THE AIDS CULT AND ITS SEROCONVERTS
By Ian Young
Continuum Nov./Dec. 1996, Feb./March 1997
Purposely, the twenty-something boys, who have
never known a sex life without AIDS,
fatalistically expose themselves to
HIV as a test of ritual manhood.
- Jack Fritscher, Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera, 1994.
Deliver me from blood gatherers, O God, Thou art the God of my health.
- Book of Common Prayer
At the local gay bars and dance clubs, the raves and fetish nights and
"AIDS fundraising" events, a new style of body ornament is becoming
fashionable. Young gay men are beginning to sport tattoos, usually in block
letters on the upper arm, that spell out HIV, followed by a minus sign.
The idea, of course, is that when (when!) you seroconvert, you pay a follow-up
visit to your tattooist, who changes your minus to a plus. Simple.
The convertible (one way only!) tattoos signal an unsettling phenomenon
that is only now beginning to be acknowledged. An astonishing number of
young gay men whose sexual activity began only after the implementation
of the "Safe Sex" and "AIDS Education" programs of
the Eighties and Nineties, are seroconverting - testing Positive for HIV,
the virus widely believed to cause AIDS. One estimate has it that one in
three twenty-year old gay men will be HIV-infected or dead of AIDS by the
age of thirty. Many of them, according to psychologist Walt Odets, not
only recognize the possibility of AIDS for themselves, but "accept
it as a destiny about which they can do very little."
A pair of recently published books, Odets' own In the Shadow of
the Epidemic: Being HIV Negative in the Age of AIDS and William I.
Johnston's HIV Negative: How the Uninfected Are Affected by AIDS,
explore this new insouciance about seroconversion and offer some disturbing
insights into contemporary attitudes. Odets is a clinical psychologist
and psychotherapist; Johnston is the facilitator of a discussion group
for gay, HIV Negative men. Working independently, they have amassed considerable
evidence of what Odets describes as "a psychological epidemic among
uninfected gay men". Now in its fifteenth year, the protracted AIDS
crisis has had an impact on everyone in the gay community, uninfected and
infected alike. Odets writes that he sees "innumerable examples of
psychological problems among gay men that seven years ago would have been
unusual and noteworthy, but are now so common that they pass almost without
comment." Many gay men are afraid to become close to anyone, as either
lover or friend, for fear any intimate involvement will be terminated by
early death. As one man put it, "I've never thought about having a
relationship for more than a couple of years, because I've never dated
anyone who was going to live longer than that."
Odets' and Johnston's books are the latest additions to a growing body
of literature documenting the complex varieties of survivor guilt,
now experienced by increasing numbers of uninfected gay men. Both authors
discuss the finding that in today's breezy, out-of-the-closet gay ghetto,
HIV Negative men tend to be profoundly clinically depressed, anxious, disoriented,
hypochondriacal, uncertain about the future, sexually dysfunctional, deeply
demoralized and psychically numb. Many abuse alcohol or drugs, and their
physicians prescribe them millions of dollars worth of tranquillizers,
sleeping pills, anti-depressants and sedatives every year. More and more
uninfected men, Odets finds, now "live in nearly every detail like
a dying man disoriented, piecemeal, and with no assumption of a future."
From his years of intensive talks with friends, patients and discussion
group clients, Odets concludes that this widespread, endemic depression
has its origins not only in reactions to the current health crisis, but
also in "a destructive mix of old developmental problems" that
have usually begun in childhood. Substance abuse is often chronic, reflecting
mood disorders, loneliness and stress; in this, HIV Negative gay men probably
differ little from their HIV Positive brothers. We may now be starting
to recognize longstanding patterns of psychoimmune disturbance in a second
generation of gay men - a generation that has come to sexual awareness
during the AIDS era.
A few years ago, when conservative commentator William
F. Buckley, Jr. suggested that PWAs should all be forcibly tattooed (on
the arm and/or the buttocks) for instant recognition, there was widespread
disgust at the idea and embarrassment that the apparently urbane Buckley
would suggest it. Now, such tattooing is available on a voluntary basis
and there is no lack of takers. After a decade of propaganda about Safe
Sex, a sizeable cohort of young men becomes eligible every year for HIV+
tattoos. Bill Buckley's American Auschwitz Theme Park is almost here, and
no boxcars will be required.
One effect of the ubiquitous official warnings about
"risk behavior" and "vectors of (AIDS) transmission",
is that more and more gay men now believe their body fluids to be dangerous,
and "define certain behaviors, such as anal sex or oral sex, as unsafe
in and of themselves, without regard to whether one of the people involved
had HIV." "It is common," writes Odets, "for gay men
now to say that anal sex is 'unsafe' even when practised by two HIV-negative
people." William S. Burroughs is fond of quoting one survey that found
most people believe you can get AIDS from anal intercourse, whether or
not HIV is present.
Anxieties about gayness, and about intimacy, now frequently
express themselves as fear of viral contamination, providing an ostensibly
rational reason to avoid what has always been problematic. When HIV is
identified with feared (and unconsciously desired) homosexual intimacy,
the result is a powerful draw toward seroconversion. The uninfected men
interviewed in both these books repeatedly express the view that HIV Positives
live richer, more complex, more "authentic" lives, get more attention,
are better able to take risks - including, significantly, the "risk
of intimacy" - and that only with such risk-taking can life be meaningful
This perceived link between HIV Positive status and emotional
fulfillment is just one among many factors now propelling gay men toward
seroconversion. These pressures emanate from the AIDS Establishment's group
assumptions about gay men, assumptions which are more and more clearly
reflected in the ghettoized gay community itself. And it is the power and
diversity of the pressures to seroconvert that constitute the central,
disturbing message of both these books.
