Will re-gaying AIDS decrease HIV transmission?

By Walter Armstrong

Two decades ago, graffiti on city walls and restroom stalls reading "GAY=AIDS" or "GAY=Got AIDS Yet" had gay leaders up in arms. But last week the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Center launched a new HIV prevention campaign based on a message making almost the same point.

The ads, emblazoned on local billboards and in gay bars and publications, feature the slogan "HIV IS A GAY DISEASE" followed by the tagline "OWN IT. END IT." According to Lorri Jean, the center's head honcho, the intention is not to stigmatize gay men in the nasty style of mid-'80s bathroom humor but to prod them out of what she calls AIDS complacency and into taking responsibility for new transmissions.

"A very alarming silence has descended over our community with regard to HIV and AIDS," Jean told the Los Angeles Times. "Most people do not understand the degree to which this epidemic continues to be in Los Angeles largely an epidemic among gay and bisexual men." In LA County 75% of HIV cases are among men who have sex with men (MSM), while, in contrast, half of new HIV infections nationwide are compromised by MSMs.

Yet judging by the furious firestorm meeting the message, statistics may be all that the center has on its side. Leading AIDS advocates from LA to Australia are slamming the campaign. Some predict that the slogan will reverse hard-won progress over the past two decades to free gay men from blame and shame for the disease. Others argue that by reinforcing the "gay disease" stereotype, it will increase infections among other high-risk groups, especially women of color, men on the down low and drug users.

"This campaign is harkening back to the gay community, which is associated with being white and middle-class, and it excludes men who may be at very high risk but don't identify as being gay," Craig Thompson, head of AIDS Project Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times.

"I applaud the desire to have more personal responsibility in the gay community, but this is not the way to achieve it," said Michael Weinstein, head of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "AIDS is not a gay disease, it's not an African-American disease, it's not a Latino disease. It is a disease of the immune system."

"It's not complacency that has driven the upsurge in HIV," Don Baxter, head of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations, told Sydney's "Gay men are very aware of the risk of HIV. Rather, their employing new risk-management strategies—and sometimes dangerous ones—is what's driven the upsurge."

A glance at the website, which the LA Center launched to accompany its campaign, suggests that the organization expected, even intended, to provoke the current controversy. The site contains a lengthy rationale for the message, anticipates and answers many objections to it and provides a forum in which users can "tell us what you think." By Wednesday the vast majority of posts were strongly opposed, with many calling for an immediate end to the campaign, which reportedly cost the center $20,000. One post, by longtime San Francisco activist Michael Petrelis, dubbed the campaign "Scare the Fag" and hinted that re-gaying AIDS could be a useful fundraising tool for a gay center.

Still, love it or hate it, "HIV is a gay disease" has certainly succeeded in breaking the silence. But whether all the sound and fury will succeed in decreasing gay-to-gay transmissions remains to be seen. It may turn out to be just one more expression—a very loud one—of frustration at having no new prevention ideas at all.