Who Are We Without the Wall?

Gabriel Arana

September 25th, 2009

Yesterday, major media outlets reported that for the first time an AIDS vaccine has had partial success in humans. In trials, it was about 31 percent effective. This is a far cry from the 70- to 90-percent effectiveness typically required for a vaccine to be licensed, but it shows that a vaccine is possible and represents the first-ever major breakthrough.

Since the announcement, I’ve allowed myself to consider seriously what a world without AIDS would look like. I was born in 1983 and remember the late ’80s, early ’90s television reports on the devastation wrought by AIDS in the U.S. The reports were terrifying, and it is odd to look at them in retrospect, knowing what they foreshadowed:

Since then, even as medical advances have made AIDS a chronic illness instead of a death sentence, contracting HIV has been one of my biggest fears, which goes to show that the stigma associated with it remains. I fear hearing, “you’re HIV positive” more than being told I have an inoperable brain tumor, which I know is irrational. I’ve had probably five HIV tests, and for all except the first one, the anxiety of waiting a week for lab results has made me run to the nearest rapid HIV testing site and get an answer in 20 minutes, which is also excruciating.

I grew up understanding that gay = AIDS, an equation that I realize is outdated and perhaps prejudiced. But part of me fears that being infected with HIV would confirm all the dire predictions made for me by reorientation therapists and concerned family members. I’ve often felt the pressure to defy these predictions by leading an exemplary life — which I of course haven’t, and won’t. But the point is that AIDS has been framed as the natural “consequence” of homosexuality.

Perhaps the best-known piece of writing on the social meaning of AIDS was written by Susan Sontag, “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” in which the author talks about the ways in which we imbued a virus — which is inherently indifferent to human feelings, morals, and motivations — with exactly those attributes. AIDS was cited by people like Pat Robertson as divine retribution for sinful sex, an understanding that reversed the natural inclination to view the afflicted person as a victim. People with AIDS were “guilty,” or earned it, or something like that. You “get” AIDS; you don’t “get” a brain tumor. HIV in the blood is a “poison,” AIDS a “plague.” As dehumanizing as terminal disease is, even more dehumanizing — and disempowering — is how moral, religious, and political leaders talk about AIDS and its victims.

On the other hand, the AIDS crisis galvanized the gay rights movement, and many of the advances in equality were made during the late ’80s and early ’90s. The AIDS crisis was the tipping point for social acceptance of homosexuality, a change that is reflected in the language. It’s no longer politic to call gay people “homosexuals” or refer to the homosexual “lifestyle,” but in the ’80s these were standard phrases used by newscasters:


A lot of the momentum of Act-Up has waned, but AIDS consciousness still permeates gay culture. Gay people will tag “be safe” (code for “use condoms”) to a goodbye at the end of an evening. I’ve been accosted more than once at a New York gay bar by an awkward grad student wanting me to fill out a survey about my sex life, which includes transparent questions about condoms, meth use, and depression (I can save you the work: gays who are reckless with drugs are probably more likely to have sex without condoms, and are probably more likely to be depressed). Public health officials obsess over how to “reach” us and set up condom stands at every LGBT event imaginable. And we’ve been Riding For The Cure forever. What happens when the finish line appears beneath us?

We thought the wall would stand forever,
And now that it’s gone we don’t know who we are anymore.

The Hedwig quote probably implies a nostalgia for AIDS that I do not intend, so let me be clear: the day the AIDS crisis ends — whether it’s a gradual process or an all-at-once medical achievement — will be a great day, the end of suffering for millions around the world. But it will mark the beginning of a shift in the culture. Will condom use plummet? Will the rate of other STDs rise? Will it change the forms our relationships take?


The brief window of worry-free (or at least more worry-free) sex ushered in by the discovery of antibiotics, the pill, and abortion would open again — to the chagrin of social conservatives who have made the regulation of  sex, reproduction, and sexuality an essential component of their agendas. It would deflate many of the biological justifications for religious arguments (or maybe we’d just be cheating God?).

