By Justin Hayford
On a sticky summer night, a dozen men gather in a cramped office in Andersonville. Three sit on a window sill, two on the arms of sofas, and one on the floor. Frank sits in a corner and thinks about the dream that changed his life.
In the dream he was at work, caring for residents in a home for the mentally retarded. The administration decided to open a wing specifically for people with AIDS. Two new HIV positive residents walked into the room where Frank stood, separated from him by a plate-glass wall. Suddenly one of the residents fell through the glass, shattering it, slicing his flesh. Blood spurted out of his wounds, and Frank could see hundreds of virus particles shooting through the air, shaped like sperm. While he tried to avoid being hit, a coworker standing next to him stepped directly in the virus’s path. “I don’t care,” the coworker said. “I’m going to take this into me.”
When he woke, Frank was haunted by the scene. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why did I have this dream?'” he says. “I thought, ‘Does part of me want to take this disease in? Does part of me want to become infected?’ And after a while I realized there might be something there.”
Frank may sound crazy. But every Wednesday night he comes here to talk with people who understand his dream all too well. They are members of a support group for gay men who are HIV negative. Some, like Frank, are struggling to remain uninfected. As HIV prevention specialists around the country will tell you, Frank’s dilemma isn’t rare. For many gay men, worn down by 15 years of devastating plague, finding the inspiration to protect themselves against HIV infection can be a tremendous challenge.
AIDS has been the pivotal event in the gay community. More than any other phenomenon in the last two decades, it’s put gay America on the map, generating unprecedented social and political cohesion, almost making the community synonymous with the disease. AIDS is everywhere in gay neighborhoods–it’s in bookstores and on newsstands, on T-shirts and baseball caps, at bar nights, concerts, and candlelight vigils. It has mobilized support for the stricken, many of whom are offered an array of free or low-cost services, creating, in the words of Dana Van Gorder, coordinator of lesbian and gay health services for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, “a complex set of disincentives for remaining uninfected.”
With the success of new drug therapies, some claim that we’re witnessing the end of AIDS. Yet reports of its demise may be exaggerated. Though promising, the new drugs haven’t been entirely successful, and no one knows their long-term effectiveness or safety. For many, the cost is prohibitive, and the strict regimen unrealistic. On this Wednesday evening in June, the men in Frank’s group still look worried. The group, sponsored by the Evanston-based social service agency Better Existence With HIV (or BEHIV), is one of two in Chicago for uninfected men, both on the north side (the other is run by Stop AIDS Chicago), and one of several nationwide.
The clock on the wall reads 7:08. David Hewitt, one of the group’s two facilitators, is trying to get things started. He’s clearly flustered, unaccustomed to a such a large group; though still manageable, attendance has doubled this summer. Some fear that the success of new drug treatments–combinations of antiviral drugs taken with a protease inhibitor–has led to confusion over whether it’s safe to return to unprotected sex. “The protease inhibitor hype has given credence to a particular form of denial: ‘If I get it now, I’ll be OK,'” says BEHIV’s Doug Mitchell. “My fear is that the protease inhibitors are offering a sense of security too soon.”
Many of the men here are attending their first session. They shift awkwardly in their seats. The temperature creeps steadily upward.
“I don’t like the name of the group,” a first-timer who introduces himself as Mark begins. “‘It’s Positive to Be Negative.’ I think of the inverse. I don’t want it to be us against them.”
Heads bob. Silence. Then Frank takes a turn. He explains that he is adamant about adopting the term “uninfected” rather than “HIV negative.” To call himself HIV negative, he explains, is to define himself in terms of the virus, or more tellingly, by its absence. “After all, we don’t call ourselves ‘cancer negative.’ Gay men are identifying with disease, not health.” He hopes the others will adopt his term. The others say nothing.
“It’s particularly queer to have seen so many friends die,” someone named Phil breaks in, apropos of nothing, or perhaps of everything. He seems unaware of any double meaning the word “queer” might have.
“I’m scared that I’m not more scared,” Mark says. “HIV isn’t as threatening as it once was to me.”
The discussion continues, punctuated by long silences. Frank hangs on every word. Several men say they feel like a minority within a minority. Gay men who are HIV positive have been encouraged to identify themselves publicly, they point out, and have received community support for doing so. Some of the men say they hide their HIV negative status in order not to “flaunt it” in front of those who are, or may be, infected. This issue is particularly important to Frank tonight; he plans to roller-skate in the gay pride parade with a sign around his neck reading “It’s Positive to Be Negative.” He’s worried about the response he’ll get from the crowd.