After the Reagan administration pronounced in 1984 that
HIVwas the sole cause of AIDS, lucrative patents on HIV-antibody tests
were granted to leading AIDS researchers, and aggressive promotion of HIV-antibody
testing began. At first, most gay and AIDS advocacy groups considered testing
to be dangerous and oppressive. In the mid-Eighties, people entering the
"Test Sites" (a term eerily reminiscent of "nuclear test
sites") often had to make their way through lines of vocal gay demonstrators.
Governments and pharmaceutical companies then directed a light dusting
of money to selected recipients and the protests died down. Soon a broad
consensus developed that testing was a virtue, a civic duty, and the smart
thing to do.
Testing Positive, in the current wisdom, leads to "early
intervention", by which is meant the administration of large quantities
of pharmaceutical products - the so- called "antivirals" - principally
nucleoside analogues, whose devastating "side- effects" often
replicate AIDS symptoms. Whether subsequent illnesses are caused by the
inevitable "progress" of the virus, or by a self-fullfilling
prophecy is debatable.
The quotations and first-person accounts by HIV Negative
men in these studies suggest that while an HIV Positive test result was
originally looked upon as a calamity, this is no longer always the case.
This is partly because some PWAs are learning how to take care of themselves
and are living longer, and partly because a growing number of gay men see
HIV infection and subsequent AIDS not as something that can or should be
avoided, but as, in Johnston's words, something "fundamentally linked
to gay identity". Certainly it has been represented to them that way.
Heterosexuals and lesbians are told, "AIDS doesn't discriminate!"
But gay men have come to perceive it as an inextricable part of their "community",
their "identity", and their future. One female-to-male transsexual
told his therapist that his transformation to a gay man would only be complete
when he had contracted HIV! I have heard gay men repeat the homophobic
joke: "GAY stands for Got AIDS Yet?".
In the Seventies and early Eighties, a ghettoized consumerism
(fast food, fast drugs, fast sex, quick-fix medicine) was packaged and
sold as "the Gay Lifestyle". Now AIDS is increasingly presented
as the new Gay Lifestyle. In the gay community of the Nineties, everything
revolves around AIDS.
This AIDS-centered vision of community life has even encroached
on lesbian society. In 1994, after the founder of the British organization
for lesbians with HIV, Positive Strength, revealed that her claim to seropositive
status was false, AIDS activist Simon Watney spoke of "an imaginary
epidemic [of ] fantasy AIDS" among British lesbians. Lesbian writer
Robin Gorna wrote that "although there are many gay men who also lie
about their HIV status, it seems that some lesbians feel unable to articulate
their own issues alongside the horror of AIDS. If you are a young dyke,
your identity is all tied up with AIDS, yet it's not your stuff."
She added that there was no evidence to suggest lesbian sex poses any significant
AIDS risk: lesbians with AIDS, she said, tend to contract it from drug
use and/or sex with men, which she described as "still a taboo subject
in the lesbian community."' In all the fracas about how many lesbians
get AIDS, Gorna's remark that many gay men lie about having HIV seems to
have been overlooked.
Walt Odets draws our attention to the attitude, widespread
in the gay community, that only PWAs and HIV Positives have a right to
express strong feelings. He recalls that when he voiced his concerns about
the emotional well-being of HIV Negative gay men, he found it was considered
inappropriate for HIV Negatives to "experience feelings about their
own lives worthy of discussion or worthy of the concern and attention of
others." The feelings of those regarded as "uninfected"
are widely felt to be "selfish, inappropriate, or simply ridiculous."
Often, HIV Negatives are even seen as The Enemy; one man, on the steering
committee of a "mental health" conference, when told of an HIV
Negative discussion group, retorted, "That's like Germans getting
together ... to congratulate themselves on not being Jewish!"
Society has never made the well-being of gay men a priority.
On the other hand, if you have AIDS or are HIV Positive, a range of social
services, support groups, medical benefits and other perks becomes immediately
available. Suddenly, attention is paid. Variations of the same phrase crop
up again and again in the sentimental AIDS literature: "I never knew
how much I was loved until I got AIDS." It makes a great ad slogan,
if AIDS is what you're selling.
In the urban gay ghettos of the Eighties and Nineties,
a whole AIDS Culture has emerged - an "AIDS Community" based
on an ever-shifting melange of medical and subcultural assumptions. This
new blood brotherhood is beginning to form a kind of Inner Order within
the exoteric conglomeration of the lesbian and gay scene, and a growing
number of glossy magazines now devote themselves to the perks and pleasures
of the Positive Lifestyle. And one "comes out" into this Lifestyle
in one way only: by seroconverting. Seroconversion is the ritual that all
who would join the cult must endure. Those who have lost friends, or, especially,
one or more lovers, to AIDS may claim honorary membership. The cult's unofficial
badge of honor is a looped red ribbon, usually pinned to the chest, or
rather to the coat. Originally a fund-raising favor, the "red ribbon"
is now commercially available in many stylish designer forms: one can choose
from ceramic, dyed leather, or 24 karat gold encrusted with red stones.
Elizabeth Taylor is one of the few who can afford a diamond and ruby "ribbon".
Of course, fashion is fickle and the red ribbon is already coming to be
regarded as somewhat passe, not to say kitsch.
Under the pressure of protracted crisis, the transformation
of signals, policies and identities has been relentless. In the Eighties
and early Nineties, the figure of the AIDS activist, the seething ACT UP
clone, body pumped under the white political T-shirt, head shaved, concentration-camp
style, became, for a while, a symbol of erotic resonance, a sexual icon.
Having exhausted itself in unfocused anger, the fashion is less popular
now than it was.
