Reprinted from Zenger’s News Magazine, July 2001
Lesbians and AIDS: The New Millennium
By Jo Hagstorm
“In developed nations, AIDS never ventured far beyond
the original ‘risk groups’ of gay men and IV-drug users.
And it never made it to the lesbian community anywhere.”
By the early 1990’s, I had heard more about dental dams than
I’d ever wanted to. At the height of the age of "AIDS
Awareness," dental dams were mandatory safe sex equipment for
every self-respecting, sexually active lesbian. However, though
we dutifully listened to explanations of the importance and the
how-to’s of using dental dams, that community education project
was, practically speaking, a fiasco.
Have you ever seen a dental dam? Without a doubt, the dental dam
was the worst safe sex idea ever concocted. Originally designed
for use in dentistry (exactly for what, I could never guess), a
dental dam is a 4-inch square of thick latex that we were supposed
to place over our partners’ vulvas before performing cunnilingus.
The actual use of these latex squares always turned out to be more
comedic than effective. Maybe if they had each been 10 inches square,
thin as a condom, and hadn’t required both hands to keep in
Still, many of us, at some time or other, did try to fulfill our
duties in the name of AIDS prevention. Many of us, like our gay
brothers, opted to have less frequent sex, or at least less frequent
oral sex. I am sure that non-monogamy rates dropped in the lesbian
community, in the faces of horror-stricken lovers whose wide eyes
scolded, How could you put me in such mortal danger?!
We were encouraged to be tested for HIV, and many of us did. We
brought up the subject with new lovers, maybe once or twice, before
deciding that it was just too uncomfortable to do so. We even tried
to turn HIV-testing into a romantic ritual. When my current partner
and I first agreed to have sex, in 1995, we decided not to have
oral sex until we’d been monogamous for 6 months, at which
time we’d get tested for HIV together. It was a ritual of
trust, and communicated our honorable intentions toward each other.
How morbidly romantic.
Our most important duty, however, turned out to be, and still is,
supporting our sick gay brothers. They got sick, they panicked,
they died. Or they just panicked. We were there beside them, supporting
or even running AIDS support, education and fund-raising organizations.
We jumped right in, and it brought our gay community closer together
as a whole. The divisions between us blurred as we joined forces
against a common enemy - an enemy from without - a ruthless enemy,
we were told, that was trying to destroy us all. The dreaded AIDS
virus even brought straight and gay together, to a certain extent,
as we sought to convince straights that they were in as much danger
as we, that we weren’t being singled out by the laws of God
or biology as deserving of such a horrible death.
As the years passed, however, we came to see that we were being
singled out. That is, rather, our gay brothers were being singled
out. In developed nations, AIDS never ventured far beyond the original
"risk groups" of gay men and IV-drug users. It never made
it to the lesbian community anywhere. Old rumors to the contrary,
Patricia Nell Warren states in a recent article in A&U magazine
that not one female AIDS case reported to the CDC, through 1998,
had had woman-to-woman sex as a sole "risk factor." [July
2000, "Exporting our Morality"]
Now, in the new millennium, we can look back and ask why. Why did
AIDS never infiltrate the lesbian community? Certainly there were
plenty of bisexual women in our social circles and in our beds.
Certainly we practiced unprotected oral sex, enjoyed anal sex, and
shared dildoes. Certainly there were enough of us who were single
or non-monogamous to make transmission of the virus into our community
an unavoidable event. We could look back and ponder these questions,
but, in general, we don’t.
Our hearts, eyes and hands are still so focused on the sad plights
of our gay brothers, and now on the poor Africans, that we can’t
even see the good news right in front of our eyes: AIDS did not
spread to our community! This could be good news for everyone. Scientists,
doctors and patients, the new AIDS activists, are organizing in
all quarters of the U.S. and the world, including in Africa, questioning
whether AIDS "spreads" at all, whether it is in fact contagious.
Organizations like HEAL, Alive & Well and some ACT UP chapters
are at the forefront of this movement.
Maybe, like them, we should be wondering whether, since AIDS has
remained concentrated in drug-using populations, and in populations
deeply affected by malnutrition and tropical illnesses, it isn’t
simply an organic breakdown of the immune system caused by exposure
to drug toxicity and environmental factors. Maybe we should wonder
whether previously healthy people who have died from the toxic effects
of AIDS drugs would have died without those drugs. Maybe we should
be more like Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis and "look
for the money trail whenever scientists make announcements."
[Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, 2000]
The fact is that we lesbians are like that, sometimes, when it comes
to our own issues. The October, 2000, issue of Girlfriends magazine
included an article entitled, "Healthy Skepticism: Money-making
breast cancer treatments need to be questioned." That article
gave me hope. It gave me hope that we can break free from the blind
martyrdom and irrational fear that are keeping AIDS alive in the
newmillennium. It gave me hope that we can look back and interpret
our shared experience of AIDS for ourselves, and that we can question
the medical/biotech industry and its motivations.
I haven’t heard anything about dental dams in years. It is
my prediction that I won’t hear about them ever again. It
is my conviction that this is very good news indeed.
Jo Hagstorm holds a degree in Philosophy and is a member of Health
Education AIDS Liaison, San Diego. For more information about HEAL
San Diego, visit their web site at www.HEALSD.com