A Life in The Bar, 1969-2000


Looking backwards
(to look beyond)


Billy, Matt and Mikey
Buddies by chance:
Billy Sutherland, artist & TBP illustrator Matt Gould, & Michael Wade. (Photo uncredited, CLGA; likely Gerald Hannon, 1981.) All life may be chance, but gay life's random eroticism offers chances most wondrous.

Casual, deeply pleasing connections -- gay life is full of them: loverdom, fraternity, bar friendship, fuck buddyhood. Even fleeting encounters feed erotic brotherhood.

Yet it's gay life as most people, even many gay people, refuse to see it.

From erotic life to death by banality

It can seem a bit odd, coming to a point in life when something once vital no longer seems of pressing importance. So it is, for me, with sex.

Not sex as a subject -- quite gripping still -- but as an act, or acts, practically a way of life. If anyone had said to me 20 years ago, even 10: What you so much want now you will someday not much bother with; to these bodies who call up such passion -- to touch, to hold, to have -- you will simply say: Aren't they lovely? How nice to see them, content not to have them.

Mostly content, anyway. And mind you, I learned long ago that it's never wise to declare the end of one's sex life.

Monday, July 1, 1991, to Jane:

Look is all I do these days. I haven't been to bed with anybody since January -- but for one drunken boy, an old acquaintance who simply fell asleep. A volunteer at ACT, in his 50s, joked with me about this, saying: If you're not getting it it's because you don't want it. Possibly: I certainly know what it's like to want it and not get it.

But for me right now, he's got a point. I think I've lost the knack. Or the desire. I don't know why this is. Age? HIV? Taking care of enough people that I don't want the work of paying serious attention to anyone else? I don't know. But lately it feels all right.

And it can make going out easier. The last three nights have been a pleasure -- because it hasn't occurred to me to care what happens. And, given the weekend [it was Pride Week, 1991], people have been particularly happy and alive and fun to watch. Maybe I'll go watch again tonight.

Tuesday, July 2, 1991:
(same letter as above)

I did go watch again last night, at The Barn -- but mostly watched a video, of Sunday's parade. I even saw myself pushing Michael Lynch in his wheelchair.

After that I watched a man dance. Watched and watched, the usual joy. Someone kept taking balloons down off the walls, tossing them out onto the dance floor. Some people thwacked them, some popped them; this man smiled, sent them flying with easy, happy taps. He looked like a person comfortable in his skin.

And -- wouldn't you know it? -- having just sat here announcing the end of my sex life, I took him home and found his skin just as comfortable for me. We talked 'til 3:30; languid snuggle and play 'til 5:00. Smart, handsome in a serious, unflashy way (I'd seen him before, but not really seen him). His name is Ben. The last name I don't know. I don't imagine I will know, either -- but what I got to know for a few hours felt very good.

And still does. Seems I can still do it after all.

In time I knew his last name. Ben Kennedy was an AIDS activist, with Two Spirited People of the 1st Nations. He was my entrée to a crew of his fellows who favoured a particular corner of The Barn, one of them Billy Merasty, an actor and cousin to Tomson and René Highway.

Those connections remained a pleasure for some time, with those men and with Ben, though he and I never again got to bed.


Sex is "supposed" to be secret, private, hugely burdened -- not open, public, social; a shared pleasure.

I've known such wonders that I can rage at having to defend them from forces spiteful, paranoid, & cruel.

That's gay life, so much of it: these casual, deeply pleasing connections. All life may be chance, but our random erotics offer chances more wondrous than most people are allowed to find.

Yet it's gay life as most people -- even many gay people -- refuse to see it.

I've been looking back over the tales I've told here, the people in them, the many connections -- erotic if not always technically sexual; when sexual the sex a means of contact, renewal, even surprise. Many of those people stayed long in my life after sex (or no sex). In some of these erotic encounters I, and they, were transformed. As Michael Wade wrote of that chance moment on a living room floor in 1979: "POOF! Everything's changed!"

In August 1999 I reflected on this to Jane, who'd got all those tales -- some twice, in letters and then in manuscript.

I imagine most people think of sex among gay men (any but monogamous: "casual," "promiscuous," even "anonymous") as an act with another man never seen again. But for Ken Popert saying "promiscuity knits together the fabric of the gay male community" -- a line that needs expansion -- few people talk about sex as a means of serendipitous contact, affection, social play, lasting friendship, ongoing connection (whether the sex goes on or not).

It's either a one off or "committed" coupledom -- in short a heterosexual view of sex (power, property, kids, all that; a bit of shameful but expected diddling on the side), though it doesn't uniformly apply even to heterosexuals.

All this in part, I think, because sex is "supposed" to be secret, private, hugely significant, weighted with serious burdens -- not open, public, social in the same sense as other social interactions, perhaps simply fun.

