By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Meanwhile, in a world where people are trying to swim against a rising tide of death, one goal of the conference, to provide drugs to 3 million AIDS sufferers by 2005, clearly won’t be met. AIDSVAX, the only vaccine ‰ to complete two large-scale clinical trials, has proved a flop. While a new drug to inhibit HIV enzymes shows promise, a “cure” for this plague is in many ways as remote now as it was in the 1980s, according to longtime AIDS researcher Dr. Anthony Fauci. All this comes at a time when the gay community, headed by a new generation untouched by the struggles of the past, is to a large degree uninterested in the pandemic.
“Now it’s back to the early days with AIDS,” Village Voice gossip scribe Michael Musto declares. “The population that was around back then doesn’t want to remember it. The new crowd doesn’t want to know about it at all. So it’s an uphill struggle. That’s the most likely reason why The Normal Heart didn’t do well. But Angels in America did okay. And that’s probably because Oscar winners were attached. And it wasn’t really harrowing. It was more poetic.”
Another ’80s throwback, though far from a poetic one, is the way AIDS-related deaths are being fudged in obituaries, with AIDS not mentioned as a contributing cause of death — even those of acknowledged HIV-positives like photographer Herb Ritts and makeup artist Kevin Aucoin. As a result, Musto has begun to use his “La Dolce Musto” column as a means of correcting the record, most recently on ’70s-era fashion plate Egon von Furstenberg. “Someone like Egon who may have been bisexual or, worst-case scenario, was ‘leading a double life,’ you expect them to fudge the obit,” says Musto. “But with an out gay male like Herb Ritts? That’s really shocking. That shows it’s still ‘unspeakable.’”
One of those who has always been more than willing to speak is Gabriel Rotello, whose 1997 study, Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men, inspired a whirlwind of controversy when it was first published. Going further in its criticism of gay-male promiscuity than Larry Kramer did in his controversial novel Faggots (which was published just prior to the epidemic’s emergence), Rotello’s book met with opposition so strong that a group called Sex Panic was created to proselytize against it.
“A number of key members of Sex Panic have died,” Rotello notes, though in far from an “I told you so” manner. “They predicted that the result of my book would be legislation that would be bursting down people’s bedroom doors, arresting people for unsafe sex and all that kind of thing. Obviously, nothing like that happened.”
So after the “wake-up call” of the ’80s, did we just go back to sleep? In many ways, Rotello thinks, we have.
“The AIDS epidemic,” Rotello continues, “challenged in a really, really profound way that underlying tenet of the gay sexual revolution, which was not only that you can have, but you oughtto have, as many partners as you can handle, and that’s an integral part of being gay and being liberated as a gay man. We were all willing to attack the government, the news media, the drug companies, but not talk about ourselves. The introduction of the drug-combination therapies potentially drove infectivity way down, but they don’t completely eliminate HIV from the body. So the likelihood is that it will prompt the mutation of multiple drug-resistant strains. And as that happens, if people increase their number of partners and increase their amount of unsafe sex, those strains will be the ones that get passed along. But we refuse to address that.
“We just kept wringing our hands and saying, ‘Why can’t we get everybody to use a condom all the time?’ You have to address the number of partners that people have. A 50 percent condom-use level is pretty good. If you can get 25 to 30 percent of the population to do something all the time, that’s considered really good. To get 100 percent is inconceivable, impossible, and it’s never happened.”
And while the baths are not the sexual center for gay men that they were in the ’70s, Internet-created “hookups” have come to replace them as a vector of HIV transmission. “It’s not as simple as it was in 1979,” Rotello notes, when a different breed of drug than exists today fueled the sexual atmosphere. “Now, with the combination of Viagra and crystal meth, the worst situation arises, because you have somebody who’s psychologically out of control and sexually voracious, yet quasi-impotent because of crystal, subject to a host of diseases and, thanks to Viagra, immediately turning around and fucking 20 people in a row. This has created an epidemiological ‘hot zone’ that we’ve never had before.”
As for the “hot zone” in the rest of the world, that’s quite a different matter, far beyond the ken of gay sybarites. “In places like Africa, women who come from a small village get married when they’re 15, get pregnant, their husband immediately goes off to the capital city for like eight years to work there, only rarely sending any money home. So she resorts to casual prostitution. She has sex with two or three men a week, generally truck drivers, and that’s a way to earn money. Meanwhile, the husband goes to prostitutes in the big city. Truck drivers are giant conduits of spreading disease from one end of the continent to the other; prostitutes in big cities have no access to health care. And that’s considered normal. In a situation like that, HIV gets a foothold, and it spreads just as it did with gay men here.”