS awareness?''

In such a cold, futuristic world, patrolled by ''Safe Sex educators"' and shot through with the politics of ''prevention,'' it follows naturally that a rebellion would take root, and that ''raw'' sex would be a manifestation not of idiocy but of romance.

Romance, for God's sake.

The fact that this makes perfect sense and seems fully human was the main thing I wanted to communicate, but I may have misstepped when I, somewhat paradoxically, described barebacking as an act that could be considered "mad." Perhaps I used that word out of sheer reflex or as a means to disarm the reader so that I could go on to make my real point. Seen from one angle, the word applies, but as my readers reminded me, this is not my usual angle.

Dissidents wrote to me and wondered why I, as somebody who has questioned HIV's pathogenicity for more than a decade now, would be startled by the barebacking phenomenon. Was I equivocating? If HIV doesn't cause AIDS, what does it matter who transmits it and how?

When I wrote about barebacking as an eyebrow-raising trend, I neglected to delineate which mindset I was writing from. In this case, it was from the mindset of the barebackers themselves, those I had discovered on the Web. Since in their minds, HIV is fatal, there is an enormous drama surrounding the abandonment of condoms. It was this drama I wanted to illuminate, and to do so, I had to assume, in my own language, the traditional, non-dissident view of HIV. I wanted to know: What does it mean to bareback if you do believe in HIV?

The inverse of this question is equally compelling though: What are the politics of sexual contact for those who take the Duesbergian view that HIV is harmless?

One reader named Karl, who once developed a CDC-funded ''sexual health program'' for gay men, and who now rejects the notion that HIV is fatal, wrote: ''Celia, when we ask why gay men choose to engage in unprotected anal sex, the picture is incomplete unless we understand that SOME of these individuals KNOW -- sometimes only on a subconscious level -- that they are NOT ''at risk,'' for ''AIDS.''

He went on to describe his own journey, which led to condomless sex. It had nothing to do with the eroticization of HIV and everything to do with the demystification of HIV, by way of painstaking research into the argument that HIV is not the cause.

Calling the often-cited cases of kamikaze-style barebacking, ''the sensationalized tip of the iceberg,'' he went on to say that he believed this discourse is nonetheless ''opening a door for a multitude of perspectives that have been underground, unspoken, untested.''

''Gay men like myself,'' he wrote, ''who have never bought into the aidsmyth -- and have never been able to express this -- have been given a little more breathing room that could some day turn into an openness and freedom we haven't dreamed of for 17 years. If we play our cards right.''

Freedom. Yes, that is the word. Barebacking is not, ultimately, a physical act so much as it is a spiritual migration -- away from death and back to life. Life in the fullest sense of the word, which is not only the state of not being dead, but the state of living as an individual, in a matrix of risk, freedom and personal choice.

Another concern that a few readers brought to my attention is whether these extreme barebackers -- who try to catch and transmit HIV-- truly exist, or whether they may be an Internet fabrication, designed (possibly by right-wing forces) to demonize gay men. I never even thought of that, but it certainly is a possibility. By publicizing barebacking, they pointed out, I may well be playing right into the hands of homophobes.

I hope not.

But I want to stress that this barebacking issue does not only apply to gay men. It's about contact, about contagion, about bodily fluids, about the individual and the state. It's about attempting to stake out small territories of freedom in the totalitarian dictatorship of AIDS. The HIV-positive mothers around the country who are trying to breast-feed their babies and are being arrested, having their children seized and having their homes invaded by the bodily-fluid police -- they are barebackers too. And they are treated with total contempt, even by those who are willing to adopt tolerant PC tones about barebacking amongst gay men.

Two of the most instinctual acts of human beings -- sex and lactation -- have been converted to acts of murderous subversion in the age of AIDS (and yes, it is an ''age,'' more than it is a disease).

I've heard the smug rationalists who claim to be driven by a profound fear that open discourse will cause people to perform ''unsafe acts.'' These idiots would burn the scientific process to the ground and overturn the principles of a free press if you let them. The one truly intolerable thing to them is that there still is such a thing as free will.