Posthumous HIV Disclosure Stirs Debate

Erik Rhodes, a gay porn star, died June 14 of a heart attack in New York City. He was 30 years old. A June 20 New York Times article reported that he was HIV positive.

In the NYT article by Jacob Bernstein (who recently penned another article on the tragic death of another gay man, Bob Bergeron, a New York City therapist who committed suicide earlier this year), it was clear that Rhodes had led a fast life:

He appeared regularly on Page Six, spent time with the designer Marc Jacobs, was profiled in magazines that had nothing to do with pornography, and shot an ad campaign for Loehmann’s.

Over the last few years, he had also been the author of a harrowing (and frequently clever) Tumblr feed, on which he detailed his escapades escorting, his rampant steroid use and his stories of winding up in psychiatric wards after crystal meth binges. (The blog was taken down last weekend, shortly after news of his death ricocheted around the Internet.)

Mr. Rhodes, whose given name was James Naughtin, was signed to Falcon Video in 2004, and became one of a handful of recognizable faces in an era when the industry was going through a painful economic contraction, thanks to online file sharing and free pornography sites like Xtube.

It was a friend of Rhodes who disclosed:

“People faulted him for doing steroids, which was the thing that allowed him to be the ideal they wanted,” said Samuel Colt, an actor who appeared with Mr. Rhodes on-screen and was a friend for the last several years of his life. “And people were always trying to push drugs onto him.”

Things went from bad to worse. Mr. Rhodes got into fights with boyfriends, and the police would be called. Famous friends like Mr. Jacobs, who did not respond to calls for comment for this article, fell away. Mr. Rhodes went from using steroids to dealing them. And then, a few years ago, he tested positive for H.I.V.

According to Mr. Colt, Mr. Rhodes found this out when he went to shoot a scene for Randy Blue, a company that requires testing. “They said, ‘Your test results came back, and you’re H.I.V. positive,’ ” Mr. Colt said. Nevertheless, Randy Blue still managed to get Mr. Rhodes to film a solo scene that day, Mr. Colt said.

There’s been a lot of reaction to the death of Rhodes and the range of points being made are numerous. Brett Edward Stout at Advocate.com offers a nice summation of the reactions and adds his perspective:

People have bantered about why we care if a porn star died, have said that he brought this on himself, have locked themselves in rooms in tears, and even been so crass as to say he deserved it. …

People can judge him for his excesses or his career, but it was us who wanted to see those limits pushed and us who consumed the product he became. While many roll their eyes at porn actors, without an audience they wouldn’t exist. …

And for a moment, and I hope a long moment, we will all judge the extent of our excesses and mitigate the dangers they pose with moderation.

I have to admit that I had never heard of Rhodes before. At 41, it seems my adult film knowledge is more than a bit outdated. When Mason Wyler self disclosed in 2010 he had HIV, I also didn’t know him beforehand.

There are several differences between the Rhodes and Wyler cases, but the most relevant to me is that, as far as I can ascertain, Rhodes had never publicly self disclosed he was HIV positive during his lifetime.

That point and others have stirred some debate. A good example of the issues can be found in the June 20 blog post by Zach June at the gay porn blog TheSword.com (site NSFW) and in the comments section.

Here’s some of what the blog writer said:

Given the fact that Rhodes is dead, the Times printing his HIV status has no effect on him or his career, and in the context of the article, it was a relevant piece of information. …

Imagine if, for example, Erik Rhodes’ HIV status had been disclosed to one of his less than mentally stable scene partners from the past and how that might have played out, first on the set and then, undoubtedly, in some sort of public meltdown on Twitter. So, once one person finds out, everyone finds out.

There are HIV-positive actors working steadily in gay porn without ever transmitting the virus to scene partners. Identifying them as positive and, what, segregating(?) them from performers who happen to be negative would easily lead to public outings and discrimination, and we’ve already seen how that plays out.

Furthermore, if you think that this is an industry that is administratively or economically equipped to start self-segregating and/or sorting its performers into positives and negatives without violating HIPAA laws, you’re even more delusional …

And here are some of the scores of comments:

I don’t know why Samuel included his HIV status in there. If I die, I don’t want every little piece on information revealed about me just because it won’t “affect my career”. It can affect many other things in his family and friend’s lives.

