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February 01, 2007

AIDS and Immune Systems

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Researching the late '70s and early '80s for a project I'm fooling around with, I recently found myself looking through Richard Berkowitz's book "Stayin' Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex." Despite its title, it's mostly a memoir of growing up gay in '60s Jersey, living wild during the frenetic Christopher Street years of the '70s, and smacking into AIDS in the early '80s. The book falls apart as it goes along, but it's valuable for its frankness and its tales.

I found it useful too. The book did what I was hoping it would do, which was to bring back a lot about those days. I'm more or less Berkowitz's age; I made my first gay friends in the early '70s; I arrived in NYC in the late '70s. Berkowitz and I might well have bumped into each other. Although I'm straight and I hung around the filmgoing and punk scenes while Berkowitz was a gay Christopher Street thumpa-thumpa disco habitue, these worlds overlapped in many ways. Plus gay life was such a potent force in the city at that time that it was impossible to avoid.

Curious about what was after all a gaudy sociological phenomenon, I treated myself to two tours of the gay scene, guided both times by gay college friends. First I spent a day at The Pines, the famous gay beaches on Long Island's Fire Island. Lord 'a' mighty: It was the meat market to end all meat markets! Herds of men in eensie-weensie swim trunks putting the pouches and pecs on display while cruising each other in the most cold-blooded kind of way ... Men doing the nasty on the beach and god knows what else back in the dunes ...

"It can be really hard on the ego," my friend confided to me.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"The cruising is so objective that you're instantly aware of where you stand on the ladder of attractiveness," he said. "There's no pretending, and there's no getting away with anything. You settle for the guys who are in your own league. And that can be hard to get used to."

One evening the following year I made my second venture into this strange land. I accompanied a group of gay friends as they made the rounds of Christopher Street. For those unfamiliar with the name: Christopher Street is in Manhattan's West Village. During the pre-AIDS gay-party days, it was Ground Zero for homosexual cruising and partying.

If Fire Island was acres of beef on the hoof, Christopher Street was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, only with fewer inhibitions and without a female to be seen. One club or bar after another ... Each establishment, and the street itself, filled with exuberant gayguys in freaky costumes ... Music, drugs, and booze everywhere ... Carousing of a pitch that would put beer-drinking Spring Break jocks to shame ...

As well as the most aggressive and direct sexual behavior I've ever witnessed. I found the scene overheated and hair-raising all at once. I'd never before and have never since witnessed a scene so single-mindedly focused on getting off. People as commodities ... Relentless dick-centeredness ...

Hard to evoke, really. But there are two artworks -- both of which (not coincidentally) have bad reputations among the P.C. crowd -- that give what strike me as accurate portrayals of what I saw. William Friedkin's "Cruising" may have been a cheap melodrama in terms of its storyline, but the atmosphere, behaviors, and physical details that it depicted were spot-on: seaminess, danger, excitement. And Larry Kramer's novel "Faggots," whatever its deficiencies, showed the recklessness as well as the (to be frank) uncleanliness of the party crowd in unflinching and honest terms.

What a reminder that men depend on women to moderate and focus things. God knows that women can be no-fun, moralizing wet blankets -- C'mon baby, let's have us some fun! But maybe slamming on the brakes can serve a positive human function too. I remember one gay friend during those years laughing about the way straight people would often ask him, "Do you gays behave that way because you're gay?" He enjoyed replying, "We behave this way because we're guys."

At the bars and on the sidewalks of Christopher Street there wasn't a pretence at conversation, let alone at recognizing that anyone might have a personality. You were understood to be there to have sex, period. The single and only point was to find someone you could get off with, and quickly, because someone else you would want to get off with might stroll by in a few minutes. Imagine city block after city block offering nothing but sexual challenge and sexual invitation. A few studly gayguys threw even cloddish me some scarily-direct come-hither looks. Flattering! But yikes!

For those who suspect that there's hyperbole or even some straight-guy hysteria in these descriptions, let me let Richard Berkowitz describe similar scenes:

For me, gay life in New york City before the dawn of AIDS was like living in the Promised Land. I went dancing almost every night. There were always exciting places in Manhattan to see and be seen, night-and-day sex at the piers off West Street, backroom bars and sex clubs that were packed till dawn. Whatever fantasy you had, you always knew you could satisfy it any time, night or day, at one of the many sexual playgrounds ...

Urban gay male life had evolved over a decade from personal salvation into a communal identity and now, as the Saint [a famous disco] became our weekly Mecca, into a quasi-religion. Several thousand muscled, shirtless gay men in black 501 jeans ... Upstairs was a huge darkened balcony converted into carpeted bleachers where hundreds of stoned men fucked all night and into the day.

To lose oneself so completely in the wall-to-wall men moaning in the dark ... soaring on a hit of ethyl chloride ... was like being transported to some heavenly other planet somewhere beyond the stars.

I'm less put off than most straight guys are by the physical facts of gay-male sex. Even so, I did a straight-guy recoil when, a few paragraphs later, Berkowitz made glancing mention of the "stench of rancid Crisco." Yikes again!

Which leads us inevitably to HIV and AIDS. Something I've found that many people don't realize is that the HIV virus doesn't make its way into a population easily. We think of the bug as aggressive, and it's certainly scary the way individuals can pick it up so quickly. But healthy, normal human populations resist incursions by HIV surprisingly effectively.

The straight U.S. population, for example: As Michael Fumento argued in "The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS," the HIV virus was never going to make sizable inroads into the U.S.'s non-needle-using hetero population for a simple reason: American straight people don't average enough sexual partners. (American straights tend to have something like six sexual partners in a lifetime.) Even if the HIV bug picked off a few straight individuals, it would quickly run into a brick wall: the fact that it wasn't being passed along to enough people to continue flourishing. A virus that isn't passed along at a fast enough clip simply dies out.

