Queens of Denial
The young African-American man residing in the slums of Queens who lives in fear of being “outed” – he has an excuse. The 25-year-old Mexican immigrant who grew up with a father who raped her and only understands her femaleness through sex – she has an excuse. But if your circumstances allowed for education and culture, you do not have an excuse.
We live in a “post-AIDS crisis” era. Ronald Reagan has passed on, everyone knows Ed Koch is gay, and Magic Johnson has shown the world that contracting HIV is not a death sentence. Medical advancements have been made, healthcare is available, and education is there for the taking. So, why is there still a large population of privileged, college educated, young professionals living in major cities all over the country who believe HIV doesn’t and won’t ever affect them?
Dallas has been my home for eight years and I have come to know this city as a far cry from the J.R. Ewing stereotype – even though we have a gay bar named after his character. Although the city has its fair share of conservatives, I have found Dallas to be quite progressive. And when I say “progressive,” I mean gay, gay, gay. Gay bars line two city blocks, gay non-profits employ and serve the community, and any restaurant owner with half a brain knows that, to be successful, satisfying the Dallas gays is king. But, even with all the glittery gayness Dallas has to offer, ignorance still reigns.
I use my city as a point of reference because it reflects my experience, but I can’t imagine there being much variation in other major cities across the country. We have access to culture, education, and a wealth of information regarding sexual health, but many of us turn a blind eye to basic science. We donate a percentage of our paychecks to AIDS services, but we’re convinced of our superiority to those on the receiving end of these benefits. We are acquainted, but not familiar with that guy that goes to the gay bars every Friday who is HIV positive, while living under the guise that no one in our circle of friends could possibly test positive – or already has. We declare the impossibility of ever dating someone with HIV, but refuse to acknowledge that, statistically, we’ve already slept with someone who is.
Heterosexual readers, if you think you’re off the hook, you’re wrong. You are not without fault in the case against ignorance. In addition to the flaws of the LGBT community, culpability must be addressed among straight people as well. Privilege is privilege is privilege. And young, college educated, professional heterosexuals are no strangers to privilege.
Twenty-something, single, liberated, and financially independent people inhabit large cities all over the country. You can find them in their business-casual attire sipping mixed drinks at happy hour and browsing their online dating profiles that highlight their impressive educational backgrounds and international travel. With so much exposure to the diversity and culture living in a major city brings, one might assume that a healthy knowledge of HIV and AIDS would follow. Lamentably, this is not always the case.
In my experience with young, educated heterosexuals, willful ignorance is the true epidemic. Many can speak for days about their ideology of foreign policy. But, when asked about their last HIV screening, the mind goes blank.
What must be done to remedy the blindness that has befallen these communities? I am by no means an expert on righting the wrongs committed by an entire community, but I believe the resolution lies in visibility. I am a gay woman who did not come to terms with my sexuality until my mid-twenties because I knew of no gay women that I could relate to. Sure, there was K.D. Lang and Ellen Degeneres, but most “celesbians” I had knowledge of were far more of the butch persuasion than I could ever hope to be. As soon as the Portia de Rossis of the community came out of the woodwork, so did I.
Seeing women I could relate to was all I needed to finally be honest with myself and come out of my own ignorance regarding my sexuality. Although sexual education is quite different than education on one’s sexuality, I believe the key to real frankness about our fears lies at the heart of both issues. And it’s so much easier to be frank about our sexual health concerns when others are already doing the same. I found the fortitude to be truthful with myself as a direct result of other LGBTs who came before me. And I believe the same can apply to sexual health.
The more we talk about HIV and sex honestly and openly, the more we will talk about HIV and sex honestly and openly. If you are HIV positive and lucky enough to be in a safe and affirming environment, be as open about your status as possible. Put a name and a face to HIV; when the rest of the world finally realizes that it’s not just the guy across the bar, but rather our close friends and family who are HIV positive, they will most likely find it difficult to marginalize them. If you are HIV negative, make your knowledge of the condition and acceptance of those who are positive as known as possible. We desperately need an uprising of courageous individuals who are not afraid to engage in honest dialogue regarding HIV and can model this to a society plagued with ignorance.