The "Post-AIDS" Era?

Author Eric Rofes calls off the crisis among gay men

Although AIDS was known early on as the "gay cancer," the scope of its damage quickly seeped beyond the confines of male-homosexual circles. It ensnared IV drug users, women, heterosexuals, infants, and people of color. By the late '80s, the disease had more than earned its reputation as an epidemic, a scourge, a plague.

But for gay men of the '90s, says writer Eric Rofes, it's time to rethink the notion of AIDS as a crisis. An AIDS activist and author, Rofes recently published his second book, Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures (Hawthorn Press, $24.95), a followup to his earlier book on gay-male culture and sexuality Reviving the Tribe.

According to Rofes, who visited Minneapolis last month to participate in a public forum sponsored by the Minnesota AIDS Project, contemporary gay men no longer experience AIDS as the crisis it was in the '80s. Although AIDS continues to have a disproportionate impact on many populations, Rofes says that many communities of gay men--including some HIV-positive men--are "over it," and that AIDS organizations need to face the new reality of gay men's lives. There's an ever-widening distance between activists and health-care professionals and the queer communities they intend to serve, Rofes says. Dry Bones Breathe lays out a blueprint for rethinking and redesigning HIV prevention, education, and activism.

Rofes uses the term "post-AIDS" to describe the attitude of many gay men. He refers to the "Protease Moment," the point in the modern AIDS discourse when HIV no longer meant inevitable disability and death, a development heralded by the media with the arrival of protease inhibitors and the International AIDS Conference in Vancouver. But Rofes also notes that the much-ballyhooed drug cocktails led to the dangerous assumption (among health-care providers and AIDS researchers) that combination therapies are the only reason for the shift in thinking about AIDS. Not so, he says.

Do you think the rethinking of AIDS that you propose will occur as a natural progression? Or is this re-evaluation a radical departure?

I don't believe in the concept of natural progression. My message will sound radical to some people. The community is now in this debate: Which is better--the sex pigs or the monogamous? Some sex pigs or sexual liberationists build themselves on feeling superior and smug and "more gay" than monogamous gay men. And monogamous men build their subculture on trashing the sex pigs. I am of the belief that these are both valuable ways of organizing one's life.

I was recently reviewed in The Nation. This critic thinks that what I'm doing is, for the first time, saying things in a book form and in publication that gay men have been saying for years, but that we haven't been allowing our books to say and people haven't been perhaps putting in the public sphere. I feel like I am very rooted in gay communities, and I would expect that while AIDS organizations and AIDS workers might be shocked by what they read, the rank and file of gay men in most places might not find it controversial. I've been on the road with this book now for the last three months, and generally it is very well-taken. And people come expecting it to sound really radical and controversial and end up just nodding their heads, saying, "What's the big deal?" I'm not saying anything that people don't already know.

What do you mean by "creating post-AIDS identities"? Are you saying that the various subgroups of gay culture are being driven further apart by their individual responses to AIDS? Is AIDS, in effect, forcing these groups to define themselves?

I don't think the experience of AIDS is what causes the groups to form different identities and cultures. I think such groups are rooted in different values and different experiences that are important to them. And those experiences and values lead them to experience HIV and AIDS in unique ways.

You also say that building community is central to work in HIV prevention and education. In an increasingly diverse world, what brings gay men together?

I think in the late '90s there is nothing that brings them together. And when I suggest community building and community development, I don't pretend that this should occur at the mass gay level. But it's more subcultural community development. I believe gay men are as fractured from other people as everyone else is in this culture, and we are divided by age, and we are divided by race, and we are divided by class, and we are divided by sexual interest. And I think it creates a challenge to doing it in any universal way.

So, more like grassroots?

It's grassroots, but instead of your focus being, "Let's organize gay men," your focus might be "Let's organize 18- to 23-year-old black gay men who live in this neighborhood." Your focus might be "let's organize around people who attend bear bars or bear activities." Because community building has to be meaningful to people. And whereas perhaps 20 years ago it was meaningful to most out gay men to organize on the gay level, these days there is too much that divides gay men from each other to not recognize the differences. So men who choose to organize their lives in monogamous relationships need one kind of subculture, and men who organize their lives in more open ways, or who enjoy sex clubs for example, have other needs. And I think basic skills of community organizing apply to them all, but the work you're actually trying to do will be different for the different populations.

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