Thursday, March 30, 2006

Stoned: Real-Life Rock ’n’ roll Sunset Boulevard

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Stoned” was the title of one of the rarest recordings by the Rolling Stones, the B-side of their 1963 single of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man.” In what was otherwise a blues instrumental, Mick Jagger rapped a series of interjections — “Stoned,” “Out of my mind,” “Where am I at?” — to depict the mood celebrated in the song’s title. Stoned is also the title of a 2005 movie about the last three months in the life of the group’s original guitarist and (at least according to the film’s script) founder, Brian Jones, who ran through more money, screwed more women and did more drugs than the rest of them and burned himself out into an early grave, dead at age 27 from a late-night swim in the pool of his English country mansion, formerly owned by Winnie the Pooh creator A. A. Milne.

“Before Jimi and Janis, there was Brian,” reads the advertising slogan for Stoned. Actually, Brian Jones wasn’t the first of the 1960’s generation of rock stars to die — that dubious honor belonged to Alan Wilson, hardly as major a name but one whose peculiarly whiny voice had propelled his band, Canned Heat, to the two biggest hits it ever had (“On the Road Again” and “Going Up the Country”) — but he was part of a supergroup, which Wilson wasn’t. Still, his death didn’t have the impact of Jimi Hendrix’s or Janis Joplin’s because he hadn’t been a star in his own right; the band he was in was one of the most important in rock history, but his role had been to add color — from bottleneck blues guitar to East Indian sitar — to the basic voice-guitar-bass-drums lineup of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. In fact, Jones was sufficiently dispensable that the Rolling Stones went right on without him — and indeed are still a going concern, though largely a nostalgia act sucking off the great work they did in the 1960’s when Jones was still alive and contributing.

Stoned, the movie, may or may not be historically accurate, but on its own it stands as a powerful, if all too familiar, tale of a doomed rock star in his last days. What isn’t apparent from the advertising is how closely it follows the faded-star trope of the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, from director Stephen Woolley cribbing Billy Wilder’s famous opening shot of a corpse floating in a swimming pool shot from below to the bizarre relationship of Jones (Leo Gregory) and Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine), a married 40-something contractor who enters Jones’s world to remodel his house and ends up his unpaid servant, go-fer, drinking and drugging companion, and ultimately — at least according to one possible reading of Jones’s final days — his killer.

The relationship between Jones and Thorogood is by far the most interesting aspect of this movie. At times Jones seems too continually spaced out to be capable of doing much of anything, but at other times he comes across as a master manipulator, continuing his weird platonic (or maybe not so platonic) seduction of the hapless builder, taking him for a walk on the proverbial wild side and showing him — and us — just how thin the line is between self-definition and self-indulgence. The ultimate cruelty is that Brian Jones’s rambunctious, self-destructive lifestyle emerges as a temptation the rest of us are protected from only because we don’t have the money and leisure to pursue it.

Nor do we have the support structure of people like Tom Keylock (David Morrissey), who gets Frank the gig of remodeling Jones’s house and in some respects comes off as the film’s most repulsive character: a straight-arrow himself (as shown by his short hair, business dress and glasses), he’s not above skimming from the Stones’ till or helping himself to their leftover groupies. People like Tom exist because people like the Stones have enormous earning power, not only for themselves but even more so for the businesspeople who sign them to management contracts and record deals, and the creative artists who lay the golden eggs have to be kept, coddled and given enough protection from their follies so they continue to produce the work from which others make more money than they do.

Stoned intersperses its main plot — Brian Jones’s progressive disintegration, his shock when the other Stones fire him, and his final end — with flashback sequences, directed by Woolley in flamboyant neo-psychedelic style. These depict Jones in 1959, dancing merrily away from the family crisis he caused by getting a 14-year-old girl pregnant (“You want to add murder to molestation?” his father angrily says when Brian drops a hint that they should get a doctor to “take care” of the problem); in 1963, posing as the Stones’ manager to get them a last-minute gig as a substitute opening act; in 1965 in Germany, meeting Anita Pallenberg (Monet Mazur), who’d become first his and Keith Richards’s girlfriend and who would give him his first dose of LSD; and in 1967 in Morocco, where he ostensibly went to produce a recording of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, an indigenous ensemble (a bit of their eerie, powerful music is heard in the film), but actually spent most of his time smoking the world’s strongest hashish.

What we don’t see — and it’s a weakness of the film — is Brian Jones ever functioning as a creative musician. We see one of the Stones’ early performances (doing a cover of Willie Dixon’s blues classic, “Little Red Rooster”) and watch Jones playing the bottleneck guitar part originated by Hubert Sumlin on Howlin’ Wolf’s record of the song (most people don’t realize that the Rolling Stones started playing nothing but covers of African-American blues records, and even got their name from a song by Muddy Waters); we see him do a blues jam for the soundtrack of a Pallenberg film; and late in the story we see Jones place an electronic keyboard at the bottom of his then-empty pool and try to get Thorogood to accompany him on gourd. But we don’t get any sense of what Brian Jones actually contributed to the Stones’ style or sound, and in the most notable error in the Neal Purvis/Robert Wade script we hear Mick Jagger (Luke de Woolfson) tell Jones that one of the reasons they’re throwing him out of the band is because he isn’t writing any songs. The real Brian Jones wrote quite a few songs but was unable to get any of them recorded; Mick and Keith wanted to keep the songwriting (and the extra royalties from it) all to themselves.

Though watching Stoned sometimes seems like sitting through a train wreck in slow motion for 105 minutes, the movie is fascinating and haunting. Leo Gregory bears no more than a superficial resemblance to the real Brian Jones, but he’s physically right for the part anyway, with his big Cheshire-cat grin of a mouth and his puffy, jowly face excellently representing a man who’s drunk and drugged himself into a premature state of old age at 27. His performance is at its best in the little moments; his smile of satisfaction when the woman he’s asked for starts going down on him and the sensation wakes him from his half-asleep stupor; his look of panic when the drugs temporarily wear off, he’s unable to get more immediately, and he sucks on some sort of inhaler to get something mood-altering into his system rather than risk even a moment of not being high.

Paddy Considine, so fine as the harried father in Jim Sheridan’s immigration drama In America, is equally good here as the sort of everyman thrust into Brian Jones’s unimaginable lifestyle. The women — reflecting the relentless sexism of the rock-star culture — are far less well drawn as characters as the men; Monet Mazur as Anita Pallenberg is the only female cast member who gets to play even a hint of complexity. Overall, the film is moody and dark but not dull; it’s gripping drama even though there’s a kind of sick fascination in watching a spoiled brat destroy himself while everyone around him is helpless either because they’re partying along with him or he won’t listen to them. Maybe the dying-rock-star biopic has become a genre of its own — Gus van Sant even did one on Kurt Cobain — but at least Stoned is a good one, which transcends the usual rock-movie clichés to become a valid and surprisingly moving, though depressing, drama.

Stoned plays from Friday, March 31 through Thursday, April 6 at the Ken Cinema, 4061 Adams Avenue in Kensington. Please call (619) 819-0236 for showtimes and other information.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Queer Dems Reluctantly Endorse Davis for Congress

Copyright @ 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Ordinarily a re-election endorsement for a popular Democratic Congressmember with a strong record of support for the Queer community would be a no-brainer for the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club, but the club’s endorsement of Susan Davis at its March 23 meeting was considerably closer and more reluctant than the final vote — 32 in favor, seven against — would indicate. Though she scored 97 points out of a possible 100 on the club’s issue’s questionnaire, the issue on which she fell short of the club’s position, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy against Queers serving openly in the U.S. military, dominated the debate and helped lead 15 club members to vote against the earlier motion to make an endorsement in the race at all.

