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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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Forty-five-year-old San Francisco resident Gabriel Rocha-Zendejas concurs, saying that when he contracted AIDS as a teenager in Mexico City, he assumed it was punishment for being gay. "I remember being 16 and aware I was HIV-positive, and keeping it from my family for many years," Rocha says. "The last thing you want is to be rejected." Rocha-Zendejas was eventually granted asylum in the U.S., after being kidnapped and raped in what he thought was a reprisal orchestrated by a family member.

Murray says, similarly, that his own coming out was a long and drawn-out process — no big Facebook status update, no dramatic announcement at a family gathering. He believes it's common for African-American men to preserve social ties by staying in the closet, but that a medical worker from a different social background might find it befuddling. "One of our blind spots is understanding the cultural context of sexuality," he explains.

In the early 1980s, it was seen as punishment for homosexuality or drug use; even this summer, Parker Trewin says he encountered angry protesters at a Pride Parade in L.A. shouting "God Hates Fags" into their megaphones. San Francisco, for all its progressive street cred, is still a "complex patchwork of tolerances," Trewin adds. It'll take more than a great leap in medical technology to reach all of them.

Months before moving to San Francisco, when he was still lurching from one tenuous housing situation to another, Declan Cante returned to his youth shelter in New York and slammed his negative HIV test results down on a table. He says his former roommates were dumbfounded.

"Isn't it horrible?" he asks, remembering his embarrassment and urgency to set the record straight. "That's how much I cared."

Today Cante lives in a single-room apartment on Fifth and Folsom streets, in a large stucco building run by San Francisco's Community Housing Partnership. He shares the room with a large brown dog; his boyfriend, Mootry, lives down the hall. Cante works the graveyard shift at CHP's Tenderloin office, but says he'd eventually like to run his own nonprofit. He started taking PrEP a year and a half ago as part of a clinical study in New York, and has kept up the pill-a-day regimen every since.

Cante finds the drug enabling, but he can see why many of his peers are wary. "If you take it, you might be perceived as overly sexually active. Or gay or bisexual. Or HIV-positive," he says, explaining that some people still misconstrue "HIV prevention" for "AIDS treatment."

He's unfamiliar with the misconception of PrEP being a gay white men's luxury item, but says he can see where it came from. The drug still suffers from a dearth of promotion to African-Americans and Latinos, he says, and it's still fraught with cultural baggage. Some of Cante's friends take it in secret. "That stigma just sticks around," he says.

Yet the problem isn't just secrecy around a pill regimen; it's that all these strain strains of fear, complacency, and lack of access have compounded to keep people away from treatment, producing a surge of infections at a time when AIDS should be going away.

Perhaps Campos' new platoon of health navigators will help. Or maybe Grant and his colleagues can counter the stigma with a compelling sales pitch: A representative from the toy manufacturer Mattel appeared at a recent PrEP symposium in Santa Monica to coach doctors on positive messaging, the idea being that PrEP could borrow its marketing strategy from Barbie.

In the meantime, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation — whose founder dismissed preventative AIDS medicine as a party drug — has launched its own campaign to combat rising rates of syphilis, owing, presumably, to lax condom use. To promote the effort, AHF has plastered BART trains with ads featuring a "Syphilis Explosion" headline over a picture of an erupting volcano.

Evidently panic is upon us, again.


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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