Personal Health

HIV: Still Not Just a "Gay Thing"

What does it take to kill a right-wing myth? Garlic, sunshine, wooden stakes, silver bullets?

What does it take to kill a right-wing myth?  Garlic, sunshine, wooden stakes, silver bullets?  The truth seems insufficient most of the time.  Right wing myths pop up and persist for years, impervious to social change, thorough debunking, or scientific evidence.  Sometimes it seems that best the reality-based community can do is beat unscientific right wing myths out of the mainstream media, but often all that does is drive the myths into the shadow world of rumor mills, email forwards, and anonymous fliers passed around at church or stuck on car windshields.  I often think that a myth has died, only to see it emerge in the right wing media, indicating that the myth has flourished in channels that protect it from criticism and contrary evidence. 

The myth that AIDS is strictly a gay disease, and that heterosexuals (especially heterosexual men) don't transmit HIV seemed to have lost much of its power.  The myth really began to die in 1991, when Magic Johnson came out about his HIV status.  This announcement was a game-changer, and it forced straight people to deal with the fact that they were not as safe as they thought.  It's sad that it had to happen that way, but that's human nature -- if we  have a narrative and a face to put on a story, it seems more real to us than statistics ever could.  People my age, no matter how hetero they felt, saw HIV as a reality that had to be grappled with in their own lives.  HIV testing and condom usage did not seem to be gay things to us, but part of the life of anyone, straight or gay, who was sexually active.   

The CDC recently released a report that shows that heterosexual transmission of U.S. HIV rates only second to male-to-male sexual transmission, and even though the gap between the two is widening up, straight people having straight sex constitute 31% of new transmissions.  The perception that straight people had in the 90s -- that we do run a risk and should protect ourselves -- still reflects a reality.  But the myth that HIV is strictly "a gay thing" has re-emerged from the shadowy world of rumor and email forwarding and is poking its head out in the right wing media.   

In short order, I saw two right wing pundits pushing the idea that HIV is "a gay thing", and using this to justify appalling homophobia.  I suspect the recent kerfuffle over the passage of Proposition 8 in California caused this, as it seems to have stripped away the squawking about "preserving traditional marriage" and exposed the raw bigotry behind the amendment.  Left to defend plain old bigotry, right wing pundits are reaching for hoary old myths, including those centering around HIV.   

Media Matters caught Jim Quinn of The War Room with Quinn & Rose whipping up a panic over gay men and HIV in direct response to the Prop 8 protests. 

    On the November 6 broadcast of The War Room with Quinn & Rose, co-host Jim Quinn said: "The only thing that -- the only thing that gay marriage produce -- well, gay marriage doesn't produce anything that the state has an interest in. Gay sex produces AIDS, which the state doesn't have -- or should have an interest in. They should charge homosexuals more for their -- for their health insurance than they charge the rest of us." 

I hinted at this on my podcast, but it's worth noting that while Quinn probably doesn't seem to realize it, he appears to be rejecting the germ theory of disease, which does seem to be a natural next step if you already reject, say, evolutionary theory.   

But this incident doesn't seem like it's going to be a solitary one, since Dennis Prager, who has a knack for taking right wing ideas and mainstreaming them, grabbed the baton and ran with it, and not to mix metaphors, but he also dressed it up with some conspiracy theory-esque rhetoric.  

    Even the natural sciences are increasingly subject to being rendered a means to a "progressive" end. There was the pseudo-threat of heterosexual AIDS in America -- science manipulated in order to de-stigmatize AIDS as primarily a gay man's disease and to increase funding for AIDS research. 

Unpacking that statement for its multiple layers of homophobia is a dark past time, but I'm willing, if not happy, to oblige.  The most obvious is that Prager seems nonchalant about the possibility of just letting a deadly disease run rampant through the gay community without doing anything to stop it and save lives.  But there's also the self-congratulatory note about it, as if being born straight instead of gay is some great moral advantage that protects you from this particular disease.  And of course, the paranoid belief that there's some great gay liberal conspiracy to "trick" people into seeing what should be obvious to non-bigots, that gay people are people, too.   

Jesse Taylor traces the myth that AIDS doesn't affect straight people to a Regenery-published bit of right wing paranoia written by Michael Fumento.  That this nonsense was professionally bound doesn't make it any smarter than a ranting email forward, but the unreality of it doesn't mean that members of the reality-based community should dismiss the impact of these myths.  The belief that heterosexuality builds an impenetrable wall of safety is an appealing one to many straight people, as it justifies both homophobia and their own risk-taking behavior.  It's been 17 years since Magic Johnson tore through many stereotypes, but the battle rages on.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.
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