The controversy had actually started one month earlier, when attorney and former club official Bridget Wilson spoke to the group on February 23 and asked them not to make a routine “friendly incumbent” endorsement of Davis until she agreed to sign on as a co-sponsor to HR 1059. Called the “Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2005,” this bill would repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and instead forbid the military from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The bill does not mention gender identity, nor would it require that same-sex partners of servicemembers have the same rights to benefits as husbands or wives, but it would allow Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual people to serve in the U.S. military without having to conceal their sexual orientation.

At the February 23 meeting, Wilson explained that, contrary to popular belief, “’Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is not a law that lets you serve in the military if you’re Gay as long as you don’t talk about it. If you told your mother you were Gay and someone overheard it, that could be grounds for separation. ‘Sex’ is any physical contact engaged in for purposes any reasonable person could see as sexual gratification. There are pockets of relative tolerance, and then a new commanding officer comes in and thumps a Bible, and you’re in trouble.” Wilson said they were especially targeting Davis “because she’s worried about alienating veterans,” and she asked club members — especially ones who were themselves veterans — to write her and urge her to co-sponsor HR 1059.

The club agreed to defer considering Davis’s endorsement for a month and the issue came up again on March 23. Jeri Dilno, the club’s vice-president for political action, said Davis had returned the club’s questionnaire and had agreed with its positions on all issues except those relating to open service in the military and the California National Guard. In answer to the question, “Do you support permitting openly Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender people to serve in the armed forces?,” Davis answered neither yes or no, but wrote a two-paragraph response. She said that the two paragraphs would also apply to the question on whether to allow Queers to serve openly in the California National Guard. In answer to a question as to whether the government should penalize colleges and universities for allowing military recruiters on campus as long as the military still discriminates, Davis wrote, “Properly addressing the policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ could eliminate this concern.”

Davis’s two-paragraph answer on “don’t ask, don’t tell” began with a ringing statement of principle — “Differential treatment in the workplace should be based solely on an individual’s ability to do the job” — but then began to equivocate. “While I am told that lifting ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ may present a number of challenges within the military context, the DoD [Department of Defense] simply must be willing to work towards this goal,” Davis wrote. “If the immediate elimination of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ would have detrimental effects upon military readiness, as some have shared with me, then the DoD needs to find another way to start addressing this problem.”

“In 2004 I joined many of my Congressional colleagues in requesting a report from the Government Accountability Office that detailed the financial costs and impacts on military readiness,” Davis wrote — though there was no indication that the report had ever been made or, if it had been, what it had found. “I have heard from many constituents who support, and who oppose, this policy,” Davis continued. “Keeping in mind the unique nature of military service, facilities and billets, I have tried hard to listen to all sides. I have also consulted with military commanders for their personal insights.”

Former club president Craig Roberts defended Davis in the club’s endorsement debate. “I’ve known Susan for years and she has always voted for our community,” he said. “I appreciate the upset of people in the club that she is not taking the lead on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ but I’m sure she will vote for the bill if and when it gets to the floor of the House.”

Jess Durfee, who succeeded Roberts as club president and is now the chair of the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee, also spoke out in favor of endorsing Davis. “We have already sent her a message by not giving her a friendly-incumbent endorsement,” he said. “We are a Democratic club. She is an incumbent Democratic Congressmember and our silence will resonate. We’ve got to support the Democrats in office.” Like Roberts, Durfee was optimistic that Davis will “come around” on the military discrimination issue.

But to other members, the language of Davis’s statement — particularly the part about “the unique nature of military service, facilities and billets” — seemed all too reminiscent of the debate about hammocks and showers that helped lead to President Clinton’s abandoning his 1992 campaign pledge to eliminate anti-Queer discrimination in the U.S. military and settling for “don’t ask, don’t tell” instead. Doug Case, another former club president still active in the group, bluntly called Davis’s statement “nothing less than an insult to this club.”

“I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in this Congressmember,” said Alex Sachs, the club’s legislative director. “I took four weeks off work for her and gave her more money than I’d given anyone else, and I’m not convinced she gets the message.” After complaining that Davis’s openly Gay chief of staff, Todd Gloria, had left the room before this discussion came up, Sachs admitted that he was going to vote for the endorsement anyway because Davis has been strongly supportive of the Queer community on other issues and could be counted on to vote against the proposed constitutional amendment to ban legal recognition of same-sex relationships anywhere in the U.S.

“Susan doesn’t not support HR 1059,” said Daniel Nava, an official with her campaign who was called on to speak and do damage control after the endorsement was approved. “She’s just taking a different route in order to support this piece of legislation. Of course she could just jump on [and co-sponsor it]. She’s taken tons and tons of heat from people for not jumping on as a supporter. … [But] what she’s doing is using her position on the House Armed Services Committee to bring to the table major members of the military community, and get their input, and to talk to them about things, and to be able to figure out their reasonings behind things.”

Nava claimed that Davis hoped “to bring these military commanders to the table and begin to convince them … that this ban is ridiculous, and that there’s no reason to be there. Then you’re actually going to have the type of groundswell that comes about from the military that could actually make this piece of legislation viable.” The club members were not impressed by this argument. Roberts asked Nava what had been the concrete results of these meetings so far, and Nava gave a long, rambling response that didn’t really answer the question. Larry Baza said that he wished Davis herself would come to a club meeting and answer the members’ questions directly.

When Nava said that Davis holds regular community meetings in the district which club members could attend and raise the issue with her, Alex Sachs replied that he’d done just that. Sachs said he’d met with Davis four or five years ago and “I encouraged her to take a leading role on the military personnel subcommittee in advocating for LGBT folks in uniform and those who are veterans, and I got a few platitudes. [She said] ‘Oh, yeah, of course, this is very important, this position that I have,’ and that was about all I ever heard. … I would like to see her take a more pro-active role in representing the LGBT community that is a large part of her constituency.”

The club also made a number of far less controversial endorsements. They voted to support Democrat Richard Barrera in his challenge to incumbent county supervisor Ron Roberts — a Republican whom the club had endorsed in his first race for supervisor in 1994, while the local Democratic party still allowed Democratic clubs to endorse Republicans in nonpartisan elections. The club voted to make Barrera’s challenge to Roberts a priority race — meaning it gets listed as such in the club’s voter guide and also the club makes a special effort to raise money and supply volunteers to that campaign.

The club also endorsed former San Diego County Democratic Party chair Kennan Kaeder for the District 2 seat on the San Diego City Council against Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who just won a special election for the seat, and to make his a priority race too. Other priority races for the club in this election cycle are Francine Busby’s candidacy in the special election to succeed former Congressmember Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned in disgrace after receiving $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors, and incumbent Congressmember Bob Filner, who’s being challenged in the June primary by moderate Democrat Juan Vargas.

Among the other endorsements the club voted March 23 were Ben Hueso for City Council District 8 — he won the recent special election in the district with over 70 percent of the vote and is running for the next full term for the seat — and Ron Oden, the openly Gay African-American mayor of Palm Springs, for the 80th District seat in the California State Assembly.

Friday, March 17, 2006

What does it mean to be a “boy”?
Title Winners joe and Daddy Don Discuss It at SD-LOG

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“We are not an authority on the Daddy/boy dynamic,” said boy joe, recently chosen as U.S. boy 2006, at the March 3 meeting of the San Diego League of Gentlemen (SD-LOG), a Gay/Bi/Trans men’s Leather group. “This is not about Daddy Don and myself. It’s about the community and education.”

joe’s “Daddy” is Don Cherkis, his partner of over three years, co-titleholder as U.S. Daddy and community activist profiled in the December 2005 Zenger’s. He and joe spoke together at SD-LOG about the dynamics of their three-way relationship: as life partners, Daddy and boy and titleholding community activists. One of the quirkier aspects of the titles they’ve won — first the San Diego Leather Daddy and boy titles from 2005 and then the national ones — is that since the sponsoring group is called Boys of Leather it’s the boy titleholder who has to be in the forefront, neatly reversing the usual dynamics of a Daddy/boy relationship. “I’ve been in the background for nine months,” Cherkis said.