Wyler shouldn’t have a career in porn if he’s HIV+ Rhodes shouldn’t have either. Either quit doing porn or go to one of those sites that more or less promotes HIV like Treasure Island. Don’t continue to do porn and put the lives of non-HIV workers at risk.

HIV status is completely irrelevant to the story and “outing” it served absolutely no purpose. Erik’s personal and mental health issues started long before he became HIV positive, that is what is absolutely relevant and the story would have served a greater cause by bringing to light the need for people to have access to better mental health medical care so that things like this don’t have to spiral out of control, as they did for Erik.

I think it’s for the better that Samuel Colt gave this information. HIV carries more stigma and hurt than necessary- maybe this will add enlighten many people who looked to Erik Rhodes for his godlike status. He was a grieving, hurting, sick, human being. But we still fantasized about him. We still wanted to look like him.

I would be interested to know if Rhodes told his status to his escorting clients.

First, James was not public about his status despite being candid and forth right about most of his life. Second, presumably he shared this with Mr. Colt in confidence with the expectation that he would never share what he was told (a desire that I am sure he intended to survive death). Third, when confronted with a question, the answer to which might cause a person to reveal something that they reasonably believe that they should not, the proper response to decline to answer.

The commentary and comments above should speak for themselves, so I’ll leave well enough alone, save the following.

As a gay man with HIV, my first reaction when I read the NYT article was discomfort. It seemed to me that disclosing Rhodes had HIV was unnecessary. Knowing Rhodes had HIV was not necessary for me to understand the extent of his troubles. I thought it was a salacious detail. However, as much as those things are ethically troublesome to me on a personal level, I also think my feelings are irrelevant as far as journalism is concerned. And there’s the rub.

Further, there is something to the argument that the discomfort I felt — and that many, many others felt — is rooted in stigma and for that reason alone should be challenged. If Colt had said Rhodes had hepatitis C, how would we have felt? Probably less uncomfortable. How about if it was cancer or diabetes? Probably even less uncomfortable. But that’s all about personal ethics, not journalistic ethics.

We can’t control what is said about us after we’re dead, for obvious reasons. Journalists are supposed to be truth tellers, no matter what. I can’t fault the NYT or Bernstein for doing journalism. Should Colt have told Bernstein that Rhodes had HIV? That’s between Colt and his conscience, but Bernstein was within his rights as a reporter to use the information.

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Christmas in June

“Christmas in June: For many LGBT media outlets, Pride is a make-or-break month” is the top story in the June 2012 edition of Press Pass Q:

Just as Christmas and Halloween fuel an economic boom, so do the month-long celebrations of Pride, for gay media outlets and businesses, pack a financial punch as the potential for advertising revenue abounds.

“From a business perspective, this month for us is like August in Provincetown,” said Sue O’Connell, editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Boston-based Bay Windows. “We either make it or break it. This is our December.”

All of which raises some questions. What role do LGBT media outlets play in covering, if not promoting, Pride? How do gay publications interact with Pride committees? What makes Pride still relevant to and necessary for the movement and its media?

The article by Chuck Colbert goes on to cite examples from across the country where there are seeming overlaps and potential conflicts:

As summertime approaches, three of the nation’s largest and most visible Pride celebrations culminate on June 24, in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.

In those localities, Pride organizing committees publish their own Pride Guides, in effect becoming short-term gay media outlets.

Take the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee. It publishes two annual print publications, called Inside Pride and Pocket Pride. …

From time to time, however, necessity requires LGBT media to perform its journalistic, public-interest watchdog role over Pride organizers.

In 2010 and 2011, for instance, BAR [Bay Area Reporter] provided “extensive coverage” of SF Pride “as it was imploding due to poor management,” [BAR editor Cynthia] Laird explained. “Last year was a rebuilding year for them financially, and they did in fact overcome their debt.”

I see no problem with LGBT media outlets benefiting from Pride. This is a tension found in many, if not all, niche media outlets.

That said, the appearance of impropriety can often be worse than any actual transgression. When, if ever, does the coziness get too cozy?

