A November 20 panel about the media’s coverage of PrEP held at Gay Men’s Health Crisis included GMHC’s Krishna Stone, thebody.com’s Mathew Rodriguez, New York magazines’s Tim Murphy, Ben Ryan of POZ Magazine, Gay City News’ Paul Schindler, and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis of the city health department. DONNA ACETO
The actor and Out 100 Artist of the Year Zachary Quinto certainly stepped in something stinky when he opined about HIV and young gay men in the Out interview accompanying his award.
In case you’ve been living — with me — on Mars and need a quick sketch of who this Quinto person is, he’s the Spock in two recent, youthy “Star Trek” movies and a recurring character on FX’s “American Horror Story.”
I applaud Quinto for coming out and for being loudmouthed about it, but what he said in Out is pure horseshit. The interview reads: “‘I think there’s a tremendous sense of complacency in the LGBT community,’ Quinto says, citing the rising number of HIV infections in adolescents. ‘AIDS has lost the edge of horror it possessed when it swept through the world in the ’80s. Today’s generation sees it more as something to live with and something to be much less fearful of. And that comes with a sense of, dare I say, laziness.’ Quinto is similarly candid on prophylactic drugs, like PrEP, which many gay people have embraced as a long-awaited panacea. ‘We need to be really vigilant and open about the fact that these drugs are not to be taken to increase our ability to have recreational sex,’ he says. ‘There’s an incredible underlying irresponsibility to that way of thinking… and we don’t yet know enough about this vein of medication to see where it’ll take us down the line.’”
Where do I start to dissect this crock? With Mathew Rodriguez’s marvelous takedown in the Advocate, that’s where.
“Isn’t any consensual sex that isn’t for procreation, by definition, recreational sex?” Rodriguez writes. “Even some sex that has the potential for procreation is recreational — hell, the whole reason sex feels good is because biology wants us to fuck ourselves into perpetual existence. It’s in our DNA to have pleasurable sex. I’m going to cast off any worries about getting too personal — since we’re talking about sex, death, and HIV — and ask exactly how much of Quinto’s sex has not been recreational? Does he define his monogamous sex as responsible and grim? Were he and Jonathan Groff trying to conceive? [Quinto and Groff were an item from 2010 until 2013.] I hope Mr. Quinto is not suggesting that single, promiscuous sex should shoulder all blame for HIV infections — especially when sound science tells us that about two thirds of HIV infections among gay men happen within the context of a relationship.”
Score! That zinger about Quinto and Groff “trying to conceive” made me laugh out loud. Rodriguez hits another one out of the park when he mocks Quinto’s assumption about the supposed irresponsibility of using PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, with the drug Truvada: “Somehow, Quinto has confused the responsibility it takes to speak to one’s doctor about going on a new medication, speak with insurance to secure prior authorization for PrEP, go to doctor’s visits four times a year, swallow a pill every day, call up mail-order pharmacies to get refills on time, make sure to get payments in order, successfully manage side effects, and follow up on lab work with your doctor with irresponsible behavior.”
Excellent point. But Rodriguez makes his own assumption, one worth questioning — namely, the notion that guys on PrEP will necessarily deal successfully with the many responsibilities that come with it over the long term. It’s by no means certain that all PrEPpies will strictly adhere to the regimen required to prevent HIV transmission in every case.
But that hardly negates PrEP’s value. Quinto’s interviewer, Mike Berlin, gets it — dare I say — totally wrong when he describes “many gay people” as seeing PrEP as a “long-awaited panacea.” Nobody of note thinks it’s a cure-all. PrEP is a well-studied, proven-effective risk-reduction strategy, and to suggest that these unnamed “many gay people” are too dumb to know the difference between “panacea” and “risk-reduction strategy” is insulting.
Moreover, having lived through the entirety of the AIDS crisis as a sexually active and out gay man, I find Quinto’s expression “the edge of horror” to be an obnoxious and offensive way of describing the effects of AIDS in the 1980s. Having an “edge” is the way people describe a play that makes them pleasantly uncomfortable. The “horror” Quinto speaks of with callous and phony nostalgia — he was four in 1981 when the first cases of AIDS were reported — wasn’t edgy nor was it a positive life lesson. It wasn’t even an effective propaganda tool for AIDS education. Sure, some of us got too scared to fuck. Others saw no possibility of survival and fucked themselves to death. The point is, “the edge of horror” didn’t teach anybody anything worth learning.
More on PrEP
At the risk of looking like Josh Barro’s media stalker, I’d like to applaud his recent piece in the New York Times about Michael Weinstein, the longtime head of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who is, as Barro describes him, the only prominent opponent of PrEP. Weinstein has become increasingly isolated in the AIDS and HIV policy community by crusading against Truvada’s use by HIV-negative people as prophylaxis. Barro quotes him describing it in wild hyperbole as “a party drug” and “a public health disaster in the making.” “A party drug?” Seriously? Weinstein clearly hasn’t been to any parties in a very long time. He should get out more.
What makes Barro’s article so good is that, unlike your faithful Media Circus columnist, who makes no attempt to be fair, he writes seemingly dispassionately but indicts Weinstein and his demented crusade no less forcefully. Barro would never use the word “demented,” for instance, to describe Weinstein’s obsessive attacks on PrEP (never mind that the Times wouldn’t permit him to do so even if he wanted to, and it’s far from clear that he wants to). But demented is exactly what Weinstein’s approach increasingly appears to be. Barro makes the point by citing leading AIDS activists’ view of Weinstein and his terror-based assault on science:
“‘There’s no large controversy; there is one loud voice,’ said Charles King, the president of the HIV nonprofit Housing Works and a co-chairman of an anti-HIV task force appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. Mr. King called the AHF ad ‘a direct attack on New York State’s efforts to end AIDS as an epidemic.’”
“‘I consider him a menace to HIV prevention,’ said Peter Staley, a veteran activist who also serves on the Cuomo task force.”
“James Loduca, the vice president for public affairs at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, compared him to a ‘climate-change denialist.’”
For his part, Weinstein claims, as radical outliers often do, that he’s actually in the majority — that folks like King, Staley, and Loduca are simply strong-arming experts into silence: “When they see how mercilessly anyone who speaks out on this is attacked, I think it has a chilling effect,” he has said. According to Barro, Weinstein “attributes the chill to AIDS activists in thrall to Gilead, Truvada’s manufacturer, which provides support for AIDS nonprofits.”
Following the money is generally a good tactic, and it’s true that Gilead provides financial support to a number of AIDS nonprofits. But Barro effectively kills that line of reasoning by concluding the piece with quotes from a clinician — Dr. Ray Martins, the medical director at Washington’s Whitman-Walker clinic, who currently has 170 patients on PrEP, none of whom has seroconverted in two years of taking Truvada. “I’m just so surprised this is a controversy,” Martins told Barro. “I’ve never seen anything that people have had such a negative reaction to that’s proven to work.” By “people,” Martins means one person.