Much of the conversation at the SD-LOG meeting involved the inner dynamics of Don’s and joe’s relationship, the rituals and protocols involved in a Daddy/boy relationship and in particular the significance of the padlocked chain collar joe wears. “As far as the collaring goes, for me as a boy, we started out as partners [before they became Daddy and boy], and even now there are times of renegotiation. It’s about a chemistry that has to work for both partners. Is it going to be sexual? Is it going to be training? Will there be just one boy or many? Sometimes, at least for us, negotiation has been a road less traveled. I didn’t know how I’d relate to Dad having other boys until one came in, and I found I didn’t like it.”

While boasting that “I wear the collar proudly [because] I have a Daddy who’s really nice and considerate,” joe readily admitted that he is a “boy in service,” one of the lower levels of the Daddy/boy continuum. “You’ll hear terms like ‘Sir’ and ‘boy,’ and you’ll hear ‘Daddy’ and ‘boy,’ and the protocols are very different,” joe explained. “Sirs are usually more strict with their boys than Daddies. I think it’s important for boys to understand whether they’re getting involved with a Sir or a Daddy. It’s just recently that I’ve figured out that I’m too free-spirited to be with a Sir.”
“The most important thing for Daddies to do is take their boys under their wings, nurture them, mentor them and teach them wisdom and growth,” Cherkis said. “True intimacy is when a boy fearlessly gives himself up to his Daddy and is conscious that he’s better off taking that journey, even though he should be free to make choices, be directly responsible for his choices and realize the level of fulfillment in the relationship is proportional too the level of investment.”

Though there are various levels of dominance and submission relationships — from Daddy/boy in service through Daddy/boy in training, Sir/boy and Master/slave — they all are organized around one person voluntarily giving up a certain amount of free will and submitting to the control of another. Where the relationships differ is in the extent and totality of the dominant partner’s control and the degree to which there are formal rules — “protocols” — in place to specify each party’s responsibility to the other. Most Master/slave relationships, and some Sir/boy and Daddy/boy relationships as well, are governed by written contracts between the parties. Don and joe acknowledged during the meeting that they don’t have a written contract.

Contrary to popular belief about Leather or S/M relationships, these roles extend far beyond the bedroom. Indeed, it’s possible to have a Master/slave, Sir/boy or Daddy/boy relationship that doesn’t involve sex between the parties. “Every Daddy/boy relationship is different,” joe said. “I enjoy serving. I love the fact that he doesn’t weigh 145 pounds anymore” — a reference to a remark Cherkis had made earlier that joe was such a great cook he’d gained a good deal of weight during their partnership. “In some relationships it’s the Daddy who does the domestic things. We are not authorities on this type of relationship.”

“There’s a tendency to put people in neat little boxes,” Cherkis said. “The great thing about Leather is it can be whatever you want it to be.” But, he added sternly, “If the boy makes a choice without consulting his Daddy first, he has to live with the consequences and meet his obligations. A boy is a reflection of his Daddy and on his Daddy. If he does something good, he should be complimented.”

“God knows I’m a pretty headstrong boy, and sometimes I do things without asking,” joe said. “We’re all people and we all make mistakes. Sometimes we get into situations and have to get out of them again. I’ve made inappropriate statements and had to ask people to forgive me. It’s a learning process for boys, and Daddies too. You can’t say it’s always going to be this way, because it’s not.”

“Ninety-nine percent of us who consider ourselves Daddies pattern ourselves on our own fathers,” said “Papa” Tony Lindsey, SD-LOG’s founder and chair of the March 3 meeting. “I patterned myself on people I admired in the Leather community and away from my own upbringing. There’s a difference between leadership and being bossy, and between force and strength. Many people confuse the two.”

“You have to consider whether you’re on the same wavelength as the boy,” said Cherkis. “The Daddy might want a submissive boy or a slave boy, and the boy might want to be in service. If you don’t negotiate that it will be detrimental to the relationship. Then you have to determine what the boy wants out of the relationship: is he an apprentice who wants to be a Daddy, or a true boy who’s just satisfied with being a boy?”

“I don’t want to be a Daddy,” joe admitted. “There’s too much responsibility. He’s always got to figure out how to handle this boy.”

“I like a boy in service [rather than a boy in training or a slave] because I’m basically too lazy to give instructions all the time,” Cherkis said.

“For me, being a boy is anticipating his needs and desires before he even knows they’re there,” joe said. “Part of the Daddy/boy relationship is that deep sense of knowing. I know him, what he likes and what he doesn’t like. He says I’m a brat. He’s very serious all the time and I like to see him cut loose and have fun. I like to be in boy space because it’s just so much fun. So when he’s having a nice conversation with another Daddy I’ll just pinch his butt cheeks, trying to get a rise out of him — and he’ll just go right on talking.”

As the meeting drew to a close, joe volunteered a topic that was dear to his heart: the difference between a “boy spirit” and a “boy heart.” “They are two totally different things,” joe said. “Having the boy spirit means you can operate in the boy space and have fun. For me, the boy heart means being of service, making Don proud of me. The boy spirit doesn’t add to or take away from the boy heart. It’s the boy heart that makes me the happiest. Get me off the playground and put me in service to Daddy Don in any way that makes his heart joyful, in any way that brings a smile to his face, in any way where he will be proud enough to say, ‘That’s my boy.’ That brings joy to my heart. That’s what makes my boy heart what it is, and why I want to serve him in the way that I do.”

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Unknown White Male: Compelling Amnesia Story

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“If you lost your past, would you want it back?” That’s the question asked by the promo tag line for Rupert Murray’s new film, Unknown White Male — and for once a marketing hook is also an honest description of the most fascinating issue raised by a movie. The protagonist of this documentary, Douglas Bruce, is a thirty-something native Englishman in New York, who made a lot of money as a stockbroker, then quit at age 30 to become an art photographer. Five years later, on July 3, 2003, Bruce woke up on a New York subway train with no recollection whatsoever of his own identity or the previous 35 years of his life. Only by tracing a phone number in his possession — which turned out to be that of the mother of a woman he’d briefly dated and who had just broken up with him — were the police able to find out who he was.

Bruce was eventually diagnosed with total retrograde amnesia, a far rarer mental condition in real life than it is in fiction. For decades writers and filmmakers have frequently given it to characters for the sheer audience-provoking thrill of having someone suddenly come to consciousness without any idea of who they are or what they’ve been doing. It’s generally believed to be caused either by a head injury or a heart attack or stroke severe enough to cut off oxygen to the brain and thus damage it — a trope filmmakers in particular, from Alfred Hitchcock in Spellbound to Laurel and Hardy in A Chump at Oxford, have taken and run with. What makes Bruce’s condition even more unusual is that, though he’s been MRI’d and CAT-scanned up the ying-yang, doctors have so far been unable to trace back a cause for the sudden disappearance of his memory — nor, at least as of the completion of the film in 2005, had Bruce recovered any memories of his past.

The director of Unknown White Male, Rupert Murray, had been a friend of Bruce’s for nearly 20 years and had last seen him three months before his memory loss. Murray had a lot of video footage to draw on: his own, Bruce’s own and that taken by other friends of Bruce, including someone who shot him just six days after coming to as the start of what Murray calls a “video diary.” What makes this film unusually interesting is not only the rarity of the condition, and the chance to see the reality behind one of fiction’s most enduring myths, but that Murray’s focus is not on what caused Bruce’s amnesia or even the obvious pathos of having 35 years of your life erased with the thoroughness of a hard-drive crash, but on the excitement of Bruce’s rediscovery of the world and the dramatic changes in his personality as the rather superficial pre-amnesia party-person Bruce is replaced by a more philosophical, more introspective and (at least to this filmgoer) much more appealing human being.

