Bug Chasers by Daniel Hill
Beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there. - Jalal al-Din Rumi
people are labeled 'abnormal' simply because of their differences,
and discriminated against because of those differences, their
entire being can become paralyzed. The voice of the mind is stifled,
the voice of the heart is oppressed, and the voice of action becomes
disabled. For many decades in America, homosexuals have suffered
in this way. Homosexuality was not only discriminated against,
it was made illegal and labeled a mental disorder.
the multicultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, we witnessed
the beginnings of the arduous task of affirming the rights of
oppressed people in our society, including homosexuals. For gay
people, a benchmark of success in this movement occurred in 1973,
when the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders"
(DSM) removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
At last, as gay people, our differences were no longer pathologized
and society began to not hold these differences against us, at
least institutionally. This was one of the many markers in gay
history that enabled us to rediscover our long impotent voices.
Even so, there are still those who attempt to pathologize our
expressions of love, to minimize who we are as human beings, and
who look upon our community only in the context of our 'behavior,'
rather than embracing each individual as a member of the human
a gay man living with HIV, I have found it difficult to hold the
DSM in my hands, difficult to gaze upon its pages, and difficult
to let go of the rage that I felt inside towards a book that was
often referenced in the persecution of so many of my gay relations.
But in my anger I came face to face with my own resistance-resistance
to let go of the past, to look upon the pages of the DSM with
a fresh mind, and to acknowledge the wisdom that this book holds.
I recognized that my inability to rise above such a mindset mirrored
that of the earlier authors of the DSM. This was a source of tremendous
suffering for me.
often refer to the DSM in this article. I do so not to hold individuals
in a pathological 'freeze-frame,' but rather as a tool to recognize
particular paths, to understand the complex story of people. I
am trying to explore my own resistance to the lives that we bear
witness to here. Ultimately, I believe that we are all bound by
love and the human covenant to deeply understand such lives.
must also begin with this disclaimer. The men I refer to as "Bug
Chasers" are a very small fraction of the gay community.
This article is not meant to sensationalize nor bring harm to
my gay brothers. It is only my attempt to understand, embrace
and ultimately love them-without want, resistance, or ignorance.
I can remember the demonstrations in San Francisco, I can still
feel the heavy sadness, still hear the chanting of the crowds,
I can see the placards demanding assistance from the federal government,
and I can still smell the burning of thousands of candles in memory
of our dead. I can taste the salt of my tears. Our pain, our anger,
our isolation, our grief, our hopelessness, and our helplessness
brought us together. Help was all we were asking for.
had become the acronym for "Got AIDS Yet?" Out on a
date I confided "I am HIV positive." His reply was "Who
isn't?" Was it 1983? '84? '85? Was it Castro Street, Market
Street, or Civic Center? Was it 10,000, 20,000, or 30,000 marching?
This was the dawning of the AIDS community and help was all we
were asking for.
2000. In Gay nightclubs across the U.S. men wear sleeveless shirts
in hopes that someone will notice the tattoo "HIV-"
blazoned across their deltoid. What is not so obvious is that
the intention of such a tattoo is to attract someone who is HIV+.
It is an invitation to infect through a practice known as "barebacking,"
having unprotected anal sex. In other words, the tattooed man
is intentionally seeking an HIV+ partner to infect him with the
virus. All that is left is a trip back to the tattoo artist to
have that tattoo adjusted from negative to positive. Simple.
help all these men are asking for?
private sex clubs across the U.S. men gather for a chance to participate
in what is called Russian Roulette. Ten men are invited, nine
are HIV-, one is HIV+. The men have agreed to not speak of AIDS,
nor HIV. They participate in as many unsafe sexual encounters
with each other as possible, thus increasing their chances to
receive "the bug." These are the men known as 'Bug Chasers.'
help all they are asking for?
or Informed Consent?
For most of us, our initial reaction to such behavior is shock.
We could assume that men who do this are trying to commit suicide,
consciously or unconsciously. We might demonize such behavior
by blaming these men for the further spread of AIDS. My own initial
reaction was a mix of deep sadness and concern, harsh and bitter
judgment, accompanied by a dark fascination and an echo of familiarity.
