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AIDS Watch: A Tale of Two Matts

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Just when we thought the ‘Gay=AIDS’ debate had been proven wrong…

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Kelly McCann

By Kelly McCann

In February, Matt Foreman, the departing executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, took the gay community to task (forgive the pun) for causing the AIDS epidemic in our country. That’s right, Mr. Foreman asserted that high-risk homosexual behaviors are chiefly to blame for the spread of HIV in the United States. He stated, “…we cannot deny that AIDS is a gay disease. We have to own that and face up to that.”

OK, first things first. I disagree with the philosophy of labeling AIDS (or any infectious illness) as a gay disease. It is a dangerous tactic that could cause heterosexuals (or persons who engage in homosexual sex but don’t identify as gay) to once again believe they are not at risk for HIV. And we all know, any human being can contract HIV, because what makes you susceptible is not who you are or how you identify. It is what you do that puts you at risk.  

This brings me to my next point. If we examine the behaviors that can lead to HIV infection, we must acknowledge
that unprotected anal sex is by far the riskiest sexual behavior. Either partner (receptive or insertive) can contract HIV
via unprotected anal sex, through exposure to rectal mucosa, blood, and/or semen. However, the partner receiving the semen is at greater risk.

The delicate tissues of the anus can be torn during intercourse. Those tears create openings that could serve as portals of entry for HIV when one’s partner ejaculates into the anus. Moreover, the walls of the rectum are thin with a rich blood supply, so the semen deposited there can actually be absorbed into the blood stream even without tears being present. It’s the same mechanism that allows suppositories to work. And that’s why using a condom every time is absolutely essential.

But let’s get back to Mr. Foreman’s declaration that AIDS is a gay disease. While I refuse to agree with that statement on principle, I must concede that HIV infection still constitutes a major health crisis among gay men. According to the September 2007 issue of the journal, Sexually Transmitted Infections, more than one half of the new HIV infections in the United States in 2005 were among gay men! Moreover, that same report estimated that as many as one in five gay men living in U.S. cities may be HIV positive!   Even in our fair city, 54 percent of the HIV infections since 1999 have been seen in men who have sex with men.

One hypothesis for the high rates of HIV infection among gay men has to do with unprotected anal sex. Again, it is not about being gay, it is about engaging in risky sexual behaviors. Since gay men have more unprotected anal sex than do heterosexuals, or lesbians for that matter, it may not be surprising that we see higher rates of HIV infection.

Obviously, I am greatly concerned about the HIV epidemic in the gay community. It’s the reason I got into HIV work in the first place. However, I’m almost equally worried about the potentially negative impact the labeling of AIDS as a gay disease could have upon the gay rights movement.

As expected, the Christian Right jumped on the “AIDS is a gay disease” comment, with both (freshly washed and perfumed) feet, thus seizing the opportunity to demonize gay sex and gay men. Matt Barber, policy director for cultural issues for the ultra-conservative Concerned Women for America, stressed the need for gay activists to discourage homosexuals from engaging in high-risk behaviors, namely anal sex. Moreover, he admonished the National Education Agency for their deceptive political agenda which takes a stance against discrimination and endorses safe schools for all students, including those who are gay, lesbian, or transgender.

According to Mr. Barber, there are “undeniable perils” and “potentially deadly consequences” associated with the gay lifestyle. He’s right. Homosexuals do face added dangers because of their sexual orientation: gay bashings and other hate crimes, discrimination in housing and employment, and, of course, greater risks for certain health issues, including AIDS.  

But I can also cite studies showing higher rates of depression and substance abuse among homosexuals compared to heteros. I can quote statistics about lesbians and their increased risks for breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers. But Mr. Barber doesn’t care about these. He’s fixated on HIV and male-on-male anal sex. (Don’t you know he’s got a rich fantasy life?!)

According to Barber, gays are bad because they cause AIDS. Given the relatively low rates of HIV infection among women who have sex with women, it follows that Barber must think lesbians are the “chosen people.” As such, Barber and his minion should put us lesbians up on a pedestal, elevating us to our rightful position in society.

While I’m not entirely opposed to this, practicality dictates otherwise. So, I guess we lesbians will have to settle for placement atop a sturdy stepladder and a feeling of superiority over Matt Barber and his hateful ilk.

Kelly A. McCann is the chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston, which recently marked 25 years of service. Details: www.aidshelp.org.

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