GAY COMMUNITY: High
and at Risk
By Patrick Moore
Patrick Moore's most
recent book is "Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History
of Radical Gay Sexuality," published by Beacon Press
June 13, 2004
Next weekend's gay pride
festivities in Los Angeles are likely to be the
usual rollicking celebration of battles won and hardships overcome.
The gay community is rightfully proud of its response to the first
decades of the AIDS epidemic. And we have reason to rejoice in ongoing
advances. But, as we celebrate, there is still a vexing problem
we need to
come to terms with: the centrality of drugs and alcohol to gay culture.
Exhausted from decades
of struggle, gays have been reluctant to openly
discuss the problem of substance abuse. But now an array of studies
suggests that drug and alcohol abuse is a central factor in the
rise of new HIV infections among gay men over the last several years.
Which means the problem can no longer be ignored.
Twenty-five years into
the AIDS crisis, nearly every gay man knows that
condoms can prevent HIV transmission. But after a few drinks or
high, condom use can seem a lot less important. And the increasing
use by gay men of crystal methamphetamine - which is both cheap
and disinhibiting - raises even more troubling new health issues.
As crystal meth use among gay men has spread, a return to risky
sexual practices has followed in its wake. Not only does unsafe
sex lead to new infections, it can result in reinfections with new
strains of the virus, which in turn can lead to drug-resistant strains
Changing the relationship
of gays to drugs and alcohol won't be easy. Bars and clubs are among
the most common places for gay people, particularly gay men, to
meet one another. And for many gays, drugs and alcohol have become
medications that allow them to be themselves, enabling them to shed
culturally induced inhibitions and shame that can stand in the way
of a fulfilling sexual life.
In predominately gay
neighborhoods, bars and clubs are everywhere. And city governments
dependent on tax revenues from these businesses have little incentive
to consider their effects. Take the case of West Hollywood. In one
particular census tract there, the state's Department of Alcoholic
Beverage Control suggests that the appropriate number of establishments
that sell alcohol on site would be five. There are currently 65
such licensees operating in the area, each of them paying taxes.
Perhaps the time has come for a moratorium on new liquor licenses
in heavily gay communities, along with leadership at the local level
in developing social alternatives to bars and clubs.
Many mainstream gay organizations
will have trouble speaking out about
alcohol abuse because of their dependence on the liquor industry.
If you've been to many gay charity events, you've probably sipped
a martini courtesy of Absolut or Tanqueray. For years, the California
bicycle tour to raise money for AIDS groups was officially known
as the Tanqueray AIDSRide. Given that charities are desperate for
dollars, it is difficult for them to turn away from alcohol sponsorships.
But with drug and alcohol abuse leading to so many new HIV infections,
nonprofit organizations must somehow wean themselves from these
problematic sources of support.
Some argue that gays
shouldn't as a group be stigmatized, that rates of
addiction are high across the culture. It's true that studies have
comparable rates of alcohol dependency among straights and gays.
But studies have also found that gays are more likely than straights
to abuse drugs, and the threat of HIV changes the risk equation
for the gay community.
New models of HIV outreach
focusing on drugs and alcohol are desperately needed but have been
stubbornly resisted. With gay men still accounting for the majority
of new HIV infections in the United States, we must finally develop
education and counseling services that acknowledge the intertwined
epidemics of AIDS and addiction.
For ideas, we could look
to places like the Van Ness Recovery House in
Hollywood (on whose board I formerly sat). The group works inside
bathhouses and sex clubs to provide education where it's most needed.
Its approach makes some people uncomfortable: It accepts that anonymous
sex among gay men using drugs is going to continue to happen, and
so aims to find a way to make it safer.
This idea of meeting
addicts where they are isn't always a welcome approach in a community
increasingly interested in respectability. It is becoming more difficult
to honestly discuss issues of drug and alcohol abuse as many gay
community leaders work to project a squeaky-clean image. Alcoholics,
drug addicts, the effeminate, the promiscuous and the poor do not
fit into the current gay political agenda, which features marriage
as its central goal. The newly minted gay role model is a healthy,
monogamous, married, affluent man with adopted children who has
a corporate job but still has time to decorate the apartments of
his straight friends. This stereotype represses the broad reality
of gay life.
Those of us who face
challenges like alcoholism and addiction, whose
childhoods have scarred us in ways we may never fully understand,
and who struggle to find a fulfilling sexual life free of shame,
are still viable
members of the gay community. The reality of American gay life needs
to be acknowledged in all of its complexity if we are to avert another
wave of HIV infections.
Any recovering alcoholic
or addict can tell you that the ability to be
honest is the cornerstone of sobriety. Perhaps the gay community
has some recovery to do. Pride is not necessarily built on respectability.
Rather, it grows from honesty, and it is the antidote to shame.
Reprinted by permission of the Author.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles