After sunbathing one day on the Christopher Street Pier, I went by myself to the New York Historical Society to view the exhibit AIDS in New York: The First Five Years. The first things I saw as I entered the second floor gallery were giant photographs of gay men on the same pier thirty-five years ago, right around the time I was born. I stood there studying these images, comparing them to the people I just left thirty minutes prior. Naked and packed in like sardines on a secluded section of the dilapidated pier in 1978, they indulged in what little freedom they had in those days. Their bodies were naturally lean, but not chiseled and manufactured like most boys I know require. Today the Christopher Street Pier is a manicured lawn where gay men flaunt their pride amidst mainstream society. Of course, the flip side to that freedom is that we have to keep our clothes on. Staring at the men of 1978, I wanted to reach out and warn them about what was coming, or better yet, jump in and feel what it was like to live in a world without AIDS.
Next, I stood in front of a 1980s - Blackstripe television set and watched old news clips from the first five years of the plague. “Gay cancer” and “Virulent Diarrhea,” or “Gay Bowel Syndrome,” flooded every report, further segregating an already segregated class of men. I thought about how awful and terrifying that must have been for them. Sex, a means by which we seek solace and acceptance, had turned on them without warning. Gay men were on a trajectory of hope since the Stonewall riots. A glimmer of equality had hung in the distance only to be snatched away by a disease that was seen by those they fought so hard against as a form of divine punishment. I often imagine what that must have felt like, a tidal wave crashing over a sunlit pier and wiping away more than half of one’s friends. Sometimes, when I’m sitting at a diner surrounded by a group of cackling gay men, half of which are HIV positive and seemingly without a care in the world, I imagine how different our conversations would have been thirty years ago with half of those seats empty.
As I moved through the rest of the exhibit, passing images of the first candlelight vigil at the Bandshell in Central Park on June 13, 1983, almost thirty years ago to the day, I thought about the fact that I have only known sex associated with death or social ostracism at best. I left the museum on 77th Street and strolled up Central Park West haunted by what I had just seen and couldn’t help but ask myself, what’s really changed?
To answer that question I needed the honest perspective of those who have been on the front lines since the first five years, as well as those who are discovering their sexuality in what is essentially today’s cyber baths.
Hector is a 52-year-old New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent who has been living with HIV for over twenty-five years. Today, with over 700 t-cells, he’s not only a survivor of those early years but also a long time dresser for the Broadway show Phantom of the Opera. But in 1981 he was twenty years old and like most gay men, spent the majority of his time at the infamous baths. “We would go to the baths on Wednesday and all sit around in our towels and watch Dynasty and then go have sex for three to four hours. Sex defined what it meant to be gay. It was our right after fighting so hard at Stonewall.”
Every minority group that has suffered major oppression in this country is left with ingrained dysfunction as its most glaring disability. The African-American community is constantly fighting against poverty, drug addiction and racial profiling. The Hispanic community battles discriminatory immigration laws and drug smuggling. Native American tribes have been devastated by alcoholism. And the gay community is riddled with a deep-seated sexual dysfunction. “We felt invincible before the virus hit,” Hector recounted. ”We had the arrogance of youth. But after, there remained a sexual arrogance we had as a community. We didn’t have the willingness to change. We didn’t want to let go of the life we had because we fought so hard for that liberty. Even with the threat of death and stigmatization within the gay community, we were still having sex like crazy.”
The term sexual arrogance struck me in the pit of my stomach. I knew exactly what he was talking about. It all suddenly became very clear - I saw the common thread between then and now. HIV & AIDS is but a symptom of deeper issues that continue to plague our society - sexual arrogance and stigma. They are the real killers.
Hector went on to paint a clear picture. “We were angry. So much had been taken away from us. Our rights as human beings were never equal. It’s thinking this is all I have and no one is taking that away from me. It’s a sexual rebellion. I’m gay and being gay means having sex. Now if we could redefine what gay means I think that could start a change in the way we view ourselves and sex. That’s why marriage equality is so important. It’s a direct link to our sexual arrogance and the spread of HIV. It’s about building our self-esteem and getting rid of that stigma.”
