NYT Article on Gay Youth and HIV Draws Mostly Misinformed Analysis

(originally written for Prevention Justice.org: The blog of Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project)

Want the good news or bad news first?

I’ll give you the bad news.

Sex columnist Dan Savage whose syndicated column Savage Love is read weekly by millions in alternative weeklies around the country, wrote a blog entry for the Seattle news site The Stranger about the NYT story on rising HIV infections among young MSMs. His blog post was his usual snarky self, but horribly misinformed. He writes:

” so long as gay health educators refuse to level with gay men–there’s no “moderating” your meth use; you can suck too much cock; anal sex isn’t a first-date activity and having anal sex with hordes of anonymous partners, even with condoms, is sure-fire way of contracting HIV–these new campaigns won’t have much of an impact. And so we’ll be reading this story again in a couple of years, yet another story about HIV infection that makes tragic heroes of guys like Javier Arriola and goes on to suggest that straight talk about HIV infection is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Though Savage is very clever in his use of 4-letter words, he actually contributes to a problem of stigmatizing gay men who are HIV+ and/or in higher risk categories, but he also doesn’t understand the role race plays in all of this. CDC Behavioral Scientist Greg Millett recently published a meta-analysis of studies of Black MSMs and found that “…the assumption of higher risk behavior among black MSM-as measured by unprotected anal intercourse, total number of sex partners, and commercial sex work-was not found to explain the differential in infection rates relative to non-black gay and bi men. This conclusion was based on a review of more than 25 separate studies (Gay City News).”

The Washington Blade’s News Editor Joey DiGuglielmo tries to respond to Savage in their blog, but actually perpetuates a lot of the misinformation Savage spreads in the first place. DiGulielmo writes:

“…what HIV experts have often told me is that gay men who contract HIV in the ’00s almost always have done so by taking needless sexual risks. My friend Dane, who’s also well read on the topic, has even said that any gay man who contracts HIV these days is pretty much always making irresponsible sexual decisions.”

What? “My friend Dane who is well read on the topic?” I know he was writing for the blog and not the paper, but how does that pass as substantive expertise? Is the blog not held to similar standards as the paper? Doesn’t the news editor have access to sources (in DC, land of the policy wonks, to boot!) who could answered some quick questions on this? Even dropping by the CDC’s website would have given more useful information and data.

So that’s the bad news. Literally, and figuratively.

The good news, you ask? Thank GOD for GMHC Executive Director Dr. Marjorie Hill’s letter to the NYT’s story, which sheds some real light on a few contributing factors to the rising numbers.

Young gay men need real support and education before they have been infected and when they are at greatest risk. Research shows that key resiliency factors for gay youth are family acceptance and school-based interventions, such as gay-straight alliances and anti-bullying initiatives.

Sadly, when the New York City Council passed the Dignity for All Students Act ensuring these protections, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vetoed it. When the Council overrode his veto, Mr. Bloomberg chose not to carry out the law.

Our political leaders bemoan the continued spread of H.I.V. Yet when faced with real opportunities to address homophobia and other root causes of the epidemic, these same leaders fail us. It’s time that we recognize antigay bias for the public health threat that it is and seek its eradication.

All this could have been avoided if the original news story had gone one step further in explaining the structural interventions that would be useful for young Black and Latino gay men, and less stigma and blame.

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