Tyler Curry's picture

The HIV Generation Gap

Picture of Tyler Curry (@iamtylercurry) courtesy of  Kevin Chung

 

For the past 30 years, gay men have been stuck in a constant sparring match with HIV. For the first two decades of the epidemic, it seemed that we could never measure up to the brute and brawn of this vile disease. But in the third decade of battle, it appears that we are primed for one of the greatest comebacks of all time. This potential victory comes with great loss. Some of our best men who were a part of the initial rounds were knocked out of the battle far too early. Entire communities were ravaged by this ominous foe, leaving only a few where there were once many still standing. Now, these veteran survivors stand along with many new fighters in the battle, but sometimes there is strife within the differing ranks.

Of course, it is to be expected that those who have been a part of the fight since the beginning will have a deeper connection and sense of ownership with their forever "shadow boxer." As these men tell the tales of a time of more funerals than birthday parties, early meds that made you want to die and the hope of just living another year, maybe two, it hardly seems like we are in the same battle at all.

Men like Peter Staley, Mark S. King and Jack Mackenroth and many others paved the road for people like Chris Richey and Scott McPherson of the Stigma Project and myself to enter the ring with a much lesser foe today. These veteran fighters as well as many others have served as mentors for us. They are patient, forgiving and kind as we stumble around, finding our footing in the world of activism.

But just like in any battle, some of these long-term survivors can sometimes hold a bit of resentment toward those who avoided the worst part of the fight. And this sentiment is quite understandable.

The early days of HIV are comparable to very few other epidemics in modern history. Unlike other health crises, an additional layer of shame and blame were included in the symptoms that accompanied the virus. These people were shunned for more than just the fear of infection and were often left alone to face the certainty of death. For the men and women who somehow outlasted their dismal prognosis, and to the many others who fortuitously avoided infection, the pain of losing so many others to the disease is still palpable.

For some, this pain has hardened into a tear-tinged anger toward younger men who are diagnosed today. It can be easy to view these newbies as privileged morons instead of the unknowing victims of the early years. An angry finger is wagged at the newly diagnosed twentysomething who assumedly threw caution to the wind, because any gay men with half a brain knows exactly how HIV is transmitted.

How could these young men not know? Or is HIV considered so easily managed that the younger generation just doesn’t care anymore? The mere possibility of these questions being true is enough to send some long-term survivors into a chastising tirade, complete with a barrage of scary (and out-of-date) side effects, judgmental labels and a healthy serving of shame...just like they received all those years ago.

Although the emotion behind these actions is understandable, the delivery only serves to perpetuate the fear and silence that only helps to increase transmission rates.

As someone who is newly HIV-positive myself, I can only sympathize with long-term survivors of the disease. I would dare not say I could empathize. I will never know how it must have felt to discover you were carrying a death sentence in your bloodstream. I shudder to even imagine having to see my friends waste away around me or to experience the horrendous side effects that were often worse that the disease itself.

And although modern medicine has eradicated the eminent doom that so many gay men from the early years had to face, the stigma that kept so many quiet about their disease is still alive and well. It is within this stigma that you can find the root to a myriad of psychological issues that lead to young, naïve gay men to become infected today.

I know this all too well. Only a year ago, I was unaware that anyone in my immediate social web was living with HIV. They were all too afraid of the judgment that comes attached to the positive label. It was only after I began to bang my drum and call attention to my status that so many around me revealed that they too were living with the disease.

The drastically different generational experiences with HIV can make it almost feel like we are sometimes on opposite sides of the ring. But whether veteran or novice, there is a common vein of shame and stigma that we feel in the fight of HIV. The fighting style of our opponent has changed, and the new fighters must rely on the survivors of the fight to help us keep up the winning streak.

Our bodies are solid. But we need the veterans to help us new fighters strengthen something else.

Our voices.

 

Comments

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As a 59yo gay man, I have seen hundreds of friends and acquaintances die from HIV AIDS. I was passed over somehow.

I have zero sympathy for anyone with newly acquired infection. 

So Tyler, you'll point fingers at others but not own your own place? Aren't you one of the young, careless newbies yourself, if you're newly positive? Don't see where throwing shade helps the cause at hand, Instinct.

Just FYI: It's "sparring match", not "sparing match", which sounds like a way to conserve your matches. That really is just a typo correction, so I hope you don't misinterpret it as "stigma", but I've no doubt you'll do that anyway. m x

Oops! You just gave 3 gay guys HIV by stigmatizing him.

See also: "I shutter to even imagine." What is he, a camera?

Magic Johnson stated that hiv is still a death sentence and acknowledged that 17, 000 people still die every year from aids in the US.. Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death among those with hiv. The cdc recognizes re-infections and co-infections with hiv. Hep c a comon co-infection. There also is the high cost associated with meds that place a huge strain on the healthcare system. As well there are over 250, 000 on the waiting list for hiv meds. Clearly we have a crisis with the continued increases of hiv infections among this generation of gay youth.

