The wary truce between HIV positive and HIV negative gay men is crumbling. We resent one another more than ever before, it appears.
During the latest permutation of the AIDS crisis, when lives have been extended and the crisis mentality has receded, there has been a silent understanding between those of us who are HIV positive, and our friends who have remained negative. We won't make them feel guilty about being negative if they don't blame us for being positive.
The whole topic is fraught with shame and guilt and blame, and keeping our opinions to ourselves (or within our respective group) has been the collective response.
That is, until last week, when I posted a video "in praise of HIV negative gay men" as part of my video blog My Fabulous Disease. The response, from both positive and negative men, was fast and infuriated. And they say a lot about the thin layer of restraint covering some deep resentments.
In the video, I wanted to lift up those who are negative, because I don't believe they get enough credit for staying that way. I haven't had to take an HIV test for 25 years; I don't have their anxiety over testing every six months, nor are all my sexual choices "tested" with every result. I contend that the lives of HIV negative men can be more stressful trying to avoid HIV, than my life is living with it.
I'm comfortable making this argument because I'm HIV-positive. I've been washed in the blood. I'm cloaked in the righteousness of knowing what it's like to live with HIV. (I despise this viral-centric distinction, by the way. Knowing "what it's like" isn't based on HIV status. My brother lost his partner of 14 years to AIDS although he remains negative. Tell him he doesn't know what it's like to live with HIV. I dare you.)
When I posted the video all hell broke loose. HIV positive men wrote me to say how they suffered from constant rejection, from the bars to the online cruise sites. They howled about how horrific their medications were, when they could afford them. Never mind that the video meant to support negative men, nothing more. They rejected the notion that HIV negative men needed "coddling" and called them "lucky." And that I was selfish and irresponsible. And please take them off my mailing list.
HIV negative men responding even more ferociously. How dare I mock them, they wanted to know. My earnest exclamations of "Thata boy!" and "Good job!" were taken as sarcasm. My own lack of anxiety over not being regularly tested infuriated them ("How dare you suggest you have it easy now. So you think we should all just become HIV positive?"). They said I was selfish and irresponsible. And please take them off my mailing list.
And all because I tried to speak honestly about how important it is to acknowledge the good behaviors of negative men. It was especially disconcerting to feel as if the very men I was trying to praise had taken such offense. Why? Was their survivor's guilt so close to the surface that these wounded men didn't know a sincere message of support when they heard it?
This isn't a contest. There's enough stress and grief to go around. But it was fascinating to be witness to so many men who either won't address their resentments openly or insist their hardship is greater than yours.
In the 1980's, AIDS forced us from the beer busts and into community service. It sneered at our body conscious culture and turned our friends into withered shells. And it taught us to drop our differences and get to work helping each other.
Those lessons are fading faster than the death rate. And I'm going to keep on writing about it.