Saturday 20 January 2018

Donal Lynch: Gay marriage a springboard for stemming HIV epidemic

Equal rights can help encourage a lifestyle change away from rampant promiscuity, writes Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

HERE'S a question: what is the biggest gay issue of this generation? In order to answer that, let me take you back to 2010 and a rally I attended in New York in support of gay marriage (which was probably your first answer).

There was hope in the air that day. Mayor Bloomberg was a prominent supporter of gay marriage and it was widely expected that Obama would come out in favour of it after his re-election was secured (he did). We had the stars aligned on our side too: Lady Gaga put in an appearance on the big screen; Cynthia Nixon – one of the stars of Sex and the City – was there with her girlfriend (now her wife). And yet through all the hope-and-change euphoria came a sobering note from a friend of mine, John. He texted to say he couldn't make the march – he had been hospitalised. John suffers from HIV and his liver was not functioning properly that week. He said he didn't want it to be a "dampener" on the day, and even managed to crack a joke that he was being "very Eighties". It was a downer that he couldn't attend the parties, but also ironic in that he thought he was embodying the retro cause rather than the live one.

Statistically, a jaw-dropping one-fifth of the gay men in America are HIV-positive (they are more than 40 times more likely to have the disease than their straight counterparts), while to date only about 47,000 gay couples of either gender have chosen to get married in all four boroughs of New York City – and the number there, as elsewhere, continues to trail off. It's a disparity that is mirrored to a greater or lesser extent across the Western world wherever civil unions or gay marriages have been legalised. In Ireland the current public debate on gay issues centres almost completely on gay marriage, despite the fact that only a tiny number have even had civil unions – 560 in the first eight months after the law changed in 2011. Meanwhile, quietly, incrementally, gay men have returned to their place as the country's number one transmitters of HIV.

Of course, equal rights and tackling of the spread of illness shouldn't be mutually exclusive goals. But the two issues – the lack of take-up for gay marriage/civil union laws and the burgeoning HIV epidemic – are absolutely related. The reason that only a tiny number of gay men (relative to the overall population) have married is that most of them are not in the type of stable, long-term, monogamous relationships that would have marriage as their natural end point. This in turn exposes them to all sorts of dangers –rates of depression, suicide and STIs are all higher for gay men than for the general population. But nobody, including gay men themselves, likes to acknowledge these facts.

The reason for all of this is simple: gay marriage is an easy benchmark of equality that we can all cleave to. It might be the most feel-good and non-contentious civil rights issue of our time, something that has progressed from not even being on the radar to pretty widespread acceptance in only a decade. Obama is finally for it. Hillary is for it. Hollywood is definitely for it – Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway got naked for it last week. Even the Pope is kind of gay for gay marriage, although he can't let on (he reportedly supported civil unions as a cardinal). A majority of Irish people support it – although, of course, Enda won't say whether he's in that majority. A majority of young Americans support it, and almost half of the overall population there supports it. This past week, as the US Supreme Court began debating DOMA (the Defence of Marriage Act, which ensures that gay couples can't receive certain rights even in states where marriage is legal), Facebook turned into a sea of red as people all over the world – gay and straight – expressed their solidarity with the cause.

The resurgence of HIV/ Aids, by contrast, is a bit of a downer. It's healthcare-related and harder to joke about. You don't hear about it as much these days because medicine has rendered it a manageable long-term condition. And so those who contract the illness suffer in silence, which is how we like it. There's no court ruling or agreement that will solve the problem of HIV quickly because the fault for its resurgence lies not with the law but with ourselves. And yet it too is a part of the picture of gay culture today. The epidemiology of HIV gives insights into gay life that

mainstream society and gay rights advocates would rather ignore: the rampant promiscuity, drug-taking, the hooking up – all higher in the gay (male) world than in the straight world, and all have been amplified and enabled by the internet.

This is the most clear and present danger to gay men today, not the intolerance of those who would deny us inheritance rights.

It's possible that the Babylonian vista of gay male culture grew up partly because it was forced to flourish outside the mainstream. Stabilising relationship norms (fidelity or monogamy, for instance) were never imposed by law, family or church. Historically, nobody adapted the rules to our purpose (for example: "be monogamous, even if it's with another man"), and so we didn't have rules at all and reaped the consequences – you could call the HIV/Aids epidemic one of these.

Allowing gays to marry brings them into the fold and may encourage more gay people to commit to each other. However, the evidence so far is that this won't happen in time for the generation that forced the change.

As Quentin Crisp once wrote: "There can be no romance after debauchery."

The Supreme Court in the US might agree that it's time to get rid of DOMA – I hope it does – but it won't be a quick-fix for creating a path to stable, safe personal lives for gay people.

Irish Independent

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