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Decades of Denial About AIDS

By Jacob Laksin

FrontPageMagazine.com | April 22, 2006


Buried amid the findings of a recently released study of San Francisco’s gay population is an insight that gay activists and the intellectual enablers of the political “gay liberation” movement, including many self-styled “experts,” had long labored to suppress: gay men remain the most at-risk group for the transmission of AIDS.


According to the study, conducted by William McFarland, the head of HIV/AIDS statistics San Francisco's Department of Public Health, more than one out of every four gay males living in San Francisco--nearly 26 percent--is infected with the HIV virus. Of the estimated 63,577 gay males over the age of 15 who call the city home, a total of 16,401 test positive for HIV. Those findings accord with years of research showing that HIV, far from an “equal opportunity virus,” targets specific groups, especially homosexual men and intravenous drug users.


Yet, even with this evidence at his disposal, McFarland admitted that he had difficulty calculating the number of gay men infected with HIV because of what he termed “sensitivities over the issue.” Those “sensitivities” have a long and tragic history.


First identified by the medical establishment in 1981, HIV wasted no time cutting a swath of destruction through the gay community. By 1983, epidemiologists had estimated that 33 percent of the gay men in San Francisco had developed AIDS symptoms. Gay and bisexual men accounted for 75 percent of all recorded AIDS cases in the United States. In San Francisco, that number spiked to a staggering 95 percent.


Not the least significant contributing factor was the proliferation of gay bathhouses. Frequented by gay men who viewed unprotected sex with numerous anonymous partners as an act of political rebellion against staid sexual mores, they soon became breeding grounds for the virus. Prominent gay author and activist Denis Altman spoke for many in the so-called gay liberation movement when he declared that “The willingness to have sex immediately, promiscuously, with people about whom one knows nothing and from whom one demands only physical contact can be seen as a sort of Whitmanesque democracy, a desire to know and trust other men in a type of brotherhood.”


In their pursuit of sexual democracy, gay radicals brooked no criticism. Those who called attention to the problem of the bathhouses were dismissed as “right-wing bigots,” or more charitably, as incurable prudes who dreaded the “uninhibited sexual expression” practiced within. In the same way, gay activists who dared to dissent from the popular moralistic hedonism found themselves drummed out of the ranks of the gay movement. Such was the plight that befell Randy Shilts, the late openly gay San Francisco Chronicle reporter, when he pointed to the contribution of gay men’s sexual predilections to the spread of HIV and AIDS. For describing gay bathhouses as “biological cesspools for infection,” and for observing that “gay community leaders played politics with the disease, putting political dogma ahead of the preservation of life,” Shilts was denounced for his “anti-promiscuity agenda”. The underlying message was clear: To express skepticism about unsafe sex was to betray the gay cause.


To be sure, inaction by the federal, state and local governments did little to arrest the AIDS epidemic. When President Regan delivered his first speech about AIDS, in 1987, the virus had already claimed some 20,000 victims. But while authorities certainly deserved their share of the blame, it was the persistent outcry from the gay lobby, echoed by its uncritical sympathizers on the left, that continued to impede meaningful measures to address the problem.


In particular, gay activists and their allies publicized the demonstrably false catchphrase that AIDS, by no means a special threat to gays and drug users, was an “equal opportunity virus”. “People do not get AIDS of who they are, but rather because of what they do,” went the politically correct disclaimer. (Never mind that what they did--engage in unprotected gay sex and intravenous drug use--had become the chief means of transmission.) Conforming to the tenor of the times, CBS News aired a television special on AIDS titled “The Killer Next Door.” Shot in 1992 in a middle-class California suburb, it implied that AIDS was as great a threat to straight-laced heterosexual suburban communities as it was to the more incautious players in San Francisco’s bustling sex scene. It was a worrying message, and suffered only from its utter incompatibility with the scientific evidence.


Medical experts contributed to the public’s understanding of AIDS and HIV mainly by muddling it. As veteran AIDS researcher John Potterat has noted, in 1986 epidemiologists at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention intentionally reclassified AIDS cases among Haitians and Africans to create the impression that they were heterosexually transmitted. The manufactured conclusion confused the occurrence of AIDS among heterosexual populations (true) with its widespread transmission by heterosexuals (false). But it had the virtue of flattering the political convictions of many who considered the mere mention of the role of gays in the spread of AIDS as tantamount to persecution.


