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Friday, January 31, 2003

The Gift

by Clinton Fein

Click to Send PostcardA new documentary, The Gift, by filmmaker Louise Hogarth is a timely investigation into a fascinating phenomenon -- the eroticization of deliberate HIV infection -- that shines a balanced yet uncompromising flashlight on the effectiveness of HIV prevention strategies and the mixed messages that continue to dangerously fuel a psychologically complex and potentially deadly game. Evenly presented yet unapologetically honest, Hogarth’s film wades through very tricky and fragile political waters without being preachy or judgmental.

Rolling Stone Magazine’s recent article, “Bug Chasing,” by Gregory A. Freeman set off a media firestorm over a trend among some gay men toward “barebacking,” a term used to describe unprotected sex, and an unsubstantiated claim that as many as 10,000, or 25 percent, of the 40,000 new infections recorded each year in the United States contracted the HIV virus deliberately.

Internet gossip columnist, Matt Drudge, took the mischaracterized statistics and turned them into headline fodder for the religious conservatives who are still smarting over the resignation of Bush appointee, Jerry Thacker, from the HIV advisory board following revelations of his referral to homosexuality as a “death style”, and AIDS as a “gay plague”. To Drudge’s credit, and in spite of his sensationalist bylining, he criticized Rolling Stone’s gonzo journalism, although to date Rolling Stone stands by its story. The doctor cited by Rolling Stone to support the statistics, Dr. Bob Cabaj, the San Francisco County director of behavioral health services, claims his comments were mischaracterized and denies having made such an allegation.

Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, currently a polemic freelance writing Bush cheerleader, (and himself the subject of an embarrassing bareback controversy that played out publicly) followed up with a Salon article refuting the amplified numbers, revealing the fuzziness in the math and criticizing the sloppiness of the journalistic methodology of what is fast becoming a nail in the coffin of Rolling Stone’s credibility. Newsweek followed up as did the cable networks. And on cue, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) put out a media alert urging its members to chastise Rolling Stone for their irresponsibility, dismissing the phenomenon as virtually non-existent.

Perfectly timed, The Gift, a documentary by American filmmaker Louise Hogarth, is set to hit the film festival circuit, beginning with a debut at the Berlin film festival in February. Unlike the media firestorm, The Gift offers a far more enlightening, balanced and thoroughly researched exploration of the issue, without having to resort to faux statistics and far-fetched extrapolations.

Stripped of sensationalism, Hogarth’s documentary follows the stories of men who have involved themselves in an all-too-real fantasy world, where sex involves a dangerous game of viral Russian roulette. “Bug chasers” are men who actively seek to infect themselves with HIV, while “gift givers” are men who are already infected and seek unprotected sex with HIV negative men.

A seductive underworld -- spurred in part by the easy global reach and access made available through Internet sites -- does indeed exist, where bareback “conversion” parties are commonplace and where criteria matching of sexual proclivities has become something of a technological art form. For those attempting to cast blame on the Internet, as Rolling Stone’s article implied, think again. The Internet is no more to blame for this phenomenon than the telephone is for obscene callers.

Despite the provocative name of the documentary, and in spite of the few extremists who will undoubtedly point to this trend as proof of the dangerous “choice” that homosexuality represents, say Jerry Thacker, for instance, the bigger and far more important story revealed by Hogarth’s documentary is the crisis that has resulted from almost twenty years of mass confusion in AIDS and HIV messaging. And while the documentary focuses primarily on American gay men, the hard lessons offered by this exploration offer a sobering and foreboding insight into the difficulties and challenges that governments and organizations face in their media and messaging dealing with HIV and AIDS, especially in Africa.

Without leveling criticism or pointing accusatory fingers, Hogarth’s subjects explore the mixed messages and themselves offer conflicting and varying responses that reflect the complexity of the issues and the difficulties involved in reaching or even defining their intended audiences.

Doug Hitzel, a young man interviewed in The Gift shares his journey from Nebraska to San Francisco, where muscles, drugs, social pecking orders and socio-sexual economic cliques erect harsh barriers to entry and acceptance, where feeling self assured and making new friends is about as easy as becoming a movie star in Los Angeles. Alone, following a break-up, in a culture that worships fantasy images and reveres and elevates porn stars to idol status, where ripped stomach muscles are generated through marathon dance and sex sessions, fueled by concoctions of crystal methamphetamine, steroids and ecstasy.

Isolated and disillusioned, it is all but impossible for young men and teens to ignore the glossy magazine images and extensive billboard and bus shelter campaigns projected by pharmaceutical companies, beaming healthy looking, buffed muscle men, tanned and topless with perfectly-white-teethed-smiles, scaling mountains with bicycles on their shoulders, having popped the latest HIV cocktail, which appears more attractive than a vodka Martini. Or be satisfied by another empty night jacking off alone.

