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Robert Fieldhouse

Barebacking debate re-ignited; more sparks to come? The prestigious Berlin International Film Festival (the 53rd Berlinale) begins today.

Controversially, one of the eleven short films accepted will explore the subculture of gay men seeking HIV infection. Entitled The Gift, the documentary by California filmmaker Louise Holgarth explores the subculture of gay men deliberately seeking – or who are indifferent to – HIV infection.

It depicts the life of (among others) Doug Hitzel, a 21 year-old gay man who intentionally sought to become HIV-positive. Hitzel who is also featured in a high-profile piece in Rolling Stone magazine (Bug Chasers: The men who long to be HIV-positive) which has met with claims in in the States that the story was fabricated and has been reported subsequently in both The Observer and The News of the World, as well as Scotland’s Sunday Herald.

After only nine months on medications, Hitzel had to switch to new antiretrovirals and he now regrets his decision to become infected. The one-hour documentary was edited down from over 80 hours of footage and took two-and-a-half years to make. Hogarth said “I’m grateful that Berlin and many of the other film festivals have the courage to exhibit this documentary.”

It will screen on Wednesday 12th February and the film is destined for controversy.

Public interest in the idea of gay men intentionally acquiring HIV was re-ignited a few weeks ago following an article in Rolling Stone. The press attention, in the UK at least, has brought the concepts of ‘Bug-chasing’ (intentionally seeking HIV infection) and ‘Gift-giving’ (HIV-positive men actively seeking out HIV-negative gay men to infect) to the attention of the wider public. These concepts are not new and have been described in the gay press for many years.

Back in the mid-1990s in an editorial in the gay men’s journal Steam, HIV-positive gay writer and porn star Scott O’Hara was one of the first to publicly discuss his desire to abandon safer sex.
“I’m tired of using condoms, and I won’t…and I don’t feel the need to encourage negatives to stay negative” he said.

The comments incensed many gay men, reflected what some gay men may well have thought but not uttered, and refreshed debate in the gay press about the kinds of sex gay men were having.
It took about two years until the unprotected sex debate was taken up by the mainstream press. In September 1997 Newsweek ran a feature entitled A deadly dance, which was one of the first in the mainstream press to cover this issue.

Following the publication of the Rolling Stone piece last month, Newsweek featured an article entitled Is Rolling Stone’s HIV story wildly exaggerated? which called into question the accuracy of the claim that a significant proportion of newly infected gay men in the US have acquired HIV intentionally.
In Internet sites set up specifically to facilitate meeting other men who share the same desire, gay men describe themselves as a ‘bug-chaser’ or a ‘gift-giver’. Back in 1999 the US magazine POZ ran an in depth piece on the issue; the existence of this phenomenon has been previously described, but it has always been depicted as occurring only within a subculture of gay men.

The Rolling Stone article draws heavily on an interview with Carlos, a gay man from New York who actively seeks out HIV-positive men for unprotected sex (‘bug chaser’). To him, to life with HIV infection would be “like living with diabetes – you can take a few pills and get on with your life.” The journalist failed to interview any ‘gift givers’.

Two of the doctors who were interviewed by Rolling Stone, claimed in interviews with Newsweek that they had been misquoted and indeed many of the comments attributed to them had been fabricated.
Rolling Stone claims Dr. Bob Cabaj, Director of Behavioral Health Services for San Francisco County, said that “at least 25% of all newly infected gay men” are either intentionally seeking HIV infection or are “actively seeking HIV but are in denial.” Dr. Marshall Forstein, medical director of mental health and addiction services at Fenway Community Health clinic in Boston, is quoted in the article as saying that bug-chasing is a “significant phenomenon,” but in an interview with Newsweek, Forstein said that the quote stating that the Fenway health system “regularly” sees bug-chasers and that the “phenomenon is growing” is “entirely a fabrication.”