Saturday, June 02, 2007
The AIDS Cult
The AIDS Cult is the title of a book of collected essays edited by John Lauritsen and Ian Young.* The ten essays in this collection focus on the psychological and social aspects of AIDS. Here we have included two pieces from their collection and borrowed the title for the cover page of our expanding collection of insightful and often bizarre evidence of the cult-like manifestations of "AIDS".
The AIDS Cult and Its Seroconverts
An essay by Ian Young - from The AIDS Cult, 1997
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 ... 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.
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, 0 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.* 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.
Read the rest of this article at the HEAL Toronto website where you can also read more article of the same nature.
AIDS: The CULT Of Death by John Lauritsen.
The AIDS Cult