I suppose this is an example where a politically neutral examination the transmission of a viral entity through a network suddenly takes on a huge weight of real-world issues and commentary and ends up looking totally different. Jason Kottke has written an intelligent post about the spread of HIV through the gay community outlining some of the areas that one would have to examine more fully before it would be possible to make a statement like: “Although he was considered part of a high-risk group, HIV is host agnostic. With just a slight twist of events, the virus could have first found its way into the straight communities of North America.”
All well and good, except that analysing anything to do with as emotive and politically volatile as HIV or ‘gay culture’ – however indirectly – may end up accidentally buying into some of the language and unspoken ideologies that have been weighed against same-sex relationships. I’m just going to highlight a few of the unspoken assumptions and issues that I see emerging from Jason’s post – while appreciating as I do so that it clearly wasn’t his intention to say anything politically dodgy.
Jason asserts of Gaetan Dugas, alleged Patient Zero within American soil: “since Dugas was a homosexual, he probably got it from another homosexual who got it from another homosexual, etc. By the time it got to Dugas, AIDS was probably already established in the gay community; he just accelerated its progress.” Clearly being in a high-risk group (gay men having unprotected anal sex with a variety of partners) it is likely that he would have contracted the disease through his relationships. But the assertion that since he was gay he caught it from other gay people doesn’t follow and gets dangerously close to supporting the ‘gay plague’ position that was prevelant when I was a frightened teenager growing up in rural Norfolk. In fact he or one of his partners may very well have contracted it from another person or species of animal of sexuality unknown. More importantly large numbers of people contracted the disease through infected blood transfusions or by blood contact via injury.
And if he did contract it from another gay person that doesn’t mean it was established in the gay community. If it was a disease that jumped species, then it’s just as plausible that he contracted the disease from a gay member of the ‘farming’ community. All these community structures have frayed edges and bleed into one another.
Which brings me to another point of argument, the stereotype of a community of ‘promiscuous homosexuals’ as if this group existed world-wide as a uniform monoculture. Actually instead this community was to a large extent culturally isolated among a particular metropolitan liberal west coast culture of gay men – and even then probably amounted to just the most visible and socially active component of the gay people in that area.
This gets even more complicated when you bring time into the equation as well – because it’s not promiscuous homosexuals that spread diseases – it’s nothing but particular exchanges of bodily fluids – and in the age of the readily-available condom, that translates to the statement that it’s ignorance and lack of information that spread diseases (not the gender or sexuality of the people concerned at all). I know for certain that there’s a generation of gay people today who have loads of sex with a large variety of people but manage to do so while being very much less likely to contract or spread STDs simply because they are more careful.
Which brings us right down to the crux of the matter – when Jason asks whether the partners of straight people are “more or less likely to spread the disease through their own promiscuity than the partners of promiscuous homosexuals” he makes at least one implicit accidental move that throws his whole post into question. Because if we are isolating homosexuality as a risk-factor in the spread of veneral disease then we also have to consider that gay women are far far less likely to contract or spread HIV than almost anyone else. Because the issue here is not that promiscuous homosexuals spread disease, it’s that people who have had unprotected anal sex are more able to transmit HIV than other people – whether they be straight, gay, men, women or anywhere in between…