The Shocking Second HIV Epidemic Among U.S. Gay Men That No One Is Talking About
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Working on the front lines of the forgotten epidemic, O’Neill quickly realized the gravity of its scope, and the inadequacy of the response to it. He saw little organization or impetus, and what efforts existed were balkanized into closely guarded bureaucratic fiefdoms.
DC is an anomaly within the United States. As the seat of the federal government, it has limited home rule, and is otherwise governed directly by Congress. And while Congress has its virtues, public health policy without ideological constraints is not among them. For instance, the so-called Helms Amendment, which was passed in 1987, prohibits the disbursement of any federal funds to "promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual sexual activities” -- a bit of a problem when it comes to stopping the progress of a disease spread largely or even mainly through gay sex.
O’Neill found that the Helms Amendment impeded the production of educational materials that would be appropriate for and acceptable to gay men. So O’Neill set out to do something about it.
The result is FUK!T[warning: extremely graphic] , launched under the aegis of the D.C. GayandLesbian Center, a multimedia-supported effort to bring condoms and lubricant, neatly packed in kits by volunteers, into the hands of gay DC residents where they live, shop and play. Not for the faint of heart, the associated campaign uses adult-movie actors to demonstrate how these things work.
Publicly and privately funded, FUK!T -- and its more restrained twin, TOOLK!T -- are able to avoid the strictures of federal prudery. Produced by and for gay and bisexual men, the materials speak the language of the gay community, allowing them to start conversations. Hundreds of thousands of these kits have been distributed since 2009, free of cost. The contrast with similar campaigns in New York City -- specifically an infamous ad from the Bloomberg administration that infuriated the gay community, known colloquially as the AssCancer Spot -- is stark. In DC, the audience was engaged, whereas in New York it was horrified.
The beauty of this is that, in the tradition of the early days of the epidemic, the DC initiative grew out of the gay community itself, as did path-blazers like New York City’s GayMens’ HealthCrisis. Historically, the LGBT community has learned that it can’t rely on the government to safeguard its interests; often enough, it has done the opposite. The result has been a network of independent institutions -- civil society at its best.
This loose network, responsive and nimble as can be, is the key to securing the health and well-being of the LGBT community.
In terms of the bigger picture, it’s likely already too late to stop this second wave of HIV and AIDS. There has always been a time lag of several years between infection and diagnosis, so the numbers we see today are reflective of events several years ago. But if the LGBT community realizes what is happening under its very nose, and uses our tools, experience and style, it can reverse the trend.
Daniel O’Neill’s experiment in DC, and others like it, show it can be done, and the catastrophic infection rates tell us it must be done. Who will protect us if we don’t protect ourselves? The answer is simple: no one .