The ongoing roster of AIDS dead (lots of blank space
left on that memorial, how thoughtful) constitutes the raison d'etre of
this new, prototypically postmodern, community. Obituaries and funerals
are its social glue; its chief dramatic form is the memorial service. Every
two weeks, when the new issue of Xtra! comes out, everyone turns to the
obituaries first. The Toronto version of this Canadian gay newspaper combine
(for it has cloned itself) publishes an annual roster of AIDS dead, under
the banner headline "Proud Lives." Deaths from non-AIDS-related
causes are relegated to a separate, less prominent, section bearing the
mundane and rather dismissive tag, "Other Losses." HIV Positive
decedents are sometimes placed in the "Proud Lives" section,
even if they committed suicide or fell off a mountain. If you're Positive,
there's only one way to die, and we're going to hold you to it.
The overshadowing of all other gay issues by the AIDS
agenda (first pointed out by Darrell Yates Rist), and the frequent dismissal
of HIV Negative concerns, has generated widespread feelings of "disenfranchisement"
among uninfected gay men. These feelings are reinforced when the uninfected
are told to behave as if they were infected: "Be good. Have
Safe Sex" even if they are in a monogamous relationship with an uninfected
partner! Walt Odets suggests that these injunctions have been ineffective
in promoting safer sex, as well as psychologically disastrous.
Within the urban gay community, the uninfected now constitute
what William Johnston calls a "psychic minority" one that appears
increasingly eager to Think Positive and join the psychic majority, the
HIV Community. Though it would have been inconceivable only a few years
ago, a Positive HIV antibody test result, or even an AIDS diagnosis, now
frequently results in a decrease in anxiety! The director of one
health service agency reports that crisis responses requiring urgent counselling
were generated by Negative test results at a three-to-one margin over Positive
Among the responses to being told of a Negative test
result: "All my friends are Positive - how can I relate to them?"
"Everyone's going to be very angry at me." "I feel like
I'm being left out of the great event of our time." "I hoped
I would be Positive so it would give me an excuse to go back out and drink
and drug." "I feel as if I won't really have come out until I'm
HIV Positive." "It's a lot simpler to think about AIDS than about
being gay." "Guys who get AIDS get a lot more attention."
And, my own favorite, "Shit! I'm going to have to go to work tomorrow
One gay man told me recently that when he revealed to
an acquaintance that he was HIV Negative, he received the sneering (presumably
rhetorical) reply, "How come? Didn't anyone want your tired old ass?"
A gay student, who was relieved at his Negative test results, nevertheless
made a wryly revealing comment about the whole process and everyone's attitudes
to it: "For once," he said, "I was glad I failed a test."
One contributor to Johnston's book describes a gay man
who eventually seroconverted after many attempts: he "had a beatific
glow on his face when he found out he was Positive. He had been expecting
this for so long, and finally the desired outcome was achieved." (His
lover, he feared, was about to "dump" him if he remained stubbornly
Negative.) This new attitude - utterly unforseen by the pundits of AIDS
Education or its consumers leads Odets to ask whether counsellors "unconsciously
suggest that a Positive test result is more 'important' than a Negative
(one)?" The language used suggests they do; certainly they focus almost
exclusively on preparing their clients for "Positive" results.
The man with the beatific glow is one of a growing group
of gay men who see their "progress" (this is the official term)
to seroconversion and to AIDS as somehow desirable or inevitable. (In scientific
circles, HIV Positives who remain heathy are referred to as "non-progressors".)
For the burgeoning cohort of seroconverts, the assumption of HIV Positive
identity has become an important rite of passage in their lives as gay
men. A beatific glow is a characteristic feature of religious conversion
experiences, and in many ways, these men resemble the freshly inducted
members of a cult.
There is a growing perception that for a gay man today
to be HIV Positive is, well, positive. Connotations as fundamental as those
suggested by the words "positive" and "negative" are
deeply imbedded in our interpretations of the terminology we use. People
do not easily transpose black and white, or accept a Positive result as
Negative. Nor can the frequent use of the word "status" be considered
inconsequential; we are lectured about our antibody "status",
the subliminal suggestion being that testing Positive, becoming "Body
Positive", and adopting a "positive attitude" involves gaining
a positive status, becoming worthy of concern.(1) The phenomena of the courageous,
Positive seroconvert and his neurotic, Negative twin have evolved out of
the bizarre, dogmatic logic of HIV fundamentalism - what Walt Odets calls
the "contradictions, inconsistencies and anomalies" of AIDS.
Odets writes that "a return to unprotected sex among
gay men after about 1988 is now widely recognized." Why in 1988, four
years after the announcement of HIV as the cause of AIDS? My own experience
from periodic visits to New York City, an AIDS epicenter, is that the years
1987 to 1988 constituted the height of what the novelist Andrew Holleran
has succinctly called "The Fear". Christopher Street was emptier
than it has ever been and many gay men were afraid even to kiss. Protracted,
inhibited grief and paralyzing terror seemed, even to a visitor, to be
causing all sorts of neuroses and a kind of mass mental break-down. If
the "return to unprotected sex" began in the late Eighties as
Odets believes, it may well have begun as a reactive symptom of that breakdown
- an heroic defiance of fear by stoically embracing what was believed to
As the AIDS crisis was about to begin, the poet and novelist
George Whitmore wrote that we engaged in so many of our "rebellious"
acts (like crawling around on all fours on the floor of the Mineshaft at
four in the morning, or participating in the dangerous sexual scenes that
had become so popular) to show that we could do these things "without
flinching" - that we were not, after all, sissies. John Rechy endowed
sexually promiscuous gay men with "heroic" qualities, calling
them the shock troops of the sexual revolution. Is the same defensive need
to prove one's masculinity, one's courage, and one's "in group"
status now helping to create the phenomenon of the seroconvert?
