A Young Man's Choice
| By Tony Valenzuela
Tony Valenzuela, often called America's Poster Boy for condomless sex, stands at ground zero in the nation's inflamed barebacking controversy.
For younger gay men to speak and write honestly about sex and HIV is daunting because what we say might alarm or offend older community members who have painful histories of loss attached to the epidemic.
But we have no other choice. We also have suffered, but differently, accommodating the fright of HIV into our lives. Without discussing how AIDS has authentically impacted our generation, we cannot hope to make sense of our unique place in its history.
While I advocate for a harm reduction approach to health promotion, I do not want to review here the multiple ways in which some gay men are engaging more safely in sex without condoms.
Instead, I am interested in offering a perspective that challenges the presumption of a singular epidemic experience that relates to and prioritizes HIV in the same way.
As our true experiences emerge to tell what we have really felt, or done or hoped for during the epidemic, our stories will be a rich mosaic of unexpected, sometimes puzzling and contradictory narratives of survival.
HIV prevention at all costs will not be the only noble history of this time, even though today, we assert it as the only acceptable way of living. This essay is a call to all whose experiences around HIV fall outside the mythological model citizen created by AIDS organizations.
Four years ago, I tested HIV positive. I was 26 years old. Strangely, it felt like a relief. The moment I learned my new status, I felt freed of the HIV negative angst that consumed my adolescence and young adulthood with fear and dread of infection.
Some older queers gasp at hearing these feelings, though they're not uncommon among my peers. For some of us, there is a peculiar, bittersweet liberation at becoming HIV positive, a double-edged sword that slices away the anxiety and hard work of staying negative but simultaneously forces one to face their mortality.
In seroconverting, I began dissecting and scrutinizing the mantras of HIV prevention that gripped my youth activism as strongly as an orthodox religion. For the first time ever, I experienced a sex life free from the distress of becoming infected and I stopped using condoms with other consensual partners.
However, I was now HIV positive, adding an insidious stigmatization to my identity, the possibility of dying young, the reality of devastating my family, and the labor of taking medications for the rest of my life.
The process is anguishing and the hopelessness of carrying a potentially deadly virus through my bloodstream ebbs and flows, even with the promising light of science. These last four years have been the hardest of my life.
Most urban gay men younger than 32 years have a unique relationship to HIV, coming into our sex lives after the epidemic had already taken hold of the community. When gay and straight media alike characterize young gay men as "cavalier" and "reckless" to the dangers of HIV, they do so not because we are these things, but because our feelings and behaviors towards the virus are incongruent with theirs.
Rarely is the context explored in which younger gay men initially formed their relationship to the epidemic, or how harm reduction strategies, or the past decade of significant medical advances allows for evolved and informed negotiations of risk taking for all gay men, not just the young.
In sharp and emotional attacks, older lesbians and gays berate young gay men for not understanding the epidemic as the catastrophe it was for them. Yet how is this possible?
If AIDS was the Holocaust to older urban folks, for most of my urban peers, HIV has been the Cold War: annihilation versus the looming possibility of destruction; physical suffering versus illness kept at bay by an arsenal of medications; survivors versus the largely abstract, psychologically embattling labels of "negative" and "positive."
If AIDS meant losing one's life, one's physical abilities, or many of one's friends and lovers, HIV for most of us has meant only imagining it. If AIDS allowed for the mass grieving of lost loved ones at funerals, vigils and Quilt displays, HIV for most of us has meant an unrecognized and profoundly solitary mourning for what might be.
These distinctions have molded a new generation of gay men to understand our relationship to community, sex, pleasure, disease, death and life fundamentally different than those who, as adults, lived through the transition of the pre- and post-AIDS era.
I entered gay activism in college in 1990, in the midst of a tidal wave of gay male deaths. I was distanced from witnessing the suffering first-hand because my friends were not the people who were sick.
I skimmed the endless obituaries, watched AIDS movies and documentaries, and witnessed frail gay men walking slowly down gay ghetto streets. My peers were the "queer" generation of direct action activists, on campus, in the streets, debating politics, wearing Freedom Rings, yet not really knowing those being devoured by disease.
The closest I ever got to an AIDS death was imagining my own, which was nearly impossible not to do in what felt like the course of life for gay men -- a caveat to coming out in that particular historical period. What is being interpreted as "cavalier" by older lesbians and gays may be a demonstration of our relationship to HIV as a hard fact of gay life.
If I do not state explicitly that being positive is painful, then to speak or write about sex that does not obey condom absolutism is misinterpreted as advocating or "glamorizing" HIV infection, especially to "impressionable youth."
An entire list of misunderstandings arises from simply discussing unprotected intercourse without a condom. For example,in doing so, I do not dispute the science that warns the current medicaltreatments for HIV might fail.
While I hold mixed feelings on issues such as reinfection and drug- resistant viruses, I do not dismiss them blindly. From media reports to private conversations, barebacking is fallaciously reduced to the premeditated act of HIV transmission without concern for oneself or others.
In fact, the opposite is true: advocating this dialogue is precisely about community responsibility. We cannot successfully address HIV prevention without coming to terms with unprotected intercourse, a cherished act prevalent, not only among gay men, but between women and men, regardless of sexual orientation, across the globe.
Moral judgements against sex without condoms are irrelevant unless one recognizes not all unprotected sex is dangerous and not all people who have risky sex are immoral.
Ethics regarding sexual behavior and HIV transmission are exceedingly complex and paradoxical. In high-risk sexual situations, I believe someone HIV positive should disclose their status, as I believe a negative person should also ask.
Realistically, this is challenging for me to do in all such sexual situations so I have found it important to develop aspecific code of ethics in which I minimize the potential of transmitting HIV to another person.
I have had candid and difficult conversations with friends or peers who confess to putting themselves at serious risk for HIV, as I then attempt to explain my losses and pain of being infected, in hopes that they will make better informed decisions in the future.
In contrast, I have also encountered times in which I had no emotional reaction upon hearing of another friend's seroconversion.
Moral purity does not exist in any human behavior regardless of the risks involved. The process of working towards sexual responsibility demands we speak truthfully about the areas in which we fall short without being chastised.
My sexual decision making is not free from error, yet it is also full of concern for others. My willingness throughout my work as an activist and writer to be extremely candid about my HIV status and sexual behavior is a deliberate attempt to model an open process within the intractable nature of living through this epidemic.
Will public tolerance of a harm reduction approach to unprotected sex cause gay men to become lax in their practices and result in more infections? If our community stands firm on the unacceptability of sex without condoms, will we save lives?
Or will frank, honest and difficult discussions help us understand our behaviors better and lead us to healthier and more responsible decision making? The goal of HIV prevention must not create an inflexible, repressive atmosphere that inhibits sharing our true selves.
More authentic stories and experiences from young and old, positive and negative, men and women, sensitively expressed and received, will invariably bring us closer, and help us to resolve these exhausting battles from within. In addition to lives being at stake, so is the integrity of our history.