New York City, May 2014
It wasn’t all that long ago, a bit over a decade or so, that I acted on an impulse long in the making. To this day, it horrifies people.
The setting was New York City’s hottest gay after hours sex party. In a space the size of a Manhattan apartment filled with shadowy mazes, leather platforms, some couches and a sling or two, a cast of maybe a hundred or so men in varying states of arousal and undress, all encased in walls of dull black, such was the underground court of Lou Maletta. Icon, iconoclast, utterly fearless, mercurial and brilliant in many ways and petty in a few, Lou is still one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. I still have his copy of Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet, he (or his estate rather) mine of Marcus Aurelius.
It’s no overstatement that Lou Maletta made me a man, not in the hoary clichéd sense of taking my long-torched virginity – I mean, really, please – but in living out for all to observe or follow a model of an assertive, shame-free gay male life where sex was both natural and right; and did so with an impish smile. My pronounced disposition to not give a flying fuck what anyone thinks about much of anything I’m reasonably sure comes at least in part from that place.
I would spend entire weekends there, for years on end; and as one of the few who didn’t pay a door charge, stayed well past closing into the squalid light of the early afternoon, went to the Black Party in his wake – again without charge – and all without ever having his otherwise rather acquisitive hands on me.
Quite a few people hated (and hate) Lou, everything he stood for, and maybe sometimes with cause, I don’t know. Given the dogmatic aversion to sex some quarters manifest in this Age of AIDS, hardly surprising; suffice it to say I’m not one of those people.
Marçel Proust had madeleines; I recall in this particular place an aroma uniquely its own, musky, alchemized out of muscles, semen, sweat, poppers and that most delicate of undernotes, the lingering subtle odor of vaporized crystal meth. Dance music too of course, how could there not be, and everywhere familiar faces; with a hard door open if at all only between midnight and two, inevitably a tribal, familiar society develops. Ours centered on sex. Mainly, I noticed after a while, sex without condoms.
"That it worked for a time and likely saved this community from physical extinction doesn’t take away the definitionally alien nature of men having sex with other men while using birth control."
How positively delightful to a safer-sex baby drilled from the very first stirrings to think sex was another word for Durex. The dirty little secret of that implied equivalence is that it was always an alien imposition, a desperate stopgap to arrest the mass death of the AIDS holocaust. It was never meant to be a permanent state of being, given that surely, a cure was just around the corner.
That it worked for a time and likely saved this community from physical extinction doesn’t take away the definitionally alien nature of men having sex with other men while using birth control. Condoms and gay sex interestingly enough can be traced back in the historical record in some form for about 3,000 years; they happily went along their separate and merry ways for that entire period of time – shorthand might be ‘the entirety of human civilization’ – and only crossed paths when AIDS threatened our extinction. The common lament that sex with condoms ‘doesn’t feel natural’ may or may not be of descriptive value, it most certainly has the weight of history to support it.
I never liked condom sex, have always found it unnatural, reeking of death, but anything else was so taboo as to be unthinkable. Remarkable really for something so alien to our kind and so utterly without precedent.
I wouldn’t claim having had all that many deep thoughts about history – Baudelaire, different story – at Lou’s weekly parties. Another regular, a face familiar from CNN, compared them to the Roman Senate, perhaps a stretch given that we never ordered the razing of Carthage – but the fact remains that all around us, the condom taboo was being shattered, razed if you will, its ashes sown with salt; including by some men that turned my lust switch up to nuclear. Here were men fucking each other with abandon absent the foul things. A few were very tempting indeed, and I increasingly wanted to give it a try, but still no. Every shy girl waits for her Prince Charming, I guess.
Then one night a friend, an admitted crush of mine, Richard the Versace model, all gleaming supple flesh, walked my way with a big smile, a determined look on his face, hard as a rock, and just like that, I was ready. He was my first raw fuck – and one of the best ever; the man is hung, killer body, gorgeous, great kisser, velvet skin, absolute male perfection. I could have told him to put on a rubber; I didn’t. Not an accident, a choice.