One man tells the story of a group of friends who all live in the same apartment building and who went together to get HIV tests. Only one tested negative, and from that day forward he found he could no longer look his friends in the eye.
Despite the men’s occasional candor, the meeting seems contentious. For nearly 45 minutes, there are more debates about the name of the group, about whether they should call themselves HIV negative or uninfected, about whether they would be insulting infected men by publicly acknowledging that they’ve escaped the epidemic. One man says he can’t talk to his positive friends about his own anxieties, feeling like he has no right to complain about anything in front of them; another man snaps, “Talk to them about something else. Not everything in the world revolves around AIDS.” Mick Santiago, the group’s other facilitator, calmly interjects, “We’re really arguing about whether it’s OK for us to be here.” He looks at the others. “It’s OK for us to be here.”
The first support groups for HIV negative men appeared a few years ago in New York, Boston, and San Francisco, where the idea met with great resistance in certain quarters. Tailoring services to HIV negative men seemed not only an insult to those infected but a wasteful use of precious prevention dollars. In San Francisco, two gay newspapers refused to run ads for the groups. One, the Bay Area Reporter, accused community leaders of creating “viral apartheid,” even though services exclusively for the HIV infected have been around for more than a decade (the hostility expressed in San Francisco seems particularly ironic, considering that in 1982, when that city funded the country’s first public AIDS programs, some of those dollars were specifically earmarked for grief counseling). When Stop AIDS Chicago began talking publicly about offering services to uninfected men last year, it received bomb threats.
Resentment against uninfected men seeking professional support has not disappeared in the year or so since such services began in Chicago. Jim Stolz, director of gay and bisexual programs at Stop AIDS, says the men in his agency’s group often feel guilty about showing up and frequently disappear after only a few sessions. “People say to them, ‘What do you guys do, sit around and talk about your retirement plans?'” Mick Santiago has experienced similar reactions. “When I tell people I’m part of the group, their most common response is, ‘Why? You should be so grateful.'”
But as Berkeley psychologist Walt Odets outlines in his widely debated book In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS, those who insist that only HIV infected men might be in need of professional support are dismissing the reality of millions of gay men. “The AIDS epidemic itself is an obvious source of psychological distress,” he writes, “a grim decade of suffering and death that has not occurred as a discrete event on American soil in these proportions since the Civil War.” Many have watched their friends and lovers suffer and die. In the 1980s, while terror swept through gay communities, grassroots organizers scrambled to create social service networks to help the dying. Feelings of abandonment within the gay community were often reinforced by mainstream leaders; Ronald Reagan didn’t say the word “AIDS” in public until more than 36,000 Americans had been reported with the syndrome and more than 20,000 had died. How could such sustained horror not take a devastating toll on the men left behind?
The world that AIDS stole from Frank was hard-won. He grew up on the near northwest side in a traditional Catholic family, the middle child of three. Like a lot of men growing up in the 1950s, gay or straight, finding a healthy way to express his sexuality was a challenge. “Every time I masturbated I would go to confession,” he says with a little laugh. He fell in love with his best friend in eighth grade, a love he kept strictly to himself. As a sophomore in high school, he met a neighborhood boy who would sleep over once in a while. They’d lie next to each other, touching tenderly and never saying a word.
Frank went to the University of Illinois’ Circle Campus in 1965 to study engineering. On the other side of the globe, the Vietnam war was heating up. After one semester Frank decided to go part-time. “And within two weeks, I got my notice,” he says. “I was in the army. It was heavy.”
He was shipped off to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for basic training. “I had decided that I was not going to go to Vietnam. I was only 19, man, and I thought I would just go AWOL and go to jail.” But then one morning fate intervened. “I got orders for permanent party in the States. There were only 6 people out of 240 in my battalion that got it. Talk about my angel being with me.”
For the next two years, Frank was stationed at Fort Mead, Maryland, working as a dental assistant. During that time, he and an army buddy began “skirting around the issue” of sexuality, until they both realized–and admitted–they were gay. Not long afterward he and his friend started spending weekends at the local YMCA, where sex was readily available. “It was like, you know, like wow.”
