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Gay Women and the Risk of AIDS : Lesbians Oppose Misperception That They’re All ‘Diseased’

Times Staff Writer

Susan Kuhner watched her older brother die of AIDS two years ago. Kuhner has since developed a chronic viral infection, and now her parents are preparing themselves to lose yet another child to AIDS.

“My parents are just absolutely convinced that it (her sickness) is related, because I’m a lesbian,” said Kuhner, a 38-year-old licensed psychologist in private practice in Burbank. “To most people it’s synonymous at this point--anyone who’s gay is diseased.”

Kuhner--who does not have AIDS--is one of a number of lesbians who have suffered repercussions from the inaccurate assumption that they are likely AIDS carriers. A study by Mykol Hamilton, an adjunct lecturer in psychology at UCLA, revealed that two-thirds of a group of 269 UCLA students believed that lesbians are at higher risk for AIDS than male or female heterosexuals. Yet, in fact, lesbians are far less likely to carry AIDS than members of the heterosexual population, according to Judith Cohen, an epidemiologist who is studying AIDS and women at San Francisco General Hospital.

A spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said that although a handful of lesbians have been diagnosed as having AIDS, in all of the cases to date the likely mode of transmission was either intravenous drug use or blood transfusion. The disease apparently is not easily transmitted between females through sexual contact.

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“We (gay women) are a very, very low-risk population,” said Amy Ross, a pathologist researching AIDS and the brain at USC Medical School. “Yet people still associate AIDS as a gay problem, a gay plague, and lesbians get lumped into that.”

Both Susan Kuhner and Amy Ross belong to a 10-year-old lesbian organization called Southern California Women for Understanding. Director Jean Conger said the group currently is stepping up its outreach to the non-gay community to combat what it feels is a potentially devastating misunderstanding.

“It (the AIDS crisis) is going to affect lesbians politically because the right wing is using people’s fear of a tragic disease to increase homophobia,” Conger said. “If there are sanctions coming down due to AIDS, we (gay women) will be included.”

Anti-Gay Legislation

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In response to the AIDS crisis, some states are moving toward anti-gay legislation, which indeed would affect homosexual women as well as men, said Benjamin Schatz of National Gay Rights Advocates, a San Francisco-based public interest law firm dedicated to promoting the civil rights of gay people.

Schatz cited as examples a bill in Indiana which, if passed, would close all gay businesses; and a move by Munich American Reassurance Co. in Atlanta to screen out clients whose life styles suggest they may be at risk for AIDS. The company’s profile of a high-risk individual is a single adult, age 20 through 50, who resides in a large city such as New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, Schatz said. The profile specifies anyone who lives an “illicit life style,” and anyone who names someone other than a spouse or child as a beneficiary.

Conger has appeared in recent months on several local talk shows where she has found that everyone from commentators to camera operators to audience members is surprised to learn that lesbians are at little risk from AIDS. Wherever SCWU members speak--whether Soroptomist clubs or college classrooms--they meet people who share in the misconception, said Conger, formerly state president of the National Organization for Women in Delaware. (She also worked as assistant to NOW president Eleanor Smeal in Washington in 1979.)

Misinformed Doctors

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The misinformation extends to the medical community, according to Ph.D. candidate Ross: “I have had very knowledgeable people here (at USC Medical School) ask me about the risk of lesbian transmission of AIDS.” Ross said she was sent a review chapter of a book by a Santa Barbara oncologist who claimed in his text that all gays carried the AIDS virus and that it was only a matter of time before the disease ravaged the lesbian population as well as the gay male community.

UCLA lecturer Hamilton became concerned several years ago that media treatment of the AIDS crisis was misleading the public about which groups really were at risk. Hamilton conducted a content analysis of articles from the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and Time and Newsweek magazines. She found that 85% of the magazine articles and 78% of the newspaper articles identified the high-risk group as “homosexuals” or “gays"--which can refer to men or women--rather than specifying homosexual males. In 100% of the headlines she sampled, the inclusive word gay or homosexual was used instead of a gender-specific term.

In Hamilton’s study, college students reported that they believed lesbians were at great risk for the illness “because they’re homosexuals” or “because homosexuality causes AIDS,” Hamilton said.

Forgotten Segment

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Contributing to the confusion is the fact that lesbians tend to be a forgotten segment of the population, so that when people hear the word gay, they think of gay men, said Conger. When the Briggs initiative was on the California ballot eight years ago (the measure, sponsored by Sen. John V. Briggs, would have required school boards to dismiss teachers who were gay, or who advocated homosexuality), Southern California Women for Understanding fought against the measure by inviting community leaders to receptions to meet members of the lesbian community before making decisions that would affect them. Conger said the current crisis generated by AIDS hysteria is as great a threat to gay women as the Briggs initiative. Accordingly, her group will be hosting more such gatherings to dispel stereotypes by introducing members of their organization to the public.

Conger’s own story contradicts what she believes is a common stereotype--that a lesbian is motivated primarily by hatred of men. Formerly a schoolteacher and later principal of an elementary school in Devon, Pa., Conger was twice married and has three children. Her daughter, Cathy Keating, 24, lives with her in the South Bay. Conger also has a 22-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old son who live on the East Coast.

‘Something Missing’

When, in the late ‘70s, Conger found herself involved with a married woman, who also had children, “It was very hard because we both had good marriages and had always had good relationships with men,” she said. “It’s just that there was something missing that was there in a relationship with a woman.”

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Today, Conger said, her children respect her life style, and her daughter Cathy proudly introduces her mother to friends as director of a lesbian organization.

Conger described the typical member of the 800-member Southern California Women for Understanding as “someone who is looking for--or who is in--a long-term committed relationship. She’s someone who’s career-oriented because she has to be--we’re going to be responsible for ourselves (since marriage probably is not an option).

“We have as much of a cross section in the organization as society does,” Conger said. “We have conservatives and liberals. We have hairdressers, physicians, attorneys, bank clerks, dentists, bus drivers and secretaries.”

In attempting to educate people that gay men and lesbians are two distinct populations with differing life styles, Conger is wary of further dividing the two groups--which have not always understood each other particularly well in the past, she said.

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“The climate is changing,” Conger said. “There’s a rising level of homophobia. We (gay men and lesbians) need to stick together.”


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