Whereas earlier gay rights activists wanted nothing to do with heterosexual marriage, the shift has been toward assimilating and adopting marriage, which some people think is good and other people think is bad (I’m on the fence). Part of this has come from increasing social acceptance and support of gay couples, but it would be silly to deny that the re-medicalization of sex had anything to do with the rise of monogamy in the gay community. Will the end of AIDS reverse this trend? I am not saying that bathhouses will reopen their doors and meth-fueled orgies will mark the scene until the next pandemic comes around, but de-coupling sex and relationships from the fear of death, disease, and social stigma will change the dynamics. In a sense, though, sex will always be fraught with anxieties: the virgin won’t stop wondering whether he or she will be good for their partner, and people will still feel the sting of betrayal when they find out they are being cheated on.

I’ve hesitated to use the word “freedom” or “liberation” in discussing the de-medicalization of sex. There is something mundane about equating this with human freedom. It seems a rather nihilistic, ’60s-’70s understanding of it. I have no idea what it really entails, but I doubt that freedom just means you have nothing left to lose.

This commentary is the sole opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinion of Box Turtle Bulletin’s other contributors.


September 25th, 2009

I think HIV explains a move towards condoms but not towards monogamy. Using a condom essentially eliminates the risk of HIV contraction and everyone knows it. People enjoy sex too much to stop because of the shadow of the risk that remains.

I think the move toward monogamy is explained by greater acceptance and the rise of an age cohort that never experienced the trauma that the older generation has. My personal opinion is that people pushed to the margins of society eventually convince themselves that the margins of society is a good place to be, and start rejecting societal axioms like monogamy and marriage. Younger people, never exposed to the same level of abuse and ostracism, never went through that process and generally understand that monogamy works for gay people for the same reasons that it works for straight people.

Maybe that is offensive to some people, but hopefully no more so than suggesting that my relationship with my boyfriend is founded on fear of HIV is to me.


September 25th, 2009

Great post, Gabriel.


September 25th, 2009

As much as I’m glad that such a vaccine may be available. I am worried that the gay community will again go through a period of unchecked promiscuity.


September 25th, 2009

Great Article and Comments!

I actually think both perceptions are accurate and that there are more factors which need to be considered. I believe there has always been and will always be both monogamous and non-monogamous/sexually “free spirited” relationships in our community; as well as in almost every aspect of every version of sexuality (Ok, maybe not for those considered asexual).

There are really two questions at hand from the article and comments. Will our more monogamous behavior change with a medial solution? Simply put- Yes and again for every sexuality; but it will not drive every homosexual completely to hedonism.

Every breakthrough which alleviates such concerns or fears produces such a similar reaction. The medical breakthroughs which turned AIDS from a “Death Sentence” to a “Chronic Illness” had a similar effect. Although specific rates will vary around the world, Google “gay sexual disease” and you will find many statistics which indicate new HIV infection rates are highest for those under 30, along with an increase in many other STDs.

The second question was a statement in the comments that suggested AIDS drove condom use, but not monogamy. I would like to suggest that it did both.

There are some other factors to review in the link of AIDS and monogamy. The degree of acceptance in the local culture through the various stages of our lives has a significant impact. Although there were monogamous gay relationships before AIDS – like many gay people and aspects of gay life, they were hidden in most of our cultures. You also have to consider the “gay history” of each culture. Among all of them, AIDS was a defining moment which galvanized activism and brought us even further into mainstream society. Out of that activism came visibility, greater acceptance, and the legal protections some have today. Each day seems to bring validation to our relationships, adding them as part of the cultural norms.

Consideration of age and life experience is important to this statement as well. For those with a “death sentence” perception – AIDS drove both condom use and more monogamous relationships. The more hidden existence and cultural norm for much of our community was a more communal perception of love and relationships. As one aged, they had the commune of friends and lovers from throughout their lives around them for companionship and support in many cases.

One element not mentioned/considered(probably because those that have any memory of it would like to ignore/forget it) is the psychological impact of the numerous deaths experienced by those in their late 30’s, 40’s, etc… A vast untold percentage of our community in that age range was virtually erased within 10 – 20 years. Those who witnessed that devastation, seeing entire groups of friends disappear or one or two souls left alive from an entourage of 20 were naturally impacted psychologically. I believe monogamy is one way some/many attempted to cope with this experience. Building stronger monogamous relationships would see them through the current crisis and could be counted on for years to come; since communal companionship and support evaporated. Hence through this tragic experience of AIDS, I believe it also drove the increase in monogamy among these age groups; which carried forward helping and moves us all more toward the culturally accepted norm.

