D.C. Gay Group Battles 'AIDS Fatigue'

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006; A01

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.

"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.

For months, the headline of Josh's Manhunt profile read "22yo BB." "BB" translates to "bareback," or unprotected sex. He recently changed the headline, though the message is still clear: Unprotected sex is okay. Members of Manhunt are asked to reveal their HIV status by checking "positive" or "negative" or "ask me" in their profiles. Under HIV status, Josh's profile reads "ask me." But Josh says most men still don't ask.

He's a wisp of a man, with smooth, tanned skin and oil-dark eyes, representing his racially mixed background. He is an only child, reared mostly by his mother. He was teased a lot while growing up, Josh says, and he dropped out in ninth grade and got his GED. Kids called him "faggot," so he tried to stay out of their way. The more he felt alone, the more he chatted online, he says.

Late one night last November, Josh, at home in Sterling, was chatting with a guy from the U Street corridor. He doesn't remember his name, just that he was "29 or 30 years old," looked racially mixed, lived in a "nice condo."

So, Josh says, he went to his place and had sex. He was lonely. He didn't use a condom.

"You're closer to someone without it," says Josh, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used. He's never had a boyfriend. "I try to date, but it doesn't work out," he says.

It was during that November encounter that he believes he was infected.

"I thought maybe I'd get gonorrhea or I'd get herpes or something like that," he says. " . . . I just never thought I'd get HIV."

How could he not think about the risk? "It crossed my mind, I guess," Josh says. "But I just didn't think about it."

Does he worry about infecting others?

Says Josh, "I am careful who I bareback with."

The Big Mistake

Henderson of D.C. Poz remembers that it was on Feb. 20, 2003, a Thursday, about 3 p.m. The doctor was saying that the results had come back positive and Henderson remembers replying no, that can't be. He was 29.

"I was [expletive] off that I didn't protect myself," he says.

Though he called himself "Mr. Latex" years ago, Henderson admits that he didn't always use a condom. Unprotected sex is "the forbidden fruit," he says. When he contracted the virus, neither he nor the guy he was dating ever said anything about HIV. Each had assumed the other was negative.

"People can say that it's my fault. And it is, they're totally right, 100 percent accurate," Henderson says. "Was it my fault that I didn't use condoms? Yes. Why are people still smoking? Why are people putting 10 spoons of sugar in their coffee? Can I let my HIV status affect my life now? No."

Henderson, who is white and grew up the oldest of four children, lives in Northeast Washington with his boyfriend of 2 1/2 years. The boyfriend, who asked not to be named, works for the government and is HIV-negative.

"I gotta live with this," Henderson goes on, "and I wanted to help other guys live with it too."

The Poz Attitude

E-mails land in Henderson's inbox, notes filled with so much fear and anxiety and heartbreak that, after a while, even he wonders, "How can I read this?" But he does. Each new e-mail. Every day.

There's the guy looking for an HIV specialist because he tested positive two weeks ago. The guy who's applying for a new job and worries about disclosing his HIV status. The guy who writes: "Today is Saturday, July 8. . . . I am a 37 yr old Hispanic in D.C. . . . slowly drifting into a depression."

As the head of D.C. Poz, Henderson moderates the group's Web site, http://www.dcyngpozsocials.com/ ; plans events and outings, such as a white-water rafting trip over Labor Day weekend; and recruits new members nonstop.

He meets people all over. At the Metropolitan Community Church, the gay-friendly Northwest congregation where Henderson has been the youth director for five years. And at gay bars such as JR's, where one recent evening he spotted a biohazard-symbol tattoo on a man's left calf. Henderson hurried to his Mini Cooper and returned with a small, glossy "Summer Fun With the DCYngPozSocials" flier.

"All the energy I put in the group is because I know how hard it is out there," he says. "It's almost like a recovery process for me."

There are other support groups for gay men with HIV, from Louisville Poz Buddies to San Diego Young Positives to Strength in Numbers in New York. The Health Options and Positive Energy Foundation has been in the metro area since the '80s. A thirtysomething, who declined to be identified for this story, started the D.C. Young Poz Socials in May 2003. Henderson, an office assistant in a D.C. law firm, joined that spring.

Washington has a vibrant gay community, but that doesn't mean there aren't those for whom the phrase "I work for the government," uttered in a bar like JR's, is sometimes code for "I'm not out at work." And it's another thing to be openly gay and HIV positive. It can almost be like coming out for the second time.

D.C. Poz is not for dating or hooking up, Henderson says, but relationships are inevitable. If it weren't for the group, he says, he probably wouldn't have met other HIV-positive men, including those in desperate need of a community, a sense of belonging. Young men such as Josh.

'We All Have AIDS'

The more they hang out, Henderson believes, the better Josh will get to know and trust him. The closer, maybe, Josh will get to other members of D.C. Poz.

So at the annual street festival for Capital Pride weekend, Henderson waits for Josh at the corner of Fourth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. He's wearing a T-shirt that reads "WE ALL HAVE AIDS," which is earning him all kinds of stares, and not one of them, he feels, is particularly warm. Especially from the guy standing nearby in a pair of worn jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the face of Charlize Theron.

"They're staring at me like, 'Why is he wearing that? Why is he ruining the fun for everybody? Why is he raining on our parade?' " Henderson says.

He laments that the day before, at the Pride parade through the Dupont and Logan Circle neighborhoods, there was barely a mention of the 25th anniversary of AIDS. All he saw, he says, was the Whitman-Walker Clinic float. There's a joke among D.C. Poz members that next year the group should have its own float in front of Whitman-Walker's. Theirs would have a poster that would read, "If you slept with anyone on this float, see the next float." He chuckles, and glares back at Mr. Theron T-shirt.

An hour goes by. Still no Josh.

"All I can really do is be there for him, to be a friend," Henderson says. "I know how hard it is to think you are alone, to worry about disclosing your status to someone else."

But Josh never shows.

That night, Josh is signed on to Manhunt.

"I was down because the fact I am poz," he writes, explaining why he missed the festival. "I have always gone to Pride and enjoyed it, but this year was different. I see lots of cute guys, but I know they are neg, so I get depressed."

It's 1:25 a.m.

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