Geidner Heading to Buzzfeed

News this afternoon (h/t FishbowlDC)  that Chris Geidner of D.C.’s MetroWeekly has been hired to cover the LGBT/gay marriage beat for Buzzfeed out of their new D.C. bureau. Here’s what Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith (formerly of Politico) had to say about the hire:

Chris Geidner is the fastest, best-sourced reporter on his beat. The marriage wars and gay rights battles are some of the key stories of the decade; stories that readers from BuzzFeed to social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit care about deeply. It deserves to be treated with a fair mind as a front-line political beat, and Chris is uniquely positioned to turn BuzzFeed into a hub for that coverage.

Here’s what Andrew Sullivan had to say about the announcement:

Every now and again, a real star emerges. And Ben Smith at Buzzfeed has now nabbed Chris Geidner, one of the best gay reporters out there, to chart gay issues through this campaign and beyond. Dish readers have already come to know Chris’s work in the gay press. This is a sign that the mainstream takes this story – and the accurate telling of it – as seriously as it should.

In a tweet, Geidner credits Sean Bugg and Randy Shulman for discovering him and giving him a national platform.

Geidner won NLGJA’s Excellence in Journalism award for news writing in 2011 for his coverage of DADT. He won second place for online journalism and was runner-up for LGBT journalist of the year.  This year, he was the co-winner of a GLAAD award for magazine writing for his coverage of the Defense of Marriage Act.

This Week in LGBT Front Pages

No one story dominated the front pages of the nation’s LGBT papers this week, as news coverage zeroed in on local matters.

In Chicago a series of robberies in the gay Boystown section – and the police’s handling of the crimes – garnered scrutiny. In Washington, D.C. it was what impact on LGBT federal regulations and laws a President Mitt Romney would generate.

In the Bay Area the ongoing debate over San Francisco’s LGBT film festival Frameline accepting financial assistance from the local Israeli consulate received front page placement. And in Dallas how Texas’s Republican and Democratic state party platforms cover LGBT rights received top-of-the-fold billing.

Here is a sampling of front pages from a variety of LGBT newspapers:

 

 

 

 

Publishers of LGBT papers and magazines can submit their publication to be included on the NLGA Website Front Pages feature located here. To do so, email a PDF copy of the news outlet’s cover to Bach Polakowski at bach@nlgja.org.

 

About That Study

A lot of talk in the media today about the study by University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus in Social Science Research that questions the outcomes for children raised in same-sex relationships.  The study was rolled out to the press last Thursday and the first reports on the study in the mainstream press came from the conservative newspapers Washington Times and Deseret News.

Fortunately, the folks at Box Turtle Bulletin were all over the research and quickly provided important information about the study, including news that the study was funded by two conservative foundations that fund efforts opposed to same-sex marriage–the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation.  Like most of the work at BTB, the analysis is rational and even-handed.

The best mainstream coverage of the study came from the New York Times, which did a nice job explaining both the critiques of the study but also explaining the study’s strengths, including quotes from supporters of same-sex marriage who nonetheless believe the study is significant.

Other good coverage came from Slate, which featured both the study’s author as well as a fisking of the research by William Saletan.

Beyond that, most of the coverage is predictable based on who is doing the coverage.  The conservative world thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread in a bag and the progressive/LGBT media has taken the approach that it is deeply flawed research based on a clear conservative agenda.

There is nothing more difficult than writing about social science research, especially when it comes to the LGBT community where the research is often deeply flawed or deeply limited.  In fact, a companion analysis in Social Science Research looks at the problems in many of the “kids are alright” studies on LGBT families and notes the problems that exist in that research.

For journalists, our first job is to be accurate . . . and skeptical.  We must look at research and put it into context.  While lots of people are demagoguing the research, Regenerus is fairly upfront about the study’s limitation and encourages people not to use the data to make assumptions about LGBT families in 2012.  Of course, he says that knowing that’s exactly what people are going to do with the research.

But being skeptical of research is a two-way street and journalists need to be skeptical (and find out the agenda of the researchers and funders) whether the research undermines assumptions or confirms assumptions.  There’s a lot of flawed research out there, including research that is favorable to LGBT families.

As more coverage of the study emerges, it will be important to avoid the demagogues and seek out analysts who can speak to research design and to people who have actually read the study.  What are the strengths of the study?  What are the flaws?  Are the critiques fair?  Does it matter who pays for a study?  These are all questions journalists should be asking as the study moves beyond the ideological arena and into the mainstream.