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Believing that AIDS is a gay disease, and that gay people are profoundly, perversely different, enables heterosexuals to deny their risk.

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Words of warning: A health co-ordinator talks to a 14-year-old Ugandan about safe sex.

Gay Liberation Fights AIDS Everywhere

by Kelly Cogswell

JANUARY 16, 2001. When the media talks about fighting AIDS, you still only hear about education and access to drugs. The last thing on anyone's mind is gay liberation. Which is not surprising given that queer academics themselves have declared gay lib passé, and that when writers mention that HIV infected people are stigmatized, they rarely mention the reason why -- homophobia.

While education and drugs are obviously important, this silence, this refusal to say the word homophobia, much less gay, or liberation, only reinforces the stigma. It keeps in the shadows a major reason both straight and gay people get infected worldwide or don't seek treatment.

"Knowledge has never been shown to be enough... Study after study shows that people have unsafe sex that puts them at risk of HIV infection despite their knowledge of safe sex." That's what clinical psychiatrist, Dr. Robert L. Klitzman, says in The New York Times article, "A Clue to Why Gays Play Russian Roulette With HIV."

The article's author, Dr. Richard A Friedman, goes on to assert that the X factor that can make a knowledgeable gay man falter in safe sex practices is self-loathing, a death wish, in other words, internalized homophobia. We are even beginning to hear stories about young gay men who actively seek to become infected, to get the inevitable over with, or transform themselves from objects of hate into objects of pity.

Other social stigmas exponentially increase the deadliness of homophobia. Dennis Carney, a black gay AIDS activist in London, finds the largest challenges to AIDS prevention in the city's black and immigrant communities, are "racism and homophobia, which make a powerful cocktail full of hatred and ignorance. These have alienated large sections of Black and immigrant communities from the reality of HIV disease. Poverty, sexual taboos and apathy also play significant roles."

Homophobia kills heterosexuals, too. Another London AIDS activist, Cheikh Traoré, a gay immigrant from West Africa, explains that in his work in the African immigrant community, the perception of AIDS as a gay disease, "is a barrier to everything we are trying to do."

Believing that AIDS is a gay disease, and that gay people are profoundly, perversely different, enables heterosexuals to deny their risk, even if they know the mechanics of transmission. Once they are infected, Traoré says, homophobia also prevents them from using available AIDS services because, it "makes them uncomfortable with gay staff or other gay clients in the same settings."

So what do you do? Recast HIV as an egalitarian virus that anyone can get? Or replace the word, "gay" with thinly veiled substitutes like "men having sex with men"? In the long term, those strategies will fail because in the gay stigma of AIDS, the problem isn't the word "gay", it's the stigma attached to what it means.

The only solution is to eliminate, in all its behavioral, cultural, and political implications, the stigma of being gay. That's what is saving white gay men in places like New York -- the combination of gay liberation with AIDS education. White people are definitely not more homofriendly. Mention raids of gay bars now, you'll think of Cairo, but only a few decades ago it would have been New York or Sydney.

Early AIDS activists in New York broke taboos to talk about sex, redefined what was culturally appropriate by chaining themselves in front of political and cultural institutions, and drug companies to demand treatment. They offended sensibilities nationwide when they invaded religious and political powerhouses like St. Patrick's Cathedral and held them accountable for their homophobic silence around AIDS. These activists did it because their friends and lovers were dying or dead, or they were sick themselves, and they hated it. Unfortunately, these attacks on centers of "white" power had the biggest impact culturally on the white mainstream, and the red ribbons that became de rigueur in Hollywood and on Broadway were not exactly embraced in Harlem.

Neither the fight against AIDS, nor the fight against homophobia is over. Not for anyone, even the white gay men in New York's gay Chelsea neighborhood. A moment of self-loathing in a bar can kill you. In the U.S., young fags and dykes of all races are still turned out into the street in disgusting numbers. Homophobia nurtures not only AIDS, but violence, homelessness and poverty.

Fighting homophobia, and working towards gay liberation, women's liberation, any liberation movement at all, actually frees everyone from straightjackets of miserable conformity and poisonous stereotypes. Gay liberation is for queers like me, but also the African woman forced by heterosexual convention to accept unsafe sex, and her straight husband who in his arrogant homophobia doesn't believe he can get HIV, and once infected, is too ashamed to get help.

Gay liberation is for everyone. The life you save may be your own.

Related links:

For a New York Times report on illegal discrimination against AIDS patients in China. (registr. req'd.)

For the BBC's coverage of how public ignorance is feuling the AIDS epidemic in India..

For a Boston Globe editorial showing how conservative sexual politics distort public health education.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage Race and Class

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Taiwan to Puerto Rico and more.

Africa Emerging
News, opinion, politics from Algeria to Zimbabwe.

Color and Cash
race and classThe Gully's complete coverage of race and class, two intertwined pillars of American society. Includes their double-barrelled global impact.

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