According to Gabriel Rotello in "Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men" (the most enlightening book about AIDS that I've read), if the HIV virus is to take a population by storm, it needs that population to be in a peculiar and unusual physical state of health and behavior. Urban partying '70s gayguys put themselves -- inadvertently, of course -- in just the state of receptivity that HIV demands.

HIV needs two things in order to flourish. The first is extreme amounts of body-fluid-swapping to be going on. Among America's urban gay swinging set, promiscuity levels during the '70s rose to hard-to-imagine heights. Meanwhile, condom usage was laughed-at. A real man -- a real gayguy anyway -- wanted his friction skin-to-skin. He wanted to revel in body fluids. According to one survey, the average high-risk early-days AIDS victim had had 1160 sexual partners. Not very sanitary.

The other factor the HIV bug needs to flourish in a population is for that population to be in an already-weakened state. Healthy vigorous groups tend to resist HIV, while the previously-compromised quickly fall prey. Berkowitz (like Gabriel Rotello) does a splendid job of making vivid how bad the health of many of the catting-around gays already was, even pre-AIDS. But you'd expect that to be the case, wouldn't you? After all, the gays who were regulars on the Christopher Street and Fire Island scenes were having unprotected sex with strangers on a regular basis.

Even so, the health of this crowd pre-AIDS was surprisingly awful. I recall -- and Berkowitz confirms -- that gay scenesters in the late '70s often considered sexually-transmitted-diseases to be honorable battle scars: proud signs of their sexual prowess, defiant medals that they'd earned fighting for "liberation." Just as The Pill was assumed to have ended all worries about pregnancy for straights, medicine was assumed to be capable of dealing with no matter what infection. Scene-making gayguys often had doctors specifically to deal with their STDs -- they called them their "clap doctors." Berkowitz writes fondly about his own clap doctor.

But why not let Berkowitz do the speaking? Here's another little collage I've pulled together from passages in his book:

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were rampant among sexually active urban gay men in 1980 ... There was a growing outbreak of sexually transmitted intestinal parasites that were afflicting the sexually active community, but gay men were being hit hardest ...

I began noticing that more and more of my friends were getting infected with herpes. Seeing puss oozing out of sores on their lips led me to subtly examine my sexual partners and clients [Berkowitz, although a Rutgers grad, worked as a hustler, ie., a male prostitute, for many of these years], but there was no way to eliminate the risk ...

I looked in the mirror and saw that I was jaundiced. Here it was at last, hepatitis, and I hated it. ... A lot of researchers were alarmed at the staggeringly high CMV infection rates among sexually active gay men ... My medical folder was becoming disturbingly thick.

This from a guy who describes himself as a "germophobic, hygiene-obsessed Jewish boy"! Bizarre -- but maybe not: A few pages later, Berkowitz confesses that, oh yeah, well, there were those nights when, addled by drugs, he made off to the baths ... "I was really getting into being fucked at the baths on Ecstasy," he writes. "The drug just obliterated all my inhibitions. But I got gonorrhea after every single trip."

Drug use took its own toll. For one thing, people on drugs misbehave with a lot more determination than people not on drugs. For another, the drugs themselves take it out of you. When I went on my Christopher Street tour, everyone seemed to be high. Poppers especially were everywhere; you crunched little glass vials beneath your feet as you walked along the sidewalk. Berkowitz: "I did a quick mental inventory of my poppers usage. But the question that came to mind wasn't how much I'd done, but rather, if I could remember the last time I had an orgasm without them." This from a man who helped himself to lots of orgasms. Perhaps defences shouldn't go quite so far down.

Herpes, CMV, gonorhhea, hepatitis ... And what was that scary bump on Berkowitz's neck? He wasn't the sickest guy in his crowd, though. Berkowitz recalls friends who contracted hepatitis four and five times.

He also recalls a German film from the era: "Taxi Zum Klo," or "Taxi to the Toilet." The film -- a gay arthouse hit --was about a swashbuckling gayguy (played by Frank Ripploh, the film's writer-director) whose sex drive can't be stopped. The film was meant to be charming and naughty, and it was taken that way by the NY Film Festival audience I saw the film with. It was in fact well-made and spirited, but it included some scenes that really gave me pause. One depicted the hero visiting his clap doctor for treatment of "anal warts." While the NYFF audience laughed fondly, I was thinking, "Not me, bub!"

In the film's comic setpiece, the hero, hospitalized with hepatitis, is feeling horny. He knows he shouldn't ... But he can't help himself ... He breaks out of the hospital, finds a sex partner at a public toilet, and gets himself blown. I watched the scene thinking, "Lordy, this guy is public health enemy #1." The audience around me, though, cracked up and applauded.

Berkowitz recalls an early AIDS activist named Michael Callen. Though only in his late 20s at the time, Callen had had more diseases than an entire platoon of Army soldiers. Berkowitz writes in Callen's voice (once again I'm collaging this together from scattered passages):

I estimate I've had approximately 3,000 men up my butt ... I estimate that I went to the baths at least once a week, sometimes twice, and that each time I went I had a minimum of four patners ... I also racked up about three men a week for five years at the Christopher Steet bookstore ...Then of course there was the MineShaft; the orgies; the 55th Street Playhouse; the International Stud backroom ...

Let me present my own history of STDs. From 1973, when I came out, to 1975, I only got mononucloeosis and non-specific urethritis, or NSU. In 1975, I got my first case of gonorrhea. Not bad, I thought. I'd had maybe 200 different partners, and I'd only gotten the clap twice. But then, moving from Boston to New York City, it all began to snowball.

First came hepatitis A in '76 and more gonorrhea and NSU. In 1977, I was diagnosed with amebiasis, an intestinal parasite, hepatitis B, more gonorrhea, and NSU. In 1978, more amebiasis and my first case of shigella, and of course, more gonorrhea. Then in 1979, hepatitis yet a third time, this time non-A, non-B, more intestinal parasites, adding giardia this time, and an anal fissure as well as my first case of syphilis ... By 1981, I got some combination of STDs each and every time I had sex ...