I know why it's not generally seen with such ease, given the history (and political uses) of sex between men and women. Nor do I want to fall back into the gay movement's too facile "sex is good" line, as if it were not also sometimes fraught with uncertainty, particularly about oneself. I've certainly known that (and said so).

But when I think back on most of the sex I've known -- shifting, varied, an erotic sea where swim all kinds of creatures: tricks, lovers, comrades, friends; especially friends -- I can get suddenly angry at having to defend something so wondrous against those who claim it as secret, likely dangerous, private property to be locked away, kept hidden from all but those of sanctified privilege. Hidden especially from the kids, "innocence" a code word for "ignorance."

Monogamy is theft, indeed. What a pernicious, mean spirited (and politically useful) way to apprehend the erotic.


The mean in spirit are easy to find: just turn on the TV. I'm sure you can tune to a Christian show, or station, maybe an entire network. (Short of that try any newscast, similar spirits barely concealed by the mask of "objectivity.")

There they are: prune faced; hair sprayed to helmet hardness (men and women both); their torsos rigid, trussed to the neck in tight shirt and tie or a nicely frilled high choker collar.

I wonder how they regard the bodies inside those shells -- their own bodies. I suppose there's a clue in how they regard so many other bodies -- as objects of fear, control, even scorn: the aged and infirm warehoused, blessedly out of sight; girls wrapped as pliant Barbies; boys armoured for conflict -- football, war -- fodder for spectacle and death; the most fearsome fit for frying, hanging, lethal injection. The unborn are sacred; once born they're meat.

They are the heirs of witch burners, Spanish Inquisitors, their true apostle Simon de Montfort, leading righteous French legions in 1237. About to take a heretic Cathar keep, 60,000 living humans inside, his troops asked: Whom shall we slay? Whom spare? His orders: Kill them all. God will know his own.

Their idea of rapture is The Rapture, Apocalypse, when the fleshly world will be laid waste by the wrath of God. No big deal -- in their Books, He's done it before. And of course, God will know His own. You likely won't be one of them.

Turn on the TV. Watch them fend off the erotic with hell fire, righteous wrath, repression, violence -- and deodorant. The body is capricious, a trickster bursting with pride, gluttony, lust -- and "bodily fluids." It's disgusting, an object of shame in the eye of God Himself. Woe unto them who dare flaut Him, flaunting it.

Look at them closely; look into the eye of God's Chosen on Earth. You will see the Culture of Death.


Robin Hardy, 1993
Apostle of gay brotherhood:
Robin Hardy, on the Jurassic Park Cruise, 1993. Photo: Gerald Hannon.

From the dear love of comrades to the most fleeting eroticism, our love is a gift -- perhaps most a gift when given in serendipity; when our affections are most trusting, random, promiscuous.

"It didn't bother me to be objectified. ... he was hungry; I fed him my body."

-- Robin Hardy, East Berlin, 1983,
in The Crisis of Desire.

The wonder of sex can lead to lasting connections -- life long or less long; loverdom, fraternity, bar friendship, fuck- buddyhood. But its wonder depends not even on that.

Along with "dailiness," one of Jane Rule's favourite terms is "creatureliness" -- the simple, wondrous warmth and feel and scent of a body; a body given to hold, caress, inhale, taste. Our bodies are gifts we can choose to give, sharing each other with each other -- even when that sharing is brief.

Even as a gift of the moment the body offers another gift: trust; for gay men, trust even in strangers. We literally entrust each other with our bodies.

In The Crisis of Desire, Robin Hardy pondered gay brotherhood -- not just, as a play about 19th century pioneer Edward Carpenter had it, The Dear Love of Comrades, but the erotic brotherhood of men we might, indeed, never see again.

In the early '80s Robin lived for a time in Berlin, still divided by the Wall, he sometimes on its eastern side.

I met my last East German boy there. We walked arm in arm around Alexanderplatz to get drunk on weisser beer in the tavern in city hall. We had sex up against the S-Bahn bridge at Marx- Engels- Platz, hidden by bushes.

As I felt his body ravenous against mine, I realized I was not just a person to him, not even just a sex partner, but the physical incarnation of a world he dreamed of, a realm that shimmered and sparkled on the other side of a wall and a death zone, only a few blocks away.

There are other forms of objectification than that which comes from admiring beauty. It didn't bother me to be objectified.

...he was hungry; I fed him my body.


For us there has always been a wall, a death zone, not just a few blocks away but maybe right around the corner, maybe even in our own heads. We give it a name now, usually one name. But risk, fear, and mortality were with us long before AIDS.

In that vigil address in 1993, where I reminded people that each candle they lit would stand for many lives, I also said this:

We love not in the abstract, but directly, physically. We love in our bodies. Our passions grow from bodies and are given to bodies -- bodies we cannot keep. Love is the gift we give, the solace we offer, in the face of that sure knowledge: he, she -- I -- will be gone.

