Friday, October 17, 2014

Could Ebola present an existential "political" threat to gay (and straight) clubs? Trace the parallel history with HIV 30 years ago; it's chilling

So, will Ebola cause a particular crisis for LGBT people, particularly gay men?

Of course, it’s tempting to draw parallels to HIV and AIDS, in several areas. Let’s plow through it.
The most immediate relevant immediate medical fact is that Ebola remains transmissible in sperm for several months after a person recovers.  It is very obvious that this concern would apply to homosexual and heterosexual sex alike.  There is no way that Ebola could ever be a “gay disease” and speculative right-wing arguments articulated in the 1980s (especially in a group of politicians promoting very anti-gay legislation in Texas) about “amplification” make no sense here.  It’s a good question (even for heterosexually married men) whether condoms offer enough protection during this period. If anything, we're learning that novel epidemics can arise in many different communities around the world and blow up for a lot of different reasons.  
There is another context, though, in which all of this is important to much of the gay community.  I could relate my own perspective.  From 1975 through 1983, I went through a period where I “brought men home” and sometimes went to the baths.  Since early spring 1983, I’ve “tricked” (in the conventional sense of what that usually means) only once, and that was in Minnesota in August 1999.  My last visit to a bathhouse was in March 1983 at the Club in Dallas.  (My first had been at the Club in New York in early 1975.)  As we know, in early summer 1984, the San Francisco Health Department closed the baths (I remember being at an Oak Lawn Softball Association party in Dallas when this was announced), and other cities followed suit very quickly.  As a business, the bathhouse industry was destroyed.  We learned to live without it.  In its place, some “quasi hotels” opened that were much simpler facilities which had private rooms and official (non enforced) policies of not having sex on the premises.  I have visited one of these only once, in the 1990s.  And sometimes “private party clubs” have formed, as there were well known in DC in the 1990s.
A lot of written about the transmission of Ebola, being related only to direct contact with body fluids.  Ebola is much more transmissible than HIV, which, as noted, explains why it cannot ever be a “gay disease”.  There is speculative discussion as to whether it could become airborne (see my Issue blog Oct. 16), and even, because of some unusual microbiology of infection, whether much longer incubation periods than have been reported are possible with very minimal exposures.   This latter discussion may help explain the draconian measures taken against some people with very minimal risk of exposure, especially in Ohio.  Again, the official line is that someone cannot transmit Ebola until there are significant symptoms that would keep the person out of the public anyway.  Some seem not so sure, and health officials are notifying hundreds of people (with apparently no risk and only the most incidental contact of being on the same airliner or business) and these people may be grounded. 
The usual concept that is relevant is called “social distancing”.  That idea has been applied mainly to airborne diseases, especially influenza and SARS/MERS.  This could become important. Clubs facilitate some intimate contact, especially discos (“dirty dancing”) in the gay community and “straight” community alike.   It is quite plausible to imagine health departments wanting to pull dance licenses on clubs “to protect health”.  This bears analogy to the closing of the baths three decades ago.  Many clubs would not survive such a measure, as customers would find no reason to find.  In fact, most clubs (outside a few cities like New York and San Francisco where there are many “fern” bars with no dancing) need to offer a climate where some intimacy happens and encouraged – intimacy which is known (after three decades of experience) not to be particularly risky with respect to HIV but which could turn out to be dangerous with Ebola or, more likely, a different airborne pandemic to happen in the future.  Clubs could also face arbitrary closure if an employee or even possibly a customer were identified with Ebola right after being on the premises (unlikely, we think, but not impossible).  Already, some insurance companies are pondering how to underwrite such “business interruption” and it seems so capricious when managed by governments and health departments.  We already know from experience that once clubs are closed (and lose liquor or dancing permits), they often find enormous political resistance to reopening, partly because many members of the public (saying they are concerned about noise and traffic) have “moral” objections to bars and dance halls to begin with.
There has been little coverage of this possibility in the gay press so far.  As with AIDS three decades ago, the gay press could rightly fear that it could provoke adverse behavior by politicians by merely talking about it, but this time, with an Internet, the circumstances are more nuanced, and it is independent bloggers who might wind up in the position of saying “I told you so.”  The Dallas Voice this morning does have a brief story of a candlelight vigil for the two Dallas nurses with Ebola, here. The mainstream gay press continues the stories on gay marriage, benefits, and overseas persecution as if it were business as usual.   And of course it must.  Back in the 1980s, there were some in the Dallas Gay Alliace who thought my "objectivity" was simply putting ideas in the heads of "enemies" that they could not have come up with on their own.  

Update: Nov, 2

Senator Rand Paul said on CNN on Candy Crowley's show, that the libertarianism in him opposed quarantyines, but that people who believe they could have been exposed to Ebola "shouldn't go to the discotheque, the bar, or the school cafeteria". 

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