I wanted to see into and label such behavior, perhaps even to
pathologize. I wanted to understand what was the fire of my judgment
and the coolness of something so familiar. As I began to research,
I turned first to the wisdom of psychology to try to understand.
could cause men to tempt fate so? There are many apparent reasons.
Some men report that the element of danger in sexual encounters
of this kind adds to the "rush" of arousal. There are
men who, once infected, feel like they finally "belong,"
they are now part of the Gay community. Some find relief in knowing
that now they don't have to worry about getting infected any more,
the deed is done. Some believe the myth that HIV is a chronic
manageable disease and that the new drugs promise them a long
and healthy life. Some couples see infection as the deepest level
doubt any of the above explanations can be put forth as probable
cause for such seemingly reckless self-destructive behavior. Yet
I find myself stepping back from easy explanations. Generalizations
such as these don't speak to me as truth, they merely touch the
surface. The truth is that each individual has a different story
that leads him to participate in this way. Each story has many
layers, and these layers fall somewhere on a continuum between
what is deemed 'abnormal' and 'normal' behavior. Although it is
convenient to maintain a narrow reactive focus, the fact is that
if we truly want to shed light on this subject and to understand,
we must use our insight and our knowledge. "Bug Chasers"
are members of the human family and it's important to embrace
them as such.
and Unconscious Intentions
In reflecting on the stories of people I know and have read and
heard about, it seems to me that Bug Chasing can be both conscious
and unconscious. Such intentions seem to manifest differently
in two distinct generations of gay men. The older generation are
those who have lived through nearly two decades of loss and grief
due to the ravages of HIV. The younger generation of Gay men have
not been as affected by the multiple losses which have occurred
in our community.
pointing out this difference, I do not mean to minimize the impact
of emotions felt by the younger generation of Gay men about such
losses. Rather, I choose these two generations as a marker of
differentiation because there seems to be two very different themes
that play out in participating in unsafe sexual behavior.
clinical disorders discussed in this article should not be considered
absolutesome characteristics overlap into both generations
while some disorders are more clearly present in one than the
other. And by the way, and perhaps this will be a surprise to
some, research reveals that most of these men, regardless of generation,
are well informed and educated.
I believe that the "Bug Chasers" of the older generation
of Gay men may possibly be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder (PTSD). The diagnostic criteria in the DSM for PTSD is
that the individual "has experienced, witnessed, or was confronted
with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death
or serious injury... and that the person's response involved intense
fear, helplessness, or horror." The DSM also states, "Individuals
with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may describe painful guilt
feelings about surviving when others did not survive or about
the things they had to do to survive."
Walt Odets, in reference to the complex varieties of survivor
guilt seen in HIV men, says, "HIV- men tend to be profoundly
clinically depressed, anxious, disoriented, hypochondriachal,
uncertain about the future, sexually dysfunctional, deeply demoralized
and physically numb." He goes on to say that many HIV men
"abuse alcohol or drugs, and their physicians prescribe them
millions of dollars worth of tranquilizers, sleeping pills, anti-depressants
and sedatives every year." Finally, Odets finds that more
and more uninfected men now "live in nearly every detail
like a dying man - disoriented, piecemeal, and with no assumption
of the future."
own experience bears this out. In the larger Gay ghettos of San
Francisco and elsewhere, I have met older Gay men who have lost
all of their friends and avoid developing new relationships. Such
men live in a world often characterized by increasing isolation,
unresolved anger, substance abuse, and a lack of desire to participate
in activities they once enjoyed. I recall some men who were HIV-
in the late eighties attending support groups where they openly
expressed their hopelessness and alienation as they witnessed
their friends, their peers, and their generation die. I have witnessed
many such individuals express disappointment and despair that
they were still alive. I have heard men say it would have been
easier to die with the complications of AIDS because living meant
having to learn to cope with multiple loss. Add to all of this
the terribly revealing fact that, as Michaelangelo Signorile recently
wrote, "far too many gay men say they actually fear growing
old in a gay world that puts the young and buffed on a pedestal
while treating the over-35 crowd like lepers."