At age twenty-seven I've had: gonorrhea, syphillis, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis non-A, non-B; intestinal parasites including amebiasis, e. historicia, shigella, giardia; herpes simplex types one and two; venereal warts, mononucleosis, cytomegalovirus, and now cryptosporodiosis, for which there is no known cure.

Crypto-what-siosis? Berkowitz helpfully informs us that cryptosporodiosis was a parasite "previously found only in livestock."

A request for those who may feel moved to comment: Reflections, memories, and reactions are all welcome. Policy debates are too -- no reason any of us has to agree with the political / health establishment about the best way to contend with AIDS. But let's do what we can to avoid homophobia. Let's do what we can to avoid thought-policing our conversation to death too. A bas le thought police!



posted by Michael at February 1, 2007


Two things strike me after reading this account:

1. I know women who act exactly this way -- in fact, it seems to be a kind of wildly exaggerated extreme of what was once a kind of cultural romanticism. But what is the equivalent in the African population where AIDS is rampant in both genders? Is it merely the pre-existing bad health? AIDS is NOT very contagious, as you say, but once caught, it is virulent, deadly.

2. Since my education was in the theatre department and my ministry was in the UUA, which formally accepts gays, I know a lot of gays but not many who have died. (That one was a minister.) They don't talk about it much, but from knowing them rather well, I think they have survived because of a kind of formality and even asceticism in their private lives and because they are in committed relationships. To me this suggests that it is the behavior that is risky, not the sexual orientation. Alas, we tend to conflate the two.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 1, 2007 1:22 PM

"Let's do what we can to avoid homophobia"?

Michael, I don't consider myself to be homophobic. But it would be hard to find better evidence than this memoir, which you seem to think is cool, that part of the gay subculture is infantile, self-centered, obsessed with anonymous sexual gratification, and at war with good taste. If I thought Berkowitz's peer group in the pre-AIDS days was representative of all homosexuals, I'd be proud to announce my homophobia to the world.

Posted by: Rick Darby on February 1, 2007 1:38 PM

"...that part of the gay subculture is infantile, self-centered, obsessed with anonymous sexual gratification, and at war with good taste."

I think Michael's point, and one I agree with just from observation, is that this is a pretty accurate description of 18- to 21-year-old men in general, and the behavior is that which most of them would indulge in if women weren't putting the brakes on heterosexual men's opportunities to do so. If girls were willing (and maybe some of the "gone-wild" girls today are, I don't know) to engage in repeated and anonymous sex-for-sex sake without any social stigma, and no condoms, and no teary what-did-it-mean conversations the next day, a lot of straight guys would have behaved identically, and their health risks would have been equivalently high.

And it is male, not just gay, since as has been noted there has never been an equivalent spread of STD's among lesbian women.

However, I will also say that anal sex is supposed to be more dangerous in passing infections with more risk of semen meeting blood, which is more common among gay men and therefore may also contribute to the risk of spreading the infection.

Posted by: annette on February 1, 2007 3:07 PM

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts made more or less the same observations about the extreme promiscuity of the pre-AIDS gay community, in that case with a focus on San Francisco. When I read the book after it came out in the mid-1980's I was almost certain that it was grossly exaggerated. It wasn't.

Regarding poppers, back when AIDS (then called GRID, for Gay-Related Autoimmune Deficiency) was first being recognized one of the Centers for Disease Control's theories was that it was somehow caused by the use of poppers.

Posted by: Peter on February 1, 2007 3:31 PM

Wow. Looking at the situation objectively, it seems like it was only a matter of time before something like AIDS got loose in the gay community. Aside from gayness, I believe that the whole 60's/70's ethos of "liberation" was at least partly to blame, along with deep denial. If you had asked the average 40 year old gay guy in 1962 "would having 1160 sexual partners put your health at risk?" I'll be he would have answered "Hell, yes, are you crazy? ANYONE who sleeps with over a thousand random people is nuts!" The period 1965-1980 was notable for its denial of the reality principle. I ought to know - I graduated from high school in 1978...

Posted by: tschafer on February 1, 2007 3:37 PM

P. Mary -- Interesting, tks. I've read about AIDS and Africa but I'm sure I know no more than you do. Ill health, promiscuity ... And that weird practice of "dry sex" -- ie., guys preferring women not to be wet 'n' warm but instead dry, because they like the increased friction. Evidently that practice tears up the fragile flesh all too effectively. But there's more to be known, I'm sure. Interesting as well about gay guys and extreme promiscuity, isn't it? '70s style promiscuity seemed fueled by drugs, liberalization, silly political beliefs. Here's hoping that constellation doesn't recur any time soon. FWIW, some older (as in very old now) gay men have told me that anal sex was not a big deal in the gay world prior to the '60s -- that it somehow got turned into The Culminating and Most Desirable Act at that point.

Rick -- Yeah, thank heavens more gays didn't go for that lifestyle! I was a silly kid interested in little beyond fun and nooky myself at that time. But the little glimpses I got of '70s "liberated" party-gay behavior made me cringe. Didn't look healthy somehow, even to my idiot eyes. The bad guys of it all, as far as I'm concerned, are the people who 1) encouraged this kind of behavior as a political good, and then 2) refused to learn better, or at least backtrack and change their mind. Bizarrely the ideal of extreme promiscuity is still alive among some politicized gays. Which only means, as far as I'm concerned, more honor due to gays who conduct themselves sensibly.

