Fighting HIV Stereotypes

Though being gay hasn’t been considered a mental illness for almost 40 years, there’s more than one way to be unwell.

That was the message of University of Michigan professor David Halperin’s Oct. 14 speech, “Are Homosexuals Still Sick?”

In the eyes of the general public “gays have a hard time getting well,” he told an audience of Concordia students, noting that society tends to have a flawed perception of gays as being victims of “low self-esteem, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual compulsivity,” among other psychological ailments.

Part of the speech was dedicated to how to better frame public discourse on STI risk reduction. Halperin maintained that rather than presenting the issue as a moral one, it’s possible to promote safe sex practices as a preventative measure.

After the presentation, Halperin noted that turning HIV prevention into a moral question is a flawed approach to prevention. He concluded that the best way to promote safe sex was by considering it “a price for getting what you want, rather than conforming to some kind of moral norm.”

While this approach resembles an Ayn Rand objectivist philosophy, Halperin maintained that it isn’t amoral, but is grounded in objective reality.

“I think [morality] has a large place in people’s own view points,” he said. “I think everyone is inclined to see these problems in terms of their own moral values. I think that generally, in terms of public health policy, morality doesn’t have a very effective role to play, because people don’t do the things they don’t want to do. You have to deal with these issues practically.”

The presentation was the first this year in the Concordia University Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS. When reached by e-mail, co-ordinator Aaron Capar said he was glad to finally have Halperin come to Concordia.

“He was supposed to come for a few years, but our and his available times did not match up until this year,” said Capar, adding that he thought the subject matter was important as “David is touching on a very important issue in how the scientific/prevention community is constantly referring to gays as having mental/psychological problems/sicknesses. Even reviewing other literature […] there are constant references to the mental health of gay men as a reason for the pandemic being so prevalent in this population. It is really marginalizing gay people in the sense as passing them off as ‘crazy whatevers’—something that straight people don’t have to deal with nearly as much when addressing their reproductive health issues like STIs, pregnancies etc.”

The speech garnered a lengthy round of applause from the audience, which filled the bottom half of the Hall building’s theatre room.

“I used to work a little bit in HIV/AIDS prevention,” said student Jeba Bowers-Murphy afterwards. “It was a program where you’d get educated and you’d educate other people. We never got anything [as] specific [as Halperin’s speech].”

“I thought he made a really constructive point on an issue that seems kind of helpless sometimes,” added fellow student Maja Presnell. “He was very bluntly obvious, and I liked that. He had a good approach.”

This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 10, published October 19, 2010.

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