Intimacy of Bug Chasing
For some men, the desire and quest for intimacy is also bundled
into this equation of bug chasing. Some men may fetishize the
HIV virus, and act in intimate ways to relate to it, while others
may feel so 'below' another that they risk their own well being
for a fleeting moment of intimacy. In an article in POZ Magazine,
Michael Scarce challenges our ideas of what might be considered
intimacy when he writes: "Charged Loads...offer a kind of
permanent partnership, a connection out-side of time." He
quotes an HIV+ man as saying, "It turns me on knowing how
much he wants my come and how much he's willing to deal with to
get it." Scarce goes on to state that "the sharing of
semen and reclaiming its rich symbolic meanings," reflects
the desire for intimacy.
I am skeptical that sharing of this kind can ultimately bring
about the level of ongoing intimacy that these men are searching
do not, however, believe that Scarce is advocating bug chasing,
per sé, but is wisely presenting us with an opportunity
to examine intimacy beyond our narrow understanding of it. We
might think that these men are out of their minds, but that judgement
is the measure of our own resistance. We need to explore this
resistance if we are to understand more completely these men who
are undeniably our own. Confronting my own negative judgement,
I ask myself, "How dare I project my ideas of intimacy onto
another." After all, isn't that the same root of oppression
towards homosexuality that has occurred throughout this past century?
Positives of Being HIV Positive
Ian Young, in his article The AIDS Cult and Its Seroconverts,
says that many HIV- men think "HIV positives live richer,
more complex, more 'authentic' lives, get more attention, are
better able to take risks including, significantly, the 'risk
of intimacy' and with such risk-taking, life can be meaningful
must confess that my own seroconversion (i.e. becoming HIV+) brought
about tremendous grief coupled with a wonderful euphoric sense
of liberation, of letting go-a liberation that taught me to love
again. I know of many men, including myself, who, when they seroconverted,
felt as though they were now encouraged to take better care of
themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Coupled with
such feelings, many of these same men also felt as though they
were finally supported by the community that they once felt so
alienated from. Confirming this, Young writes "An HIV+ test
result, or even an AIDS diagnosis, frequently results in a decrease
with such positive emotions about such a devastating diagnosis
seems quite strange at first, like a reversal in the logic stream.
But this isn't about logic, it's about very complex psychological
and emotional territory. It might be that such positive acceptance
of finding oneself HIV positive arises developmentally from previous
abnormal conditions. Such conditions might include chronic depression
rooted in childhood unhappiness, socially induced guilt, and internalized
homophobia. As these conditions develop, the opportunity to fully
act out is then presented through barebacking and bug chasing.
Seroconversion, in this case, may or may not be the goal.
it might also be argued that there is a conditioning factor inherent
in Gay culture that rewards men for becoming HIV positive, as
though it were a rite of passage. If so, this would be a relatively
new (within the last 20 years) cultural development, and something
that we would do well to bring into the light of consciousness
and intention. Is such a self-injurious rite of passage what we
want for ourselves? Is it not possible to love and accept one
another without having to seroconvert? Without having to die to
More Conscious Intention
It is difficult for me to imagine being young and coming into
my sexuality after two decades of AIDS, be it gay, straight, or
otherwise. My own sexual liberation twenty years ago held no such
fears or threats. I did not have to confront the choice of whether
or not to adhere to the "do's" and "don't's"
of my sexual expression. Such expression was not desensitized
by latex, interrupted with "informed" negotiation, nor
stalled by the doubt or mistrust of my partner's sexual history.
Such expression flowed with the rhythms of the heart and the body,
not the ticking of an apprehensive mind.
young people are coming into their sexuality, every day. HIV and
AIDS are not new news. Their consciousness and choices are a world
apart from what I and my generation experienced. And, given the
world of choices and consequences they face, some choose barebacking
and even bug chasing.
think, for most people, it is very easy to demonize these behaviors.