Annette -- Guys are pigs, I guess. Or at least would be if it weren't for women insisting that they shape up. It's funny. I don't begrudge anyone who wants to experiment sexually or have sexual adventures, and I think America can be an awfully prim place. That said, is it too much to ask that these adventures be conducted in ways that aren't grave threats to public health?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 1, 2007 3:38 PM

MB, I highly, highly recommend that you check Edmund White's autobiographical trilogy. I think it's the best writing to come out of that gay experience. The first book, "A Boy's Own Story", is about growing up gay in the 50s, the second "The Beautiful Room is Empty", follows the author to New York City in the 1960s and into the beginnings of the gay rights movement, closing at the Stonewall riots. The last one, "The Farewell Symphony", describes the authors life in the 1970s gay New York that you describe, and then follows the characters through the 1980s, where many of the author's friends die of AIDS. (White himself has been HIV-positive, but healthy, for many years). I think this trilogy is one of the greatest post-WWII pieces of American writing, but it has (wrongly IMO) been pigeonholed as "gay". But the sweep and scope of that story makes it a great human epic -- from an underground, quasi-criminal existence in the 1950s to one of the greatest mass orgies in human history in the 1970s to crushing tragedy in the 1980s. And White does a dazzling job with it.

White is completely honest to the dimensions of gay life that you describe in your posting, which he participated in fully. But there is another dimension he depicts -- the friendships formed, the community created, the often lifelong connections -- that you as an outsider were not going to see. Especially because you were (naturally) struck by the sheer sexual excess. Even as the gay community paid the price for those excesses in the AIDS crisis, that community paid off in the 1980s as well. There was a very strong, sometimes even heroic, communal effort to nurse and assist those dying of AIDS. Aspects of this are described in the final book as well. People who talk about the gay community as nothing but infantile and self-centered miss this dimension of the response to AIDS in the 1980s. Things are more complex than that; almost every real community is self-centered and limited in certain ways but also generous in others.

Posted by: MQ on February 1, 2007 3:40 PM

P.S. MB, reading your last post (which was not up when I posted my last one), I think it's likely you would "disapprove" of White on political grounds. White himself was a founder (along with Larry Kramer) of Gay Men's Health Crisis, and early to sound the alarm about AIDS. But he is also a radical, sees himself as an artist first, and refuses any simple condemnation or judgement of 1970s homosexual life. He represents what the experience meant to him and his friends, very much including the positive dimensions. But there are also harrowing descriptions of the toll of AIDS in the final book of the trilogy. He doesn't judge. As an artist, I think he's working in a space beyond simple judgement.

Posted by: MQ on February 1, 2007 3:50 PM

I concur with both Prairie Mary and Rick Darby.

All of my initial experience with gay men (that I was aware of, more on that in a bit) was with this kind of group Michael described.

When I entered college, to my everlasting embarrassment, I had declared a theatre major (lasted one week, I went undeclared asap). You were required to assist in every production, so there I was assembling and painting scenery. Apparently I was one of the only three straight guys out of a group of maybe 35.

The harassment from these guys was amazing. Like Michael said, they were brazen and pushy. I have nothing against a gayguy propositioning you if he doesn't know where your tastes lay (ahem), but once you've waved him off, he should give it a rest. None of these guys did.

I attended exactly one "theatre party." It started out typically enough, but as the party progressed, it grew quiet. Eventually, I noticed I was sitting in a room full of women who were quietly conversing amongst themselves.

I finally said, "Were'd the party go?" to one of your stereotypical female drama queens/future Norma Desmond types, who even had one of those long cigarette holders in hand, and she said, "Dahling. You're the only straight guy here. The rest have retired to other rooms." I'm sure you get the picture.

So, I've kept my distance from that scene. (As I do with hetero "swingers.")

Later, I did start meeting gayguys who were reserved, and wanted your basic one on one, life-partner relationship kinda stuff. But they were usually very reticent about mentioning it, in part because the partyboy gayguys usually gave them shit about it. And as mentioned above, I had known some gay people growing up, and didn't know their preference until later. So far not one of these guys has contracted AIDs, thank God.

So, Mary's correct in that it seems to be more a division on sexual morality than it is on gay/straight. And when it comes to the gayguy partyboys, I sorta agree with Rick, I find that sort of lifestyle, regardless of the orientation or gender, crude and distasteful.

But let me rush to say that I also feel that whatever consenting adults care to do (as long as it doesn't affect me), is their business and none of mine. So while I find that scene (the sexually immoral one) personally distasteful, I don't feel people who do like it should give a damn about my opinion. As long as they keep it out of my face and away from my kids - I'm thinking about gay pride parades where they go nude and fondle each other during the route. And, in my opinion, I have no business walking down Christopher Street with my kids in the same way I wouldn't walk down a street filled with strip joints that had crude posters out front with the kids in tow.

I don't think that's homophobia. I think it's more "live and let live" with the proviso that "your right to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose."

That aside, I found this particularly interesting: "medicine was assumed to be capable of dealing with no matter what infection".

When AIDS first hit, so much of the metaphorical shrieking from some (not all) gay AIDs activists seemed to stem from that very wrong assumption. I remember at the time when I would point out (in person or on a message board) that we still haven't cured the common cold because it's a virus, just like AIDs, that would draw them up short most of the time. They hadn't looked at it that way. They seemed to want to be convinced that it was some sort of conspiracy to not provide an immediate cure because they were gay and therefore intrinsically considered not worthy of a cure. Some to this day don't seem to accept that we just don't have good weapons against viruses. Bird flu, anyone?

In addition, I witnessed something disturbing during those early times. I worked on a product that collected FDA information, a part of which was the monitoring of blood banks, including recalls of blood infected with various diseases. The blood banks did an excellent job of keeping AIDs out of public circulation from the start. However, after a couple of years, the recalls from San Francisco blood banks rose dramatically and so an investigation was quietly launched. It was discovered that some of the Sanfran blood banks had gay employees who were purposely releasing known AIDs-infected blood. The reason they gave was that if more people were infected outside of the gay male community, a cure would be discovered faster. I think those who were caught got to rethink that strategy in jail for a bit.

I remember being furious when I was following that because, again, there seemed be such a lack of understanding of what a virus is and our current state of not being able to do much about most viruses. (Though, isn't an AIDs vaccine currently in testing?)

annette - Yes most boys in that age group are horndogs (I know I was). But the percentage of the guys who would screw anything that moved vs the percentage of those who (though they would love to do screw around, too) were more reserved, and wanted a loving, monogamous relationship would probably not be equivalent to those same breakdowns in gay men. (In my experience, the guys who had committed boyfriends were outnumbered by the partyboys by about 3 to 1.

