Monday, July 6, 2009

David Benkof Makes Dangerously Misleading Claims About HIV/AIDS

Whenever I'm reminded of the existence of "marriage defender" David Benkof and his often absurd arguments, I'm always hesitant to give him any more free publicity. Whether he's *dramatically* calling it quits and shutting down his blog, or re-opening it later and renewing his oh so unique status as the Gay Who Defends Marriage, one is left wondering whether his writings are more about defending marriage or more about garnering attention for David Benkof.

Nonetheless, perhaps the greatest issue I have with some of his arguments is that they're simply inaccurate. In his most recently published piece, David makes an argument that I believe to be dangerously misleading from a public health standpoint. Within this piece, published in the Houston Chronicle, he makes many strange complaints regarding the gay community all to bolster his overall argument that gays are way more proud of themselves than they should be. This piece is actually a re-work of one of his earlier blogposts from about a year ago that I criticized here. The paragraph that I take especial issue with, again, is this one:

"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 minuscule 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."

First and foremost, David claims that "gay activists" lied about the threats HIV/AIDS posed to heterosexuals yet he provides no evidence or specifics regarding this claim. As he is or was (or something) a member of the gay community, I guess we're all just supposed to take his word for it.

But that's not the most egregious issue with respect to his article. Simply put, it contains misinformation. He claims that the threat of HIV/AIDS to Americans who "did not use drugs or have gay sex" never materialized. The truth is, it has materialized, and it continues to materialize with each passing year. What David calls "a small percentage" and "a phantom menace" is actually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading cause of death for black women in the United States aged 25-34 years and a top leading cause of death for black women aged 35-54.

Nationally, whereas women accounted for 14% of adults living with AIDS in the US in 1992, by the end of 2005 this proportion was up to 23%. Women now account for about 26% of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses each year, with the majority of these cases (65%) coming from heterosexual sexual contact. For men, about 11% of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses are now a result of heterosexual sex.

The default picture of AIDS in America is white, gay, and male. However, the "phantom menace" that David speaks of is increasingly affecting heterosexual African-American women disproportionately. Even though African-Americans account for about 13% of the population, black women account for 67% of new cases of HIV/AIDS among American women. Black women, who were diagnosed at a rate 20 times that of white women in 2003, "are most likely to be infected with HIV as a result of sex with men who are infected with HIV." These numbers are a testament to the fact that, as those familiar with the epidemic in Africa know, "a woman is significantly more likely than a man to contract HIV infection during vaginal intercourse."

David knew these statistics when I pointed them out to him in July 2008 and, unless he has a short memory, he still possesses this knowledge. However, I have a hunch that if David shows up here to defend his misleading public health statements, he will try to weasel his way out of being caught making ignorant, offensive, and irresponsible claims. So, conceding as much as I am willing to concede here, at the very best his lack of specificity renders his argument severely misleading.

For instance, while it is true that "HIV spread through heterosexual sex has always been and continues to be a small percentage of the American transmissions of the virus," it is not a percentage that is negligible. In addition, it is a percentage that has continued to increase each passing year. Thus, it is inaccurate to say that the threat to heterosexuals has not materialized. Also, David claims the threat of infection to Americans "who do not have gay sex or use drugs" to be "miniscule." In fact, the risk of infection for a woman on the receiving end of heterosexual vaginal intercourse is greater than that of a man who is the penetrative partner in anal intercourse. So, while the risk of acquisition for a woman who has vaginal sex with an HIV-positive man is perhaps a "miniscule" 10 in 10,000, the risk to a man who inserts his penis into an HIV-positive man's anus is an even more "miniscule" 6.5 in 10,000.

In spite of these statistics, why does David Benkof continue to tell people that the risk of HIV/AIDS to those who do "not use drugs or have gay sex" is a "phantom menace" that has "never materialize[d]"? That dangerous myth, as any public health expert will tell you, leads to heterosexual complacency about risk of infection which, in turn, leads to more infections among heterosexuals. I think it is incredibly irresponsible and shameful to spread false public health information in order to advance an anti-gay agenda and, audaciously, to publicly shame gay people. Most offensively, Benkof's argument renders the experiences of thousands of heterosexual women who are currently living with HIV/AIDS, and others who acquired the disease through means other than male-to-male sexual contact or drug use, invisible.

Ending his HIV/AIDS section of his absurd indictment of the gay community, Benkof claims that to "people made major lifestyle changes to protect themselves from what was essentially a phantom menace." By "people," I can't help but to wonder if David Benkof really only meant white heterosexual people. As it stands, his current argument rings true only in a world where African-American women don't count.

David identifies as "openly gay/bisexual." While I don't consider him to be an ally to the LGBT community, it is too bad that some will attribute his writings to our community anyway just because he calls himself gay/bisexual. As a lesbian, I think it is absolutely necessary to call Benkof out for negating the lives and experiences of another minority group. There is already a large rift between the white-dominated LGBT community and the heterosexual-dominated African-American community. Aside from the dangerously misleading claims about HIV/AIDS within his piece, the negation of African-American lives by an "openly gay/bisexual" man only furthers that divide.

When he writes asinine articles like his latest published piece, Benkof mostly succeeds in demonstrating that he's a friend to neither community.

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