Preventative strategies attempting to inspire condom use, using posters depicting steamy close ups of glistening hard ons inspire sex, (eliminating any traction with those espousing abstinence as a prevention strategy) while hard-hitting messages such as a couple in bed under the caption “Bang, you’re Dead!” present such an anti-sex message, it is guaranteed to be ignored by almost anyone sexually active, especially competing against the raging hormones of youth.

The alternatives are as tricky and potentially devastating. A group of four men who seroconverted from negative to positive HIV status unintentionally, and who live with the very day-to-day reality of medications, heart conditions resulting from their medications, -- and for whom the notion of contracting such a virus by design is outside the realm of their belief -- discuss the issue on camera. As a filmmaking device, Hogarth brilliantly allows them to present the tough, head-shaking questions and navigate the thorny political issues surrounding HIV and AIDS prevention, allowing her to remain as objective an observer as possible, and keeping herself above the fray.

“The message is so muddled at this point that I think it’s fair to say we’re just not even doing prevention, “ says Dr. Walt Odets, trying to make sense of the phenomenon. “There’s a recent thing from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation about ‘How do you know what you know?’ Well, what does that mean? How do you know that you’re really negative? How do you know that your partner’s really negative? I mean what are they—what are they talking about there?”

The effectiveness of the Bush administration’s focus on abstinence is made perfectly clear by Doug Hitzel. “Shouldn’t growing up in DARE and AIDS awareness make me smarter than this? After all, since 4th grade my head had been pounded with ‘Just say no’ and ‘Practice abstinence’. After spending my sexed out year here, all I can admit is that the pressure is no longer to have safe sex. Instead the focus lies on to simply inquire on the lubricant someone’s using.”

“We approached prevention as a short term strategy for what we thought was a short term health crisis”, says Louise Hogarth in an interview for this article from her office in Los Angeles. “The intent of this film is to ask people to rethink prevention.”

Finding a sense of community in this world of eroticized fantasy constructed around a deadly virus, a confused gay kid, shunted by family and friends is easily provoked into thinking that seroconverting to HIV positive status is enough to make one instantly gorgeous, successful, popular and above all, accepted.

“When I started having unsafe sex people were like ‘Wow, he’s this cute and fun 19 year old who had unsafe sex and he’s funny and he’s nice.’ It seemed like, uh, ‘Wow, I fit in,’ you know…And I thought ‘Wow, people are talking about me,” says Hitzel in one of the documentary’s more revealing moments.

The latest viral drug campaign by GlaxoSmithKline features the image of basketball celebrity, Magic Johnson, to spread awareness among urban blacks of treatment methods and the company's products. A healthy-looking Johnson is about to be splashed onto billboards, subway posters and full-page ads in newspapers and magazines with accompanying copy "Staying healthy is about a few basic things: A positive attitude, partnering with my doctor, taking my medicine every day.” The campaign is to be launched in cities with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection among blacks, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta and Newark, N.J.

“Somewhere there’s a fabulous 45 year old guy who has stayed negative. All these years. I don’t know him. I haven’t met him. Why isn’t he an icon? Why isn’t he on a poster?” asks Jim Bloor, a writer for the gay, Los Angeles based magazine, Frontiers. “He’s out there. He’s out there and we need to find him. He is out there. He’s not a prude. He’s not an ugly nerd who spends his life in the library. He’s a vital, alive gay man who cares about himself and he has stayed HIV negative.”

“Just knowing the statistics about 1 in 3 gay black men being HIV positive is—is a frightening thought for me and it just feels like that this has my name written all over it—and it’s only a matter of time before I’m the next statistic,” says Deej Jones, a thirty-seven-year-old black man, Jim Bloor subsequently introduces -- and who remains negative.

Their conversation illuminates the almost impossible task of targeting the right message to the right audience and the confusion surrounding the messages. And further explores a psychological guilt factor that HIV negative men carry that, too, can serve as an impetus to seroconvert, if not simply create deep divisions in an already fractured community.

Even Bloor’s suggestion has the inherent danger of propping up anyone as a role model. What happens if he then gets it? The gay community nauseatingly elevated couples Ellen Degeneres and Ann Heche, rock star, Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher, and former Mr. Universe, Bob Paris, and his mate, Rod Jackson, as role models for same sex marriage only to see all the relationships crumble under intense public spotlight and unfair scrutiny.