However, to drift further into controversy, some cultural groups might surpass the percentage of anonymous hookups of (some) gay men. Salon once published an article from someone who wrote about her participation in the apparently large underground scene in California's Silicon Valley that had regular sex parties. That gives me the fantods in pretty much the same way as and for the same reasons the term "rancid Crisco" does.

Finally, Mary asked, "But what is the equivalent in the African population where AIDS is rampant in both genders?" I read a few articles that pointed out two things, AIDs is primarily spread in Africa through the prostitutes. One factor that makes it so widespread is that the men who frequent the hookers like the feeling of a dry vagina because it means they're not getting "sloppy seconds" as it were. Therefore there is as much tissue damage and exposure to blood as there is in anal sex. To make matters worse, most Africans don't believe that it's a virus that spreads AIDs, they think it's voodoo. I know that's hard to believe, but Google it up.

Posted by: yahmdallah on February 1, 2007 4:02 PM

I've been thinking about whether or not the global diabetes pandemic is like the AIDS plague. I've also been wondering how parallel and how massive in terms of numbers these problems are alongside malaria and tuberculosis.

Conclusion: Just don't know enough, except that it looks like we're not really dealing with any of them well enough unless they look like a marketing opportunity. Then it begins looking a predator/prey relationship.

Poverty/excessive wealth (ie, not enough for a lot of people, too much for some people), overpopulation and contamination (both poisons and simple filth) at the bottom of it all. This is where our morality fails us, more than who sleeps with whom or how.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 1, 2007 4:32 PM

I'm a heterosexual male who finds the gay "lifestyle" revolting. If that makes me a homophobe, so be it. But actually it's the normal reaction of the great majority of normal heterosexual men and women. They aren't Nazis. They don't want to repress gays, or "get" gays. They would be only too glad to live and let live. Just please, please, not to know what Bruce does to Steve and vice versa. But n-o-o-o. They have to celebrate deviancy, er...diversity. Well, it's never going to happen. The normal will never celebrate the deviant. And that's what drives gays mad. The most they'll ever be able to achieve is to cow the normal majority into silence. And they've pretty much succeeded in that campaign. But accepted? Loved? Sorry guys. Ain't gonna happen. Too frickin' bad!

Posted by: ricpic on February 1, 2007 5:55 PM

I experienced the same dementia in San Francisco and NYC.

I've got to ask you, Michael, what it this business about "homophobia?" Nobody is "afraid" of homosexuality. Sensible people are often, with obvious good reason, "disgusted" by homosexuality and experience moral revulsion in regard to homosexuality. The attempt to equate this moral revulsion with bigotry is an atrocity.

The legal and ethical prosciptions against open homosexuality are common sense hygiene and morality. You've recited the obvious reality of that and then retreated in terror from that reality. Why?

Human societies have known these realities for thousands of years. This is one part of the rationale behind religious sanctions against homosexuality. The other factor is that ancient societies needed for every citizen to reproduce.

You've missed the obvious conclusion of your own argument. Gays should never have come out of the closet. Societal shaming of gays has a legitimate purpose. We're paying for our failure to continue to shame this behavior is so many ways, both visible and invisible. The moral destructiveness on the general culture of this behavior is the part that's difficult to see. Allowing so many people to abandon responsibility to women and children, and to live like spoiled children, exacts a heavy price over the long term.

Why have you ignored the obvious moral of the story? How did the gay activist movement rise out of this madness? When will the society regain the self-assurance to shame gays back into the closet?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on February 1, 2007 6:43 PM

MQ -- Thanks for the Edmund White rec. I managed one novel of his long, long ago and didn't love it. But I should probably give him another look. I can't imagine that his politics, whatever they are, would bug me much. Where art goes I cut people a lot of slack. Plus I get a kick out of some kinds of X-treme gayness: big fan of Bruce La Bruce, for instance.

Yahmdallah -- I've got a lot of stored-up annoyance with some AIDS activists too. Brilliant at p-r, god knows. But ... Well, AIDS would be a thing of the past where this country is concerned, as we all know and seldom say, if gays had simply stopped swapping body fluids. But it was all very politicized, and some gay activists didn't want to cede any ground on the promiscuity issue. Promiscuity was what they'd won and who they were, and that was all they were going to let anyone say. Meanwhile people kept dying, and money kept being spent.

P. Mary -- I couldn't care less about who boffs who so long as only a minimal number of awful bugs are being passed around!

Ricpic -- I hearya. Here's a puzzler, though: much popular culture is selling "gay" values. And straight society, even while not lovin' actual gayness, buys it. I'm mystified by this myself. Does straight/square society just not recognize that they're buying gay values in their popular culture? It can be amazing how clueless some straights and squares are ...

ST -- You're being too generous to me in crediting me with an "argument"! My only point here is saying, "Hey, did you know how sick and infirm the just-about-to-get-AIDS population was even before AIDS turned up?" Plus my usual digressions, of course. I should be warier of the word "homophobia," you're right, tks. Where gayness goes, I know where you're coming from but somehow reach different conclusions. I've known generous gays who contribute to life generally, as well as many self-centered straight people. Some of the latter even manage to use their kids as extensions of their selfishness. And I've known gays who have become less tormented and more open thanks to coming out of the closet. So I'm wary of many generalizations. I can't see any reason to celebrate homosexuality, let alone to proseylytize (oops, typo!) for it. But there it is, it ain't going away. So I can't see any reason not to be kind towards it either. Besides, a lot of gayguys are great cooks, designers, dancers, humorists, etc -- life would be a much drearier, more earnest thing without gays. Which isn't to say that square society shouldn't be a little wary of letting the whole gay thing become too powerful. I'm hoping the nutty '70s behavior you and I caught glimpses of was a one-time thing, at least for a few generations to come. The '60s, drugs, "liberation" ... How many times is that recipe going to come along? Could be wrong!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 1, 2007 7:31 PM

Thank you for this uncensored depiction of what "the life" was and is like for so many of these men.

