You don’t know.
You weren’t there.
You didn’t live through it.
Younger gay men hear it sometimes. Older gay men say it or think it sometimes. If you didn’t panic over every sore throat or suspicious blemish, if you didn’t watch your social circle writhe and wither, if you didn’t hold your partner overnight even though he was incontinent and sopping with sweat — well, then, the dangers and lessons of the AIDS crisis will never be real to you.
The generational divide isn’t as simple and chasmic as that, but gay D.C. in 2012 is a very different place than gay D.C. 30 years ago. It’s younger, more populous. More liberated socially, more equal legally. More complacent. In 2012 — with lower stakes, safer sex, better pills and the mainstreaming of pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis — there seems to be no good reason to talk about AIDS.
Let’s talk about it anyway.
In any conversation about the gay community’s attitude toward HIV in 2012, personal proximity to the AIDS crisis arises.
“My concern with the baby gays is they haven’t seen it as a killer,” says Steve Dempsey, 49, an administrator for a District law firm who lived in New York in the late ’80s. The AIDS crisis “informs my life kind of like the Depression or World War II for that generation. It’s like your grandmother who saved all the foil. [My] demographic has all been hit by AIDS in some way. There’s an awareness of it, and a fear.”
Dempsey holds a tall-boy can of beer Friday on the roof of the Rock and Roll Hotel on H Street NE. It’s bear happy hour under gray skies. The roof teems with middle-aged gay men. Brant Miller, 26, winds his way through them.
“You absolutely need them!” says Miller, slapping a packaged condom kit into an older man’s hand, then pivoting to address another. “These are condoms. Take them.”
Miller, an HIV program associate for the LGBT nonprofit D.C. Center, regularly attends gay happy hours to distribute packets that include two condoms, lubrication and safer-sex guidelines. (He was inspired to get into HIV/AIDS work by Tony Kushner’s play-turned-miniseries, “Angels in America.”) He sees firsthand how men of all ages react to his prevention message, and he finds himself thinking the same exasperated thoughts as Ned Weeks, the combative protagonist of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” a play about the early response to AIDS that was first produced when Miller was an infant.
“It’s interesting, the sex shame that we have and Ned’s ideas of shame and pride,” says Miller, pausing by his booth on the noisy roof. “Not the pride of rainbows and marches and crotches. The pride you need to feel comfortable about the sex you have. I mean, grown men giggle when I try to give them condoms.”
The only sound in the audience was the scratch of pens on notepads.
Hundreds of men took notes, alert in their seats under the bright lights of the Lisner Auditorium, as one of their peers talked into a microphone about his sex life and his disease — phantom yet fanged, at once elusive and already roaming the bloodstreams of Washingtonians in attendance at the city’s first big public forum on AIDS on April 4, 1983. John H. Willig was 36, a native of Baltimore County, a philosophy major and former friar. On his left calf were the cabernet-colored lesions that indicated AIDS, named mere months before and beginning to ravage gay men in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. At the time, there were an estimated 50 to 100 AIDS cases in the District.
The space shuttle Challenger, which six hours earlier had roared into the crystal-clear Florida sky on its maiden voyage, was the big news story of the day. Willig, the first Washingtonian to talk to the greater public about his condition, was a footnote. He looked healthy and calm as he sat onstage at George Washington University with doctors and activists who had few answers but described AIDS as “a nightmare for the gay community” that was underdiagnosed in the city.
“You could’ve heard a pin drop — particularly when [Willig] took the stage,” says Jim Graham, then-president of Whitman-Walker Health, which organized the forum and captained the city’s rebellion against AIDS. “He had led what would be considered a very raucous life — but then that was very, very typical. It was something that people readily identified with. Many people in that auditorium would volunteer for our AIDS program and later become sick, and some of them would die.”
Twenty-nine years and three months later, the District is hosting the 19th International AIDS Conference to great fanfare. Now, there are plenty of answers, plenty of media, plenty of crowds, plenty of near-triumphant refrains (an “AIDS-free generation,” “the end of an epidemic”). Academics and scientists are presenting studies on injection drug use in Malaysian fishermen and the association of polymorphisms in the regulatory region of cyclophilin A gene. HIV/AIDS in 2012 is both a hyper-studied global problem that affects all corners of society and a chronic, manageable disease that can be wrestled into submission.
Population-wide numbers suggest a social and mental distance between eras. Two-thirds of all 18- to 29-year-olds do not personally know anyone who has died from AIDS, nor do they personally know anyone who has tested positive for HIV, according to a new poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Half of that age group has never been tested for HIV, and three-quarters of all Americans say they’re not concerned with contracting it.