In 1967 he took a trip to New York City and went to his first gay bar. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw two men dancing together….I was so taken aback. It was scary and exciting and hopeful and I don’t know.” But as scandalously thrilling as that gay bar had been for Frank, it paled in comparison to other happenings in the late 60s. He recalls a friend talking about naked hippies in San Francisco; though the image shocked him slightly, he was nevertheless intrigued. Even as he continued in the army, Frank began to open up to the radical changes sweeping across America. “In my heart and in my mind I felt so much a part of what was happening,” he says.
In 1968 he left the army and returned to Chicago, where he found only two or three gay bars operating. “It was kind of fun being gay back then,” he says. “It was like having a double life. You’d be with your friends in society during the day, and inside part of you knows that on certain nights of the week you go to this gay bar, with these wild, deviant type people there. There was an adventure to all that.”
Poised at the intersection of the sexual revolution and gay liberation, Frank found a community that encouraged him to cast off his shame and free himself through an honest exploration of his sexuality. During the 70s, Frank says, he lived at the bathhouse. “It was like going to a country club. It was a way to get away from work and life, to just sit and relax sometimes, maybe get some sun. It wasn’t just about sex. It wasn’t. It was about celebrating who we are as spiritual beings. It was about people taking their clothes off and saying, ‘This is who I am.’ I was out there. I was one of them.
“There were people in my generation who got lost in the sex. They didn’t understand the deeper significance of being able to express yourself freely. That is one of the gifts I feel we gave to America, being the groundbreakers. I see gay people now, young gay people, and I feel like I was part of opening the way for them. Just by being there, being at those first gay pride parades back then. We made a difference.”
While much contemporary rhetoric, both inside and outside the gay community, reduces the 1970s to an adolescent, drug-induced saturnalia, Frank remembers things differently. “There was so much to fight for, so much to get behind, so much to be a part of. I wouldn’t give up living through that.”
Then everything changed, seemingly overnight. Frank first became aware of AIDS in 1983. When he talks about those days, his ordinarily animated voice turns grave. “I would run into friends in a bar, and they would say, ‘You know, Frank, I think I have this thing. I have swollen glands all over my body.'” Then friends started to drop. “People would find out they had it, and within two months they’d be gone. No one knew how the disease was spread, there was no test, and all of a sudden people are dying around us. I had a right to be afraid. Everyone had a right to be afraid.”
Then he found a red spot on his skin. Convinced he had contracted the new syndrome, he went to a dermatologist, then to a newly opened clinic at Cook County Hospital, then to the veteran’s hospital. It could be anything, they all told him. A doctor found an amoeba in Frank’s stool sample. “He said, ‘Well, this may or may not be associated. Some people who have AIDS have this amoeba, but it might be something else.’ I had to sit there with all this confusion, thinking, ‘I may have this, but they just don’t know. And now I’ve got to wait and see if I get any more symptoms.’ I was panicked.”
He knew only one way to lessen his anxiety: stop having sex. A few months after first hearing about AIDS, a decade after plunging headfirst into the sexual revolution, Frank made the decision to become what he calls “forced celibate.” He has remained so for the past 13 years. His decision to abstain from sex would be applauded by many publicly funded HIV prevention campaigns; almost every piece of literature distributed by public health agencies insists that the best way to avoid infection is not to have sex. Yet for Frank that decision would have tragic consequences.
In the spring of 1985 the Food and Drug Administration licensed the first commercial HIV test. Frank did not get tested, feeling that he’d rather not know if he was positive, especially since no drugs were available to treat HIV infection. He refrained from getting tested for the rest of the decade. Instead he removed himself from just about every element of his former life, sinking deeper and deeper into a terrified, self-imposed isolation. He went out less and less frequently, feeling cut off from the increasing number of his friends who were HIV positive.
Occasionally the pressure became unbearable. “Sometimes it just got too painful,” he explains. “Sometimes I just had to go to the bathhouse and get some kind of human contact.” He would rush off to Man’s Country or the Unicorn feeling “overwhelmed and crazy”; he’d quickly grope a few men and hurry home, breathless, thinking, “I got it out of my system. Thank God I don’t have to go back again.” Several months later he would return.
Though Frank never did anything that might have exposed him to HIV, he would leave the bathhouse feeling dirty and terrified that he might be infected. Having forced himself to become celibate, he now equated sex, any sex, with disease. While he knew better, part of him came to believe that touching another man might get him infected.
