The arrests last week of two Bay Area AIDS activists on charges of making terrorist threats against journalists, researchers and other AIDS activists may seem like just an internecine squabble. But there's a chance that the arrests of Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli may mark a turning point in the faltering effort to prevent AIDS among gay men.
Petrelis and Pasquarelli form the vanguard of a breed of AIDS activists who radically differ from their old ACT UP colleagues of a decade ago, myself included. Back then we clamored for better drugs, enhanced prevention efforts and more attention to the epidemic. But today, the noisiest activists are those whose main focus is denial.
Some deny that HIV is even the cause of AIDS and argue that campaigns to encourage safer sex are homophobic smoke screens to stigmatize gay male sexuality. Others believe that HIV indeed causes AIDS but deny evidence that infections are rising dramatically among gay men. To them, infections are at manageable levels and unsafe sex is yesterday's news.
While these two groups disagree about the cause of AIDS, they agree that the larger problem is not lack of attention to unsafe sex but too much attention. They argue that AIDS researchers and prevention workers are so greedy to maintain their jobs and funding that they twist data to show increases in unsafe sex and infections when such evidence is shaky or nonexistent. They accuse the media of publicizing bogus studies in an attempt to demonize gay men. They say that journalists instead should investigate the studies and expose dishonest researchers.
This might seem like a sad little sideshow but for the alarming fact that their approach has tended to work. The campaign is so intimidating that some AIDS epidemiologists and prevention workers have left the field. The gay press often gives bigger play to criticism of the researchers than to the research itself. And large numbers of otherwise rational gay men, accustomed to skepticism and desperate for good news, blame the messenger and ignore the message.
Tragically, the message is dire. Virtually every study of unsafe sex among gay men shows steep rises. Virtually every index of HIV transmission is up. Mutant strains of HIV are growing increasingly resistant to most drugs. There is no serious scientific dispute about this. Epidemiologists worry that the combination of resistant HIV and rising unsafe sex has set in motion a new tragedy destined to blight the next gay generation.
That's why the arrests may prove to be a turning point in the gay war on AIDS. Until recently, both scientists and prevention workers seemed intimidated by the campaign waged against them. But now, public harassment and obscene threats have prompted a new spirit of resistance. Scientists and prevention workers have banded with journalists to insist that the intimidation cease. Open letters have been signed. People have demanded prosecution. And a lot of average gay men, shocked by the denialists' extremism, are wondering if the whole denialist cause is fundamentally flawed.
Unfortunately, the San Francisco authorities have muddied the issue by accusing Petrelis and Pasquarelli of "terrorist" threats. Post-Sept. 11, with civil liberties under attack, charges of terrorism should not be made lightly.
But the impulse to prosecute, and the public outrage behind it, can only be for the good. The struggle to invent and promote safer sex was one of the signal victories of AIDS activism. The battle for effective drugs was another. Safer sex and combination therapies still hold the last, best hope for containing the epidemic. To squander them in denial and obfuscation would be a tragedy. To swamp them through intimidation may not be terrorism, but it would be, and should be, a crime.