Just in time for National HIV Testing Awareness Day The New York Times published an essay by Patrick William Kelly called ‘The End of Safe Gay Sex?’
In his essay Mr. Kelly makes a number of assertions including that no one is using condoms because of developments like PrEP but the pièce de résistance comes in a series of paragraphs that was a shot across the bow of everyone who’s ever ACTed UP:
AIDS indelibly shaped what it meant to be gay in the 1980s and 1990s. When I came out at the tender age of 14 in 1998, I recall my mother’s reaction. As tears welled up in her eyes, she buried her face in her hands and said, “I just don’t want you to get H.I.V.” No stranger to controversial allusions, the AIDS activist and author Larry Kramer famously called it a homosexual “holocaust.” Condom use, therefore, was never a negotiating chip.
Until it was. PrEP, which the Food and Drug Administration approved in 2012, replaces the condom’s comforting shield. Liberated from the stigma of AIDS, gay men, many people think, are now free to revert to their carnivorous sexual selves. In this rendering, the condom is kryptonite, a relic that saps the virile homosexual of his primordial sexual power.
AIDS is no longer a crisis, at least in the United States, and that is a phenomenal public-health success story. But it also means that an entire generation of gay men has no memory or interest in the devastation it wrought. AIDS catalyzed a culture of sexual health that has begun to disintegrate before our eyes. What is there to be done to bring it back?
One answer is to recall the gay culture of the 1970s that gave rise to the AIDS crisis in the first place. The myth of a world of sex without harm is not new. The 1970s were a time of unprecedented sexual freedom for gay men, during which diseases were traded rampantly, fueled by a libertine culture that saw penicillin as the panacea for all ills.
The nonchalant dismissal of the condom today flies in the face of the very culture of sexual health that gay men and lesbians constructed in the 1980s. If a hyper-resistant strand of another life-threatening S.T.I. develops, we will rue the day that we forgot the searing legacies of our past. We might also recognize that PrEP has not proved nearly as effective a prevention strategy for women as it has for men, and that some strains of H.I.V. have developed resistance to the drug.
Now we don't have time to unpack all of that — but besides the sex shaming and stigmatizing language the Op-Ed came across as a hodgepodge of some debatable statistics and an inchoate thesis. Kelly seems to throw just about everything at the wall to see what stuck and then his responses on Twitter just made things worse:
And to specific critics:
Well that escalated quickly.
Veteran HIV-Activist Peter Staley fumed on Facebook: "I love reading about the early AIDS years from someone who was 14 in 1998. This has got to be the worst AIDS editorial ever run in the New York Times. Unbelievable. And it will cost lives. He went on to say: One thing I know, deep in my bones, is that the deaths of a generation of black, brown and white gay men are not some hook for your god-damned morality tale about how we were trying to live and thrive in the 70's. Fuck The New York Times.”
Read Staley's takedown of Kelly on Twitter.
Kelly is kind to Staley:
Jezebel quickly issued a retort that hilariously said, among other things, regarding Kelly's Op-Ed: "Besides ignoring it outright—a wonderful strategy for dealing with whatever serving of bullshit the world wants to give you on any given morning (literally, go meditate, direct your thoughts elsewhere, live your best life in your head)—I’m inclined to go through and respond to some of its assertions."
Jezebel concludes: "There is a group based in New York right now dedicated to breaking the patent that Gilead has on Truvada, as the pharmaceutical company’s stronghold leads to price gouging and inaccessibility. The answer is not to throw up our hands and say, “Oh well, better get back to pretending like condoms are the only solution.” The past four decades have shown us that they are not—Kelly’s piece is so consumed with preserving this notion of gay culture without actually doing much work to take its temperature.
I’m not advocating a complete rejection of condoms. Use ‘em if you like ‘em! The complete rejection that I am advocating for is that of the kind of senseless handwringing that Patrick William Kelly’s stands for. It helps absolutely no one."
Jezebel's own assertions are contentious as it states that HIV "continues to affect certain groups within that population like black and Latino men who have sex with men" which not only continues to spread the falsehood that only "certain groups" are HIV-positive but also fuels racism.
As Tim Kelly of The Project of The Quad Cities told me, "I can't tell you how many young white gay dudes think they are immune from HIV as long as they don't fuck black or brown guys. I tell them that 97 percent of the AIDS death in Iowa were gay white guys, they simply don't believe it."
Patrick William Kelly also later claims that he was writing what he was assigned — if that's the case then it's not an Op-Ed — but above all he encorages anyone who wants to have a civilized conversation to contact him at: [email protected]
But the best commenter on this thread and man who sums up my feelings came from Plus contributor and founder of My Fabulous Disease Mark S. King, who "can't even" with this Op-Ed. But commented: "As someone carrying HIV antibodies older than Mr. Kelly, let me assure him that the decline in use of the once-obligatory condom does not spell the end of civilization, gay or otherwise. Instead, gay men are making, by and large, informed choices and adjusting behaviors as best they can in the current, non-crisis climate. And as an old AIDS activism warhorse, that is exactly why I fought in the streets decades ago. If the price of a greatly diminished AIDS crisis is some classic youthful apathy, then great. I'll take it. Most offensive of all is Mr. Kelly equating passionate, risky choices to some kind of death wish or psychosis. Please. Can you imagine anyone writing this way about the hetersexxual STI's or unplanned pregnancies? ("Carnivorous sexual selves?" "Primordial?") Gay men are human, nothing more or less, and capable of the same urges, mistakes, and escapist behaviors of anyone else. Only when this kind of finger-pointing and double standards stop will be ever be able to approach gay sex—and gay men—as healthy and worthy of pleasure and self care."
Amen to that.
Oh and the Times notes: "Mr. Kelly is a historian writing a global history of AIDS."
I can't wait!