- When people are labeled 'abnormal' simply because of
their differences, and discriminated against because of those differences,
their entire being can become paralyzed. The voice of the mind is stifled,
the voice of the heart is oppressed, and the voice of action becomes disabled.
For many decades in America, homosexuals have suffered in this way. Homosexuality
was not only discriminated against, it was made illegal and labeled a mental
- With the multicultural revolution of the '60s and '70s,
we witnessed the beginnings of the arduous task of affirming the rights
of oppressed people in our society, including homosexuals. For gay people,
a benchmark of success in this movement occurred in 1973, when the "Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM) removed homosexuality
from its list of mental disorders. At last, as gay people, our differences
were no longer pathologized and society began to not hold these differences
against us, at least institutionally. This was one of the many markers
in gay history that enabled us to rediscover our long impotent voices.
Even so, there are still those who attempt to pathologize our expressions
of love, to minimize who we are as human beings, and who look upon our
community only in the context of our 'behavior,' rather than embracing
each individual as a member of the human family.
- As a gay man living with HIV, I have found it difficult
to hold the DSM in my hands, difficult to gaze upon its pages, and difficult
to let go of the rage that I felt inside towards a book that was often
referenced in the persecution of so many of my gay relations. But in my
anger I came face to face with my own resistance-resistance to let go of
the past, to look upon the pages of the DSM with a fresh mind, and to acknowledge
the wisdom that this book holds. I recognized that my inability to rise
above such a mindset mirrored that of the earlier authors of the DSM. This
was a source of tremendous suffering for me.
- I often refer to the DSM in this article. I do so not
to hold individuals in a pathological 'freeze-frame,' but rather as a tool
to recognize particular paths, to understand the complex story of people.
I am trying to explore my own resistance to the lives that we bear witness
to here. Ultimately, I believe that we are all bound by love and the human
covenant to deeply understand such lives.
- I must also begin with this disclaimer. The men I refer
to as "Bug Chasers" are a very small fraction of the gay community.
This article is not meant to sensationalize nor bring harm to my gay brothers.
It is only my attempt to understand, embrace and ultimately love them-without
want, resistance, or ignorance.
- Asking For Help I can remember the demonstrations in
San Francisco, I can still feel the heavy sadness, still hear the chanting
of the crowds, I can see the placards demanding assistance from the federal
government, and I can still smell the burning of thousands of candles in
memory of our dead. I can taste the salt of my tears. Our pain, our anger,
our isolation, our grief, our hopelessness, and our helplessness brought
us together. Help was all we were asking for.
- Gay had become the acronym for "Got AIDS Yet?"
Out on a date I confided "I am HIV positive." His reply was "Who
isn't?" Was it 1983? '84? '85? Was it Castro Street, Market Street,
or Civic Center? Was it 10,000, 20,000, or 30,000 marching? This was the
dawning of the AIDS community and help was all we were asking for.
- Year 2000. In Gay nightclubs across the U.S. men wear
sleeveless shirts in hopes that someone will notice the tattoo "HIV-"
blazoned across their deltoid. What is not so obvious is that the intention
of such a tattoo is to attract someone who is HIV+. It is an invitation
to infect through a practice known as "barebacking," having unprotected
anal sex. In other words, the tattooed man is intentionally seeking an
HIV+ partner to infect him with the virus. All that is left is a trip back
to the tattoo artist to have that tattoo adjusted from negative to positive.
- Is help all these men are asking for?
- In private sex clubs across the U.S. men gather for a
chance to participate in what is called Russian Roulette. Ten men are invited,
nine are HIV-, one is HIV+. The men have agreed to not speak of AIDS, nor
HIV. They participate in as many unsafe sexual encounters with each other
as possible, thus increasing their chances to receive "the bug."
These are the men known as 'Bug Chasers.'
- Is help all they are asking for?
- Suicide or Informed Consent? For most of us, our initial
reaction to such behavior is shock. We could assume that men who do this
are trying to commit suicide, consciously or unconsciously. We might demonize
such behavior by blaming these men for the further spread of AIDS. My own
initial reaction was a mix of deep sadness and concern, harsh and bitter
judgment, accompanied by a dark fascination and an echo of familiarity.
