POZ Exclusives : Killer Gay Sex! - by Tony Valenzuela

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May 7, 2008

Killer Gay Sex!

by Tony Valenzuela

The clueless tabloid and public health hysteria over man-on-man sex may be hindering HIV prevention efforts. From an imaginary “super strain” of HIV to the sci-fi MRSA superbug: What is it about gay sex that makes U.S. health officials want to play Chicken Little with AIDS prevention and public safety?

With this special report, we are pleased to introduce POZ Podium, a highly opinionated forum for leaders in AIDS prevention, treatment, advocacy and activism. Periodically, POZ will ask those shaping policies, trends and theories to share their most critical thinking. Our hope? To ignite a conversation around the hottest topics connected to HIV/AIDS.

POZ's February 1999 issue

To illustrate his passionate defense of unprotected sex, or barebacking, HIV-positive activist Tony Valenzuela posed naked on horseback for the cover of POZ’s February 1999 issue and was interviewed for the accompanying story on barebacking (click here to read the piece ). Now, for this POZ Podium, Valenzuela offers a provocative essay exploring what he considers U.S. public health officials’ demonization of gay male sex and how the pathologizing of gay men’s behavior hinders successful AIDS prevention efforts. Valenzuela traces a compelling history—from the mythic hyper-promiscuous “patient zero” of the 1980s, to the fictional meth-addicted sexual compulsive at the center of the bogus 2005 New York City HIV “supervirus” scare, to the recent tabloid headlines that described MRSA staph as a “gay disease”—pointing out how the hysteria and misperceptions around gay sex stigmatize gay men, stereotype them and disenfranchise them from the public health system. In a reporting coup, he interviews the New York supervirus patient—the man whose legendary “superbug” was documented in an article in New York magazine in April 2005 (click here to read the piece). Through their conversations, a radical proposal for rethinking gay prevention efforts emerges.
Tony Valenzuela’s community work and writing focus on the politics of sex, gay men’s subcultures and an assets-based perspective in health promotion. He is currently writing a book about gay men and sexual risk told through his own personal story and has most recently been published in the LA Weekly, Frontiers, Inside Him and ZYZZYVA.

Activist Tony Valenzuela

In February 2005, a New York man with a multidrug-resistant strain of HIV and a crystal meth dependency became the source of the most reported AIDS story of the decade, but he had never, until now, spoken about his trying ordeal.  A slew of chilling claims was made about this man – that he carried a new, more virulent strain of HIV dubbed a “supervirus” that progressed from infection to AIDS in as little as two months; that his meth-induced promiscuity would instigate a deadly epidemic potentially undoing a quarter century of progress against HIV; that he signified what many in the gay community had been dreading would occur, given that gay men—stubbornly, recklessly—refused to give up their uniquely nefarious brand of promiscuity.  It is, then, no less remarkable that these allegations that gripped the world with renewed fears of gay plague proved comprehensively false, yet the cycle of alarm that equates gay men with disease—as seen once again this past January in San Francisco with a drug-resistant “gay staph” scare—continues unabated to this day.  By the time the man with the “supervirus” disappeared from the headlines, those still paying attention would learn he did not have a never-before-seen strain of HIV nor did he set off a new epidemic.  Instead, he carried a very rare and difficult-to-treat multidrug-resistant virus that is today fully suppressed as he adheres to a complicated regimen of antiviral medications.

In Paris, the same year the “supervirus” story broke, the late gay-rights pioneer and scholar Eric Rofes declared to an audience of international activists, “The pathologizing of gay men’s communities and cultures and spaces is the most powerful challenge we face to promoting gay men’s health.”  Three years later, this man’s story lays bare how far too many who work and report on gay health narrowly imagine the sex lives of gay and bisexual men inside a realm of disease and dysfunction. 

“This was something that changed my life radically,” the New York man told me in the thoughtful, considered tone that marked our many conversations. “I had to give up my job.  I had to stay in bed.  I got HIV.  Sometimes I feel like I wish I had cancer so I wouldn’t have to deal with the stigma that goes with this.”  I would speak to him only by phone at first, each of us on different coasts.  He has been careful to keep his identity secret for fear, not ungrounded, that past sex partners or public health vigilantes stoked by the yellow journalism that covered his story would seek him out for retribution.  In addition, he has yet to tell his family what he’s been through.  For these reasons, I have omitted some details of his life.  Because I cannot use his real name, I will call him the New York Patient, a problematic epithet but one relevant still since he is like so many gay and bisexual men today—awash in diagnoses. 

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Search: Tony Valenzuela, barebacking, supervirus, Thomas Frieden, Larry Kramer, Michael Weinstein

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