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Bay Area Reporter

Considering the case of the ‘bug-chasers’ Louise Hogarth’s documentary ‘The Gift’ screens at fest

Matthew S. Bajko

Like a demarcation line between warring factions, AIDS becomes the separation point between the haves and have-nots in Louise Hogarth’s documentary The Gift, screening Saturday at the Castro Theatre as part of the SFILGFF.

Hogarth, a lesbian filmmaker from Los Angeles, cuts through the political and religious factions in the war on AIDS to delve into the personal and emotional struggles raging inside two sets of men profiled in the film. The first group consists of “bug-chasers,” those men who are looking for sexual partners who will infect them with “the gift” of HIV. Seeking out “gift-givers” on the Internet and at conversion parties where barebacking is demanded and condom use is scorned, bug-chasers view HIV as their armor against a multitude of troubles, from depression and self-hatred to loneliness and isolation.

Profiled in the film are Doug Hitzel, who at 19 finds himself alone in San Francisco searching for a sense of belonging in the gay community, and 27-year-old Kenboy, who has moved from Illinois into a sex-party house in Los Angeles where barebacking is the norm. Both want to become infected with HIV as a way to finally belong, to feel part of a group. “I was desperate to have gay male friends, for years I tried,” Doug tells the camera. “Hopefully, I will get the gift so I don’t have to worry about HIV,” beams Kenboy. “I am not afraid of AIDS.”

Juxtaposed against the bug-chasers is a group of four HIV-positive men in their 40s. All have lived with HIV for years, all have had heart attacks, and all are single. “Calling it ‘the gift’ just blows me away,” one man says to the group. “I am tired of worrying about when my heart is going to stop,” says another.

While the positive men are seen in a group, bonding over their shared experience living with HIV, at no time during the 62-minute film is Doug ever seen with another person. Whether alone in his apartment, or alone walking through the streets of the Castro, he appears trapped in a world devoid of human contact. This celluloid isolation helps to underscore his intense longing to connect, and explains his belief that becoming infected with HIV will serve as an entry to a world of friendship and belonging. Visually, this is a jarring reminder of the central premise of the film: that for 20 years, AIDS has slowly split the gay community in half, creating a barrier between negatives and positives.

Kenboy also appears trapped in a friendless world in the film, whether playing pool by himself or talking to the camera alone. The one time he is seen interacting with other men is when he goes to inspect preparations for his 28th birthday party, held in a basement-turned-sex dungeon. The home’s owners show Kenboy the special sling they have set up for him.
Sitting in the sling, Kenboy explains how he wants to have sex with as many men as possible in one evening. No condoms allowed.

“I am not worried about STDs. I want to take as many loads as possible,” says Kenboy, who at this point knows he is HIV-positive. The film is a frank look at why some gay men have turned their backs on the safe-sex messages HIV-prevention groups have been marketing for years. As the men in the film reveal their life-stories, it becomes clear that the documentary is Hogarth’s gift to gay men, a conversation starter on a topic many men have stopped discussing.
“I did see it as my gift to the community. And thank God it is understood,” says Hogarth, who has presented the film at gay film festivals the world over. “I was told a lot of times not to make this documentary, that I would get a lot of trouble for it. But I wanted to do it.”

The film is not subtle in its attacks on HIV prevention. It raises many questions about the approach AIDS agencies have taken over the years in driving home the message sex without a condom kills. Yet Hogarth says her film should not be seen as a condemnation of the HIV-prevention community. She says it is more a prodding to get AIDS agencies, and the gay community, talking openly and honestly about what approaches should be taken to stop the spread of AIDS.

“I think that it’s no one’s fault. We all have tried to do the best we could,” she says. But the problem, in Hogarth’s view, is that “we thought it would be a short-term epidemic, and it’s turned into a long-term epidemic. Prevention policies in some ways have backfired.
“No one knew that would happen. We need to evolve,” she says. “The film is a tool to help prevention evolve.”

One problem explored in the film is how negative men are relegated into silence, fearful of revealing the fact they have remained free of the virus. Instead of being proud of their negative status, these men hide in their own closet. The impact of AIDS works like a magnet, with men feeling pulled more and more into its reach.
“There is this subtle pressure,” Hogarth says. “The HIV-negative person feels pressured by positive people to convert.”

Yet in the end, having HIV does not translate into acceptance, as Doug, now
21 and in college, realizes. “I find myself holding back in making friends. My being gay and having HIV is hard for them to understand,” he says. “I don’t want to risk them not understanding.”

To Doug, HIV may appear to be wrapped in a pretty bow, but this gift is no present.

The Gift screens at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 21 at the Castro Theatre. The Stop AIDS Project will host a discussion panel following the screening.