by Kevin Lawson
Inside Out Nashville Contributor
The right to love a person of the same sex and to enjoy a healthy sex life is a fundamental human right. Sex is not dirty, the human body is not obscene, gay sexuality is not immoral, homophobia is not natural and most importantly HIV/AIDS is not inevitable.
Keeping this statement in mind, it is reasonable that first and foremost we as gay men do not want to be labeled as disease ridden, or so directly associated with HIV that everything else we are is ignored or forgotten. However, it is not healthy for gay men to be so ready and willing to separate ourselves from HIV/AIDS that we forget the cold hard reality of a disease that is still very much a part of our community and will affect each of us in a personal way in our lifetime.
In the USA, the data is very clear: though gay and bisexual men make up between 3 and 7 % of the population, they account for more than 55% of those living with HIV/AIDS and 67% of the new infections. This ever present challenge to our community is undeniable and at the same time immeasurable. The men who passed on before us took with them energy, enthusiasm, and creativity that we fail to miss simply because we never truly had the opportunity to experience it. Will we force future generations to say the same thing about us?
Back in the 80s, AIDS was all over the news. And, the more we learned about it, the more vigilant we became about practicing safer sex, about asking our partners the right questions and about demanding that researchers work toward a cure. But now, 25 years into this continuing health crisis, we have stopped talking to each other about HIV and, as a consequence, we have seemingly lost the will to fight and more importantly we may have lost the hope that we could ever defeat it. HIV must be confronted daily until it is beat.
Because HIV is primarily a sexually transmitted disease we must continue to address the attitudes towards the practice of sex and safer sex in the gay community. We know that sex is but one part of our world; however, it is the very part that others often choose to use to condemn and ridicule us. Even more sadly, many of our own brothers feel threatened and hate-filled about their own sex life. It is society that has taught us to fear sex and hate our sexuality.
From the time we are born we are immersed in a sexual world, and the way we are touched and treated send messages about our worth and being loved. Words and actions surround us and impart values about sexuality, sexual orientation, sexual behaviors, and gender roles. Parents, lovers, tricks, television, film, religious leaders, musicians, actors, politicians, advertisers, peers, and close friends all send messages about sex and sexuality that we incorporate into our self worth and actions. It is our challenge to begin speaking of sex with words that build self-esteem and begin to expect and reward values such as honesty, responsibility and respect. We as gay men must be comfortable initiating (non judgmental) conversations about intimacy, relationships, condoms, sexual meanings and responsible choices.
This responsibility may seem overwhelming. We have been led to believe that safer sex and HIV prevention is a difficult and complicated set of rules and positions that will make sex less pleasurable and less intimate. In actuality, HIV prevention is fairly simple and need not be a barrier to intimacy or sexual fulfillment. In fact there are 2 actions that would greatly reduce the transmission rate of HIV in our community.
1. Use a condom consistently and correctly for anal sex when the HIV status of a sex partner is unknown or when the HIV status of a partner is different than your own. (We know that HIV is most commonly caused by unprotected anal sex with an HIV infected partner. We also know that the receptive partner is at most risk in this situation.)
2. Get an HIV test every six months if you are not in a mutually monogamous relationship with a person you know to be HIV Negative.
That’s it! Those are the two actions that any and every gay man can do that will have a significant impact on the well being of our community. Intimacy and fulfillment are often more of the heart and mind than of the body, so look for it there first. Intimacy and fulfillment does not have to include a raw penis and neither can truly be diminished by a thin piece of latex.
When it comes to safer sex, gay men have a responsibility to ourselves to become proactive in making HIV a disease for the history books. Men who are HIV Positive must seek testing, treatment, education, and support to continue their lives as normally as possible. No one should be ashamed or scared of HIV disease. Ignorance and fear have been the tools of HIV for too long. HIV Positive men must also make it a personal value not to infect anyone else with HIV. HIV Negative men must seek to remain negative and be proud of that accomplishment. Being HIV Negative is not an accident or simply an inevitable precursor to being HIV Positive. The next time we feel joy for someone who has successfully lived with this disease for 20 years, let’s be equally joyful for the man who has been HIV Negative for 20 years. Both are marvelous accomplishments.
Kevin Lawson is the program coordinator for Nashville CARES’ health promotion program for gay men called The Circuit. He can be reached at Nashville CARES by calling 615.259.4866 x.220 or firstname.lastname@example.org