We've all heard
about AIDS "denialists," those loopy flat-earthers who
argue--against mountainous evidence--that HIV doesn't cause
AIDS. But in the gay world there's a much scarier new group of
denialists: the folks who argue that prevention is working, HIV
transmission is under control, and any evidence to the contrary
is a big, nasty homophobic lie.
This came into
focus recently when a story hit the national front pages
announcing the most frightening new study of AIDS transmission
in years. It showed that HIV infections among gay men at San
Francisco's anonymous testing sites have nearly tripled in
recent years, from about 1.3% per year in 1997 to an astonishing
3.7% per year in 1999, which would lead to a 37% level of
infection in ten years. One researcher called it a "sub-Saharan
level" of transmission, but it's actually higher than almost any
in subSaharan Africa. And researchers later released data
indicating that this year's rates may be far worse, up to 6% or
This is not just
tragic but mathematically astonishing, because from a strictly
biological standpoint, new infections among gay men ought to be
plummeting, not skyrocketing. Starting three years ago, large
numbers of HIV-positive gay men began taking therapies that
drive down their viral loads and make them far less infectious.
Researchers say that when the number of highly infectious gay
men began to drop, the number of new infections should have
plunged too. It was literally our golden opportunity to put the
fire of the epidemic out. Unless, of course, unsafe sex shot up
so far that it offset the drop in infectious men.
That is now
happening, according to almost every researcher in the business.
As a result, gay men appear to be squandering one of our
greatest opportunities since the birth of AIDS--the opportunity
to bring new infections down below the epidemic's tipping point
by simply maintaining safer sex while the number of infections
But just as
insidious as that behavioral and biological failure is another,
deeper moral failure: the failure of gay and AIDS leaders and
the gay press to sound the alarm or even believe the disaster is
happening at all.
After the San
Francisco story broke, for example, gay publications from
California to Boston and activism from left to right didn't
bemoan the statistics. They attacked the scientists who
conducted the study, accusing them of making AIDS seem worse so
that San Francisco wouldn't lose federal funds. (The head
researcher's family even received dozens of harassing latenight
calls at home from angry "activists.") In general, as scientific
news accumulates about rising new HIV rates among gay
men--including the transmission of horrible drug-resistant
strains--you'd barely know it from reading the gay press or
listening to gay leaders. AIDS, we're told, is over. Yesterday's
It would be easy
to see this as normal human denial, to say that some of us
genuinely believe we need to get past a "crisis" mentality about
AIDS, that some are simply honest skeptics about research, that
some deeply believe in a media conspiracy to "demonize" gay sex,
and that all these denials--as dangerous and myopic as they
are--are understandable, excusable, all too human.
But in the year
2000, the 20th year of AIDS, the collective failure of our
leaders, our journalists, our activists to alert us to what is
happening is more than just garden-variety denial. In the face
of AIDS history, of the fact that we have been here before,
denied before, then died by the hundreds of thousands in large
part because of our denial--this denial is a breathtaking moral
failure. An evil betrayal of the next gay generation. An evil
capitulation to weakness. It is evil, pure and simple.
who are bringing us this bad news are the messengers, not the
message. Disbelieve them if you will. Dis them if you must. But
if you do, be prepared to condemn and consign the next
generation of gay kids to die on the same massive scale as the
last. Because the virus called HIV does not care about denial.
Denial is its daily bread.