One last comment, such a medical breakthrough will also make violating that monogamous arrangement easier as there is one less significant potential consequence.


September 25th, 2009


“Part of this has come from increasing social acceptance and support of gay couples, but it would be silly to deny that the re-medicalization of sex had nothing to do with the rise of monogamy in the gay community.”

Actually, the second half of the above is silly and false.

Monogamy does not equal marriage, as the average republican politician demonstrates regularly. Non-monogamous couples are not necessarily less sincere about the contract of marriage, or less qualified. There have always been monogamous same-sex couples. Before AIDS, there were same-sex couples who had been together for decades. Now, in the midst of the epidemic, there are people who are not interested in a committed, long-term or permanent relationship.

AIDS increased the urgency of legalizing same-sex marriage, but interest in same-sex marriage predates AIDS. AIDS simply made the need more urgent, because suddenly, people who had every reasonable expectation of living into their late 70’s or more, were dying in their 30’s and 40’s.

In the process, many discovered the hard way that marriage is not ‘just a piece of paper’, that it guaranteed very necessary protections for the surviving spouse. Suddenly, men who hoped to grow old with the man of their dreams, were burying him and then losing everything because they did not have that piece of paper.

The drive for same-sex marriage is not about assimilation – ex-gay ministries and reparative therapy are about assimilation.

Emily K

September 25th, 2009

Allow me to once again quote Dan Savage:

“We’ve been down this road before—HIV’s Achilles’ heel located, targeted, hopes raised, and then… it’s back to the ol’ drawing board. So let’s not run out and stick our asses in the air just yet, boys. And remember: Even if we do one day have a vaccine or a cure for HIV, re-creating the gay communal-sewer sex culture of the 1970s is a Very Bad Idea. One important take-away lesson—one of the top lessons—of the AIDS epidemic should be this: Given the right conditions, new sexually transmitted infections can emerge and kill you and all your friends.”

Additionally, as a woman who never has sex with men, never had and probably never will, I have to worry less about HIV transmission than a straight woman and much less than a gay man (statistically speaking, according to the CDC).

Honestly, I’m not really sure what my point is in this comment. But one thing I DO know is that I’m not going to be “politically correct” about anything and pretend that the drug, alcohol, and disease problems that occur in the gay-male community have that much to do with the unique problems that occur in the lesbian community. And I don’t care if the whole interwebz comes out and accuse me of being a “prude” or a “man-hating dyke” or “internally homophobic” or whatever. I won’t pretend to understand the entire issue.

Then again, all things gay and anti-gay seem to have perpetually focused on the Almighty Phallusâ„¢. The queer community as a whole wants to be taken seriously as a unique segment of the rainbow of humanity. But so-called all-inclusive LGBT websites carry banner-ads showing shirtless men beckoning for cruisers, with both Google and the webmasters betting their pay-per-click ad space on the “insatiable sexual appetites” of its gay-male visitors. (And they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t make money.) Anti-gay activists constantly talk of “men lying with men,” the “dangers” of homosexuality (all of which seem to involve sexual acts with 2 penises), and the word “Sodomy” is thrown around more times than the word “Jesus.”

Congratulations on being close to a vaccine, but honestly, it seems on the one hand gay men are constantly trying to reassure the world that they’re not sex addicts perpetually trolling for the next hot encounter, while on the other hand, they’re desperately afraid of contracting a disease that runs rampant through close-knit communities that are promiscuous. It feels like even though AIDS isn’t a “gay (male) disease,” gay men are still acting and talking like it is one.


September 25th, 2009

I’m probably looking at this only from my perspective (still a kid when it all started and blew over), but AIDS sure as hell has nothing to do with my opinion on monogamy or marriage (or more specifically the rights to take care of someone I love that I’d like to secure with it).