Perhaps it's because we know that, that we love. We love in full knowledge of death. We love because we know we will be gone. And the ones we love -- they will be gone. We love because we know we must -- while we can. We love with fierce rage in defiance of a world that says we, of all people, must not love.

We love -- as we paint, sculpt, build, write, sing and dance -- in both acknowledgement and defiance of death. Whether we love one or many, for a lifetime or just a moment, our love is a gift.

And it's perhaps most a gift when given in serendipity, casualness even -- and in trust; when our affections are most promiscuous.


Alan Turing may well have thought his biography could have been written by a machine.

But he may have felt, too, that if a machine were to write a book, it would likely be about another machine.

"I don't see how anything to do with language or meaning can be dissociated from actual physical experience."

-- Andrew Hodges

A body is freely given by the person who is that body. (If taken otherwise, it's theft.) Or, as some would say, the person who is inside that body. I'd say both: in it and of it, flesh and person inseparable.

In 1984 with Richard Summerbell (from Vancouver originally, a letter to the editor leading him into a long term of Beeperhood in Toronto), I interviewed Andrew Hodges not long after release of his biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma.

Turing had once done a thought experiment, positing a hidden entity one could converse with, asking it anything. If after a long exchange one couldn't tell if this entity were human or machine, then -- given it was a machine, a computer -- one would have to acknowledge mechanical intelligence.

Andrew said at the end of his book that Turing might have thought it could have been written by a machine. But Alan also suspected, Andrew felt, that if a machine were to write a book it would likely be about another machine. It took another human intelligence, in fact another gay man, to write Alan Turing's own biography.

Intelligence isn't mere computation. Its very evolution is the product of vulnerable physical bodies forced to negotiate an often dangerous physical world -- for social animals a political world, even a moral one.

"I don't see how anything to do with language or meaning," Andrew said, "can be dissociated from actual physical experience. ... Non- gay men, who write most of the stuff about artificial intelligence, have a conception of sexuality which is as though, you know, they switch it off when they're at work."


I once came up with a thought experiment of my own, writing it down sometime in the 1980s. I can't find it now but as I recall it went like this:

If you could build an android physically indistinguishable from a human being, its contours exactly your "type," its actions entirely programmable to your erotic tastes -- would getting it to fuck with you be sex?

I thought not. It might be a sex toy, even a tempting one (I'd give it a try), but hot as it might be, not hot with any desire of its own. You could make it do anything -- except want you.

Even if you programmed it to pretend to want you, you'd know its "desire" was your own, not that of another person -- another will.

Sex is fundamentally an interaction of mutual human will. Absent that, whatever the plumbing, and it's simply not sex. Not for me, anyway.


Jeff Stryker
You like that, donchyoo?
Well, maybe the first time. Jeff Stryker in one of his many identical roles.

Pornography & meaning

I go on here about porn sex having no meaning, but just hint at what meaning in sex might be. A few months after I wrote that bit, I came upon some further thoughts.

In the Aug 19-25 issue of Now, Gerald Hannon did a piece called "Hustler's Holiday," subtitled: "What it's like to have sex with whores when you are one yourself."

Money, Gerald wrote, changes "the way I think of sex when I sell it, transforming me from a man with desires of my own into a blank slate upon which the sexual fantasies of others are written. What, I asked myself, happens to the buyers?" So he picked up a working boy at a bar, called in another from the classifieds, & tried to find out.

Was it sex he had with them? "Sure looked like sex," he wrote. "But I do think it's a different thing, & I wish we had a different word for it. I'd like to write it as $ex. ... Sex is sex & not $ex when it's embued with an enlightened selfishness."

Now there's a more precise take on meaning in sex: "enlightened selfishness" -- sadly, not always the usual kind. Gerald went on:

"The electric current that crackles through a sexual encounter is there because in each participant there is a continuing tug of war between what you want & what you are willing to surrender.

"That rarely happens in $ex. That's because a good prostitute has rendered him- or herself needless -- it is the utter selflessness of prostitutes that keeps sex at bay. That's why we always ask, during negotiations, what it is you want."

I was reminded of my thought experiment with that sex toy android: there's no frisson when you know exactly what to expect.

But I also recalled $ex that did become sex (even much beyond): not what I preordained but what I sometimes most wanted: another surprising human will.

Marshall McLuhan once said: "Pornography & obscenity work by specialism & fragmentation. They deal with figure without ground -- situations in which the human factor is suppressed in favour of sensations & kicks."

He also once said: "The meaning of meaning is relationship." He was speaking (as ever) in a broad context, but I can't imagine he excluded from that context human relationship as the meaning of meaning.