It is one thing to say, let people live their private lives in peace. Agreed, even though the conduct is immoral in my view and in the view of many, many people. America is a big place. Live and let live.

It is another thing to say "celebrate" this life. Nope, cannot go there. I love my gay friends and relatives, but I cannot celebrate this behavior.

It is yet another thing to stifle discussion of the public health consequences of this kind of irresponsible and self-destructive conduct. There is a lot self-censorship due to people being afraid of being shouted down for simply describing what they have seen. I know physicians and people in the drug business who tell me horror stories.

Posted by: Lexington Green on February 1, 2007 10:42 PM

I concur completely about the difficulty of treating viral diseases. As a drug-discovery guy myself, I can testify that the things are a major pain to deal with. If we ever get some sort of fast-spreading viral plague going in the general population, the only pharmacologic hope is a vaccine - and those aren't exactly the work of a moment. Otherwise, it's going to be public health - quarantines and all the rest of it - and hope for the best.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on February 1, 2007 10:58 PM

Michael, of COURSE, you care who boffs whom!! Adults should not screw children, the powerful should not make sex slaves out of the powerless, caretakers should not assault unconscious patients, wardens should not use sex as torture or extortion, and so on. And the contagious, especially those carrying lethal diseases, should not inflict their infections on others. (The courts consider it "assault with a deadly weapon," one's own bodily fluids.)

What you mean, I'm sure, is within the caveats of "adult" and "consenting." The problem is where to draw lines -- okay, "bright" lines in terms of categories rather than individuals, esp. now that the structures of marriage and family are so muddled. (I can NOT understand how same sex marriage can threaten hetero marriage when so many are living together in a hodge-podge manner already. It seems to me that some tight legal reform on shared economics and a universal safety net for children might be far more important than the gender specifics of the adults in the household.)

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 2, 2007 12:21 PM

Mary, I don't think it "threatens" so-called "hetero marriage", but it does have implications that aren't often aired for fear of the homophobe or bigot accusation. The fact of the matter is that debate about what marriage is and isn't implicitly includes any and all states thereof, even though currently people try to keep the debate focused on gay marriage.

Jon Krakauer explores polygamy in his great book "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith." Before reading that book, I had kind of a free-floating dislike of polygamy because it seemed to be seedy, mostly about power, and it seemed most societies had wisely left it behind. But he points out in white hot brilliant detail how depraved it is and why we should never allow it as a society. Now, if we allow gay marriage (something no society in written history has done before our age), how can we deny the polygamists? Could we?

Also, another hidden form of sexual expression is incest - brother/sister, parent/child, first cousin/first cousin. If we restrict it to the world of consenting adults, then why can't incest relationships also have the "benefit" of marriage? If they would get themselves sterilized so they can't have deformed children, how can we deny their "special kind of love," either?

The larger debate is and should be, what is marriage, and what is not marriage?

Posted by: yahmdallah on February 2, 2007 1:23 PM

Yahmdallah, I have cynically come to believe that "forms" of marriage are economically based, including the "open marriage" that was briefly fashionable. Polygamy or polygyny or a lack of any "typical" pattern have all worked in the right cultural and economic setting. An 1800 Blackfeet man who took in his widowed sister-in-law was just being sensible. Later, when they began to acquire a lot of "slave-wives" because so many men had been killed or because a man on horseback could kidnap women from other tribes, and because he was running a "home industry" tanning the buffalo hides he could get by hunting from horseback, things fell apart.

But it is maybe irremediably snarled by the inclusion of "religious morality" in governmental rules about it. I think the religious ceremony should be separated from the state certification. And I think the right to be married possibly should be revokeable in cases of neglect or abuse -- not because the partners want it, but because society thinks they're doing a lousy job of managing. (Maybe California can get at that right after they forbid incandescent lightbulbs. ;-) )

Actually, there are quite a few instances of first cousin marrying first cousin that have worked out rather well. And sib-marriage evidently worked in Egypt -- in fact, was divine!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 2, 2007 3:29 PM

AIDS in Africa can spread among the heterosexual population for two reasons:
1. Africans often have several simultaneous, long term sexual relationships. Thus its easy for a chain of transmission to form, even if each individuals number of partners is not that large. In contrast, white, first world heterosexuals tend to form serially monogamous relationships, sometimes punctuated by brief bursts of cheating or promiscuity. Its much harder to spread AIDS that way.
2. Secondly, Africans are poor and in bad health already. If they get other STDs they go untreated, making the disease that much easier to catch and spread.

Posted by: Thursday on February 2, 2007 3:30 PM

Yahmdallah, your own question gives you the answer: we shouldn't allow polygamic marriage because polygamy is "seedy, mostly about power" and "depraved", according to you and Mr. Krakauer. I wonder if you'd say the same about homosexuality.

Posted by: robert z on February 2, 2007 3:42 PM

Michael B: you wrote "FWIW, some older (as in very old now) gay men have told me that anal sex was not a big deal in the gay world prior to the '60s" From memory, so it may not be word for word, Allen Ginsberg has a poem with this line: "Does anybody really like being fucked in the ass?"

ricpic and shouting thomas: If someone is doing harm to another person or to someone else's property, that's one thing, but your being grossed out is quite another, and not a reason for other people not to enjoy themselves in public within the same legal strictures which apply to you.

Yahmdallah: Gay people want monogamous marriage for the same reason straight people do-to constrain their partner's sex lives. That's why polygamy is more common in societies where women lack political and economic power. Incest is a complete red herring here.

Posted by: Mike Snider on February 2, 2007 3:57 PM

Uh, lots of straight people want to get married so they can have kids and raise a family, Mike. Not to put chains on their partners.

Did you notice how the gay guy with all the diseases only focused on how many he had picked up, and not how many he had given to other people? I'd say that sums up most gay life pretty well.

