Vagina Dialogues

I am going to fight your magazine till death now! How dare you say that I, for example, am a drug user or gay (“Vagina Monologues,” October 2001)? I got HIV from a woman who was out on a revenge rampage because she got it from her boyfriend. I am angry that the women on your cover would dare say there are only seven cases in New York and maybe only one is really hetero. I am grateful that because of gays we are where we’re at in medicine and rights. But you want to destroy our integrity and morals because some bitches want to even the numbers up in the name of women. If those ladies think that it is OK to infect men because they have been sexually deprived, that is their problem. And it is a crime!

-- Henry Calderon, Gastonia, North Carolina

Patrick Califia’s article did more to divide PWAs than anything I’ve read in recent years. We’ve always known that HIV transmission from women to men was rare, but that doesn’t mean it never happens.

Califia quotes a former public health investigator as saying among eight cases of female-to-male transmission “I have doubts about seven.” What does that say to straight men? Oh, wait, I get it: Straight men don’t get HIV.

It’s sad that the women profiled in your article have been made to feel less empowered. They are my sisters, my heroes and my friends. I do not, however, think that to lift up women in need you must deny the realities of men in need.

-- Mark Peterson, Co-Chair, Michigan’s PWA Task Force, Via the Internet

You raised a shitstorm with your story about hetero transmission. You work your side of the gay baths and leave us alone. We have a hard enough time with our women looking cross-eyed at us trying to figure out if we ever bent over (suck one dick and you’re a cocksucker forever). Women can’t accept responsibility for their lives, so it’s the closeted bisexual mate that’s to blame. In the future, think of the sensitivities of the hetero community. We’re in this fight to the death -- can’t we all get along?

-- Dave Keiser, Via the Internet

To say that all HIV positive men either are drug addicts or have had gay experiences is offensive, just as it would be offensive to the gay community to insist the reverse. As a peer advocate who works in an HIV clinic and sees the effect on people with HIV everyday, I find that publishing “girls don’t give guys AIDS” on your cover is incredibly detrimental to prevention efforts designed to keep people from becoming HIV positive. For the majority of people in the world, AIDS is a heterosexual disease, yet this country continues to want to keep AIDS as someone else’s disease instead of trying to eliminate the social barriers for all of us.

-- Gene Chance, Vittorio Lasio & Gary Ferguson, Via the Internet

POZ responds: “Girls don’t give guys AIDS” was intended as provocative shorthand to convey Dr. Joseph Sonnabend’s message that “U.S. women cannot transmit AIDS to their male sex partners, but they can transmit HIV. Most of these men will remain HIV negative.” Nowhere in the article is it stated that female-to-male transmission never occurs, only that it is rare.

Thank you for having the guts to go against the grain!

I don’t know of any so-called heterosexual HIV positive male who has been for-sure infected by a female. I happen to be a very open-minded woman. Those self-proclaimed hetero males who have sworn they have never been with a guy, when they get me on the side, confess their previous bisexual experimentation. Most heterosexual women expect that HIV positive males have had various sexual experiences and are very accepting about it. Thank you again for bringing this topic out in the open.

-- Susan, Via the Internet

Do the women on the cover of the October 2001 issue not read? In the past 20 years, I have not experienced the concealment of the fact that HIV is transmitted much more easily by men than by women.

-- Sue Gibson, Dallas

Many thanks for the straightforward account of the hyped risk of female-to-male HIV transmission. During my 18 years as CNN’s senior medical correspondent, I consistently pointed out how the North American HIV/AIDS statistics never supported the breathless claims that transmission risk was universal throughout the population. But, by the same token, I never -- as you and writer Patrick Califia have courageously done -- outed the purveyors of sex lies on videotape or in print.

Dr. Joseph Sonnabend combines a plausible scientific rationale with a common-sense approach that serves well the interests of his patients and the public health in general. The tragedy of AIDS is sufficient among those at greatest genuine risk to warrant a relentless campaign for prevention, treatment and cure. Inventing dubious threats for a broad-based constituency dishonors those in real peril and smacks of dishonesty. Congratulations for setting the record straight once again.

-- Dan Rutz, Former Senior Medical Correspondent, CNN, Marietta, Georgia

Thank you so much for this issue! I’m sure that you will get a lot of flack from many groups, but stand fast! One HIV positive hetero website has already sent me an e-mail about the “bullshit” on your cover, urging me to write in protest. But here is my letter of appreciation for having the guts to tell the truth!

I have had relationships and experiences with HIV negative men who knew of my status. None of the five has tested positive. I do not have a killer vagina, either!

As far as the question of how most hetero males contracted the virus, I agree that many have had at least one homosexual experience. But admitting this would, of course, be the last thing most would do.

-- Barb E., Via the Internet

Running the article on how hyped the female-to-male transmission risk actually is in the U.S. was extremely important -- and again makes me proud of POZ.

It was unfair, however, to fail to acknowledge Michael Fumento’s work on the same topic (including his book The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS), most of which dates back more than a decade.

