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New Film Stirs Controversy Among Gays

The Gift, premiering on TV Monday, tackles AIDS and unsafe sex

MONDAY, Feb. 2, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- A controversial new documentary casts an unflinching eye at the world of gay men who seek AIDS infection, hope to infect others, or are simply ambivalent about the deadly risks of unprotected, promiscuous sex.

No one knows how many gay men fit into the first two categories, known as "bug-chasers" and "gift-givers," and some AIDS activists argue that their numbers are small. The director of The Gift, however, says her film is geared toward a larger audience.

"It's more about the large, large, large group of people who are having unsafe sex but aren't calling themselves bug-chasers or gift-givers. But what are you if you're opening yourself up to infection?" asks director Louise Hogarth. "It's also about the failure of prevention. Why were people terrified about AIDS 20 years ago, but today they actively seek it or don't care whether they get it?"

The Gift, which has appeared at several film festivals, will debut Monday on cable television's Sundance Channel at 11 p.m. It will repeat on Feb. 7 at 3 a.m., Feb. 12 at 3:05 a.m. and Feb. 22 at 12:30 a.m.

The hour-long documentary profiles two HIV-positive young men, one who says he actively sought out the AIDS virus and has no regrets, and another who engaged in unprotected sex, failing to recognize AIDS as a major threat to his health. While scary anti-smoking commercials on television frightened the second man away from cigarettes, AIDS prevention ads didn't make a similar impression.

"When I thought being HIV-positive was a positive thing, I thought I would just want to have a lot of promiscuous, unsafe sex," the college-age man says in the opening lines of the movie. "I didn't know I was going to change, so fast. No one told me."

"The problem is that people, for some reason, are afraid to say the truth about what it means to be infected," Hogarth says. "If people get scared because of the truth, that's what happens. We need to be telling people the truth, showing the true reality of what it's like to have HIV, that people are dying from the medication."

The pages of gay magazines and newspapers have been filled with AIDS drug advertisements featuring vigorous, fit-looking men and women. Some critics say the ads have contributed to a decline in safer sex practices by making AIDS look tolerable.

In reality, AIDS drugs cause dozens of side effects, from nausea and diarrhea to sky-high cholesterol levels, heart disease and the disfiguring loss of fat in the face that leaves patients looking gaunt and skeletal. AIDS drugs fail to work in a growing number of patients, and, despite advances in treatment, death is often inevitable. More than 14,000 Americans died of AIDS in 2001, according to federal statistics.

In the movie, middle-aged HIV-positive men from Los Angeles talk about the horrors of the disease. All of them now suffer from heart disease, possibly due to the side effects of AIDS drugs. The film also examines "barebacking" parties, where gay men meet to have unprotected sex, often after exchanging information over the Internet.

While The Gift has made the rounds of several film festivals, Hogarth says it hasn't gotten much publicity assistance and support from gay organizations. "In many ways, the gay community wishes that I hadn't told this story," says Hogarth, who is herself lesbian. "It's a difficult choice. You don't want to hurt your community."

Among other things, critics have rapped the film for its imagery -- one animated graphic combines the images of a gun and a penis -- and for its neglect of the role of illegal drugs in the AIDS epidemic. Some viewers at a San Francisco screening "thought it was a highly inflammatory piece of filmmaking that glossed over the topic of barebacking and bug-chasing and gift-giving without exploring the other variables, like drug use," says Jeffery Jones, program manger of Positive Force, an organization of HIV-positive men. "Some of the members of our advisory group really felt it could do the HIV-positive community harm, vilifying them and really exploiting them."

Jones adds: "There are thousands of men living in San Francisco who are HIV-positive, who tell people they're HIV-positive before they enter into a sexual relation. They have negotiations. It's so important to focus on the people who are HIV-positive and taking responsibility and doing everything they can not to spread it."

One 1998 study suggested that most HIV-positive men acknowledge their status to sex partners, but 16 percent do not and 2.5 percent admitted failing to disclose they were infected to sex partners they knew were HIV-negative.

According to Jones, perhaps the film's biggest problem is that it doesn't address an epidemic of crystal methamphetamine use among gay men, especially young men who are becoming infected with HIV, Jones says.

Hogarth says she deliberately didn't address the issue of drug use. "I didn't want it to become the focus," she says. "My documentary is about personal responsibility."

More information

To learn more about The Gift and see if it will be playing in your city, visit its Web site. To learn more about HIV and AIDS and treatments, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

SOURCES: Louise Hogarth, director, The Gift, Los Angeles; Jeffery Jones, program manger, Positive Force, San Francisco
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