Nor did the disinformation end there. Still other experts averred that the presence of AIDS among heterosexual women proved that the HIV virus did not discriminate between sexual orientation--a claim powerfully debunked by Dr. Stuart Brody in his 1990 book Sex at Risk. Taking on the regnant dogma, Brody noted that the majority of AIDS cases among heterosexual women involved a partner known to be a drug user, bisexual male, or a recipient of a transplant or transfusion. Theories about widespread heterosexual AIDS, having been upgraded to the status of received wisdom, were now revealed for a myth.


Clarity did not prevail, however. Despite the preponderance of evidence connecting AIDS to gay sex, the romanticism of “gay liberation” was, for many of its supporters, too enchanting to surrender. Speaking for many in the academic world in her 1992 book, The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement, women’s studies professor Margaret Cruikshank complained that “The association of gay sex with a fatal illness had an extremely negative effect on gay liberation as a sexual freedom movement.” Considering that that year saw nearly 42, 000 deaths from AIDS, making it the seventh leading killer in the US for the second consecutive year, Cruikshank’s lament offered a telling window onto the disastrously misplaced priorities of gay liberation’s cheerleaders.


Although the advent of antiretroviral therapy precipitated a brief drop-off in the number of AIDS cases in the late nineties, the epidemic picked up again shortly thereafter. What made the resurgence all the more regrettable is the fact that common-sense measures -- like mandatory testing for HIV -- could have prevented many of the new cases. A 2001 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for instance, found that 40 percent of AIDS sufferers did not discover that they had the virus until ten years after their infection. For many, that was ten years too late.


Yet many on the doctrinaire left declared against testing. David Webber, the editor of the treatise AIDS and the Law and a contributor to The Nation, assured his readers that “proponents of mandatory testing for HIV appear to have been motivated merely by a desire to inflict harm or punishment on those infected.” Webber found a prominent ally in the ACLU, which insisted that mandatory testing would lead to “discrimination and personal turmoil.” Anti-testing activists in California and New York, the states with some of the highest rate of AIDS cases, succeeded in passing legislation banning testing.


Ignored by its opponents were the deadly consequences of failing to mandate the test. At the end of 2003, the CDC reported that there were 462,792 people living with HIV/AIDS in the 35 areas with a history of confidential name-based HIV reporting. But it placed the total number of people infected with HIV-AIDS at between 1,039,000 and 1,185,000, with as many as 27 percent undiagnosed and unaware of their HIV infection. In a recent column, Robert Bazell, a Science and Health Correspondent for NBC News, pointed out that “The failure to test as widely as possible is a big reason why 40,000 Americans still get infected with HIV every year and 14,000 die from AIDS.”


For homosexual men especially, the numbers add up to disaster. And, as Dr. Stuart Brody, now a professor of Psychology at the University of Paisley, Scotland, notes, much of the responsibility must be attributed to those continue to put politics above public health. “The traditional means of countering sexually transmitted diseases (contact tracing, involving contacting the sexual contacts of infected persons, and if they are infected, contacting their sexual contacts, etc.) has been deliberately avoided in the case of HIV, because the political goal of avoiding ‘stigma’ took precedence over saving the lives of homosexual men,” Brody told FrontPageMag.com. As a result, “resources have been squandered on frightening persons at little or near-zero risk.” The grim irony, as Brody observes, is that “political ideologues have often touted the idea of ‘the people’, but may have little or no regard for the suffering or death of actual people.”


Come this June, 25 years will have passed since the discovery of AIDS. Some progress has been made. But, as a Reuters report on the recent AIDS study unintentionally confirmed, the old biases persist. In its original version, the report noted that, of the five cities in the study, Baltimore had the highest percentage of HIV-positive men. But a day later the wire service had issued a correction. Instead of merely “HIV-positive men” the story should have referred to “HIV-positive gay men.” In an age of supposedly greater enlightenment about HIV and AIDS, it was, in many ways, the same old story.

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