It shouldn’t be surprising, given the ferocity with which media critics and Internet bloggers have gone after writers like James Frey and J. T. LeRoy for falsifying their own backgrounds (Frey for vastly exaggerating the scale of his drug addiction and legal troubles in his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces and “LeRoy” for creating a fake persona as a teenage Transgender prostitute to add authenticity to novels actually written by a forty-something woman), that the authenticity of Unknown White Male has been challenged. The film’s critics have asked why nobody could find a police record of Bruce’s “awakening” (Frey was exposed by the absence of a record of one of his alleged arrests), why so much video footage of him both before and after seemed to exist, and that Dr. Daniel Schacter, chair of the psychology department at Harvard, appears in the film only to give a generic description of retrograde amnesia and didn’t actually diagnose Bruce.

In this writer’s opinion, either Unknown White Male is totally authentic or Douglas Bruce is the greatest British-born actor since Laurence Olivier. His naïveté, his fumbling around the wreckage of his mind for an identity, and the evolution of the new Bruce persona over the two years’ worth of footage are all utterly convincing. As for the abundance of video footage, that’s explained more than anything else by the affluence of the characters. Bruce grew up in a well-to-do family which brought him up in Nigeria; today his father and one of his sisters live in Spain and his other sister lives in England and all of them take regular trips to France. People at this income level videotape each other as readily as the rest of us take still pictures with cheap cameras. The affluence affects Unknown White Male in another way: it gives Bruce the leisure time to explore his new identity and seek out the shards of his old one without the bothersome necessity of having immediately to pull himself together enough to get and hold a job.

What emerges most strongly from Unknown White Male (the title comes from what the New York police officer who picked him up wrote on his report before they figured out who he was) is Bruce’s almost childlike naïveté, his clear love of the opportunity to discover the world anew with the innocence of a child and the full cognitive powers of an adult. Bruce said so himself in an interview with Tad Friend for The New Yorker: “Since the accident, I feel a childlike — or what I imagine to be a childlike — wonder at new experiences, but also an analytical understanding.”

Yet in a peculiar way the incident, while restoring him to a state of childhood innocence, also seems to have matured him. There’s a dramatic visual contrast between the stark, empty loft he was living in when the accident occurred and the far warmer, homier flat he has now. It seems to have improved his taste in women, and his ability to sustain a relationship with one; we meet three of his girlfriends, two pre-accident and one, Narelle, his current partner — and not only does Narelle seem a more grounded, less guarded person, he relates to her as a first love “the way a teenager probably would,” as he told Friend. It’s also transformed him in another way: it’s cut him off from the rather boorish, boozy circle he ran with in London. The mutual incomprehension between Bruce and his British former drinking buddies when they finally meet again (in a pub!) is eloquently symbolized by Bruce’s disinterest in drinking with them and his insistence that he’s hungry and will order a meal instead.

Indeed, if Unknown White Male has a flaw it’s that sometimes it seems to make total memory loss so appealing a prospect that some viewers will be wondering, “Where do I sign up?” There are nods to the pathos that must be involved in having no recollection of who you were — particularly some poignant shots of Bruce flipping through his family’s photo albums and looking at pictures of himself as a boy with a blank, uncomprehending stare — but for the most part Murray’s approach to the film accentuates the positive. Narelle’s on-camera musing that she’s not sure she wants Bruce to recover his memory because she’s not sure she’d still love him if he reconnected with his past seems — despite his protestations of long-term friendship and the last-minute piece of narration explaining that 95 percent of retrograde amnesia patients do eventually remember everything — to represent Murray’s view as well.

Murray also overdirects at times — there are just way too many music video-like shots of billowing clouds and blazing sunsets — artificially heightening a story that would seem not to need it. But the basic story is powerful and convincing enough to make Unknown White Male a must-see to anyone interested in the quirkier parts of human existence.

Unknown White Male is playing Friday, March 17 through Thursday, March 23 at the Ken Cinema, 4061 Adams Avenue in Kensington. Please call (619) 819-0236 for showtimes and other information.

Monday, March 06, 2006

“HIV/AIDS”: Faith-Based Science

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It’s well known that on January 17, 1961 — just three days before his term was scheduled to end — President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a nationally televised farewell speech in which he warned against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” But right after that in the speech, he issued a less famous but equally prescient warning against a danger from another source:

“Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

“Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

“The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

As someone who believes that the campaign against acquired immune deficiency syndrome — better known by those fearsome initials “AIDS” — has been mismanaged almost from the get-go, I would argue that the anti-AIDS campaign has fallen victim to both the dangers Eisenhower warned about in his speech. A scientific-technological elite of virologists who had spent 10 years researching retroviruses as potential causes of cancer — and who, in 1981, were worried that the newly elected Reagan administration was going to cut off the virus-cancer program and their funding for it — grabbed hold of AIDS research almost as soon as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced the syndrome’s existence that year. And they got away with it despite the sheer unlikelihood that a member of a class of viruses they’d spent 10 years researching as possible causes of cancer because they did not kill their host cells could be responsible for a disease triggered by a mass death of the CD4 T-helper cells the virus presumably infected.

Within three years, the cancer virologists-turned-AIDS virologists, led by Robert Gallo, Ph.D. — whose claim to have discovered the retrovirus now known as HIV turned out to be false — had lobbied then-U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler to hold a press conference at which she politically proclaimed it to be the cause of AIDS. From that moment on, freedom of scientific thought and research on the potential causes and treatments of AIDS ended. The U.S. government used its clout — specifically, its control of scientists’ purse strings — to issue marching orders that HIV was the cause of AIDS and no other possibilities were to be researched at all. Thus both dangers Eisenhower had feared were realized: a scientific-technological elite lobbied the government to impose their version of scientific “truth” as public policy before their papers were published — before other scientists had a chance to vet their work — and the U.S. government imposed HIV as the putative cause of AIDS as “truth” first on this nation’s scientists and then on the rest of the world’s.

On March 28, 1993, a short-lived ABC-TV newsmagazine show called Day One ran a 20-minute segment that gave many Americans their first hint that there was a different way of looking at AIDS. Over a film clip of Elizabeth Taylor at the inaugural dinner for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), host John Hockenberry said, “The AIDS establishment in the United States has stars to sell its gospel, scientists to write it, and the federal government to pay for it.” With only rare and sporadic exceptions, they’ve also had the media to proclaim it. Media AIDS stories generally follow one of a few tightly controlled scripts. Either they latch on to some new community supposedly being hit with the syndrome for the first time; or they focus on some older “at-risk” community — especially Gay men — and either give them points for being responsible and caring for each other, or attack them for refusing to restrict themselves to so-called “safer-sex” and essentially suggest that Gays are bringing AIDS upon themselves; or they spew forth horrific projections of tens of millions of people on other continents (at first Africa, increasingly Asia as well) being “HIV positive” and therefore doomed to die of AIDS. These stories are almost always based on numerical estimates from the United Nations AIDS Program (UNAIDS) derived from minuscule amounts of data and far-reaching assumptions but presented by journalists as if they were hard facts.

In late February 2006, three media stories on AIDS broke at about the same time. Two followed the usual scripts; one quite defiantly did not. The ones that did were a deliberately heart-rending report in the “Column One” front-page feature slot of the February 25 Los Angeles Times called “HIV’s Hidden Victims” — Latinos — and a cover story in the February 22 issue of the San Diego “alternative” weekly CityBeat called “Playing It Unsafe,” which alleged that young Gay men were suffering from so-called “prevention fatigue,” resuming “unsafe” sexual practices and thereby accelerating the spread of HIV through their community. The one that didn’t appeared in the March 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine. It was called “Out of Control: AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science,” and its contents weren’t a surprise to readers familiar with the reputation of its author, Celia Farber, who in the late 1980’s had been one of the pioneers of alternative AIDS journalism. Along with John Lauritsen and Jon Rappoport of the U.S. and Joan Shenton and Jad Adams of Britain, Farber — working at first for an unlikely outlet, the music magazine Spin — alerted readers to the existence of scientists like Peter Duesberg, Kary Mullis, David Rasnick, Charles Thomas, Gordon Stewart and others who poked the mainstream vision of HIV as the cause of AIDS so full of holes that a theory with less government, industry and activist support would have collapsed completely.

