Rattling bones

Two great moments took place in 1996. One was the famous Protease Moment, when scientists electrified the Vancouver AIDS Conference with the announcement of the first truly-effective HIV treatment protocol, using a combination of 3+ meds including a protease inhibitor. The other was an Australian social researcher, Gary Dowsett, standing up at the same conference saying the young men in his research study were post-AIDS. They had grown up and come out and learned how to have sex with HIV always in the background; it was nothing new, not a crisis, and didn’t form the centre of their gay existence.

One man in the audience was the gay writer Eric Rofes, and he got the significance of both moments immediately. Within two years Rofes had written and published one of the great classics, Dry Bones Breathe (Haworth, 1998). He castigates “AIDS Inc” for its insistent reliance upon a crisis mentality, and the failure of the “brain trust” to respond to those two great moments. At an AIDS org in SF, he sees all the classics* sitting on a bookshelf, but a staffer tells him nobody there has any time to read them. That sounds familiar, I thought, having worked for the AIDS council in my home state at a time when HIV infection rates were rising.

I had coffee on Friday with a colleague from a PLWHA org in another state who’s working on a project about what sector shorthand calls ‘interesting times’ – a constellation of trends including the normalisation of gay, the declining relevance of community, increasing UAI and serosorting, criminalisation, public health, the Internet, and so forth. It calls for an open mind about how all of these things interact in the current moment, but crisis thinking admits no subtlety and takes no prisoners; at some point in the past 11 years of the culture wars, advocacy became a blood sport.

By “crisis thinking” I don’t mean we’re all still running around waving our hands in the air, although I have seen that happen. I mean the strategic deployment of outrage in response to anyone who questions the norms underpinning the community-based response to HIV. The ever-percipient Rofes called the institutional actors on the conservative moral underpinnings of their insistence on the need for gay men to take personal responsibility for the epidemic, pointing to its continuity with a contemporary moral panic about sex.

That panic was still going strong eight years later, when I made it the focus of a 2006 conference paper on “Barebacking and Bugchasing: Images in a Jurisprudence of Desire”. Without question it underlies much of the argument for gay marriage and the criminalisation of HIV transmission. The problem for the HIV sector in Australia (and elsewhere) is that a full decade later most of our key decision-makers are still no closer to understanding the points Rofes made in 1998 and Dowsett made even earlier.

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