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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)

"I'm trying to reach out to him, but he's not reaching back," says Henderson, 32. "It's a bittersweet thing. I'm glad that there's a group like ours, where being poz is not an issue. At the same time, I think, 'Oh my God, Josh is so young.' It's heartbreaking."

'AIDS Fatigue'

It's a question Henderson thinks about: Why are young gay men, with 25 years of sobering history to learn from, getting HIV?

Gay men are not getting infected in the same numbers seen in the '80s and '90s -- many swear by safe sex -- but there are enough cases to rankle health officials who fear the gay community is experiencing "AIDS fatigue," says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health's program on infectious diseases.

Since a "rare skin cancer" was found in "five homosexual men" in 1981, gay and bisexual men have accounted for nearly half of all AIDS diagnoses in the United States, according to the CDC. Of the 529,113 people with AIDS who have died since the beginning of the epidemic, nearly half -- 256,053 -- were men who had sex with men, says the CDC.

It estimates that at least 40,000 Americans become infected with a human immunodeficiency virus every year. From 2001 to 2004, in 33 states that conducted name-based HIV reporting, men who have sex with men made up 44 percent of new diagnoses. (A CDC study of men who have sex with men released last month reported that out of 10,000 men surveyed, 47 percent said they've had unprotected anal intercourse with men in the previous year.)

In the District, gay and bisexual men make up 45 percent of the city's 16,130 cumulative AIDS cases, says the city's Administration for HIV Policy and Programs. Of the estimated 10,000 D.C. residents living with AIDS -- the AHPP has yet to release reliable figures on HIV infections -- more than a third say they are gay or bisexual.

For years, local organizations such as the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the oldest and largest HIV-AIDS service provider in the Washington area, and Us Helping Us, which serves the African American community, have targeted these men in their HIV-prevention campaigns. They give out condoms in bars, they pass out brochures, they offer free HIV testing. Added to that are the slew of online ads reminding men to get tested. And there are the support groups for those addicted to Tina.

However, says Marsha Martin, head of the District's AIDS office: "The truth is the urgency of the HIV prevention messages we've been sending -- safe sex only! use a condom! -- has worn off. And if you think about the political and social climate we've been in and we're still in, what message is that sending to gay men? 'No, you can't get married as gay couples.' 'No, you can't be openly gay in the military.' 'No, you don't have equal rights.' Those things produce a lack of self-esteem, a kind of self-loathing, and in that environment is HIV."

Adds Bruce Weiss, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, a Capitol Hill-based organization: "The gay community has fought long and hard not to be solely defined by sex. But we have a situation where, as a community, we're not having a frank dialogue about what people are doing in their bedrooms, while they're online, when they're out in bars or wherever meeting people. It's almost as if we've gone into the closet about AIDS."

Hooking Up

It's considered popular wisdom in gay Washington that if you're looking for sex, you can get it within minutes. It can be as easy as walking into a gym's sauna. Going to Meridian Hill Park, or the bathroom of certain gay clubs, or even a nondescript apartment building on 14th Street NW. Or you can hook up on the Internet, which is what Josh prefers.

Sometimes as early as 7 a.m., when he gets up, or as late as 1:30 a.m., when he's about to go to bed, Josh signs on to Manhunt.net.

His life revolves around the Internet. It was on America Online, while chatting in one of the "Men4Men" rooms, where he confirmed to himself that he's gay. He's made friends on Gay.com. And in the past year, his social life has mostly centered on Manhunt, an online hookup site. It can be a brutal place, full of rejection: "Sorry, I'm only into white guys." But with the right photographs (including sexually explicit ones), the right time ("on a lunch break?") and the right location ("I'm in Capitol Hill"), you're guaranteed sex.


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