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Chicago Sun Times

What makes bug chasers, gift givers do such a thing?

Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times Columnist

It’s a story so shocking you want to believe it’s a hoax–a sick joke. But, somewhere between urban legend and ghastly trend, there really are some gay men who want to be infected with HIV, and others who will gladly help them try to make that wish come true. Gay men who want the virus are called “bug chasers.” HIV-positive men who deliberately try to infect these men are known as “gift givers.”

The rest of the world would be more likely to call them pathetic. Rumors about this practice have been circulating for years, and bugchasing received mainstream media attention last January with a sensational and instantly controversial story titled “Bug Chasers: The Men Who Long to Be HIV+” that appeared in Rolling Stone
magazine. The introduction was about a 32-year-old New York man who is
“chasing the bug,” as the story put it: “Carlos . . . says that actual moment of transmission, the instant he gets HIV, will be ‘the most erotic thing I can imagine.’ ”

The article also included the claim, attributed to San Francisco health services director Dr. Bob Cabaj, that 25 percent of new HIV infections–that would be 10,000 out of 40,000 cases every year–are the result of unprotected sex between HIV-positive men who were aware of their condition and HIV-negative men who wanted to
become infected.

Some groups said the story painted an unfair and exaggerated portrait. Cabaj and another doctor disputed the quotes attributed to them. (Rolling Stone stands by the story.) There are no concrete statistics. It’s not as if someone has surveyed HIV-positive men to ask, “Are you a bug chaser?” or “Did you actually want to become infected with HIV?” A distinction also should be made between “barebacking”—sex without condoms– and bug-chasing. While there’s no disputing that barebacking is
stupid and reckless, it doesn’t necessarily mean the participants want to get an STD, any more than heterosexuals who engage in unprotected sex are hoping to become infected. That said, there’s no disputing the existence of Internet sites with extensive listings of gay sex parties where condoms are not just frowned upon, they’re not allowed. Not allowed!

How can anyone in his right mind actively search for someone to infect him with HIV?

A new documentary called “The Gift” tries to provide some answers. It’s been playing on the international film circuit and will make its U.S. debut at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival. Producer Louise Hogarth says she’s also been invited to screen “The Gift” at the United Nations and for members of Congress. Hogarth provided me with a screening copy of the film, and I have to say it’s one of the most disturbing works I’ve seen in a long time. I kept hoping that some of the interview subjects were actors participating in an elaborate hoax–that the whole thing was fictionmasquerading- as-documentary, a la “The Blair Witch Project.” But how do you invent someone like “Kenboy,” a slight young fellow with a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt circa “Thelma & Louise,” who says, “Give me the gift–then I don’t have to worry about it,” and plans a party where dozens of men will have the opportunity to have unprotected sex with him? “My Internet friends, my party friends, we don’t discuss HIV,” says Kenboy. “We don’t care. If it happens, it happens. Why waste time talking about it?” Some of those interviewed in the documentary say that some HIV-negative gay men actually envy their HIV-positive friends and feel excluded because they’re not sick. They feel as if they’re offending their HIV-positive friends simply by being healthy.

An HIV-positive man interviewed at a gay rodeo says, “I have one friend who is always like, ‘I want to be like you guys, you all have it, and I don’t. I want to go out and get it!’ It is definitely NOT a gift. I would be gifted if I didn’t have it.”

In a round-table talk, four HIV-positive men in their 40s try to express why the younger generation would want to become sick. “They feel it’s inevitable, so why not make a party out of it?” says one man. Another adds: “They also don’t know what the reality is. They don’t want to worry about it–but I’m sorry if you’re tired of worrying about it. I’m tired of worrying about when my heart is going to stop, when my liver might explode. Get the f— over it!”

Doug Hitzel is a 19-year-old man who was a “successful” bug chaser and is now HIV-positive and overwhelmed with regret. “If someone came to the party and wanted to use condoms, they were stigmatized,” he says. “No one wanted to deal with him.”

Contrast that with Kenboy, who looks into the camera and relates his happy news: “When I went to get tested last time, I was expecting a positive reading, and it was. I was relieved. I have it, now I don’t have to worry about–do I have it, do I have it, do I have it, do I need to be careful? I’m happy. Relieved. I can breathe again.”

People need to see this movie.

E-mail: rroeper@suntimes.com