Then in 1992 his best friend Jay died of AIDS. “When he died, I felt like my whole life was falling apart. I got thrown into so much fear I decided it was worse to live with the fear than with the knowledge of my status. The isolation, the separation was worse than the disease.”
Frank finally got tested, and the results came back negative. “It was a relief in one sense, but then as I went on I began to realize it set up other problems,” he says. “It made me even more cautious, because I didn’t want to lose my status.” The thought of sex became more frightening, and soon his fear of AIDS became debilitating and irrational. After Jay died, Frank agreed to take his cat. “And do you know I felt uncomfortable petting that cat because Jay died of AIDS?” he says. “One time the cat scratched me, and I was afraid it might give me AIDS. I mean I knew rationally it couldn’t, but that’s how I felt. And do you know I actually began to get an allergy to that cat? And still now I have a little bit of an allergy, and it pisses me off that I can’t rise above this.”
Frank noticed a change in Jay prior to his death. “Before he found out that he was positive, he wasn’t real sure of what he wanted to do in his life. He was in his early 30s. He always had these schemes and ideas that never amounted to anything. But I remember that when he found out he was positive it changed his whole life. All of a sudden his life gained meaning. He had a direction to go in, he had something to fight for, he had a central point to identify his life around.”
Frank watched a similar pattern develop in another friend who was in his early 20s and tested negative repeatedly. “He said, ‘I know I’m positive.’ It was almost like he wanted to be positive. And sure enough, after another couple of tests, he turned up positive. And it gave him a direction in life.” Frank witnessed these transformations with mixed emotions. “At first I thought, well, that’s not the way to go. But I came to a point where I said I can’t live like this anymore. I won’t be able to make it. I’ll die of something else. I’ll die of isolation.”
In a few short years the society that gave birth to Frank’s adult consciousness–that told him he was a good, healthy, useful member of society–had disappeared. “I was part of the gay revolution,” he says. “I was part of changing the whole consciousness of the planet. It’s all gone.”
A few months from his 50th birthday, Frank says he no longer sees himself reflected in the world around him. He knows he shares this sense of cultural dislocation with most older Americans, gay and straight. But in gay male culture, the American contempt for age seems to increase tenfold and is often internalized at a young age. “There’s a great fear among gay youth that they’re not good-looking enough,” Michael Davis, former coordinator of a support group for young gays in Tampa, told the Advocate. “I hear kids who are HIV-positive say, ‘At least I’ll be dead before I become a troll.'”
Sometimes Frank wonders: what life am I keeping myself healthy for?
John Weekly embodies one of Frank’s greatest fears: the HIV infected person he might become. For the past four years Weekly has worked in Chicago as a case manager at a social service agency for people with HIV. For two years he led a support group for newly infected men. All of his clients and almost all of his friends are HIV positive. He’s seen scores of men suffer and die; he’s counseled even more on the importance and mechanics of safe sex. It would be difficult to imagine someone better prepared to protect himself against HIV infection. Yet a few months ago Weekly tested positive. “Working in the field I work in and knowing what I know,” he says, “there’s really no reason for that to be the case.”
Fifteen years Frank’s junior, Weekly also grew up in a conservative, religious household (Baptist rather than Catholic) where sex was rarely discussed. Coming out to his parents two years ago made little difference. “They won’t even say the word,” Weekly says. “It’s been two years, and my mother has never acknowledged that I came out to her.” He received a master of divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and moved to Chicago in 1993. During his four years here as an openly gay, HIV negative man, Weekly traveled in a social circle made up largely of HIV positive men. “People were like, ‘How can you still be negative?'” he recalls. “‘How did you manage that?'”
Now all that has changed. “At a very basic level, I thought it was inevitable,” he says. “Living here, it’s so pervasive. And doing the work I do, it’s just everywhere. I went through a time when I would get really stressed about HIV at work, come home, flip on the TV, and there’s a newsbreak about some new AIDS medication. I’d pick up a magazine–it’s just everywhere, can’t get away from it.”
Weekly says this sense of inevitability has been reinforced by prevention messages directed toward gay men: take an HIV test every six months and use a condom every time you have sex regardless of your or your partner’s serostatus. “I think the message to the gay community is, ‘Get a test because early treatment is very important.’ Which assumes that we’re all going to turn up positive. But the message to the straight community is, ‘Get a test to find out you’re OK.'”
