[World, April 29, 1995]
"I recoiled so much from what I had done that it seemed to be not my choice at all. A mystery, I thought. A monster did it."
Michael Warner writes these words in the Village Voice (Jan. 31, 1995), in an article titled "Why Gay Men are Having Risky Sex." He is perplexed at the statistics: 30-38% of HIV-negative gay men admit they don’t always use condoms. In San Francisco, rates of new infection have nearly quadrupled since 1987. This is not the result of ignorance; pro-condom messages have so saturated the culture that they turn up everywhere but fortune cookies. Warner quotes one activist: "Everybody’s grandmother knows about [male homosexual] sex and condoms."
"The strategy ever since 1983 has been ‘Get the information out and make it attractive.’ But over and over I hear the same thing from prevention workers: information alone is no longer doing the job." Then Warner found that it wasn’t doing the job for him, either. "When I had an unsafe encounter last winter, I spooked myself blank."
Over the course of a longish article Michael Warner tries to sort this out. Why did he—why do so many homosexual men—risk their lives when they know better? Why isn’t it enough just to tell people the right thing to do?
Some will recognize this as an ancient theological question, explored with particular pointedness in Romans 7. But Warner writes from a world that has no history before the Stonewall riots, and no resources beyond its own wit, passion, and fading beauty. "In the vast industry of AIDS education and prevention, I knew of nothing that would help me answer this question." Warner writes in the Village Voice, an overflowing tabloid weekly; its back pages are tiled with tiny ads offering every imaginable sexual vice, and some unimaginable ones. The article is surrounded with vanity ads for body piercing, hair weaving, muscle gyms and spiritual candy ("Enjoy a past life regression, $39"). In this confused and rootless space, Warner tries to fathom the depth of human self-destruction.
He comes up with several answers: the generalized despair of the homosexual life, the thrill of taunting death ("no sublimity without danger"), the weariness of a constantly-monitored sex life and the use of drugs to silence that monitor. There is the deadly variation on "If you loved me you would…" this time ending, "trust me when I tell you I’m not sick."
Warner also reports a sad, surprising phenomenon: healthy homosexuals can feel envy for the enhanced identity of the HIV-positive. These do not necessarily appear sick; they may be asymptomatic for many years (when Warner looked up his impulse-partner he found the man had died of AIDS "only a month after I last saw him, healthy and beautiful as ever.") HIV-positive men are members of a privileged sub-society, those who can live as if there were no tomorrow. They have their own style, their own "mordant humor", their own magazines like Diseased Pariah News. Homosexuals not lucky enough to have HIV may want to try on the identity, just this once.
But the most startling passage in Warner’s analysis is this: "The appeal of [homosexual] sex, for many, lies in its ability to violate the responsibilizing frames of good, right-thinking people. AIDS education, in contrast, often calls for people to affirm life and see sex as a healthy expression of self-esteem and respect for others. One campaign from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation urges men to treat sex the way you might buy municipal bonds: ‘Playing it safe, making a plan, and sticking to it.’ Most efforts to encourage us to take care of ourselves through safer sex also invite us to pretend that our only desire is to be proper and good. Abjection continues to be our dirty secret…The emphasis on self-esteem…may be counter-productive."
Ultimately, homosexuals are refusing to use condoms because they’ve been told it’s the right thing to do. Being good runs counter to their culture. This is a scary monster, but a similar monster lurks in every human heart, unrelated to sexual orientation. This is the monster that every faith and every worldview based on "the basic goodness of humanity" underestimates with deadly regularity. By the grace of God, our pet sins may not be acted out with such bizarre vulgarity, but they all deserve the same wages. We don’t need self-esteem, we need a savior.