I wanted to see into and label such behavior, perhaps even to pathologize.
I wanted to understand what was the fire of my judgment and the coolness
of something so familiar. As I began to research, I turned first to the
wisdom of psychology to try to understand.
- What could cause men to tempt fate so? There are many
apparent reasons. Some men report that the element of danger in sexual
encounters of this kind adds to the "rush" of arousal. There
are men who, once infected, feel like they finally "belong,"
they are now part of the Gay community. Some find relief in knowing that
now they don't have to worry about getting infected any more, the deed
is done. Some believe the myth that HIV is a chronic manageable disease
and that the new drugs promise them a long and healthy life. Some couples
see infection as the deepest level of intimacy.
- No doubt any of the above explanations can be put forth
as probable cause for such seemingly reckless self-destructive behavior.
Yet I find myself stepping back from easy explanations. Generalizations
such as these don't speak to me as truth, they merely touch the surface.
The truth is that each individual has a different story that leads him
to participate in this way. Each story has many layers, and these layers
fall somewhere on a continuum between what is deemed 'abnormal' and 'normal'
behavior. Although it is convenient to maintain a narrow reactive focus,
the fact is that if we truly want to shed light on this subject and to
understand, we must use our insight and our knowledge. "Bug Chasers"
are members of the human family and it's important to embrace them as such.
- Conscious and Unconscious Intentions In reflecting on
the stories of people I know and have read and heard about, it seems to
me that Bug Chasing can be both conscious and unconscious. Such intentions
seem to manifest differently in two distinct generations of gay men. The
older generation are those who have lived through nearly two decades of
loss and grief due to the ravages of HIV. The younger generation of Gay
men have not been as affected by the multiple losses which have occurred
in our community.
- In pointing out this difference, I do not mean to minimize
the impact of emotions felt by the younger generation of Gay men about
such losses. Rather, I choose these two generations as a marker of differentiation
because there seems to be two very different themes that play out in participating
in unsafe sexual behavior.
- The clinical disorders discussed in this article should
not be considered absolute-some characteristics overlap into both generations
while some disorders are more clearly present in one than the other. And
by the way, and perhaps this will be a surprise to some, research reveals
that most of these men, regardless of generation, are well informed and
- The Unconscious Intention I believe that the "Bug
Chasers" of the older generation of Gay men may possibly be suffering
from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The diagnostic criteria in
the DSM for PTSD is that the individual "has experienced, witnessed,
or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened
death or serious injury... and that the person's response involved intense
fear, helplessness, or horror." The DSM also states, "Individuals
with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may describe painful guilt feelings
about surviving when others did not survive or about the things they had
to do to survive."
- Psychologist Walt Odets, in reference to the complex
varieties of survivor guilt seen in HIV men, says, "HIV- men tend
to be profoundly clinically depressed, anxious, disoriented, hypochondriachal,
uncertain about the future, sexually dysfunctional, deeply demoralized
and physically numb." He goes on to say that many HIV men "abuse
alcohol or drugs, and their physicians prescribe them millions of dollars
worth of tranquilizers, sleeping pills, anti-depressants and sedatives
every year." Finally, Odets finds that more and more uninfected men
now "live in nearly every detail like a dying man - disoriented, piecemeal,
and with no assumption of the future."
- My own experience bears this out. In the larger Gay ghettos
of San Francisco and elsewhere, I have met older Gay men who have lost
all of their friends and avoid developing new relationships. Such men live
in a world often characterized by increasing isolation, unresolved anger,
substance abuse, and a lack of desire to participate in activities they
once enjoyed. I recall some men who were HIV- in the late eighties attending
support groups where they openly expressed their hopelessness and alienation
as they witnessed their friends, their peers, and their generation die.
I have witnessed many such individuals express disappointment and despair
that they were still alive. I have heard men say it would have been easier
to die with the complications of AIDS because living meant having to learn
to cope with multiple loss. Add to all of this the terribly revealing fact
that, as Michaelangelo Signorile recently wrote, "far too many gay
men say they actually fear growing old in a gay world that puts the young
and buffed on a pedestal while treating the over-35 crowd like lepers."