I did. My initial thought was that such men suffer from Antisocial
Personality Disorder which, according to the DSM, is characterized
by a "lack of empathy and tendency to be callous, cynical,
and contemptuous of the feelings, rights, and suffering of others."
The DSM goes on to say, "These individuals may also be irresponsible
and exploitive in their sexual relationships," and "are
more likely than people in the general population to die prematurely
by violent means, e.g. suicide, accidents, and homicides."
I assumed that these men had no sense of remorse for the harm
they commit, not only to others, but to themselves. I imagined
an impulsive behavior and a failure to conform to reasonable social
norms. I judged them negatively as being sexually irresponsible,
exploitive, and cavalier.
I read the February '99 issue of POZ Magazine. It was dedicated
to the subject of barebacking. POZ editor Walter Armstrong states,
in reference to barebacking, "There has always been a strong
outlaw element in gay sexuality, this is an extension."
statement stopped me dead in my tracks. I began to recall the
many friends, now dead, who might have been considered sexual
outlaws, who might be considered deviant, callous, non-empathetic,
or anti-social by those who did not really know them. But I did
know them. And was I an "outlaw" as well? As I thought
about it, I tried to look more deeply, to understand, and to cultivate
the insight I might need to become more compassionate in regards
to them, and to myself. As insight and compassion deepened, that
negative judgement about barebacking and bug chasing had to be
light of this, I now view barebacking and bugchasing not as Antisocial
Personality Disorder, but more as Self Inflicted Violence, or
as I prefer to call it, Self Injurious Behavior. This realization
turned the question from "how could someone do that?"
to "how can I understand and help?"
as a Rite of Passage
As I read through the articles published in POZ, I found the young
Gay men who advocated barebacking and bug chasing to be somewhat
cavalier. The glamorization, eroticization, and the claims of
deeper levels of intimacy made by these men would lead one to
believe that they are indeed making informed choices in their
sexual behavior. Consider, for example, this plea by Tony Valenzuela.
In speaking about the practice of barebacking, he states, "We
need to trust that young gay men will be wise in their decisions.
They're not passive victims .... It's a huge disrespect to do
we trust that young gay men are "wise in their decisions"
when they engage in barebacking? If so, are we able to extend
such a trust to young gay men who are bug chasers?
do want to extend the trust that Tony Valenzuela and others ask
for. At the same time, I don't accept all of these claims entirely
at face value. My fear is that, if I were to do so, I wouldn't
be getting to the deeper truth of this issue.
their credit, bareback advocates are at last speaking out about
the behavior that has been quietly hidden away in the closet for
the past two decades, and on the surface it is informed. But I
believe there are others, not so outspoken, who may be equally
informed, but whose intention and experience may be seen in the
light of Self Injurious Behavior.
example, in the summer of 1999 I attended the Gay Men's Health
Summit in Boulder Colorado. I recall speaking to a twenty year
old man who openly shared with me his feelings of wanting to seroconvert.
"I don't know why, I honestly don't know why." Informed,
educated, but where is the depth of insight to such desire? What's
Injurious Behavior may have several motivations. From the web
I found several points to consider that shed light on bug chasing.
Self injurers say that their behavior offers: "escape from
emptiness, depression ... relief from intense feelings... an expression
of emotional pain ... escaping numbness ... a feeling of euphoria...
a relief of anger... a sense of control over one's body... expressing
or coping with feeling of alienation."
right back to that self-injurious rite of passage. For many men,
being gay in the 1990's is equated with being HIV+. Such thinking
has divided our community, creating strong feelings of alienation
and anger for many who are HIV- . How to heal this rift? By seroconverting,
many men believe that they will finally be supported by the community
they once felt alienated from.