Survivor guilt often involves the feeling that one should
not have survived - and the hope that one will not survive. The
urban gay lifestyle is designed for youth, and for those committed to that
lifestyle, the loss of youth may seem more terrible than a fatal illness.
Michelangelo Signorile wrote in a recent column (2) that "far too many
gay men say they actually fear growing old in a gay world that puts the
young and buffed on a pedestal while treating the over-35 crowd like lepers."
He tells of one young guy who has unsafe sex because "he doesn't want
to live to be 50. He doesn't want to be another aging queen, being jeered
at by people like himself." Another man said he felt so "beneath"
the men he was attracted to that he'd "do anything" for them,
including have unsafe sex.
Walt Odets concludes that "for some, the self-destructive
aspects of unprotected sex are important incentives to practise it."
This, he emphasizes, "has nothing to do with complacency, nor will
traditional AIDS education address it."
The AIDS System now entrenched in the urban gay ghettos
has aggressively promoted HIV antibody testing ("the AIDS test"),
and most available AIDS Education has been oriented toward encouraging
people - particularly gay men - to "get tested." Former presidential
candidate Bruce Babbitt described the system as a "voodoo health policy"
animated by the idea that "if we keep sticking needles into people
and taking blood tests, the disease will go away." The apparent non
sequitur only begins to make sense if, unconsciously, it is not so much
the disease but the seropositives who are being wished away, with the AIDS
System constructed as a wish- fullfillment around the group fantasy, and
camouflaged as medical services.
"There are two ways to find out", read a slogan
on the outside of an envelope one gay man received in the mail: "You
can get tested. Or you can get sick." Even though AIDS was nowhere
mentioned, he "knew right away what this cryptic message meant."
It felt, he said, "like an assault". The letter was from Project
Inform, a group that began as a dissident AIDS advocacy group and devolved
into what one commentator called a "power broker, coordinating sections
of the AIDS industry with the appropriate government agencies." In
a letter to the gay paper, the San Francisco Sentinel, one reader
described Project Inform as a "pharmaceutical pimp".
Extensive sections of Johnston's HIV Negative
are contributed by various "uninfected" gay men, some identified,
others using pseudonyms. And Odets' book, the more analytic of the two,
contains many briefer quotes drawn from the author's extensive counselling
experience. Among the remarks: "Negative men are like my family: they
have no feelings." "What I know is that I am going to follow
my heart, and I think it's leading me to the (kind of) understanding that
having HIV gives a person." "They will have a cure for it by
the time we get it." Another remark I have heard repeatedly is: "If
I test Positive, I can start taking care of myself."
There is a common feeling that to try to stay Negative
- to "struggle" to stay Negative, as one man put it - is simply
too difficult, too destructive of any joy in life. This is hardly surprising
when the rules of "safe" behavior are at once so stringent and
so slippery. Is oral sex safe? Is rimming with a dental dam OK and if it
is, why should we want to do it? Should I worry about that sharp pizza
crust that might cut my lip and let the virus in? Am I condemned to stay
around and watch all my friends die?
In the shadow of such conundrums, becoming Positive seems
to some like a doorway to intimacy, light and love, and life with AIDS,
for all its horrors, begins to appear more rewarding, or just simpler,
than life without it. Whatever the respective merits of these questions,
the mental soil in which they grow is fertile ground for a Positive choice.
Eric Rofes of the National Gay and
Lesbian Task Force, who provides an introduction to HIV Negative,
describes himself and other uninfected gay men, the "population of
supposed survivors", as people "left to walk the earth like robots
or zombies, telling ourselves and others that everything's fine while we
are actually numb, cut off from our emotions." This contrasts vividly
with the dark, vampiric glamour of AIDS. Walt Odets refers to "the
appeal of illness." All these attitudes fuel the desire to seroconvert.
Another common observation made of HIV testing is that
testees often doubt or question their Negative results, but seldom their
Positive ones. The psychologist Rachel Schochet found that the more bereavements
men had experienced, the more they tended to doubt their own Negative status
- and the more they engaged in unprotected sex.
This doubting of Negative results is built into the administration
of the testing system itself. Positive results, we are told (falsely),
are never wrong, but Negative results may be "premature" or "false
Negatives", or unreflective of the virus' supposed "window of
opportunity". And so when we test Negative, we are encouraged to restrain
our relief, and to return regularly to the Test Site. If we did not keep
coming back like a yo-yo, presumably we would snap our strings and go careening
off, cavalierly spreading HIV around, to ourselves or to others, Typhoid
Mary off on a bender. In fact, the AIDS System, by failing to support thoughtful
self-knowledge, and by subliminally suggesting that a Positive outcome
is inevitable and desirable, encourages the very behavior it ostensibly
seeks to prevent. The constant state of anxiety it instills damages both
the mental faculties and the immune system.
The HIV antibody test (usually called "the HIV test"
or "the AIDS test") is surrounded by an enormous amount of stress,
with unfortunate immunological consequences. "Paul Fielding",
a pseudonymous gay man quoted by Johnston, makes the point: "You weren't
supposed to have stress, because stress could destroy your T-cells....
So you had to try to smile living in a pressure cooker.
Warnings about "risk groups" and "risk
behaviors" strike a profoundly ambiguous note in a society where risk
is associated with entrepreneurial behavior, glamorous chance-taking and
competition, and is highly valued. Risking danger has always provided a
test of manhood for rebellious youth: practising "unsafe sex"
is a challenge, a way of accepting a dare, a contemporary version of the
"chicken run" depicted in Rebel Without a Cause.
Thee French writer Herve Guibert, wrote of his lover
Muzil, who routinely visited the baths for sex, in spite of his poor health.