- The Intimacy of Bug Chasing For some men, the desire
and quest for intimacy is also bundled into this equation of bug chasing.
Some men may fetishize the HIV virus, and act in intimate ways to relate
to it, while others may feel so 'below' another that they risk their own
well being for a fleeting moment of intimacy. In an article in POZ Magazine,
Michael Scarce challenges our ideas of what might be considered intimacy
when he writes: "Charged Loads...offer a kind of permanent partnership,
a connection out-side of time." He quotes an HIV+ man as saying, "It
turns me on knowing how much he wants my come and how much he's willing
to deal with to get it." Scarce goes on to state that "the sharing
of semen and reclaiming its rich symbolic meanings," reflects the
desire for intimacy.
- Sadly, I am skeptical that sharing of this kind can ultimately
bring about the level of ongoing intimacy that these men are searching
- I do not, however, believe that Scarce is advocating
bug chasing, per sé, but is wisely presenting us with an opportunity
to examine intimacy beyond our narrow understanding of it. We might think
that these men are out of their minds, but that judgement is the measure
of our own resistance. We need to explore this resistance if we are to
understand more completely these men who are undeniably our own. Confronting
my own negative judgement, I ask myself, "How dare I project my ideas
of intimacy onto another." After all, isn't that the same root of
oppression towards homosexuality that has occurred throughout this past
- The Positives of Being HIV Positive Ian Young, in his
article The AIDS Cult and Its Seroconverts, says that many HIV- men think
"HIV positives live richer, more complex, more 'authentic' lives,
get more attention, are better able to take risks including, significantly,
the 'risk of intimacy' and with such risk-taking, life can be meaningful
- I must confess that my own seroconversion (i.e. becoming
HIV+) brought about tremendous grief coupled with a wonderful euphoric
sense of liberation, of letting go-a liberation that taught me to love
again. I know of many men, including myself, who, when they seroconverted,
felt as though they were now encouraged to take better care of themselves
physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Coupled with such feelings, many
of these same men also felt as though they were finally supported by the
community that they once felt so alienated from. Confirming this, Young
writes "An HIV+ test result, or even an AIDS diagnosis, frequently
results in a decrease in anxiety!"
- Reacting with such positive emotions about such a devastating
diagnosis seems quite strange at first, like a reversal in the logic stream.
But this isn't about logic, it's about very complex psychological and emotional
territory. It might be that such positive acceptance of finding oneself
HIV positive arises developmentally from previous abnormal conditions.
Such conditions might include chronic depression rooted in childhood unhappiness,
socially induced guilt, and internalized homophobia. As these conditions
develop, the opportunity to fully act out is then presented through barebacking
and bug chasing. Seroconversion, in this case, may or may not be the goal.
- But it might also be argued that there is a conditioning
factor inherent in Gay culture that rewards men for becoming HIV positive,
as though it were a rite of passage. If so, this would be a relatively
new (within the last 20 years) cultural development, and something that
we would do well to bring into the light of consciousness and intention.
Is such a self-injurious rite of passage what we want for ourselves? Is
it not possible to love and accept one another without having to seroconvert?
Without having to die to feel loved?
- A More Conscious Intention It is difficult for me to
imagine being young and coming into my sexuality after two decades of AIDS,
be it gay, straight, or otherwise. My own sexual liberation twenty years
ago held no such fears or threats. I did not have to confront the choice
of whether or not to adhere to the "do's" and "don't's"
of my sexual expression. Such expression was not desensitized by latex,
interrupted with "informed" negotiation, nor stalled by the doubt
or mistrust of my partner's sexual history. Such expression flowed with
the rhythms of the heart and the body, not the ticking of an apprehensive
- But young people are coming into their sexuality, every
day. HIV and AIDS are not new news. Their consciousness and choices are
a world apart from what I and my generation experienced. And, given the
world of choices and consequences they face, some choose barebacking and
even bug chasing.
