Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 16 March 1998


Commentary by Jim Baxter


The rhetoric around New York's sexual liberties advocacy group has been fierce, frightening -- and largely false. Meet the monsters you've heard so much about.

Every publication I open these days--mainstream or gay-oriented--seems to have something about a group called "Sex Panic." And most of what I read is either misinformation or lies.

Larry Kramer got the ball rolling in the New York Times (December 12, 1997) when he referred to Sex Panic as "an advocate of unsafe sex..." and complained "not one AIDS organization or national gay and lesbian group has been willing to speak out and condemn or even criticize what Sex Panic is saying."

Never one to miss a moment of martyrdom, Kramer added: "There are only a few gay men willing to take on the group and we have been vilified..." Not to be outdone, Rich Tafel -- executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group -- decided to join in the grandstanding with an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle (January 7, 1998).

Sex Panic, he said, promotes "thoughtless unsafe sex complete with HIV infection as the ultimate liberation," and urged "that every gay and lesbian organization in the country denounce the antics of... Sex Panic..." I would like to think that the reason that gay and lesbian organizations across the country have not jumped on the bandwagon is because they have actually listened -- unlike Kramer and Tafel -- to what the members of Sex Panic are saying, or perhaps have actually read the articles they write. But, unfortunately, that seems unlikely.

The gay press hasn't been much different from the mainstream when it comes to Sex Panic. Various syndicated columnists, in recent months, have joined in the outcry. Chris Thomas described Sex Panic as a group with "a strong desire to remain on the fringe" and a "deeply-rooted victim mentality."

Patricia Nell Warren describes Sex Panic as "our version of the festering Presidential zipper scandal." Paul Varnell devoted two full columns to misunderstanding and distorting the goals of the organization. He called these pieces a "Dialogue with Sex Panic" -- although he attended no meetings, spoke to no one involved, read none of the essays or books written by members of the group, and couldn't be bothered to check out their web page.

The Real Sex Panic

So what is Sex Panic? Actually, it is two things. On one level, it is and I'm quoting from their publications -- "a pro-queer, pro-feminist, anti-racist direct action group" based in New York City. Their agenda "aims to defend public sexual culture and safer sex in New York City from police crackdowns, public stigma and morality crusades."

On another level, it is a loose confederation of thinkers and writers across the United States, who are concerned with topics ranging from what they feel is the growing conservatism of the gay and lesbian movement to developing new and better ways to prevent the spread of HIV in the era of protease inhibitors.

They met for the first time as a national group at a summit held in San Diego last fall, just before the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change conference. Sex Panic also offered a series of workshops during Creating Change, including "Generation X Gay Men Speak Out: Politics, Parties, Drugs, Sex and HIV," "Combating the Sex Panic," and "Pro-Sex HIV Prevention for Gay Men." Three members of Sex Panic were featured in the conference's annual Town Meeting.

East Coast Flames

The campaign of misrepresentation against Sex Panic is widespread, but for reasons of space, I'm going to concentrate on Kramer and Tafel.

In his piece in the Times -- entitled "Gay Culture, Redefined" Larry Kramer presented a series of inflammatory distortions he brazenly calls "the facts."

For example:

  • "Sex Panic has taken it upon itself to demand 'sexual freedom,' which its members define as allowing gay men to have sex when and where and how they want to. In other words, this group is an advocate of unsafe sex..." That is an enormous jump in logic, and it is simply not true.
  • "Without a strong, vocal opposition, Sex Panic is on its way to convincing much of America that all gay men are back to pre-AIDS self-destructive behavior that will wind up costing the taxpayer a lot of extra money." Actually, it is Larry Kramer who is doing the job of convincing America that this is happening. Nobody from Sex Panic can get editorial space in the New York Times, either to scandalize America or defend themselves against Larry Kramer.
  • "Indeed, what Sex Panic is demanding could easily allow our enemies, as well as many of our straight friends, to deny all gay people what rights we've won or are still fighting for." Again, it is individuals like Larry Kramer who are paving the way for a backlash by spreading what they know perfectly well to be exaggerations and lies.
  • "The truth is, most gay men live calm, orderly lives, often as couples, and they are embarrassed by what Sex Panic espouses." I suppose that's true, and last time I checked that same group of gay men -- with their calm, orderly lives -- were just as embarrassed by Larry Kramer and his tantrums.
  • "Criticism from lesbians, the other half of our movement, is desperately needed as well... After all, AIDS has usurped the entire gay movement's agenda, at great cost to lesbian issues." And at exactly what point in the epidemic did Larry Kramer start caring about that???
  • It is absolutely fascinating to watch Larry Kramer try to reposition himself as a spokesman for the gay "silent majority" and as an advocate for lesbian issues. But it's pretty unconvincing.
  • "Fortunately, more and more gay people are beginning to realize that it's time to redefine what it means to be gay... it's time to redefine homosexuality as something far greater than what we do with our genitals." Yes, that's true, and that group of people includes members of Sex Panic -- many of whom are writers and thinkers at the forefront of this movement.

West Coast Flames

In his commentary -- entitled "Dangerous Rhetoric Threatens Gays" Tafel describes Sex Panic as "a small group of mostly middle-aged gay leftist men...", which is untrue. The group is made up of men and women, and the age range varies. Most would probably consider themselves liberal or leftist, even socialist, but there are also some who would identify themselves as libertarian or even conservative.

  • "In their own desire to make their status normative..." Tafel assumes that all members of Sex Panic are HIV-positive, which is as false as saying that all members are male.
  • "Sex Panic romanticizes being HIV-positive, almost implying to young people that if you aren't positive, you're not fully gay... These men pretend that the gay community hasn't been decimated by AIDS..." This is the biggest load of manure yet.

