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 and full.

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 ones!

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 after all."

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 be inevitable.

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 making.

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 to face."

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 Nineties.

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 time.

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 his friends

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 de siecle!

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 immune collapse.

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:

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.