I strongly identified with Hector’s assessment. As a gay man I have struggled with my sexuality for my entire life. And by “struggle” I mean I have indulged in the culture I came out in that condones, actually promotes, a hedonistic way of life that is sold as a celebration of freedom. It’s my gay right, one of the few that I have, to have sex with as many men as I want. When after suffering years of abuse as an adolescent I was finally able to express the very thing that demonized me in the eyes of society, it became as necessary as the air that I breathe. I not only needed it, I deserved it. That’s the sexual arrogance that still fuels our community. And that in itself is not the problem, but leads to the problem: reckless behavior in the heat of the moment, propelled by low self-esteem and a constant need for validation from each other. Then you throw drugs and alcohol into the mix and the idea of using a condom or thinking about HIV is lost in the midst of passion and sexual spontaneity, because it’s our right.
I interviewed a dozen gay men in their 20s and 30s, both HIV positive and negative, and only after assuring them that I would protect their anonymity were they completely honest with me. Nearly all of them admitted at various times, and some more than others, that safe sex and HIV disclosure weren’t even a thought in the midst of hot sexual encounters. Some even admitted lying about being positive for fear of being rejected. Sure their online profile status might say “ask me” but when it came down to that moment, hormones overrode responsibility and their need for acceptance overshadowed the truth, because truth isn’t sexy.
After my research in the don’t ask, don’t tell world of online anonymous hookups, I wanted a more professional perspective. I turned to my friend Andrew MacPhail at GMHC for help in researching where we are today in New York. He set up an interview between me and Chief Operating Officer Janet Weinberg. I had no idea what I was in for. With Janet’s intense schedule we had to do our interview via phone. She sounded like Larry Kramer’s character Dr. Emma Brookner from the critically acclaimed play, The Normal Heart. She was direct and angry.
JMA: The CDC is reporting that new infections are down in demographics like black & Hispanic heterosexual men and women, but there’s a troubling increase among young white-gay and bi-sexual men (22% increase). Does this match what GMHC is seeing here in NYC, and, if so, why the skyrocketing jump in this demographic?
JW: No. How’s that for an answer? We’re seeing a major rise over here among young, black men 16-29, most of them having been thrown out of their homes for coming out as gay or HIV positive. Then I have a group of 30-40 year old men who grew up in the crystal meth era. 25% of those who started using crystal meth seroconverted to HIV. 1 in 4.
JMA: On the crystal meth note, have you seen an increase in HIV infections among crystal meth users who are now injecting the drug with a needle, since that method is on the rise as opposed to smoking it?
JW: No, not particularly. In fact, if anything compared to 2008, 2009 and 2010 around here we’re actually seeing less meth. And we’re seeing more people in recovery around meth than we did. Remember, New York City really got hit with meth from 2001, I’d say, to about 2009 or 2010, and we are now entering the recovery stage of it.
JMA: I’ve been in New York since 1995 and I have only known one person who has died of AIDS…
JW: You’re lucky.
JMA: I am, but I’ve been interviewing gay men in their 20s and 30s, and very few, if any of them, have ever known anyone who has died of AIDS. So my question is have the meds turned this disease, in the minds of most young gay men, into something more like herpes rather than a deadly killer?
JW: I hope not, but I believe that exists in certain demographics.
JMA: Do you see fear in young men, the fear of death in those who are diagnosed with HIV like it was thirty years ago?
JW: Yes, unfortunately we do here at GMHC. Because the folks we’re servicing here are poverty stricken. And by the time they get to a doctor many of our clients have full-blown AIDS. They’re not HIV positive, they have AIDS. And they are terrified of dying. They have major medical issues that got them to the doctor in the first place, and I’m not talking about a little cut on the finger. I’m talking about cystic pneumonia. We’re talking about meningitis, very, very serious infections. So, yes, these folks are terrified of dying. They range in ages from adolescence to well into adulthood.
But what I do see, and I’m not trying to be glib, is gay white men of privilege who are thirty years old who believe that AIDS is like herpes. Because they’ve had the privilege of access to medical care consistently throughout their lives, because they had the knowledge to go get tested, because they knew how to get tested anonymously, because their neighborhood had a place for them to have access to all of that. But the folks we’re servicing, they’ve never had access to that.