-- Sean Strub, Founder, POZ Magazine, Milford, Pennsylvania

Dis Is Your Life

While the article by Lawrence Goodman (“Dissing Disability Queens,” October 2001) did raise some important issues, I was horrified by its tone -- from the title to the idea that I wanted to “blow the whistle” on anyone, which is wrong. Thanks to this, I’m already getting nasty messages, e-mails and letters, and people are leaving things at the door to my office building. If I was a person with HIV, I would wonder: What kind of jerk is this Dr. Grossman?

This article grew out of a discussion I had with POZ Editor in Chief Walter Armstrong about why so many gay men were engaging in unprotected sex and becoming HIV positive. One fact I brought up was that many of my patients see those on disability as having a much better life than they do -- and they’re jealous. I don’t think this opinion is valid (if they only knew how difficult it is for everyone who has HIV), but I do think it is a perception we need to address.

I also think that raising this issue is very dangerous. Look, the last group I have any sympathy for is the insurance industry. They’ve made the lives of HIVers hell for years, and they get no sympathy from doctors like me who have watched them rip us all off with their (mis)managed-care strategies. This issue was raised for disease prevention and also for protecting those who genuinely need help.

As for “Dissing Disability Queens,” I, for one, never wanted to dis anyone, least of all people with HIV, who are my friends, coworkers and patients. And I don’t think there are disability “queens” or “princesses.” Using those terms is a specious attempt to draw an analogy to the “welfare queens” of the ’80s, a callous invention of the Reaganauts. It is a fact, however, that there are people with HIV who could be working but who aren’t. This isn’t something I made up to dis people.

Most people with HIV who are on disability deserve it. In fact, one of my points was that the people who abuse the system are making it harder for those who really need support. In the past few years, it has become harder and harder for me to fight with the insurance companies to get coverage for those who are truly disabled. But companies say that they’ve been burned and they had to get tough. Before they were so hard hit by people who could still work, my patients had an easier time.

I’m also not talking about those who have used what little energy they have to volunteer for AIDS service organizations, to support ACT UP and other activist groups and to teach the community about HIV. These folks have put their lives on the line to try to get justice for everyone with HIV, and they risked their health in the process -- they are heroes.

I’m talking about those people with 600 T cells and controlled viral loads who come to me and say, “I’m not really happy with my job, so I thought I’d go on disability.” And those who have recovered but remain afraid to go back to work. Yes, I understand the risk that they will not be able to make it back at work, but the actuality is that most people who try, even those on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), are protected by their policies, and their benefits will kick in rapidly again if they go back out on disability. We should fight for the strengthening of these programs that protect people who try to go back to work but find out they can’t. We also need to pressure for more realistic return-to-work strategies. One of my patients used to be an important newspaper writer. He can’t go back to work at that, but he tells me that his insurance company is trying to force him to get a part-time job at McDonald’s! This is unacceptable.

I’m also angry about people who ask me to lie. Older policies define disability as “inability to practice the current profession.” Most newer policies, however, define disability as “inability to do any work.” I’m sorry, but it makes me feel uncomfortable to state that someone who’s able to work out two hours a day at the gym, travel to exotic countries and party all night can’t work four hours a day at a desk job answering phones. I’ll tell the insurance companies whatever the patient says about himself (that was actually my quote, not Bruce Olmsheid’s) -- but it won’t be the patient’s ass that gets hauled into court for committing fraud if the insurance companies investigate.

What POZ has done is take an important discussion and make it into a story fit for the New York Post (believe me, that is no compliment). You’ve also polemicized it to make those of us who have a problem with lying and working the system unfairly seem callous, bigoted, arrogant and irresponsible. That’s sure to mean that the discussion will go nowhere.

-- Howard Alan Grossman, MD, New York City

I am writing in response to your recent article suggesting that PWAs should go back to work. First, let me tell you that a friend was gracious enough to lend me a copy of your recent issue. My lavish lifestyle here in South Florida unfortunately doesn’t allow for such luxuries as magazines. In fact, I don’t know from month to month if I’m going to have electricity or a phone. Not that I need one -- most of my friends are dead or too sick to talk -- but I spend a lot of time waiting for doctors to call back.

Yup, I got the world by the tail here! Unfortunately, my income isn’t enough to buy food so it comes from the local Medicaid subsidized meal service. But who needs money if you’re too sick to go out? I look forward to the 34 pills I take every day, not to mention the roller-coaster ride of side effects. In fact, that’s a great analogy for my life! One big amusement park! Fun! Fun! Fun! The roller coaster goes from nausea to indigestion, stomach pain, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea.

The first ride I call “Meals.” On this ride I try to force food down my throat to get some nutrition. Sometimes for breakfast I manage to get a half a bagel in, but usually the ride ends with nausea and I toss it back up again.

Wait, it gets better! I’m up for an hour or two and then I have to go to bed because I’m exhausted already. At night I ride the “Toss, Turn and Sweat” ride. This involves minimal sleep and a lot of laundry. I get to do this all day, every day. All by myself in my apartment! I don’t wander too far from home because of the explosive diarrhea. Fun! Fun! Fun!