Hollywood monster movie

Cover of And the Band Played On
The script:
The Band Plays On (& On & On). Randy Shilts sets the tune, cranked out endlessly ever since.

Gaetan Dugas
The "monster":
Gaetan Dugas, a real swinger on Toronto Island, c 1980. Photo: Rand Gaynor, from the catalogue of Queer Looking, Queer Acting: Lesbian & Gay Vernacular, a 1997 Halifax exhibit curated by Robin Metcalfe.

The very idea of a "Patient Zero" was long discredited. But true or not, he was too good to pass up: a face for a faceless virus; a perfect Hollywood monster.

In Buddy's: Meditations on Desire, Stan Persky quoted "the doyen of gay porn reviewers, who signs himself Mingus," offering up his professional wisdom: "Somehow the essence of a porn film is that it is documenting a real sexual event."

Real sucking, fucking, rimming, whatever. Not simulated.

It's no wonder porn is obsessed with plumbing: these are acts we were long not allowed to see except as we did them ourselves (when we were allowed that). I've watched such videos in my life but never owned any until last year, tempted by renewed desire -- and a sale of "pre- condom classics" at $6.99 apiece.

One is called 18 Candles (used on a birthday cake, not otherwise). There is no dialogue, just the usual tedious muzak; I can bear it only with the sound muted and then just briefly: a few scenes where the plumbing has resonance; a few very cute boys.

One in particular: a small, succulent kid, a bit insecure (you can see him look up to the director for instructions) -- but once at it quite avid: urging his sleek torso against his (not very appealing) partner; ferociously gulping down his cock; his legs spread almost impossibly for a fuck.

One could wonder who this boy might be and it's his face, of course, that's most telling -- in the brief moments the camera is forced to it (alas, one can't show a blowjob without a mouth). Most shots focus on that sweet boy's ass, his fucker's ass, their faces kept well out of frame.

In his introduction to Renaud Camus's Tricks, Roland Barthes said something that I quoted to Jane in a letter in 1984 (just after I'd written my own "trick" about that pantyhose boy):

Sexual practices are banal, impoverished, doomed to repetition, and this impoverishment is disproportionate to the wonder of the pleasure they afford. ... Erotic scenes must be described sparingly. ...

This is a form of subtlety quite unknown to the pornographic product, which plays on desires, not on fantasies. For what excites fantasy is not only sex, it is sex plus "the soul."

Impossible to account for falling in love or even for infatuations ... without admitting that what is sought in the other is something we shall call, for lack of a better word, and at the cost of great ambiguity, the person.


Most porn no more documents real sex than a film of lips moving with no sound would (for any but lip readers) document a real conversation. All that is truly important in the exchange -- its meaning to those involved -- is left out.

Much of what we see in porn doesn't show what people actually want to do, but what some greedy clod thinks they're supposed to do, positions and angles set not for their pleasure but for the camera, the voyeuristic eye. Those beautiful shots by Gilbert Prioste we used for that 1987 ACT campaign -- the one that said "Yes" -- worked in exactly the opposite way: his "actors" were not acting but doing what they themselves wanted, the camera and Gilbert trusted to be there but not allowed to dictate terms.

Too much gay male porn is, in my admittedly limited experience, a lot of limp dicks madly flailed by boys looking awfully grim. You get only glimpses of who they might be (that boy glancing up for direction) when, as Stan Persky said, "I notice their 'real' lives poking through the scripted fantasy."

"Pornography," Jane Rule once said, "is a bad teacher." It is, especially, a bad teacher of sex.


It is promiscuity that can be a good teacher. And of a good deal more than sex.

I recall writing to Jane about being on the subway, looking down on the head of a lovely young man and thinking: I know what his hair smells like. Not exactly, of course: our smells are unique, if within a reasonable range. I knew that range of scents, might guess to know that boy's, only because I've snuzzled my face into so many different, lovely heads.

Promiscuity teaches. We learn what it teaches not just with our minds but with our noses and mouths, our muscles and skin and nerves, shaped and changed by experience, by stimulation, just as a baby's neurons grow new connections at the caress of a hand. We learn with our bodies.

I do miss that kind of learning. I can remember it, but (with one recent and rare exception) only in my mind. And sadly, I find, while the mind may remember, the body -- without the dailiness (or whateverness) of other creaturely bodies -- can come to forget what it once so richly knew.


It's impossible to speak of sex now without, however unwillingly, calling up AIDS, illness and death. Many still ignore the connection (some justifiably); lesbians are told (still, and less justifiably) that they should not; most gay men cannot.

A supreme irony of AIDS is that it has allowed us, even forced us, to talk about sex -- or its mechanics at least -- at a level of detail once unimaginable in public discourse. We have had to fight for open, honest, dirty talk. It has helped us not only save our lives but make some sense of our lives to each other.

