Walt Odets, son of Clifford Odets, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco who, in the past, worked mostly with gay men. I say “in the past” because we exchanged correspondence exactly once in 1996 and 1997; because there have been no discernible publications of his past 1998 (save for one); various database searches coming up with nothing but photography books and monographs; and mailing him to ask if he’s all right led to no response, which is troubling.

A New Yorker article from 2013 that I kept, I thought, because it featured the intrinsically interesting Bobby Cannavale turns out to be all about Walt Odets, I see now as I write this.

Forgotten lessons of Walt Odets

  • HIV-negative men exist. They don’t exist in some quantum state of flux; they really exist. It isn’t the case that your HIV-positive diagnosis is a lifelong fact you can immediately trust but your negative diagnosis is a lie.

  • The primary purpose of AIDS education is to keep HIV-negative people (in this case gay men) negative. It isn’t to make positoids feel less bad about being HIV-positive.

  • HIV education lies to men, sets up impossible lifelong strictures, and is obsessed with catering to the feelings of men who are already infected. On top of all that, HIV education has basically been a bust since the 1990s because various measurements have not really changed, including the incidence of anal sex without a condom.

  • Some things in life are risky. But some sexual acts aren’t really risky. Anal sex without a condom isn’t really risky if both guys are negative, which can and does happen because HIV-negativity really exists.

But overriding everything, as he explained in a letter to me, is “AIDS prevention is only possible if people have lives that are worth reasonably protecting from HIV.”

For that to be true, we would have to accept, as Odets does, that gay males and our sexuality are hated and stigmatized. I note we would also have to accept that we have suffered two holocausts already and are going through a third one that will apparently never end (the onslaught by queers, trannies, and LGBTs to tar us as the enemy and render us extinct).

Excerpts from the work of Walt Odets

(Some copy-editing and conversion to readable HTML.)

  • “The Fatal Mistakes of AIDS Education,” Harper’s, May 1995 (hard to find online):

    • We must carefully examine the almost universal assumption among educators that if we give men “too much information” – which is to say, something like the whole truth to the best of our knowledge – they will abuse it, exercise faulty judgment, or otherwise come up with unintended results. As an educator at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation explained to me, “Directive education is necessary because men need to be told what to do.”

      The most sacrosanct expression of this approach is the absolute prohibition against saying that when neither partner has HIV, it is acceptable to have anal sex without a condom. As educators, physicians, psychologists, and gay men, we all know or ought to know this is true. Yet the nearly universal response to this assertion by AIDS educators is that such an “admission” would encourage men to do dangerous things.

    • What recommendations for routine testing do accomplish is to keep the HIV-negative man entangled in irrational fears of infection. By implication, he is being told that he should continue to be tested regularly because regardless of his behaviour, he might have contracted HIV. The blanket insistence on protected sex – even between HIV-negative men – only exacerbates the feelings of inevitability that routine testing creates.

    • We have “double-bound” men into such confusions with a remarkable show of bad psychology that says, in effect:

      Get tested and believe your results. (But if your test is negative, don’t believe your results: use a condom anyway.) Safe sex affirms your pride in being gay, and loving gay men protect their partners (from what?). But don’t trust your “monogamous” partner (gay men lie and cheat). Feel good about sex: It’s natural and it’s your right. (But get tested again in six months to see if you’ve finally gotten yourself into trouble.)

  • The Psychological Politics of AIDS within Gay Communities”:

    • [T]he absolute unacceptability of such feelings among gay brothers then hatches the public protocol: I am living and thriving with AIDS, and I am proud of that. And from the uninfected man: When I date a man, it makes no difference to me whatsoever if he’s HIV-positive or not. […]

      [U]ndifferentiated prevention has relied entirely on the paradoxical instruction developed in pre-ELISA [HIV test] days, an instruction best exemplified in the idea of telling “gay men” to “use a condom every time.” The paradox in the instruction is that for purposes of protecting himself, every man must assume himself uninfected and all others infected. And for purposes of protecting others, he must assume himself infected, and all others uninfected. In other words, undifferentiated prevention has every gay man both coming and going regardless of what he knows, does not know, thinks he knows but does not know, or thinks he does not know but knows. While this paradox was a necessity before the ELISA, we now have at least the possibility of knowing antibody status.

