In a future post, we’ll revisit the flack that Greg Freeman got from the Thought Police over at GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) for writing this piece.
The following is excerpted from Bug Chasers, by Gregory A. Freeman, published Jan 23, 2003, by Rolling Stone:
Carlos nonchalantly asks whether his drink was made with whole or skim milk. He takes a moment to slurp on his grande Caffe Mocha in a crowded Starbucks, and then he gets back to explaining how much he wants HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. His eyes light up as he says that the actual moment of transmission, the instant he gets HIV, will be “the most erotic thing I can imagine.” He seems like a typical thirty-two-year-old man, but, in fact, he has a secret life. Carlos is chasing the bug…
Carlos spends the afternoon continually calling a man named Richard, someone he met on the Internet. They met on barebackcity.com about a year ago, while Carlos was still with his boyfriend. That boyfriend left because Carlos was having sex with other men and because he was interested in barebacking — the practice of having sex without a condom. Carlos and Richard are arranging a “date” for later that day.
Carlos is part of an intricate underground world that has sprouted, driven almost completely by the Internet, in which men who want to be infected with HIV get together with those who are willing to infect them. The men who want the virus are called “bug chasers,” and the men who freely give the virus to them are called “gift givers.” While the rest of the world fights the AIDS epidemic and most people fear HIV infection, this subculture celebrates the virus and eroticizes it. HIV-infected semen is treated like liquid gold. Carlos has been chasing the bug for more than a year in a topsy-turvy world in which every convention about HIV is turned upside down. The virus isn’t horrible and fearsome, it’s beautiful and sexy — and delivered in the way that is most likely to result in infection. In this world, the men with HIV are the most desired, and the bug chasers will do anything to get the virus — to “get knocked up,” to be “bred” or “initiated into the brotherhood.”
Like a lot of sexual fetishes and extreme behaviors, bug chasing could not exist without the Internet, or at least it couldn’t thrive… Carlos surfs online about twenty hours a week looking for men to have sex with… Most of the Web sites use the pretense that they actually are about barebacking, which is in itself risky and controversial but still a long way from bug chasing. For the Web sites, that distinction is at best razor-thin and more often just an outright lie. “We got Poz4Poz, Neg4Neg and bug chasers looking to join the club,” the welcome page to barebackcity.com, which claims 48,000 registered users, up from 28,000 about a year ago, recently said. “Be the first to seed a newbie and give him a pozitive attitude!”
Within this online community, bug chasers revel in their desires, using their own lingo about “poz” and “neg” men, “bug juice” and “conversion” from negative to positive. User profiles include names such as BugChaser21, Knockmeup, BugMeSoon, ConvertMeSir, PozCum4NegHole and GiftGiver. The posters are upfront about seeking HIV, even extremely enthusiastic, possibly because the Web sites are about the only place a bug seeker can really express his desires openly. Under turn-ons, a poster called PozMeChgo craves a “hot poz load deep in me. I really want to be converted!! Breed me/seed me!” Carlos’ profile on one Web site lists his screen name as ConvertMe, and he says he wants a man “to fill me up with that poison seed.” His AOL Instant Messenger name is Bug Juice Wanted.
It’s not uncommon to see people post replies to the profiles encouraging the men to seek HIV. One such comment reads, “This guy knows what he wants!! I would love to plant my seeds ) Come and join the club. The more we are, the stronger we are.”…
Condoms and safe sex are openly ridiculed on bug-chasing Web sites, with many bug chasers rebelling against what they see as the dogma of safe-sex education; constantly thinking about a deadly disease takes all the fun out of sex, they say, and condoms suck. Carlos agrees and says getting HIV will make safe sex a moot point. “It’s about freedom,” he says. “What else can happen to us after this? You can f*** whoever you want, f*** as much as you want, and nothing worse can happen to you. Nothing bad can happen after you get HIV.”…
Carlos should meet Doug Hitzel, but he probably never will. A year ago they might have been online buddies, both sharing a passion for HIV that few others understood. Now Hitzel understands all too clearly what bug chasing can do to a young man’s life, but it’s too late for him. After six months of bug chasing, Hitzel succeeded in getting the virus. He’s now a twenty-one-year-old freshman at a Midwestern university, so wholesome-looking you’d think he just walked out of a cornfield.
