By Robert Birch, Marcus Greatheart & Pan
Originally Published in Annals of Gay Sexuality 2015
What started as a conversation between friends in the hours just before NewYear’s Eve 2014 grew into a hardcore inspiration. Tree friends came together to wrestle with the belief that the expression of gay men’s sexuality has shifted in light of advances in HIV treatment in recent years. We knew it to be true and had stories to share — our own and those of our intimates — but what wasn’t clear was how to pull them all together. None of us had a lot of time: Robert is a doctoral student working on a PhD in the social dimensions of health for gay men, while Marcus is finishing medical school with an interest in LGBTQ health, and Pan is an artist and elementary school teacher. Initially we thought we would simply photocopy a few stories and images and bind them in some aesthetically pleasing way. But as the submissions arrived we realized this work needed to be shared more extensively. So we reached across our networks and into the interwebs, asking folks to share their refections and experiences on the topic of an HIV zeitgeist for gay men — and this anthology is the result.
We brought our own unique editorial perspective to this process. We are social educators, health practitioners and artists operating for 20 years within gay cis/trans men’s communities in the Pacific Northwest. We are queer feminists who share similar investment in the importance of how stories impact our community. As editors we intentionally play with an ambiguous ‘we’ throughout this introduction in an attempt to rectify silences by giving voice to our shared lived experience within community. We advocate that what happens to some of us, affects many of us. We are white, university educated and live with a great deal of privilege, which we attempt to mobilize here by sharing these important issues for the benefit of our communities. This book represents the culmination of a 18-month endeavour for which we take responsibility and also feel sincerely blessed. These are our truths and we hope the narratives printed here will help ignite dialogue and art among our readers and communities.
Between These Covers
The premise of this first volume ofAnnals of Gay Sexuality(AGS) is this: we’ve entered a new era of gay men’s health as it relates to HIV in terms of identity and practice. This shift reflects gay generational differences in terms of how we relate to sex, risk and community, advancements in HIV treatment and AIDS care, and the obvious: decades have passed since AIDS overwhelmed the gay male psyche. This journal responds to the belief that we’re chronically overdue for our collective psychosomatic check-up. Our method has been to gather stories and images as practice-based evidence with the understanding that:
a) creative expression can be healing;
b) art has the potential to rekindle community efforts to organize around gay men’s contemporary health crises; and
c) understanding more about the lives of gay men and the sexual contexts within which we live, our efforts will lift us out of the decades-long statistical impasse of HIV prevalence by addressing gay men’s health as a whole.
To this end we adopted a unique community-based methodology wherein we sent out a Call for text/image contributions, and selected the work we believed best demonstrated how gay men are navigating their sex lives today. We are the curators of these submissions using a community centric lens. The text and images selected both express and discover the vigor and limitations of the editors’ community networks. By contributing to a larger conversation of gay men’s needs, this project seeks to expand into other culturally specific and global networks. At the end of this introduction we reflect on the work included among these pages.
We intend to stimulate conversations amongst gay men. We chose print as the medium because we understand the respect the printed page garners among the people and institutions we hope to inform and influence. May these ideas invade libraries and break down walls in academia and health authorities while challenging assimilationist norms within our own communities. AGS borrows from the milieu of health science journals that fill academic libraries. By appropriating this medium, we hope to challenge and entice traditional researchers and institutional(ized) practitioners. We invite those who judiciously map out what we do to embrace the expression of those who are doing it. In this journal, experience narratives create the knowledge that quantitative data and meta-analysis often overlook. The title of this journal, Annals of Gay Sexuality, is our way of stating that we want to explore the visceral edge between what we know and the biocultural outcomes we still seek as gay male writers, visual artists and lovers. ‘Annals’ comes from the Latin ‘annus’ meaning a year, and represents our desire to capture emerging issues of gay men’s sexuality. The Contemporary HIV Zeitgeist refects our intention to encapsulate present-day tastes, textures, sights and smells of our sex in the context of current HIV treatments, but also the social contexts of the fourth decade of AIDS. The text and images are immediately raw and thoughtful, erotic and cogent. They include personal narratives, photos, ‘txt msg’ conversations, social media posts, and non-fiction poetry and prose. This explicitly subjective work is experiential and defiant, self-reflective and critical.
