January 31, 2016

An Open Letter To Richard Morgan

Home / Blog / An Open Letter To Richard Morgan

This is a response to an article written by Richard Morgan for The Washington Post.

1. I’m the writer, and I don’t think I’m “too corporate.” I think my company that serves only non-profits, adolescent-serving agencies, Planned Parenthoods, hospitals and schools is just the right amount of corporate. I have worked in HIV prevention for over twenty years. I watched ineffective HIV prevention messaging in the 90’s (before ART) do a tremendous amount of harm. Primary and secondary prevention strategies combined and so vague they addressed no one. I agree with you, so much of HIV prevention has surrounded the de-stigmatization of HIV, and far too little of it suggests that it’s actually a great thing to remain HIV-negative. I have spent my entire career passionately addressing this shortcoming and developing strategies for developing ethical, respectful prevention strategies that acknowledge the reality of gay men’s lives and incorporate input from the people they are designed to reach.

2. Yes, we did indeed float early drafts of the scripts by a group of mostly white, older gay white men. And we also conducted a host of other formative activities, including and especially a focus group of black gay men at an agency called Gay Men of Black Decent in Brooklyn. Much of the dialogue and nuanced moments of WTF is PrEP were informed by these men. In fact, two of the men who played a major role in the focus group ended up acting in the piece – “Lamar” and “Mario” – and workshopped the script with all the stakeholders and the production team throughout the process.

3. I did indeed thank you for your time and input, nod, and give you a sandwich, and we did not stop at your word when developing I Like to Party. Uh, yeah – we knew what the term “party” referred to before you shared your insights with us. You may even be surprised to learn that that’s precisely why we titled it what we did (which I dare say was quite effective given the publicity the title alone has generated). In fact, none of the members of the team that developed these scripts over the course of many months are out-of-touch corporate types. Mary Ann Chaisson is a very well respected, career public health professional with decades of experience and insight into the HIV epidemic and its impact on gay men. But she’s smart enough to know she is not the target population, and that’s why a great deal of formative work was done to help focus these pieces. Most of the men in your focus group weren’t members of that particular target population either. (In a big way! Here’s a note we received from one of them afterwards: “When you are catering for strangers, please ask for the condiments to be on the side. There were a number of us who had to scrape the mayo off our sandwiches.”) We knew men were partying and refusing to use condoms, and rather than judging them and acquiescing to Weinstein’s characterization that Truvada was a “party drug,” we decided to steer into the curve, give the haters a big middle finger, and validate the target population by suggesting (albeit not so subtly) that they might be able to stay HIV negative despite their use of substances. That is our job. To offer HIV prevention solutions based on the behaviors the most at-risk people are engaging in, not the behaviors we wish they did. I Like to Party wasn’t written for you, or anyone like you. It was designed to impart a sense of self-efficacy and hope for young men whose lifestyles place them at greater risk – and under incredibly harsh scrutiny. Our intent was not to be silly or cavalier, it was to be nonjudgmental.

4. The quote you used from the HIV PLUS article was taken wildly out of context. (For what reason I’m not sure because the full quote only supports some of your complaints about HIV Prevention.) Please allow me to offer some: “He points to HIV testing as a good example. “Gay men have always been encouraged to get tested. But when we do, they tell us that the test is only semi-accurate unless we haven’t had sex in the last six months — yeah, right — and that we should continue to use condoms as if our partners or we were infected. So then why get tested? What’s the point if testing has no impact on how I live my sex life. This doesn’t empower gay men, doesn’t allow them to feel confident in their negative status, and offers no options for alternatives to using condoms forever just in case. Inherent in this approach is a fundamental sense of expandability surrounding gay sex. We don’t tell straight people to use condoms forever just in case; it’s laughable in fact to think we might.”

5. Really? Using the AIDS Memorial Quilt for…? Respecting people enough not to shame them for “partying” is not the same as defacing the memory and struggles of the men who died during a time when medical treatment – and now prevention – was non-existent. It is the right thing to do, despite your “warning.” And what an apt term to use for your contributions to the scripts. Warnings are not prevention, they’re condemnations. And we felt this population had been criticized enough.

Kenny Shults
Author: Kenny Shults
Read more articles »

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with*