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Absorbing trauma, and wringing it out.
About an hour ago I read that the first HIV mRNA vaccine has started human trials and I felt something change inside my head.
I was sitting in bed, watching a video essay which was trending on Twitter about “shipping” – the practice of wanting two people to get together, usually fictional characters or “nerd”-related public figures. Shipping is something I’m familiar with from my middle school days on the microblogging site Tumblr, in which I found community among members of various fandoms. These communities were the only place I felt like I knew people like me: gay people.
As I matured and entered high school, I realized that it was mostly a lie. Shippers were mostly straight women. The gay fan media I had felt so much validation in just a year or two prior was nothing more than the fetishization of my own would-be life experiences by horny teenage girls who thought two men fucking was the epitome of sexiness. This is a sentiment with which I obviously agree. Though when you think too hard about someone jacking off to your sex acts – acts that they will never be privy to – it begins to melt away at any respect you have for them and the media they create.
Maybe this is a prudish way for me to think about it.
I have friends. Some of them are straight.
Year after year, I see my straight friends. I want to see them, to see how they are doing, to add newness to our long and complicated histories, to experience some continuity.
Year after year I continue to realize that the facts of my life are irrelevant to them and that I am only half listened to, that I am an appendage to the doings of a greater world, a world of power and privilege, of the laws of installation, a world of exclusion
I hate having to convince straight people that lesbians and gays live in a war zone, that we're surrounded by bomb blasts only we seem to hear, that our bodies and souls are heaped high, dead from fright or bashed or raped, dying of grief or disease, stripped of our personhood.
– (excerpt from) “I Hate Straights," The Queer Nation Manifesto (1990)
The funny thing about realizing I was gay is that I didn’t even know at first. I think I noticed the bulge of a man on a racing bike pressed up against his spandex suit and thought: I should look that up later. I have a vivid memory of secretly Google image searching the terms “biker man crotch” at some point towards the end of elementary school, subsequently learning that there were other words for “penis,” and then looking those up. What I didn’t have yet was a word for what I was. I didn’t know that I needed one. I didn’t even know that I was different yet. I attended sleepovers with friends and asked them, as we lay together next to eachother in bed, about what they thought it would be like to “put a penis in a butt.” None of us were yet old enough to know what that really meant. I only felt embarrassed by the hushed “ewwws.”
I think I learned what being “gay” meant on 4chan. Or, rather, I think I learned that I was “gay” on 4chan. Not gay in that I liked dick (that was common even for straight men on the site), but gay in that I loved other men. I think this was when I also learned that I was a faggot, and that I would get AIDS, and that many other horrible things would befall me. I think I was in 6th grade? It sounds bad, I know, but honestly I didn’t think much of it. People just said shit like that online. It didn’t mean anything too deep really, at least not there – it was when I began to notice these things elsewhere that the fear started creeping into me.
When a friend of a friend convinced everyone in my grade to call me “sod” instead of my name for a few weeks.
When a classmate warned that I might contract “spider AIDS” if I was bitten by one.
When the sex ed teacher stated firmly that gay sex “doesn’t exist.”
It’s all funny now, but fear manifests into you when you’re growing up gay. There’s the fear that your life could be over at any moment. When you’re young it’s your social life. What will happen when I tell them? If I tell them? Will they still be my friends? Will my family still love me? And then there’s the fear of never living your life to begin with.
I came out – first to my friends, then to my family – and most were understanding. Those fears faded into the background, replaced by other more pressing issues. I was in high school. I was the only gay boy I knew. Ever online, I turned to the internet to learn more about what being “gay” meant. I knew what small-g gay was, but not a thing about Gay culture.
What I learned is that Gay culture is all about fear. Fear which permeates every aspect of living while Gay. Back then, there was nothing but horror in Gay history.
The Holocaust. AIDS. Matthew Shepard. The Holocaust. AIDS. Matthew Shepard. The Holocaust. AIDS. Matthew Shepard. The Holocaust. AIDS. Matthew Shepard.
Gay death; ad infinitum.
I remember I was at summer camp when they decided to let us get married. Most people clapped, but I don’t remember clapping. I remember thinking that it was too late. Too late for all the Gay men who died without a man beside them to hold their hand as they slipped away.