For Weekly, as for many gay men, HIV testing became a regular descent into terror. “It’s that waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop mentality,” he says. When he finally did test positive, it was in one sense a relief. “I’ve heard this from several guys who are positive, and I felt similar after I tested positive, which is, ‘Well, don’t have to worry about that pesky HIV test anymore.'”
Routine HIV testing has been heralded as a necessary first step for all gay men to take in order to behave responsibly and protect the public health. Yet as Weekly discovered, testing negative over and over set a dangerous precedent. “Now, we hear that a lot of people test negative and say they’ll never do that unsafe behavior again,” he explains. “They don’t want to go through the anxiety of testing again. But if you’ve been unsafe and you test negative, I think the very real message is, ‘See, you took a chance and you were OK. You can get by doing what you’re doing.’ Which is where I think I was at. I had negative test after negative test, taking a lot of chances I shouldn’t have taken.”
The chances Weekly took included occasionally having intercourse without a condom. If he knew the risk of unprotected sex–and had professionally counseled other gay men about that risk–how could he justify the decision to himself?
“Well, first of all, it wasn’t all the time,” he says. “Sometimes I would insist on a condom. Sometimes I just wouldn’t bring it up, and I’d trust the other guy to put one on. But when you get down to it, safer sex is not natural sex. We are not wired to have sex with a latex barrier. You are inserting something foreign into the experience. There’s something very deep about flesh-to-flesh contact, that sense that there is nothing in between the two of you.”
For Weekly, the need for a direct, intimate connection with another person was more important than the need to protect himself from HIV. “Basically the unspoken prevention message we give to gay men is, ‘Just don’t have anal sex.’ Well, we would never tell heterosexuals, ‘Don’t have intercourse.’ But we gay men are just not supposed to do that, as though anal sex is disposable and doesn’t mean anything.” For some, the intimacy is worth the risk.
Weekly says he sometimes felt “out of the loop” in the gay community when he was negative. “So much of the attention in the gay community is on HIV and being positive,” he explains. “I mean, when do you ever see guys who are being safe and responsible getting public rewards or encouragement for that behavior? And for people who are positive, there is a unique language concerning T cells, viral loads, medications. Language is one of the primary identifiers of any culture group. Not that people who are negative don’t understand the vocabulary, but they really can’t engage in that language or those conversations in the same way.”
Weekly’s comments echo those heard in Frank’s group. On three separate nights, three different men tell of being out to dinner with a group of friends and being the only uninfected person at the table. Each silently listened while the others discussed blood work and drug combinations. Now that he’s tested positive, Weekly says that in some ways the world is “less weird” to him. “I don’t feel that I have to explain why or how I’m positive the way I did when I was negative.
“I don’t want to suggest that I’m glad I’m positive,” Weekly says. “I’m not. There is a whole other series of complications now. I spent the last couple days wondering how I’m going to pay for my medications even with my insurance. I’ve got side effects from the medications. I’m taking medications that are making me sick. Otherwise I would feel fine.”
Still, Weekly refuses to feel sorry for himself or to paint himself a victim. “No one lied to me. No one forced himself on me. I made the choices I made.”
The notion that people like Frank and Weekly might allow themselves to become HIV positive is nothing new to AIDS prevention workers. The issue was first brought to light in a quantitative manner in 1992, through a series of focus-group studies conducted by a consortium of San Francisco AIDS service groups along with that city’s department of health and other concerned professionals and laypeople. Convening 12 groups of gay men over the course of two months, the researchers found a high level of identification with HIV among the participants. For some, distinguishing between being gay and being infected was nearly impossible. “It’s like being part of the club,” one participant said. “It’s like that’s what it is to be gay. You better be positive and in Shanti and Open Hand [two San Francisco AIDS service agencies] and get your T cells counted and call your friends and see what new medication they’re taking today.”
Weekly has encountered a similar sentiment in Chicago. “There’s an attitude of, ‘You’re really gay if you’re HIV positive,'” he says. “It’s like a merit badge or something. Not that it’s more chic to be positive, at least not in my circle. But if you are positive, it’s like you’ve earned your stripes on the rainbow flag.”