I can see how it has an influence on those who go with the trends, I suppose, but it can be dangerously flirting with insult to assume that is a primary motivation on many, as Pender pointed out. Again just speaking for myself his theory resonates more with me.


September 25th, 2009

Emily is right, too. This does ignore our sisters in this struggle. They didn’t need a disease to find their principles and get their act together.

Emily K

September 25th, 2009

I also agree with Burr. I don’t believe in monogamy because I’m afraid of sexual diseases. WSW like me have the least to fear from it, but I believe statistics might (MIGHT!) show that we also have the highest occurrence of monogamous, long-term relationships. That tells me that our coupling mentality hasn’t been based on fear. It’s been based on what we want from a coupleship. I honestly believe that, like heterosexuals, we homosexuals (and bisexuals, and even asexuals) want what we want, regardless of what culture TELLS us we’re supposed to want. We’re human beings.

Emily K

September 25th, 2009

Note: The first sentence above is meant to mean that I DO believe in monogamy, but not because of fear of disease.

Bill Herrmann

September 25th, 2009

Every time Robert Bazell comes on NBC Nightly News I say to my partner, “All the things he’s covered over the years.” And here he is in NBC’s very first coverage of AIDS something he’s continued to do ever since then.

Someone who does such things should give him an award for all the reporting he’s done over the last 27 years.


September 26th, 2009

Emily K, I think your comments are right on track for so many reasons.

To add perspective, though, I would note that I grew up thinking that it was not possible for gay men to have a committed, monogamous relationship. Everything that I heard as a child reinforced that homosexuals were bad and sinful and perverts; it permeated my psyche, and influenced, for years, how I approached my interactions with men. I honestly think that I had sex (1) to punish myself (2) because I was going to hell anyway and thus it didn’t matter and (3) because, well, sex was fun. Talk about being conflicted!

In any regard, I hope and pray that the generation that is maturing now will have a much healthier sense of self. And, while they will assuredly know that hooking-up for sex is easy, it may not be the desireable outcome. If our committed relationships can be held up to the world as an example, and people can see that, yes, they are happy together(!) then perhaps the standards and expectations of the gay male will change as well and people will be less inclined to look for those easy, fun, but not fulfulling sexual encounters. Excluding, ahem, the closeted gay and bisexual married men who’ll probably troll regardless.

Great post and comments!

Mike Airhart

September 26th, 2009


The economics of for-profit online and print advertising make it difficult for straight- or gay-male oriented media to turn a profit without such ads.

However, I think you are ignoring countless non-profit LGBT sites that refrain from advertising.

I also feel just a wee bit ignored by the comment “all things gay and anti-gay seem to have perpetually focused on the Almighty Phallusâ„¢.”

Some straight and gay men are like that and some aren’t. Those that aren’t, naturally make less noise and attract less attention than those who do.

I agree that there is a visible subculture that fits your description, but I think you may be greatly overgeneralizing about a “gay male community” that does not really exist. You are describing several separate subcultures and acting as if they were one.

Emily K

September 26th, 2009

Mike Airhart,

I also feel just a wee bit ignored by the comment “all things gay and anti-gay seem to have perpetually focused on the Almighty Phallus™.”

If you mean because you are not a segment of the promiscuious gay community, my intent wasn’t to say that the gay male community is monolithic. I’m saying that it seems even those who are NOT promiscuous seem to be deathly suspicious of other gays, as if they have to assume all the other gay men are promiscuous.

I see very few serious political “straight” blogs that have bikini-clad girls advertising “hook-up” sites, but more than a few “serious” political gay sites have manhunt.net plastered on their posts. Why is it that such advertising is so hard to avoid when choosing to target a gay audience with ads? Who is making the assumption that it is mainly the promiscuous male segment of the gay community that looks at such blogs?

As for the anti-gay obsession: Well, how may times have you heard Peter LaBarbera or Matt Barber talk about “anal cancer” in lesbian women? Or about the promiscuity of lesbians? Or about disease being spread rampantly through women who have sex with other women? How many times have you heard them complain about the idea of a woman wearing a man’s clothes, or women drag kings? We hear about imaginary situations where dastardly males take advantage of trans-equality by entering the ladies room whenever they want, but never about dastardly females going into the mens room. The word “Sodomy” is used most often to refer to anal sex – gays are called Sodomites. It’s not that WSW do not engage in such acts, it’s that they associate MSM with it most of all.