Sometimes my friend comes over and we play connect the dots with my KS lesions. Remember KS? You used to write articles on it a long time ago. I can’t stand on my left leg too long. If I do, it doubles in size and turns gray purple. At the doctor’s office I get to play Russian roulette with chemotherapy treatment options.

Then my friend and I pretend we’re anorexic supermodels with our sunken temples, cheeks and skeletal features. We can eat whatever we want, but who can or wants to eat? With our distended stomachs, my friend and I fight over who should be Santa this Christmas. It looks like I might win by default. My friend is in the hospital and dropped 25 pounds in one week (take that, Jenny Craig!) and his insurance is refusing to pay for his medication. With the telltale bodily changes brought on by treatments, my disease is no longer private and I experience discrimination daily within the disease-free gay community. I could go on but the neuropathy in my hands and the blood clot in my wrist make it painful to type. Fun! Fun! Fun!

Unfortunately, this is not a joke -- it’s my life. So what line of work would you suggest?

-- Gary Dufresne, Miami Beach, Florida

According to your article, I am a “disability queen.” For years, I watched friends who pushed themselves at their jobs to the bitter end. They hobbled on crutches because of their leg pain, avoiding their regularly scheduled medications since the side effects interfered with their work schedule, only to be forced onto sick leave or, worse, fired because they could no longer do their jobs properly. All died very quickly after leaving work. I spent 12 years with my last employer, working 60-hour weeks at an extremely stimulating and satisfying job.

I practiced what I preached to so many employees over the years: Protect yourselves financially with good insurance, a minimal debt load and proper savings. Now, those looking from the outside would see a retired person with a comfortable six figure (equivalent) income with two homes (both purchased way before my disability). I have also helped sick friends and I try to be of some assistance to the community.

What the envious won’t see is that since 1995 I have been hospitalized six times. So when those looking in from the outside say I’m living the life of Riley, I say, it’s yours if you can restore me to a healthy HIV-free state.

-- Michael H., Arlington, Virginia

POZ has just published an anecdotal, sensational piece accusing “gay HIVers [of] bilking the system.” Its opening illustration features two buffed gay HIVers drinking on the beach with a cruise ship coming into port. Employers and insurers read POZ -- and believe what it says. The article snipes at the few insured “wealthy” -- but it hurts the many who must get by on low disability incomes. Here’s the real story:

  • Over 60 percent of initial Social Security claims are turned down.
  • Over 40 percent of those denied who then appeal are again denied.
  • Very few Americans have any long-term private disability insurance (LTD) at all -- group or otherwise.

The article portrays the 60 percent of former earnings that SSDI and LTD together typically provide to the disabled as somehow living the high life. But such incomes must not only pay the same living costs as before -- they must also finance new illness-related expenses. POZ says this 60 percent “often comes free of federal taxes,” but in fact group LTD income is fully taxable.

Proving an LTD claim is like something out of Kafka’s The Trial: no judge, no jury, no objections, no appeals, no written standards and no end to the hassle. What to do? Plan methodically how to maintain and protect your claim. Explore return-to-work plans with great caution and prior legal advice. Prepare now -- for articles like this can only make things worse.

-- Jacques Chamber, Former Director of Benefits at AIDS Project Los Angeles
Per Larson, Author, Gay Money
Thomas P. McCormack, Public Benefits Policy Consultant, Title II Community AIDS National Network
Via the Internet

After taking the time to really read (not just skim through) your “disability queens” article, I commend your efforts. The topic was well presented, sound sources were used as evidence, and the editorial voice remained neutral. As a whole, the October issue was one of the tightest POZ has published in some time.

The Catch-22 of returning to the corporate world is, How will I fit in? By employing a person who was on disability, a company is exposing itself to potential risk. The pace an executive needs to keep may not be possible, resulting in termination for poor performance, not the underlying health reasons. The six-month period allowed by the government perhaps should be extended to a year, allowing for both a proper job evaluation and measured health analysis.

-- Philip Ehrlich, New York City

Last Taboo

I just wanted to tell you I thought the “Death Issue” editorial was a most eloquent and tender call to arms and awareness. I am too familiar with this area and am touched by how well you covered what is too often taboo. Only by knowing these feelings, and their perimeters, can we fully appreciate the depth of our own loving potential. Thanks.

-- Peter A. Anton, MD, Los Angeles

Death of Good Taste

Cancel my subscription! I am shocked and appalled by your “Death Issue,” (September 2001). Are you out of your mind? I’ve read POZ for years now and been positive for 12 years. I will never pick up a copy of your magazine again!

-- Wayne Augustine, Medina, Ohio

Send letters, including name, address and daytime phone number, to: The Editor, POZ, One Little West 12th St., 6th Flr., New York, NY 10014; or e-mail us at: Printed letters may be edited for length and clarity. We regret that we cannot answer all mail.