It’s easy to find public testimonials in the gay community that help infected men earn those stripes. In recent years people with HIV have been showcased in newspapers, coffee-table books, newsletters, art exhibitions, novels, plays, and literary anthologies. They often declare that they “started living” once they discovered they were HIV positive, calling it “a blessing,” “a wake-up call,” and even “the best thing that ever happened to me.” Many official prevention messages, most notably the federally funded America Responds to AIDS campaign, express similar sentiments. This picture may be an accurate representation of some people’s lives; battling a deadly disease can bring out the best in people. The picture also counters the prevailing image of people with AIDS as emaciated exiles staring out the windows of their hospice rooms watching the world pass them by. But as Jim Key, spokesman for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, told the Advocate, “We’ve tried so hard to remove the stigma of HIV that we’re not sending the right message to people who are HIV negative. We’ve taken away the reality of the disease and taken away the fear.”
Doug Mitchell, BEHIV’s educational outreach coordinator, knows this heroic haze can be intoxicating. In educating people about HIV and risk reduction strategies, he brings HIV positive speakers to church groups, schools, corporations, and civic organizations. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘When I become positive, can I do presentations with you guys?'” Mitchell explains. “Because these guys who do presentations really enjoy it. They get a lot of perks, a lot of good feedback.”
Hewitt says the issue comes up often in the BEHIV group. “A lot of people think that when someone becomes HIV positive, his life changes, becomes more profound,” he says. “That person has something serious to deal with. A lot of people who are negative want that; they want something more meaningful in their lives.
“I think the root of it is self-esteem. For a lot of young gay people, the gay part of their identity is pushed away or hidden because they live in a society that tells them that part of them is bad or wrong. So you have people who have a certain loss of identity by the time they’re coming out, and there are not a lot of things they can latch on to. I know gay men who have said that AIDS has given them an identity, that it has been used as a way to make their mark.”
For some, AIDS may even seem romantic. Recently Mitchell was at Beloit College for an exhibit of panels from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. He happened upon three young gay men staring down at the colorful memorials at their feet. All were silent until one said, “Isn’t it sad that if we don’t die of AIDS we won’t have a panel in the quilt?” The comment stopped Mitchell in his tracks. “What he was essentially saying is, ‘If we don’t die of AIDS, we’re not worth remembering.'” Mitchell introduced himself and asked if he could talk to them. In all likelihood, his infectious good nature and fatherly warmth won the students over. He spent an hour and a half discussing the difference between the gruesome reality of AIDS and the colorful reassurance of the quilt.
Mitchell is quick to point out that the seductive lure of HIV extends well beyond gay men, especially as the epidemic spreads into poor communities. “A lot of people who have been disenfranchised throughout their whole lives have never had any kind of attention from mainstream America, but once they become infected they get a lot of attention. Attention from social service agencies, from the media, from politicians. Sure, a lot of that attention is negative, but they still say, ‘Hey, they know I’m here now.’
“We find a lot of people with AIDS who didn’t know there were even services they could access before they got the disease, they were so far out of the loop. They say, ‘Look, before I got HIV, I had no kind of help at all. Now I’ve got housing, now I’ve got counseling, now I’ve got legal services.’ So in the long run they may feel it’s better to be HIV positive. Which tells us something about our system and the way we deliver services–it has to be a crisis before someone is allowed to have those services.”
Mitchell takes pains to depict AIDS as an ugly, undesirable reality. “When I take speakers out to do presentations, I tell them, ‘If you romanticize or mythologize the disease, you’ll never go again. You are a person with an infection. You are not a hero.'”
In the middle of the summer, Frank has another dream. He’s at a bar called J.J.’s, where he and his friends used to hang out in the years before AIDS. All his old friends are there. The place has been remodeled, and none of them likes it anymore. Except Frank. “I’m thinking, God, I really like this, they really cleaned it up,” he says. “And as we are walking toward the back, toward the bathroom, I realize that they put in a new floor. And when I wake up I think, now that’s interesting. Because symbolically a new floor is a new beginning, a new foundation to stand on.”
Frank tries to find encouragement in the dream, though he can’t imagine what that new foundation might be. He knows he’s stuck in the past. “I still feel like I’m in my late 30s, the age I was before the epidemic started. I don’t feel like I’m ten years older, because part of me is still waiting for the epidemic to be over. I’ve been on hold all that time. I can remember so many nights, wanting to go out, craving to go to the bathhouse or something, and then all of a sudden thinking, ‘Don’t go tonight, just wait for tomorrow. Get through tonight, Frank, and it’ll be all right tomorrow.’ Now I’m starting to realize that tomorrow it may not be all right. It may never be over.