- I think, for most people, it is very easy to demonize
these behaviors. I did. My initial thought was that such men suffer from
Antisocial Personality Disorder which, according to the DSM, is characterized
by a "lack of empathy and tendency to be callous, cynical, and contemptuous
of the feelings, rights, and suffering of others." The DSM goes on
to say, "These individuals may also be irresponsible and exploitive
in their sexual relationships," and "are more likely than people
in the general population to die prematurely by violent means, e.g. suicide,
accidents, and homicides." I assumed that these men had no sense of
remorse for the harm they commit, not only to others, but to themselves.
I imagined an impulsive behavior and a failure to conform to reasonable
social norms. I judged them negatively as being sexually irresponsible,
exploitive, and cavalier.
- Then I read the February '99 issue of POZ Magazine. It
was dedicated to the subject of barebacking. POZ editor Walter Armstrong
states, in reference to barebacking, "There has always been a strong
outlaw element in gay sexuality, this is an extension."
- This statement stopped me dead in my tracks. I began
to recall the many friends, now dead, who might have been considered sexual
outlaws, who might be considered deviant, callous, non-empathetic, or anti-social
by those who did not really know them. But I did know them. And was I an
"outlaw" as well? As I thought about it, I tried to look more
deeply, to understand, and to cultivate the insight I might need to become
more compassionate in regards to them, and to myself. As insight and compassion
deepened, that negative judgement about barebacking and bug chasing had
to be re-examined.
- In light of this, I now view barebacking and bugchasing
not as Antisocial Personality Disorder, but more as Self Inflicted Violence,
or as I prefer to call it, Self Injurious Behavior. This realization turned
the question from "how could someone do that?" to "how can
I understand and help?"
- Seroconversion as a Rite of Passage As I read through
the articles published in POZ, I found the young Gay men who advocated
barebacking and bug chasing to be somewhat cavalier. The glamorization,
eroticization, and the claims of deeper levels of intimacy made by these
men would lead one to believe that they are indeed making informed choices
in their sexual behavior. Consider, for example, this plea by Tony Valenzuela.
In speaking about the practice of barebacking, he states, "We need
to trust that young gay men will be wise in their decisions. They're not
passive victims .... It's a huge disrespect to do otherwise."
- Can we trust that young gay men are "wise in their
decisions" when they engage in barebacking? If so, are we able to
extend such a trust to young gay men who are bug chasers?
- I do want to extend the trust that Tony Valenzuela and
others ask for. At the same time, I don't accept all of these claims entirely
at face value. My fear is that, if I were to do so, I wouldn't be getting
to the deeper truth of this issue.
- To their credit, bareback advocates are at last speaking
out about the behavior that has been quietly hidden away in the closet
for the past two decades, and on the surface it is informed. But I believe
there are others, not so outspoken, who may be equally informed, but whose
intention and experience may be seen in the light of Self Injurious Behavior.
- For example, in the summer of 1999 I attended the Gay
Men's Health Summit in Boulder Colorado. I recall speaking to a twenty
year old man who openly shared with me his feelings of wanting to seroconvert.
"I don't know why, I honestly don't know why." Informed, educated,
but where is the depth of insight to such desire? What's driving it?
- Self Injurious Behavior may have several motivations.
From the web site <www.palace.net I found several points to consider
that shed light on bug chasing. Self injurers say that their behavior offers:
"escape from emptiness, depression ... relief from intense feelings...
an expression of emotional pain ... escaping numbness ... a feeling of
euphoria... a relief of anger... a sense of control over one's body...
expressing or coping with feeling of alienation."
- We're right back to that self-injurious rite of passage.
For many men, being gay in the 1990's is equated with being HIV+. Such
thinking has divided our community, creating strong feelings of alienation
and anger for many who are HIV- . How to heal this rift? By seroconverting,
many men believe that they will finally be supported by the community they
once felt alienated from.
- Michael Scarce writes "barebacking is equated with
'breeding' and infection with 'impregnation.' Some HIV bug chasers have
gone so far as to consciously choose the individual gift-giver who will
'father' their HIV infection." Such a rite of passage for some undoubtedly
completes their identification with being gay and deepens their role as
a member of the community.
