September 22, 2011 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Celebrating gay sex

In his role as president and CEO of the National Association of People with AIDS, Frank Oldham Jr. is upfront about where he stands on the AIDS epidemic.

He’s a 63-year-old gay man who has lived with HIV for more than 20 years. He has dedicated much of his career to fighting AIDS, both in the private sector and as a high-level official in city AIDS agencies in New York, Chicago and D.C. He served from 1993-1994 as chief of D.C.’s Agency for HIV/AIDS.

His driving ambition is to help bring about the eradication of AIDS for everyone, with a short-term goal of lowering the HIV infection rate in the United States over the next several years.

But Oldham says his efforts in organizing a series of D.C.-based events next week for the NAPWA-sponsored National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Sept. 27 brings an often overlooked fact into clear view: Gay men account for more than 50 percent of the people with HIV in the United States and represent the only group at risk for HIV in the country that still has increasing numbers of new infections each year.

In an interview this week, Oldham presented the Blade with two fliers NAPWA is using to promote National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Both feature photos of attractive, bare-chested young men, one black and one white.

“We’re doing something very interesting here and I think very bold,” Oldham says. “We have these pictures as part of the branding to capture gay male culture. Gay male culture is sexually celebrative. It is true that we like good-looking people, sexual people and sex is a healthy activity.”

According to Oldham, societal taboos against sex and homosexuality have always had a negative impact on gay men but that impact was heightened many times over as the AIDS epidemic struck the gay male community in the 1980s.

Among other things, Oldham says societal prejudice and homophobia “poisoned” the atmosphere for many gay men who, lacking information and encouragement now offered by AIDS advocacy groups, led to self-destructive behavior that contributed to the spread of HIV.

“I think that because society is so sex negative our gay male culture is always in collision with that society,” he says. “And I’m a product of this society so I also sometimes run into these kinds of challenges and conflicts,” Oldham says.

“But gay male culture, by the parties we have, the circuit parties, the bathhouses – all of that is part of a beautiful, gay male culture. And it is something that has to be embraced and especially embraced if you’re going to deal with the AIDS epidemic.”

Oldham was asked how he reconciles those views with advice by many AIDS experts that one means of curtailing HIV infection is sexual monogamy or the reduction of the number of sex partners. He says the best advice other experts give is to behave responsibly and respectfully and to use the best-known methods to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Just because there is a virus, which is chemical, which is scientific, doesn’t mean that the culture is bad,” he says. “You tell people that if you happen to be monogamous, that’s fine. If you happen to have 10 partners a week, fine. But you have to be safe. You have to use condoms.”

If you are HIV positive, Oldham says, “you have to take medication and be adherent so that you have a zero viral load and are less likely to infect someone because you love your culture. So this is all a positive thing. I love my culture so I will take care of it. I don’t want to infect anybody. I want people to be safe and healthy and beautiful.”

Since becoming head of NAPWA in 2006, Oldham says he and his colleagues at the Silver Spring, Md., based organization have carried out a series of programs to promote HIV prevention, treatment and testing, with many of those programs aimed at gay men.

Like other AIDS advocacy groups, NAPWA has emerged as a strong promoter of HIV testing for gay men, representing a clear break from past views by some LGBT and AIDS advocacy groups that opposed widespread HIV testing on grounds that it could lead to discrimination against those identified as HIV positive.

Oldham and other AIDS activists have expressed confidence that in the D.C. area, particularly in D.C., strong protections are in place to ensure full confidentiality in HIV test results and strong protection against HIV discrimination.

Under a policy started by Mayor Adrian Fenty and continued by Mayor Vincent Gray, D.C. offers “treatment on demand” for anyone testing HIV positive, regardless of their ability to pay for the treatment.

Oldham says the National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day events and activities, which begin on Sunday and culminate with a rally in Dupont Circle on Tuesday, stress the need for more aggressive public education and media coverage of the continuing risk of HIV infection among gay men or “men who have sex with men,” the term used in government studies on infection rates.

The “awareness day” events include a “Red Ribbon VIP Reception” and fundraiser at 6 p.m. Sunday at Town nightclub; an all-day conference on Monday on gay men and HIV to include nationally recognized experts on subjects ranging from homophobia to internal medicine, to be held at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters; a noon press conference on Tuesday outside the John A. Wilson Building, where Mayor Vincent Gray and other officials will recognize National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day; and a “Red Flash Mob” rally in Dupont Circle at 5 p.m. Tuesday to commemorate the day and release red balloons “in hope and remembrance of those we have lost.”

A full list of events can be obtained at napwa.org.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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