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MOVIES

When 'The Gift' is HIV

A documentary enters a realm where men seek infection. It's not a picture of AIDS that lands quietly.

January 11, 2004|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

"I don't really talk [in the film] about the fact that there were a lot of drugs in my life at that point," Hitzel said. "I was into crystal meth, but I would never blame what I did on crystal meth, because I still fully take responsibility for my choices. But I think that at that point, honestly, when you are doing drugs and things, your health runs down. I was so sick. It messes with how you feel. I didn't have much of a fight in me anymore."

"Our most serious concern with the film was that it didn't address the issue of substance abuse to the extent that we see it every day in our work," said Shana Krochmal, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Stop AIDS Project, a community-based organization that does HIV prevention work with gay and bisexual men.

Hogarth said she deliberately left crystal meth and alcohol use out of her film "because I don't really believe that is the issue. This film is about taking responsibility for your life. You have to realize, medicine isn't going to save us, the doctor isn't going to save us and the good aliens aren't coming."

She used the phenomenon of "bug chasing" and "gift giving" as hooks to draw people to the film, she said, and to discuss larger issues such as why gay men are having unprotected sex in large numbers.

And it's that strategy that has drawn the most criticism.

POZ editor Armstrong noted that his publication first explored "bug chasing" in 1999, when it appeared that the phenomenon might spread havoc in the gay community, but now believes that those fears proved unfounded.

"That's not to say that unsafe sex and infections among gay men are not huge," he said. "They are serious problems that we need to deal with. I just think the 'gift giving' and 'bug chasing,' as sensational as they are and interesting as they are, aren't really a public health or social problem. It's just a tiny group of people."

Perry Halkitis, a research psychologist at New York University who has conducted extensive studies on health issues in the gay community, called the film "shortsighted, uni-dimensional and sensationalist."

"Clearly we know unsafe sex among gay men is on the rise again," he said. "[But] she's clearly got an agenda, and this movie is about her agenda. It's not a well-rounded, objective representation of what is going on."

Halkitis said gay men engage in sex without condoms for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with "bug chasing," and those reasons can be linked to other issues such as drug use or mental health.

Although Hogarth does not dispute that "bug chasers" might be few in number, she contends that the number of gay men who engage in unsafe sex is a gross illustration of the failure of AIDS prevention in America. "It's not the immaculate infection," she said. "The main way the disease is being spread is by HIV-positive people having unsafe sex."

Kim de St. Paer, who conducts anonymous HIV testing and counseling at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic, said working on the front lines of HIV testing has convinced her that "bug chasing" is a more serious problem than experts realize.

She recalled one "bright, intelligent" 19-year-old man at the clinic who told her he had had unprotected sex with men he knew were HIV-positive. "He shared needles with men he knew were positive," she said. "Clearly he was 'bug chasing.' He was seeking it. He stopped caring about his life. He felt very empty and alone inside."

'People are not afraid'

Hogarth said the film has been a "real journey" for her personally. Like many, she has seen friends die of the disease but came to the project believing the illness was manageable.

In the early years of the epidemic, she said, prevention deliberately showed "what it looked like to be infected. We didn't know how to prevent it."

Once gay men knew who was HIV-positive and negative, "we stopped doing prevention the way we had done it before, because we didn't want to hurt the feelings of people who were positive and take away their hope, and that kind of prevention made [HIV]-negative people feel guilty.

"When the new drugs were introduced, we had great hope and we continued to put out a very positive message. Nobody knew the epidemic would last this long. And now, because of the glamorization of the disease, people are not afraid of the disease. They think they are just going to take a few pills and then there will be a cure. We need to start telling the truth about what it truly means to be infected with a disease for which there is no cure."

Robert Welkos can be reached at Robert.welkos@latimes.com.

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