Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Testing Testing by Ian Young
A Look at Our Most Popular Ritual
A while ago, while the weather was still good enough to sit in the garden, a friend of mine and I were enjoying a cup of coffee as we watched the squirrels forage for acorns. My friend was telling me about his horrendous experience of taking "the AIDS test," which he recalled as the most anxious time of his life. He described the nightmares he'd had, the terrible fear, his acute awareness of every step as he climbed the stairs of the Test Site to get his results, and his observations of how he was treated in the hermetic, fluorescent world of the clinic.
As gay men, we have always been starved of self-affirming rituals. Locked out of most of the ceremonies around us, we crave ceremonies of our own, to initiate us, and to bind us to the rest of our tribe. It used to be that coming out filled some of those needs. But its defining significance has faded as homosexuality has become less furtive and sexual boundaries have blurred. Now, in the gay community of today, "getting tested" has replaced coming out as the most important ritual in the life of a gay man, its hypnotic power reinforced by official approbation.
The director of one gay health agency recently expressed her puzzlement that people testing Negative require counseling three times more often than those who test Positive. If we pay attention to the language of testing, it's hardly surprising: automatically, we understand something "positive" as good, something "negative" as bad. And once we are Positive, we "progress" to AIDS.
Journalist Celia Farber has called the putative AIDS virus "a demon which we worship with our terror." It seems the HIV testing ritual has now become the central rite of the terror cult. The testing ceremony is highly ritualized, demanding a visit to a sacred, rather fearsome place, the Test Site. Priests and acolytes are in attendance - the various physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, peer counselors and AIDS workers hovering or bustling about, many wearing white robes of office. The ceremony involves a blood sacrifice, drawn with a hypodermic by a nurse or paramedic. Some initiates faint. It is accompanied by highly structured readings from sacred texts - AIDS information scripts. It incorporates a Time of Trial - the stressful period of several days or weeks while waiting for one's results. And, if the test is passed, if the results are Positive, one is embraced into the community with new status - Positive status, accompanied by all manner of new benefits, attention and concern. The sad claim, "I never knew how much I was loved until I got AIDS" pops up again and again in interviews with PWAs.
While a Positive test result is said to be irreversible, a Negative result, we are warned, may be inaccurate, or reversed later. There are "windows of opportunity" which the demon virus may yet penetrate. As a result, some of us have become compulsive "repeat testers," returning again and again to the Test Site, enduring the harrowing ritual over and over.
The accepted "social marketing" model of AIDS avoidance is based on the assumption that sex for gay men is a mechanical procedure, a kind of addiction. Its complex meanings are ignored. A pair of recently published studies indicate that current "safe sex" and "AIDS information" campaigns tend to pressure gay men to seroconvert - and to take medicines whose "side effects" read like AIDS symptoms.
Over sixty research papers have shown that false HIV-Positive results can be triggered by a wide variety of factors, including flu, rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis B vaccination, alcoholism, hemophilia and epstein-barr virus. Yet on the basis of Positive test results alone, thousands of us are frightened into taking the latest expensive, experimental drug "cocktails" (no olive, no napkin).
Studies by German virologist Stefan Lanka and by an Australian team led by Eleni Papadopoulos-Eleopoulos have shown that HIV has never actually been isolated, and that specific HIV antibodies may not exist. The "HIV test" may simply be reacting to combinations of proteins, present in the blood under a variety of conditions. The demon we worship may be nothing but a laboratory construct, a reflection of our own ignorance. It won't be the first time that initial medical hypotheses, stubbornly maintained as dogma, have eventually been proven wrong.
It's time we recognized that AIDS organizations are acting as flacks for the government and pimps for the pharmaceutical companies. We are given medical dogma instead of science, propaganda instead of information, and convenient sound bites instead of analysis. It's time to be skeptical again, as we were when the medical establishment insisted gays were mentally disturbed, or psychotic, and we were routinely brainwashed, electrocuted and lobotomized. It's time we kept our money in our community and solved our own problems, instead of throwing it into "research" that treats us as expendable guinea-pigs.
The German gay leader Kurt Hiller coined a slogan that used to appear in every issue of the old Body Politic magazine: "The liberation of homosexuals can only be the work of homosexuals themselves." We don't see that slogan any more. But it's as true as it ever was.
My friend, by the way, tested Negative. And he won't be going back.