I had sex once in high school. It was euphoric to feel the touch of another boy – of someone else like me. It was hard to believe that other Gay people were real until I felt another one intimately: lost in the bliss of recognition, of touching skin with a person whom I shared something defying logic and evolution with. Living unproductive lives, which then felt so purposeful.
I also remember the unease which immediately followed. Cleaning up the mess we made, I began to wonder if it was safe. Did I catch anything? Are we sure the condom didn’t break? What if it wasn’t properly functional? What if he lied to me and something happened? No afterglow for the Gay man, just a list of questions.
About half a year later I got a text from him saying that someone had spread a rumor that he had AIDS, and that it wasn’t true. He had broken up with me a week after he took my virginity, and he didn’t reply to my text back, so I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I had no way to get tested. So, I sat with that question, a born-again celibate until my freshman year of college. Of course I was negative.
Later in my freshman year I met up with a man from Grindr. He lived a few blocks from my dorm, so I walked in the nighttime January cold. We had (bad) sex, and he came quickly. When I looked down I nearly cried. The condom had broken. I hurried out. The five minute trudge home felt like hours.
It’s moments like those which remind me just how small and out of control we are. I was negative, again, but that feeling is something which has remained with me ever since. That feeling of violation – not the violation of another person taking my agency away, but of the world which sicked AIDS onto Gay people. The world which poisoned the lustful joy of Gay connection. The world which turned its eyes away when it had the chance to save us. The world which remands us to fear ourselves, eachother, and everyone else.
Not a lot of people know this, but I studied poetry in college. I did it along with political science and digital humanities – but the “English” part of my degree was the result of a poetry concentration. Pretty Gay of me right? What’s Gayer is that most of the poetry I read in my time there was about AIDS. There are few things more fucking depressing than reading a poem about two men in love – and then looking them up to find out they both died of complications from AIDS. When you hear about AIDS you just hear a bunch of numbers. “[𝑥] people died.” You don’t hear who they were. You don’t hear about their lives, the people they loved. Just nameless Gay people who died from having sex. Straight media would have you think that being Gay is just decadent hedonism, even today. That, however sad it was, Gay people brought it upon themselves by having so much sex. How very straight.
Being Gay is inextricably tied to sex. If it’s not the sex you’re having, it’s the sex they think you’re having. It reminds us who we are. That we are Gay. Who, what, how we love. This is something straight people can never understand. They don’t need to be reminded that they are straight. It is not a question. The only time being Gay is not a question is when you’re doing something Gay.
Reading about AIDS in the words of the Gay men who died, or (even worse) those who lived while their friends and lovers died around them, reminds me more than anything else of the Gay fear. Not because of AIDS itself – AIDS is not Gay – but because of how straight people allowed it, used it, to kill us. Often, survivors of the early AIDS “crisis” are described as “seeing” their loved ones die. This is incorrect. The AIDS “crisis” never ended, and all they saw was the door separating them from the person they loved. This mythologic tragedy permeates straight discussion of that period of AIDS history. Fetishizing. Imagining Gay men who were forced apart, instead dying in eachothers’ arms. It’s romantic isn’t it? The idea of Gay men dying, together.
And the old terror revives in me
of what they will find: the truth, perhaps,
that I like everyone else will die.
Bring him back, bring him back, the one who
gave me his healing touch. I’m ready
to embrace him now if he can stop
the pain of losing what was never
mine to keep. Bring him back
so that he can teach me how to be
content when I take his place at last.
– (excerpt from) “In the Waiting Room” by David Bergman (1986)
I am not contemptful of marriage. In fact, I want to get married.
I am contemptful because it came too late.
I am not contemptful of the vaccine. In fact, I want to get vaccinated.
I am contemptful because it came too late.
2023 is too late for all the Gay men who died waiting,
2015 was too late for all the Gay men who sat on the other side of that door.
I am contemptful of all the little Reagans of the world,
each resting on the levers of power while we died – while we live in fear of dying.
When I get the shot I’ll cry, I’m sure. I don’t like needles, but that’s not why. I’ll cry for all of the Gay men who died before they could get theirs. All the Gay men from whom polite society saw fit to avert their eyes.
When I get the shot, I’m going to go and have sex to celebrate. I’m going to go to a gay bar. I’m going to fly out to Folsom. My boyfriend and I will fuck and fuck and fuck.
When I get the shot, I’ll also cry because I’ll be less afraid.
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