Eric Leven

A Reader Writes

Filed By Eric Leven | May 12, 2008 4:45 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: ACT UP, AIDS activism, gay community, HIV/AIDS, homophobic behavior, Michelangelo Signorile, Signoreli

After my Sirius OutQ radio interview with Signoreli, a reader writes:

I've had AIDS for 17 years - the world has changed radically within that span. When it first appeared that an epidemic was looming, the gay community regarded it as yet another form of homophobia, bigotry and exclusion - it took quite some time for it to become 'real.' But by then, we'd all been touched - branded, eviscerated. The horrifying 'I told you so' shock settled into numbness as we took turns on deathbed watch, the toll mounting. A sense of futility permeated my life, but there was always a task at hand (another appointment to keep) to keep me on some sort of pathway. Me, at 28, strolling thru the nightmare, trying so hard to glimpse a deeper understanding of it all.

There is no long and short of it. AIDS has been institutionalized, turned into an ancillary commodity of the pharmaceutical industry. There is no road back from here. Sorry for the bad news, but we had a window in which to exercise prevention, enough for proof-of-concept, and it was a staggering success. As profound and unprecedented as the communal changing of gears may have been, the crucial momentum has been spent.

I now find myself identifying with wignut extraordinare and Obama nemesis Reverend Wright: the government may not have engineered the virus outright, but to stand by or actively oppose educational efforts that could have stemmed the spread is every bit as evil. He's deliberately adopted the shrill end of the message, forcing it upon the current campaign discussion volume cranked full-blast and has been vilified for it - but his wisdom that the only way to be heard above the manufactured distraction is to scream 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre is on-point. Just as I would do, given media proximity and a pulpit. Just as we did in ACT-UP. There is no message more crucial than sexual responsibility. Yet, is it an issue that can be! placed before the public? Madison Avenue clearly thinks not. My gut will always tell me that I have a moral obligation to force faces to the issue, but my brain clearly sees that tact as diplomatic disaster.

In my opinion (yes, I'm going to qualify) the biggest mistake in prevention was to approach prevention as a marketing problem. You can sell soap, but you can't sell depth of awareness. You can't sell involvement. Television and the media no longer confer any sort of credibility, but rather the opposite: mainstream media trivializes everything it touches. Another war, another three letter acronym - another commercial. Yawn. All you can do it push it away. Engaging in this sort of competition may have short term benefits if you can grab enough eyeballs, but good luck holding them in a world so filled with glittering commodities. I would encourage you to discard the methods of the past; everyone's picked up the modules of ! marketing to self-brand their image upon the world without any seeming awareness of the falseness of it all. (The myspace dilemma.)

So - cynical, heartbroken. Yes I admit it but I still want to find a way to be >relevant.< I think that building community is the task before us. TV and the media are relics of a society that didn't work out all that well. It's time to take it to the soil, start at ground zero, focus on finding ways to permit and encourage personal involvement. The message of prevention is always there (the requisite background of subliminal fear and loathing well established) but rather than exploiting or fetishizing it, invite the fear to confront the light of day. How? How to involve strength, clarity, purpose? Authenticity is a key component in cultivating a model for prevention. Recognition of heart and spirit, of a benevolent humanity that can only fall like rain on a culture so long lost in the desert. Connection is another element - my premise is that all humans seek community and it's hard-wired into our biology. Primates are social - politics are a perversion of that basic need. Channel the biologic imperative.

As far as the generational divide, don't give that myth any power. AIDS is primarily a disease of isolation, pushing you farther away the longer you survive. The oldies don't even talk to one another - much less the young. It's an artifact, not an intent. But, given the chance, whole universes of compassion and understanding are there awaiting release. I've seen death up close, and it is very personal - that's why seeing it on TV is so repellent.

This is something worth chewing on for a long while. I appreciate having received this letter and I thank the author tremendously for his input.

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Now I sit with different faces
In rented rooms and foreign places
All the people I was kissing
Some are here and some are missing
In the nineteen-nineties

"Being Boring" by the Pet Shop Boys

Eric, did you ever read To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life by Hervé Guibert?

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | May 12, 2008 10:55 PM


Thanks so much for sharing this letter. There is much to think about here.

I agree with the writer that "building community is the task before us." We must began again to focus on what really matters and for me that means working to ensure that no gay kid will ever grow up feeling ashamed of who he is or afraid to be himself.

A lot of what I see right now that passes for activism is nothing more than round after round of intramural bloodletting. Rather than taking on the homophobic culture which seeks our demise we seem more blinded by hurt and rage which we turn on one another.

One of the things I love most about writing is the incredible love and compassion that you show gay men. It is that kind of commitment to building a stronger community that we need more.

Profound letter - thanks.

I'm reluctant to comment, having watched the RPGs fly in the Rotello-Sullivan pissing match, but here is 2-cents.

We have many prescriptions about 'what to do'. The one above dismisses 'marketing' and embraces a very fundamental concept of creating community, of belonging and of 'authenticity'.

These seem to ring true notes.

What I continue to miss from the 'popular' discussions that cause people to disagree about what to do is the precursor to those discussions.

Where is the thorough-going analysis of why people are still being infected today? I'm looking for a sensitive psycho-social analysis, not just ... epidemiology, dry cut, or what was intuited from a few conversations eor interviews in a non-systematic way.

Until such a "diagnosis" is available, mostly broad-brush solutions will be proposed, with only a scatter-shot chance at success in lowering rates of infection.

Last, some behaviors cannot be stopped, only the playing field can be tilted against them. This merely suggests that 'The Solution' is likely to be some complex combination of prevention and remediation (at least until there is definitive prevention in the for of a vaccine, the timeline for which was recently pushed out, yet again, perhaps a generation ...).

okay. So that was more like 15-cents of stuff that kinda sounds pedantic when I read it back. Make of it what you will. g'nite.

I see the task for community building getting harder and harder as the gay secondary identity gets less and less important for some when they find they have the same rights as everyone else.

Market sexual responsibility in the face of a media that glorifies irresponsibility with more money and airtime than we'll ever have access to seems like a pretty big task.