By Michael Scarce
My good friend and activist pal Bill Jesdale called yesterday to tell me about an advertisement he'd just seen in the Castro public transit station here in San Francisco. The huge ad is wallpapered to a space just above a bench where daily commuters sit awaiting the arrival of their next train. It's one version of a marketing series that promotes an exhibit called "The Secret Lives of Seahorses" at California's Monterey Bay Aquarium. Next to a seahorse is a web browser window depicting the text of a Craig's List personal ad spoof. The posting ends with the line "Must be drug/disease/algae-free."
While I don't find the ad especially cute or funny, I do find it highly interesting that the stigmatizing language from m4m online personal ads has somehow made its way into the popular consciousness as commonplace and acceptable. While terms like "clean," "disease free," and "bug-free" can be interpreted as meaning "STD free," these phrases are typically used by HIV-negative men to express their desire to hook up exclusively with other HIV-negative men. The language mirrors an ongoing stigma that goes largely unaddressed; namely, that positive men are considered unclean, defined by the undesirability of contagion, and ridden with diseased pestilence.
Ironically, the Monterey Bay Aquarium ad runs side-by-side with a local HIV prevention organization's social marketing campaign encouraging gay men to disclose their HIV status. The latter campaign makes no mention of the cruelty, unfounded social and sexual rejection, and other implications for widespread stigmatization of HIV- positive people. As the issue of serosorting becomes increasingly invoked as part of a larger strategy of HIV prevention, positive people deserve an honest and realistic appraisal of the potential consequences of their disclosure: for better and worse.