March 20, 1995
By- DAVID L. KIRP
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is author of Learning by Heart: AIDS Among the Schoolchildren in America's Communities (Rutgers).
OUT FOR DOLLARS
Confession is good for the soul-especially when there are buckets of money to be made. At least that's the message to be gleaned from the self-told tales of Greg Louganis, the two-time Olympic athlete whom fellow divers called God, and Michelangelo Signorile, the gay Walter Winchell.
A tearful Louganis informed Barbara Walters on ABC's 20/20 that he had competed in the 1988 Olympics knowing he was HIV-positive. When he smashed his head on the diving board during the preliminaries in the three-meter dive, he bled into the pool. The team doctor patched up the cut on his head and later restitched it. Yet Louganis told no one that contact with his blood posed a potential risk . In one of the great sports comebacks, he went on to win a gold medal in the event. Five years passed before he informed the doctor.
The media rushed in to change the subject.
The real issue, said NPR commentator Diana Nyad, wasn't the fact that Louganis had AIDS but his revelation that he was gay [though he got tons of press coverage when he came out this past June at New York City's Gay Games].
The real issue, opined New York Times sportswriter George Vecsey, wasn't Louganis's irresponsibility but the culpability of the system:
"whether government and health authorities worked hard enough in facing AIDS in the early years."
The real issue, others insisted, was Louganis's right to privacy: Legally, his AIDS status was his own affair.
No one is going to take Louganis to court for keeping quiet about his AIDS status in the homophobic, AIDS-panicked sports world, but that's not the point. The responsible course of action would have been to inform the team doctor - not when Louganis was being helped out of the pool, dazed and bleeding, but six months earlier, when he first learned that he was HIV-positive.
In 1988, when "universal precaution" against AIDS wasn't the medical byword, his silence exposed a physician to needless risk.
His doctor, had he been notified, could have been expected to keep that medical secret. Instead, Louganis opted to say nothing.
"We knew a lot of the same people," he says lamely in his book, "and I was afraid it might put him in a position to have to lie to somebody."
What's more interesting is how Louganis & Co. are orchestrating the story now -- not as an act of moral self-examination but as the titillating tidbit meant to coax people into buying his new book, Breaking the Surface.
Highlights from the Barbara Walters interview were leaked to the media days before it aired, and it was front-page news across the country. The interview itself was shown on TV on February 24, a couple of days before the book was rushed into the stores, more than a month ahead of its scheduled publication date. After Barbara there came the inevitable Oprah, with wall-to-wall TV interviews to follow, the kind of hype that tell-all stars, the gods of the airwaves, hope to capture. Millions of dollars in free book publicity, a movie surely to follow-- who says there's no profit to be made from denial?
As if to demonstrate that with enough outrageousness stardom can be manufactured as well as earned, the February 26 New York Times Op-Ed page featured Michelangelo Signorile's own AIDS confession.
The gay scribe best known for outing a dead Malcolm Forbes was now outing himself-the past couple of years, he writes, he's had unsafe sex. Moreover, Signorile hasn't wanted to know whether he's HIV-positive, for fear of the "psychological damage" if could cause him.
In his "darkest moments," he confesses, he might "care little about the concerns of an H.I.V.-negative man." And he speaks of an AIDS activist friend who has behaved the same way, blaming drink and drugs for unsheathing his inhibitions.
Who's to blame for this risky business?
Signorile singles out those "Byzantine" AIDS organizations.
"None of us, when we go for testing and counseling, are truly told that we're supposed to be responsible,"
insists the same AIDS activist, who believes he infected his sexual partners even as he was urging others to just say no.
The obligation to take responsibility for one's own actions is no revelation to anyone with even a kindergartner's moral compass.
Surely it's our task, as gay men living in the seemingly never-ending Age of AIDS, to stop making excuses, to care for rather than endanger one another --and to care for ourselves as well.
Acknowledgment of that responsibility, not finger-pointing and denial, is the first step down that road.
As for Signorile, his own story, tellingly titled Outing Yourself, will be hitting the bookstores soon. Like Greg Louganis, he stands to make a bundle from his revelation.