Magazine Upfront Equal marriage set to drive down HIV infections? By Kristian Johns |@guy_interruptd It’s strange. This month’s column isn’t starting or ending the way I thought it would. I started writing it with more than a smidgen of righteous indignation (and don’t we gays do righteous indignation SUPERBLY?) after reading an article that, quite frankly, pissed me the hell off. But after the catharsis that only comes from hammering out 800- odd words, I’ve had to come back and re-write the beginning. Why? Because I’ve changed my mind. But I’ll come back to that later. First, let me fill you in on the circumstances that led to a right royal pissy-fit for this FS columnist. I recently read an article in the Huffington Post entitled “How Marriage Equality Helps Fight HIV” that referenced a 2009 study by two Emory economists on rising HIV rates. The study used data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has tracked the attitudes of Americans during the past four decades. The economists calculated that a rise in tolerance from the 1970s to the 1990s reduced HIV cases by one per 100,000 people, and that laws against same-sex marriage boosted cases by four per 100,000. “Intolerance is deadly,” says Hugo Mialon, an assistant professor of economics. “Bans on gay marriage codify intolerance, causing more gay people to shift to underground sexual behaviours that carry more risk.” I can understand the sentiment, but – and forgive me for being clinical – FOUR cases per 100,000? How on earth can anyone call that hard data? Don’t get me wrong – I’m a vociferous supporter of both equal marriage and HIV awareness – but (excuse the pun) ‘marrying’ the two as a pro-marriage argument is a tenuous link at best. Of course, I only speak for myself, but is this claim that marriage equality reduces the risk of HIV infection a valid one, or could it backfire and undermine the whole argument? Can we seriously expect that when equal marriage comes into law, gays all over the UK will wake up the morning after the inevitable celebrations and skip to Vauxhall shouting “Society finally accepts me! I don’t have to bareback any more!” Of course not, but then again, I’m a jaded old bastard who’s been out since he was fourteen years old – and that was in the mid-90s. Yeah, just call me a trailblazer. I recently read a tweet from someone claiming that Thatcher and Section 28 were responsible for them getting HIV. No, your proclivity for condomless sex was the reason you got HIV. To blame someone or something else for it smacks of ‘victim’. I disagree with anyone blaming ‘society’ for their HIV when barebacking is essentially a mutual decision. My ex gave me HIV because he was shagging around behind my back, but it was still my decision to ditch the rubbers with him, whether through naiveté or recklessness brought on by a lack of self-confidence. To put it bluntly, being HIV-positive comes down to me and the decisions I made. The only caveat I can think of is in the case of rape, but I’m happy to be put in my place on that issue. “But what of the kids?” I hear you cry. OK. Allow me to dismount from this wobbly soapbox and play Devil’s advocate for a cotton-picking second. Growing up gay in the ‘teens’ ‘tenties’ or whatever the hell they’re calling these post-millennial years, is a far cry from the years I spent as a gawky gay teenager who wore blue satin shirts and had curtains down to his cheekbones (hot, huh?). But in the age of organisations like (the now happily defunct) Exodus International or the Westboro Baptist Church, where the internet and social media give bullies and zealots a far louder platform from which to spew hatred, where the phrase ‘that’s so gay’ is tossed around like confetti at a civil ceremony (or ‘marriage’ for the breeders) to describe anything naff, left field or generally undesirable, do we not have a responsibility to demonstrate to young LGBTIQ boys and girls that, to put it simply, love and commitment are the same in any language, under any law? By cementing – in society’s view anyway – the notion that gay relationships are as valid, real, and legal as any other relationships, we have an opportunity to create a slow trickle of empowerment that may one day bring an end to the anguish and suffering of so many people – young and old – who wrestle with what they have been told is wrong, but knows in their heart is right. Intolerance, like HIV, is a very deadly disease indeed. Intolerance is the reason that we can’t seem to go a week without hearing of another young gay teen who took their own life because they didn’t believe that it really does get better. Intolerance is the reason so many young gay people turn to risky sexual practices; a twisted middle finger to the ways of ‘normal’ society. If equal marriage can inspire a new era of tolerance, where young gay people have the self-confidence to make safer decisions about how they have sex and with whom, if it truly can save even four people in every 100,000 from a life with HIV, then who am I to weigh in on the debate? I’ll see you at the chapel, folks. Kristian Johns is an author and former editor who now runs his own copywriting agency. When he’s not raising awareness of HIV issues, his sole mission in life is to convince his boyfriend to let him have a dog.