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Has Activism About Marriage Pushed AIDS to the Curb?

by Peter Cassels
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jun 28, 2011

As gays and lesbians push for marriage equality and other rights, some say they are neglecting another important issue. Are same-sex marriage and AIDS activism mutually incompatible?

On the surface, that may seem to be the case. After all, one goal of the LGBT movement is to be treated like straight people. Gays and lesbians want to enjoy the rights and responsibilities of marriage and raise children, their own or adopted. Sex doesn't enter the conversation, except among opponents.

HIV is all about sex. On the 30th anniversary of the epidemic, as many as 20 percent of young men who have sex with men in major urban areas of the U.S. are HIV positive. Many don't know they are.

A recent story in the Village Voice by EDGE contributor Joe Erbentraut asks: When was the last time you heard about a large contingent of young queers taking part in a street action about AIDS?

"For them to talk about HIV as a gay disease or a disease that predominately impacts the LGBT community sort of flies against the sort of narrative behind the marriage equality movement," activist Kenyon Farrow is quoted as saying about the leaders of gay organizations. "They are situating gay people as 'normal' and middle class and white, like they are just like everybody else."
But that may be an oversimplification.

Are Changing Epidemic Demographics the Reason?

Sean Strub, longtime AIDS activist and founder of Poz magazine, acknowledged in an e-mail to EDGE that the LGBT community isn't as engaged in the epidemic as it used to be, but the reasons vary.

It's not just the preoccupation with marriage equality and other hot-button issues. Part of it has to do with race and class, Strub contends.

"As the epidemic settled into communities of color and communities of poverty it became less urgent," he said. "Unfortunately, our LGBT community isn't immune to racism and economic elitism."

Another reason is that activism in the early days of AIDS grew around a crisis mentality. That's no longer true, as infection ceased to become a death sentence, thanks to antiretroviral and other drugs.

Growing invisibility also plays a role, Strub maintains. "The visibly ill amongst us aren't as many as they once were, especially at gala fundraisers."

Marginalizing the HIV+
The stigma of being HIV positive "is greater than it's ever been," according to the writer-activist.

The fear of contagion no longer causes the stigma. Now it's about prejudgment, marginalization and discrimination, Strub explained.

Unlike in the early days of the epidemic, a person with HIV "is more likely to be judged, suspected of being promiscuous (whatever that means), using drugs, etc.," he observed. "The peer support groups and shared community commitment that we had through the 80s and early 90s is largely gone. I think it is more isolating for young queers to test positive today than it was years ago."

Young Gay Men's Inexperience With the Epidemic
Possibly the key reason why young gay men ignore HIV/AIDS as they fight for middle-class values like marriage and raising children is that they know (or at least think they know) few peers who are positive.

Young people often tell Strub that he is the first openly HIV positive person they have met. His experience is far from unique.

Stephen Hartley, development director at AIDS Care Ocean State in Rhode Island, said in an interview that many have a blasé attitude about HIV/AIDS. "A lot of the younger kids look it more as a disease like diabetes," he said. "Just take a pill and everything will be fine."

Hartley sees no decline in support of his organization, however. It's still receiving healthy contributions and plenty of volunteers from the community.

Next: Marriage 'Forces Every Other Gay Issue Off the Agenda'


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