Gay marriage is a joke. Let's keep it that way rather than take the joke too seriously.

Posted by: BIOH on February 2, 2007 5:08 PM

robert z - I agree with Mike Snyder in that many people who are gay "want monogamous marriage for the same reason straight people do". So, no, I do not hold the opinion you try to put in my mouth, "we shouldn't allow polygamic marriage because polygamy is "seedy, mostly about power" and "depraved", according to you and Mr. Krakauer. I wonder if you'd say the same about homosexuality."

I don't feel that way.

However, my point still stands, if we're gonna talk about what marriage is an isn't, it better include all forms and not just the current focus on just "gay marriage."

How do you feel about polygamy? What if your sister was the third wife of a 60 year old? What about incest marriage? What if your lover suddenly married his brother? And so on.

(And sorry Mike, incest is not a red herring. See P. Mary's response above.)

Let's get it all out there.

Posted by: yahmdallah on February 2, 2007 7:36 PM

This whole issue is incredibly snarled. I'd like to pick one thread out of the tangle and it's not same-sex, different-sex -- it's the old Dionysian versus Apollonian split. Where does that Dionysian, self-destructive, apocalyptic, go-to-hell, in-your-face, crunching over poppers stuff come from? Is it because the old culture is disintegrating and there is no "new" culture yet? Is it that the actual planet seems hopelessly destroyed? Is it that some people get no justice? Is it hopelessness? Is it a craving for ecstacy? Delusions of transcendence?

It seems to me there are "Dionysian" gays, draped in leopard skins, carrying heads on the ends of pikes, running in packs, tearing off their own clothes, destroying their own flesh -- and Apollonian gays, quietly at home. Were the "Furies" in Greek drama ever male?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 2, 2007 10:46 PM

I think it's always been there, both the Dionysian and Apollonian. I don't think it's an indicator of decline or ascendance. It's just a matter of how visible it is.

Maybe the difference is our media-saturated world brings everything to your (my, our) door.

Could that be it?

Posted by: yahmdallah on February 2, 2007 11:22 PM

Yahmdallah, people don't discuss polygamic marriage simply because there's no social demand about that - except maybe in Friday parties of sexist rednecks.

But even if this social demand existed, many of us understand that polygamic marriage is a violent and oppressive system towards people, most of all women. It's clearly not the case with gay marriage, which may offend the moral patterns of somepeople the same way italian music terribly offends my taste and makes the world a bitter place to my soul, and still I would be against a law not allowing people to buy Caruso records (with a pain in my heart, I must confess).

Posted by: robert z on February 3, 2007 12:29 AM

Let me take a stab: a place for everything and everything in its place. Give homosexuality free reign in the big metropolitan centers, perhaps, but don't try to impose it on small-town America. We can have a far more diverse and tolerant society, and a more enduring one too I suspect, if we don't try to universalize every human preference and turn it into a basic human right, at least where sexual orientation is concerned.

Posted by: Luke Lea on February 3, 2007 1:35 AM


Sorry, it's taken me so long to respond.

Suggesting that gays were better off in the closet does not mean excluding them from a job, as your response suggests. Why would it? You are, I think, resorting to the common response of the 60s influenced mind... any limitation on individualism is the same as the enforced segregation of the Jim Crow south. The left has used this rhetorical device for 40 years, not because it makes any sense, but because it has worked so well.

So, let's be clear. Suggesting that gays would be better off in the closet in no way forces them into the position of blacks in the Jim Crow south. Let's be even clearer. Gays were never subject to a public campaign of intimidation, violence and discrimination. It's too long a subject to go into in detail, but this history of oppression is invented nonsense.

I have the good fortune of operating simultaneously in tradition Filipino society and white American society. The traditional roles for gays still prevail in Filipino society... and believe me, this is better for everybody... especially gay men. Gay men are expected to fulfill their family obligations. I think you are seduced by this peculiar notion of American white society that we must stick what we do in everybody's face. Why is it always better to force others to approve of what we do?

The answer lies in the most prominent assumption of liberal ideology of the past 50 years. This ideology assumes that guilt is felt only because institutional society imposes guilt upon us, that guilt is always a bad thing and that guilt can be eradicated by destroying authority. This entire line of thought is bunk. Guilt exists as a check on our behavior. Some behaviors really are wrong and destructive. Gay marriage will not solve the moral dilemmas of homosexuality because homosexual behavior is inherently destructive and immoral. Sorry, but that's the truth.

None of this is meant to stifle the rights of people to do what they want in their own bedrooms. When I say gays should be shamed back into the closet, I mean that they should shut up and keep their sex lives private, that they should have no right to abandon their responsibilities to family, women and children and that they have no legal rights because they are gay. The old way of doing things was better.

The society should encourage and reward men who invest themselves in family and childrearing. This is not only morality... it's sanity. Tradition does matter.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on February 3, 2007 11:31 AM

Mike Snider wrote:
Gay people want monogamous marriage for the same reason straight people do-to constrain their partner's sex lives.
- - - - - - - - - - -
It's amazing to see this bit of gay-rights victimology propaganda so far into a thread that clearly documents compulsive promiscuity as the norm in gay society.

The gay-rights movement emerged at the same time that millions of hetero couples were shacking up without getting married. Over the past 30 years, both cultural and legal structures have been developed to accommodate unmarried, yet committed, relationships.

If gays wanted faithful, monogomous relationships - they could have had them all along.

Yet the overwhelming majority of out-n-proud gays opts for the continuation of the meat market "lifestyle".

This is true as well in Scandinavia and Holland - even when the welfare state provides a financial incentive for marriage, the overwhelming majority of gays do not use the marriage rights extended to them.

The NY Times ran a semi-cutesy article after Canada granted gays marriage rights, with the coy title "Now that Gays Can Say 'I Do', Many Ask 'Do I?'".

The gay rights movement is NOT pushing for marriage because any significant number of homosexuals want to live in stable marriages. They are pushing for marriage "rights" to anchor the normality of gayness before more people catch on to the pathology of homosexuality.

