Most anyone who has seen Gia, with Angelina Jolie, can’t help but remember the grisly scene at the end of the film. Destroyed by AIDS, the former supermodel’s body literally falls apart when it is lifted off the hospital bed.
Mainstream films like Gia and Philadelphia showed, in heartbreaking scene after scene, the plight of AIDS sufferers through the 1980s and ‘90s. The generation of (mainly) gay men and women who came of age in the 1970s and ‘80s witnessed the full force of the disease’s birth, and many of them are not around today to tell of it.
“There aren’t many of us left,” said Tim DeLoach, an openly gay man in his forties, and former outreach coordinator and director of information technology for the now-defunct San Diego AIDS Foundation. He’s seen many gay men of his generation fall victim to AIDS because of the lack of information about its transmission and treatment available 10 and 20 years ago. When AIDS was first discovered in the early 1980s, he said, it was an almost absolute death sentence.
Since then, the medical field has come a long way. New drug cocktails allow those with HIV and AIDS to live almost normal lives for many years longer than they would otherwise. The problem with these developments, said DeLoach, is that the younger generation doesn’t have to see the consequences of AIDS anymore – and they aren’t being as careful as they should.
“The most disturbing thing about HIV today is that the fastest growing population is 25 [years old] and under,” said DeLoach.
Part of the reason, he said, is the public service billboards and such don’t illustrate how devastating the disease can be; instead they advertise the antiviral drug cocktails.
“We’ve made AIDS too comfortable,” said DeLoach.
One example is the growing trend of “bug chasers.” According to about.com’s online glossary, a “bug chaser” is allegedly “a gay man who deliberately attempts to contract HIV by having unprotected sex with a man or group of men known to have the virus.” The term was coined in the 1990s, but the group of men it applies to has grown.
According to wikipedia.org, “it is thought that some men wish to become infected with HIV because they feel guilty (or even left out) because many of their friends are HIV-positive or because they feel fatalistic about becoming HIV-positive and want to stop worrying about when they might become infected.”
“AIDS is a sword of Damocles hanging over every person,” said DeLoach. Like the mythical sword suspended over Damocles’ head by only one hair, everyone is faced with the risk of AIDS and HIV. People, especially young gay men, said DeLoach, may have gotten tired of waiting for the seemingly inevitable and have taken matters into their own hands. Several successful “bug chasers,” though, according to DeLoach, now regret becoming infected.
The anonymity of the internet helped this phenomenon to grow. Numerous forums and chat rooms, such as bareback.com, have sprung up across the web, with most of the sites having formed since 2000, according to the Center for Disease Control in a report published in September. On the surface these sites appear to be merely places for gay men to network and meet others with similar sexual tendencies, such as “barebacking” (engaging in unprotected homosexual sex). In the profile section of these sites, however, there’s a blank for whether one is a “bug giver” or “bug chaser.”
A search of profiles active in the last 60 days on ultimatebareback.com, using just these criteria generated an intriguing number of hits. Of 6,200-odd active profiles, nearly 400 were listed as “chasers,” and 250 as “givers.” Of the entire database, 1,900 “chasers” and 1,450 “givers” are registered.
It is not a trend embraced by the entire community, however. “Many gay men,” according to wikipedia.org, “particularly [HIV positive] gay men, look down on bug chasers with disdain, as being delusional or not understanding that antiviral therapy is extremely expensive, can have painful and unpleasant side-effects, and does not cure or ultimately stop the disease. Some gay men are also concerned that bug chasers might ‘give the gay community a bad name.’”
Still, some questioned whether the trend even exists.
“Doubts have been raised about the existence of the phenomenon,” according to wikipedia.org, “[but] various gay websites have chat rooms devoted to bug chasers, who are looking specifically to have unprotected sex with HIV-positive men. There have even been ‘conversion parties’ where people have gathered together to pursue their goal.”
To be fair, many of these sites also posted numerous advice columns, letters-from-the-moderator, and other writings on practicing semi-safe sex. One site recommended a practice called “serosorting,” in which those who are HIV positive only partner with other positives and negatives only with negatives. The site’s creator, who referred to himself only as “Bareback Michael,” theorized that if gay men continue to “serosort” they could eventually eradicate AIDS from the community because the disease would not infect new people. The validity of this theory has yet to be explored by the medical community.
In the meantime, DeLoach said his primary concern is for his younger friends, whom he sees acting increasingly casual about practicing safe sex. Though most of them aren’t into the riskier practices like “barebacking,” he said, they’re still at risk because of their casual attitudes toward AIDS and HIV.
“They were giving me a hard time because I smoke,” said DeLoach. “But when I asked them how many of them had had unprotected sex in the last month, they all got quiet.”