The misconception that gays contract HIV/AIDS more often than heterosexuals still exists in today’s society, regardless of published statistics and research that clearly state that this is not the case.
As I watched a lanky student poke his nose around the rainbow of condoms sold at Temple’s Health Education Awareness Resource Team, I thought he, as a safe-sex practitioner, was probably a sensible guy – until he opened his mouth.
“Get tested? No,” I overheard him say to his friend waiting in line during HEART’s rapid HIV testing session last Friday. “I don’t have gay cancer.”
While there’s no such thing as “gay cancer,” I do believe that kid has another type of tumor: ignorance.
The act of sex – straight or gay – isn’t what “infects” people with AIDS; the HIV pathogen is.
“Pathogens are living organisms, and their purposes are to multiply and survive,” said Dr. Claire Haignere, an associate professor of public health. “They need a host to do that, and they don’t care about what the color, creed or sexual orientation is of the host.”
Haignere said it was purely coincidental that in the early 1980s, when AIDS first became noticed as an epidemic of a disease, that the first cases of what would become known as AIDS were identified in gay men.
“Not having a name for it or not knowing what the pathogen was, the media began calling it the gay plague,” Haignere said. “The fact of the matter is, it’s sort of a historical fluke in the United States because in the rest of the world, it’s known as a heterosexual disease.”
According to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s HIV/AIDS Epidemiological Update, 51.1 percent of new diagnosed incidents of HIV in 2007 were contracted through heterosexual contact. Only 29.2 percent of diagnosed cases were contracted by men who have sex with men.
“I think the stigma has a lot to do with our overall views on sexuality in general in this country and in this city,” said Natasha Davis, an assistant professor of public health who has been working with HIV-positive people since the 1990s. “[In the early 1980s], the media did a good job of painting the picture of AIDS as young, white gay men. Even then, that definitely wasn’t the case.”
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that men who have sex with men account for 53 percent of people living in the U.S. with HIV/AIDS, it also reports high numbers among other demographics.
According to the CDC, blacks account for 51 percent of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in terms of race and ethnicity. Age-wise, 53 percent of new cases are in the 30- to 49-year-old age bracket.
“In terms of new-case rates, they’re highest among the people who don’t know much [about HIV/AIDS],” Haignere said. “The new incident rate is decreasing in men who have sex with men because [members of the] LGBT community are educating themselves.”
“Young people at Temple who don’t believe or know that this isn’t a gay disease and don’t think they’re at risk, they’re at the greatest risk,” Haignere said.
Regardless if you’re someone who actually thinks AIDS is a “gay cancer” or if you’ve been too busy finishing your capstone to care, one thing is for sure: HIV does not have a sexual orientation, and you’re dead wrong if you think otherwise.
“HIV and AIDS are not just in Africa or among men who have sex with men,” Haignere said. “It’s in the United States. It’s in Philadelphia. And it’s at Temple. And you can’t tell who has it.”
Maria Zankey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.