What was surprising is that Farber’s article appeared in Harper’s, a publication with a decidedly Left-of-center political slant. The same issue that featured her piece also contained an extended editorial by publisher Lewis H. Lapham calling for the impeachment of President Bush and an article by Georgetown University law professor David Luban criticizing both the Bush administration’s policy of torturing detainees in the so-called “war on terror” and the elaborate rationalizations other legal scholars had concocted to justify it. Almost never before had a progressive publication other than my own, Zenger’s Newsmagazine, run an article acknowledging that a scientific challenge to the HIV/AIDS model even existed, let alone presenting it sympathetically. While publications on the Right — particularly the Libertarian Right — had occasionally presented the case against HIV as the cause of AIDS (usually in the context of arguing that the government should stop funding scientific research and leave that task to the private sector), the Left had not only enthusiastically embraced HIV as the cause of AIDS but used loyalty to the mainstream view of AIDS as an index of one’s concern for Queers and people of color in both the developed and developing worlds.

A Lethal Drug Trial

Farber’s Harper’s article begins with the story of Joyce Ann Hafford, a woman from Memphis, Tennessee who, four months pregnant with her second child, accepted the advice of her obstetrician to take an HIV antibody test “even though she was healthy and had no reason to think she might be HIV positive.” When her test did come back positive, she was referred to another doctor, Edwin Thorpe, an “HIV specialist” who was also the principal investigator in a clinical trial of four anti-HIV medications — nevirapine, nelfinavir, AZT and Lamivudine — to see not only which combination of these drugs most effectively reduced the risk of HIV transmission from mother to child before or during birth but also how high the doses could be raised before the drugs started killing people or making them sick. Dr. Thorpe got Hafford into the trial, and within a month and a half of starting on the drugs her health had been decimated and she finally died just after giving birth by C-section.

Though Farber tells this story in her usual calm, dispassionate style, it’s an AIDS tearjerker — just as much as Anna Gorman’s L. A. Times tearjerker about innocent Latinas being infected with HIV by husbands or boyfriends who were either heavy-duty crystal users, male prostitutes or both. Only while the villains in Gorman’s account are HIV itself and the men these women were living with or dating, supposedly without any idea of their double lives of “Gay for pay” sex and drug abuse (which itself, frankly, strains credulity: in the real world, drug use tends to run in families and users are all too eager and happy to share their habits with those they “love”), the villains in Farber’s piece are the highly toxic chemotherapies routinely prescribed to those who test “HIV positive” and the doctors who prescribe them and insist their patients take them.

Farber doesn’t spell it out in so many words, but stories like Hafford’s are possible because of one of the most insidious parts of the HIV/AIDS myth: the idea that everyone who gets exposed to HIV will develop an active infection; everyone who develops an active infection will get AIDS symptoms; and everyone who gets AIDS symptoms will die prematurely from the condition. As Dr Joseph Sonnabend — a South African-born, New York-based physician who’s treated people with AIDS since 1980 and has tried to keep an open mind on HIV’s role in it — told me in an interview in the November 2001 Zenger’s, that’s quite the opposite from the way most infectious, pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes work. “Most people exposed to polio virus suffer no ill effects; that may well be true of HIV, too,” Dr. Sonnabend said. Therefore, he argued, anti-HIV drugs ought to be given only to patients in the very late stages of the syndrome, when they’re already in such dire straits health-wise that they’re likely to die immediately without treatment and therefore they have much less to lose from the potentially life-threatening toxicities of the drugs than an otherwise perfectly healthy “HIV positive” person like Hafford.

The idea that everyone who encounters HIV will get AIDS and die from it comes from an interesting source: the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS), which despite its later name actually started in the late 1970’s and originally didn’t have anything to do with AIDS at all. At the time, the big health hysteria being pushed onto Gay men by the medical establishment was hepatitis B. The Queer community was being flooded with warnings telling Gay men they should get tested for hepatitis B and be vaccinated against it. A team of researchers centered in San Francisco decided to recruit Gay men there and in other large U.S. cities for a long-term study on the spread of hepatitis B in the Gay male community. So they naturally recruited the sorts of Gay men they figured would be most at risk of contracting hepatitis B: heavy users of recreational and pharmaceutical drugs, and people with multiple sex partners and long histories of infection with genuine sexually-transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea.

Over the years, these “cohorts” — research-speak for groups of people who are studied over an extended period of time — were pressed into service to study AIDS as well. They were given the standard HIV antibody tests and, sure enough, those who tested “HIV positive” were much more likely to get sick with AIDS symptoms and die young than those who tested “HIV negative.” MACS was therefore heralded as proof that HIV was the cause of AIDS, but there were two big catches in that argument. First, because the study subjects had been recruited to study hepatitis B and therefore been selected because they were considered particularly at risk for it, they were not only a generally unhealthy bunch to begin with, they had exactly the same risk factors — heavy drug use, frequent STD’s and frequent antibiotic treatments for their STD’s —scientists like Peter Duesberg, Mullis and Rasnick had identified as the principal causes of AIDS according to their alternative “risk-AIDS” hypothesis. This is the view (to which I subscribe) that AIDS is the result of a long-term breakdown of the immune system caused by multiple toxic and/or infectious factors rather than the result of an infection by HIV or any other single microbe.

The Problems with the Test

The other problem had to do with the nature of the so-called “HIV test” itself. In the early 1990’s, a lay researcher in L.A. named Christine Johnson did an exhaustive search through the medical literature and came up with a list of 64 possible causes for a false-positive result on the test. Her list, published in the September 1996 Zenger’s and in Christine Maggiore’s book What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?, included such common infections as tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis, herpes and flu (also flu vaccination). It also included antibodies to hepatitis B — which offered a far likelier explanation than that of the conspiracy theorists in the Queer community (who thought HIV had been biologically engineered and introduced into Gay men via the hepatitis B vaccine) for the high correlation between having taken the vaccine and later testing “HIV positive.” Most relevant to Joyce Ann Hafford’s story, Johnson’s list also included pregnancy, especially in so-called “multiparous” women — that is, women who’d been pregnant before. While acknowledging that “just because something is on this list doesn’t mean that it will definitely, or even probably, cause a false-positive,” she said that what differentiated the populations considered most at risk for AIDS from the rest of us was that “they have been exposed to a plethora of foreign antigens and proteins.”

The reason that’s significant is that the so-called “HIV test” doesn’t test for HIV at all. I’ve generally called it an “HIV antibody test” but it isn’t really that, either. Instead it’s a test for antibody reactions to any or all of the nine proteins presumed to make up HIV. As Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos and her colleagues in the so-called “Perth Group” (a team of alternative AIDS researchers from Perth, Australia) documented in their June 11, 1993 Bio/Technology article, “Is a Positive Western Blot Proof of HIV Infection?,” none of the nine proteins are unique to HIV. All can be found either internally, manufactured by the human body itself, or through infections from other diseases. Various tests are in common use — the ELISA, IFA and Western Blot — but their only difference is whether they measure the proteins together or separately. The idea that a Western Blot or an IFA can “confirm” the results of an ELISA is dubious because it’s still an antibody test — an indirect measure that can’t actually detect whether a person is actively infected with HIV — and an unreliable one at that because so many other factors besides HIV can trigger a “positive” reaction.

