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The Latest Stories By Ken Monteith

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  • Clinging to my [personal] pessimism
  • Talking sex, when the personal is only political
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Ken Monteith

Ken Monteith

Ken Monteith was diagnosed with AIDS and 4 CD4 cells in 1997. Ken is a recovering lawyer (it's a process!) living in Montréal, where he obsessively counts his CD4s with equal fluency in English and French, pausing only to glare at those who dare to taunt him with their higher numbers.


Talking sex, when the personal is only political

Thursday, 25 June 2015 Written by // Ken Monteith - Montreal Correspondent Categories // Gay Men, Living with HIV, Opinion Pieces, Population Specific , Sex and Sexuality , Ken Monteith

Montréal correspondent Ken Monteith explores his attachment to his sexuality and why it’s more political than practical.

Talking sex, when the personal is only political

By all accounts — or at least by what seems to be a large majority of accounts — I got a late start on my sex life. My first rather traumatic (for me) experience came only at age eighteen and a half and didn’t lead to more until after a rather considerable delay.

Calling my age eighteen and a half is probably a good indicator of just how mature and ready I was for it, as all my internalized homophobia and generalized social fears came rushing in at the midway point of that first experience. I feel kind of sorry for the guy I walked away from that evening as I must have left him at least puzzled, if not also traumatized. 

It took me a while to bounce back from that. In my defence, it was the late 1970s and I had landed in Montréal from a small town in BC with not a lot of mediation of the experience and none of the popular culture signposts and role models that seem to be everywhere now. A whole year to digest the experience, to make some oddly extreme decisions about my life that took me a bit of time to abandon later, but it ended in the most peaceful and pleasant way: waking up to find that my internal battle was over, that I was actually comfortable with my homosexuality and I didn’t so much need to have my hand held as I explored my new life. 

I packed in a lot of experiences over the next many years. I like to make the allusion to my Wolf Cub days: I really got almost all my badges and wore them with pride, or at least without shame.

We were really only finding out about HIV as I was having my early experiences, but the community really stepped up to teach its members how to avoid transmitting infections. The condom message that the community really invented in the midst of a crisis must have shredded the incidence of other infections like gonorrhea and its cousins. Well, it did that for me, anyway, as I’m pretty sure my last experience of one of those really goes back to late 1981. 

As I was coming out and developing my tastes for various sexy things in life, there was news from the epicentres of HIV infection (in our case in Montréal, most often from New York) of a whole turning away from sex, of equating sex with death. Saunas closing, lights coming on in bars, a sexy subculture decimated by the fears of those who once populated it. That’s when I recognized the political aspect of this personal life I was exploring. Oh, I was familiar with that old saying “the personal is political” in the context of a nascent gay rights movement. It took on new meaning with HIV. I wasn’t going to be made to let go of the freedom and the pleasure I had found when we all knew there were things to do to avoid HIV transmission…and plenty of choices of activities for those who were not necessarily fond of the latex. 

This is where my sexuality became an act of defiance of the norms of our society. I am one of those people who thinks that too many people attach too much significance to what is otherwise a fun thing to do. No, we don’t need to wait until we are married (especially in a society that would take a couple more decades to recognize that possibility) and in some cases, I don’t even need to know your name. We can have fun like adults, have a fleeting, but very human experience of each other, and move on. Maybe we would do that again from time to time, maybe not. Nothing wrong with that, and something very wrong, in my mind, with the “reduce the number of partners you have” message.

Why would it matter how many partners you have if you are in control of what you do with each of them? Researchers will need to explain the theories behind their correlations before formulating advice from them, in my opinion. (You might guess I’m still on the same side of that particular debate.) 

When I got diagnosed — very late — with HIV, I took another look at all of this. A pause for that short period of feeling toxic after the diagnosis, but I had lots of role models on how to have a healthy sexuality as a poz guy without transmitting HIV.

"my late start has now morphed into an early finish for that personal experiential aspect of my sexuality"

You might imagine that the political/defiance aspect of my sexuality was heightened by my diagnosis, at least once I got past the tough part at the beginning. Nobody was going to take away from me something that had given me so much pleasure and continued to do so. Knowledge is power, and knowing my status and everything we knew about preventing transmission gave me the confidence to go on living with very little adjustment. 

Two things happened later on that would attack the personal experience of my sexuality. First, and probably most important, I gained a lot of weight. A lot of people get past that and some even fetishize it, but I find myself unable to move on from it. Maybe I’m some kind of terrible fat-o-phobe (I’m sure there’s a real word for that, but I’m too lazy to look it up!), but all my judgement is aimed squarely inward, so I’m not losing sleep over what a bad person I might be.

In any case, I really feel like I have to be comfortable with myself and with my body before sharing it as a toy with others. I’m not there anymore, so my late start has now morphed into an early finish for that personal experiential aspect of my sexuality. 

What was item number two? It’s funny, but as I have gotten older and less desirable in that shallow physical sense, I probably have fewer choices, but it has had a strange inverse effect on my pickiness. In the bloom of youth, I probably had tons of choices and little inclination to say no; my older self has fewer choices and is more ready to turn them down, independently of how I feel about my body. 

Sexgarage protest photo (find me in it!) by André Querry 

So how goes the political aspect? Still healthily present. I insist on sharing those inappropriate sexual comments/observations (to a willing audience, for sure) and I can flirt with the best of them, and do. (Editor: he does) The practical and experiential part of my sexuality might be a more private affair (just me, the NSA and the supplier of batteries for my various devices), but I will still talk a good game, only to make the political point. 

Nobody can take away my sexuality but me. One of these days, I might even give it back to myself.