“So becoming infected, it’s like going into the void. It’s like becoming one. It’s like standing on the edge of a mountain and saying, ‘I’m not going to be afraid anymore. I’m going to jump off and trust.’ Get rid of the fear, you know? Why am I living with this fear?”
By the time Frank found his way to the BEHIV support group last winter, he had little room for hope. After Jay’s death, he sank into a paralyzing depression. “I would go to work, come home, work on the apartment, take a sleeping pill, and go to work the next day. I did that for three years.” He lived two blocks from his job and a block from his church. He rarely went anywhere else.
The group quickly became an anchor for him, encouraging him to believe he might be able to resolve his struggle without becoming infected. He began talking to Hewitt and came to realize that he was functioning in “black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking.” When it came to sex, he saw only two options: unrestrained, unprotected sex or no sex at all. “David kept saying, ‘There’s a gray area in there, Frank, that you can define for yourself where you want to fit in.’
“I found that getting clear about [safe sex] really helped eliminate some of the fear,” he says. “So if I’m ever with somebody, instead of saying, ‘Oh he might be positive’ and then feeling afraid, I could say that if we have sex together, if it goes that far, I’ll be clear on what I will and will not do.” Still, he says he has a long way to go. “Right now, my main goal is not to spend every day in my apartment.”
On a balmy Wednesday night in July, Frank attends a particularly difficult session. Mick Santiago opens the meeting with his typical words of reassurance: “We’re all negative men in a positive world. You are entitled to be part of the epidemic.”
The topic quickly turns to sex. A study hit the gay press a few weeks ago showing that chimps could become orally infected with SIV (the simian equivalent of HIV). Does this mean that oral sex between men is now unsafe? If so, how unsafe? Which partner is most at risk? What if the person performing oral sex has bleeding gums or a cut in his mouth? “What am I supposed to do?” one man asks angrily. “Bring along an examination lamp and inspect everyone’s gums?”
The conversation shifts to a thornier topic: trust. One man will leave nothing to chance; he insists that the guy he’s dating show him a negative test result. The comment is met with thinly veiled hostility. “What if he is newly infected and hasn’t had time to produce antibodies to HIV?” someone argues. “He would be a false negative, so what’s the point?” The first man remains unswayed and bitterly complains about one date’s unwillingness to comply with his request. The group is quickly turning against him until Santiago comes to his rescue. “An HIV test result is like a prenuptial agreement,” he suggests. “You have something of value, and you want to protect it.”
An even more troubling question surfaces: could anyone in the room ever trust a long-term, HIV negative lover enough to engage in unprotected sex with him? In other words, is natural sex between two gay men even a theoretical possibility anymore?
One man emphatically says no, that the stakes are simply too high. Others equivocate, saying the decision would depend on a host of factors. “I’m angry that I’m being told that two gay men can never have unprotected sex,” someone fumes. “I’m being told that kind of trust can never exist between two men.” The men wonder if they will ever return to latex-free sex; they may never be able to trust one another again.
Frank seems to deflate. “When I look at the gay world these days, I’m terrified,” he says and remains silent until the group disbands.
It’s 3 AM. Frank has been pacing in his apartment for hours. He’s made up his mind to go to the bathhouse tonight. But unlike similar nights over the last 13 years, when he ventured there because he felt he couldn’t stop himself, tonight he’s making a deliberate choice to go. He has to know where he stands.
He’s been arguing with himself for hours, paralyzed with fear. Should I go? Shouldn’t I go? Oh God, I better go tonight because this is the only weekend I have off this month. Finally he heads out the door, jumps in his car, and drives over to Man’s Country.
He walks the long hallway toward the locker room and sees three framed photographs of performers who used to appear at the bathhouse two decades ago. The first is Sally Rand. Frank saw her do her famous fan dance here. He got her autograph after the show. The second is noted female impersonator Charles Pierce. The third is Franny, an old hippie friend of Frank’s who became a cabaret singer. He feels as if he’s walked into a tomb.
The rug is tattered. Hardly anyone is here. He goes back to his car and heads for home. Then he turns the car around.
At 4 AM he arrives at the Unicorn. He pays his seven dollars, checks his clothes in a locker, takes a quick shower, puts on a towel, and heads out into the familiar maze of rooms. About 20 other men mill about, some wearing towels, some wearing nothing at all. Frank decides to play it through.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Chip Williams.