Muzil remarked that:
The baths have never been more popular, and now they're
fantastic. The danger lurking everywhere has created new complicities,
new tenderness, new sohdarities. Before, no one ever said a word; now we
talk to one another. We all know exactly whey we're there.(3)
The "danger lurking" is of course the demonized
'AIDS virus" whose alleged propensity for "lurking", "hiding",
and other "clever" behavior is said to explain the many cases
of HIV Negative AIDS. And the men are there to live dangerously.
Pervasive pressure to seroconvert has produced the phenomenon
of the compulsive repeat tester, the uninfected individual who is caught
on a "testing treadmill", making frequent visits to a Test Site,
or to several Test Sites ("Is it a good lab?") and always doubting
Negative results. Johnston discusses an attempt in Boston to start a discussion
group for such compulsive retesters. "The group didn't work, because
they all wanted individual attention.... They didn't want their story to
compete with anybody else's, because their story was the most important."
A compulsive need for attention is easily met by the ministrations of the
AIDS industry, which is set up to provide all the attention needed, once
seroconversion is achieved. The compulsive retester is a seroconvert in
The much vaunted Safe Sex and AIDS Education programs
of the Eighties and Nineties have been a spectacular failure. They are
as counterproductive as the campaign against unmarried teenage pregnancies
in the Black community - and for the same reason: the underlying causes
of the phenomena remain unaddressed.
In my own city, Toronto, promiscuous unsafe sex is a
popular feature of the bathhouses which have been springing up again over
the past few years. Some of them are now licensed to sell beer, which they
supplement, unofficially, with poppers and crack cocaine (smoke it in your
room) as additional perks. Here too, the rate of seroconversion among young
men - and subsequent entry into the ramshackle labyrinth of the AIDS System
- is climbing. And Xtra's obituary column isn't getting any smaller.
It is becoming apparent that the actual consequences
of the AIDS System are at variance with its stated aims. There are unconscious
factors at play here - unidentified, even unacknowledged. As Eric Rofes
says in his Foreword: "Something is happening to us which no-one wants
Odets explains how the AIDS System's current approach
to prevention is modelled on a "public health/social marketing model"
composed of relentless propaganda ("Information and Education")
and the utilization of what he delicately describes as selected community
leaders" to mold group behavior. Complex psychosocial issues are avoided;
feelings about sex and death, personal worth, goals, intimacy and human
needs remain for the most part unexplored outside a relatively few independent
therapy groups. Its simplistic strategy is based on the assumptions that
sex for gay men is merely a mechanical procedure without human meaning,
and that immune suppression can be contracted only through intimate contact
with the blood or semen of an "infected" partner. (Public concerns
about saliva, tears and sweat are occasionally expressed, but so far have
been fairly successfully dismissed.)(4)
The nature of the relationship of HIV to AIDS has been
a subject of fierce dispute, though the debate has been rather one-sided:
the skeptics (who include a scattering of scientists and three Nobel prizewinners)
present detailed critiques, which the HIV fundamentalists either ignore
or respond to with abuse.(5) If, as seems increasingly likely, HIV turns
out not to be the sole cause of AIDS, every AIDS Education program on the
continent will have to be rethought from the ground up and some people'
might even be deaning out their desks. Naturally, critiques of HIV dogma
are vehemently resisted by the growing army of HIV support staff.
The question of how Positive results are achieved seems equally problematic.
HIV Positive test results have frequently registered in individuals who
have been exposed to certain other pathogens such as malaria, or who have
suffered a recent bout of influenza. The current tests, it seems, are not
as specific as they might be. A ground-breaking paper from Australia, published
in BiolTechnology in June of 1993, demonstrated that the favored "AIDS
tests" fail three basic criteria: they are not specific, there is
no standard interpretation, and their results are not reproducible.(6)
In addition, several series of research experiments have
shown that under certain conditions, lab animals may develop antibodies
to parts of HIV without ever having been in contact with the virus. When
some animals in a group were exposed to viruses and developed antibodies,
other, unexposed, animals in the same cohort" also began to test Positive.(7)
Could gay men, too, be developing antibody Positive status in resonance
with already infected members of their Cohort? If so, it might help to
explain the increasing number of "anomalous seroconversions"
now being reported.
The issue of drugs (both legal and illegal) provides
another example of poorly examined assumptions generating a dangerously
simplistic approach. Official AIDS education literature almost always warns
that recreational drugs may "impair judgment" and so "lead
to unsafe sex", but the health risks and immunosuppressive qualities
of many drugs are seldom mentioned. In the absence of community-based programs
to counter heroin use, we are simply urged to bleach, and never share,
the hygienically wrapped needles distributed by AIDS organizations. Many
physicians regard drugs and alcohol as "coping mechanisms" and
sanction their abuse by gay patients, Negative and Positive. Kicking a
drinking or drug habit, like giving up promiscuous sex, is seen as a near
impossibility for gay men, and substance abuse programs (particularly if
peer-run) are often regarded as threatening to the doctor-patient relationship.
The version of public health marketing that has come
to dominate AIDS Education is patterned on a model for the treatment of
addictive/compulsive disorders. This is hardly surprising, as the medical
establishment has traditionally assumed that gay men necessarily regard
sex as a mechanical process without deeper meaning. Educational proposals
that attempt to address spiritual matters are dismissed as unrealistic.
Inquiry into the reasons for addictive/compulsive behavior would entail
an examination of socioeconomic pressures, motivations and group beliefs
- and is usually ruled out as too difficult, too dangerous or too expensive.
We encourage what we assume. The current AIDS System
fosters the addictive/compulsive psychology that social beliefs ascribe
to gay men. Group behavior is then played out according to social expectations,
alternating between two phases representing control and release.