AGS includes visual source material about the body, desire, medication and fantasies that cue up responses to the multitudes of present-day gay male sexuality. The theme among these images is clear: how artists negotiate with—and manage their relationship between—the body and sex. For some it was the fractal patterns of the capsules and tablets that allow gay men to live; for others, it’s a fictional relationship with dead poets, reimagining one’s youthful body tumbling through a fantasy of desire and intimacy. Some of these artworks are more explicit, arousing and demonstrating the higher potential of the body: sex and its many beautiful and messy complications. Other works resist the explicit. We find it ironic and a refection of our time that some artists are still unable to be explicit in their expression of gay male desire, despite increased political liberation. Case in point: the AGS Art Director was not comfortable using his legal name in this publication because, as a licensed public employee and educator, he feared that a colleague or student’s parent might bring his propriety into question. Gay men who work with children are always subject to greater scrutiny than our heterosexual counterparts. While only two other contributors requested a pseudonym, the issue of privacy is one with which many of us grappled. We have public and professional jobs that provide us a lot of exposure. And while we were not convinced that our participation in this project would necessarily lead to overt discrimination or loss of employment, the potential risks still felt palpable.
Cultural health is an ally to personal health
We need each other now as much as ever. Thank you AIDS Inc. for the meds but clearly they’re not enough. Pharmaceuticals will never replace the need for chosen family. While the pills protect us and keep us alive, close friends and quality lovers guarantee our quality of life. This is not ingratitude; this is a renewed call for help. As a population, gay men are in a state of despair. Since 2007 our rates of suicide replaced HIV/AIDS as our leading cause of death. Crystal meth use and syphilis also demand our immediate attention. Our numbers in terms of anxiety, depression, suicidality, self-harm, and other mental health challenges are significantly higher than heterosexuals. We need help, and many existing services often fail us. Mainstream healthcare models created for heterosexuals don’t work for many gay men no matter how much we pretend they do. Many AIDS service organizations do not have the capacity to meet our needs today. We desperately need queer/trans healthcare reforms. Our healthcare processes depend on cultural frameworks that help us understand our bodies, our explorations into gender and sexualities, and our histories, as well as our inherent homo-value within our chosen responsibilities to community. Helping others means helping ourselves. We need to relearn how to become each other’s most effective allies.
Our Needed Queer Skills
Trauma irrevocably marks us. Not one of us as gay men, whatever our age, has made it through this epidemic unscathed. We’re all transgenerational trauma survivors of AIDS and homophobia. HIV will continue to be associated with gay sexuality for decades. We’re also aware that relentless homophobia often negatively impacts the acute political and medical support needed for others including women, Indigenous people and people with AIDS in the non-Western world. As many of us in North America delve into our generational histories we experience a multifaceted resistance to, and acceptance of, survivor’s guilt. We screwed our way through multiple losses, isolation and sex panic to discover we’re still here. Our sex lives fesh out our need for, and act as our tools of, change.
While trauma can debilitate it can also, willingly or not, cast us into new roles as cultural change agents. Coming out as queer/trans is a political act that can be devastating. It can also, with the support of community, be a health-promoting, culture-evolving offering. Finding each other and sharing our scars and strategies can be exhilarating. Healing from trauma requires survivors be seen as valued individuals, witnessed (when ready) for their nightmare, honored for their survival skills and celebrated as vital members of community. By kicking the closet doors open, by bravely being ourselves, our sociocultural initiatory practice compels us to embody the role of culture brokers to the betterment of society. Coming out develops and demands a profound set of intrapersonal skills such as courage, strategy and psychosocial adaptation. It is an imperative that we research the skills that queer and trans folks develop and deploy in shifing their social standing by coming out. Looking beyond coming out solely as a process could prove to be revolutionary. It’s in our blood.
Our collective story is extraordinary. We must remind ourselves where we’ve come from if we’re to fully comprehend the potential of what we can create. Many of us lived and died for sex. Over three hundred thousand gay men in theUSA died of AIDS during one of the most profoundly loving human rights movements in history. We have yet to lovingly claim the victory of our dead brothers against a near biocultural genocide. As with survivors of other wars, only those extraordinary men and women who lived through the AIDS years can fully comprehend the horror of those times or know the depth of love that gay men and our allies shared. If we are to find joy in our own wellness we must choose to remember them, be ever curious, and uphold and celebrate their extraordinary contributions to our lives and indeed, the world.
