Seattle Post Intelligence
Filmmaker reveals a controversial ‘gift’ in gay community
A man stares into a camera, giving a video confessional about wanting to become HIV positive. “When I thought being positive was a positive thing, I thought I was just going to have a lot of fun, promiscuous, unsafe sex,” says Doug Hitzel, then 19. “I didn’t know it was going to change so fast. No one told me,” he says, in tears.
What Hitzel sought was “The Gift,” the title of a new documentary that features conversations with “bug chasers” — men who want to become infected with HIV. Everywhere director Louise Hogarth goes, the film creates a buzz, because she’s exposing a taboo subject in the gay community.
Hogarth, who lives in Los Angeles, will be talking about her 60-minute film at its screening today at the Seattle International Film Festival. The film, which cost Hogarth around $100,000 out of pocket to make, is booked at 60 festivals around the world. She said response to the film has been good, but there were times when she thought “The Gift” would never be seen. People told her, “You are attacking a sacred cow. You’re going to be in a lot of trouble,’ ” Hogarth said. “I didn’t know if I could get it out. I thought I might get totally blackballed.” More than the shocking phenomenon of seeking HIV, the film, shot in San Francisco, Palm Springs and L.A., is about the controversial practice of “barebacking.”
In the words of a gay rodeo drag queen: “Barebacking is basically having unprotected sex. It’s like putting a loaded gun to your head.” The poster image for the film is a penis with a gun superimposed in it. Hogarth says she made the movie as a catalyst to increase the message about prevention and to get people talking about HIV again. She said HIV has become glamorized among some gays.
Dr. Jeff Schouten, who treats patients at Harborview’s AIDS Clinic and has himself been HIV-positive for 16 years, says he’s seen a decrease in prevention messages and fear of HIV. At the same time, infection rates continue to rise locally, particularly among people of color.
Schouten, who has not yet seen the film but will lead a discussion of it Saturday with Hogarth, said he’s heard of bug chasers anecdotally. “It’s very hard to get accurate estimates of how common this is. In my clinical experience of seeing new cases where someone goes out and deliberately gets the virus, it’s very rare.” “I think a lot of this is denial and not intentional behaviors,” said Schouten, who is also vice president of the board of Lifelong AIDS Alliance.
In the film, a few of the young gay men in the film equate being HIV-positive with belonging to a group and being able to have wild, copious sex without worrying any longer.
One young, sex-obsessed man, “Kenboy,” throws himself a “conversion party.” “I hate condoms, man,” he says. “I’m a bug chaser. I want to get the bug. I’m not afraid of AIDS.”
Insouciantly, he adds: “People know it’s not really a death sentence anymore. There’ll be a cure soon.” When Kenboy tests positive for HIV in 2000, he says he’s happy and relieved. A year later, he has unprotected sex with 40 to 50 men at a dungeon party for his 28th birthday.
Hogarth lets such words unfold without narration or judgment.
From the subjects’ comments, it emerges that bug chasing is tied to a culture of political correctness surrounding those who are HIV-positive. Hogarth says the gay community courageously rallied around people who had HIV and AIDS in the early days of the virus. But over time, that support has evolved into an atmos- phere of being cheery about being positive and a don’t ask, don’t tell approach to sex by many. “Negative men have to start taking pride in being negative,” Hogarth says. “And they don’t; they’re ashamed of it.”
Hogarth shows that bug chasing isn’t rare or isolated by displaying numerous Web sites, chat rooms and online ad postings by those who want “the gift.” “I think that bug chasing and gift giving is definitely on the increase,” Hogarth said. “I’ve seen it in the three years that I’ve been making the film. It started on the fringe, then it starts moving into the community.”
The most poignant moment in the film comes when Hitzel says, “I’ve made an awful mistake and there’s no fixing that.” “Now Doug gives blood every two weeks — 21 vials. All of his veins are collapsing,” she said. “He’s in very ill health. He’s gone through two of the cocktails, and he has one drug option left. “And he just turned 21.”
P-I reporter Kristin Dizon can be reached at 206-448-8118 or firstname.lastname@example.org.