Those of us who grew up in the nineties and whose sexual identities developed in earnest in the noughties have been disheartened (though not surprised) by the way some elements of the media have reacted to the recent ruling of the High Court on the provision of PrEP – in particular of the demonising of gay men and their “lifestyle choices”. Of course, anyone who goes looking for vitriol and sensationalism in the tabloid press can always be guaranteed a rich, if somewhat low fibre, feast. Criticism of the peddlers of this detritus is often so easy as to almost not be worth the effort.
But what’s been more concerning this week is the way in which the gay community itself has contributed to a foul narrative by claiming a victimhood it neither deserves nor requires.
When Owen Jones wrote in the Guardian this week that the ruling of the High Court showed “gay lives matter”, he was wrong and misguided. He, like the Daily Mail when it writes of the gay men who will now be encouraged to have promiscuous sex without protection (as opposed to the “blameless sick” who could have been spent on instead) – or Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff when it decided to run with the terse description of PrEP as a “drug for gays who won’t use condoms” – is missing the bigger picture. And by missing the bigger picture, he’s distorted the issue entirely.
In the UK, the last public health report (in 2014) found that 103,700 people are estimated to be living with HIV in the UK. Of those, 45,000 are gay men and 54,100 have been infected by heterosexual sex. The heterosexual community (is there such a thing?), then, form the majority of those living with HIV. Meanwhile, the number of black African people living with the condition make up almost the same numbers as the gay community (at the risk of getting all statistical, the number of black African heterosexuals aged 15 to 59 living with HIV was 56 per 1,000 in the UK in 2014, compared with 59 per 1,000 gay men having sex with men). In other words, you can call HIV a “gay issue” all you like – but the numbers just don’t back it up.
It’s not surprising that gay people have led the fight to get PrEP provided on the NHS – but it is somewhat unhelpful that it ended up that way. Yes, the gay community (of which I am a part) has made great strides in eroding the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS. And it is true to say that gay men, bisexual men, and other men having sex with men, collectively referred to by the rather sterile acronym MSM, are the largest single group living with HIV in the UK today.
A Public Health England report in 2014 indicated that an estimated 1 in 20 MSM in the UK were living with HIV. In that year this group accounted for 55 per cent of new diagnoses of HIV infections. Any action to fight against the disease itself, and the moralising connotations it continues to embody, are not only understandable, but something that the gay community can and should be proud of.
But if and when the effort to fight against HIV and AIDS turns into a monopolisation of it – when we adopt that fight not just as something that is worthwhile, but as part of our very identity as gay men, perhaps to the exclusion of others – we risk feeding into some very distasteful lies. When Stonewall, for instance, claims that the NHS’s reluctance to fund PrEP is de-prioritising the health and wellbeing of a specific section of the population, it’s pretty clear which section they’re talking about. Like Owen Jones, they’re helping to firmly label HIV as a “gay issue”.
The effects of this distortion are many. But among them is the resurrection of a myth, crafted by ignorant and prejudice people in the Eighties, that HIV is a “gay disease” or a “gay punishment”.
Put simply, this is not a gay problem. And any success in the continuing fight against these diseases is not a victory for gay men. If we portray it that way, people with an axe to grind and little access to realistic information will keep framing HIV as a problem of lifestyle issues – rather than a public health crisis with the potential to affect everyone.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies