The "Post-AIDS" Era?

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.  

You bring up scapegoating in Dry Bones Breathe--men who practice less mainstream versions of sexual relationships are chastised because promiscuity supposedly causes and perpetuates so many gay health problems. Where do you think monogamy fits in?

I was interviewed by that new magazine that was supposed to be called "Arrow"-- I think it's being called "Hero"--that is supposed to be for monogamous gay men. And they thought I was going to be the anti-voice. I am not opposed to those publications. I support them in my book, and I think even in my last book I talked about the need to create publications like that for monogamous gay men. I am not a monogamous gay man myself, but I have many friends who are or many friends who want to be, including many of my students. And I feel like it is appropriate to give them social support in constructing their lives that way. The problem we get into is men who feel forced into one way of organizing themselves and start representing themselves as monogamous when they're not, or when it's coming from unhealthy needs. But that's true for men who organize themselves in promiscuous ways too. I don't care how men choose to organize their lives, but it must come from a good place and have community support.

HIV/AIDS prevention and education efforts have never seemed, to me, to promote monogamy over any other form of sexual arrangement. Rather, it seems to endorse a variety of sexual lifestyles. What sort of sexual lifestyle should they be promoting?

My sense is that HIV programs for gay men have tried to do an end run around this question just to avoid it. They certainly don't seem to be endorsing monogamy--but it's not clear that they endorse anything. I think they need to shift in that way. It's fine to have programs that affirm and recognize that some men want to go to sex clubs and bath houses and have lives that are either sexually generous or promiscuous, and some men want to be monogamous or mostly monogamous. I think that those approaches require different organizing efforts.

This means prevention groups need to see themselves not in the role of advocating anything. Their job is to provide us with information and support for however we determine to organize our lives. And I think they have been very much afraid to be appearing to take a stand on things. As the epidemic shifts, they are going to need to take a stand if their work is to be credible anymore.

You write in Dry Bones that gay health issues need to be addressed more holistically, that we need to see AIDS as not one crisis, but as one of many problems.

I feel like HIV is a sign of broader issues in gay men's sexual health. And that to only work on AIDS is not to learn what AIDS is teaching us--which is that we haven't done much work on sex education. We haven't done much work on sexual empowerment. We haven't created clean and safe places for men to have sex in. And we have a huge amount of work to do in creating healthy sexual cultures for gay men. Decentralizing AIDS and HIV is important because, first of all, a lot of people are over it. It's just not meaningful for them to construct an entire health plan or health agenda around one virus. And they feel like there are other issues, be it substance abuse or mental health or STDs or various forms of cancer, that are meaningful and do not appear on the gay health agenda. This is particularly true as you have many men who are aging. And you have lots of openly gay men who are 50, 60, 70, and who have health issues in that context where they might not feel that non-gay providers are able to address their needs.  

Some AIDS organizations say that they must still create a certain sense of urgency--almost a panic--to unify and mobilize men to fight AIDS and HIV transmission. How can communities of men find inspiration if AIDS is no longer a crisis for them?

I argue that AIDS is not escalating among gay men but that it is in fact contained right now. But the disease is escalating in certain communities of color and particularly through intravenous drug use. I also think that we have got to look for less involvement from gay men in HIV and AIDS efforts in the places where gay men are no longer experiencing AIDS as a crisis. There are other communities that can fill those places. It is OK and fine for gay men who have worked on AIDS for 15 or 20 years to decide to start working on some other issues. That doesn't mean they don't take AIDS seriously and are not concerned, and won't still give money and occasionally volunteer. But this idea that gay men own AIDS and are the only population that can organize around it is not going to hold for much longer.

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