If we see ourselves as seminal to evolution rather than a biological aberration, our storyline gets far more interesting. In only four and half decades we’ve run the proverbial gauntlet. From invisibility to disco ball frenzy, near annihilation to killing ourselves with meth to learning how to find intimacy with trans men — all the while participating in the world where everyone else is also working out their shit.
Imagining Stonewall as our LGBT cultural birthday, it is no wonder we are in the throes of a full-blown cultural midlife opportunity: We are 46. While we gain mainstream rights, we need to learn how to reorganize in real-time communities. We may shirk our social responsibilities in favor of re-exploring the erotic-cultural adolescence we missed. We may be shtupping our way into a full-blown queer cultural renaissance. As we queerly mature, let’s envision ourselves as the loving Daddies we never had. We also need intergenerational mentorship to entice our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellness. For this to occur we have much more compassion slinging to do.
Greater and more imaginative political actions will once again serve as a method to promote our overall queer health. Whether we choose it or not, our sex lives are political odysseys that can be used against us, or help us build healthier futures. We know the psychosomatic and social costs of stigma and hatred.5Many of us have remarkable tales of survival. Our methods of adaptation are the template needed for LGTBQ community education and health. Together, we are the change we seek. If we click our heels three times and say, “There’s no place like community,” we might recognize each other as miracles-in-waiting. When we see ourselves as members of a diverse community invested in the culture of queer/trans* health— not just as gay men focused on HIV — we envision rewriting the HIV narrative with the overall intention of improving our lives, inclusive of the sexual health of future LGBTQ people.
Where In The Risk Are We?
There’s a paradoxical (n)e(u)rotic movement emerging amongst gay men. How we hurt ourselves may in turn be how we learn to heal ourselves. We assert that sexual choices need to be appreciated before being ‘understood’ or ‘influenced’. To begin to understand our deviance from any idealized norm, we look to the patterns of change affecting our lives.Te convergence of our histories with biomedical advances, the hyper-prevalence of technological communication, and global crises characterize these capricious times and greatly impact sour erotic abstractions. We’ve been rewriting the sexual risk narrative.
Over the past year we’ve noticed that the gay guys we know,l ove, and fuck, are having sex differently, particularly in how they relate to/with/away from HIV. We observed multiple discords and envies between poz and neg men within our communities. New epidemiologically inspired identities, their accompanying politics and viral hierarchies have surfaced online within gay circles. In light of emerging research on Antiretroviral Terapies (ARVs), Pre- andPost-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP/PEP), and Treatment as Prevention(TasP), we recognized some guys adopting new risk-benefit analyses for sex without condoms.
What we first poetically imagined as a sensual ripeness in the air amongst our friends and lovers is now strutting across gay male sex scenes toward a new sexual (r)evolution. What proof do we have of this? We, as gay men, are finally talking about ourselves again.We wear ‘Truvada Whore’ t-shirts and participate in online bitch sessions about PrEP. We’re discussing the release of the Partner Study which suggests ‘undetectable’ may mean it’s not only safe to bareback a poz person on meds with no viral load, but it may also be safer(statistically speaking) than sex with a negative guy who doesn’t have an up-to-the-last-shag HIV test. Despite real concerns about STIs, many gay men appear to be practicing “all rubbers of.” Always progressive in the realms of technology, we faggots lead emerging intimacies and technological ecstasies. We flirt with online geographic proximities, choosing to ‘share my location’ on smartphone hookup apps to scout out potential trysts, and where many of our poz buddies are using (+) as a shorthand for self-disclosure. At the same time, ‘transgressive turn-ons’ that are too dangerous for the real world become virtual beat of material with rare consequences. We embrace slut shame and attend group sex parties as if they were neighbourhood potlucks. As we transgress, so we progress.
