D.C. Gay Group Battles 'AIDS Fatigue'

Shawn Henderson, 32, leads D.C. Young Poz Socials, an HIV support group for gay men, who account for a large proportion of new HIV diagnoses.
Shawn Henderson, 32, leads D.C. Young Poz Socials, an HIV support group for gay men, who account for a large proportion of new HIV diagnoses. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

Josh arrives two hours late, still wondering why he even bothered to show.

This is a party for HIV-positive gay men. And though those gathered in this Northeast Washington condo are supposed to be his new clan -- he tested positive in December -- he feels out of place. At 22, he's used to meeting guys on the Internet, hooking up, then moving on, not standing around engaging in polite conversation about drug treatments or camping trips.

But Shawn Henderson, head of D.C. Young Poz Socials, an HIV support group, never lets up. He's always trying to get Josh involved. And now here's Henderson, getting too close, hugging too tightly, being the too-perfect host as he ushers Josh through this moment.

A 35-year-old nursing a Coors Light in the living room is asking about the side effects of HIV medications. A 33-year-old smoking a Marlboro on the patio talks about the day he learned he was positive. In the kitchen, a tall, gray-haired 37-year-old U.S. Army officer is sharing how much he misses Europe -- he was sent home after testing positive. Except for Henderson, no one gives his full name, including Josh, who listens, nods at the men's stories and sips his vodka and cranberry juice.

"I'm probably gonna go home pretty soon," he says minutes later.

There was a time when AIDS united the gay community. Now, in subtle ways, the epidemic has divided it. Across the country, HIV has become its own subculture.

"It's almost like us versus them, the guys who are negative versus the guys who are positive," Henderson says. "It's almost like, 'It's your fault that you got it now.' "

Twenty-five years ago, when the disease was a mystery, gay men were the face of AIDS, scared and outraged that it seemed nobody else cared as they died. They got organized, protested, demanded treatment. Today, however, the epidemic's public face is also heterosexual and, disproportionately, people of color. If you can afford them, drug cocktails have made HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, a more manageable illness -- the Food and Drug Administration approved a once-a-day pill last month.

National and local health-care officials say they fear gay men have "gotten collectively numb" about the epidemic. Some gay rights groups, the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay Men's Health Crisis among them, say a generational gulf has emerged.

All the while, the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that "men who have sex with men" account for the largest proportion of new HIV diagnoses in the United States.

There are some men who get biohazard-symbol tattoos -- on their biceps, arms, calves -- to signal that they're positive. There are those addicted to crystal meth (a.k.a. Tina), which can lead to "partying and playing" (a.k.a. PNP), which often leads to unprotected sex. There are those who join groups for gay men such as D.C. Poz, where being poz, as in HIV-positive, is the only membership requirement. When Henderson joined the group three years ago, it had 30 members. Word spread. By fall 2004 there were 175. Now there are more than 460.

And then there are those like Josh, who fall somewhere in the midst of all that. He doesn't have a tattoo, he's not at all into Tina, and he isn't sure whether he'll stay with D.C. Poz. He got infected because he had unprotected sex. And he's still having unprotected sex.

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