But our sense of ourselves has also been shaped, not always well, by the wider public discourse of that great definer of "reality," the mass media.


The pioneering definer of "us"as we faced AIDS was gay "journalist" Randy Shilts.

His massive 1987 tome And The Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic in fact portrayed both "us" and "them," the latter mostly straight scientists and bureaucrats also trying, if too slowly, to get a grip on AIDS.

On both sides of his homo / hetero divide were heroes and villains. Among "them": dogged researchers (often baffled: a scientist panics when vials of a mysterious essence she wants to analyze -- poppers -- break under her seat on a plane); and craven politicians, Ronald Reagan taking forever to utter the "A" word.

Among "us" were gay men bravely warning of death in the fast lane and those who jeered them as Jeremiahs -- the most egregious villains bath owners and gay publishers whoring after attendance and ad revenue, whatever the presumed cost in lives.

But the true monster was one gay man cast as the original Plague Rat of AIDS: "Patient Zero."

In real life he was Gaetan Dugas, an Air Canada flight attendant who cooperated with epidemiologists in the early '80s, detailing his sexual contacts and thus helping reinforce the notion that an infectious agent was behind "gay cancer."

His name had been kept from the media. Shilts named him, even put himself inside his head as he got tired of being a guinea pig and went back to the (shamefully) still open baths.

The Club, San Francisco, November 1982: Gaetan Dugas reached for the lights, turning up the rheostat slowly so his partner's eyes could adjust. He then made a point of eyeing the purple lesions on his chest. "Gay cancer," he said, almost as if he were talking to himself. "Maybe you'll get it too."

With that the media had a field day. In October 1987 Time went light on Shilts's scathing critique of US government inaction, zeroing in on -- and titling its review -- "The Appalling Saga of Patient Zero."


The idea of a "Patient Zero" had long been discredited: AIDS can take years to develop after HIV infection, too long for Dugas's already ill contacts to have got the virus from him.

Maclean's cited Canadian scientists making that point. "Still, Shilts maintains that Dugas, with his 'charming French accent and sensual magnetism,' was the most likely candidate to have carried AIDS to North America."

True or not, Patient Zero was too good to pass up: a face for a faceless virus; a perfect Hollywood monster. More than lesions were purple in Shilts's prose, written in short scenes of high melodrama with sections headed by portentous passages from The Book of Revelations, The Andromeda Strain and Albert Camus's The Plague.

The lives of the saints were glorified, the brave decline and final passing of each handled in high elegy. The deaths of evil villains were, of course, divine retribution. (Gaetan met his in March 1984 after a summer of work, unnoted by Shilts, with AIDS support groups in Vancouver.)

The whole thing read like a film script and did -- as Shilts clearly intended -- become a TV movie.


Zero Patience
"Monster" inverted:
Normand Fauteux as the ghost of Patient Zero, in John Greyson's Zero Patience.

Imagine: a musical about AIDS, one that sent us from the theatre humming its tunes. I wrote John Greyson:

"I recognized in all of it the smart, strong, messy & wondrous community that I know & belong to & hardly ever see reflected in film or anything else."

From Shilts's Hollywood schlock script another flick was born, if one inverting his take on Patient Zero: Zero Patience, made in Toronto in 1993 by writer and director John Greyson.

Its main characters: 19th century British scientist Sir Richard Burton, still alive after an odd encounter with the Fountain of Youth; and the ghost -- often invisible to all but Sir Richard -- of Patient Zero.

In time Zero's ghost is not only visible but physically embodied, the good Sir quite smitten. If afraid: going to bed at last he appears wrapped in plastic, a bubble over his head, ensuring absolutely safe sex. They snuggle up without it -- and end up in love.

Sir Richard epitomized the Victorian obsession with dissection of the world into neat categories. "A culture of certainty," he sings (it's a musical) "will banish every doubt!" He'd been planning a big museum display on AIDS, from green monkeys to gay men, the usual horrors. Zero -- first seen as a tempting exhibit -- helps him see it in a new light.

But the museum mounts his show as first planned. Its Hall of Contagion is invaded by AIDS activists (many real ones in the cast) who turn it into a gallery of medical malpractice. In a zany water ballet people portray T cells, antibodies and HIV itself, the big meanie afloat on a black and yellow target none other than noted HIV skeptic Michael Callen, in drag and clearly relishing the irony.

All the numbers were great, the music by that old Queen Street hand Glenn Schellenberg. Imagine: a musical about AIDS, one that sent us from the theatre humming its tunes. At the end the credits named scads of people I knew. I wrote to John:

I recognized in all of it the smart, strong, messy and wondrous community that I know and belong to and hardly ever see reflected in film or anything else. Thanks for making something we can give each other, a gift of sharp strength and fun and real power. [I'd taken Shel to see it. He loved it.]