Sex = Health
Sex generates many biological and social benefits, stress reduction not the least of these. Sex gets us out of our heads, into our bodies and helps us live for and in the moment. Sex can be a spiritual high. Peak sexual experiences help us temporarily transcend a world benton (our) self-destruction. Sex helps sweat out the chronic state of homo-hate many of us experience. On a good night, the sliding on and into each other’s bodies can be tremendously affirming, validating in many kinky ways. We can appreciate many of the ‘self-destructive tendencies’ that cannot be captured in the ‘stages of change’ and which no public health messaging is going to deter. We need sex- and substance-positive community health models ready to catch and/or cheer us on as we stretch beyond our hard comforts. We know isolation is the killer. Those of us who benefit from the resources of the industrialized world—as consumers of pharmaceutical and users of technological privilege—have a responsibility to be of service to those who have yet to make it out of our well-lubricated black holes. Much more needs to be shared about the healing benefits of sharing our stories.Te contributors in this journal graciously dish out their own rough-and-tumble-out-of-bed episodes, revealing more of what is happening in these liminal erotic spaces.
Building the case for our (sexual) stories
Such narratives invite empathy and imagination. As we learn to tell our gloriously messy stories our way, perhaps we’ll see enough versions of ourselves to experience greater relief from our present day stressors and recognize that we’re not as isolated as our silent grief and fear would tell us. To evolve we must be witnessed for coming through vulnerable and painful times of change. HIV epidemiology has been brilliant at laying out the groundwork for our understanding of how gay men have been impacted by HIV. However, we cannot expect clinical research to tell the whole of our story for us. Our HIV statistics are certainly not as stimulating as some of the tell-alls gathered in this journal. A colleague recently said, “If I was to live my life by statistics alone, I wouldn’t ever do much of anything.” We argue that our stories will inspire needed (re)action more than HIV statistics can alone. Re-storying ourselves will flesh out these numbers. We’re counting on it.
Since the advent of AIDS we’ve heard gay men accuse researchers of following the agenda of the pharmaceutical gravy train in pursuit of their own careers and at the cost of community programming; that we’ve been left to fend for ourselves as they work on their mathematical models and abstracts no one really reads.Te truth is that great work has been done and translating these findings to our diverse communities has been tepid at best. It’s seems to have taken a full generation of prevention workers to get their Master’s degree to understand and begin to act on these findings. Our stories augment decades of HIV/AIDS statistics and the significant body of work by MSM researchers. Our lives have been described by MSM theories in terms of minority stress, resiliency and syndemics. We encourage people new to these concepts to learn about them and spread them into the queer commons. We have many fierce researchers and allies working on our behalf.
Reflections on Submissions
We are editors and contributors, and held ourselves to the same ethos that we requested of others. We wrote about us, not them, preferring to take responsibility rather than lay blame. By participating int his inaugural journal we agreed to erect/enrich/eroticize the conversations we’ve been privately indulging in, now envisioning this as a community-culture making process.Who has time for faggot shame anymore?
Reading Joshua Barton’s Slaughter the Moonlight and his biblically proportioned sound bites makes my lustful heart lurch in disgust. This hyper-indulgent dystopian slop-house revelry makes me want to claw at my crotch and jack off in my own blood before smoking a pack of cigarettes then casually light myself on fire. It reminds me of a brilliant young fago-lala I met two summers ago, suicidal and gratefully too talented to do anything about it, when we talked queer his only response was, “Burn it all down, the parades, the rainbowfag, the basement bars, all of it.” He would find a soul-mutant in Barton. I re-read the piece a month later, loved it, and then took a blister-raising shower. [RB]
