Baltimore City Paper
The Gift Takes A Hard Look at Contemporary Gay Culture,
Where HIV is Sexy and Prevention is Passé
On-screen, four men sit in a semicircle as part of their support group. They’ve allowed filmmaker Louise Hogarth and her camera crew in to observe them for her documentary The Gift. All the men are over 40, gay, and HIV+. They’re not together merely to talk about living with HIV, but about living with cardiac conditions secondary to HIV medications. And when they talk about the image of HIV+ men in their San Francisco community, they wonder why it doesn’t look like them.
Hogarth’s camera captures posters, which show strapping young men in stylish clothes (when they’re wearing any) flashing wide, white smiles, as the support-group members look at them.
“All these guys look healthy,” one says.
“That one is making me hard right now,” another jokes.
They’re not being insensitive or cynical, merely saying out loud something that has been percolating through gay communities for years now: The current prevention strategy for HIV and AIDS portrays infection as being a relatively benign condition, manageable with medication. And in the ads the men regard, being HIV+ looks sexy.
“You never see any advertisements or anything that make it look bad–[they] glamorize HIV,” Hogarth says from her office in Los Angeles. Since The Gift debuted this past February at the Berlin Film Festival and opened this month in London, she’s been maintaining a steady stream of interviews as she prepares to screen it in the United States. “It’s like if you have a family situation, and you have one kid who’s sick and all the attention is devoted to him. And you have another child in the family who doesn’t get any attention, he’s always shunted off to the side. An HIV-negative man would never stand up in a room and say, ‘I’ve been HIV-negative for 10 years.’ That would be very insensitive. All the services go to HIV-positive men.
“And nobody dies from HIV anymore because that wouldn’t be a positive image,” Hogarth continues. “Whenever there’s a death, it’s never HIV. Forty-, 45-year-old gay men die of heart attacks or liver failure or diabetes or opportunistic infections or side effects from a minor surgery–that’s all the result of HIV or HIV medications, and it’s never mentioned. If HIV doesn’t kill you, I believe that the drugs will.”
Handling HIV with mittens crops up in even so-called progressive media. During the opening prologue to a recent episode of Six Feet Under–the HBO series created by the openly gay writer Alan Ball that has been commended for its well-rounded portrayal of gay relationships–a fortysomething character named Robert passes away in the company of friends and loved ones. When his male partner approaches the series’ central Fisher family’s funeral home, he informs them that Robert didn’t die from AIDS, but cardiomyopathy. “His heart was too big,” he says, using the cardiac abnormality to characterize the kind of man his partner was in his life–even though anybody familiar with HIV and AIDS knows that the condition can be caused by HIV infection or by superinfections resulting from the sequelae of HIV drug therapies.
“Herb Ritts’ death was reported by gay media as pneumonia,” Hogarth says. “That’s a result of HIV, but [they] never mention HIV. That’s incredible.
“It’s not like cigarette smoking, where people look sick and are dying,” she continues. “You can drive down a street in West Hollywood and see a billboard that says, 40,000 deaths this year from smoking. But you’d never see a billboard saying anything about deaths from HIV.”
This reluctance to talk about HIV and the rising HIV infection rates in this country (according to a Centers for Disease Control announcement this past February, infection among homosexual men rose 14 percent from 1999 through 2001) are exactly the situations that Hogarth hopes her documentary addresses and starts to change. She says she’s lost many friends over the years to HIV/AIDS, and she’d like to see AIDS organizations stop portraying HIV/AIDS as a chronic, manageable illness.
But she’s afraid that this message is going to be overshadowed by her movie’s primary subject: the sub-subculture of men (called “bug chasers”) who actively seek out HIV+ men (“gift givers”) with whom to have unprotected sex (“barebacking”) in hopes of seroconverting (turning from HIV- to HIV+).
For two and a half years, Hogarth talked to men in California gay communities who hold barebacking parties, visited Web sites where bug-chasers go in search of gift-givers, and talked candidly with men who purposely sought infection. She contrasts these interviews–with HIV+ young men who have yet to become symptomatic or had to endure the debilitating side effects of years of medication–with men who have been living with HIV for years, examining how each of them conceptualize and talk about the condition.
Just as Cindy Patton’s landmark 1990 book Inventing AIDS was as much a theory book about how medical “knowledge” is constructed socially and politically, The Gift is a movie about how social group attitudes influence public policy. Its main concern isn’t bringing scandalous bug-chasing out into the open, but to examine how the current culture could result in the chilling irony of calling HIV “the gift” in the first place.
“I would like, hopefully, for the people in charge of prevention to realize that their strategies were developed for short-term,” she says. “And they were very effective for the short-term, but now we have a long-term health crisis and we need to rethink the strategies and not just put our heads in the sand and attack the messenger, which is what they did with the Rolling Stone guy. They really went on the attack.”
She’s referring to the Feb. 6 issue of Rolling Stone, in which writer Gregory A. Freeman’s “In Search of Death” article appeared, which presented interviews with men who had sought out HIV infection–including one young man Hogarth also interviewed, Doug Hitzel. The article was a tad salacious, but only because the subject–gay men trying to get infected–seemed so unheard of.
The story caused a flurry of activity once it appeared. The Drudge Report turned its contested statistics–i.e., that 25 percent of new infections are caused by bug-chasing–into a headline banner, and everybody from Newsweek to conservative queer writer Andrew Sullivan labeled Freeman and Rolling Stone sensationalistic.
It’s understandable why. Public discussion of HIV/AIDS has been drastically reduced since its politically sexy heyday in the late 1980s. Now, even though AIDS/HIV prevention and management hasn’t changed that much since the advent of safe-sex campaigns and AZT drug cocktails, the topic has drifted out of the view of straight media, while gay media toe a party line established almost 20 years ago.
No wonder the media freaked out about the Rolling Stone story; it wasn’t what everybody was already comfortable with. Conservative straight media find bug-chasing morally reprehensible, gay media think it portrays a bad image, and liberal straight media feel it might sound mean to attack HIV+ men.
The ire the article drew was misplaced, though. While that 25 percent stat has been vehemently and thoroughly disproved (most contend that the rate due to bug-chasing is much lower), what has thus far been lost in almost all the coverage so far has been that number’s greater significance. Whatever the rate of new infections caused by gay men seeking seroconversion, it still means that an overwhelming number of sexually transmitted new infections among gay males is caused by–as Dan Savage pointed out in his Feb. 20 Savage Love column–“gay male stupidity, recklessness, naiveté, and bad luck.”
And unlike new HIV/AIDS drug therapies, which take millions of dollars and years of research to develop, stupidity, recklessness, and naiveté can be corrected right now. All it takes is for people to start talking about HIV/AIDS risks again.
“And that’s the whole intent, especially for gay men, because they don’t discuss it at all,” Hogarth says. “The HIV rates in this country are way up. It’s way up in the black community. It’s a waiting avalanche that’s waiting to come down. A lot of people don’t test anymore, so you need for them to get sick [for the infection to be discovered], which takes about 10 years. And that’s not the truth. We have to start telling the truth. And that would be the best thing that could come of [the documentary]–that people would start talking again and become aware of the risk.”