Journal of the Plague Years: 1981—2008

“I was around when there was a lot of hoo-ha about this back in the Giuliani administration,” said Barbara Warren, a longtime staffer at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services Center on West 12th Street in Greenwich Village.

The “hoo-ha” in question was the idea of gays as the great superconductors in whatever public health panic is gripping the city at any given moment. And pretty much everyone else in attendance at a thoroughly retro meeting at the center on Feb. 21 was there during the Rudolph Giuliani administration, too, and the Dinkins administration, and the Koch administration.

You could go back to 1988, 1978, and the story would be the same. The media still doesn’t know how to read a study or report on community disease outbreaks. And health officials still don’t show much understanding that everyone who isn’t a creationist nitwit has had for years, of how a successful disease prevention model works.

In this case, there were two topics. One was, what is the city going to do about the increase in H.I.V.-seroconversion among young gay men? Another was, what is up with this new superdisease, the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA for short, that has been touted in sensationalist headlines as the next gay plague?

The mean age of an attendee at this crazy meeting must have been near 50. That’s a change that’s not a change at all: the age demographic is different, but the actual people are the same.

So the Department of Health showed up to do what it always does at meetings of this kind: squelch some old-school gay outrage. They failed in spectacular fashion.

An issue, not yet tired out from the old-school politics of 1980, was whether the city planned a big crackdown on public venues where gays meet for sex. (Sex meeting places are legal in New York State, but can be shuttered for health department violations under a controversial 1985 statute.)

“The reason that I am here,” said Monica Sweeney, the assistant commissioner for H.I.V. prevention at the Department of Health, “is so that you can hear from the horse’s mouth that there have been no plans at all in the Department of Health to close commercial sex venues. I will say it again! There have been no plans in the Department of Health to close commercial sex venues. I’m going to tell you I’m high up enough on the food chain,” she said. “I would know.”

But that was not what most of the audience had heard, or read, on the Internet and in the gay press. A city memo leaked recently outlined four options for dealing with sex places—including closing them.

Her claim sounded great, but she got it bad from the crowd.

“Two years ago,” said a man in the audience, “we had two sex clubs in Manhattan. … Why was El Mirage closed? We have no sex clubs in Manhattan now! … This is not a rumor, this is an actuality!”

(El Mirage was a weird, unlabeled storefront that washed up on Houston Street near Norfolk on a wave of 90’s-style sex positivity and reconstructed Cruising nostalgia.)

Right. The Department of Health still responds to complaints, investigates and shutters sex clubs—sending each club’s pool of potential health education clients further underground.

And she was ripped by Robert Sandor, the long-haired proprietor of an H.I.V.-positive-only sex party.

“This is a disgrace,” he said. “The same bullshit I heard 30 years ago.”

He went on for a while.

“You said you were going to stop shutting down the sex venues. Can you put that in writing and stand behind it? Because I think that’s a lie.”

“No decision has been made on any of the four internal policy discussions about what to do about commercial sex venues,” said Ms. Sweeney.

There was a bit of an uproar then! With even some shouting and stuff! This was actually another way of saying the same thing she’d said earlier—but it just doesn’t sound the same, does it?

Ms. Warren helpfully summarized: “The city’s not making any declaration they’re not shutting down sex venues.”

Instead, they’re going to have yet more meetings in which they decide to settle questions of health policy that have been settled for years.

Meanwhile, the gays are still reeling from having a growing urban epidemic of drug-resistant staph infections pinned on them.

The Department of Health has just completed a study of community-acquired MRSA (using data collected at a private lab—therefore skewing better-off than the city’s population at large, at least until there’s universal health care).

Very preliminary results from that study show that a disproportionate number of people with MRSA in New York City are gay men.

Gay men who use crystal meth were nearly four times as likely to have MRSA than those who did not.

Just last month a University of California at San Francisco study of MSRA in gay men led the public to believe that, as The New York Times put it, “the bacteria seemed to be spread most easily through anal intercourse.”

That is not in the slightest bit true. But science reporters didn’t know what to make of the study—and the study dug its own grave by saying that “multidrug-resistant MRSA infection might be sexually transmitted in this population.”

Oh, might be!

Journal of the Plague Years: 1981—2008