Hey, Stupid Faggot:

What kind of an idiot are you? How can you say that the AIDS crisis is over? Are you HIV positive? Are you dying? I hope so. More than 30,000 people died in the United States from AIDS last year! The AIDS crisis is still going on, and it is getting worse–people are still dying!! –CR

Hey, CR:

Yes, people are dying, and we shouldn’t be complacent about that. We should push until they have access to new drugs and treatments, and push for new and simplified treatments. And we should push for a cure and a vaccine. And while we’re doing all this pushing, we should remember to avoid contracting HIV or infecting others. And we can do all of this and still acknowledge that the AIDS crisis is over.

Declaring that the AIDS crisis is over is not the same as saying AIDS is over. People are still dying and will continue to die, drugs or no drugs, vaccine or no vaccine, cure or no cure. But is “people are dying” what we meant by “the AIDS crisis”?

Eric Rofes is a longtime gay community organizer, an academic, and the author of Reviving the Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men’s Sexuality and Culture in the Ongoing Epidemic. He’s also the author of the forthcoming Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures (Haworth, 1998). “‘The AIDS crisis’ is a sociocultural construct,” says Rofes, who as an academic is required to use pointy-headed jargon. This crisis construct “emerged from hard-hit gay male communities in the mid-1980s out of our experience of terror and panic at the arrival of AIDS. It was not a PR gimmick. It was our authentic psychological and cultural response as rumors of the disease circulated, lesions appeared, corpses piled up, and sex clubs closed.”

Gay men in the United States, the first and hardest hit group in the Western world, created the AIDS movement, and our experience of AIDS–AIDS as crisis–defined the movement. As the first and (still) largest group of victims in the United States, how we experienced AIDS informed how most everyone experienced AIDS–and that was as a crisis. It was a crisis because we said it was, and we said it was because that’s how it felt.

“Yet by the mid-1990s,” Rofes argues, “the majority of gay men no longer authentically experienced AIDS as a crisis. After 17 years, [we] have shifted out of crisis mode and created new, different understandings of AIDS. [For many men] the crisis construct is a ‘period piece’ of urban, white, middle-class communities of the 1980s. While many men do not experience AIDS as a crisis, they still believe it’s important to contribute to AIDS organizations and believe HIV prevention is important. But they are neither terrorized nor panicked by AIDS. While some individual gay men may be in personal crisis (men with HIV whose health is precarious, for example), the overarching cultural experience of AIDS as crisis which emerged for gay men in the 1980s is over. Quite simply, [gay men have] incorporated the realities of AIDS into their worldview and gotten on with their lives.”

Compelling stuff–can’t wait for Rofes’s book to come out. But “the AIDS crisis,” as I understood it when I was getting arrested at ACT-UP demonstrations, was different. My idea of what “the AIDS crisis” meant is nicely summed up by Gabriel Rotello in his controversial and jargon-free new book, Sexual Ecology: “Perhaps the most fundamental complaint of AIDS activism has centered on what everyone else did, or rather failed to do, when the epidemic first exploded. How the government failed to warn, the media failed to report, the scientific establishment failed to produce remedies or vaccines, ‘they,’ the mainstream world, could have saved us during this crucial period and did not.”

Call it the “we die, they do nothing” AIDS crisis, after the early ACT-UP chant. If I’m reading my worn-out copy of Reports from the Holocaust correctly, this construct of crisis is the one ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer was operating under. Yet tremendous progress has been made: the government does warn (if imperfectly, and primarily by pouring money into imperfect AIDS organizations), the media does report, and the scientific establishment has produced results, if not vaccines or cures. Does anyone chant “we die, they do nothing” these days? I mean, with a straight face?

I stumbled over another interesting definition of “crisis” in The Gay Almanac. In an interview with a young academic, which brings us back to jargon land, a careful distinction is made between AIDS and the AIDS crisis: “The AIDS virus is something empirical and real that causes biological deterioration and suffering. The AIDS crisis, on the other hand, is an epistemological formation, specifically modern, that designates people with AIDS as ultimate others, therefore eliminating the possibility for empathic response.” By this definition, the AIDS crisis was a lack of empathy. But empathy is nowhere in short supply these days–we practically have to pick it from between our teeth every night before we go to bed, so violently is empathy stuffed down our throats.

So what do we mean, in 1997, when we say “the AIDS crisis”? Do we simply mean that people are dying–39,000 last year in the United States? Forgive me for banging this gong, but what about breast cancer? About 45,000 women died of breast cancer last year in the United States, yet few people talk about the breast cancer crisis–we talk about breast cancer. More than a million peo-ple died of AIDS worldwide last year, but according to the World Health Organization, tuberculosis killed more than three million, malaria more than two million (half children), and hepatitis B another million. Yet we don’t talk about the malaria crisis, or the TB crisis, or the hep B crisis–three communicable diseases for which science has produced remedies and, in the case of hep B, a vaccine. Three million children died after drinking contaminated water last year, but I have yet to hear anyone describe this as a “crisis” or make an issue of access to clean drinking water.

So if “crisis” isn’t about “people are dying,” and it isn’t about how we’re experiencing AIDS anymore, and it isn’t about “we die, they do nothing,” and it isn’t about a lack of empathy, then what is “the AIDS crisis” about?

“The AIDS crisis” has become a slogan, like “AIDS: The Quicker Picker-Upper” or “AIDS: The Uncola.” Like other overworked slogans, “the AIDS crisis” no longer means anything. Some of us hold onto it because we’re afraid to let go of the moral authority that living in crisis lent us, others because they’re trying to sell us something. But selling terror and panic–promoting a crisis mentality, requiring gay men who no longer feel they’re in crisis to fake it–will backfire: terrorized people cannot make informed, rational choices about their health, and the increasing detachment of AIDS education from reality undermines all prevention messages. Continuing to promote a crisis mentality harms those who fall for it and destroys the credibility of AIDS organizations in the eyes of those who don’t. And this, in the long run, is worse for HIV-AIDS prevention and service efforts than admitting the obvious: the crisis is over, the epidemic continues. It’s time we incorporated that into our worldviews and got on with our lives.

Send questions to Savage Love, Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611.