Sunday, July 03, 2005

Andrew Sullivan and HIV, “Catch It if You Can”

Andrew Sullivan, is a gay, HIV-positive, generally conservative blogger and political commentator, who writes for various magazines and is a senior editor at The New Republic. He supports issues such as gay marriage, but I think no one would argue against the point that if you had to classify him on the political spectrum, it would be on the right-wing end. Sullivan is a hero amongst many gay conservatives, for his support of George Bush, the Iraq War, as well as homosexual rights, and his distaste for many liberal policies and concerns.

I’ve hardly ever read Sullivan’s blog, but when I was exposed to his writings through magazines or links elsewhere, I usually found myself disagreeing with his opinions. However, usually I was able to respect his opinions as reasonable and not completely bereft of common sense. At least, despite Sullivan’s support of Bush and conservative policies (and to be fair, a gay person shouldn’t have to make their sexuality the predominate issue in their politics), I was able to say at least he’s not a Mary Cheney, who actively campaigned for a very homophobic administration.

However, I was recently pointed to a piece Sullivan wrote for The Advocate, a national GLBT newsmagazine. This piece is entitled “Still Here, So Sorry” and can be read in its entirety here, but I’ll reprint some of it below.

It’s been almost 12 years since I became infected with HIV, and I haven’t died yet. I haven’t even had the decency to get sick. I am a walking, talking advertisement for why HIV seems not such a big deal to the younger generation—and indeed, many in my own age bracket. I know this is a terrible thing, and I promise in the future to do better. As gay activist Michelangelo Signorile recently told The New York Times, “If everyone in your group is beautiful, taking steroids, barebacking, and HIV-positive, having the virus doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.”

I’m sorry. At the tender age of 41—a year longer than I once thought I would live—I have never felt better. HIV transformed my life, made me a better and braver writer, prompted me to write the first big book pushing marriage rights, got me to take better care of my health, improved my sex life, and deepened my spirituality.


I’d even be prepared to stop taking my meds if that would help. The trouble is, like many other people with HIV, I did that three years ago. My CD4 count remained virtually unchanged, and only recently have I had to go back on meds. Five pills once a day. No side effects to speak of. I know that others go through far worse, and I don’t mean to minimize their trials. But the bottom line is that HIV is fast becoming another diabetes.


Do you have no sense of social responsibility? Young negative men need to see more of us keeling over in the streets, or they won’t be scared enough to avoid a disease that may, in the very distant future, kill them off. You know, like any number of other diseases might. They may even stop believing that this is a huge, escalating crisis, threatening to wipe out homosexual life on this planet.

What a piece of fucking crap. I think that it’s important to acknowledge Sullivan’s point that it is no longer as scary for many well-off gay men to catch AIDS as it was ten years and that people in the gay community, or the world at large, should not stigmatise gay men who are HIV-positive. However, Sullivan has taken any reasonable points he could make in that article and buried them under a pile of egotistical drivel that seems bound to do much more harm to the gay community than good. It’s also very interesting that Sullivan doesn’t link to this article at his blog, read by many conservatives, as this seems very out-of-character for a man who links basically every time he appears in print.

First of all, diabetes is not AIDS. No matter how much Sullivan tries to equate the two, they are not the same. Not amount of cutesy language about “five pills a day” is going to make that point true. Even if we are talking about AIDS in modern Western world terms only and not about the disease that kills about 2.1-2.6 million people annually in Africa, that still doesn’t make his statement true. First of all, diabetes is a serious disease that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Diabetes is the largest non-traumatic cause of amputations, dialysis and blindness in North America. There are about 18 million diabetics in the United States alone, and it is estimated that the number of diabetics will double by 2025. The situation is so serious the Centre for Disease Control has termed it an epidemic. So, if something is turning into “another diabetes” it is still very serious. However, there are lots of breakthroughs being made in treatment against diabetes and AIDS is still an incredibly debilitating illness in many cases that cannot be controlled as easily as diabetes can be by the proper eating and exercise habits. AIDS is not another diabetes and that’s an incredibly irresponsible statement to make.

Secondly, these medications are incredibly expensive. While this may barely register with a pretty wealthy person like Sullivan, a 20-year-old bricklayer in Kansas City with no health insurance is going to find himself in an incredibly difficult situation should he contract AIDS. He’ll likely be unable to afford these medications that Sullivan takes for granted and without them, his health will likely deteriorate over time until he dies. For a great deal of people in America (not to mention millions in Africa) medications are simply unaffordable. However, gay men influenced by Sullivan’s comparison of AIDS to a broken pinkie are going to read that he didn’t take medications for a long time and now that he does he takes five little pills a day. I doubt that experience is typical for many HIV-positive men and Sullivan completely neglects to mention the costs of AIDS drugs. This is especially significant given AIDS’ prevalence in the African-American community, as blacks make up 52% of new AIDS infections but only 13% of the general population and are four times more likely than Caucasians to be infected through male-male sex. Blacks account for 72% of the female infections, regardless of infection method and two-thirds of AIDS cases among teens, even though they are only 15% of the teen population.

