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Richard Cohen

A Warning, From Gays to Gays

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page A25

Much of life's wisdom is contained in a single piece of dialogue in George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan": the exchange between the Inquisitor and the Chaplain during the trial of Joan of Arc. The Inquisitor orders the Chaplain to sit down. When the Chaplain indignantly refuses, the Inquisitor says, "If you will not sit, you must stand." To that, the Chaplain says, "I will not stand," and flings himself into his seat. Often, as Shaw knew, the best reason to do something is that someone else doesn't want you to do it.

Tragically, this juvenile reasoning partially accounts for the apparent upsurge in HIV infections among gay males -- and the emergence of a virulent new strain that has health officials plenty worried. Simply put, it is the determination of some gays -- a minority, but a substantial one -- to disregard all the rules for safe sex because being gay, they think, means you don't have to follow any rules at all. That's just plain dumb.

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My guru in such matters is Charles Kaiser, the author of "The Gay Metropolis." For a long time now, this writer of both renown and common sense has been pleading with his fellow gays to -- my words here -- grow up. Unprotected sex is reckless, and unprotected sex between gays who are already HIV-positive will sooner or later produce a super strain of the disease. That may already have happened.

Kaiser is not alone in his apprehension. Larry Kramer, maybe the most famous of the gay writer-activists, and HIV-positive himself, has also been calling for restraint -- to no avail, it seems. The emergence of drugs that have vastly expanded the life span of men who are HIV-positive has given some gays a sense of invulnerability. That, coupled with a Shavian determination not to be told what to do, leads too many gays into unsafe sex practices. A common philosophy, according to Kaiser, goes like this: "I am not subject to the rules."

For too long now heterosexuals have kept out of this debate. Many of us have been protective of gays, seeing them primarily as victims of discrimination. We have been encouraged in our protectiveness by the calculated homophobia or pathetic ignorance of several Republican administrations, which continues to this day. Just recently, for instance, the new secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, warned PBS against airing an episode of the children's show "Postcards From Buster" because it showed a family headed by a lesbian couple. She undoubtedly will get a medal from the president for this.

Other medals will be awarded for the continuing effort to keep young people as ignorant as possible about sex and, especially, contraception. While it is not remotely possible that any gay man over a certain age is not conversant with AIDS and its consequences, that may not be the case with, say, a 15-year-old about to become sexually active. He or she needs to know about risky sex and how to avoid disease. Think of it as driver's ed for the body.

But while gays clearly have their enemies, that should not mean they are immune from criticism. The fact remains that a portion of the gay population -- maybe 20 percent, Kaiser estimates -- conducts itself in ways that are not only reckless but just plain disgusting. Unprotected, promiscuous sex in bathhouses and at parties and using drugs such as crystal meth to prolong both desire and performance are practices that should be no more acceptable for gays than for heterosexuals. Gays don't get some sort of pass just because they're gay.

About 40,000 Americans a year continue to be infected with the AIDS virus. While their lives can be prolonged, it can be only at considerable cost -- and not forever, either. An increasing number of AIDS victims are heterosexual black women, but most are gay men. Whatever they are, they are first and foremost human beings. They are entitled to their own sexuality, but not to behavior that endangers others, costs us all plenty and, too often, entails a determined self-destruction that too many heterosexuals overlook.

Back in the 1970s William Ryan of Boston College popularized the term "blaming the victim." It gave voice to a needed concept, but it also silenced critics who saw that sometimes the victim needed to be blamed. This is the case now with gays when their behavior is both stupid and reckless. When they're victims of discrimination, they need to be defended. When they're victims of their own behavior, they need to be condemned.

cohenr@washpost.com


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