Because we’re different, gay folks possess a freedom the moral majority both denies and craves.Francisco Ibáñez-Carrasco describes how pain and envy shaped him as a young sissy boy during the torment of the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. Can You Hear the Drums Fernando? delves into the healing paradox of BDSM culture where the writer reveals how he transformed boyhood torture through chosen erotic subjugation.Te author’s sexual quest for emancipation travels through four revelatory decades of politics, pop culture andAIDS to arrive at our current biomedical machine, the Pharma-domination of our still undefeated queer community. His story isa profound act of faggot self-determination. By harnessing pain in order to harvest pleasure, Ibáñez-Carrasco nurses his own suffering world-view and so invites the reader to consider how they too may have turned their misery into some life-affirming kink. [RB]
RM Vaughan sets his group sex essay, Scheune House Rules, ina dilapidated Berlin bar before acknowledging the demise of the gay scene. Even gloved sex has devolved to the status of ‘retro.’ He inquires, “How is asking to use a condom a threat to someone’s health status?” and challenges the cultural-controlling term of ‘barebacking.’He asserts his self-determination to use a condom as a queer erotic revelation. In his post-scriptive imaginative pick up line he reminds us where we come from, that queer requires some make-believe, it means erotically making it up together as playmates of a shared dungeon[RB]
We live in an age of techno-desire. From our ‘addiction’ to porn to our endorphin bumping phone apps such as Grindr and Scruf, are we truly enjoying our high-speed sex lives? In Navid Tabatabai’s poem, Tonight, following his own quest as a self-described ‘sacred slut,’he dares us to re-imagine an online hook-up as an attempt to merge the spiritual within the sexual. He reaches into the anonymous void of our pixilated realities to more fully embody ecstatic man-on-man communion. [RB]
GSCo-editorMarcus Greatheart (soon-to-be) MD is the dreamy kind of doctor for which many of us would gladly bend over and cough. Smart and sexy, he brings two decades of community street-savvy to the often panty-tight halls of Public Health. In his piece, Please Come In: Early History of ‘Bareback’ Gay Pornography and the Internal Money Shot, hefghts from our corner to say gay men and other man-on-man porn lovers are more than capable of separating fantasy from reality. From the conviviality of 70’s ‘natural’ porn onward he closely follows the cavity-investigating lens of gay pornographers and current film buff-loving analysts. Marcus takes the pulse of our ‘bareback’ fetish to hear the throb of us beating-off to what some think of as our birthright: skin on skin penetration. In his sassy trademark style, this finely written article positions articulate pornographers up against the pan-paranoia of gay sex moralists.While judiciously not taking sides he certainly writes the script for future check-ups. [RB]
What mainstreamers will never quite fathom is that when gay men gather, cultural shifts percolate. While the rest of us napped, hung over from our frivolities, Mischiefand Marcus lounged on the guest room bed. In See Dick Fuck these two dear friends share their pillow talk. Our glitter-littered house was full of sissy boy sand hairy cowgirls draped over the worn out furniture. Two things happened that weekend: this journal was conceived and a long buried conversation sprouted its way into these pages. It’s inspiring to have quality friends whose gift of reflexivity opens the precarious door to lovingly dish about poz-envy and sero-negativity. What makes this conversation dangerous is that it is rarely spoken out loud. Wrapped in each other’s arms these two friends, in and of itself telling of what our peoples need most, expose today’s poz guy privileges and neg man burnouts; the beast in the room that haunts us all regardless of our viral status is stigma. This piece offers us a once ‘undetectable’ view of what is now possible across the HIV paradox that has so connected/divided us: admiration for our stamina. [RB]
In This Feels Good,Tough, poet Timothy D. Rains’ primary images of blindfold, spider, teeth and rope are woven together into a lusty contemplation on risk that builds anticipation with his syncopated musicality. InHow Can You Be Beautiful To Me?, he explores longing and desire for connection that, for many of us, is a dangerous temptation; it risks exposure, infection, and opening one’s heart and being vulnerable.