The real reason people who test “HIV positive” are more at risk for a number of diseases involving weakened immunity is not that the test is measuring exposure to a unique virus called “HIV” that is breaking down people’s immune systems and thereby allowing them to become sick. It’s that they are already likely to have come down with a number of conditions — toxic drugs, infectious diseases (including STD’s), and (especially in the less-developed countries of Africa and Asia) malnutrition, starvation, unclean water and lack of sanitation — that increase the chance that something in their blood will trigger a “positive” HIV antibody test result. That’s why I’ve sometimes argued, facetiously but with a grain of truth, that it is AIDS that causes HIV, not the other way around. Those 99-point-something figures we’ve seen ballyhooing the “accuracy” of the tests relate merely to their reproducibility — the likelihood that two tests run on the same blood sample will have the same result — and doesn’t have anything to do with whether the tests are actually measuring an active HIV infection.

Besides, the claim that an antibody response to HIV necessarily means an active infection itself flies in the face of 150 years’ worth of microbiology. For virtually all other infectious diseases, an antibody response is considered a good thing: a sign that one has become immune to the disease and therefore doesn’t have to worry about getting it anymore. Indeed, the whole idea of vaccination is based on triggering an immune response to something that’s close enough to the disease being vaccinated against so that if you encounter the germ that causes the disease, your immune system will have the tools to fight it off.

Some infectious diseases, notably tuberculosis and herpes, are partial exceptions to the rule that once your body develops an immune response to a microbe, you’re home free. In those cases, the immune system can control the disease but can’t eliminate it completely, and if something else weakens the body the disease can become symptomatic again. This is why people with herpes frequently report getting outbreaks just after losing a job, breaking up a romantic relationship, or suffering some other mental stress that seemingly has nothing to do with physical health but in fact weakens the immune system enough to allow the disease to break out and become active. But not until HIV was politically proclaimed to be the cause of AIDS was it ever argued that there was a disease in which an immune response invariably led to symptoms, let alone an early death.

From Camille to Philadelphia

Of course, none of this information intrudes itself into Anna Gorman’s Los Angeles Times piece, “HIV’s Hidden Victims,” or Kelly Davis’s CityBeat article, “Playing It Unsafe.” Indeed, I’m almost certain that neither Gorman nor Davis know any of the above-mentioned facts. They have evidently accepted the central dogma of the AIDS establishment not only that HIV causes AIDS, but than an “HIV positive” test result is a sort of biological mark of Cain, inevitably dooming its recipient to a plethora of horrible diseases and a painful early death. This scenario has been somewhat modified in the last 10 years as the AIDS establishment has proclaimed the anti-HIV chemotherapy regimens to be “life-saving” — which, as Celia Farber has pointed out in earlier articles, is impossible. No matter how well a drug works, it can’t keep anyone alive forever; the best you can say about any regimen is that it is life-prolonging, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that for many “HIV positives,” including Joyce Ann Hafford, the drugs have actually shortened their lives.

It’s the idea that HIV invariably leads not only to symptomatic AIDS but to early death that has enabled this health condition to capture the popular imagination the way tuberculosis did in the 19th century and polio (which didn’t invariably kill its victims but frequently left them picturesquely crippled) did in the first half of the 20th century. In popular entertainment — as well as in “news” stories like Gorman’s — one can see the formulaic plots of 19th-century TB-driven tearjerkers like Camille, Manon and La Bohème reproduced in AIDS stories like Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, The Hours and Rent. But this mainstream acceptance has come at a costly price for the Queer community. Whereas the literature on TB generally didn’t blame any of its victims — even the ones, like the heroine of Camille, with a history of “loose” morals and prostitution before she got sick — the AIDS literature makes quite a few hard and fast moral distinctions. Heterosexuals are routinely portrayed as “innocent” or “hidden” victims; homosexual men (including the so-called “men who have sex with men” but don’t self-identify as Gay or Bisexual) are generally cast as the villains.

Ironically, when Peter Duesberg first came out with his arguments against HIV as the cause of AIDS in 1987 he was almost immediately denounced as homophobic, partly because he used the word “homosexual” in his speeches (he claimed it was because it was a scientific term with which he felt more comfortable) and partly because he was accused of “blaming the victim” by suggesting that people’s lifestyle choices — particularly drug use — led to their getting AIDS. Beginning in the 1990’s, however, it was the AIDS establishment, particularly its “prevention” arm — itself largely made up of self-identified Gay men — that has played at blaming the victim. The argument goes that we Gay men know what we must do to keep ourselves from becoming “infected” with HIV — use condoms every single time we have anal or oral sex — and therefore, if we don’t and we become “HIV positive,” it’s our own damned fault for not following orders.

This oddly moralistic turn in the “HIV prevention” campaign was largely dictated from the top — specifically from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which when it began giving grants for “HIV prevention” in the late 1980’s insisted that the goal of such programs be not to change individual behavior, which had usually been the focus of STD prevention, but to “change community norms.” In practice, that meant creating a climate of guilt, fear and shame within the Gay male community, so Gay men would be too afraid of social ostracism to have sex in any ways other than those of which the authorities approved. Safer-sex rhetoric thus took on an ominous similarity to the anti-Gay rhetoric of the radical Right, with just one minor difference: whereas the radical Right argued that Gay male sex was inherently too unhealthy to be permitted at all, “HIV prevention” programs argued that Gay male sex was inherently too unhealthy to be permitted in its natural state. Only by swathing each other in latex “barriers” to prevent viral transmission could this inherently “dirty” act be cleaned up enough to be physically and morally permissible.

Kelly Davis’s CityBeat article is drenched in this unconsciously homophobic moralism. Her stated purpose is to warn against something called “prevention fatigue.” The protagonists of her story are Gay men around 30 years of age who had been (as one of them told her) “ridiculously, insanely” committed to condom use for the first decade or so of their sexual maturity — only to find themselves progressively more and more open to so-called “bareback” (condom-free) sex. The clear intent of her article is to warn straight people that more and more Gay men are giving each other HIV through “barebacking” — often through casual pickups they’ve made via the Internet (a subsidiary villain in this mainstream AIDS script) — and shame her Gay male readers back onto the safer-sex reservation.

But what her piece really does is vividly dramatize the sheer terror under which Gay men live if they believe in the HIV/AIDS model and accept the mainstream’s advice to take the HIV antibody test every six months. They have to approach every sexual experience in their lives with the perception of — as author and AIDS activist Larry Kramer once put it — “Is this the one that will kill me?” They have to accept the stress of a new virological verdict every six months that will tell them whether they’ve been sufficiently “responsible” sexually — or, if they haven’t, whether or not they’ve dodged the HIV bullet. Even if they test “negative,” they have to worry whether they might be carrying and spreading the virus after all, since supposedly it can take up to six months between “infection” and development of the antibodies the text actually measures. No wonder, as Davis herself concedes in her piece, Gay men frequently feel relieved when their test finally comes up “positive.” They can abandon the testing ritual and set about reconciling themselves to their new “status.”

One surprise in Davis’s “Playing It Unsafe” is that she seems unaware of the work of Berkeley psychotherapist Walt Odets — who accepts HIV as the cause of AIDS but shares many of my misgivings about “HIV prevention” campaigns (indeed, a lot of my criticism above is based on his work). Odets, a Gay man himself with a largely Gay male patient base, first noticed over a decade ago the same phenomenon Davis made it seem as if she’d just discovered in 2006: that many Gay men were relieved when they finally tested “HIV-positive.” But rather than blame the men themselves for suffering from so-called “prevention fatigue,” Odets said at least part of the problem was that safer-sex campaigns had made HIV seem far easier to get than even the mainstream claims it is, and had put so many sexual practices on the “risky” or “unsafe” lists that many Gay men decided that sooner or later, something they liked to do sexually was going to give them the virus. For all too many of Odets’ patients — and, he reasoned, for Gay men in general — the question had become not whether, but when, they would get HIV.

