This was a tough one to write and it’s long. I debated whether or not to write about this, but I feel I need to tell the story. This is a new blog, and it’s supposed to be fun and funny and maybe sexy and this isn’t, but I hope you’ll read it anyway.
I remember when Herpes was the worst STD you could get and AIDS was the name of a diet pill. I came of age as a gay man in the 1980’s, just as the AIDs epidemic was beginning. First it was a strange “gay cancer”, then it was GRID, and finally it was AIDs. It was a desperate, terrifying time that I tried to put behind me. Younger people don’t remember it like I do. I tried to forget, but I can’t. The ghosts still haunt me and when I see young men with HIV I get angry. I’m not shaming you if you have HIV (unless you’re one of those idiots who get it on purpose). I have nothing but compassion, but as a survivor of the worst, it angers me because we know so much now and this disease is not only treatable, but almost completely preventable. My friends didn’t have that chance.
At 26, I moved to LA and started to find the leather scene, I have fond memories of the Gauntlet, Faultline, Cuffs, The Spike, and Rawhide. Before Grinder and Scruff, you used to go out to the bars and cruise. You would dress in your gear and head out. You would find a sea of men in black leather and the games would begin. It was a heady time for a young leatherman albeit one with ominous dark clouds hanging over it.
I only spent a year in LA before moving to the Bay Area in the early 90’s. It was there that I found my community. I also found a group of men whom I adored and they became my tribe, my band of brothers. Most were friends, some were dates, and one became my lover. I met Jeremy playing pool. I was watching the game he was playing and flirting with him shamelessly. He kept making his shots. I wanted to talk to him so badly, but he kept knocking the balls into the pockets. I finally, accidentally, dropped my beer as he was about to make a shot, so he would put the damn cue down. He was tall, and handsome, and sexy as fuck in his boots and harness. He asked me out. I said yes.
We went out and we really hit it off. He took me home. Before we had sex, he told me he was HIV positive. I’m negative, but almost everyone I knew in the leather community was positive, so I wasn’t surprised. We were safe. I stayed negative.
All of my friends became HIV positive before anyone knew much about HIV. They were all under 30, and probably got infected sometime in the early 80’s. The virus hadn’t been identified until 1984. Testing didn’t become available until 1985 and “safe sex” wasn’t a term until the late 80’s. No one knew how long they had been positive because they were all positive on the first test they took. I remember getting tested and being absolutely terrified about getting the results, because being positive was a death sentence (and you had to wait 2 weeks for the results, which gave you plenty of time to stew). I practiced safe sex once we knew about it, but like my friends, I had unprotected sex before AIDs was really known. I was lucky.
Every weekend we would all put on our gear and head out together. We generally frequented the same bars on the same days, and you got to know the people who went there, or at least see them every week. But they started disappearing and their obituaries started appearing. The AIDS wards of the hospitals were full of gay men dying from cancer, fungal disease, meningitis, pneumonia, and other opportunistic infections and there was little anyone could do. I will never forget the sounds and smells of those wards, the death and the dying of those men, their lives stolen from them by a virus.
My first friend to go was Phillip. He was the first person who ever flogged me properly. He was a little younger than I was. He was bright and funny. He went into the hospital with cryptococcus and never came out. Next was Jeff, another bright young thing. As his disease progressed, he couldn’t deal with it. He abandoned us, went out onto the streets, got involved with drugs, and was found dead one morning. He was never a drug user before he started getting sick, I think he just couldn’t cope. Then John went. John had no symptoms that anyone knew about. He seemed fine right up until the day he died. Then Gary, and Fuzzy, and George. I watched Steven, who was one of the most handsome men (breathtaking in fact) I have ever seen become a shell of himself over the last year of his life. Yet he stayed cheerful and upbeat until he too succumbed. I went to funeral after funeral. I became numb. I was barely 30 years old and had been to more funerals in a year than I had in my entire life up to that point.
Eventually, Jeremy got sick. One day, he noticed a dark spot on his skin. It was KS, which spread quite rapidly. He had been on AZT and DDi but didn’t tolerate them and there were no other treatments available. They tried chemo to slow the KS, but it did nothing. I watched him waist away. He was so thin and gaunt, a far cry from the strapping stud I fell in love with. The one thing Jeremy really wanted to do was go to the Gay Games in New York. He really shouldn’t have gone because of his health, but I think he was staying alive for it. He was going with people I knew would look out for him. He made it and made it home, but that was the last time he left the house, other than by ambulance.
It wasn’t too long after Jeremy died that HAART became available. People stopped dying, the AIDs wards all shut down, the survivors took stock of what and who was left, and we all tried to recover, and maybe forget a little. I loved them, all those wonderful men who are gone. The leather community, my community, was particularly decimated. Other than myself, there is only one other survivor from my tribe. I will never, ever forget them, and I will never forget the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness I had.
There was one group of people that I need to recognize, because they were there when no one else was; our gay sisters. The one group that was least affected by this disease stood by us. When we were sick and dying, and almost no one in the straight world was doing a damn thing to help us, they stepped up. They fought for us, they cooked for us, they cleaned and cared for us, took us to our appointments, ran errands, organized memorial services, mourned with us and generally held whatever pieces were left together. Most of my friends had been shunned by their families. Nobody wanted to touch someone with AIDs. People were afraid. People ran away. They did not. I will be forever grateful to them, particularly to Cat and Denise who stood by me, kept me fed, and kept me sane.
I’m glad gay men have the sexual freedom again that was denied us for so long. I missed out on that in my prime. Every time I had sex, I worried if this was the time I would get it. Things happen, condoms break, and rough sex is rough. We didn’t know what was safe and what wasn’t, so we assumed nothing was safe. We used double condoms, even with blowjobs (awful, by the way) and gloves and did everything we could to minimize risk which also eliminated most of the fun. Now, we know. Prep, Pep, and HAART changed everything . You can be safe AND have all the fun. Stay safe. If you haven’t already, talk to your doctor or health care provider and figure out the best options for you. Do it for yourself, do it for my friends.