Destructive Attitudes

Dear Reader:

I hope your article on the danger of HIV transmission through steroid needle sharing [April 23] has the intended effect–getting people who are injecting to stop sharing needles.

But I fear that some of the rhetoric in your article (not to mention the monstrous cover drawing) will have the (I hope unintended) effect of circulating yet again a familiar story about gay men: that we’re a separate species characterized by an unwitting but inescapable tendency toward self-destruction.

How else to describe phrases like “the depth of the obsession [with the body beautiful] in gay culture” or “the infatuation in gay culture with muscle mass” (an infatuation understood as prior to its marketing)? Just as sure as the fact that the muscular ideal is circulating widely in (some parts of) gay culture is the fact that “gay culture” didn’t come up with this ideal or “obsession” or “infatuation” instinctively or on its own. Surely “straight culture” can claim some of the credit for producing a situation in which the appearance of strength, virility, and a certain brand of stereotypical masculinity are felt to be ideal and even necessary. To put this more strongly (so to speak): beat us up enough times, call us weaklings and sissies every once in a while, and some of us may just decide to start lifting weights.

More destructive may be the implication, in the article’s last paragraph, that gay men just can’t seem to unlearn our (ostensible) tendency toward self-destruction. The history of safe-sex education–which was, after all, invented by “gay culture”–overwhelmingly demonstrates our ability to alter behavior that’s risky and educate others to do so as well.

Finally, your readers may find it helpful to know that not every gay man who goes to the gym (in Lakeview or, I would guess, elsewhere) is injecting or aspiring to inject steroids. Relying on one unnamed man’s estimate that “three quarters of the guys” at one gym are using steroids seems like bad, or at the very least incomplete, reporting on “gay culture”–with potentially pernicious effects.

Jeffrey Masten


Justin Hayford replies:

My article quotes several sources about the extent of needle sharing among steroid users, including the people who see them every week at TPAN’s needle exchange site.

One correction: in the 1994 study of Chicago injectors the rate of new infection among those who’d never exchanged needles was 7 percent.