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May 7, 2008

Killer Gay Sex!

by Tony Valenzuela

I Confess

Before now, those of us following the New York Patient’s story knew only his age (late 40s), his place of residence (New York City), his sexual orientation (gay) and as was widely reported, his transgression (multiple unprotected sex partners while using crystal meth).  In light of the virus health officials feared he carried, this limited biographical information imbued his anonymity with the sinister and salacious.  While he has been protected by his anonymity, he has also been silent, afraid to breathe life back into a scandal that traumatized him when he was at his weakest. 

“There was the possibility that I wouldn’t make it, but now I’m here, getting better.  I’m not dying,” he told me.  “I’m at peace with my status.  Hopefully I can transmit that message to other people.”  Since becoming positive, the New York Patient has spent much of his time as a quiet advocate for HIV causes, participating in numerous workshops at Friends In Deed, a crisis center in New York for people with life-threatening illnesses, both for his own personal growth and to help others struggling with their AIDS diagnoses.  As a member of the organization’s speakers bureau, he often gives presentations on HIV prevention to New York City high school students where he discloses that he is a gay man that has been diagnosed with AIDS.

“There was an audible ‘Oooohh!’ in the class,” he told me, amused by the students’ reaction at one school in Manhattan.  He warned them that drugs and alcohol affect sexual behavior so it was their responsibility to use a condom because some partners won’t disclose their status and 25 percent of people with HIV don’t even know they’re positive.  “If someone says he loves you, believe me, nobody loves you enough to go through what I’ve been through.”  Then, to his astonishment, the teacher asked the class if the students remembered the story of the “supervirus” from the news a few of years back, not realizing it was he at the center of it.  The students indeed remembered the headlines and he was faced with a choice.  He took a deep breath and said, “Here I am.  That person in the press a couple of years ago, he’s standing in front of you.”
“There was silence, silence, silence,” he told me. “You could hear a fly buzzing by.”  But then, a flurry of questions: Do you know who gave it to you?  Does your family know?  How are you doing now?

When he told me this story I thought about the prolonged silence in the classroom in front of 40 teenagers’ wondering stares.  Who did they see in front of them speaking about safe sex whose abject life had been splayed across the news in New York and the world?  What did they know of this man other than a past of meth abuse and promiscuity, the gay stereotype in person—now reformed, or so it must have seemed, teaching young people about HIV prevention?  Did his presence seem like an act of redemption?  Do we sympathize with him the more that we know of his life? 

His family left Cuba in 1970 and resettled throughout Latin America.  He moved to the U.S. largely to come out of the closet safely, and after spending a few years in New Orleans, in 1989 he moved to New York City, where he worked as a senior account executive in sales for a major corporation. His gayness “is known but not talked about” in his immediate family of five boys, only one of whom knows his HIV status.  Most of his relatives now live in Florida, and he has begun to confide in a few who, he says, have been “very supportive.”  Though he’s always been close to his mother and father, he hasn’t yet told them he has HIV: His AIDS diagnosis came only nine months after a brother passed away.  “I didn’t have the strength to tell my parents at that point,” he told me, “and I still haven’t found the strength.”  In light of this isolation from most of his family concerning his HIV, he has felt fortunate to have in New York many longtime friends whom he considers close and dear—a surrogate family during his life’s most difficult challenge.

As I listened to the New York Patient’s story I noted the parallels of his life to my own—both Latino, gay, HIV positive.  I have many friends like the New York Patient—gay and immigrant; one foot in American culture, the other in a country left behind; a life of adaptation and struggle, of inimitable self-invention that redefines community and home.  I don’t mean to say we’re alike as much as the worlds we inhabit overlap in places that have drawn me to his story, and here’s the most compelling part: Our obscure but considerable common denominator is the strangely intimate experience of withstanding the punishing glare of scandal. 

Full disclosure: In 1997, already two years HIV positive, I gave a talk at a national LGBT conference on the volatile politics of sex, where I shared with an audience the significance and pleasure of sex without condoms in the context of its utter taboo.  My comments were a pointed critique of HIV prevention, which had in my view, attempted to designate unprotected sex an act easily disposed of when it was anything but among gay men and heterosexuals alike.  Breaking from the orthodoxy of “use a condom every time” caused a staggering controversy over which I lost friends, colleagues and community.  It placing me at the center of the acrimonious debates on “barebacking” for several years.  However naive or foolish or necessary my foray into the implacable terrain of sexual risk, it was a seminal event that helped me to see sexual risk as a category of disgrace unlike any other—a disgrace the New York Patient shares with me.

In poet Brent Armendinger’s remarkable essay (Un)Touchability, on the ethics surrounding HIV disclosure, he writes, “When I confess, my disclosure is offered up to someone who is assumed to be morally superior.  When I bear witness, there is a balance of power and vulnerability between us, and that which is personal is also plural.”  If bearing witness is to show by one’s existence that something is true, is the New York Patient confessing or bearing witness to the Manhattan high school students, to me in my role as journalist, and to readers of this essay?  When it comes to sexual risk and HIV, do we recognize any narrative besides a confession?  What choice have we given the New York Patient other than offering an explanation for what we have already framed as his failure?  Confession or bearing witness?  This is a dilemma he shares with gay men everywhere who are determined a “risk group” by the public health establishment, our sex lives viewed through a risk paradigm set up invariably to fail.  The public narrative of gay men’s sex lives is a permanent state of confession.  Pathologizing sexual risk among gay men exacts a heavy price, as the astute Australian HIV social science researcher Kane Race points out where gay men are “led to interpret their sexual practice as intentional deviance.”  It is paradoxical to expect health from behaviors already predetermined as risk.

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

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