Michael V. Smith, in a selection from his 2015 memoir My BodyIs Yours, explores how both our first sense-of-self as a sexual being and our first sexual experiences replay and echo through our later sex lives. These ghosts help and hinder, and are particularly vibrant when HIV haunts the halls. The work is both sexy and insightful, demonstrating deep wisdom as he adds to, and simplifies from, within the complexity. [MG]Robert Birch shares lurid and (autoethno)graphic data that inspired his PhD research into gay men’s group sex environments. The fellow really throws himself into his work and subjects (with consent, of course) and the result is a narrative meditation that is equal parts porno and travelogue. We started calling him Dr. Orgy, the intrepid student traversing the seediest and sexiest parts of North America in search of queer truth and a good blowjob; he claims the name with pride. [MG]
Eric Sneathen describes his workFor Gaëtan Dugasas a series of cut-up poems which bring together significant cultural texts on a topic and reassemble them with scissors and glue — in this case a(false) history of the beginning of AIDS embodied by the nominal French Canadian fight attendant. The general process for a cut-up is simple: take multiple printed documents, cut, tear, or rip them into pieces, and bring them back together with tape or some other kind of adhesive. Eric explains that he is “trying to build narrative that relates the polyglot experience of the bathhouses, what might be the quintessential queer locale of the pre-history of the crisis.” The poems evoke a flurry of images, like the morning-after recollections of an intoxicated night at the baths spliced with flashes of men and their body parts. Today they seem to be sites in-between times, both before and after AIDS which, in our minds, is an important concept to consider on its own. The poems offer a new historical methodology that, in my mind, is as compelling in product as it is important in creation. [MG]
Is Barebacking a real life story or fiction? Is Simon Sheppard talking to himself or is he othering? The narrative voice suggests self-denial while simultaneously implicating the reader. Are we caught red-handed? The protagonist wants what he wants when he wants it, without accountability. And yet, he seeks amnesty in the discussion when challenging our ethical sluts. What are your politics around sex with a married man?Tanks for the dare, Simon. Discomforting enough to be compelling. [MG]
Our desire evolves into cultural phenomena. Using ‘txt as image’we have Wilson Copland’s Steamy Boy Pussin which he takes us on a self-lubricating ride with a hot trans/cis date with two tops vying for pleasure-holes. The piece offers a snap-shot of queer folks sexually working out profound gender-cultural differences using online app-speak to evolve our kink in ways we may never have imagined a few short years ago. [RB]
Our cover image, “Zeitgiest” by Pablo Cáceres, utilizes two common tropes within painting: the mythic and the portrait. His figure walks the line between innocence and ruin, a creature of agency and restrictions. [Pan]
Michael Horwitz’svital andfctional relationship with theauthor ofLeaves of Grassdepicted in My Boyfriend Walt Whitman isboth intimate and humorous.Tere is great power and magic in thefantasy that Horwitz creates with the combination of text and image.I love most his sense of play between thefctional and the dark actualgoings on of life. [Pan]
In “Clean/Dirty” and “It AddsUp,”Grahame Perry deals in patterns, structures, and dichotomies, and yet they are all about survival, striking the line between being clean and dirty through everyday objects, to using fractalized patterns to negotiate the relationship between survival and dependence. [Pan]”Time Out” from the seriesVulnerable and Exposed from painterLore Schmidts is perhaps the most realistic and simple of the journal’s visual selection. It depicts a man in an idealized form, young, built, and in the rituals of sports, but my favorite part is how the evidence of the stroke of the brush helps us to realize that even these creatures are constructions of the artist. [Pan]
InWes Fanelli’s “Believe it or not, there was a time in my life when I didn’t go around announcing I was a faggot,” the points of entry into eroticism include men in suits eating and the communal act of devouring. The explicit act of eating gives way to an implicit sense of desire and community. The eyes closed are my favorite moment of simplicity in the frame. Fanelli completed a series of work similar to this piece, and each used his real life friends as models. I can’t help but be reminded of Mapplethorpe’s “Man in Polyester Suit” and how the excitement of sex and pleasure are hidden by the formalities of suits and ties. [Pan]Childhood play is the focus inPan’s”Gothic” and “Touch.” The work places a group of men as survivors in some wild landscape.Instead of focusing on survival, they find sustenance in the acts of childhood games: tag, picking fowers, and hide and go seek. In the depth of their play, there is a hidden eroticism yearning to come out and teach moment of their touch.
We acknowledge there are many more voices needing to be heard,especially those of trans men, male immigrants, and men of color.
We reached out to our man loving networks in the English speaking, western world and these stories represents much of what arrived. We envision this journal as an opening to a more fluid/loving dialogue between cis/trans/gay/queer/bi male favored artists, academics, activists and other down on your knees storytellers.Tis is the first edition of AGS. In the next edition we plan to explore gay sexual ethics and amories (more about that at the back of the book). As the new ones on the journal block we intend to be incendiary, political, unapologetic and subversive; we embrace our necessary queer failures out loud. We hope to spark your imagination and interest and, in the spirit of healthy critique and community, your feedback is appreciated.*
Join the conversation online at www.annalsofgaysexuality.com