Blood Ties: Changing Perceptions of HIV-Positive Athletes

By |2016-06-11T09:00:00-04:00June 11th, 2016|Uncategorized|

By Jim Provenzano

In the years since the first professional athletes with HIV came out, most of the panic and hysteria associated with transmission via sports has subsided. In LGBT athletics, people with HIV have become accepted and accommodated with little controversy.
But just this year, when a New York gay rugby team was scheduled to play against a Long Island straight team, the mere implication of HIV ended the match.
The Gotham Knights, a gay team that hosted this summer’s Bingham Cup, also compete in a league that includes straight teams. In June 2006, the Knights were about to compete with a rugby team called “Rock B/Fire,” whose members include New York Fire Department employees, when one of the players asked a Knights player if he could verify that none of their players had HIV.
When the Knights refused to divulge the information or even acknowledge such a query, some of the firefighter players refused to play, and the team forfeited its match.
Although since then neither team has openly commented about the incident, and representatives from both teams did not comment for this article, Edward J. Hughes Jr., director of USA Rugby and president of the Metropolitan New York Rugby Union, of which both teams are members, issued a statement a few months after the June events.
“The few players who chose to forfeit acted out of personal fears grounded in misconceptions as to the nature of HIV itself and the means and manner by which it might be transmitted.” While stating that he didn’t perceive any “malice,” Hughes considered the incident “the result of the unfounded fears of a very small minority of the forfeiting group’s members.”
Hughes also reiterated findings from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, which have conducted extensive research in HIV transmission in contact sports. Hughes stated, “All agree that that the risk of sports-related transmission of HIV is sufficiently small so that it cannot even be quantified.”
Dr. Lawrence Brown, the NFL’s adviser on substance abuse and HIV/AIDS, confirmed in an interview earlier this year that “transmission risks on the field are infinitesimally small.”
While former NBA player/coach Magic Johnson’s revelations led to “some degree of overreaction,” says Brown, since then, in the NFL, as in other sports, a greater degree of precaution has been taken.
“Most sports since the early 1990s have come to appreciate that they are obliged to comply with OSHA requirements about blood-borne pathogens,” says Brown. In football,
medics use rubber gloves to treat injuries, and referees can remove a player from the field for bleeding injuries. The same rules apply in rugby.
Could an HIV-positive player continue in the NFL? Unlike boxing, whose private commissions have forcibly retired nearly a dozen HIV-positive boxers, in football, Brown says, “Were we ever to come upon a case of a player who is HIV-infected, his continued participation is protected by federal laws.
“Treatment of HIV-infected persons remains a personal one between players and physicians,” Brown says. Included in the NFL’s player training is an HIV awareness program.
Brown also says that athletes should consider staying in sports even after testing positive for HIV. Strenuous exercise, he says, has not been found to cause any harm. “Maintaining one’s health is an attribute for preventing HIV progression.”
In individual, noncontact sports, openly HIV-positive athletes are doing just that – thriving, and using their sports to showcase their recovery and their athleticism to counter what has been a swift and painful death sentence for others.
Douglas Graham Bates and Steven Michael Perkins competed individually in the physique competition at Gay Games VII, held in Chicago last summer. While both took home medals, they also left with something more important: a close connection from being open about their HIV status, and having made what they say is a complete reversal in their physical well-being.
Bates, who lives in Delaware, is a former dancer who still sings and composes music. Perkins, who lives in Los Angeles, competed in the 50-59 age group in physique.
Perkins says he was always interested in bodybuilding, but only devoted himself to it seriously in the past few years. “When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the Charles Atlas ads in the back of Superman comics,” he says. “It was kind of erotic for me. About five years ago, after I nearly died [from HIV-related illnesses], I knew I needed to take care of myself and my body, because I’d gotten a second chance.”
“Our paths have been so similar,” says Perkins. “We’re not alone, either. A lot of people have been to the brink and back, because of the damn toxic medications, which are better than before.”
The two men have been working together to do presentations about their recovery and offer tips on helping others turn their health around (
“Both of us decided we needed to capitalize on our second chance,” said Perkins. “At opposite ends of the country, we were doing the same thing. It’s a way to be proactive and give back.”
Perkins says that, despite the high number of HIV-positive gay men, “There are very few people out about themselves [in the gay sports community]. It’s really very important to be resolved to better yourself.”
One of the controversies at the Gay Games competition was the separate categories for those taking medications, like testosterone, that, while essential to some for HIV treatment, remain on the list of banned substances for competition. Perkins, who takes testosterone and was open about it, competed in what was called the “modified” category. Perkins says that testosterone is on a list of medications approved by the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), and, when taken in low doses, has been proven safe as an HIV medication that prevents muscular wasting.
Bates, a “natural” bodybuilder who doesn’t take steroids, says there was some controversy over the split categories, but he didn’t consider the events to have taken on a “separate but equal” status.
“Other competitors were [openly] HIV-positive,” says Bates. “But the judges didn’t know, and some positive guys were in the ‘natural’ category. Not everyone is on testosterone.”
Alternative therapies, exercise, and nutrition are Bates’ focus. He says he wants to use his recovery as an example – to show others with HIV or potentially debilitating diseases how to remain healthy.
“Why are we here when so many people have passed away?” he asks. Bates thinks his having previously been physically active may have something to do with it. “We had a lot of legwork ahead of us,” he says. “I was always very health-conscious and spiritually centered.”
Despite misconceptions about transmission, infection and even the very presence of gay HIV-positive athletes, Bates’ focus is to turn misconceptions around. “We all have to find our own way,” he says. “Our message is that there is hope.”
{TAGLINE Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. Read more sports articles at He can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected].}

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.