I turned 18 in 1996, a woman in a small conservative Mormon town. For most people of my location and demographic, AIDS was barely a footnote in world events, but for me, it loomed large. Already a published author of gay male erotica, I was keenly aware of the effect AIDS had had on the community I wrote about, as well as how it had shaped the literary scene—and how difficult it would be for me to fully comprehend such a seismic shift in a culture so profoundly different from the one that surrounded me.
So I jumped in the deep end the only way I knew how: I read and watched everything I could get my hands on. My mother and I sobbed our way through Philadelphia. I locked myself away and read everything Paul Monette wrote in chronological order. I studied timelines and learned how the rise of HIV awareness resulted in misguided revocations of gay rights. Just barely becoming aware of the Internet thanks to my college, I read newsgroups and finally posted a call seeking an HIV+ gay male who wouldn’t mind my occasionally stupid questions for the purpose of making my fiction more accurate. (I only received one reply, and he and I are friends to this day.)
Somewhere along the research line I found Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in a Barnes & Noble and devoured the books. Here was the culture I wanted to write about, sharply juxtaposed against the culture I lived in. A few months later, my college took the unusually brave step of mounting a production of Angels. I was so in. It was a few weeks before my 18th birthday.
By the time we were out of rehearsals and into performances, I ate, slept, and breathed gay culture. Despite serving as the assistant stage manager, I had to step into the green room during each final scene, unable to emotionally handle the play’s wrap-up of its themes night after night. I finally knew gay men, though I was still too afraid to tell many of them what I wrote about.
I was, believe it or not, still a virgin.
My first relationship was with a woman who also considered herself a product of gay male culture, and our thoughts on safer sex and mortality meshed so well that I began to forget that our outlook was so unusual. I assumed everyone carried emergency safer sex supplies at all times and understood how to work around the mortality sex represented without ignoring it. My world made sense.
Then my mom died, suddenly and unexpectedly. As I numbly made the necessary calls informing friends and family, I realized I had to call my HIV+ research buddy, whom my mother had unofficially adopted, sent birthday packages to, and supported over the years. He and I rarely spoke on the phone. I e-mailed him to inform him that I had some bad news, and so he was primed when I finally called him with the news. “Shit,” he sighed. “I figured that was it.”
All at once, our roles were reversed: Here I was, passing on the bad news that one of my own had been struck down, and there he was, a veteran of the epidemic, walking me through how to proceed. A few months later, my uncle passed away; a few months later, my great-grandmother. I was living out my own endless procession of deaths and funerals, wakes and wooden hugs, melodramatic music at services and carb-laden comfort food brought to the bereaved. This, I realized, was but a taste of what the gay male community had gone through, and yet it hammered home the emotional truths that all my research hadn’t communicated quite so viscerally.
At 27, I finally moved out of that little Mormon town, and shortly thereafter met a guy. In that way that one’s first big-town fling tends to be, we were total opposites. He was straight and almost twice my age, and I was as intrigued by his inscrutable upper-class blankness as he was by my bohemian starving-artist creativity. When we had sex within a few hours of meeting, I was thinking This will be a fun summer, and he was thinking I never thought I’d find someone else after the mother of my son divorced me. Dear reader, by now you know better than I did, that this relationship was doomed.
For the first time, I had to try to explain my outlook on sex; that I was a horny, sex-positive beast free of hangups who found nothing the human body produced disgusting, and I was also terrified to go further than handjobs and unwilling to sleep naked lest our body fluids commingle in the night until we’d gone through the history conversation, STD testing, and a waiting period. My demographic is often considered to be, at most, “sexually responsible;” explaining that I carried a kind of secondhand post-traumatic plague fear proved almost impossible, especially once we were tested and pregnancy was a non-issue and I still couldn’t bring myself to dispense with the latex. The conversations were frustrating for both of us: “Do you need to see proof that I got a vasectomy?” No, I believe you. “Do you think the STD tests are flawed?” No, I trust them. “Do you think I’m cheating on you?” No. “Do you trust me?” Yes, as much as I can trust somebody I met three weeks ago. “I don’t get it.” No, you don’t.
A couple of years after I walked away from that situation, I fell into the arms of a nurse practitioner with even more stringent safer-sex requirements than I had—and I was thrilled. I am now in a stable triad with clear and strict guidelines for sex with others, in what feels like a responsible and appropriate response to the epidemic those before me have faced and those beside me still do.
I now consider myself an ambassador of sorts between the “old world” of 1980s gay male AIDS terror and the quirky sexual future we collectively lurch toward. As a sexually thrill-seeking person who thinks and writes about sex as exciting and liberating even when performed in relative safety, I hope to honor the bitter lessons my predecessors have suffered through, some of which we have taken to heart and some of which we have ignored. I hope to preserve, in some small way, the culture which was devastated by illness and death by continuing to write new twists on hot queer tropes. I do not hope to write memorials. I hope to write revivals.