Tafel is specifically referring to remarks made by Tony Valenzuela, a 25 year-old activist in San Diego (recently named one of Out magazine's "Out 100"), who did most of the organizing for the Sex Panic Summit and the track of related workshops during Creating Change. A writer on HIV and youth issues for the San Diego Gay and Lesbian Times, he was scheduled to be a panelist in one workshop, and a facilitator in another. As a speaker at the Town Meeting, Valenzuela was a replacement for a someone who couldn't make it at the last minute. That he was asked to step in came out of a concern for age, race and class parity on the panel. That, and he had a speech ready, which he had given locally just a few days before.

Tafel's account of his speech:

" 'I'm an HIV anarchist!' railed Tony Valenzuela... [who] "boasted to the audience about being HIV-positive, a porn star and a prostitute. He described unsafe sexual behavior as 'transformational,' almost a spiritual experience, and explained all of this boasting under the principle of 'sexual self- determination' -- no one had a right to tell him how to live his life."

The truth? I was at Creating Change, as well as the Sex Panic Summit, and can tell you. There's no denying what Valenzuela said or the impact it had on those assembled. However, he neither "railed" nor "boasted." Valenzuela spoke about himself and the choices he has made since sero-converting. He did not encourage anyone else to make the same choices. He spoke in the spirit of honesty and to make it clear that the arena in which HIV education takes place has changed. He was not making a policy statement for Sex Panic, nor did he ever even imply such.

  • Sex Panic, according to Tafel, is "using him as their poster boy." Valenzuela is not now and never has been a "poster boy" for Sex Panic. It would serve no purpose of Sex Panic to even have a poster boy. But it does serve Tafel's purposes in trying to discredit the organization.
  • "The gay community already debated whether to change its behavior or die..." Tafel makes it sound like gay men took a vote fifteen years ago, the results were unanimous, and it's been condoms, condoms, condoms ever since. This is absurd. Dealing with HIV isn't about one decision made long ago. Then and now, its an ongoing process of decision making -- man by man, encounter by encounter. And anyone who's read any of their essays or looked at their web page knows that Sex Panic has always promoted safer sex and HIV prevention. Many of their members are leaders in the effort to find new ways for gay men to negotiate safer sex in an on-going epidemic.
  • Tafel dismisses every argument that Sex Panic might make as "fulfilling their own need for victim status..." He calls members of Sex Panic "callous" and "selfish" and asserts "they imagine themselves under assault..." I don't think Tafel's vicious and unjustified attack is imaginary. Or Kramer's, for that matter.

Other Voices, Other Rooms

It's unfortunate that, because Valenzuela's remarks were so provocative, nobody remembers that there were two other speakers there -- Margaret Cerullo, author and professor of sociology at Hampshire College, and Eric Rofes, author of Reviving The Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men's Sexuality and Culture in the Ongoing Epidemic. The presentation was fairly broad and covered much more than just sex in the age of AIDS.

It's also unfortunate that the people who were at the Town Meeting and shocked -- as well as those who were shocked when they read about it later -- weren't at the Sex Panic Summit the day before, when Valenzuela made a shorter but similar presentation.

It didn't quite blow the roof off the place, but it was close. Some observers would have been surprised to hear the owner of a web page devoted entirely to anonymous sex in parks and men's rooms be the first to get angry at the idea of anyone, anywhere would have unsafe sex for any reason. Those who assume that members of Sex Panic are of one mind and speak with one voice would have learned how very wrong they are.

The whole question of "barebacking" threatened to consume the time remaining at the Summit, and so organizers scheduled a discussion for the following day. A lot of people spoke at that session, but most telling perhaps was Stephen Genden, of POZ magazine. One of the founding members of Sex Panic, Gendin wrote one of the first articles about HIV-positive men having unprotected sex with other HIV-positive men for POZ. He wrote it in the first person, about a single experience he'd had and how rewarding it had been for him. At the workshop in San Diego, Genden was clear that feeling free to occasionally have sex without condoms doesn't in his mind make up for being HIV-positive in any way, shape, manner or form. HIV "completely interferes with my life," he said. "I lost 15 pounds last month because of the medication I was on, and the side effects from those make me completely miserable. I have neuropathy in my feet that's never going to go away. I have to inject myself three times a week with medicine to increase my white blood cells. I have diarrhea that even heavy narcotics which slow down the intestinal system can't stop. In my mind, it's not a very good trade off. "If I had the choice, I would be negative and would not fuck without condoms." Does this sound like the co-founder of an organization that "romanticizes being HIV-positive" or that pretends "that the gay community hasn't been decimated by AIDS," as Tafel claims?

A Fair Hearing

Sex Panic is a group of committed and intelligent individuals who are grappling with complex issues and who deserve -- at the very least -- a fair hearing. I would expect the mainstream media to favor sensationalism, but I think the gay press should do better.

I'm not saying that Sex Panic is above criticism, certainly not. But, ironically, the most cogent and exacting criticism of the group I've heard has come from its own members. Nothing in the media has done anything but spread rumors and lies.

Kramer complains that he has been vilified, but it is a well-know fact that Kramer takes a back seat to no individual or organization when it comes to vilification. Tafel asserts that "dangerous rhetoric threatens gays," and that's true, but its his rhetoric that's the problem.

Lies are every bit as insidious and dangerous as HIV, and a hell of a lot easier to spread.

More on Sex Panic can be found at

Jim Baxter is Editor and Publisher of The Front Page
P.O. Box 27928
Raleigh, North Carolina 27611-7928
Telephone: 919-829-0181

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