By Dan Thalkar
AIDS activists remind young generations they are not invincible
Chris Bell made a mistake during the summer of 1996 — over and over again. He had unprotected sex with a man, sometimes up to six times a week. Then, after he caught mononucleosis in August 1997, doctors ran a few tests. Bell, who had spent most of his academic career studying AIDS, was now HIV-positive.
“When I think about my diagnosis, I think, ‘Boy was I dumb,’” said Bell, 34, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies at Syracuse University. “How can a person who teaches about HIV contract HIV?”
Bell is a tall, articulate, verbose, and rail-thin African-American whose words rarely keep up with his thoughts. He speaks in a steady but constant stream of words, yet seems to always do things out of order, like working on his post-doctorate before officially completing his doctorate. A combination of caffeine and an innate driving force keep him in constant motion. While sitting and talking at Starbucks, he kept a roaming eye on the action around the coffee shop — glancing at a tampon on the floor and only breaking his train of thought once, for a handsome man walking by outside.
Bell is quick to point out that people with HIV are from all races, sexual orientations, income levels, personalities, and characters. They’re optimists, pessimists, ugly, and beautiful. They’re drug addicts, sex addicts, monogamous, and straight-edge. They’re individuals. Government statistics about AIDS are notoriously unreliable or outdated, Bell said, but more importantly, statistics and categories exclude the element of individualism.
“We want to be careful not to use the parts to represent the whole,” Bell said. “There are people who say, ‘I will not get AIDS.’” There are also, he said, times when that logic gets pushed aside. “They may think this now. Tomorrow is different, when they’re at the bar and meet Mr. or Mrs. Right and think, ‘I have to do this.’ Logic goes out the window when it comes into contact with sexuality.”
Still, the statistics hold true. According to the Web site for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 64,000 new Americans are infected with HIV each year, adding to the roughly one million people who currently live with the disease. Half of all new infections occur in people under the age of 25 and half of all men with HIV/AIDS are homosexual. Both numbers are on the rise nationwide.
Several LGBT activists said Syracuse University is no exception to the national trend. Many people simply aren’t practicing safe sex. Lauren Hannahs, president of Pride Union at SU, thinks her peers don’t view AIDS as a big problem, as it was seen during the 1980s. She acknowledges, however, that everyone is aware of the risk, particularly during AIDS Awareness Month in December.
“There’s a misconception that it’s not a problem,” Hannahs said. “When AIDS was going on in the mid-’80s poor gay population, it wasn’t getting mainstream attention until it started hitting gay white men with money and the people who supported them. It’s going to take someone like that, someone with money and power, for people to say [we should] do something.”
Young gay men may have the strongest belief that HIV can’t touch them, said Sean Maloney, a graduate assistant at the LGBT Resource Center. “[This group] didn’t have that initial shock of seeing HIV introduced into their social circles and kill their friends,” he said. “They’ve become numb to it. They think it’s a problem for older generations, for extremely risky gay men.”
Ironically, the treatment is often part of the problem. “Because of the drugs and cocktails that are made available for people with HIV, it’s not seen as the life-threatening [disease] that it used to,” Hannahs said. She suggested that cancer is seen as the only incurable disease. We have medicine for everything else.
Of course, most HIV medications are nothing more than expensive treatments, with devastating side effects. Bell, who at one point was taking 12 pills a day, didn’t take medication for more than six years. He has a weak strain of HIV. Frustrated with the increased difficulty in obtaining the drugs while living in Chicago, he decided to take a “drug holiday” and see what would happen.
“The drugs are so toxic,” he said, listing side effects like liver damage and hyperactive dreams. “And these are the damn drugs!” Bell has been losing weight and recently began taking medication again. “It’s been six and a half years, so what do I have to be upset about?” he asked. Even though, until recently, he hadn’t taken a daily medication, he rarely forgets about the virus inside him. Bell can’t imagine his life without HIV. “It’s been one-third of my life now,” he said. “I don’t know what my life would be without it.”
Many people today assume they won’t actually contract the disease, said Maloney. SU students feel invincible. “When you have the privilege of attending a private university like Syracuse, you think you’re shielded from health issues and social issues like HIV,” he said. “But, in fact, you’re not.” Maloney confirmed some students on campus are HIV-positive. While there are no estimates for SU, the latest Centers for Disease Control statistics show 3,360 people are living with HIV/AIDS in Central New York.
Maloney, Bell, and Hannahs agree that multiple factors contribute to the rise in HIV infections among the youth. Maloney suggested that new detection methods help more people discover they have the virus than in previous generations. Thus, the increase rate may not be as high as it appears to be.
But that still doesn’t account for everyone. The message may have become stale, or perhaps students need a wake-up call — like their peers dying en masse. The rise may also be due to safe-sex classes that begin and end with abstinence, leaving students to fend for themselves. Whatever the basis of the increase, Maloney said education and open discussion are absolute necessities if HIV/AIDS infections are to subside anytime soon. “It is important to create sex-positive atmospheres where we can talk about this issue,” he said. “We need to reduce the stigma. It’s not a gay man’s disease, it’s everyone’s disease.”
“If it’s not on, it’s not in.”
That’s a government-sponsored pro-condom slogan in Ghana. Deborah Pellow, an anthology professor at SU who studies AIDS, said it’s also the type of slogan that the U.S. government needs to consider using. “This country has to get serious,” she said. “Let’s acknowledge the problem and do something about it.”
Pellow said safe-sex education is essential, but questioned the amount of statistics and stories people can absorb. “After two decades of education and free condoms, how can you still fail to grasp that certain sexual practices can lead to a fatal disease?” she said.
Pellow said other methods of contraction, like needle exchange, need further investigation. Then, she said, education lessons should become as personal as Ghana’s “If it’s not on, it’s not in” campaign. Society has to seriously discuss sex, including its joys, risks, and near-inevitability. Abstinence as a prevention method does not work, Pellow said.
But while education, awareness, and discussion may help, it’s nearly impossible to live in the 21st century and not know about AIDS. And yet the disease keeps spreading.
Ultimately, Bell said, it comes back to the individual; part of being human is making mistakes. Sex drives, drug addictions, and alcohol all make it pretty easy to slip up once, which is all it takes. While prevention images and lessons abound, protection from the virus ultimately rests on individual actions and personal response to the message. “If I’m inserting a needle and I don’t know where it came from, I may pause for a moment and think, ‘This may kill me, but I want this high,’” Bell said.
During the spring of 1997, one of Bell’s fellow graduate students died of AIDS. “We weren’t best friends, but I thought, ‘a gay man died of AIDS,’” Bell said. “I can’t remember if it was that day, but certainly that week I had unprotected sex. How much closer could that be? How close can it be to me until it winds up being myself?”
Bell said for some people, seeing an ad on TV is enough to teach a lifelong lesson. For others, it’s a reminder from a friend or family member. For others still it may have been the shocking death in 1995 of rapper Eazy-E. The government, Bell said, should make all information about AIDS easily available and invest in research, education, and prevention.
Bell has a message for those who make mistakes, or for those who can’t say no to a night of sex or one last high: “Just don’t. And if you do, don’t beat yourself up.”