Recent issues of Out Front have contained numerous letters dealing with the possibility that AIDS may be a diabolical plot to eliminate the influence of gay people and our liberation movement. In a parallel vein, much concern has been raised that the recent decision by the State Board of Health in Colorado to make infection with HTLV-111 (the “AIDS virus”) a reportable condition is detrimental to the civil liberties of gay men and may be the first step to the concentration camp. At a recent conference sponsored by the Colorado AIDS Project, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder was the keynote speaker. The Congresswoman raised the issue of the very real power of the new right and the setbacks already experienced by progressive elements at the hands of these zealots.
One statement made by Ms. Schroeder, though I disagree with vehemently, is that HTLV-111 antibody testing should be made anonymous. The rationale being that fears around confidentiality are keeping many individuals from learning their antibody status and then being more conscientious about changing behaviors that put themselves and others at risk for infection with the virus. I think this would be a step backwards with potentially tragic consequences for all those at risk for HTLV-111 infection in the state.In this piece I would like to explore why I feel it is necessary for all at risk to be tested and not anonymously.
Though I by no means think it is inapropriate to realize that there are many people out there who think AIDS is just what we deserve and the sooner it kills us all the better, we are making a mistake by backing ourselves into a corner/closet by adapting the stance that everyone is out to get us. Some people are and some people are not. A distinction I am making is that when I hear Jerry Falwell talk of closing the baths and quarantine he does not have our well being in mind, whereas when state health officials say reportability of HTLV-III infection is a necessary step in contolling the AIDS epidemic I believe they have our best interests at heart.
I am taking a risk by trusting these health officials. They are, for the most part, straight men who have little or no idea about the real oppression we face as gay people. Nonetheless, I feel they are right when they say it is time AIDS be removed from the arena of politics and put into the medical context it should be. Though these men only view the gay world and have never experienced it they are not naive about the world-at-large and perhaps can see the actual power of the malicious homophobic element of society more realistically than we can at times. As I said I am taking a risk here, but infection with HTLV-III is such a serious matter that a certain amount of risk taking is necessary and inevitable on our part if we ever expect to get out of this nightmare.
In spite of the issue of reportability I still believe all gay men, heterosexuals who have been sexually active with anyone from a known risk group, IV drug users, hemophiliacs, and transfusion recipients (from 1977-late spring 1985) should be tested for antibody against HTLV-III. I believe the public sector should be utilized when getting tested and if you do choose to be tested at a private clinic or by your personal physician be quite assertive in asking about guarantees of confidentiality. The possibility of losing one’s health and/or life insurance if the insuring company finds out you are HTLV-III positive or even a member of a risk group is very real. They are not going to learn this information from the Colorado Dept. of Health nor are they even going to try to get this information from the record of reportability. They will find it out all on their own.
I do not encourage anyone to deal with testing positive alone. It is very important however that you carefully choose who you will share this information with. The recent tragic experience of the 17 year old Denver high school student is a dramatic example. The Colorado AIDS Project will soon be starting support/information groups for those testing positive if your gay/lesbian family support system is not adequate.
It is important that we look closely and honestly at why we may be avoiding being tested. Concerns about the meaning and value of the test have faded. I believe it is an accurate test in the hands of those who know how to interpret and use it. Taking this test at this time is a risk and there is no argument there. My feeling though is that most of us avoid the test because we simply don’t want to know–especially if we are positive. It is not easy to face the fact that we may be infected with a virus that could kill us in the same horrific way it is cutting down our friends and lovers. That’s scary.
The current level of hysteria gripping many heterosexuals around the AIDS issue coupled with their fear of gay people is going to result in many bad things happening to lots of us. Our response to this needs to be aggressive and non-compromising confrontation of any “queer bashing” in the name of AIDS. We are only hurting ourselves and quite frankly being delusional if we think we can hide out in our closets around these issues until a “cure” comes along.
Although my opinions on the desireability of being tested have appeared in OUT FRONT in a prior issue (June 21, 1985) let me present again some positive reasons for doing so as they have evolved over the summer months.
I have been tested and based on my own personal experience I know it is easier to modify one’s behavior knowing your own antibody status. Whether positive or negative, knowing that information results in a profoundly different way of viewing each potential sexual situation. Rationalized behavior is much easier when you can say “well, I don’t know.” Some argue that it doesn’t matter what your antibody status is. Everyone should be practicing safe sex. Intellectually that is fine but I do not think it translates well into the heat of the night.
Another argument against being tested is that there is nothing that can be done if you are positive as no cure exists for AIDS. You cannot be “cured” if you are positive but there is plenty besides safe sexual practices that you can do to pamper yourself and hopefully your immune system. Begin by looking at your diet. Are you getting enough rest? How much alcohol are you consuming? Are street drugs a part of your life? Are your job and living situation particular sources of stress? Once again, that positive test can be a strong incentive to initiate some lifestyle changes and alterations just as many people will stop smoking, lose weight and control their blood pressure after experiencing their first heart attack.
One strong argument in favor of testing for HTLV-III antibody status is simply the desensitization that will result from the widespread use of the test by at-risk populations. I believe this will, in the long run, help to de-politicize the entire situation and also remove much of the “fear of knowing” which I believe is currently keeping many gay men from being tested. We need to view this test as the valuable tool it can be in bringing a halt to the devastation caused by this virus. I sometimes think we do not realize the gravity of this situation. It is calling for action now! We as gay people no longer have the choice of adapting a wait and see posture on this matter. It’s here and no-one is going to come along with a magic wand and make it disappear.
Finally I would like to throw out a possible scenario for you to think about. There are thousands of persons with AIDS and there will be many thousands more. There are tens of thousands of people with ARC (AIDS related condition) and there will be tens of thousands more. These people do not have the luxury of adapting a wait and see approach. It is not possible nor in any way desireable for these individuals to be followed and treated medically in an anonymous manner. Your medical care can be delivered in a confidential manner but it can’t be done by number. To those of you out there advocating anonymous testing as a means of protecting civil liberties and closets, let me ask what you are doing every time some homophobe tramples on someone with AIDS or ARC? Let’s assume the worst for a minute and say the new right is able to convert there agenda into national policy and a year from now camps are set up to forcefully quaratine all those known to be infected with this virus. Will you sit quietly in your closet behind your anonymous number and watch your brothers and sisters be carted off?
This is war folks and it is important to our survival that we openly and vigorous confront any discrimination of HTLV-III infected people. Simultaneously we must continue our educational efforts in the straight community. The goal is the eradication of AIDS. An important step is learning who is infected. The antibody test is a useful tool, we cannot be denied access to it by homophobic elements of society who want to club us over the head with it. My arguments are survivalist! Be reportable. Get tested. Be powerful!