The hundreds who crammed into a lecture hall in New York City’s East Village in November 2004 expected to witness the next Great Moment in gay politics. We’d just gotten creamed in the elections, public health officials were reporting yet another troubling surge of new HIV infections among gay men and Larry Kramer was to take the stage and tell us all how to get things, well, straightened out–just as he had twenty years ago, when he helped create both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and ACT UP. But Kramer was in no mood for a second coming.
“Grow up and behave responsibly,” the famously cranky 70-year-old playwright and activist railed as he lectured young queers about how we’d brought this apocalypse upon ourselves. “Can’t I get stoned and bareback one more time?” he said, mocking gay men’s supposedly nihilistic desire for drugs and unsafe sex. “No, you can’t! Are you out of your fucking minds? You kids want to die.”
If you’ve paid even passing attention to the conversation about gay men and our sex lives in the year since Kramer’s tirade, you may think he was putting it mildly. In June the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled yet another batch of jaw-dropping statistics about gay men and HIV: We now account for 45 percent of all people living with the virus in the United States. Between 1999 and 2003, new infections jumped a whopping 47 percent among 20- to 24-year-old gay and bisexual men. And in one study of gay and bisexual men in five major cities, CDC researchers found 46 percent of African-Americans were HIV-positive.
It’s not just HIV. Last month, the CDC noted that syphilis rates are up in America for the fourth straight year–driven by infections among gay men, who went from being 5 percent of all diagnosed cases in 1999 to 64 percent in 2004. We’ve passed gonorrhea back and forth so much that nearly one-quarter of cases diagnosed among gay and bisexual men last year were drug-resistant, compared to just under 2 percent for straight folks.
And all of this data comes on the heels of a frightening announcement in February about a potential new HIV superstrain in New York City–a bug resistant to almost every available drug that rapidly progressed from infection to illness. The local health department has since backed off the claim; researchers never identified any other cases, which means it was likely a routine manifestation of the oft-documented ways in which HIV behaves oddly in some bodies. But the hysteria the health department’s announcement caused revealed the profound anxiety–and real anger–percolating among those charged with stopping AIDS among gay men.
Kramer has been making a living on the political extremes for decades, but his screed last winter is not so far out of step with today’s gay mainstream. The scorched-earth speech was reprinted in Kramer’s well-received book, The Tragedy of Today’s Gays–a turn of phrase Focus on the Family’s James Dobson must be kicking himself for not having coined first. Words like “suicide” and “murder” come up with increasing regularity in conversations about HIV prevention. One story in the New York Times‘s weeklong orgy of superstrain coverage cited unidentified gay activists who planned to raid parties and clubs where they suspected unsafe sex went on.
The frustration is understandable. From grassroots activists to government officials, everyone’s stumped on how so many gay men could once again be putting themselves in harm’s way, after two decades of targeted prevention that significantly reduced HIV infection rates in the late 1990s. The haphazard explanations vary–it’s the Internet; it’s crystal meth; it’s those “down-low” straight black men who secretly fuck other guys, too–but underpinning each is a belief that we’ve lost our fear of this thing, and we’ve got to get it back. “Fear did work in the ’80s,” one activist told a packed public forum weeks after the superbug announcement. “Anyone who says it didn’t is lying.”