The compulsive, Control phase involves strict abstinence
or avoidance - in this case, rigid adherence to the proclaimed principles
of Safe Sex, which are presented as unclear, yet essential - even when
there is no apparent reason for them, as with sex between Negative partners.
This attitude generates tension, confusion, demoralization and suspicion.
In the second, addictive, Release phase, the restrictive
psychic controls become too stressful and collapse into a "slip"
or "binge", involving deliberate self-exposure to HIV and other
pathogens, often under the influence of immunosuppressive substances and
mental states. Attempts are made to prevent, minimize, postpone or substitute
for the Release phase. But such simplistic attempts at enforcing control
(whether by propaganda or legal injunctions) rarely work, and when they
fail, guilt feelings are reinforced. The notorious failure of most "diet"
plans provides a typical example.
One of Odets' most astute insights is that social organizations
often act as containers for forbidden feelings. Shared, organizationally
approved feelings are substituted for genuine ones; emotional impoverishment
is masked, and anger repressed. Rather than encouraging thoughtfulness
and understanding on the part of gay men, current AIDS Education programs
have insisted on politically correct scripts, placing us in the familiar
role of dependent children.
Odets sees HIV Positive gay men as allowing themselves
to be cast in the role of the "needy" child in a family, with
HIV Negative men assuming the role of the resentful, "needless"
child, desperate for his share of attention from parental figures. If the
sick sibling is perceived as getting all the attention, one solution is
to become sick oneself. The metaphor of gay men as children or perpetual
juveniles has been common and pervasive; even gay protesters have adopted
it: "acting up" is, after all, what children do to get attention.(8)
And there is something else going on here. The growing
ranks of seroconverts are approaching the seroconversion process as an
opportunity for something that young men, and especially young gay men,
in our society, desperately need - an initiatory rite of passage.
Our society's ideology is a consumerist one, and its
rituals tend to be the vapid pseudo-activities of consumerism shopping,
smoking, television watching, package holidays. But rites of passage (coming
of age, for example) demand a special kind of ritual to mark the transition
from one psychological and social state to another. Apart from the melancholy
duties of draft and voter registration, the only such rituals now generally
available to young men involve the acquisition of a driver's license and
a first car (either purchased or stolen).
Rites of passage signal the ritual death of the old self
and a symbolic rebirth into a new identity, accepted and honored by the
community. For young gay men, "coming out" once served this function,
but as secrecy about being gay has lessened and sexual categories are blurring,
coming out has become less meaningful and unsettlingly inconclusive. For
the most part, significant gay rites of passage have simply been unavailable.
Instead, we are offered rituals of addiction and compulsion, which we adopt
as our own. Seroconversion fits the need for a gay rite of passage in the
Journalist and AIDS dissident Celia Farber has aptly
called HIV "a demon, which we worship with our terror" and attempt
to placate with buildings, organizations, conferences, and global programs.
No such cult can continue for over a decade without developing its own
forms of ritual obeisance, and the AIDS system has proved to be no exception.
The HIV testing ceremony is highly ritualized, demanding
a visit to a special, rather fearsome place - a sacred place, the Test
Site - with priests and acolytes in attendance: the various physicians,
psychiatrists, social workers, peer counsellors and AIDS workers hovering
or bustling about, many wearing their white robes of office.
The ceremony involves a literal blood sacrifice, drawn
with a hypodermic needle by a nurse or paramedic. Some initiates faint.
It is accompanied by highly structured readings from sacred texts: AIDS
Education and Safe Sex scripts. It incorporates a Time of Trial - the stressful
period of several days or weeks involved in waiting for one's results.
During this time, one's thoughts are concentrated almost continuously on
HIV as the shared object of fear and devotion. And - if the test is passed,
if the results are Positive - one is embraced into the community with new
status, HIV Positive status, and increased attention. One enters the AIDS
System, "the AIDS Community".
The very way we look at the phenomenon of AIDS has its
psychological consequences. Belief in HIV as the cause of AIDS has led
not only to a vast, self- perpetuating AIDS industry, but to the establishment
of a medico-religious cult.
A recent issue of a Canadian gay magazine contained a
news item about a Toronto gay man, Sean Martin, who had been diagnosed
as HIV Positive.(9) A year later, a second test reversed the verdict, and
Martin is quoted as saying that though the HIV Positive friends he had
made were "very nice to me about it", telling them he was Negative
was one of the toughest things he'd ever done. He couldn't help feeling
that he was "abandoning" them, he said, and his new status made
him feel he was "breaking the faith".
In his classic study of modern initiatory behaviors,
the psychologist Luigi Zoja writes: "The archetypal need to transcend
one's present state at any cost ... is especially strong in those who find
themselves in a state of meaninglessness, lacking both a sense of identity
and a precise social role."(10) This description would appear to fit
many of the men interviewed in Odets' and Johnson's books; it is particularly
applicable to seroconverts.
The gay health crisis has reached a stage in which seroconversion
is becoming institutionalized as the most important rite of passage in
the life of a gay man. Significantly, its place in consumer society is
a paradoxical one. The seroconvert, the young gay man who "chooses
Positive" and adopts the Positive Lifestyle is, like the drug addict,
someone who participates in the social ritual, but denies the dominant
social imperative - to be a "responsible" economic being. His
Positive status gives him the permission and the means to solve one of
the perennial problems of youth - how to conform and rebel at the same
In his consideration of drugs and ritual, Zoja points
out that in our society, the addict "is not absent from the economic
picture, but rather present in a destructive way." The seroconvert
is also motivated to be "present in a destructive way". He drops
out of the workaday world to live on disability or viatical benefits -
income predicated on the assumption, the tacit agreement, that he will
soon die. And after he "progresses" to "full-blown AIDS"
he is even more "present in a destructive way".(11)
This suicide by degrees, abetted by so many forces, is
the latest manifestation of the idea of the Homosexual as Sacrificial Victim,
unconsciously embodying remnants of ancient themes of ritual sacrifice.