    • Contrary to the assertions of many AIDS educators, gay men have not grow “complacent” in the epidemic; they have simply become acclimated to the personal irrelevance of prevention’s “universal” messages.

    • [Certain] realities…play central roles in the ongoing toll of new infections. These include the realities:

      • that “safer sex” is not a condom every time, but any sex that does not transmit HIV;

      • that HIV infection cannot occur between two uninfected men or two infected men;

      • that all gay men need not, and cannot, bear the burden of living lifetimes as if they or their partners were infected;

      • that there may be possibilities in the lives of uninfected men that do not exist for men already infected;

      • that uninfected men who are hoping to stay uninfected are hoping for futures that most infected men cannot have, and that we must nurture those hopes in order to help men stay uninfected;

      • that if “being healthy” in gay communities has come to mean “HIV-positive but asymptomatic,” being “healthiest” means being completely free of HIV;

      • that we have complex, often troubled feelings about ourselves and each other, and these feelings motivate some men to knowingly transmit HIV, and others to knowingly expose themselves;

      • that we are often guilty about each other, often frightened of each other, and that we hurt each other because of how we feel about ourselves;

      • that we are already deeply divided because we misrepresent and deny our differences rather than confront, clarify, and negotiate them;

      • and, most importantly, that if our need to feel authentic acceptance of our lives as gay men cannot be disentangled from compensatory, false “pride,” including pride about HIV itself, then we will lose even more to the epidemic than we have already – perhaps everything.

  • Why We Stopped Doing Prevention for Gay Men in 1985, Part 1”:

    One common and astonishingly painful forecast in 1984 was that perhaps as many as 10% of gay men carried HIV. Until we knew more precisely who did and who did not, primary prevention would quite correctly promote the idea that all gay men were to be temporarily presumed infected in order to eradicate HIV. As 1985 and 1986 quickly revealed, the gay community needed to protect the infected from any source of disenfranchisement not only because it was the right thing to do for the presumed minority within our ranks, but because a near majority of the total community was actually infected.

    This revelation clinched the profound social, psychological, and political identification of the gay communities with AIDS. The identities of large, urban gay communities quietly but surely shifted from that of largely “normal” communities, humanely concerned with the future of an infected minority, to that of infected communities as a whole. Although responsive to important new realities for gay men, this shift overlooked an immensely significant fact. Even in our worst-struck communities, half the population actually remained uninfected. […]

    Could we really assert that it was better to be living without AIDS than with it? And, after all, if men were really living with AIDS, doing well with AIDS, thriving with AIDS, or were long term survivors, what was so important about not having HIV?

  • AIDS Education and Harm Reduction for Gay Men”:

    There, like closeted homosexuality itself, the practice of unprotected sex develops a secret life with immense destructive potential. The gay man practising unprotected sex today is in the closet about it, often, unknowingly, with a majority of his peers. Like the closeted homosexual he experiences shame, guilt, and a fragmentation of his life; and he begins to form an identity around his feelings and behaviour that reinforces rather than inhibits the behaviour. Even those who only occasionally practise unprotected sex often feel they have crossed into forbidden territory from which there is no return and many do not even attempt to return.

    These men are entirely lost to our education.

    Gay men must be allowed to know that their conflicted feelings about protected and unprotected sex are shared by many and that the transgression of “community standards” neither excommunicates them from the gay community nor makes their lives irretrievable.

(See also a 1996 article in the Times.)

Some lessons I learned from Odets and years of my own reflection: Sex without a condom is the actual real default sex, not some kind of shameful aberration, and positoids who knowingly infect other men should be prosecuted under the law. (Every time you hear the phrase “HIV criminalization,” an angel gets AIDS.)

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2015.04.11 16:52. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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