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Infection and Identity, Desire and Disease: Gay Men, HIV/AIDS and the History of Sexuality

Infection and Identity, Desire and Disease: Gay Men, HIV/AIDS and the History of Sexuality

The current global HIV epidemic in now in its 39th
year, although we now know there were isolated cases
of HIV infection dating back at least to the 1920s. Gay
men in the USA were among the first persons diagnosed
with this new disease even before it received a
name. In this ‘epidemic of signification’ (Treichler,
1988), gay men in the West have often provided the
main source of the social, political and cultural conceptualisation
that frames how the epidemic is comprehended.
This can be seen in its original designation as
‘GRID’ (Gay Related Immune Deficiency), the invention
of safe (or safer) sex, and the development of new
social identity categories such as men ‘who has sex
with men (MSM) and people living with HIV
(PLHIV). A reification of these identity categories and
others (e.g. FSW or CSW – female sex workers or
commercial sex workers) has paralleled an unprecedented
interrogation of human sexuality on a scale
hithertofore impossible. Much of this interrogation has
relied on often shallow and sometimes specious understandings
of sexuality, e.g. reduced to list of behaviours,
or the nonsense of ‘bisexual’ HIV transmission and,
more recently, the misuse of ‘transgender’ as a collective
noun. These understandings utilise a positivist
imperative in sexology and sex research that is
increasingly challenged by post-feminism, queer theory
and critical sexuality studies, and by significant shifts
in contemporary sexuality and gender politics. Some of
these challenges and shifts suggest a return to pre-
HIV/AIDS politics, but they also draw on often unrecognised
consequences of this long epidemic and its
moment in the history of sexuality. Using gay men as
the starting point, this paper explores that moment.
Keywords: gay men, HIV/AIDS, history of sexuality
Conflict of Interest and Disclosure Statement: None

Speakers: Gary Dowsett