The Sacrificial Victim has finally become aware of his role, but not yet
able to slough it off, has begun to accede to it with some degree of deliberation,
The seroconvert sets out to prove himself worthy of the sacrificial ritual,
the testing, that he undergoes. This quest exemplifies what Zoja calls
the "negative sacrifice, where only the destructive part of the act
survives, and which is carried out by that person we call a negative hero."
Of course, there is a positive side as well. The afflicted homosexual also
becomes a "cross carrier", taking onto himself a complex of rejected
and projected group feelings, fears and impulses. With his death, all these
are, temporarily, exorcised.
In the classic pattern of initiation, desire for the
death of the old self is followed by symbolic rebirth and the welcoming
of the new self into the community of initiated peers. In the self-sacrifice
of the seroconvert, this process is inverted: the old, negative self, rather
than being overcome and sloughed off, is incorporated, with all its negativity,
into the new self, who, instead of being enriched with new life, assumes
new burdens of guilt and early death - burdens which novels, movies and
folklore have long projected onto the figure of the Homosexual.
Seroconversion induces both the expectation of a short
life and the feeling that one's desirability as a lover is diminished.
It is a combination that frequently leads to the feeling: I'm dying and
no-one will want me, so I may as well party with whatever short time I
have left. And so the party becomes a Dance of Death. In his book The
Savage Garden, the novelist and diarist Paul Reed muses that many of
have resumed a life that is in many ways similar to the
life we pursued a decade ago - the gym, an afternoon rest ... the clubs....
The difference is that we now no longer work to pay the bills, we simply
collect our disability checks. And we no longer feel that this is the beginning
of a hot, fast life. It may be the last party, the final fling.(12)
In the Nineties, that final, AIDS-related "fling"
has become both a phobia and a macabre obsession. One gay club in Manhattan
recently hosted a creepy and popular new event called "Res-Erection",
which consisted of a go-go boy feigning death in a pseudo-Victorian setting
while "horny revelers circled him and felt him up." Tres fin
It is becoming painfully evident
that the AIDS Estabhshment's overt admonition to gay men to stay healthy
is proving less effective than its subliminal inducements to seroconvert,
and enter a system predicated on early death. Old assumptions about the
homosexual's social status as scapegoat and victim are easily assimilated
by the "victim culture" of the Nineties, which encourages troubled
individuals to seek relief from their problems by adopting the role of
irresponsible victim - conferred by illness, addiction or past abuse.
It is curious that the authors of both these studies
apparently adhere to the belief that, in Odets' words, "a quirk of
nature and timing has brought this epidemic to gay communities." One
can only wonder which epidemic is being referred to. AIDS? Or the "psychological
epidemic" that has grown up alongside it? Or are these concurrent
epidemics merely aspects of the same overall pattern of psychoimmune disturbance
- with the same underlying psychic, socioeconomic and environmental causes?
The health crisis in the gay community did not begin
with the onset of AIDS in 1981; it was preceded by many years of psychological
disturbance and chronic depression, reactions to a homophobia that was
endemic and corrosive. In the Seventies, the already high instance of alcoholism
and venereal disease among gay men was compounded by epidemics of drug
abuse, hepatitis and intestinal parasites. By the first notices of what
would come to be called AIDS, the immune systems of most men living "the
Gay Lifestyle" had already been severely compromised.
In the early Nineties, the psychohistorian, medical researcher
and AIDS activist Casper Schmidt described a shared sequence of psychoimmunological
events in the gay men who develop AIDS. Their immune disturbances, he found,
began with chronic depression, rooted in childhood unhappiness and related
to socially induced guilt, internalized homophobia and a protracted "fight
or flight" syndrome. As these feelings somatized into the body, the
result was a chronically increased level of cortisol production, a steady
depletion of T-cells, frantic overproduction of antibodies, and eventual
The evidence presented by Johnston and Odets suggests
a continuation of this pattern, with the ominous difference that now, with
the phenomenon of the seroconvert, gay men's identification of illness
and early death as their destiny has moved more fully into group consciousness.
Accepting the subliminal logic of HIV fundamentalism, gay men are beginning
to see seroconversion and entry into the AIDS System as a gesture of solidarity
with their fellows, a rite of passage, and a political act.
It is unlikely that anyone with a strong sense of self-worth
would deliberately seek to seroconvert. But for a gay man who has internalized
the negative judgements placed on him by family and society, it may well
be "a lot simpler to think about [having] AIDS than about being gay."
The film Interview with the Vampire, a work replete with coded references
to a variety of contemporary fears (euthanasia, AIDS, immigration, gay
families) contains the telling line: "If you think you deserve to
die and you don't kill yourself, that makes you evil." To many, the
evil of AIDS seems preferable to the perceived evil of living as a homosexual.
AIDS itself may be horrible, but contracting AIDS is a relatively easy
- and pleasurable - form of suicide.