- I believe many Gay men experience a great deal of internalized
shame and anger through awakening to, and acceptance of, their sexuality
in a homophobic society. The resulting Self Injurious Behavior paradoxically
provides an individual with an opportunity to nurture himself, "to
make internal wounds external and to nurture and heal these wounds. . .
it is much easier to take care of a visible, tangible wound than to care
for internal or emotional damage," according to web site <www.cymax.com.
- Living with the constant fear of becoming HIV+ or dying
with complications of AIDS often manifests in internalized anger or feelings
of numbness. But, paradoxically, a positive HIV test result can provide
relief for the person who has seroconverted. I believe what is being relieved
is internalized rage, anger, and the numbness produced by excessive fear.
The article Protease Dis-inhibitors? quotes a young man as saying, "That
awful waiting is gone ... Maybe now that I am HIV positive, I can finally
have my life."
- For me, it is not so hard to imagine living in such fear
and numbness that one feels as though one doesn't even have a life. As
I reflect on my own experience with sincere honesty, I must say that my
life prior to HIV was very lonely and empty. It is as though HIV enabled
me to discover the depths of myself and a new depth of connection with
the greater human family through all of our suffering, not just my own.
- Something Absolute I am the "Bug Chaser." I
am every man spoken of in this article. I am the man who has witnessed
so many die while wishing that I was dying, too. I was once the hopeless,
the depressed, the alienated, the physically numb. I was the one who could
care less about the future; the one who felt so below another that I would
put my life in jeopardy for that fleeting moment of intimacy. I was the
man who slept with infected men, who had unprotected sex with these men,
through the haze of alcohol, drugs, desire, and anger. I was the man who
demonized my own behavior and hated myself for such behavior. I was the
man who was asking for help in so many conscious and unconscious ways.
I am the man whose life became full, whose life became meaningful after
my seroconversion. I am the man who finally got his life back through a
glimpse of liberation when I realized the depths of impermanence. I am
the man who wanted to share the intimacy of suffering together and of healing
together, and I am the man who knows true intimacy now.
- So often we grasp for absolutes, for that which is "right,"
that which is "wrong," that which is "normal," that
which is "abnormal." But in our grasping, we set ourselves apart
and bolster ourselves there with what appears to be "fact" or
"truth," and our own personal experience. It's a thin security.
- I began my research into the behavior of bug chasing
by turning to the wisdom of psychology to try to understand. But I have
learned that, to get to the whole truth, we must let go of the definitions
and the story, let go of the "bug chasers," for ultimately their
story is not qualitatively different from the story of smokers, drug addicts,
alcoholics and the rest of "us." Their story is little different
from those who drive their cars too fast, or choose not to wear a seat
belt, or use cell phones that cause brain tumors. Everyone is in the closet
about something. The only real difference is the demonization of their
behavior-and that's not about "them," it's about us. It is easy
to condemn others for what they do, but are we able to own our own self-destructive
tendencies, conscious or unconscious? Bug chasers are members of the human
race, like everyone else.
- I once was taught that when we ask for help, we create
the opportunity for love to be expressed in the world. I think back to
the eighties and how we continually asked for help then. It is true that
we were often ignored, but it is equally true that we were often heard.
I have witnessed a great deal of love manifested in the world in this way.
I know how difficult it is for me to ask for help. More often than not,
the difficulty is identifying what I need help with and learning to articulate
- That which is absolute is the truth of our own hearts.
That which is absolute is our willingness to look deeply into our own resistance
and love what we discover there. In my journey, through researching and
writing this article, I have had to come face to face with a tremendous
amount of grief, a tremendous amount of self-demonization, a tremendous
amount of truth that I had ignored for far too many years. It is difficult
to love this part of myself but it becomes easier each time I re-read the
words written here. It is through the cultivation of this love that I will
be able to love my gay brothers who share this experience with me, and
this I know as absolute.
- Daniel Hill is a recent graduate of the Naropa University
in Boulder Colorado earning a B.A. in Religious Studies and Contemplative
Psychology. He currently attends Iliff School of Theology in Denver working
towards a Masters in Divinity. He can be reached by eMail, or by snail
mail at PO Box 300382, Denver CO. 80203.
Site Served by TheHostPros