John sent me a card: "You peach! Your letter made my month! And you've confirmed exactly the ambition of the film."

And The Band Played On gave us no community, just individual heroes and villains. Its sensationalism was familiar to the point of banality (and its attendant evil); its ass covering "objectivity" winning out over oft touted journalistic "accuracy." Shilts's true star was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, ever dogged as he sniffed out the story.

There, he was not named. In truth, he was Randy Shilts.

I suppose it wouldn't do for a journalist to cast himself (openly) among the saints. Shilts died some years ago, gone to his reward -- if, I suspect, without Gaetan Dugas by his side.


Randy Shilts set the tone for much public discourse about gay men and sex, and for quite some time.

In its July 1995 issue the US gay glossy Out ran a big feature about renewed police crackdowns on "gay public sex venues" in New York City. A spokesperson for Gay and Lesbian HIV Prevention Activists said: "I'm in no way concerned that the city is going too far. I'm concerned they're not going to go far enough."

"Welcome to the second wave," wrote author Sara Miles, "of battles over bathhouses, public sex, politics, and AIDS."

Those battles would be mostly internecine (Out's cover draw for the article: "Gays Regulate Gays" -- if with the state waiting in the wings). Journalists Andrew Sullivan, Michlangelo Signorile and Gabriel Rotello decried promiscuity, even touted "gay marriage"; earlier Sex War veterans like Allan Bérubé, Lisa Duggan and Carole Vance (editor of 1984's Pleasure and Danger) came together in a group called Sex Panic, meant to resist it.

Miles's piece was titled: "And the Bathhouse Plays On." It played on even in Toronto, where the AIDS Era has seen not the closing of baths but the opening of new ones.

On May 15, 1995 The Globe and Mail ran an opinion piece called "Close the doors of the bathhouses."

When human conduct can't be self regulatory it's best that legislators fill the gap. ... Randy Shilts, in his bestselling book And The Band Played On, noted that some AIDS researchers found gay bathhouses to be the perfect facilitators for high risk anal intercourse.

I've been to gay bathhouses. I've been to many funerals. The avenue between them should be closed down.

The author used a pseudonym, identifying himself only as "a former hedonist who learned safer sex and self regulation."

He noted a friend who had been out on the bath raid demos in 1981: "In the late eighties, he mocked my belief that if a strict, enforced code of safer sex in the bathhouses was unattainable, then they should be closed down. He's dead now."


Cover of The Stonewall Experiment
Evil omens, scary stuff:
When is "psychohistory" real history? Well, whenever it fits your mythic agenda.

As (it really) Is

"God, how I love sleaze: the whining self pity of a rainy Monday night in a leather bar in early spring; five o'clock in the morning in the Mineshaft, with the tubs full of men dying to get pissed on & whipped; a subway john full of horny high school students; Morocco -- getting raped on a tombstone in Marrakech. God, how I miss it."

-- Rich, a man with AIDS, recalling paradise lost in William Hoffman's play, As Is.

In 1986 I began a response to that monologue, un finished then, but here it is.

Interviewed by Ray Conlogue in The Globe, Hoffman had said: "People like me were not going to get AIDS. I wasn't going to the baths. I didn't drink or take drugs. [So that's how you get AIDS.] I felt invulnerable." Conlogue asked: "Does his distinguishing himself from the promiscuous, thrill addled side of gay culture imply a moral judgment of it?"

"The gay lifestyle is a dying & dead lifestyle. This way of life can kill you. In As Is I tried to write a non- judgmental elegy. I am" -- Conlogue notes "he seems to be telegraphing a message" -- "I am in favor of these people."

Here's what I wrote.

William Hoffman, an openly gay playwright, is one of "these people" -- unless his feelings of invulnerability have somehow set him apart from other gay men.

I am one of these people, too. And I am not invulnerable. Hoffman tells us what a man with AIDS remembers. Let me tell you what I, a man who might get AIDS, remember. [I didn't know then that I already had HIV.]

I remember standing on the cold balcony of an apartment tower. A lovely man -- who'd long been a fantasy of mine, whom I got to talk to for an hour, leaning on a bar the night before about the effect of AIDS on people just coming out, who is bored by his job, who'd stuffed a rag soaked in ethyl chloride [another "rush" drug] in my mouth at 2 am & asked me to suck his cock -- steps out beside me, offers a cup of coffee.

He smiles and says:"Don't jump."

I remember a man on the subway at 1:45 am, bearded, slight, whom I was brazen -- or drunk -- enough to nod at two stops before mine. He smiled. I found he'd been bowling with a gay league, the only time he ever came into town; he lived in Hamilton; was off to Mississauga to stay at his sister's for the night.

I talked him off six stops beyond mine. We caught the last train back. He called his sister from my place to say he'd be there in the morning.

