VD is No Camp
One of my favorite objects in the exhibition isn't about AIDS at all. It's a small brochure by the Mattachine Society of New York. Titled "VD is No Camp," the small brochure tries to speak in a funny direct way from one gay man to another about the risks of love and desire. I included it in the show because it points to something very important.
Gay men have wrestled with concerns over sexual health and disease long before the HIV epidemic. Gay men, lesbians, and transgender people have had an ongoing dialogue with the medical profession throughout the 20th century. We have battled with the pathologization of our lives, but also depended upon the medical profession for medical treatment, and, at times, for justification for our existence. We have struggled to create our own language about love and health.
One of my most dramatic personal lessons in the complicated relations between LGBT lives and the medical profession happened when I caught meningitis in the early 1990s. I also developed an eye infection from the stress. I had fallen ill while visiting family and was hospitalized in a small town in upstate New York. I was trapped in a hospital bed blind for weeks. Because I am gay and because of the symptoms I was manifesting, the doctors assumed I had AIDS. Even though HIV tests came back negative, the doctors classified me and objectified me as a person with AIDS.
What amazed me most was the way that I was put on display for the medical gaze. An endless parade of doctors and interns came to view me as a lesson, an example. Some doctors showed me off to their colleagues, others questioned me on my homosexuality, testing its etiology and symptoms. Their inability to see my real condition beyond the stereotypes they projected upon me delayed my receiving appropriate medical attention for my actual condition. My vision is scarred and I have impaired mobility to this day. That experience gave me a crash course in the medicalization of homosexuality. It showed me firsthand how homosexuality, pathology, and AIDS were inextricably intertwined in the medical mind. It was a lesson I'd never forget.