Posted by: Ben-David on February 3, 2007 2:26 PM

Good grief, I just read the comments and am appalled that anyone believes gays want to "impose" their sexual preference on small town America or on anyone else.

You can't turn an adult's sexual preference against their will or even with their cooperation. That's why organizations that claim to use religion or any technique to convert gay men to straight always fail.

It sems there are a lot of people who think that they're living in some kind of homosexual version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." You go to sleep one night and the next morning you wake up gay.


Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on February 3, 2007 4:57 PM

A question for Michael Blowhard: How are your gay college friends doing?

Posted by: AS on February 3, 2007 11:50 PM

Young men seeking sex regardless of consequences, ignoring personal danger, and bragging about the number of assaults to their body they have survived? Must be a gay thing.

An interesting counterpart is the 'Boston marriage': apparently in the prior century suffragettes used to live together but there's not much evidence they ever slept together. They probably did talk about their feelings, though. ;)

Posted by: SFG on February 4, 2007 7:53 AM

Just a comment on AIDS in Africa. The figures used for the number who are HIV positive (or have AIDS as well) are quite speculative estimates. Very few people in Africa get blood tests to prove that they are HIV positive. If an African presents with symptoms, then they are counted as being HIV positive and stats are then extrapolated based upon this.

I would say that basically NOBODY in the West would be classified HIV positive unless they had a blood test.

The problem with not using a blood test is that other diseaes that are prevelent in Africa (Malaria, TB, etc.) can also present symptoms similar to an HIV diagnosis.

Posted by: WJ on February 4, 2007 8:15 AM

"Boston marriages" were hardly confined to Boston or the previous century. When I was old enough to realize which of my grade and high school teachers were in female same-sex couples, my mother told me that all of these living arrangements were known to the community, never publicly acknowledged, and never privately criticized. No one paid any attention to the physical side. What they acknowledged was the side of marriage so much neglected these days: economic cooperation, health support, emotional encouragement, shared ideals and -- since they had no personal children -- enormous energy devoted to the children of the community as a whole.

In cultures that are not so fixated on producing and owning children, the phenomenon of the "uncle" who has no children but helps to support the family as a whole is probably one of the evolutionary advantages of same-sex relationships. One of my elementary school friends had an uncle like this -- a man with an excellent income and a beautiful apartment who was unmarried but provided such wonderful treats as tickets to the ballet or a fancy restaurant meal.

A good role model for "Uncle Sam?"

Incidentally, I know it begins to be insufferable that I have all these little tales, one of the original researchers on gay sheep was here in Montana in the Eighties. She said the extra rams were very helpful to the flock when predators came around.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 4, 2007 11:58 AM

Naaah, your stories are neat. I've never lived on an Indian reservation and probably never will. I've never lived in an American small town, though I might have to in the future. (long, long story.)

It does sound as though before the advent of gay liberation, society had to provide roles for people who didn't want to get married. I bet a lot of nuns and monks were gay.

Posted by: SFG on February 4, 2007 3:31 PM

Thanks, SFG.

Probably the most relevant thing about Native Americans and this subject is the "immune" part of the title. Remember that the outcome of breached barriers between populations of any sort means disequilibrium of a number of factors until the outcome rolls to a halt -- possibly very negative. For the NA's the first boats from Europe meant a HUGE pandemic across the continent. 95% of the Mandan tribe died soon after contact with Missouri River boats. The Blackfeet were reduced repeatedly by major pandemics.

And the first AIDS came from pushing deeper into the African forest so that people were taking "bush meat" in the form of infected primates and monkeys. It was blood-to-blood contagion in the most direct way, butchering that exposed breaks in the skin. Blood-to-blood contagion is the real cause of AIDS -- not being gay.

And there is another little story about NA's and polygamy. The Indian Agent gave an old chief an ultimatum about the half-dozen wives he'd been supporting and sheltering along with their children. "Pick one and send the others away," ordered the agent. "Or I will cut you off from food. This is what the Great White Father wants you to do."

"Okay," said the old chief finally. "Now you be the one to go tell them."

This was before we finally realized that some GWF's (like FDR) had two wives -- but that seems more fair since his wife also had a wife.

Care for a nice English turkey sandwich?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 4, 2007 10:36 PM

S.T. -

I mean that they should shut up and keep their sex lives private, that they should have no right to abandon their responsibilities to family, women and children and that they have no legal rights because they are gay.
What if a landlord tosses out a tenant because they are gay? Should the ex-tenant have legal recourse?

Posted by: David Fleck on February 5, 2007 8:25 AM

"The society should encourage and reward men who invest themselves in family and childrearing."

Agreed. Gay couples adopting children would also agree. The only gay men not upholding their obligations to their family are those who finally do come out of the closet after having been married for years, most likely because they were too ashamed and pressured to stay closeted. If they had been honest with themselves earlier, then they could have avoided such a mess.

And even then, as long as they don't abandon their kids, I don't see them as any better or worse than a straight divorced father.

Posted by: the patriarch on February 5, 2007 12:54 PM

While obviously there are serious practical reasons not to have anonymous sex with thousands of people--namely, all those grody diseases--I don't really understand why people see the issue in moral terms (aside from the immorality of exposing unsuspecting partners to diseases, but the guys quoted seemed aware of what they were getting into). Why is having sex with lots of people any worse than masturbating a lot? Aside from disease risks, isn't loveless sex basically just like assisted masturbation? I guess some people might have religious beliefs that say homosexuality is morally wrong, but in that case they should see monogamous homosexuals who've only had a few partners in their entire lives as just as bad as promiscuous ones who've had thousands...and some people might have religious beliefs that tell them sex without love is morally wrong, but in that case it seems to me they should be equally opposed to masturbation. Either way it seems like a lot of people are taking feelings related to homophobia or just plain physical revulsion and trying to rationalize them in lofty moral terms, but the logic doesn't seem very sound.

Posted by: Jesse on February 8, 2007 12:07 PM

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