Documentary The Gift explores those who seek out HIV infection or purposefully infect others
“The movie is really about what happened to prevention and how we need to restart that…. And barebacking, of course, which is what it’s really about,” says director Louise Hogarth. “Don’t make me into an angry dyke,” pleads director Louise Hogarth. Her documentary The Gift explores “gift giving” and “bug chasing,” whereby gay men purposely seek out HIV infection or knowingly infect others with the virus. This wake-up call certainly woke up everyone at the Berlin Film Festival where it debuted last February. Louise lives her with lover, publicist Pearson Brown, in West Hollywood and loves being in “Boys Town,” but as we discuss, is less thrilled by certain goings-on there.—David Noh
Okay, Louise, why’d you make the film?
Out of concern for what’s happening in the community. I want to see less death out there, and more life. My film focuses on two young guys, both chasers, and four older men who are positive. I also used a great book, In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS by Walt Odets, which gives real insight into what has happened and how we ended up where we are.
Do you find this behavior is any different on the East and West coasts? No. It’s pretty wide-spread, and there’s not much of a difference. The movie is really about what happened to prevention and how we need to restart that.
And this little phenomenon called barebacking. And barebacking, of course, which is what it’s really about. Chasing and gifting is really peripheral behavior, which has worked its way into the community. A large majority of people are barebacking, and if you are in a community that is as at least 50 percent infected, then you might not be a bug chaser, but you certainly are taking a great risk. That’s a thin dividing line.
What compels bug chasers? It’s multileveled. There’s survivor guilt, not just young people but for older 30–40 year olds. The community has lost so many friends and lovers. It’s almost similar to the Auschwitz survivors who committed suicide because they felt guilty that their entire families were wiped out and why am I still living?
Also, no one really knows anymore what it means to get HIV. “Nobody” dies of it anymore. Herb Ritts just died, but that was “pneumonia.” He was going blind, but nobody mentioned HIV. There’s giant denial. Nobody talks about the horrific side effects of the drugs. There’s this mistaken belief that they’re a cure.
Young people are terrified of getting it, but in a way it’s a relief to get it over with, a way of taking control over what so many feel is inevitable. And we in the gay community have almost made it positive to be positive. People don’t discuss their status and when they’re negative, they’re kind of ashamed, but when you’re positive, you’re out and proud!
Are there negative men, surrounded by positive friends, who can’t relate to them? They need to be able to relate to and talk about the same things, to be part of the pack? That was Doug Hitzel in my film, in search of a community. He moved to San Francisco when he was 19, couldn’t get into bars, wasn’t a bodybuilder, and the one community he was accepted into was the barebacking community. You weren’t allowed to reveal your status and if you asked to use a condom, you were asked to leave. Doug was gay, but totally accepted in his high school; his family supported him. It was the gay community that was the problem.
Did you get support from the gay community to make your film? Disappointingly, what I ran into consistently was no support from AIDS organizations, except AIDS Healthcare Foundation. But whenever I called any of the other gay organizations, my calls were never returned: GMHC, GLAAD, APLA, The Center, etc.
I don’t mean to blast the community. What I need now is funding to do outreach, because I’m just about ready to drop dead. At every showing, I get gay men standing up and thanking me. Hopefully some of these organizations, who were initially afraid of the subject, will see that and come on board.
Gay men have led the way in so many ways—theater, film, literature—and they can lead the rest of us in this area, too. This whole country is so involved in fucking to get laid, with no intimacy or love, and we need to pull back. I hope that gay men will create a new sensibility.