John-Manuel Andriote, author and leading HIV/AIDS reporter, went off script Wednesday afternoon at the Rainbow Center’s Out to Lunch series, setting aside his lecture plan and speaking from the heart during "How Building Resilient Gay Men Saves Lives and Why It’s Good for America."
Andriote, who is HIV-positive himself, said that being raised in a culture where difference is wrong, or even “sinful,” can lead many gay and bisexual men to take risks with their sexual health. Sex sometimes becomes less about pleasure and intimacy, and more about validating their experience as a human being.
“For someone with HIV who has to take medication every day, there’s an unfortunate connection between not feeling good about yourself and feeling like ‘why am I bothering, if the future is more of this,’” he said.
In December 2012, HIV/AIDS activist Spencer Cox died of preventable complications when he stopped taking medication prescribed for the disease. Homophobia and self hatred are often at the root of this kind of behavior, Andriote said, but disseminating sex positive information about prevention and treatment options can be difficult.
While research has shown pornography that models safe sex practices to be one of the most effective methods of reaching the gay community, decades old legislation supported by anti-gay politician Jesse Helms bars the federal government from “promoting homosexuality” by funding these projects.
“This law is still on the books and it’s trotted out as needed as it was during the George W. Bush administration to shut down HIV programs as pornographic,” Andriote said. “It’s just such a vestige of a dark homophobic time that Jesse helms really embodied.”
Alberto Cifuentes, Jr., an alumnus of UConn’s School of Social Work, said targeting the Helms amendment is key to rebooting HIV prevention.
“Most agencies are federally funded, so they want to explore different ways of transmitting these messages but they can’t because they’re sort of restricted in this sense,” he said. “It’s very hard to lobby around it, but I’m hoping that we can get more creative around funding.”
Cifuentes said that although advancing basic equality is a priority, as with the legalization of same sex marriage earlier this year, it’s also important for the LGBT community to maintain queer oriented spaces and values. The community’s tradition of organizing around friendships and strong social circles has been key to achieving change, Andriote said.
“I believe that friendship is actually the cornerstone of the gay community in the way that the nuclear family is the cornerstone of the heterosexual community,” he said.
John Bonelli, a field education coordinator for the School of Social Work, said HIV wasn’t a treatable condition for men in his youth. As survivors of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80’s, Bonelli and his peers lost many of these foundational friendships to disease before resources were committed to saving the gay community.
“I almost feel like there’s a different framework if we talk to young guys, they don’t have the memories we have of the losses, so it’s a different moment,” Bonelli said.
Fostering resiliency in gay and bisexual youth combating homophobia is central to tackling the complexities of HIV/AIDS head on. The value of this inner strength, Andriote said, is demonstrated in the New England landscape that he calls home.
“As soon as it starts to get cold, the true colors of the leaves start to come out and they are spectacular. Think about that, what it means for people,” Andriote said. “When we’re all fresh and green, there’s a beauty to the summer of life, but it’s when we face difficult things in our lives, when the cold winds blow and the rains come and the sun changes, that our true colors emerge. What we’re really made of, who we really are, what we really stand for.”
Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.