AIDS Panic Should Not Be a Defining Queer Experience

Ask Barebackers — Not The New York Times — About Safe Sex

I’m into some pretty disgusting stuff. At least once a day, the thought passes through my mind how lucky I am to be alive now, in a time when I can enjoy the things I enjoy without debilitating, immobilizing fear. My forebears fought for this. Countless lobbyists, antagonists, and grassroots activists fought so that I could be a filthy slut and experience the beauty and liberation of sex without the threat of death in every encounter.

I love bareback sex. Many queer men reading this do too. It feels better — more intimate, more erotic, more natural. All the finger wagging from doctors and bowls of free condoms on coffee tables won’t change the fact that many (most) gay men prefer bare sex. All the slut-shaming and moralizing denouncements of our sexual behavior — like Patrick William Kelly’s op-ed in the The New York Times this week — won’t change that fact.

The op-ed, titled “The End of Safe Gay Sex?”, takes aim at PrEP, the pill with a 99 percent effective rate of preventing HIV when taken daily by HIV-negative people. Like various anti-science arguments before it, Kelly blames PrEP for decreased condom use among men who have sex with men and, by extension, our increasing rates of sexually transmitted infections like syphilis.

“Although public health advocates have been sounding the alarm on condom use for the last decade, their calls have gone largely unheeded. Part of that is because of a shift in how we talk about risky sex: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has replaced ‘unprotected’ with ‘condomless’ sex. The dangerous implication is that PrEP alone may ward off all sexually transmitted infections.”

That “implication” is absolutely false. There is no such implication. No advocate of PrEP has ever said that PrEP protects you from all STIs. Even the official PrEP page on the Centers for Disease Control website states that PrEP should be combined with condoms and other prevention methods.  

After regurgitating these PrEP falsehoods — all of which have a more famous mouthpiece in Michael Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation — Kelly accuses queer men of a kind of community-wide amnesia of the history of AIDS that has resulted in apathy over our sexual health. This apathy, Kelly argues, is because “AIDS is no longer a crisis, at least in the United States.”

Perhaps Kelly is forgetting the fact that 1 in 2 black men who have sex with men and transgender women of color — and 1 in 4 Latinx men who have sex with men — will test positive for HIV in their lifetimes. Perhaps he’s blissfully unaware that, in 2016, almost one third of patients diagnosed with HIV at Grady Hospital in Atlanta already had AIDS.

The cherry on top of this moralizing is his slut-shaming of queer men: “Liberated from the stigma of AIDS, gay men, many people think, are now free to revert to their carnivorous sexual selves. In this rendering, the condom is kryptonite, a relic that saps the virile homosexual of his primordial sexual power.”

Call me idealist, but the fight against AIDS was never only about finding new and better drugs, getting attention, and creating policies (too few and too late to save the thousands of lovers and friends we lost). It was always about “liberating us from the stigma of AIDS” — fighting shame and prejudice and fear. The fact that I can live an openly sexual life and enjoy my “carnivorous sexual desires” is the victory. It is a great and beautiful triumph, the result of seeing medications work.

Why is that joy, that is rightfully mine, that I deserve, such a frightening thing to writers like Patrick William Kelly? Why is he so offended and threatened by queer sexuality? Why does he feel like AIDS panic is somehow a queer-defining experience that deserves preserving? Kelly, who is apparently “writing a global history of AIDS,” completely omits the fact that another condomless safe sex practice aside from PrEP is TasP, or treatment as prevention. In short, this is the awe-inspiring, world-changing, shout-from-the-rooftops revelation that people successfully taking HIV meds are unable to transmit the virus — the greatest medical breakthrough since the start of the disease.

His opinoin piece isn’t really about condoms, just as it’s not really about PrEP. It’s about sex — or at least his fear of it.

Part of me wants to sympathize. Many queer men who came up in the age of AIDS — myself included — were taught sex-phobia from day one. We equated that phobia not just with sex, but with the very nature of being queer. How many of us felt abject terror upon discovering our true selves: “I can’t be gay. I don’t want to die from AIDS.”

Thanks to this sweeping (and perhaps necessary) sex-phobia, many queer men alive today have never felt safe or comfortable having sex. As a sex worker, I can say that many of my clients are men who were never been able to experience intimacy because of crushing, debilitating fear of AIDS.

That terror is lifting, and it needs to keep lifting. Following massive medical breakthroughs, condoms are less of a lifesaving necessity than they were before. Thanks to new ways to treat and prevent HIV, we finally have the option to choose which safer sex methods we will use, if any, and which ones we won’t.

PrEP is just another option to keep us safe, not the root of all promiscuity Kelly believes it is. And even if it is cranking up our promiscuity, why is our promiscuity itself so horrendous?

It’s not. It’s what we love, and what we love isn’t wrong. And that, my friend, is healthy. The fact that we are here and finally able to talk about sexual fulfillment and self-love and condomless sex as viable options with various safer sex options on the table is a good thing — the result of a fight hard won, and one we’re still fighting. You can call that apathy, but I call that awakening. We’re in a new sexual movement for the first time in forty years. Thanks to modern medicine, we’re finally able to come out from the shadow and terror of AIDS. People like Patrick Kelly will not drag us back.

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