Timothy Kincaid

September 27th, 2009


Who is making the assumption that it is mainly the promiscuous male segment of the gay community that looks at such blogs?

It is you.

The rest of us just see this as an attempt by hook-up site advertisers to reach their target market: gay men. They know that only a small percentage of the men at any of the sites they advertise on will use their services. So they have to hit every gay site they can.

Unlike straight media, we are a small community. We have far fewer means by which we speak to each other. So they cannot be as selective as hetero hook up sites.

Also, as gay sites, we have fewer advertisers seeking to pay. So there are fewer options that serious political gay sites have.

As for your recitation of the evils of gay men, we already have homophobes to do that. Your contributions towards that effort are about as welcome as are theirs.

Emily K

September 28th, 2009


You missed the point. My point was that homophobes obsess over gay men while ignoring lesbians or queer females. Why is this? I do not know. Instead of instantly getting offended when someone other than a homophobe points out what homophobes say, I would appreciate a thought-through answer to my question. Why do they obsess over the men? And why do pro-gay people obsess over HIV as a gay issue when it is only one segment of the community that makes itself susceptible to it?

And I think it’s the advertisers themselves assuming promiscuous gay men look at such websites. Otherwise they wouldn’t target them.

Timothy Kincaid

September 28th, 2009


Roughly 6% of the community is infected with HIV. That is a large enough percentage to “obsess” over. I am not much receptive of the notion that because lesbians are not a high risk group then we shouldn’t give it as much attention.

As for why homophobes obsess over male sex rather than female sex, feel free to ask them. Or, perhaps, an sociologist or cultural anthropologist or whoever it is that studies those sorts of issues. I could make guesses, but they would only be guesses.


November 5th, 2009

Emily’s post cracks me up. It sounds like a serious case of penis-envy. Hey Emily, do you think it’s time it time for a womyn’s disease? And how exactly do you lesbians have sex anyway without a phallus? You buy one at the sex shop, right!

I know I’m showing my ignorance about women’s biology, but please don’t hate me because you wish you had “that certain part” of my male body or you are jealous of my viral load.

But seriously, I want to first say that Gabriel’s post was beautifully written. This part was lifted from the pages of my mind, and it was an intimate experience to read it.

Since then, even as medical advances have made AIDS a chronic illness instead of a death sentence, contracting HIV has been one of my biggest fears, which goes to show that the stigma associated with it remains. I fear hearing, “you’re HIV positive” more than being told I have an inoperable brain tumor, which I know is irrational. I’ve had probably five HIV tests, and for all except the first one, the anxiety of waiting a week for lab results has made me run to the nearest rapid HIV testing site and get an answer in 20 minutes, which is also excruciating.

I grew up understanding that gay = AIDS, an equation that I realize is outdated and perhaps prejudiced. But part of me fears that being infected with HIV would confirm all the dire predictions made for me by reorientation therapists and concerned family members. I’ve often felt the pressure to defy these predictions by leading an exemplary life — which I of course haven’t, and won’t. But the point is that AIDS has been framed as the natural “consequence” of homosexuality.

That fear ended when I tested positive back about four years. First there was shock, and about a week of sitting and staring at the wall and wondering how it happened because nobody has ever…well you get the picture.

Then, and now, it is, “Whew what a relief” as the greatest fear of my life was gone. Four years later, I have never been healthier. I don’t take meds, I don’t get sick, and best of all, I don’t get those cold sores that had plagued me my entire life as far back as I can remember.

I love my viral load!

But please, don’t come lookin for me to “seed” you because I only do pre-pozzed guys.

Freaked out ? Wait ’till you read more about what AIDS isn’t.

Remember when KS was the face of AIDS ? Still think all those people dying in the 80s was HIV related?

Think again.

And despite what I DON’T believe about AIDS, I still won’t do the deed for you, mostly because I like to see…oh nevermind…this is getting too x-rated and I forgot there are womyn present.

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