The severe side effects of most HIV drugs is whitewashed, although a new poster campaign by STOP AIDS Project San Francisco includes vivid images of some of these, such as diarrhea, facial wasting, night sweats and crix belly. While these are likely to frighten some people into thinking twice about having unprotected sex, they are just as likely to be ignored by others looking to have a good time. They also raise another critical issue that Hogarth’s documentary touches on, which is the extent to which negative portrayals of people with HIV unnecessarily offend and scare people who are living with the virus (particularly those who are asymptomatic), and even worse, scapegoat, isolate and denigrate an entire group of people who happen to be carrying a virus that does not discriminate.

The reality is that for many people, Magic Johnson included, the contracting of HIV is not an immediate death sentence, and the talent and contributions to society by HIV positive people demands that their needs, feelings and well being be considered as much as anyone else’s. It wasn’t too long ago when children were being kicked out of schools for having the virus, and congress members were recommending quarantine for the infected.

In its mission statement, POZ Magazine, a magazine established to provide information to HIV positive persons outside the realm of clinical and technical newsletters, meetings or pharmaceutical press releases, directs attention to the languaging and stereotyping of those facing a life-threatening illness: “A woman who lives five years after having a malignancy removed from her breast is considered a breast cancer ‘survivor’, even though she still faces extraordinary chances of further cancer complications at some point. Yet tens of thousands of people have been HIV positive for 10 and 15 years, but are still popularly labeled ‘terminally ill’ with an ‘inevitably fatal’ disease.”

Les Pappas, president of Better World Advertising, a San Francisco based ad agency that has a multitude of national and localized prevention campaign strategies under its belt -- and the agency responsible for the “HIV is No Picnic” campaign -- admits that finding the right audience is not an easy task. “There was a big concern with this campaign and we had a lot of dialog with focus groups, and with the people whose images are being used,” he said in a conversation for this article. “The HIV prevention business is complicated, and you’re dealing with all people from all walks of life. One campaign can’t work for everyone. This is about confronting people around their complacency. A reality check, a wake-up call, a way to get through the denial that HIV is less threatening, more manageable. This is aimed at people buying that line. People are still getting sick and there are lots of complications around the issue. A lot of people understand that, but there has been a growing desire to minimize the realities of HIV.”

“We have to quit worrying about upsetting positive people. Fuck upsetting them. That may get me a lot of backlash. People may think that sounds cruel and mean. You know what, I’m willing to risk my being a little, maybe scared when I accept the reality of what I’ve brought into my life,” fumes Hitzel at one point.

Frightening images of sick-looking people are unlikely to resonate with Kenboy, another of Hogarth’s young interviewees, who responded to an ad and moved from Illinois to a house in Los Angeles existing solely for the purpose of sex parties; where a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” mantra served as the house rule; and where condom use was about as common as the compassion in compassionate conservatism. Lured by a world of uninhibited sexual activity, he reveals in a poignant moment what is perhaps the deepest insight into why healthy young men would actively seek a virus that will more than likely kill them.

“After a couple of months of throwing parties at the LA sex house I got sick, and, really sick. So I went to the doctor and had all the work done, all the blood tests work done, I was still negative. I decided to go ahead and throw a conversion party to become HIV positive… I’m scared of not knowing I’m HIV positive…then knowing; I’d rather know. It’s just not worth getting yourself all worked up over.”

Jim Bloor sums up his frustration having to worry about the realities of his medical condition, and the dire consequences relating to the failure of prevention strategies. “I don’t blame them for being tired of worrying about it. But you know what? Get the fuck over it. Okay? Sorry, but, you know, you gotta worry about nuclear war, you gotta worry about terrorism, you gotta worry about AIDS.”

Or do you? Hogarth’s documentary is fortuitously timed to diffuse the sensationalism being played out in the media following the Rolling Stone article and the mobilization of gay groups to downplay the issue. According to the Washington Times, Cathy Renna, a spokeswoman for the New York-based GLAAD called the story “groundless” and added that it was “not helpful.”

“What's sad is that it's a behavior that is happening and the unfortunate part of all of this is that this story didn't offer any real solutions to this problem," she is quoted as saying, although nothing helpful appears to have been offered by GLAAD either, nor any other of the gay organizations leveling criticism at the article or downplaying the phenomenon itself.

While the cult-like terms – “conversion parties,” “bug chasers”and“gift givers” –are fundamental to the eroticization of the virus, the realities dealing with a far more widespread denial regarding the inherent risks of “barebacking” makes the distinction merely one of intent. The amount of men who are simply barebacking because it feels good, or find condoms a hassle and are willing to take a chance is hardly a rarity among partners, gay or straight. They hope they don’t get it, but are not willing to refrain from unprotected sex, or ask questions, the answers of which might otherwise preclude it.

