THE BLOG
12/28/2012 07:50 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Don't Be Angry at Spencer Cox; Be Angry at the Stigma That Pushes Gay Men Into Drugs and Unsafe Sex

Bob Hattoy, the late and hilariously funny environmental activist and friend of President Bill Clinton, used to crack us up at friends' gatherings in Washington, D.C., with his quip, "I used to be a legend. Now I'm a cautionary tale."

In 1992 Hattoy became the first openly gay man living with HIV/AIDS to address the Democratic National Convention. "I am a gay man," he told the convention, "and I have AIDS."

Hattoy succumbed to AIDS-related complications on March 4, 2007, at age 56. The New York Times obituary quoted AIDS activist Michael Petrelis as saying, "Bob Hattoy gave people with AIDS and gays in America hope with that [1992] speech."

On Dec. 18, 2012, another gay man who was something of a legend among AIDS activists also became a cautionary tale. Spencer Cox, age 44, died from advanced untreated HIV disease -- also known as AIDS - -after two decades of helping lead the charge against the epidemic that continues to ravage the lives of far too many gay men.

Cox became a leader in the fight against AIDS, joining ACT UP in New York in 1989 and co-founding the Treatment Action Group (TAG) to work with scientists in advancing the development of medical treatments for HIV.

"It's a great loss," said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). "He was part of a historic group of people."

Mark Harrington, another legendary AIDS activist and the co-founder and executive director of TAG, told The New York Times that Cox had struggled with an addiction to crystal meth -- and had apparently stopped taking his HIV medication. "He saved the lives of millions," said Harrington, "but he couldn't save his own."

In his 1992 speech Bob Hattoy quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

It's high time for gay America finally to end the silence and speak out boldly about the plague of crystal meth addiction and abuse in our community that contributed to Spencer Cox's death -- and continues to destroy the lives of so many others. I have reported on it and have personally seen it destroy the careers, relationships and sanity of more than a few gay men.

But it's completely backwards to be angry at Cox, or anyone else, for inflicting such harm on themselves. Addiction is brutal, and beating people up for being addicted and harming themselves does nothing but reinforce the reasons that gay men turn to drugs and risk their lives to have unprotected sex with strangers of uncertain HIV status.

If we want to address the destruction of crystal meth and reckless sex in our community, we need to talk honestly about the reasons these things seem so appealing in the first place. Simply put, they offer vulnerable men the chance to anesthetize the pain of being gay and, for those of us living with HIV, the rejection and stigma we experience from other gay men.

Even in 2012 it is damned hard to be a gay man in America. For all the progress we've made toward almost being treated as equal, there continue to be daily challenges -- particularly for those of us who haven't constructed our lives in a way to exclude others who aren't gay. The ghetto might provide a sense of security, but it's not so different from the altered reality provided by drugs. Leave the safety of that segregation, come down from the trip, and reality can bite. Hard.

Being "openly gay" is a whole different experience for those of us who live in smaller towns and cities, surrounded by married heterosexuals and their children, possibly by our own family of origin. It's hard to be constantly reminded that you are "different," as most of us know from our childhoods.

And for anyone who believes the stigma of HIV among gay men is a thing of the past, I have news for you.

Take a look some time, if you don't secretly already, at the profiles on Manhunt, Adam4Adam or Craigslist. The code words "clean" and "DDF" (drug and disease-free) pop up everywhere. They don't need to spell it out to make it clear that these men consider those of us with HIV to be "unclean" and most certainly unworthy of their consideration. Ironically, of course, these men betray their delusional belief that strangers online actually know and will be truthful about their current HIV status in the heat of the sexual chase.

Too many gay men's lives have ended too soon because of the silence in our community about crystal meth addiction and the high-risk sex that tends to go hand in hand with it.

But instead of being angry at men like Spencer Cox for their self-destructive behavior, how about directing our anger where it really belongs: at the shame and stigma that is forced on us from both non-gay people and from other gay men?

In closing his 1992 speech, Bob Hattoy said, "We have hope. Hope gives me the chance of life." If we will commit ourselves to supporting one another's sense of hope, to building up instead of putting down, then just maybe we will see a reduction in the depression, despair, drug abuse and new HIV infections among gay men.

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