Comment: When did gay men stop fighting HIV?

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Last month I attended the Queer Question Time debate on HIV at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. On the panel were several experts in HIV prevention along with a famous gay porn actor and a scene queen DJ. Seeing so many gay men of different ages in one setting, candidly discussing the defining issue which intrinsically links all gay men together, was inspiring.

However the debate ended on a despondent note. The last person on the panel to speak suggested that gay men are now immune to having their attitudes improved when it comes to HIV prevention; at this point you could see the crumpled dismay etched on faces throughout the audience. Gay men are crying out for steadfast resolve and leadership on the biggest challenge we face, but already pessimism is becoming entrenched.

When it comes to equality, gay men have never entertained defeatism before, so I get enraged when some argue that the current picture cannot be turned around. It can. What’s needed is the same level of dynamism, passion and sheer strength which went into getting gay rights on the statue book. All of that now must go into the campaign for a better settlement in regards to our health. As studies (or September’s edition of Attitude) will tell you, only by addressing gay men’s personal social deficiencies, brought on by years of relentless homophobia, can we then cement a more effective approach to HIV prevention. I defy anyone to argue that this is not a cause worth fighting for.

According to Terrence Higgins Trust, one in seven of all gay men on London’s scene is HIV-positive and the figure is probably closer to one in six for my home city of Brighton. This is the permanent legacy of failed policies. Some gay rights activists now believe giving heterosexuals civil partnerships is more important than tackling our greatest health and social challenge. What would a martian make of our priorities? The campaign to get rid of the blood ban is another example where we are completely missing the point. The best we can realistically hope for is a 12 month deferral like in Australia. Most gay men would still be unable to donate unless they refrained from sex for that duration.

It suits the political system for us to be lobbying on peripheral issues. It’s the politics of the quick fix. MPs from all the main parties, along with the Greens, have made sympathetic mood music about the blood ban, but you don’t have to be an epidemiologist to know that the current National Blood Service review is already a complete red herring for gay men, a forgone conclusion.

We are missing the bigger picture. If you’re angry about the ban you should be enraged by what lies behind it, the huge gulf of health inequality amongst gay men in comparison to our heterosexual counterparts. The ball is now in our court. The secondary school curriculum is under review in 2011 and it’s up to us to tell government how gay men’s health should best be addressed within it.

Ministers will not fill in the blanks for us. The state can only go so far. If we really want to transform gay men’s health and see a sustained reduction in new HIV infection rates, the private sector needs to incorporate the safe-sex message into areas of overwhelming commercial influence such as the gay porn industry. Public health campaigns in a post-treatment, post-internet world cannot make a discernible difference in isolation. One of David Cameron’s advisers made the same point in conversation with me directly after the QQT debate.

The Conservative MP for Brighton Kemptown, Simon Kirby, says the government needs to put HIV prevention at the “heart” of its public health strategy and to increase spending. While I applaud him for this pledge, we can’t just rely on words. The gay community needs to be aware of the reduction in funding that has already taken place and how this has already weakened service delivery.

It’s now time for Brighton’s gay community to hold all of the city’s MPs to account on this issue. Simon Kirby and Caroline Lucas are members of the All-Parliamentary Group for HIV & AIDS. I want both of them to support a promise of reducing undetected HIV diagnoses in Brighton by 50 per cent before 2015 as part of the ‘Halve It’ national strategy, a policy document which the all-parliamentary group already supports along with National AIDS Trust, THT, BHIVA and the National HIV Nurses Association. At the moment Westminster isn’t taking the gay community seriously on health. We need to mobilise and politicise the pursuit of a gay men’s health agenda in Brighton and everywhere else where the gay community is politically powerful at the ballot box.

Scott Roberts is news editor at Gaydar Radio