Is HIV a Gay Disease?
The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center recently launched a public health campaign aimed at raising HIV/AIDS awareness. The campaign has garnered a lot of public scrutiny and media attention because of a series of print ads and posters it posted in GLBT-owned and operated businesses. The posters feature the image of a male couple embracing with the tagline, "HIV is a gay disease. Own it. End it."
The criticism of the campaign has largely come from fellow HIV/AIDS activists and HIV+ individuals who claim that the ads are misleading and setting back the movement to destigmatize the HIV pandemic. HIV isn't a gay disease. Out of the 40 million people in the world who are infected with HIV, most of them are women living in Africa. Only in westernized, urban areas (Europe, Australia, the United States) are the majority of HIV+ individuals also self-identified gay men. The US' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even recently recommended that every American between the ages of 13 and 64 be routinely tested for HIV.
However, while there has been a push in the mainstream for HIV/AIDS awareness, members of the GLBT community felt left behind. As HIV prevention became the priority of large medical organizations (CDC, NIH, WHO), the focus of the campaigns to raise awareness has shifted to mass appeal. Heterosexual couples and racial minorities became the focus of health campaigns, often overlooking the disease's effect on the GLBT population. As a result, there has been a significant surge in infections in the US among self-identified gay men, ages 18 to 25. This is the generation -- my generation -- that doesn't know a time when HIV/AIDS wasn't around. And as AIDS drugs have improved and there has been more emphasis on shifting HIV awareness to heterosexual, Middle America, my generation has become careless. I feel like people my age now think, "It won't happen it me, I'm not one of 'them.' And if it does, there are drugs to keep me alive for decades."
In my own research, I've noticed that while HIV/AIDS awareness has been on the rise, gay men (and sex workers, for that matter) are still largely blamed for the epidemic in the States. The focus on "Black Men on the Down-Low" is pretty much a way of saying, "See! Gay men are still carriers of the disease! They won't admit they're gay, so they have unprotected sex with other men and then come back and infect their innocent, unsuspecting girlfriends and wives." Consequently, the public health field now rarely targets awareness campaigns at "Gay Men," but rather towards "MSMs," or "Men who have Sex with Men." People might be able to avoid identifying as "gay," but its hard to ignore the sexual act one is engaging in.
I personally like the LA Gay & Lesbian Center's ad campaign, and I feel that it is targeting exactly who they set out to serve in the first place: the GLBT community. The ads featuring the "HIV is a gay disease" tagline wasn't posted all over downtown Los Angeles, but specifically hung in primarily GLBT places of business. There are dozens of similar NGOs that serve minority populations of all kinds and focus their public health campaigns in much the same manner. And while the Center's tagline might shock and offend some, hopefully it will remind members of this community exactly what is at stake and what needs to be done. Let the organizations that have the funding and the manpower to worry about crafting the perfect, universal message to raise HIV/AIDS awareness. Because, frankly, that's not the LA Gay & Lesbian Center's job.