Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Benkof "Apology" and More Propaganda

I have to admit that whenever I read a David Benkof article I'm usually more shocked than anything. I take him at his word that he's concerned with non-gay-marriage issues like prison rape and the lack of lesbian health research. But at the same time, here is a man who parades his devoutly religious nature while simultaneously making huge, usually inaccurate, vilifying generalizations about "the gay community" without offering much, if any, evidence to support his bold claims. I'm not here to attack Benkof as a person, I'm here to demonstrate how asinine one of his latest pieces is. I mean, just rebutting this man's anti-gay claims could be a full-time job in itself. And that's not a compliment. It's just a fact that it usually takes several paragraphs to rebut just one single lie or inaccurate statement.

See, when I read one of Benkof's latest truly bizarre pieces, I was dumbfounded. The title was "I'm really, really sorry." Immediately, I wondered what it was that Benkof did that would cause him to write an article both admitting that he did something wrong and apologizing for it.

Don't be mistaken, however. Benokf, writing from the usual gay-male-centric perspective, is not actually apologizing for his behavior. He's apologizing for the "cruel" behavior of the rotten gay community that he so often disparages. His format is to recite a list of but a few alleged sins of the gay (male?) community that he claims to be a part of and then to apologize for these sins that he himself didn't commit but which other gays supposedly did.

There is much to take issue with in Benkof's piece. For starters, is an apology really an apology if one is "apologizing" for acts that others have supposedly committed? Is an apology really an apology when it's a tattle-tale list of alleged wrongs done, not by him of course, but by "the gay community"?

I think not.

Yet, what really struck me about this piece was the odd, confused first sin of the gay community. In his own words, Benkof "apologized" for:

"1) Heterosexual AIDS

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, gay activists insisted that a wave of 'heterosexual AIDS' was just around the corner in the United States, even though no data existed proving that was going to happen, and even though HIV spread through heterosexual sex has always been and continues to be a small percentage of the American transmissions of the virus. Out of fear that Americans would not devote energy to treating and curing a disease spread mostly through gay sex and drug use, AIDS activists consciously lied about the size of the miniscule threat to Americans who did not use drugs or have gay sex. As a result, huge sums of money were spent to educate about and prevent a 'coming health epidemic' that would never materialize. People made major lifestyle changes to protect themselves from what was essentially a phantom menace. Now, I wasn’t openly gay until 1989, but I do remember raising a ruckus about 'AIDS is not a gay disease,' despite the overwhelming evidence that AIDS was, and is, pretty much a gay disease, at least in America. I’m sorry. I was wrong."

At first, I thought I knew where he was going with this from the title "Heterosexual AIDS." Thus, I braced myself for a blame-session in which Benkof was surely going to apologize for heterosexual HIV infections "caused" by gay men. But nope. It's actually a bizarre apology for the "fact" that early "AIDS activists consciously lied about" the threat that HIV/AIDS posed to heterosexuals. You know, if one is going to make an extremely bold and over-generalizing claim like that, one needs to back it up with evidence and distinguish who exactly among "early AIDS activists" supposedly lied and did not lie about HIV/AIDS. I'm talking valid and legitimate sources for such a claim, not hearsay. Not Benkof's "personal experience." But alas. Like so many of this man's claims about the "gay community," this one is not supported by actual evidence.

When one has as little credibility as this man does, he can't expect many people to take his word on things just because he is or was gay or bisexual. Or whatever.

But let's explore Benkof's theory a little further. He writes that because of this alleged lie, "huge sums of money were spent to educate about and prevent a 'coming health epidemic' that would never materialize. People made major lifestyle changes to protect themselves from what was essentially a phantom menace." In other words, the alleged lie made the heterosexual community take extra precautions which subsequently made that community....... safer! Um, "sorry" for that?

Yet, I'm not convinced that "AIDS activists" (Benkof should be specific here on who he's talking about, by the way) were out to consciously lie about the threat HIV/AIDS posed to heterosexuals during the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis. For starters, at the beginning of the epidemic (the early 1980's) we knew very little compared to what we know now. In 1982, the CDC was gathering a little data on groups of gay men, hemophiliacs, IV drug users, and Haitians who were quietly dying of "gay cancer" and "GRID." There weren't clear answers on how it was transmitted, there was great concern about contagion, and what we were learning was changing very quickly. To chalk these complex circumstances up to a "gay community" set on deceiving "innocent" heterosexuals is asinine. I'm sorry, but it really is. (I encourage anyone interested in the history of the response
to the HIV/AIDS epidemic to read And the Band Played On but for ease of reference a timeline of the epidemic can be seen here)

Most importantly, though, it is simply inaccurate to describe the threat of HIV/AIDS to heterosexuals in the US as a "phantom menace." Currently, the epidemic is raging through Africa at rates much higher than in the US. This disease affecting millions of African heterosexuals is the same disease that some in the US, including David Benkof, wrongly call a "gay disease." Many inter-related factors explain the high rates of HIV/AIDS in Africa (poverty; economic disparity; social instability; gender inequality; sexual violence; other sexually transmitted infections; lack of male circumcision; high mobility; rapid urbanisation and modernisation; and ineffective leadership during critical periods in the epidemic’s spread). Say, you know what? Some of these factors also touch certain heterosexual populations in the US. Remember this in a couple of seconds.

See, whether HIV/AIDS is called a "gay disease" or not doesn't change the fact that here in the US, women now make up one-quarter of all new diagnoses with HIV/AIDS being the leading cause of death for black women aged 25-34. And further, heterosexual contact is the mode of transmission for 80% of new infections among women. I dare Mr. Benkof to tell these women that their disease is "gay" or that they don't really have it because contrary to what gay people say, AIDS is a gay disease. Clearly, health disparities and numerous factors are at play with respect to high HIV/AIDS infection rates among black heterosexual women. Continuing to wrongly frame HIV/AIDS as a "gay disease" renders all others with the disease invisible and it is simply an erroneous public health message.

Which brings me to my next point. Whenever we're studying sexual behavior and disease, especially a disease with as much stigma as HIV/AIDS, the picture is always complex. I know that Benkof's op-ed pieces have word limits but if he can't do justice to a topic within the confines of the space restraints he's given, he should think twice about being the carrier of misinformation.

That being said, it would be nice if Benkof would refine, back up, acknowledge, or correct his inaccurate statement regarding HIV/AIDS and the gay community. I could care less about an apology. I just want the lies to stop. It is amazing to me how so many religious folk have so little respect for the truth.

I can only re-iterate something I've told him before: If you really want to mobilize the gay community behind your "gay agenda" you won't get very far by doing what you're doing.

It's the oddest community organizing tack I've ever seen. But good luck with that.

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