The District’s prevalence rate is nearly three times that of a generalized epidemic, with the leading mode of transmission being men who have sex with men (or MSM, as epidemiologists say). HIV, that most culturally baggaged of microbes, thrives on silence in communities. And 30 years into the epidemic, there’s still too much silence in the community that was first affected and first to respond, according to bar hoppers, activists and medical professionals interviewed in every quadrant of the District this month. Still too much complacency and stigma and unprotected sex.
The medical consequences today are rarely fatal, but the cultural consequences can be as insidious as any virus.
We meet in a coffee shop on U Street NW. He’s 23, wears a polo shirt and radiates youthful vitality. He’s been HIV-positive for two years. When his HIV infection was diagnosed after one instance of unprotected sex, he thought he was going to die young. His mother thought he was going to die young. Friends asked if they could still touch him. This was in 2010, well into our enlightened post-gay era.
His one-pill-a-day regimen keeps his health in excellent shape, but there is no drug to prevent the deterioration of his social life. The D.C. gay community is small and compartmentalized, and several people have spread news of his status in an unkind fashion, as if to ward off others and isolate him. He didn’t want to be named in this story, because he’s not ready to assume that social burden. But he does want to convey what he hears from his peers.
“I’ve had people coming out of college telling me how they’re having unprotected sex, and that’s when I usually come out [as positive to them] and say, ‘Listen, you gotta get it under control. You’re not indestructible,’ ” he says. “I feel like every single one of my friends have said to me, at one point, ‘I don’t know how I don’t have it. I’ve just been really lucky.’ One of my good friends said he’s not been tested in three years, and he’s had unprotected sex. It concerns me that a lot of people just don’t know.”
An estimated 25 percent of HIV-positive gay men in the city are unaware of their status, according to D.C.’s Department of Health. Forty-five percent of MSM in the District did not use a condom during their last sexual encounter, and more than one-third did not know the HIV status of their last sex partner. Newly diagnosed HIV cases in gay men in the District decreased overall from 2006 to 2010, although there was a marginal uptick between ’09 and 2010 in gay black men, who in 2010 were more than twice as likely as gay white men to be infected.
On Saturday, Alan Nevels sits at the bar at Bachelor’s Mill, a black gay bar on Eighth Street SE that’s been around since the earliest days of the AIDS crisis. In the next room, a group of men play a rousing game of spades.
“When I was young, we had to be closeted,” says Nevels, 46, a risk manager for a D.C. payment office. “We were so connected to the church, and we had to be quiet and that fostered AIDS.”
“It’s generational — I don’t think it’s really real to us,” says the bartender, Rashid Jons, 30, who by day is a social worker in Prince George’s County public high schools. “It’s still a taboo in the African American community. . . . We have [a HIV] awareness week in school, but it doesn’t come up as a routine discussion. It’s a chapter in health class.”
On Wednesday of last week, in a freshly painted space above a Chinese restaurant in Takoma near the District line, 24-year-old David Bridgeforth helps six of his peers rank sexual acts in terms of their relative safety. Taped around the room are four big sheets of paper, each with the name of a body part written on it, and the group uses markers to list safer-sex practices involving each one. It’s not exactly your father’s health class, but that’s the point. Through a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bridgeforth is helping to organize a group called DENIM (“Developing Empowering New Images of Men”) that will attempt to recruit young, gay, black men to educate their peers in their own social circles.
“Einstein had this quote: ‘The thinking that has brought us this far has created problems that this thinking can’t solve,’” says Bridgeforth, who moved to the District in January and also is publisher and editor of DBQ, a magazine that promotes images of sophisticated, sexually aware, gay, black 20-somethings. “We need a shift in consciousness. . . . We need to make it attractive, knowing your status.”
Having sex on meds is the new safe sex.
“I have an undetectable viral load” is the new “I’m negative.”
Soon everyone will keep rapid, at-home HIV tests by their beds, and it will be customary to prick yourself before a hookup.
These cultural notions were voiced, pondered and criticized at the Gay Men’s Health Summit and the Global Forum on MSM and HIV, both held in the District in the days before this week’s International AIDS Conference. Multiple sessions explored the endurance of stigma across perceived generational divides.
“Some people say, ‘Those kids today, they don’t have any fear,’ ” says Justin Goforth, director of the medical adherence unit at Whitman-Walker Health, at a Friday session at the Gay Men’s Health Summit. “That’s judgmental, and it seems they want young people to live through what they did. [But] fear pushes people away from what you want them to do.”