Hitzel’s experience started when he moved from his home in Nebraska to San Francisco with his boyfriend. When that relationship broke up, Hitzel was at the lowest point in his life, and alone. He sought relief in drugs and sex, as much of each as he could get. At first, he started out just not caring whether he got HIV or not, then he found the bug-chasing underground and embraced it. He was sure he’d get HIV soon anyway. He thought he would always feel exactly like he did then; he was certain that ten, twenty, thirty years later he’d still be partying every night. It lasted only six months — then Hitzel got sick with awful flulike symptoms and lost a lot of weight. A doctor’s visit cleared him of hepatitis and other possible problems, but the clinic sent him home with an HIV test he could do himself. Hitzel waited before doing the test and decided to go home to Nebraska, to give up the bug chasing and the rest of the life that was killing him. Once he got home, he did the test and found out he was positive. He now wakes up each day with a terrible frustration that’s just below the surface of his once sunny demeanor. He hates the medication he has to take every day, and he realizes that HIV affects nearly every part of his life…
Looking back on it, Hitzel says he was committing suicide by chasing HIV, killing himself slowly because he didn’t have the nerve to do it quickly. Hitzel is ashamed and embarrassed that he actually sought HIV, but he’s willing to tell his story because he hopes to dissuade others who are on the same path. He gets angry when he hears bug chasers talking in the same ways he talked a year earlier. The mention of “bug chasing” and “gift giving” sets him off.
” ‘Bug chasing’ sounds like a group of kindergartners running around chasing grasshoppers and butterflies,” Hitzel says, “a beautiful thing. And gift giving? What the hell is that? I just wish the terms would actually put some real context into what’s going on. Why did I not want to say that I was deliberately infecting myself? Because saying the word infect sounds bad and gross and germy. I wanted it to be sexualized.” He’s particularly angered by the idea of HIV being erotic: “How about you follow me after I start new medications and you watch me throw up for a few weeks? Tell me how erotic that is.”
Though he’s older, Carlos lives a life that has a lot in common with Hitzel’s in San Francisco. Carlos estimates that he has had several hundred sex partners throughout his life, and he routinely hooks up with three or four guys a week, all of them HIV-positive or at least uncertain about their status.
That’s a common trait among bug chasers, says Dr. Bob Cabaj…
When I asked about bug chasing, leaders of groups such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the Stop AIDS Project, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation weren’t interested in providing much education or increasing public awareness. To the contrary, most were dismissive of the issue and some actively dissuaded me from writing the article at all…
The assistant director of community education at GMHC, Daniel Castellanos, acknowledges that bug chasing exists but claims there’s not much need to discuss it because it involves such a small population. But would he try to talk a bug chaser out of trying to get HIV? “If someone comes to me and says he wants to get HIV, I might work with him around why he wants to do it,” he says. “But if in the end that’s a decision he wants to make, there’s a point where we have to respect people’s decisions.”…
“It may be a small number of actual people, but they may be disproportionately involved in continuing the spread of HIV,” [Cabaj] says. “That’s a major issue when you’re talking about how to control the spread of a virus. A small percentage could be responsible for continuing the infection. The clinical impact is profound, no matter how small the numbers.”…
What frustrates health-care professionals the most, [Dr. Robert Janssen, director of the division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta,] says, is that “gay men who are doing this haven’t a clue what they’re doing,” he says.
Furthering the epidemic doesn’t bother Carlos. Bug chasing requires a great deal of self-delusion, and he easily acknowledges the contradictions in what he’s doing. He notes that while he seeks HIV, he doesn’t eat junk food or smoke, and that he drinks only socially. “I take care of myself,” he says proudly. He also notes the hypocrisy in his doing volunteer work at GMHC, in which he tells other men to use condoms and practice safe sex, while he’s hunting for partners for his secret hobby. The conflict doesn’t bother him in the least…
After several phone calls to work out a time, Carlos is ready to go see Richard. He’s had sex with Richard about thirty times in the past year. “Knowing he’s positive just makes it more fun for me,” he says. “It’s erotic that someone is breeding me.” Richard is in the entertainment business, in his mid- to late forties.
“Lots of guys want to know who breeds them,” Carlos continues. “When I have sex, I like to always make it special, a really good time, something nice and memorable in case that is the one that gives it to me.”
Carlos offers, not for the first time, to have me come along and watch him and Richard have sex, but I decline. In the taxi to Richard’s place, the conversation falls silent. He hasn’t been tested in a couple of years, and he’s reluctant to get a test now. He might very well be positive already. But as long as he doesn’t know for sure, he can always hope that tonight is the night he gets the virus. Every date is potentially The One. Stepping out of the cab into the rain, I ask what he will do if he finds out one day that he has succeeded in being infected — ending the fun of being a bug chaser. He stops, then says he might move on to being a gift giver:
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