I remember a boy alone on Bathurst St at 4 am as I was leaving a late shift at work. He asked where I was going, offered a ride; I noticed a frilly garter belt hanging off the rear view mirror. He lived in the suburbs, had a girlfriend, & had obviously been cruising the door of the Oak Leaf steambath to see if it would somehow invite him in. It hadn't.

He was hard as soon as we walked in my door, but after a while he said he should leave. "You want to play?" I asked, squeezing his crotch. He smiled. "Yeah." "But you don't know what you want to do." "No."

When he came he said, "Wow, that was quite a rush!" Five minutes later he was gone.

I remember a day I decided to be lazy, saw a movie, went to two bars afterwards. At the first I saw a sober fashion designer; he'd just been to Florida. I asked how things were at the disco upstairs; he squeezed my shoulder & wished me luck.

I found a man sitting, pensive. He'd moved from Vancouver just months before, said he was having trouble getting used to this town. He said goodbye with a wan smile.

At the next bar I found a tall skinny man by the coat check. I got a beer & we kibbitzed in a quietly flirtatious way. He was due to go bowling later. He did.

I knew these men only because I'd had sex with them, days or weeks or years before.

I remember more than I could possibly retell. And unlike Rich, I miss none of it. That lazy day was yesterday. It ended with a small man in a big moustache [the one I told Neil about, that bartender who in other bars thought: He's an Ex; he's a Miller; he's a Blue.]

"Thrill addled" promiscuity. Not as sensational as the Mineshaft; not as boggling as all those horny high school students; not, alas, so chic as being raped on a tombstone in Marrakech.

I want to say to William Hoffman: if our life is worth an elegy, then it's surely worth defence. It's far from dead. No matter how chic it is to think so.

Much of this had a familiar ring -- including fatal comeuppance for those who fail to heed prohibitionist Jeremiahs.

Ian Young did the same thing in The Stonewall Experiment: A Gay Psychohistory, his 1995 rewrite of concrete history as a series of mythic, ominous -- and of course ignored -- Omens of the Plague. Among those Ian bumped off was an unidentified (if clearly identifiable) "well known Person with AIDS" who refused to help ban ads for poppers because he was "an enthusiastic user."

In a review I said: "Recovered omens are always true: who'd remember false ones?" Of his quick despatch of that foolish, popper snorting PWA, I wrote it was "merely necessary: Michael Lynch as a whole human being wouldn't have fit the mythic narrative."

Ian's revisionism, like Shilts's, extended to a cover up of his own role. In his book The Body Politic appears only as a medium willfully ignorant of the Omens, famous for the line "promiscuity knits together the fabric of the gay male community" and for running an article on fistfucking.

Ian's column The Ivory Tunnel had been one of the few places in TBP where one could find positive mention of S/M and fisting. There in 1979 he called Larry Kramer's Faggots, a rant against promiscuity, "an extended whine."

The Ivory Tunnel ran for a decade -- one of many historical facts Ian chose to leave out of his mythic psychohistory. There, Kramer is a prophet; kinky sex attempted suicide.


Much as I abhor the revision of history to fit the myths of the day, whole cloth cut to the latest fashion, I'm bothered more by what seems a particularly grim and ungenerous sense of our lives as gay men.

I've seen it for far too long. I'd noted it to Jane Rule in 1986, telling her about that monologue in William Hoffman's play As Is, a man with AIDS recalling sexual adventures full of bodies but devoid of people. I saw it again in the May 12, 1995 issue of Xtra -- if accompanied by a much more positive take on gay men together.

Garth Barriere (who'd been around TBP near the end of its life and had done one of Xtra's few critiques of spousal rights) wrote a wonderful piece in that issue on mind altering substances.

His intent was in part cautionary: "Get too comfortable with your consumption of drugs and alcohol and you conveniently start to ignore the destruction it causes to yourself and others." A list of addiction counselling services was given at the end.

But Garth's route to this caution was one of celebration. "Get me back to a smoky bar!" the piece was called, its subtitle: "The sacred world of altered states creates community and culture."

He illustrated it with a detail from a 1955 Paul Cadmus painting, "Bar Italia": four fairies, each face a classic, madly gesticulating in blithe disregard for the hostile crowd around them.

Two pages over, we got another portrait entirely. Two issues later, I wrote about both.

"We lead such messy lives."

Frank O'Hara said that, and he knew. Bard of '50s New York, he loved complicated affairs, blowjobs in Grand Central Station and too many drinks at the San Remo bar. He made it all into poetry.

Most of us are not poets, nor particularly messy. In a world that could drive gay people to much more than drink, most of us lead surprisingly sane lives. But not without contradictions. We often live at the edge where pleasure and danger meet, especially now. How we see ourselves there says a lot about who we hope to be.