The concept of “prevention fatigue” has an irony of its own in that it wasn’t supposed to be that way. At the same April 23, 1984 press conference at which Margaret Heckler and Robert Gallo politically proclaimed HIV to be the cause of AIDS, they also confidently predicted that a vaccine against it would be available in two years. In the ranks of wrong-headed predictions by public officials, that ranks right up there with “the Iraqis will greet us as liberators.” But it enabled the early safer-sex campaigners to present the restrictions as a temporary measure to get us through a health emergency until high-tech scientists came to our rescue with a vaccine. The message of today’s “HIV prevention” educators — that all men who have sex with men will have to use condoms with all their sex partners until the day they die — is obviously far more psychologically burdensome in addition to being (ironically, given how often this word has been used incorrectly to condemn all homosexual sex) unnatural.

Besides, the very idea of an anti-HIV vaccine is one of the many lapses into illogic from the HIV/AIDS mainstream. A vaccine works by generating antibodies that create immunity — yet, according to the way the mainstream defines AIDS, antibodies to HIV don’t mean you’re immune, but quite the contrary: that you will get AIDS and die from it. And the idea that condoms protect against HIV infection is yet another lapse into illogic. During the early 1980’s, just before AIDS burst into the public consciousness, the great sexually transmitted scourge heterosexuals in particular were being warned against was herpes. One of the most emphatic messages from the health establishment was that condoms, though effective at blocking transmission of the bacteria that cause syphilis and gonorrhea, wouldn’t stop herpes because herpes viruses were so small they’d go right through the pores in a latex condom. Yet condoms are said to be effective at preventing HIV transmission even though HIV is smaller than a herpes virus. If there really is an inverse correlation between condom use and likelihood of testing “HIV positive” — and I don’t know whether there is or this is yet another thing “HIV/AIDS” scientists just assume is true — it’s more likely because, by blocking the transmission of bacterial STD’s, condoms reduce the risk of contracting antibodies that will trigger a false “HIV positive” result.

Moralism and the Fear Factor

The heavily moralistic strategy of the AIDS establishment works not only on the micro level — attempting to shame homosexually active males into condom use by manipulating them emotionally and inducing guilt and fear if they don’t — but, as Farber points out in her Harper’s piece, on the macro level as well. After taking her readers on a breathless tour of Alternative AIDS 101, from the death of Joyce Ann Hafford from nevirapine toxicity to the attack on government watchdog Dr. Jonathan Fishbein for pointing out the flagrant inaccuracies and abuses in a nevirapine trial in Uganda in 1997-99, the refusal of HIV drug researchers to use placebo controls — which means that highly toxic anti-HIV drugs are compared only to other highly toxic anti-HIV drugs and there’s no indication that people on any of the drugs actually live longer or have fewer symptoms than people taking no drugs at all — and the scientific challenge raised by Peter Duesberg and others to the HIV/AIDS model itself, Farber exposes the way the mainstream has generally answered its critics: not by responding to their arguments logically but by mounting a ferocious moral attack on their motives and, sometimes, their very sanity:

“Attempts to rigorously test the ruling medical hypothesis of the age are met not with reasoned debate but with the rhetoric of moral blackmail: Peter Duesberg has the blood of African AIDS babies on his hands. Duesberg is evil, a scientific psychopath. He should be imprisoned. Those who wish to engage the AIDS research establishment in the sort of causality debate that is carried on in most other branches of scientific endeavor are tarred as AIDS ‘denialists,’ as if skepticism about the pathogenicity [disease-causing ability] of a retrovirus were the moral equivalent of denying that the Nazis slaughtered six million Jews. Moral zeal rather than scientific skepticism defines the field.”

If the debate over evolution versus creationism or “intelligent design” as an explanation for the origin of life is a classic battle between scientific reason and religious faith, the debate — to the extent there has been allowed to be one — over HIV as the cause of AIDS is a potentially far more sinister phenomenon I call faith-based science. HIV/AIDS mainstreamers believe the virus exists even though it was never properly isolated according to either the classical rules of virology or the specific rules for retroviruses formulated at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barre-Sinoussi first claimed its discovery in 1983. They believe it’s the sole cause of AIDS even though it’s never been shown to meet Koch’s postulates, the classic rules for determining whether a particular microbe causes a particular disease. They believe the various chemotherapies approved as HIV “treatments” actually help “HIV-positive” people live longer and healthier lives even though only one anti-HIV drug, AZT, was ever tested against a placebo control — and the two best studies on it (the Hamilton/VA and Concorde trials in the early 1990’s) showed that the earlier “HIV positive” people started the drug, the shorter their lives were and the sicker they got. And they believe the so-called “HIV test” is a nearly infallible predictor of AIDS and premature death despite the list of at least 64 other conditions that can trigger an “HIV positive” test.

And, as Farber notes, when they’re challenged on their facts or their logic they resort to moralistic appeals. The mock quotes in italics in the passage from her article quoted above didn’t come from her imagination. They came from Mark Wainberg, AIDS researcher at McGill University in Canada and co-chair of the 2000 international AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa, who in April 2000 openly called for the imprisonment of anyone who publicly challenged the HIV/AIDS model and said that jailing a few of the so-called “HIV denialists” would shut down their movement quickly. Those of us who have worked this issue for any length of time — scientists and lay activists alike — have got used to being called “murderers” and accused of genocide. Especially when we’ve challenged the hype surrounding AIDS in Africa (where the horrific numbers of millions of “HIV positive” people are based on a handful of tests of pregnant women — many of them likely to be false-positives because women in Africa and other areas with high rates of infant mortality get pregnant more often than Western women do to make sure enough babies not only get born but survive to maintain their populations, and pregnancy in women who’ve been pregnant before is a big risk factor for false-positives), we’re often accused not only of being genocidal murderers but racists as well, wanting to see Black as well as Gay people fuck each other to death and eliminate themselves as populations. We’re also lumped in with flat-earth believers, Holocaust deniers and the like.

I got this treatment myself recently. A man from whom I’d requested a feature interview for Zenger’s on a topic entirely unrelated to AIDS — and who’d been sympathetic until he realized who I was and that my publication had long taken an editorial position opposed to the HIV/AIDS model and its stranglehold on scientific and popular thought — sent me a long e-mail saying he couldn’t in conscience agree to be interviewed for a paper he held responsible for killing several “HIV positive” friends of his who’d read our articles, gone off their medications and died. He said he himself had been on HIV drugs as soon as they came out and credited them with maintaining his own state of health. He called me a few nasty adjectives, said I should be ashamed of myself, and wondered why I continued to pursue this issue and wreak all this harm upon my readers when everything else in the paper seemed to indicate that I was a decent, compassionate person. Of course, he also said that he wouldn’t take any more of my phone calls or read any reply I might write to his e-mail, so his expression of curiosity as to my motives was obviously just a rhetorical one.

Nonetheless, those who do plow through this long article and get to the end of it can interpret it as my response to him. I continue to challenge the HIV/AIDS model and proudly proclaim my rejection of it because I’m convinced it’s the mainstreamers, not the alternative AIDS theorists, who are the flat-earthers of our time. I write this way because the idea that a single virus could possibly cause all the different health conditions lumped together under the “AIDS” definition is profoundly illogical and cannot be correct, and the scientists who challenge that idea are more in tune with how the real world of microbes, toxins and bodies actually works than those who promote it. I respect those who say they’ve benefited from anti-HIV medications (though I suspect the reason they’ve been helped by them is that these drugs are so indiscriminately toxic that in some people’s bodies they’re killing things other than HIV that otherwise would be making them sick) and would only hope and pray they would have the open-mindedness to consider changing their path if and when it no longer works for them — and the good fortune to have doctors willing to work with them in making a logical decision whether or not to stop the drugs instead of themselves being true believers and putting psychological pressure on their patients to stay with “treatments” that have started to sicken and possibly even kill them.

