In 2001, Lifelong AIDS Alliance (LAA) held its annual AIDS Walk two weeks earlier than usual, on September 9. The 2001 AIDS Walk brought in $600,000 for LAA's programs, falling short of LAA's fundraising goal by $200,000. Six hundred grand may sound like a lot of money, but as recently as 1998 the AIDS Walk was bringing in more than a million dollars a year for Lifelong AIDS Alliance (then known as the Northwest AIDS Foundation). In 1995, the AIDS Walk pulled in $1.4 million.
The 2001 AIDS Walk was a huge disappointment for LAA. The agency blamed the event's lackluster take on two things: complacency and bad timing. In papers on Monday, September 10, 2001, LAA claimed that the earlier-than-usual AIDS Walk took people by surprise. The very next day, of course, Islamo-fascists took the country by surprise, hijacking four planes and, well, we can all recite the rest. The timing of LAA's AIDS Walk in 2001 wasn't bad, it was perfect. If the walk had taken place after September 11, can you imagine how much worse things would've been for LAA?
Well, we no longer have to imagine a post-9/11 AIDS Walk. This Sunday's AIDS Walk on September 22 will be the first to take place after last year's terrorist attacks, and I have a hunch that LAA won't meet its $650,000 fundraising goal; they'll be lucky to take in half a million. Why? Because the attacks last September 11 reminded Americans what an unexpected blow looks like, which doesn't bode well for AIDS organizations or the people they serve.
I'm Complacent, You're
I used to think about AIDS all the time, read about AIDS constantly, and do a lot of writing about AIDS. But in the last few years, I've found it harder and harder to give a shit about AIDS. Instead, I want to write about the monorail or Iraq--this despite the fact that two of my best friends in the whole world are now infected with HIV.
I'm not alone in my new attitude toward HIV/AIDS. One longtime LAA volunteer wrote me two years ago to tell me why he wasn't going to the AIDS Walk anymore. Gay men he knew were getting themselves infected by taking stupid risks, and he found it harder and harder to feel much sympathy for gay men who were getting infected with HIV. Knowing that people were living longer with HIV/AIDS didn't make him want to donate money to AIDS organizations. Since people with AIDS were now living longer and healthier lives, he argued, AIDS organizations should remake themselves along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous. In AA, the alcoholics take care of the alcoholics. Now that most people with HIV were healthy and working, perhaps it was time for people with HIV to take care of themselves.
Some people who work in AIDS assumed that the outpouring of money and support would go on forever (that it would be lifelong?), but the level of support that people with HIV/AIDS received was a compassionate response to a crisis--and, as we've seen, a temporary response.
What Does Any Of This Have To Do With 9/11?
The first time I attended a safe-sex workshop, the instructor (who later died of the disease) described AIDS as something that slammed into the gay community. "We were broadsided," I remember him saying. "The gay community has been victimized by a deadly virus that relied on our ignorance of its existence and how it was spread, but now we know how this disease is spread and we have the tools to stop it in its tracks."
Like gay men in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the people who died on 9/11 were broadsided, although they were victimized by deadly religious fanatics and not a slow-acting virus. Still, death was an unknown consequence of going to work or getting on a plane on 9/11, just as death was an unknown consequence of the gay male sex culture of the 1970s and early 1980s. Broadsided by a deadly disease acquired during a natural act, every AIDS victim was innocent--of guilt, and of value judgments.
Which brings us to the gay male sex culture of 2002:
"After years of decline, syphilis infections appear to be on the rise, especially among gay and bisexual men in Manhattan.... The presence of syphilis enhances the transmissibility of HIV, and the new figures could be a harbinger of an increase in HIV transmissions, officials said."--The New York Post
"Gay and bisexual men in the Los Angeles area are engaging in risky sex--often with multiple partners in public places--even when they know they have tested positive for the AIDS virus...."--The Los Angeles Times
"An alarming number of people in San Diego and elsewhere are knowingly infecting others with the AIDS virus...."--The San Diego Union-Tribune
All of this is met with silence or conspicuous displays of handwringing at various AIDS organizations. Instead of challenging gay men, AIDS organizations have made it their mission to make excuses for gay men. ("Don't blame gay men for rising HIV infection rates! It's our low self-esteem! Condom fatigue! Drug use! Depression! All of which are caused by your homophobia, you big, bad straight people!") I would say that the AIDS organizations are themselves complacent, but I don't think that's quite strong enough a word. What they are is complicit.
While AIDS activists argue about drug access and drug-resistance and re-infection, gay men are re-creating the sex culture that facilitated the emergence of a fatal sexually transmitted disease. By the time a cure is found for AIDS, hundreds or thousands of gay men might already be infected with a new, improved, deadlier STD. And if that happens--when that happens?--there won't be a lot of sympathy for gay men. No walks, no dines, no bowls. We won't be able to claim that we didn't know, that we couldn't have seen it coming. It had already happened once. Of course we should've seen it coming.
The AIDS crisis ended in 1996. What we're facing now is a stupidity crisis among some gay men and a cowardice crisis among AIDS organizations (which are largely staffed by gay men). Isn't it ironic that AIDS organizations are silent (what does silence equal again?) while a sub-group of gay men re-create the communal septic tank culture of the late 1970s? And why not? Many gay men believe that someone else will pay for their AIDS drugs and go to the walk while they pay for their party drugs and go to the baths.
Don't assume, boys. What 9/11 did was remind the world just what a blow-from-the-blue looks like. Those infected with HIV--be they barebackers or bug chasers or just unlucky saps who naively believed that "low risk" meant no risk--were quickly burning through what was left of the stores of sympathy for people with HIV before 9/11.
Post-9/11, all bets are off. The difference between being broadsided and being stupid has been thrown into high relief. Our stupidity isn't going to bring people to the AIDS Walk. It's going to drive them to the next Red Cross fundraiser.
On 9/11, people were reminded why they cared so much about people with AIDS in the first place. Something terrible had happened to innocent people, people going about their daily lives, unaware that seemingly innocent actions were leading them toward a horrifying and gruesome tragedy.
We can't make that claim about AIDS anymore--not with a straight face, anyway. And even if we could, who would believe us?