Recently, Garth Barriere reflected on "that perfect contradiction": Things we crave can kill us. Booze, cigarettes, drugs less legal, all rotten for us and we know it. We seek their pleasures nonetheless.

Garth shows us queens in a Paul Cadmus painting, their table crowded with glasses, smoke drifting, hand flapping. It's "the common sea of gin and tonics," he says, "that gives them the strength to scream up such a storm in an otherwise intimidating environment."

We know the scene, the gestures; we can imagine something of the lives behind each pose. Garth populates his essay not only with Cadmus's queens but a few of his own, friends old and new, named, quoted, laughed with, valued.

Two pages over we find Michael Kealy "lurking in the dark" with a contradiction even more fundamental to gay life: Sex. First at New York's Mineshaft in 1982, from which "no faces or names come to mind. I don't remember body types, ages, dick sizes, whether I gave or received blowjobs, whether I fucked or got fucked...."

Then through the eyes of a friend "mesmerized" by Toronto's bar scene now, "kneeling in a backroom, or bending over, a hunk thrusting from behind. If a penis 'happened' to slide between his buttocks, he enjoyed the moment; if another organ throbbed in his mouth, he swallowed."

That friend is now HIV positive. So is Michael. He wants us to consider our responsibility in the face of AIDS, and we must. But he doesn't truly help us take that responsibility, for ourselves or each other.

In fact, we can hardly find "each other" here. There are no people in Michael's scenes, no lives behind the poses. Everyone exists only as a numb receptacle of infection, merely a body -- and even the bodies are a blur. The only realities are ignorance and risk.

And everything is a risk: fucking, sucking, swallowing -- Michael casts it all as "unsafe."

Yet for HIV infection, if not other STDs, we know that different sex acts involve hugely different levels of risk. That distinction gives us power. We can make choices. Those men on their knees may well be there not in denial or ignorance, but in full knowledge that cocksucking is low risk.

Michael may doubt that. If he does he might say so, and say why. Instead he casually turns unfounded fear into implicit fact. He says he wants us to preserve our self respect -- and then tells us that everything we do, or might want to do, is wrong.

Why, I wonder, would a gay man want to indict almost our entire sexual repertoire as unsafe?

I can't answer that for Michael -- but I do know his genre. The literary tradition of religious confession goes back (at least) to St Augustine, who, after a life of infamous debauchery, found God. He not only renounced his wicked ways but told us all about them -- in prurient detail -- in his Confessions. That was in 400 AD. We've suffered the sermons of repentant sinners ever since.

In AIDS discourse this tradition might be called "Fuck pig turns finger wagger." Jaded veterans of the fast lane '70s, tired as they so often said of the bars, baths and discos, were never too tired to preach: The party's over kids.

And a good thing, too -- it was all boring and silly anyway. AIDS made us grow up, get responsible, learn to take care of each other. Didn't it?

No, it didn't.

Most of us didn't need AIDS to learn about responsibility, maturity, compassion. That's how we'd built a community in the first place.

Those who became apologists for AIDS as our redemption seem to have missed all that, remembering not a community but a series of faceless fucks -- looked back on with an odd combination of titillated nostalgia, self pity, and blame.

At the end of Michael Kealy's piece he says that responsibility for his failure to practice safer sex is "mine, and mine alone." That's honourable and brave but not very generous -- to himself or to any of us.

We've built communities for ourselves so we won't be alone. None of us need carry the contradictions of our lives, messy or otherwise, as purely personal burdens. We're here to do it together.


A casual friend of mine knew Michael Kealy,saw him as a budding talent and hoped I'd not be too hard on him. But I'd had enough of our lives being defined by fucked up jerks too self centred even to notice anyone else.

In "Is There Safe Sex?" in 1983, I'd said of those who endlessly groaned that they were tired of the scene: "I'm tempted to suggest that what they got out of the bars, baths and discos was probably something akin to what they brought to them in the first place."

I'd had it too with gay writers, budding or otherwise, thinking that art lay in aping trendy American cynicism. Like Rich in As Is nearly a decade before -- and too many since -- Michael Kealy missed the hot, horny days of yore without, apparently, missing any other human lives. In his tales (as in tales of Hoffman), there are none -- just bodies, flesh for fuck pig egomaniacs.

This is not only AIDS panic mongering; not only inhumane. It is banal -- a rerun of tired old lines, utterly devoid of fresh insight or true thought.

And that is death to human imagination, artistic or otherwise.


If there's anything I hate more than the revision of history, it is banality -- cheap formula taking the place of genuine human perception.

Which in part is why I've sat here writing these tales: not just to tell them, but to counter lies told about our lives by too many blinkered, whinging jerks.

Go on to Sex: Policing desire, playing politics, pushing pills
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This page:
January 2000 / Last revised: October 8, 2001
Rick Bébout © 2001 /