“The unintentional infections and scenarios where they’re in denial, or being careless, or making poor decisions” Pappas agrees, is a problem, and frequently the focus of many prevention strategies. “People seeking to heighten the sexual experience through bug chasing is very rare, I think, but from a prevention point of view, it is beyond prevention. It’s more like a mental health condition, the same way as people can eroticize violence and harm. I’m not saying we give up on anyone, but they need more professional help to come to grips as to why they want to cause themselves intentional harm.”

While accusations -- including insinuations in the Rolling Stone article -- of a “cover up” by gay and AIDS activists might seem far-fetched, there is no denying the enormity of interests at stake with regard to funding by pharmaceutical companies of HIV/AIDS and gay organizations. Nor are fears that the potential for this behavior to be exaggerated and abused by religious or conservative groups with anti-homosexual agendas unfounded. Already, according to Rolling Stone, Evelyn Ullah, director of Florida’s Miami-Dade office of HIV/AIDS admits to health officials monitoring conversations on Internet sites, the privacy implications of which are enormous and chilling.

“I, for one, don't believe a single word in the article, which is shoddy and vague at best. There aren't any hard facts to back up the statement, only sensationalistic quotes from one willing ‘bug chaser.’ It's all bollocks,” says a Canadian blogger (web log diarist) calling himself Jerwin on his web site 2xy.org, referring to the Rolling Stone piece. When questioned for this article, he acknowledged that the sensationalism obscured a real message. "The article was written by someone whose intention clearly wasn't to report the truth, but rather, to get tongues wagging and sell a few thousand copies of the magazine. Which worked, in my case. I never would have picked up their rag if it hadn't been for this controversial piece."

"Presenting facts and the truth without haranguing and preaching works. Resorting to scare tactics and blanket finger-pointing doesn't," responds Jerwin. Which is why this documentary, with its candid stories, may provoke many like him to think twice, rather than dismiss the phenomenon outright. "I have heard about [bug chasing] in the past but my reaction then was utter disbelief. I thought it was just one of those crazy urban legends. Seriously, who in their right mind would knowingly seek out HIV? It's absolutely wacko."

As importantly, the documentary might serve as a critically timed wake-up call to any of the gay or HIV activists who think that barebacking in general is not “trend worthy” enough to warrant attention, particularly if there is to be any hope in the dissemination of messages and information.

Last year, a song sung in Swahili by the Young Stars Modern Taraab, titled Segere was banned by the Tanzanian government because it contained the lines “Give me Aids, Give me Aids, Give me Aids, so that I can suffer with it.” Threatening legal action against the band, the executive secretary of Tanzania's National Arts Council, Shogholo Chali, was reported to have said: “We believe the song contains a message that goes against efforts to fight Aids.” An outright ban forbade the airing of the song on radio or television, or performance in concerts as well as an outlawing of its distribution and sale.

A similar attempt to silence activist Michael Petrelis and ACT UP/San Francisco member, David Pasquarelli, by The San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Health Department, last year resulted in imprisonment of the men under charges of terrorism. (They were later dropped.) ACT UP/San Francisco's controversial and widely publicized position that HIV does not cause AIDS has long marginalized the group from AIDS prevention groups in San Francisco and other national ACT UP chapters, although they became somewhat of an international phenomenon after South African President Thambo Mbeki raised the same question regarding the relationship between HIV ands AIDS just prior to an international conference on AIDS held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

As leaders all over the world grapple with the realities of tackling HIV and AIDS, whilst navigating issues of freedom of expression and privacy, Hogarth’s documentary offers a compelling insight into the urgency and critical requisite of planning effective and strategic prevention campaigns that might avoid the mistakes of those past and current.

“We have to look at cigarettes and the success of anti-smoking strategies,” says Hogarth. “And that this is not an easy disease to live with.”

“When I went to get tested last time in March of 2000, I was expecting a positive reading and it was. I was the feeling, you could say I was relieved that I finally got it and now I don’t have to worry, do I have it, do I have it, do I have it, and, if so, do I need to be careful. Not anymore. I’m happy, relieved…I can breathe again,” says Kenboy to Hogarth's camera, having seroconverted at last.

Doug Hitzel, finds breathing less easy. “There was no benefit in this and that’s just what really needs to be said….It’s so hard.”

This is hard stuff. As hard as Louise Hogarth’s documentary is important.

Clinton Fein can be reached at clinton@annoy.com.

More about Louise Hogarth's documentary, The Gift.

 
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