Scarce writes "barebacking is equated with 'breeding' and
infection with 'impregnation.' Some HIV bug chasers have gone
so far as to consciously choose the individual gift-giver who
will 'father' their HIV infection." Such a rite of passage
for some undoubtedly completes their identification with being
gay and deepens their role as a member of the community.
believe many Gay men experience a great deal of internalized shame
and anger through awakening to, and acceptance of, their sexuality
in a homophobic society. The resulting Self Injurious Behavior
paradoxically provides an individual with an opportunity to nurture
himself, "to make internal wounds external and to nurture
and heal these wounds. . . it is much easier to take care of a
visible, tangible wound than to care for internal or emotional
damage," according to web site <www.cymax.com>.
with the constant fear of becoming HIV+ or dying with complications
of AIDS often manifests in internalized anger or feelings of numbness.
But, paradoxically, a positive HIV test result can provide relief
for the person who has seroconverted. I believe what is being
relieved is internalized rage, anger, and the numbness produced
by excessive fear. The article Protease Dis-inhibitors? quotes
a young man as saying, "That awful waiting is gone ... Maybe
now that I am HIV positive, I can finally have my life."
me, it is not so hard to imagine living in such fear and numbness
that one feels as though one doesn't even have a life. As I reflect
on my own experience with sincere honesty, I must say that my
life prior to HIV was very lonely and empty. It is as though HIV
enabled me to discover the depths of myself and a new depth of
connection with the greater human family through all of our suffering,
not just my own.
I am the "Bug Chaser." I am every man spoken of in this
article. I am the man who has witnessed so many die while wishing
that I was dying, too. I was once the hopeless, the depressed,
the alienated, the physically numb. I was the one who could care
less about the future; the one who felt so below another that
I would put my life in jeopardy for that fleeting moment of intimacy.
I was the man who slept with infected men, who had unprotected
sex with these men, through the haze of alcohol, drugs, desire,
and anger. I was the man who demonized my own behavior and hated
myself for such behavior. I was the man who was asking for help
in so many conscious and unconscious ways. I am the man whose
life became full, whose life became meaningful after my seroconversion.
I am the man who finally got his life back through a glimpse of
liberation when I realized the depths of impermanence. I am the
man who wanted to share the intimacy of suffering together and
of healing together, and I am the man who knows true intimacy
often we grasp for absolutes, for that which is "right,"
that which is "wrong," that which is "normal,"
that which is "abnormal." But in our grasping, we set
ourselves apart and bolster ourselves there with what appears
to be "fact" or "truth," and our own personal
experience. It's a thin security.
began my research into the behavior of bug chasing by turning
to the wisdom of psychology to try to understand. But I have learned
that, to get to the whole truth, we must let go of the definitions
and the story, let go of the "bug chasers," for ultimately
their story is not qualitatively different from the story of smokers,
drug addicts, alcoholics and the rest of "us." Their
story is little different from those who drive their cars too
fast, or choose not to wear a seat belt, or use cell phones that
cause brain tumors. Everyone is in the closet about something.
The only real difference is the demonization of their behavior-and
that's not about "them," it's about us. It is easy to
condemn others for what they do, but are we able to own our own
self-destructive tendencies, conscious or unconscious? Bug chasers
are members of the human race, like everyone else.
once was taught that when we ask for help, we create the opportunity
for love to be expressed in the world. I think back to the eighties
and how we continually asked for help then. It is true that we
were often ignored, but it is equally true that we were often
heard. I have witnessed a great deal of love manifested in the
world in this way. I know how difficult it is for me to ask for
help. More often than not, the difficulty is identifying what
I need help with and learning to articulate it.
which is absolute is the truth of our own hearts. That which is
absolute is our willingness to look deeply into our own resistance
and love what we discover there. In my journey, through researching
and writing this article, I have had to come face to face with
a tremendous amount of grief, a tremendous amount of self-demonization,
a tremendous amount of truth that I had ignored for far too many
years. It is difficult to love this part of myself but it becomes
easier each time I re-read the words written here. It is through
the cultivation of this love that I will be able to love my gay
brothers who share this experience with me, and this I know as
Hill is a recent graduate of the Naropa University in Boulder
Colorado earning a B.A. in Religious Studies and Contemplative
Psychology. He currently attends Iliff School of Theology in Denver
working towards a Masters in Divinity. He can be reached by eMail.
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