By Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES | July 3, 2018
Senior Editor, ETR
A memory: I’m presenting a training on AIDS. AIDS, not HIV, because it’s in the mid-1980’s. The HIV test does not yet exist. Participants in this training will be working with people at risk, and at this time in history, in this country, that’s mostly gay men.
I’m discussing gay male culture and some of the common sexual practices at the time. In urban areas such as New York and San Francisco, bathhouses are still popular. So are sex clubs, anonymous sex parties, multiple partners. I want the training participants to be able to set aside their own attitudes about sexual behaviors so they can listen to their future clients openly, without judgment.
We know so little about the disease at this point. What causes it? Who will get it? How do we know if someone has it? Epidemiologic studies have shown that AIDS is associated with number of lifetime sexual partners. A commonly shared statistic is that the average gay man (whoever that’s supposed to be) will have 1,000 sexual partners in a lifetime. I mention this to the training group, and watch mouths tighten. Frowns appear. Heads shake.
“I recently had a client in one of my groups,” I say, “who told me that a thousand partners was a so-so year for him.” Jaws literally drop. There are gasps of astonishment. And some part of my heart falls, because I do not know how these well-meaning people will be able to work without judgment when they sit face-to-face with those who are most at risk, the individuals who most need good, accurate, supportive information.
The other thing that client said was, “I have so much love to give, and so much I want to receive. I don’t want AIDS to take that away from any of us.” I remember his words as I take a breath and begin to work with this group on identifying their attitudes and understanding how their personal judgments might get in the way of effective counseling.
Fast forward. It’s 2018. Dr. Derek Dangerfield has written a post about what it means to be a Black gay man in America today—the “threeness” of these multiple identities. He describes what it is like for someone working in HIV services and research to seek personal health care. “When I visit the doctor’s office,” he explains, “it’s hard to decide if I should be ‘Derek’ the patient seeking health care services or ‘Dr. Dangerfield,’ the sexual health scholar.”
My own colleague, Michael Everett, wrote a post some time ago which he titled, “Tic-Tic Boom: Being the Work and Doing the Work.” He discusses the particular role of Black men who have sex with men who also happen to work in HIV/AIDS organizations. He describes the experiences of tokenism, isolation and control that are common for the individuals who find themselves in these situations.
Both of these posts are well worth the read. The authors have shared insights that are vital for us all to understand. We have come a long way since 1985, but the road is still before us and it’s still challenging at times.
Continuous improvement. We can be better. Derek Dangerfield and Michael Everett are helping us find our way.
Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES, is Senior Editor at ETR. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.