Whiteside: Talking about AIDS – or not

In the last six months, three friends of mine tested positive for HIV.  All of them are younger than me; I’m 22.

Some weeks ago, John Corvino posed the question in his column, “Why aren’t we talking more about HIV?” and went on to tell about his fortysomething friend who had several unprotected hookups with twentysomethings.  With HIV infection rates on the rise, particularly among younger gay men, the question is an important one to ask:  Why aren’t older gays who remember the horror of the AIDS epidemic talking with younger gays about safe sex?

Moreover, why aren’t they talking at all?

I received only rudimentary (and entirely heterosexual) sex education in high school.  My understanding of HIV and other STDs was limited, and it scares me to remember that my sexual activity reflected this naivety.

Likewise, my knowledge of gay history was practically non-existent.  AIDS was intangible and distant; that homosexuality was ever considered a disease was unfathomable.

In college, I was fortunate to have had an older professor who took the time and interest to educate me on these things.  He put books like Randy Shilts’ And The Band Played On in my hands, insisted that I screen documentaries like the Times of Harvey Milk, and imparted sometimes painful stories from his own experience of living as a gay man.

It was a life-changing education that gave me an appreciation for the struggles of earlier activists on whose shoulders I now stand, and it strengthened my determination to continue the fight for full equality.

Not unimportantly, such an education also instilled in me the necessity of practicing safe sex.  I’m worried that such wisdom is no longer being communicated to younger generations, who have no memory of AIDS.

Much has been written about the supposed “gay generation gap” and it usually breaks down something like this: older gays think younger gays are shallow, ungrateful know-it-alls who take their rights for granted, and younger gays find older gays to be self-ghettoizing, perpetual victims who are, in any case, just looking to have sex with them.

Of course, these characterizations are false.  Many generations of gays cannot be sorted into young or old (where would we draw that line?), nor can they be painted with such broad strokes.  Last year I witnessed hundreds of young activists from across the country fight a Maine ballot initiative rescinding marriage equality; and most of the older gay men who approach me want conversation, not my number.

Where communication breaks down, I think, is in the evolution of how successive generations have come to understand what it means to be gay.

In decades past, gays came to understand themselves and their community through other gays, who offered mentorship and reassurance that being gay didn’t mean being lonely.  United and secluded by widespread prejudice, an intergenerational bond was formed, and gay identity was maintained as successive generations were introduced to the social norms and mannerisms of gay culture.

This form of cultural transmission has been broken.

My generation could look to the significant presence of gays in larger culture for affirmation of their sexuality.  While the consumerist gay men on television might not have made for the best role models, we didn’t experience the isolationism and prohibition of our forebears.

Similarly, though I grew up in rural, conservative Ohio, I was never more than a few mouse clicks away from a wealth of information that would have been unavailable to previous generations.

Friends and family greeted my being gay with little more than a shrug of the shoulders, and my own feelings could be described as casual indifference.  Being gay is not the definitional characteristic that it used be, in part because of the successful activism of generations prior.

But with this evolution, I’m concerned that many important things younger gays used to learn from older generations are no longer being communicated.

There is a dangerous absence of intergenerational dialogue about HIV in particular.  Infection rates are rising among young gay men, but condoms remain too often unrequired.

Our community must find a way to restore this conversation, as we cannot expect the sex education offered in schools to be adequate.  I recognize the difficulty in achieving this, and I’m not sure what the solution is—I encourage readers to share their thoughts.

But to start, perhaps a change of attitude is needed within my generation.

When I noted to my professor, now retired, that the young gay men he plays volleyball with were lucky to know him, he responded, “but they don’t know me, I’m too old.  To them, I’m invisible.”

Chase Whiteside is a guest columnist at 365gay.com while John Corvino, “The Gay Moralist,” is on break.  Whiteside is one half of the documentary film organization New Left Media: http://newleftmedia.com His It Gets Better piece is below.

Gold Poovan

Sent from my Fabulous iPhone 

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