As members of human society, perhaps the most difficult task we face daily is that of touching one another—whether the touch is physical, moral, emotional or imaginary. Contact is crisis. As the anthropologists say, “Every touch is a modified blow.” The difficulty presented by any instance of contact is that of violating a fixed boundary, transgressing a closed category where one does not belong. The ancient Greeks seem to have been even more sensitive than we are to such transgressions and to the crucial importance of boundaries, both personal and extrapersonal, as guarantors of human order. Their society developed a complex cultural apparatus, including rituals like supplication, hospitality and gift exchange, which historians and anthropologists are only recently coming to understand as mechanisms for defining and securing boundaries of everything in the habitable world. Civilization is a function of boundaries.
Anne Carson, “Dirt and Desire,” Men in the Off Hours
What about gay or queer or same-sex or (insert preferred adjective here) civilization(s)? I wonder, are they too functions of boundaries? Do we have rituals to ensure order in our midst? Has homosexuality, even (or especially) homosexuality tinged by HIV, fallen prey to homodoxy?
Once upon a time these questions were academic to me. Literally. For the Holy Grail of my ultimately incomplete doctoral studies in education and cultural studies was a theory of community as a place of not belonging.
The true test of a community’s mettle, I thought, was not its degree of blissful harmony but its response to—indeed embrace of—deviancy. Ideologically, I was of course a proud Marxist—a Groucho Marxist, that is, who wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
Ten years later, these questions have come to define not my research interests—academe is far behind me—but my day-to-day ponderings, my doubts, my existence. To be sure, I am a 59-year-old queer man who came out in mid-life after a lengthy, ostensibly solid, straight marriage and four children. And on April 4 of this year, I learned that I am HIV-positive, with an emphasis, please, on the positive.
The date of diagnosis actually serves as the dividing line between a past in which I had lost all hope, even the capacity to hope, and a present in which I have allowed hope to begin, just to begin, to work its magic. (I use hope here as defined by Vaclav Havel: “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”) For this reason, disclosure of my status has never really been an issue for me. To the contrary, I went so far as to have “poz” tattooed on the back of my neck (in the form of a modified Hermes symbol that I got several years ago), eschewing the seemingly more common biohazard sign, the polar opposite mark of the relationship I want to have with the virus I now carry. To disclose or not to disclose how I became positive, however, is a question that has dogged me damn near incessantly. Until now.
"The very thought of becoming infected with HIV turned me on."
Consider this, if you will, then, less a(nother) coming out than a coming outré: I was a “bug chaser.” I deliberately sought to be and was “pozzed,” to use the parlance of the bug-chasing and corresponding “gift-giving” or “breeding” fraternities. The very thought of becoming infected with HIV turned me on. And although barebacking accordingly entered into my (admittedly limited) sexual repertoire, it was not a raw fuck or two that did the deed. Rather, it was a “blood slam” or two, a virtual guarantee of sero-conversion.
Oh, did I mention that I was an injection meth user at the time? I hasten to add that I am in no way suggesting, “Tina made me do it.” To do so would be disingenuous by half.
I cannot and will not deny my responsibility for the choices I made, for the agency I exercised. I invited men whom I knew to be HIV-positive to extract blood from their veins and shoot it into mine. On more than one occasion. Upping the ante was that each of my blood-slamming partners was also HCV-positive. As am I now.
Were these men complicit in my quest? Yes, of course they were. But were they to blame? Did they force themselves upon me against my will? Did they hold me down while they injected me? By no means whatsoever.
Was I crazy? mad? insane? psychotic? Was my essential eroticization and subsequent pursuit of HIV deviant or perverted? Or, to borrow from Anne Carson, was my behaviour merely transgressive of a closed category where I did not belong, of communal and societal standards of HIV prevention? Had I taken one small step on my lifelong journey to belong by not belonging? That’s exactly what it felt like.
Save for one brief fling late last summer, I’ve been abstinent from all substances, including alcohol and cigarettes, for eight months. (Sex too for that matter. Hell! From deviant to straightedger in the space of a couple of lines.) Crystal meth quite simply was taking me to an increasingly dark—I dare say evil—place where even I could venture no further and on which I had to close the door. Still, at no time over those eight months and counting have I regretted my days and success as a bug chaser.
I can ill afford shame or self-pity. Nor am I interested in others’ aspersions or “there, there” consolations. This stance does not preclude moments of astonishment and fear and attempts to delve ever deeper into body, mind, heart, and soul for the motivations and consequences of my actions. What I would therefore welcome is critical and respectful conversation.
To be continued….
About the author: Joseph Sinnott retired to Toronto, largely it would seem to struggle spiritually, following a 22-year career in student services, administration, research, and teaching in the fields of community, diversity, equity, and human rights at Queen’s University. Previously, he lived and worked in community development in a shantytown on the edge of Lima, Peru. A lifelong learner, he holds a Masters of Public Administration and is “all but dissertation” in a doctorate in Education/Cultural Studies, which he aims to finish before his hundredth birthday. Notwithstanding the heavy tone of his article, he subscribes to French essayist and poet Paul Valéry’s notion that “serious people have few ideas. People with ideas are never serious.” He continues to search for self, queer community and, while he’s at it, engaging employment.
Bob Leahy’s review of The Gift - a documentary film about bug chasing
Men Who Seek To Acquire AIDS For 'Status'
Bug Chasers and Gift Givers
Bug Chasing: An HIV Phenomenon