Along with those who are already sick from “AIDS,” whatever it is and whatever causes it, I write for the people in my Queer community and elsewhere who have been terrorized by 22 years of viral propaganda to hate and fear the natural expression of their own sexuality. I write for the people like Joyce Ann Hafford who were condemned as “HIV positive” by a wildly unselective test and psychologically intimidated into taking medications that killed them — and in the hope that otherwise totally healthy people who test “positive” will read my words and know there is another path they can choose. I write for the next generation of Gay and Bisexual men who need to know that they don’t have to live their sex lives under a reign of virological terror and have a right to be aware of the shakiness of the information and logic under which they’ve been told they do. And I write in hope that the scientific community will regain its own integrity on this issue and return to reason, logic and honest observation instead of clinging to the faith-based dogmas of “HIV/AIDS.”

Friday, March 03, 2006

Queer Democrats Rate Three Congressional Candidates Acceptable

copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club heard from a wide variety of people at its regular meeting February 23, including a six-foot-tall African-American Transgender woman, a long-time advocate for Queers in the military and three candidates — one of them openly Gay — vying for the Democratic nomination against 26-year Republican Congressmember Duncan Hunter in the East County-based 52nd Congressional district. With up to seven potential Democrats in the race, the club ultimately decided against endorsing any single candidate and instead moved to rate all the candidates who appeared — John Rinaldi, Derek Casady and Karen Otter — acceptable.

Rinaldi, Casady and Otter all scored 100 percent on the club’s issues questionnaires, and when they addressed the club they differed mostly on style, not substance. In their presentations, Casady and Otter focused mostly on issues while Rinaldi talked mainly about why he thinks he can win in a district that’s historically been considered a safe seat for the Republicans.

“I’m running for Congress to restore the Democratic Party to majority power, end the war in Iraq and start the process to impeach George W. Bush,” said Casady. He explained he was inspired to run after the San Diego Union-Tribune, normally a strongly Republican paper, ran an editorial calling Hunter a “looter” and accusing him of being involved with at least one of the defense contractors that bribed fellow Republican Congressmember Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

“I’m a patriot and advocate the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq,” said Otter. “Our military has better things to do than serve as a police force in a foreign country. They’re shooting at us because they want us out. We can’t kill all the people we’re trying to ‘free,’ and until we leave there will be no rebuilding. We should redeploy so they can rebuild their own infrastructure.” Otter also said she hopes to be part of a new Democratic congressional majority that will “demand accountability,” called herself “a firm believer in equal rights for everyone,” and emphasized her opposition to the proposed federal constitutional amendment to ban legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

“I’m running to take down Duncan Hunter once and for all,” said Rinaldi. “I’m unusual as a candidate in the 52nd Congressional district because I’m openly Gay. I’m here because we have a winning campaign team.” Asked how he and his team planned to make up for the disadvantage in party registration — the district contains 151,000 Republicans and only 103,000 Democrats — Rinaldi said he planned to focus on the 65,000 district voters who aren’t registered with a party at all. “Our data show they’re ready and looking for change,” Rinaldi said. “We’ve hired a field director from the Howard Dean campaign. We’re asking people to get involved.”

Asked what they knew about Hunter that could be used against him, Otter said she didn’t know any more than anyone else — “I’m bringing out what I’m going to do that he isn’t doing, including getting us out of Iraq,” she explained — but the other two both mentioned that Hunter’s primary residence is in Virginia and that he hardly ever returns to the district he represents. Casady added that Hunter co-owns a Virginia cabin with a former secretary of the Air Force. Rinaldi also said he questioned why Hunter is proposing an $8 billion fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, and Casady mentioned a plan Hunter recently offered to turn an entire island off the coast of Santa Barbara into a private hunting resort for military officers.

According to the club’s procedures, before they can consider whether to endorse a specific candidate they first have to vote on a motion whether to endorse in the race at all. Such a motion was made but failed by one vote, 21 to 22. One club member pointed out that two of the candidates were themselves club members but hadn’t been able to vote on the motion because, in accordance with club rules, they’d left the room so the club could debate whether or not to endorse them without them being there. But when the candidates came back to vote on that specific motion, their votes split — Rinaldi voted to make an endorsement, Casady opposed it — and when club president Stephen Whitburn called a final vote the motion lost by an even bigger margin, 20 to 24. The final motion to rate Rinaldi, Casady and Otter acceptable passed 30-9.

The club also heard from two community activists, Tracy Jada O’Brien from the Family Health Center (FHC) and Bridget Wilson, local attorney and affiliate of the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network (SLDN). O’Brien, who is herself Transgender and provides support services to other Transgender people who are FHC clients, said that Transgender people are routinely assaulted verbally, often physically. She also made some controversial statements about the status of Transgender people and questioned whether the analogy implied in the acronym “LGBT” — Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender — is really accurate.

“I think the Transgender community was done a disservice by being added to Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals,” O’Brien said. “Those are sexual orientations; Transgender is a gender just like male or female.” She noted that Transgender people were intimately involved in starting the Queer liberation movement, not only at New York’s Stonewall Inn in 1969 but before that in San Francisco — but that after that, “in much of the struggle, my community was set aside. My community does not benefit from domestic-partner recognition or health care. A lot of members of my community don’t want to go to doctors because they’re often treated unfairly by doctors or nurses. There is no road map for a young Transgender person. My brother and sister were nurtured and I was just left on my own to deal with being Transgender, African-American, 6’3” and going through puberty.”

Wilson spoke to the club to promote HR 1059, a bill in Congress to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that virtually prohibits Queers from serving in the military. She said they’re specifically targeting Congressmember Susan Davis, and asked people to write letters and sign postcards to Davis asking her to co-sponsor that bill. One of Wilson’s goals was to get the club to “defer” considering an endorsement of Davis, who’s had the club’s support in the past, to try to get her to do the right thing on HR 1059 despite her concern about “jeopardizing her position on the House Armed Services Committee” if she signs on to the bill.

According to Wilson, most people don’t understand how “don’t ask, don’t tell” actually works in practice. “It’s not a law that lets you serve in the military if you’re Gay as long as you don’t talk about it,” she explained. “If you told your mother you were Gay and someone overheard it, that could be grounds for separation.” As she’s done in previous presentations on this issue, Wilson reached out to the audience, put her arm across the shoulders of a woman in the front row, touched her on the shoulder and then announced that, according to the military’s definition of the word “sex,” they’d just had sex with each other.

What “don’t ask, don’t tell” really means, Wilson explained, is that one’s ability to be Gay and function in the military depends on a series of circumstances totally beyond the servicemember’s control. “There are pockets of relative tolerance, and then a new C.O. comes in and thumps a Bible, and you’re in trouble,” she said. Wilson also noted that, “as the war goes on, the number of people separated from the service for homosexuality dives,” and that she’s actually seen the military delay the discharges of people who wanted to get out because of the military’s desperate need for people to fight the current war in Iraq.

According to Wilson, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a particularly difficult issue to organize around because many of the progressive and Leftist people who ordinarily support Queer demands for equality are also anti-war and anti-imperialist, and therefore question why they should care about people being denied to serve in an institution whose mission they largely oppose. Wilson said she answers that argument by stressing the functions of the military other than fighting America’s wars — “The military is the largest trade school in the United States, probably in the world,” she explained — and also by stressing that military service is a civil-rights issue for our community just as it was for African-Americans when President Truman abolished racial segregation in the military in 1948.

“‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ deprives people in our community of tremendous opportunities and full citizenship,” Wilson explained. “We’re talking about the freedom to serve. The ability to say no involves the ability to say yes. The day it’s O.K. for Gays to serve in the military is the day you can take your pacifism out of the closet.”