JMA: That’s very powerful for me to hear as a gwm, also because of what the CDC is reporting of a major rise among gwm infections. You have said that most of your clientele are young black men who have been rejected and thrown out by their families. Why is there so much rejection in the African-American community? Is it largely because of embedded Christian beliefs?
JW: Right wing religion has not done a whole lot of good around this, but that’s true for any of the evangelistic religious folk. Because frankly if there is a young man sitting in the audience in his church like that, then I can almost assure you that he’s not coming out as gay and that he’s having sex in the same closet that msm (men seeking men) is having it in and therefore being exposed. And if he does come out then he’ll be removed from his church, his family and his community, and they’re afraid to disclose and we’re back to the real epidemic which is stigma and homophobia.
JMA: What are the similarities between thirty years ago and today?
JW: I see the same need for increased exposure to medical care, the need for education. We keep having the same damn conversation about stigma, about homophobia, about racism. I mean none of that seems to have moved a whole lot. The needle is still sitting in about the same spot.
JMA: What has changed?
JW: What has changed is the immediacy and the urgency of death. People know they can potentially live beyond eight weeks, ten weeks, and when we were seeing AIDS in 1981 they were just dying so fast. You know, James, you talked about the healthy young men of 1978 who weren’t pumped up on steroids, who didn’t have these chiseled bodies, but we know people were dying of AIDS by 1978 and 1979, it was just totally undocumented. And so I look at those beautiful young faces and say how many of them actually died a young death and we didn’t document them because we didn’t know. That’s what keeps me going. The resilience, the love, the kindness, the caring, the survival of these people is amazing to me, and that’s what keeps me going thirty years later.
I hung up the phone, grabbed my keys and my dog and went for a walk. I had so many emotions racing through my body that I couldn’t sit still. The words stigma, homophobia, racism and sexual arrogance were illuminated in neon colors and looped around my head like a Times Square marquee. Yet when we’re all hiding in the dark, playing a big game of eyes wide shut, it’s about a different kind of stigma. The prevention tactic of making HIV this big scary thing that devastates your life in order to put the fear of God in gay men is not working. It’s only creating a deeper well of shame and a greater divide in the gay community. The infighting and judgment is growing exponentially between HIV positive and negative men and forcing HIV back in the closet.
About two weeks after my interview with Janet Weinberg, my boyfriend Jonathan and I went on our annual summer vacation to the epicenter of gay sexual freedom in New York - Fire Island. This iconic gay destination is also a survivor of the plague where entire houses of men died off in the first five years. But today it remains a unique and eccentric summer get-away where drag queens rule the stages at venues like the Ice Palace and boys still have sex in the jungle-like woods of the infamous “meat rack” between Cherry Grove and The Pines.
I walked up and down the beach in my skimpy red bathing suit passing beautiful naked men basking in the sun. And I admit it’s hard for me to imagine scaling back the sexual freedom that has become synonymous with gay life. Some argue that’s not even possible.
I met Timmy, an adorable 26-year-old seasonal bartender at Cherry’s by day and fabulous drag queen by night. In March of this year he was dating a guy and things were going well with his new man. One night they got drunk and had unprotected sex. Three weeks later Timmy got extremely sick and went to the doctor and was diagnosed HIV positive. He called the guy he had been dating who claimed to be negative. He was actually positive and didn’t know it. When I asked Timmy about that passion-filled drunken night he said, “We were drunk and wanted to bareback because it feels so much better.” I then asked him if he was scared when he learned he had contracted the virus. “No. My best friend is positive and I know a lot about it. I’m on meds, am undetectable, so I’m fine.”
The antiretroviral medications used to treat HIV and keep people alive have saved millions of lives since they first came out in the mid ‘90s. But the flip side to that is many gay men are able to go right back to the kind of uninhibited sex we have always sought after and not die, if we’re privileged enough to fit a demographic profile that has access to healthcare.
So we’re back to square one. Can gay men change our outlook on ourselves, each other, and our sexual behavior just enough to stop the spread of HIV, without losing our idiosyncratic flare for freedom? If the answer to this question is ever going to be yes, then this needs to become an inside job. Gay men are some of the smartest, most successful people this world has to offer, and we should be able to figure this one out.