I was asked to talk about bugchasing recently, about young gay men intentionally contracting HIV.
I hear it happens.
I don’t know enough about the contemporary phenomenon to know if it’s even significant enough to be real.
It was once, though. Back in the bad old days when HIV was almost always a death sentence.
Let me tell you about that. I want you to remember somebody I loved once upon a time.
I originally wrote the following piece on Quora. I’m excerpting it here in its entirety.
Brad will feature in upcoming works as well. Wait for him as a glittery condom fairy.
A friend of mine died after intentionally contracting HIV.
I guess this qualifies me to talk about bug chasing.
Let's call him Brad. He was born in a small town near Albany, NY, a few years after I was born. He was raised in a household where homophobic slurs and insults were common. In fact, his whole town was like that.
Brad was sensitive and shy. Quiet and nervous a lot of the time. People scared him, usually.
But he was very brave and just before he turned 18, he left his town and made his way to Manhattan, seeking acceptance and love.
He landed a job in a gay club in short order. He found a place to live, sharing space with some other young gay guys. He sort of fell into “the life,” as they say.
Brad didn't just land a job, though. He landed in the middle of the worst of the raging HIV epidemic. This was a while before effective treatment became available. One HIV drug, AZT, would be on the market soon, but it didn't seem to do much to prolong people's lives.
Brad was smart and sensible. He knew how to play safe, and he did. He stayed negative. A lot of his friends didn't, though. One by one, people he knew in the club turned positive or got sick.
Then one of his roommates was diagnosed.
That's when I met Brad. He joined Act Up when he was 19. He felt he had to make a contribution. He and I became friends. We often shared a seat together on the bus on the way to an action.
My husband Lenny and I invited him over for dinner quite a bit. He attended our holiday parties.
Joining Act Up required a lot of courage for the shy, nervous kid from upstate. The actions and crowds were hard for him to take. But he kept at it. It was important to him.
What I didn't realize was how hard it was on him in other ways.
He was surrounded by people who were fighting for their lives. Many of our Act Up colleagues were HIV positive and many of them were gravely ill. People we knew died all the time. Every week or two at least, if not every day.
Brad couldn't take it.
It was too much for his sensitive soul. He despaired that there was no solution in sight. He became convinced that everyone he knew and loved was eventually going to catch the virus and die.
He told me what he'd done late one night as we were walking home from a meeting. He pulled me into some shadows under a tree. He hugged me, caressed my cheek, and whispered into my ear that he'd stopped using condoms, and that he'd just tested positive for the virus.
My heart stopped dead as my mouth fell open. I had a lot of experience with people telling me they were positive, but he was the first person I knew who told me he'd seroconverted on purpose.
Brad died of AIDS a few years later. I don't want to talk about what happened to him. The details are too painful. I'd rather remember him as a healthy, fresh-faced boy of 20.
There were a lot of people like Brad in those days, people who intentionally became infected. Among activists, the phenomenon was a lot higher than among the general population of gay men.
I think survivor's guilt played a major role. Depression probably did too. It's hard to over exaggerate some of the darkness of those years. You had to be really tough, and in some ways, Brad wasn't tough at all.
In the end, I think it was easier for him and for some others to just give up and join their sick friends. The struggle to hope was too painful for Brad and for others like him.
That's what bug chasing was then, though we didn't call it that.
It's an altogether different phenomenon today. Today, HIV is not a death sentence or anything like one. People with HIV can almost always be treated so that they don't become ill and can't infect others.
I've heard that there exist a small number of people who intentionally avoid medication or barrier protection so that they seroconvert.
I have pretty good reason to think that the phenomenon is not at all wide spread and is even somewhat a product of urban myth.
But if any people are doing this, it's not being done out of despair or survivor's guilt. That's just not part of the mix anymore.
Perhaps there's some sort of mistaken loyalty to HIV positive friends. Perhaps it just seems easier to seroconvert and start treatment than to take effective measures to stay negative.
I don't know.
I know for sure, though, that they're nothing like my friend Brad.
To read about Brad and me as glittery condom fairies, click below!