Finally, on the point that Sullivan is making about the fact that AIDS is no longer as serious a disease as it was during the 1990’s, he is not wrong there. However, why is that the case? It is because of medical breakthroughs that had not been discovered twenty years ago and partly because of an educational campaign to alert people to the dangers of AIDS and how to stop the spread of the disease. People are no longer dying because of the disease in the numbers they once did, but that’s because people are also aware of how to prevent the spread of the disease and information about how to engage in safe-sex is available for many.

While fear may not always be the best way to publicise a campaign or fact, it is often the most effective. There is little incentive without fear to follow some suggestions, and if Sullivan’s article was used as the media campaign to educate people about AIDS, I’d wager dollars to doughnuts that AIDS rates significantly increased within five years. It’s great that AIDS has turned Sullivan into a better man, but young gay (and straight) people need to learn about the thousands of Americans who have died prematurely from AIDS-related causes and who have spent years of their lives in the hospital and had their plans and dreams irreparably altered by a positive diagnosis.

Michelangelo Signorile, who Sullivan criticised in his article and who had feuded with Sullivan for years, published an open letter to Sullivan on his website attacking his views. A couple of the most important parts of the letter are below.

Now honestly, Andrew, what is the purpose of this column - beyond you masturbating on your testosterone-fueled self? There is nothing wrong with building self-esteem, for yourself, for others who are HIV positive, or for people who are challenged by any adversity in life. But this is an angry rant in which you’re speaking not to positives but to negatives, about whom you have enormous contempt for what seems like one simple reason: They are still negative.


If I am wrong, please answer, clearly, the following questions: Should gay men try as hard as they can to stay negative, including always engaging in protected sex? Unless we warn them against getting HIV by using the fear of becoming infected, what else will be the incentive to stay negative? And why are you so angry, anyway, about people using fear as way to warn people to play safe – the way we use fear to warn people that obesity will lead to adult onset diabetes or smoking will lead to lung cancer -- even if it sometimes isn’t as effective as we’d like it to be?


And that tells us, Andrew, that you don’t feel good about having HIV at all. You perhaps even hate yourself for having allowed yourself to become infected via unprotected sex long after it was known how HIV is spread. It’s been difficult for you, someone who found yourself at the center of attention, the golden boy editor of the New Republic , the Gap model, to suddenly be in a group that is certainly not, nor should ever be, considered “hip.” So you would turn that around, and write about how wonderful it all supposedly is. And this is where I believe that you actually want young gay men to seroconvert. You want them to become positive. You want them to join your club, so that it just becomes hipper and hipper and those mean negative people just look more and more marginalized.


I’m concerned about young gay men who read the Advocate. They don’t have a clue who you are or what you are about. They don’t have any idea of the fraud you’ve perpetrated – distorting studies on infection rates, or putting out completely false information -- nor your hypocrisies. Some will say that the editors thus had a responsibility in this regard, and I’m not going to absolve them of that. But I’m writing specifically to you here. These young men are struggling every day to maintain safer sex practices. Some are very successful, while others will look for every rationalization to have unprotected sex. And now you just handed them another one: That their careers, their bodies, their sex lives will be fabulous and that there’s no downside at all, really.

You’re glamorizing illness, for your own selfish reasons, for your own ego. And I think you know that because, oddly, you have not linked to the Advocate column on your web site, where all of the legions of your right-wing, Republican conservative fans can see your recklessness and irresponsibility, and be appalled. It’s funny because you link to everything you write, making sure your fans can get every bit of Andrew Sullivan. But this column, directed squarely at the gay audience in the Advocate – and particularly at all those horrible negative people – seems to have gotten overlooked. Why Andrew? Hey, if you are really so secure and proud of your HIV infection, you might even link to this open letter of mine too, so your conservative Republican fans could see how supposedly ridiculous I’m being. But I bet you won’t.

Whether or not Signorile slightly exaggerates a couple of his points, there is far more truth in his letter than in Sullivan’s. Sullivan’s article is simply reckless and all I can do is simply offer my sincere condolences to anyone who winds up with an HIV infection after using Sullivan’s opinions as a last justification for unprotected sex, and then realises a few years later that it was one of the biggest mistakes of their lives.


At July 6, 2005 at 6:31 a.m., Blogger buff said...

Thomas, BRAVO, for covering the Andrew Sullivan and the fun of having HIV story. I totally agree with you. To me, this guy is a real jerk and an irresponsible nitwit.

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