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Sunday Independent

Young, Gay and Gifted with a Hideous Virus

Liz Clarke

Sitting in a semi-tropical Johannesburg garden where ducks warm their feathers in the sun, it seems all wrong to be delving into human sexual behaviour so extraordinary, so fascinatingly bizarre that the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

But shock, fear and an almost over-the-top frankness are quite clearly the life blood of Louise Hogarth, a California documentary film maker and an Academy Award winner in that genre. We are talking about disease and death and more precisely about the disturbing subject matter of her latest offering, The Gift, showing in Johannesburg and around the country.

Our discussions centre on a chain and leather-filled sex den in Los Angeles known as The Dungeon. This is where gay men of unknown HIV status are invited for a “fun-filled” evening of “barebacking” (unprotected sex).

We talk of conversion parties – sex orgies where disease status is not known but
where the adrenalin-charged aim for participants is to try to change their HIV-negative
status into an HIV-positive one.

Ducks glide across the water as we examine the dark specters of this grizzly
subculture where the gift giver is an HIV-positive man whose “gift” is HIV infection,
where the “bug chaser” is the HIV-negative man who becomes infected with HIV, and
where barebacking describes deliberate high-risk sex with no regard for HIV infection.

The concepts are so bizarre, so utterly paradoxical, that Hogarth needs to explain
further: “When I first heard of this phenomenon I thought it was an urban myth. Why
would anyone, unless they were insane, want to do such a thing, knowing that it will
mean almost certain death, and a horrible one at that too?”

But as she discovered, this was no urban myth. In 80 hours of film footage
collected over two years, Hogarth documented the lives and experiences of dozens of gay men, exposing what she terms “a grotesque and terrible reality.”

In her 62-minute expose we meet Doug, who at 19 preferred to get the HIV/AIDS
“gift” so that he wouldn’t have to worry any more about being infected with the virus.
Two years later he is resistant to two out three AIDS drugs. His treatment options are
running out; so too are his compromised CD4 immune cells.

We also meet the baby-faced Dungeon owner, who happily ignores the threat of
death and disease; flashes of internet sites where “conversion” services are offered and freely discussed; a psychologist who breaks down in tears because his dead lover was HIV-positive and, devastatingly for him, he wasn’t.

Having watched her robust work, one realises there is no need for sophisticated
imagery to portray this modern-day tragedy. It’s what the people say – and admit to –
that is so blisteringly ghastly, compelling, well, yes, even fascinating.

Hogarth, whose roots go back to William Hogarth, the 18th century satirical
illustrator, is small, elfin-faced, attractive and 30-something – the last person you would
think who would want to identify herself with a subculture whose followers deliberately
and joyfully aim their disease-ridden “smoking gun” penises at willing and equally joyful victims.

“I didn’t set out to explore this subject for any sensational reasons,” she said. “I
have a love of people. I have close friends who have died from AIDS. The infection
rates are rising alarmingly in America and I want to try and do something about it.” That
“something”, she believes, is to change the HIV/AIDS message globally.
“To do that we have to ask ourselves why a growing number of people are
indulging in high-risk behaviour, people who are not insane and not unintelligent.”
The answer, say those like Hogarth, is to bring back the prevention message,
“boldly, dramatically and honestly.”

As she spelt out her chosen strategy it was clear popularity votes were not part of the agenda. “In most affected countries you have the HIV-positive community directing the
way marketing and awareness programmes are going. Naturally they don’t want
messages that portray the infected as having a virulent life-threatening disease that will
eventually kill them.”

In this harsh and radical sideswipe, one senses that Hogarth has encountered
antagonism along her chosen route. “The truth is not pleasant,” she continues, “but pleasant doesn’t help. You see it everywhere, also here in your own country. It’s not politically correct or acceptable to promote the idea that diarrhoea, vomiting, pain, exhaustion, dementia and heart attacks are all part of the sickness. Instead we see glossy, up-market, larger-than-life images presenting HIV/AIDS as a manageable disease, and posters of happy, successful, infected people.”

If her film doesn’t say it directly, Hogarth does. “These perceptions are skewed
and dangerous. The whole health emphasis in America, for example, is geared to HIVpositive people. They are the ones who get grants, free treatment, free classes,
free accommodation, a free watch to tell you when to have your next pill, free dating services.

If we glamorise anyone, surely it should be those who are HIV-negative.”
The Gift is part of the Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival currently
showing in South Africa.