The resurgent gay plague

Robert Knight wrote a long article commenting on a Washington Post article stating that homophobia is the main cause of  a huge increase in AIDS among the world’s homosexual population.  Here’s the WaPo take on the subject:

Twenty-five years after AIDS was branded the “gay plague,” the virus is again exacting a disproportionate toll on men who have sex with men, not only in the United States but also in countries where the epidemic is just emerging.

Globally, men who engage in homosexual relations are 19 times as likely to contract HIV as the rest of the population, according to data released at the International AIDS Conference. Here in Mexico, men who have sex with men are 109 times as likely as others to develop HIV, while in the United States, 53 percent of new infections in 2006 were in gay and bisexual men.

Homophobia, biology and misplaced confidence that AIDS has become a treatable chronic illness are contributing to a disturbing flashback among scientists and activists, who say much of the world appears to have forgotten the early lessons of the AIDS epidemic.

To Knight, it’s ludicrous that the WaPo writer lists homophobia (as in “people are afraid to get treatment”) as the top cause for the disease’s resurgence.  Knight points to a little thing called personal responsibility:  less promiscuity, more safe sex.

This whole thing sent me whirling back through time to the summer of 1981.  That was the year I got a job in a research lab as the secretary to two virologists.  That was also the year that AIDS was first appearing as a blip on the medical establishment’s radar.  It wasn’t until 1982 that AIDS was a headline, rather than a minor medical conundrum.  (I can place these events so exactly because the job was before I left for England, and AIDS as an explosive news story was after I came back from England.  Given that I knew about the situation long before just about everyone else, I followed the stories with avid, and fairly informed interest.)

What I remember from the myriad articles and letters I typed up back in 1981 was the limited information that these virologists had to work with, information gathered mostly from physicians in New York and San Francisco.  What we knew then was that a small number of gay men were presenting with two hitherto rare diseases:  Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Pneumocystis carinii.  If I remember correctly, this was extremely bewildering, because KS had never before appeared to be a contagious cancer, while Pneumocystis carinii was a disease of the aged, not of healthy young men.  The virologists, still only groping towards the idea that they were looking at compromised immune systems, were worried that two hitherto rare and mostly non-contagious illnesses might have turned into epidemic diseases that could infect the rest of the population.

What my employers also knew about this handful of gay men with these bizarre dieases (and it really was a handful, perhaps 25 or 30 at that time), was that they were exceptionally promiscuous.  These sick men had hundreds of partners per year, through the bath houses and the discos.  Their drug of choice was poppers, rather than intravenous drugs.  In other words, all of the sick men in this small sample had three things in common:  KS, pneumocystis, and Olympian promiscuity.  Put the three together, and it was obvious that these guys were not ill because they were afraid to go to a doctor; they were ill because something in their lifestyle had either caused fairly rare diseases to morph into monsters diseases, or had created a whole new virus that made them vulnerable to ordinary diseases.  As it turned out, the latter hypothesis was true.

Given how quickly AIDS was politicized, it’s very easy to forget AIDS’ humble beginnings in America.  Those beginnings, however, readily put the lie to a belief that homophobia spreads the disease.  What spreads the disease is behavior.  And in a world saturated with AIDS information, in a way unimaginable back in that summer of 1981, personal responsibility has to be the frontline in the battle against the spread of homosexual AIDS.

(BTW, I have the sense that Ceci Connolly, who authored the WaPo article, is a fairly young woman.  She came of age after AIDS was completely politicized, and probably has no adult memory of the period when it was a nascent disease.)

(Second BTW:  I feel compelled to add here a caveat since I’m posting about a fairly sensitive subject.  I am a libertarian.  I do not have a problem with gay sex — although I want it to take place in the privacy of people’s homes, not on public streets.  However, since I am a libertarian, I also believe that personal responsibility is an essential element of any type of sex, gay or straight, and that’s what this post is about.)