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Viral Panic: Fear Has Been Useful in the Fight Against AIDS, Until It Wasn't 

Tuesday, Dec 16 2014
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Declan Cante and his boyfriend, Joshua Mootry, got their first glimpse of San Francisco at 3 a.m. on a rainy January morning this year as the Greyhound bus they'd ridden from New York puttered into the station at 200 Folsom St. They'd traveled a week through East Coast blizzards, along sodden Midwestern interstates, and down farm-checkered California highways, winding up in what they thought was a city of dreams.

"We were expecting to see parades and people everywhere," 21-year-old Cante says, explaining that he'd left New York to escape "a rut I was stuck in" — he'd bounced from a youth shelter to transitional housing, only to wind up in the shelter once more. But San Francisco, with its sterile downtown and bumper crop of high-priced condos, didn't quite meet their expectations. Cante and Mootry hadn't prepared themselves for the lack of affordable housing, and they'd only been vaguely aware of the tech boom. They hoped, at the very least, that San Francisco's reputation for tolerance would hold up.

Cante is lean and wiry, with a narrow face and a broad, thousand-watt grin. Because he is African-American and a self-described "pansexual," he says he's been miscast as the face of the AIDS epidemic: Residents at the shelter in New York assumed he was HIV-positive and receiving special treatment as a result. Cante does not have HIV, and because of new advances in drug technology, he hopes to stay that way. Nonetheless, he's haunted by the virus.

"I was initially really pissed," he says, recalling how the other homeless kids thought he'd been fast-tracked into housing in order to manage his "condition." But then he felt guilty, realizing that, like the other kids, he'd perceived having the virus as a character flaw. "I was very young when the epidemic was first on the rise, but looking back, it seemed there was [once] a lot more support for our brothers and sisters who were struggling with the disease."

It took a while for Cante to locate any kind of support network in San Francisco. He and Mootry spent their first three weeks living in Buena Vista Park, bracing against heavy rain, beat cops, and the Department of Public Works — Cante accuses city officials of confiscating the two suitcases they'd hidden in a bush. Eventually they hooked up with outreach workers at the Larkin Street Youth Services and the LGBT youth organization Lyric, who steered them into subsidized housing. It was only then that Cante launched his group, Negative Pozitivity, as a vehicle to meet people who either had AIDS or saw themselves as allies.

Members don't have to disclose their HIV status, he says, though part of the point is to remove the shame around the disease. To that end, Cante posts his HIV test results to the group's private website each month. He says five other members have followed suit.

"I gotta practice what I preach," he says. "I talk a lot of trash, so they hold me to it."

Cante's conflicting feelings about AIDS in some ways mirror American society's own. Initially, he saw it as a scourge. Then his anxieties gave way to compassion, which compelled him to reach out to others. Fear forced a sort of camaraderie and became a motivation to adopt healthier practices.

But fear doesn't work the way it used to.

This city may be the birthplace of the AIDS movement, and it may be at the forefront of AIDS prevention — in October, San Francisco supervisors earmarked $300,000 to educate the public on new medicines — but residents don't have a unified view of the disease. Attitudes vary from the Sunset to the Castro to the Bayview, HIV-positive activist Parker Trewin says. "San Francisco is only as liberal as the neighborhood you live in."

Perspectives on AIDS are indeed changing as the disease shifts from death sentence to treatable illness to preventable condition. New advances in antiretroviral medicine allow people with HIV to live normal lives and maintain undetectable levels of the virus in their cells. Many doctors say that now diabetes is more debilitating.

Yet, while Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows the epidemic abating overall, it also suggests that in some demographics — young gay and bisexual men and men of color in particular — infection rates are getting worse. That's a confounding paradox that's so far eluded experts. Some believe that we're victims of our own success, that because AIDS no longer engenders the fear of death, people are less inclined to get tested regularly or wear condoms. Still others believe that a constellation of factors, including lack of health care access, cultural hangups, denial, and, yes, fear, have made certain communities more vulnerable. Meanwhile, some doctors eschew new prevention drugs, thinking they'll cause people to be too cavalier; patients who buy into these moral arguments won't seek treatment on their own. Many don't even know what medical technologies are available.

AIDS panic once galvanized us, fueling walkathons and bikeathons, and inspiring high school administrators to place condom baskets in student bathrooms. Now this fear is working in a different way, and it's as unsettling as what came before.

In 1982, NBC News ran a science segment on a rare form of cancer, apparently triggered by the homosexual "lifestyle." "Researchers know of 413 people who have contracted the condition in the past year," NBC science correspondent Robert Bazell reported. "One third have died, and none have been cured."

"Investigators have examined the habits of homosexuals for clues," Bazell said, adding that American society might be witnessing a new, deadly, sexually transmitted disease.

Over the following months, news reports showed interviews with homosexuals who'd been forced from their jobs, San Francisco police who'd been issued masks "in case they had to resuscitate victims," a Wall Street banker and former drug addict who'd been quarantined from his family, and prison inmates in New York who'd all contracted the infection, now called Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Doctors at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine were having to disabuse their colleagues of rumors that HIV and its resultant disease, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), could be contracted via skin-to-skin contact or contaminated air. Gay men who'd gotten the disease were asked, on prime-time news, whether or not they regretted being gay. AIDS victims were evicted by their landlords, shunned from their churches, and ostracized by their doctors. Children who caught the virus were kicked out of school. Ambulance drivers and hospital workers refused to take care of AIDS patients. Activists in the LGBT community accused the federal government of neglecting to fund AIDS research because it was considered a gay disease.


About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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