Emmy-nominated actor Zachary Quinto was recently named to Out magazine’s Out100, earning the distinction of Artist of the Year. In his interview, in which he gives a shout-out to Oscar Wilde, Quinto also takes a moment to call out the “tremendous sense of complacency in the LGBT community” regarding the rising number of HIV infections in young gay men.
Quinto's comments make him the latest in a line of celebrities who embrace respectability politics and blame their own community for its problems. Like Bill Cosby in the New York Post and Don Lemon on CNN, who advocate for black people to solve racism by being less apathetic, not littering, and pulling up their saggy pants, Quinto has cast blame on the gay community for its HIV problem. If only we'd put on a fucking condom and get a life partner, am I right? Never mind the myriad social and socioeconomic factors behind rising HIV rates, including poverty, lack of access to medical care and education, HIV stigma, income inequality, and more.
Quinto later wrote a short Huffiington Post op-ed, claiming those who were disappointed by his comments had misconstrued them. "What troubles me — and what I was trying to speak to in my interview — is an attitude among (some of) the younger generation of gay men — that we can let our guard down against this still very real threat to our collective well-being," he wrote. "I have had numerous conversations in my travels with young gay people who see the threat of HIV as diminished to the point of near irrelevance."
But if all Quinto can see is “complacency,” I hope his next move is to examine the spaces in which he moves. What we see is inevitably mediated by a host of realities, including our race and socioeconomic status. While I applaud Quinto for being aware of the rising number of HIV infections in young gay men, I wonder if he is aware of the many privileges he enjoys that allow him to see nothing but complacency. If we know that HIV is a virus that disproportionately affects people largely based on race and class — based on the prevalence of the disease in those communities — in what ways have Quinto’s race and net worth removed him from the realities of what it means to be at high risk for HIV?
I don’t see complacency around HIV, because I choose to surround myself with people who care about it. It’s that simple. My brothers — young gay men of color like myself — are actually some of the least complacent people when it comes to HIV. It’s because it is part of our landscape. It’s part of the walls of the houses in which we live. It’s etched into our floorboards. My father died of an AIDS-related illness. My mentors knew Spencer Cox while he was in college. My friends are on New York State's task force on AIDS. I fuck activists.
Quinto also calls for a return to fear-based prevention messaging that warns gay men that all sexual activity is tantamount to death. Quinto says, “AIDS has lost the edge of horror it possessed when it swept through the world in the ’80s. Today’s generation sees it more as something to live with and something to be much less fearful of. And that comes with a sense of, dare I say, laziness.”
The implication that we'd benefit from a return to fear tactics and a prevention strategy based in being scared to death is a backward move. It’s what Spock might call “illogical.”
Let’s get this fact straight: fear tactics have never worked to keep people HIV-negative. Why do people always say we need to return to fear-based prevention tactics when you can clearly look back at the plague years and see that being scared to death did not stop people from sharing moments of intimacy? We must want more and better for younger generations than fear tactics — a strategy that didn’t work for those before us. It seems that older gay men — at a young 37, Quinto is only about 12 years older than I am — seem to think that because they were saddled with prevention messaging based in fear, my generation must go through it too. And so the crabs in the barrel pull at each other’s legs, distracting from greater questions like “How can we all get out of this barrel together?” or, even better, “Why are we the ones stuck in this fucking barrel?”
Also troubling about Quinto’s interview are his troglodytic comments about pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, which has been shown to reduce HIV infection by up to 99 percent, if used properly. “We need to be really vigilant and open about the fact that these drugs are not to be taken to increase our ability to have recreational sex,” he says. “There’s an incredible underlying irresponsibility to that way of thinking … and we don’t yet know enough about this vein of medication to see where it’ll take us down the line.”
He seemingly tried to clarify those comments as well in his Huffington Post op-ed, insisting "it's still early" on the science, and "I have heard too many stories of young people taking PrEP as an insurance policy against their tendency toward unprotected non-monogamous sex. THAT is my only outrage."
I will only agree with Quinto in spirit and say that I don’t know where this medication will take us down the line. But it has nothing to do with the science. Truvada is not an unknown substance from the planet Vulcan. Its two component drugs each have 15 years — a combined three decades — of sound research behind them. I think PrEP certainly opens up a floodgate of questions regarding HIV stigma, the medical-industrial complex, access, and more. I commiserate that sometimes something new can be very scary. But if Quinto wants to join the conversation about PrEP, I would gladly welcome him if he were to join in asking for more options for PrEP, rather than only Truvada, or some other form of prevention activism. Rather, Quinto has chosen to make an enemy of recreational sex.
Isn’t any consensual sex that isn’t for procreation, by definition, recreational sex? Even some sex that has the potential for procreation is recreational — hell, the whole reason sex feels good is because biology wants us to fuck ourselves into perpetual existence. It’s in our DNA to have pleasurable sex. I’m going to cast off any worries about getting too personal — since we’re talking about sex, death, and HIV — and ask exactly how much of Quinto’s sex has not been recreational? Does he define his monogamous sex as responsible and grim? Were he and Jonathan Groff trying to conceive? I hope Mr. Quinto is not suggesting that single, promiscuous sex should shoulder all blame for HIV infections — especially when sound science tells us that about two thirds of HIV infections among gay men happen within the context of a relationship.
Somehow, Quinto has confused the responsibility it takes to speak to one’s doctor about going on a new medication, speak with insurance to secure prior authorization for PrEP, go to doctor’s visits four times a year, swallow a pill every day, call up mail-order pharmacies to get refills on time, make sure to get payments in order, successfully manage side effects, and follow up on lab work with your doctor with irresponsible behavior. Yes, so much thought around PrEP — especially it being dubbed a panacea — is incredibly lazy and irresponsible. PrEP may end up unearthing new challenges for us all, challenges that I feel that our queer communities are equipped to face.
I applaud Quinto’s accomplishments and his desire to talk about HIV. Of course, as a gay man born in the late 1970s, I almost can’t blame him for his outlook. He was 18 years old the year protease inhibitors came out, so I know he lived through the plague years. If there is one time when I can talk about one LGBTQ community, it is when I talk about trauma, a virus coursing through our communities' collective veins. To expect him to speak perfectly on HIV every time is lazy and irresponsible. To expect him to shake off the entire trauma he has seen as a gay man living in America is illogical. But to expect a bit more care, delicacy and nuance from our Artist of the Year when discussing one of our communities' greatest health challenges — that's something I can live with.