AIDS today is not what it was in the early Eighties when
the term was coined to avoid the embarrassing acronym GRID - Gay Related
Immune Disorder. The definition has changed: illnesses which were once
considered key AIDS symptoms are now excluded if HIV is discovered not
to be present; even the official record now lists well over 4,000 such
cases. Pelvic inflammatory disorder in women may now result in an AIDS
diagnosis if HIV is shown or assumed to be present. T-cell counts, ignored
in the early years of AIDS, are now combined with the ever-changing list
of disorders to produce diagnoses on a "one from column A, two from
column B" basis. Pneumocystis carinii, long considered a protozoon,
is now acknowledged to be a fungus. Consensus is growing that Kaposi's
sarcoma, once regarded as a hallmark of AIDS in gay men, is not caused
by HIV, and investigations into a suspected "KS virus" are underway.(13)
The most popular AIDS drug, AZT, has been discredited, and physicians are
reduced to offering their HIV Positive patients the experimental drug (or
"cocktail") of the moment on a "try it, you might like it"
basis. Many of these drugs are highly toxic, especially when combined,
and their "side-effects" read like a list of AIDS symptoms. In
short, things are a mess. Meanwhile, the AIDS conveyor belt rolls on, providing
employment for an ever-increasing army of support personnel. And every
week, the roll of sick and dying young men grows longer.(14)
Gay men have long served as repositories for a complex
of group fears and fantasies about sex, sickness and death. Psychohistorian
Lloyd deMause has drawn attention to society's periodic killing off of
"its own id-representatives, its youth, who represent itself in the
life-phase when it was most sexual and most aggressive."(15) In the past,
this filicidal syndrome has usually been acted out through war. The frequent
employment of war metaphors in AIDS literature of all kinds suggests that
in the Eighties and Nineties, AIDS is taking the place of war, or has become
a new kind of war. Under the veneer of a compassionate liberalism, psychobiochemical
assault is being infficted on gay men: not as a conscious intention, but
as the result of policies predicated on certain unconsciously held ideas.
It is time to rethink this crisis, to begin to understand
how we might extricate ourselves from the nightmare that has overtaken
us, and enveloped us now for almost two decades. We will not understand
the phenomenon of the seroconvert until we begin to investigate the destructive
hold of unconscious belief systems in which we all participate. Until then,
all the AIDS Education and Safe Sex Information in the world will not prevent
new cohorts of young men from summoning up their courage and heading from
the Test Site to the tattoo parlor to take up their cross.*
Ian Young was born in London. His involvement on the
gay movement, as activist, writer and publisher, began in th 1960s. His
books include the ground-breaking gay psychohistory The Stonewall Experiment,
as well as poetry, literary anthologies, bibliography and history. Director
of a communications consultancy firm and a frequent contributor to the
gay press, he lives in Toronto and Banff, Alberta.
(1) This may be doubly so for those
addicted to intravenous drugs, who are now said to comprise the majority
of new PWAs (though the periodically changing definition of the syndrome
makes reliable statistics impossible to assemble). In the inner cities,
those who want to abandon their heroin habit can ask to have their names
added to a list; it may be months or years before they become eligible
for a daily ration of methadone.
(2) Michelangelo Signorile, "Unsafe
Like Me" in Out, October 1994, p. 24. Signorile argues that -safer
sex has broken down substantially... It is time for drastic approaches
and lots of self-examination. Our sexual culture is often not liberating....
And we must change it."
(3) Herve Guibert, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Live,
New York, Atheneum, 1991, pp. 21-22.
(4) A recent issue of Poz,
a slick magazine aimed at HIV Positive gay men, includes an article on
a new, saliva-based antibody test, a "plastic stick held between the
cheek and gum for two minutes". On the following page, a separate
article informs readers that it is the presence of a protease inhibitor
that prevents the detection or transmission of HIV through saliva.]
(5) For a summary of dissident views on HIV's role in AIDS, see Neville Hodgkinson,
AIDS: The Failure of Contemporary Science, London, Fourth Estate, 1996.
(6) See Papadopulos-Eleopulos et al..
(7) See Ian Young, The Stonewall Experiment,
Cassell, 1995, pp. 253-256.
(8) In 1992, The Act Up chapter in
Chicago split into two factions, one for HIV Positive people, the other
for HIV Negatives. The possibility that a member might not know his "status"
was presumably unthinkable.
(9) HIV Negative Guilt" in Wayves,
October 1995, p. 13.
(10) "Luigi Zoja, Drugs, Addiction
and Initiation: The Modern Search for Ritual, Sigo Press, 1989, p. 15.
(11) Viatical settlement companies purchase the life insurance policies of people who
are believed to be terminally sick. Many of their advertisements exploit
the theme of immediate gratification - for example, one of the 20 viatical
settlement ads in the July 1996 issue of POZ Magazine states:
Turn your LIFE INSURANCE into CASH, NOW CASH NOW, CASH
NOW, CASH NOW, CASH NOW, CASH NOW, CASH NOW, CASH NOW ...
Your NEEDS must be met............ NOW
Your DREAMS must be fulfilled....... NOW.
(Capitization as in original ad.]
Another viatical settlement ad in a gaynewspaper included
a testimonial from a satisfied client, who said he had been able to buy
"the car of my dreams", and who made the important point, "It
didn't even interfere with my benefits." in other words, the viatical
settlement money did not prevent him from receiving his usual welfare,
disability, and other "benefits".
(12) Paul Reed, The Savage Garden: A journal, House of Lilhati,
1994, P. 14.
(13) John Lauritsen, "NIDA Meeting
Calls For Research Into The PoppersKaposi's Sarcoma Connection". New
York Native, issue 582, 13 June 1994.
(14) As of 1996, the incidence of AIDS among drug addicts
and the very poor is rising, among gay men it is apparently on the downswing.
in the future, will the majority of gay men with AIDS be young men who
have repeatedly practised "unsafe sex" and, after seroconversion,
taken toxic medications? A recent study conducted at St. Mary's Hospital,
London, compared two groups of patients recently diagnosed with AIDS. One
group had tested HIV Positive up to eight years previously, and had been
attending the clinic and taking prescribed medications. The other group
had not previously been tested and had taken no AIDS medications. The unmedicated
group was healthier.
(15) Lloyd demause, "Historical
Group-Fantasies" in Foundations of Psychohistory, New York,
Creative Roots, 1982, p. 192.