One fluid motion is all it took; the stuff of dreams. We had sex a few more times, that night and others, the sense of wonder never changed. That night, I thought he was the most beautiful creature on earth, and for a few brief moments, he was mine as completely as he could be. I haven’t used condoms since.
"I understood intellectually that what I was doing – bottoming sans condoms with various men in a sex club – carried risk."
Millions of Deutschmarks, Pounds and Dollars thrown at ‘Use a condom, every time’ might as well have been set on fire as far as my actions were concerned. The fear that underlies AIDS education for me was now fatally damaged, its sting neutered by something far more powerful: longing and the aesthetics of the perfect male body.
I understood intellectually that what I was doing – bottoming sans condoms with various men in a sex club – carried risk. Obviously not enough to dissuade the whole lot of us or myself, even if not everyone was as stunning as Richard; many, but not all. So the new Maginot line became no ejaculation; another unsatisfactory compromise as it turned out.
The dark side of absolutist HIV prevention based on fear, the unintended consequence, lies not only in the corruption it inflicts on any human soul capable of love; it lies in its brittleness. A hair crack will eventually shatter any pane of glass. Barebacking, which is what I was doing before I even knew the term, was exactly such a hair crack; wonder of wonders, contrary to what I had been told ad nauseam, I had done the unthinkable and was okay. Quite possibly, the emperor had no clothes, or maybe not for me, young, beautiful, and immortal as I was.
I was barebacking, testing negative, and staying negative. In my experience, the ‘use-a-condom-every-time’ idea became a false idol, bronze with feet of clay. A fraud. If a hazard, then one only in potential, and of course I was careful. For a while.
Until I picked the guy – chiseled, beautiful, a smile to eclipse the lights of Broadway – to break the Maginot Line. As I’ve said before, a choice I don’t regret.
The ultimate purpose of barebacking isn’t a matter as vulgar – vulgar in our puritanical Anglophone societies at least – as pleasure (though why pleasure itself shouldn’t be sufficiently valuable to seek out on its own merits eludes me), it is intimacy. To feel another human body with soft warm skin and a beating heart all his own, for a few shining moments set aside the fear of death for the possibility of love.
It’s for this reason that I can’t bring myself to join in the chorus of finger-wagging directed at so many young people these days. The anger and disdain we show them is symptomatic only of our anger that “we’re still here, goddammit, listen to us, don’t you know what we went through?” and isn’t all that compelling on its own merits to the next generation. This is not a new phenomenon either, is it? Or was there ever a time when youth was not by nature rebellious and curious?
It's our task and challenge as gay men to respond to HIV/AIDS today with the self-directed agency of thirty years ago. Our response then evolved from panic into a paradigm shift in our agency and self-perception, even our expressions of intimacy; tragic waste of life that it was, AIDS birthed modern gay consciousness and an entirely new, more precarious – or precarious in a different way than before – way of life. I sometimes call it, only half in jest, our heroic age; it created the world men of my generation and younger inherited, formed in the crucible of AIDS in much the same way and as profoundly as by the Cold War.
"And fear is the dominant emotion of the Age of AIDS, as are the deformities it breeds: distrust, doubt, shame, anger, rejection, even hate."
The Cold War ended, in a way not a soul saw coming. I was in Berlin a week after the Wall came down, what I remember best was the sudden hallucinatory joy. The unexpected, unbelievable even, had come true. Didn’t mean that this joy was universal or that the binary thinking of the Cold War became extinct, not immediately. Love and hope are more powerful than fear, no doubt, but fear is not without its own stifling, strangling power.
And fear is the dominant emotion of the Age of AIDS, as are the deformities it breeds: distrust, doubt, shame, anger, rejection, even hate. These are powerful feelings, more so when the subject is a disease.
Powerful enough to be paradigmatic. Paradigm in this case used to describe an organizing principle, so universal as to be reflexive, of patterns of thought and behavior. It is binary – positive/negative, safe/unsafe, and so on – in much the same way as was the Cold War.