We're not using condoms because we're operating under the mantra of, 'if I get infected, I'll just pop a pill'. This precludes any cognition of the fact that HIV has numerous strains and that repeated infections leads to viral mutations. Our ignorance is paving the way to a 'superbug' that will evade current regimens and usher in a new generation of loss. If you are infected and your partner is infected, you must use condoms.

There is no evidence of a super infection, jd.  It's a boogeyman that has failed to materialize, and gay men everywhere figured that out a long time ago.  Two positive men, both on treatment and undetectable, have about as much chance on infecting one another as being struck by lightning (they are essentially both on PrEP).  It's this kind of misinformation that makes us look like old men waving a rake on the front lawn, and about as relevant to the real lives of younger gay men.

We also learned that any comment that includes "you must," when it comes to addressing sexual behavior, holds as much sway as "Just Say No."  As much as you and I might wish (and judge, and cajole) otherwise, we must reach gay men where they are, provide sober facts that don't inflate the risks, and live in the here and now, not in the bloodbath of the 80's.  Our departed friends don't want to be horror movie monsters, scaring the bejesus out of contemporary gay men with false information.  They deserve better than that.

Im 25. I'm negative. I've also slept with over 500 men. I am what a lot of people in my own gay community call, a slut. Chances are you'd look at me and think I wasn't this sexuall active, dressed as a businessman, or maybe even straight. But I have taken notes from our ancestors, and I am SO EXTREMELY grateful for what I have learned. I can not imagine what it must have been like in that time period. How heartbreaking and difficult to not understand. I have learned, however, that sex can be fun, most certainly, but I also believe it is God's gift to us to express a deeper intamacy and love to another person with more intensity than words. Growing up Mormon, when the flood gate I allowed open, I let it all in. (hence my number of sexual partners.) But I knew, as insatiable as my thirst was, to be careful. To use a condom. To ask questions to my potential partners. And to ALWAYS BE SAFE. And this I credit, to a few people who were open and audible about their status as positive. SO THANK YOU.

it's 'shudder'

I have a new gay friend in my life, and knowing him has really made me take a look at how it must feel.  I'm concerned for him, especially because I lost a hs friend to AIDS.  I went to the prom with this guy, and never knew he was gay.  I try not to lecture my friend now. I just tell him to be careful.  I can really see that gay relationships are much like heteorosexual ones in that there's always a first attraction and what we enterpret as "true love."  I grew up as a very religious girl who would judge gays.  Each day, I can just try to see what life is like for this guy.  The most important aspect is that he is a good leader and one of the kindest human beings I know right now.

I was diagnosed 3 years ago in June 2010.  Now 29.  I was in a long term relationship 5 years strong when I discovered my status.  My ex denies all responsability and placed blame on me.  I lost countless friends due to his his  denial. 

I have lived with HIV for 30 years, and your description of the psychic, spiritual shock we experienced in the 1980's is quite accurate.  But I for one have no interest in using my tragedy as a mallet with which to club younger gay men.  In a forum at the recent U.S Conference on AIDS, a roomful of positive people, young and old, discussed our lives with HIV from our respective vantage points, and among our group at least, there was a real generosity and willingness to understand the experience of the other.  It was encouraging.

The cross-generational conflicts between gay men are real, however, as evidenced in Sam's angry and judgmental posted comment.  Of course the disease has changed, and the mortal stakes for gay men in the United States are not nearly as high. Those of us blaming people for newer infections and bemoaning the lack of condom usage might consider that, even in the deadliest days, gay men have never reported consistent condom usage of more than 55%.  Now, when the disease has become a chronic condition, why in the world would these figures surprise us? 

Sorry, I'm in no mood to judge younger gay men.  The pressure to remain negative and to have my every choice literally tested every few months is something I have never experienced, considering I was infected before there was a test, or a crisis for that matter.  

What is more helpful is candid talk about what it means to be positive or negative today -- as a gay man at risk of either becoming infected or being stigmatized.  These conversations, and your writing, Tyler, help us with that goal.  And I'm listening.

Mark S. King

MyFabulousDisease.com

It's easier for a gay man to be infected with HIV than it is for a hetero woman to become pregnant, yet it carries a much greater stigma.

But WHY are so many young men getting infected? Are there really that many defective condoms out there? Or have we attached a certain glamor to high risk behaviors, just because the risk is somewhat lessened from where it used to be? I worry that a lot of the youngest sexually active kids don't understand that HIV is still life changing, even if it is no longer an automatic death sentence.

I too want to come to an understanding of how new cases are acquired. These young men were born into a world with the knowledge of HIV AIDS their entire life. I see many articles about living a young proud life with HIV but no one will engage in a conversation were they take responsibility of irresponsible activities.  Maybe the total truth would be more helpful to everyone especially the younger ones among us.  Fight the fight but be honest of all parts of your journey.

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