Tuesday, February 15, 2005

'Aides' and God's Judgment:

“Aides is God’s judgment on faggots,” the graffiti scribbled on the bathroom stall proclaimed. I can’t remember exactly when or where I saw it, but I’ve never forgotten either its misspelling of the word AIDS or its hateful—though not entirely irrational—message.

I thought of the graffiti again this weekend as I read about the new drug-resistant HIV strain that has so many health officials and AIDS activists on edge:

DOHMH officials issued the alert after a New York man who tested HIV-positive last December was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS earlier this month. (The usual progression toward AIDS takes years, not months.) The man, in his mid-40s, told health officials that he had unprotected sex with more than a hundred male partners, often while under the influence of crystal methamphetamine.
Yes, that’s more than one hundred sexual partners. And not just during his lifetime, but during the 20 months that lapsed between his last negative and first positive tests. The average American male, by way of contrast, reports just 20 lifetime sexual partners, with the median number reported being only eight.

The claim that gay men are incapable of monogamy is an old and contemptible canard. But it doesn’t take too many visits to anti-gay Christian websites to discover that the common perception of most gay men—that we tend to be far more promiscuous than our heterosexual counterparts—is not an entirely undeserved stereotype. In fact, it's not undeserved at all.

One study conducted in San Francisco before the AIDS epidemic found that, of 685 homosexual men surveyed, 83% reported 50+ partners in their lifetime, 73% had 100+, 58% had 250+, 41% had 500+, and 26% exceeded 1000 partners. A 2002 study of couples living in Seattle found that a total of 28% of respondents (31% of men and 26% of women) reported being in a relationship that had not been mutually monogamous. Few gays will be shocked to learn that reports of concurrent partnerships were far more common among gay and bisexual men (60%) than among heterosexuals (25%).

What is less well known is just how heavy the price of such sexual practices has been. An epidemiological study from Canada of data tabulated between 1987 and 1992 for AIDS-related deaths revealed that male homosexuals and bisexuals lost up to 20 years of life expectancy. The damaging effects of cigarette smoking pale in comparison--smokers lose on average about 13.5 years of life expectancy.

But the effect of the so-called “gay lifestyle” on life expectancy may be even greater. Not only is HIV/AIDS underreported, but gay men also suffer disproportionate rates of syphilis, anal cancer, and Hepatitis B and C, as well as suicide rates that are up to 3.4 times higher than the general U.S. male population.

“Aides is God’s judgment on faggots.” The claim sounds cruel. But can it not be said that the health crisis still being experienced by the gay community reflects, at least in some sense, God’s judgment against the sexual promiscuity of so many gay men?

As long as 50 years ago, the British writer Dorothy Sayers argued that the Christian doctrines of sin and judgment were so poorly understood that they needed to be completely restated:

The word punishment for sin has become so corrupted that it ought never to be used. But once we have established the true doctrine of man’s nature, the nature of judgment becomes startlingly clear and rational. It is the inevitable consequence of man’s attempt to regulate life and society on a system that runs counter to the facts of his own nature.

In the physical sphere, typhus and cholera are a judgment on dirty living; not because God shows an arbitrary favoritism to nice, clean people, but because of an essential element in the physical structure of the universe....

We must not say that such behavior is wrong because it does not pay; but rather that it does not pay because it is wrong. As T.S. Eliot says, “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and the consequence is an inevitable doom.’”

And so must it be said of the doom that continues to befall so many gay men as a result of our wrong attitude toward sex. So many of us have gotten into our heads the image of an angry God zapping people in retaliation for their sins that, in rejecting this caricature, we've fundamentally misunderstood what the church actually means when it speaks of God’s judgment against sexual immorality. Thus, in the name of sexual liberation, we not only engage in risky behavior, but we pride ourselves as being urbane and sophistocated for doing so.

And so rather than facing up to the truth about ourselves—and rather than taking seriously the biological reality that, in a world of cause and effect, we cannot simply do whatever (and whomever) we please—and rather than reckoning with the fact that no piece of legislation and no Supreme Court decision can ever liberate us from our physical bodies—we blame our problems on homophobia. Or the lack of hate crimes legislation. Or the failture of the government to spend enough money on AIDS research and treatment.

And all the while we go on parroting the silly mantra that what is needed to fix the problem is more "education"—as though a lesson in the proper use of condoms would cure everything that ails the gay community. But latex can't shield us from the jealousies, the lies, the emptiness and ruined relationships that go hand in hand with sexual indulgence. It can't even shield us from HIV. Simply put, condoms fail. And with an average failure rate of 3% even with perfect use, they fail so often that, over the longhaul, condom use alone cannot be an effective strategy for preventing the spread of HIV.

Call it God's judgment, or call it the inevitable doom that results from a wrong attitude toward nature. But either way it has become more and more clear that our experiment in radical promiscuity, far from spelling an end to sexual "repression," actually has lead to everything that is the reverse of health, happiness, and sexual fulfillment. And yet, somehow, this collective surrender to all sexual desire still gets called liberation.

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