The challenge today is a binary grown weak, ambiguous, and confusing in some aspects, unchanged in others. At the onset, we assumed this would be a short crisis, with an end in a near future; this would have fit with historic experience. Not quite.
We lack any collective ability to gauge or decide which aspect or iteration of AIDS to consider relevant. In practical terms, the interpretation becomes a matter of personal choice. Less urgency, awareness and action is a result, on a risk-reward basis a perfectly acceptable outcome. We lack any tools to estimate the extent of either with any general validity. We know by experience that we also don't have tools of the predictive power sufficient to forecast outcomes with any certainty.
That near future after thirty-odd years has arrived only in part: effective treatment. Effective to a degree that there is no statistically significant difference in life expectancy by HIV status, but in the absence of an actual cure, with unexpected consequences. The plague emergency has not ended, is less of an emergency but still is a plague. A chronic plague without end, as it were, just as infection results in chronic disease without cure. Neither something to desire in either case, but something possible to live with and by experience not expected to change.
The original plagues themselves, principally the Black Death, were traumatic events of high lethality, high frequency – every generation or so – and limited duration. A permanent plague, as HIV/AIDS presently manifests, is completely outside of any experience I at least know of in the totality of human history. There is no precedent, only paradox, leading inescapably to confusion.
Confusion at this point of the development of HIV/AIDS is, I'd think, to be expected. It's no longer even called "getting AIDS"; you "have HIV". The same process of domestication occurs between "getting takeout" and "having dinner". Something you do in the comfort of your own home. "Having AIDS" sounds more ominous and is, but provided your exasperated partner finally figures out that something is wrong enough to schlep you and your four last lonely little T-Cells to the Bellevue ER, also in my experience survivable. The worst-case scenario is one I've experienced, and here I am, still the same happy puppy as ever.
"Less fear translates as not adequate to impede the return of bareback or natural sex, but enough to push discussion of it underground."
The reality is however mainly one of resignation. A permanent threat recedes in much the same way as does a permanent war, and either produce less fear in latency.
Less fear translates as not adequate to impede the return of bareback or natural sex, but enough to push discussion of it underground. In other words, out of the reach of prevention policy as such. The chief incentive for safe sex, the mortality rate of the virus and omnipresent death it entailed, is different by orders of magnitude between the two eras, no longer a secure tool of aversion. AIDS is still, obviously, a powerful motivator; HIV less so, not as lived or seen – which it by and large is not to begin with. In consequence, HIV infection rates are rising even as the virus is in practice invisible, not feared enough, and too little at the same time, in maybe the perfect ratio required to simultaneously sustain both anxiety and paralysis.
The totality of these observations to me at least explain the vitriol of the current debate about PrEP. All that matters in this context is contained in the framing inherent in the phrase 'unprotected sex'. That's not what PrEP is either in idea or fact; the problem is that quite a few don't accept its premise or definition, and that 'protected' in theirs ipso facto requires condom use. Nothing else is safe, can ever be safe, ergo is (in the binary structure of the language of AIDS) 'unprotected', so nothing to discuss, only to stigmatize.
With condoms a conditio sine qua non, this argument can’t be won. The language isn't able to entertain the possibility of or even describe it with accuracy.
What remains is fear. I’ve come to believe that PrEP is a game-changer; not just for its efficacy, but for a different reason entirely: we’ve now seen two generations crippled by fear all the while new infections continue their steady rise.
That is a Gordian Knot we can sever. If PrEP had been available during the days of Lou’s, damn right I would have been on it. In that case, I’d be writing this as someone who’s HIV negative.
Our kids, our own flesh and blood, today are making choices similar to mine every day. If there is a moral choice other than to give them a tool to prevent infection, and by extension to love without fear, I don’t see it.
Let that generation grow up without fear. They deserve nothing less. And when they do, their sheer beauty, the bright shining light of a new class of gay men born with the rights we fought for, with equality, justice and hope, secure even in their ability to love, will astound us all.
Those kids deserve a better world than the one we found. Tell me that’s not worth fighting for.