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Bay Area Reporter

Media Spotlight on “Bug Chasers”

Matthew S. Bajko

As controversy continues to swirl around a Rolling Stone article about
“bug chasers” – (gay men who deliberately get infected with HIV) new
documentary film about the phenomenon premiering at a Berlin film
festival next month is already creating buzz.

The film, called The Gift, examines the subculture of gay men who
fetishize HIV infection and seek out positive men to impregnate them with the virus.

The film has already been accepted at several gay film festivals around
the world and has been submitted to San Francisco’s festival. “It’s a hot topic that no one is really talking about. Between that article and this film, hopefully it will get people talking,” said Corey Eubanks, a queer film publicist who has seen a rough cut of the film. “There is a lot more going on in the barebacking and bug chasing community than either of the two pieces are getting into. Both skim the surface.” The February 6 Rolling Stone piece has already produced a large outcry among some in the gay community who fear the piece (which reported one San Francisco doctor claiming that 25 percent of all new HIV infections among gay men can be credited to bug chasers) will be used by conservative groups to attack gay men.

“Almost everyone I know is angry about the piece because the information is spurious, is unfounded, and is untrue,” said Larry Hanbrook, a
community health specialist with the city’s Department of Public Health. “As a gay man in the city who has his fingers in a lot of pies, I don’t see much of that happening. I don’t see a lot of guys who are negative saying they want to be positive.”

Many of those interviewed for the Rolling Stone piece have disputed the
quotes attributed to them. Dr. Bob Cabaj, director of behavioral-health
services for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, asserted in an
online Newsweek article last week and to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance
Against Defamation that the statements attributed to him on infection rates are “totally false. I never said that. And when the fact checker called me
and asked me if I said that, I said no. I said no. This is unbelievable.”
Yet in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter Monday, January 27, the
openly gay Cabaj not only said he liked the article but said that indeed, he
originally did agree that at least 25 percent of all newly infected gay
men are seeking the virus.

“The reporter asked me about a percent and he said could it be 25 percent. I said it might well be,” Cabaj told the B.A.R. “But then I talked to the fact checker and said I didn’t want that number used. The 25 percent is the
only thing truly inaccurate. The idea of the subject needs to be explored.”

While Cabaj, a psychiatrist who has a private practice and is past
president of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, says bug chasing is a real trend he sees in his patients, he readily admits he only has anecdotal evidence. And while he would not give a definitive number, Cabaj said he does think there is a certain percentage of gay men who are putting themselves deliberately at risk to contract HIV. He says it is especially true in the queer homeless youth he sees.

“For a lot of runaway kids the only way to get housing and health
insurance is to get infected,” said Cabaj. “They are not trying to get infected
for any sexual or higher emotional reason but just to get food and housing.” He said the Rolling Stone reporter was “trying to use it in a narrow definition as bug chasers. There is a bigger group of people who don’t take precautions and know they are at high risk. There is a bigger group out there that keep putting themselves at risk and I don’t think the AIDS prevention organizations have honed their message to reach that group.”

In regard to bug chasers, many HIV prevention officials say they don’t
believe it is a widespread problem. “When you read the DPH’s epidemiological report for 2001 it doesn’t pop up as a big factor of what is going on right now,” said Jeff Sheehy, a public affairs officer with the University of California San Francisco AIDS Research
Institute. “If somebody called me on that I would refer them to the epi folks
at DPH, but I have seen no data to support that being a story.”

Shana Krochmal, spokeswoman for the Stop AIDS Project, agreed that bug
chasing is not high on her agency’s list of concerns. While she admits she
told the Rolling Stone reporter she didn’t believe the topic warranted
a trend piece, Krochmal said, “I think it is a real misnomer to say there
is a cover-up by the AIDS establishment. Organizations wouldn’t tell you
that we are unaware of this subject. We have been aware of this subject for a long time.”

Although bug chasing may appear on the radar at her agency, Krochmal
said Stop AIDS has yet to see any evidence to warrant using what limited
resources the agency has to address the topic.

“The actual crisis is the number of gay men who don’t feel like their
lives are worth protecting,” she said. “It is important for us to focus our
resources on men for whom an intervention actually helps them
understand the real life effects of unsafe sex.”

Film eagerly awaited

While some working in HIV prevention feel the subject of bug chasing does not warrant attention, the new film on the subject, the Gift, is already
eagerly awaited by gay film programmers.

After its European debut, the film will be shown at the Miami Gay and
Lesbian Film Festival, the Mardi Gras Film Festival in Sydney, the Queer Screen in Melbourne, along with being screened in three South African cities during the Out in Africa Festival. The film will also be screened in New York City during a conference with AIDS policy makers.

“This film is destined for controversy: certain gay men deliberately seeking
to become HIV-positive while the developing world is being devastated by
AIDS,” said Louise Hogarth, a lesbian and Los Angeles-based filmmaker who spent the last two and a half years filming and editing the documentary.

Hogarth’s film features a former San Francisco resident who became
infected with HIV after entering the world of bug chasing. Doug Hitzel, a
21-year-old gay man who agreed to participate in the film, is also prominently featured in the Rolling Stone piece.

Hitzel, who now says he regrets his decision to become infected, is
currently attending a Midwestern college and has left San Francisco. In an
opinion piece in the February issue of Poz magazine, Hitzel writes that
barebacking was the “ultimate rebellion” for a kid from the Midwest who had always been told “have safe sex or die” growing up.

“The fact is, in the city by the Bay, there is no longer any pressure to have safe sex,” writes Hitzel, who describes his life as a”bug chaser” as a constant pursuit for death. “In some ways I knew I was on a ‘suicide mission’ it was my hope to, at some point, wear my body out and die.”

Hitzel agreed to appear in both the film and the magazine piece in order to
“help save people from things I’ve had to go through,” he states on his
personal Web site. However, after reading the magazine article, he now
says he wishes he had not agreed to be quoted.
“Yes, we should not ignore the fact that bug chasers exist, but we
should not focus on this part! It should clue us into what is really going on: the fact that too many still have unsafe sex,” writes Hitzel.

Hogarth said she set out to make her film specifically because she feels AIDS agencies’ prevention messages are failing to reach the gay male
community. “There is a lot of unsafe sex occurring in the gay community. People don’t want to talk about the issue of HIV. I hope my documentary serves as a platform to get people talking about prevention again,” Hogarth told the B.A.R. “I think we have to renew prevention in a way.”

As for the Rolling Stone piece, she called it sloppily reported and meant to be shocking. Hogarth said she tried not to sensationalize the issue in her
film, which highlights four men who all are bug chasers from various parts of the country.

“It’s good to raise the issue. There is a lot of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t
Tell’ out there in San Francisco,” she said. “A lot of people don’t test any more so they can say they are negative. There is a subtle thing in the gay
community that is not talked about: condoms are not being used.”

Throughout her film, Hogarth said she tries to stress that the old condom
code and prevention methods may have worked in the short-term but do not apply over the long-term.

“We thought it was going to be a short-term health crisis. We wanted to
protect people who are positive and make their lives okay,” she said.
“We need to change the messages and the documentary shows that. The issue is the failure of prevention. What we are doing now is not working.”
In the end, Hogarth said she hopes to help other young gay men avoid
what happened to Hitzel. And for his part, Hitzel writes on his home page:
“I can’t deny the fact that I took some crazy actions to get myself to where I
am today: HIV-positive. And I have to live with that every day of my life.
But I will continue to tell my story to try and help those that could maybe
use it like I know I could have used it cold and alone in San Francisco