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The Shocking Second HIV Epidemic Among U.S. Gay Men That No One Is Talking About

Some LGBT rights groups today are focused on topics that make for an easier sell to the rest of society than HIV/AIDS.

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Roughly around the same time, Internet penetration of global and U.S. households rose incredibly fast, from 16 million in 1995 to 513 millionin 2001. In another unintended side effect, the online revolution swept aside one of the main epidemiological tools that had been proven effective for tracking the disease: the closure or control of institutions such as bathhouses that had enabled the rapid spread of the virus in the early years.

The staggering death toll from the epidemic carried with it not just individual, but also communal loss. Absent reliable numbers on -- or even an agreed upon definition of -- gay men, it is impossible to exactly quantify these losses. One number (among several) that theCDC provides is just south of 300,000 fatalities since the beginning of the epidemic.

What can be said with certainty is that AIDS wiped out many of the best and brightest members of a generation -- a generation that gave the world Keith Haring, and Halston, and so many others besides. The catastrophic loss left this generation untethered from its history, bereft of mentors, adrift in the tides of a hostile society, and unsure of its future.

Around the turn of the century, something new appeared: crystal meth. Crystal -- also known as tina, crank, crack, and glass -- is a highly addictive, cheap and long-lasting stimulant. And it lends itself perfectly to sex. Crystal switches off that little switch in the brain that tells you that you really shouldn’t be doing something, and certainly not for two days, without pause or protection. It lowers inhibitions, creating arousal, euphoria and confidence. As such, there is a statisticallysignificant correlation between crystal meth use, unsafe sex and HIV infection.

But the main reason a second wave of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is materializing and has failed to elicit much awareness or action in the gay community, is one of choices. Many LGBT rights groups have mainstreamed themselves, choosing topics (such as marriage, bullying or military service) that, while certainly worthy and urgent, make for an easier sell to the rest of society than getting high, sick or fucked. Those things, less telegenic than a man in uniform or a couple walking down the aisle, have somewhat receded from view.

This mainstreaming, as  JosephHuff-Hannon wrote about on AlterNet, is on the one hand an entirely logical response to pervasive societal and governmental discrimination. (Remember George W. Bush winning a close presidential election in 2004 on the backs of anti-gay referenda in several battleground states). On the other, it represents an abdication of solidarity with the most vulnerable segments of the community and our painful recent history. Off-the-record conversations with the leaders of several LGBT advocacy groups confirm this shift in emphasis.

One of the epicenters of HIV in the United States is Washington, DC, the city that played host to the XIXInternational AIDSConference this July. A compact, media-saturated city of transients, where imperial architecture rubs shoulders with extremes of deprivation, the District is perhaps the country’s most suitable laboratory to measure and counteract this second wave.

Enter DanielFredrickO'Neill, a 31-year-old med student who moved to DC from Indiana in 2006. Working in clinics and general practices with high caseloads of HIV- and AIDS-positive gay men, and living the life of a young gay man in the big city himself, O’Neill quickly realized that the specter of HIV was prevalent in the District.

At first glance, O’Neill is an unlikely HIV activist. Too young to have experienced the devastation of the first wave and therefore free of the emotional and psychic scars it left in its wake, he could have chosen any number of other paths. As a diabetic, it would have been only natural for him to become active in that (also overlooked) field. But, as is sometimes the case, life intervened.

 
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