“I see a lot more sex and lot less intimacy,” says Sean Strub, the founder of POZ magazine, at the Saturday forum on MSM and HIV. “When I tested positive [decades ago], there was a loving community who put their arms around me. Putting our faith and trust in the public health system has moved us back to the benefactor-victim model [and] eroded our community. . . . Being positive is vastly more stigmatizing for young men now. People ask, ‘What were you doing? Crystal [meth]?’ ”
Shame, discomfort with sex, and social and legislative stigma — it all fuels judgment and ignorance. And viruses.
“People talk about it so much — why is D.C. such a high-risk place?” says Raymond Robbins, 28, a D.C. Center intern who helped organize the Gay Men’s Health Summit. “The only thing I can think of is people are hypocrites. The same guy going around judging people for having unsafe sex is later on Grindr to invite someone over to engage in that very same activity. . . . I hear people talk about how much better it is now, and I think it gives my generation an excuse. ‘It’s gotten better, so it will continue to get better.’ But we’re the generation that needs to make sure it keeps getting better.”
Dan O’Neill grew up alongside the AIDS epidemic. He was born in June 1981, the same month that the CDC released its first report on mysterious cases of pneumonia affecting young men in Los Angeles. Now, he’s studying at GW medical school to become a primary-care physician for HIV/AIDS patients.
“Every day I’m in clinic, I see someone else I know, so I have a very realistic glimpse of how many people are affected when I go into a social setting — people I’ve dated in the past, friends of mine,” says O’Neill, 31. “It’s sobering for me.”
Over the past five years, Theo W. Hodge Jr., a D.C. physician whose patients are primarily African American, has seen mothers bring in teenage sons who test positive because they’ve limited their sexual activity to a small group of friends that they assumed were too young to be exposed to the disease. Richard DiGioia, a panelist at the original Lisner AIDS forum in ’83, suspects that single men of older generations discover erectile-dysfunction drugs and are propelled by loneliness into risky behavior. O’Neill has seen a white, married, elderly man who contracted HIV by having sex with men on the side, and he’s seen people who don’t fit the profile of high-risk individual (such as an injecting-drug user or a sex worker) but show up with late-stage AIDS because their lives are shrouded in secrecy.
The story of AIDS in D.C. in 2012 is not just a gay one. It’s also not about the imminent end of a war. The story is that people — of all sexual orientations, in every quadrant of the city — are perpetuating or encountering complacency, silence and stigma, and behaving in ways that would embolden a future microbial killer.
“The day might come along that we see an end to HIV/AIDS,” O’Neill says, “but if we don’t change how we fundamentally interact with and respect each other, there will be something else down the road.”
D.J. Steedley, an ex-Marine and current bartender at Number 9 on P Street NW, tested positive in August after having unprotected sex with someone he trusted but who didn’t know his status.
“If a guy is positive and the question is not asked, he’s not necessarily going to tell,” says Steedley, 30. “You can get comfortable with anything, and your guard goes down.”
Steedley is the modern face of the epidemic. Open about his status, he is physically fit, in some ways healthier than he was before and on a clinical trial through the National Institutes of Health that requires four pills a day and a certain level of discipline and caution, likely for the rest of his life.
His medical condition is a far cry from that of John Willig, the man who became the District’s first de facto spokesman at the Lisner forum, but Steedley is still metaphysically tethered to that era — as are all of us, as citizens of a city with an epidemic.
Willig, as one of the earliest infected, was repeatedly tested and treated at NIH. During one session, he laid still for three hours while tubes were inserted into slits on the tops of his feet, as radioactive tracers pumped through his lymphatic system. He was an important part of the District’s response to the epidemic, and a tiny part of the early research that laid the groundwork for the first antibody test, which would enable the first antiretroviral therapy, which led to the combination treatment and current medication regimens that are, culturally, both a blessing and a curse. People are living, and living well. The virus has almost gone invisible again, like in the early days.
Although some of us don’t know what the early days were like. We weren’t there. We didn’t live through it. We don’t ever want to have to.
In a June 1983 interview with The Post, Willig was optimistic. His only symptoms were skin lesions. His boyfriend likened AIDS to “a little hill we have to climb over.”
Three years after that, John Herman Willig Jr. died of AIDS at George Washington University Hospital.
An AIDS memorial quilt bearing his name features a rainbow, a gold cross and a flight of balloons rising near the Washington Monument. The quilt was scheduled to be laid out with hundreds of others on the Mall on Saturday, but rain prevented it. The quilt will remain stored at the Mall until Wednesday, in case anyone asks to see it.
Editor’s Note, July 25: This story includes interviews in text and video with D.J. Steedley, who was described in the story as “the modern face of the [AIDS] epidemic.” Following publication, The Post learned that Steedley signed a contract in June with a production company that specializes in filming and distributing videos that depict unprotected sex. This information was germane to the story and should have been included.