Passion with Audacity: the Era of Safe Sex

An Update

“Passion with Audacity” by Mark Freeman, FNP was published in November of 1998 in Coming Up! newspaper, a precursor to San Francisco Bay Times.1 Two years later I began work at a new Tenderloin HIV Clinic at Tom Waddell Health Center, and by 1993 we started Transgender Tuesdays, the world’s first publicly-funded Transgender Clinic

In 1988 the AIDS epidemic was scaling way up, and about to become a global pandemic. The introduction of the “cocktail” of at least three drugs taken in relatively small doses together, which would finally begin to dial the disease down, was still seven years in the future. There were few meds available, starting with AZT, which back then was the only drug in the arsenal and was given in such huge doses that it killed nearly half of those who took it– about the same odds as taking no Western medicine at all. This helps explain the blunt statement in the first paragraphs about not wanting to get tested.

Why bother, since it could lead to neither protection nor cure? But it probably would bring on discrimination and possibly real danger from Reagan’s hostile government in Washington– one that  was already taking about quarantining us– and in most states?

But this was also written six months before I met the man who was to become the love of my life. We are still together 28 years later. After we became a thing, both of us together got tested. There was finally a reason to do it.

This piece covers the period when Safer Sex was the only tool available to us. In the face of federal hatred, it was a local and positive community response. Yet to come were other strategies. Self-reporting to potential partners was never universally adopted and also of dubious use, since brand-new conversions (one of the most infectious times) would not test as positive. Serosorting, or sleeping only with those of your own HIV status in an effort to keep risk within the group, did not appreciably lower infection rates. Now we know that even unprotected sex with an HIV-positive person whose virus is completely controlled might be safer than sex with one who does not know their status or had been negative but whose recent infection has not yet shown up on tests.

Eventually PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) was shown to actually lower the rate of new infections, with negative people using the same dosage of HIV meds that had proven effective in preventing pre-natal transmission to newborns. But PrEP’s adoption even in the U.S. has been slow due to anti-gay prejudice and continued moralizing, even among gay men (“slut shaming” anyone?) and to slow adoption by communities of color and in the Southern States, where infection rates and death by AIDS are the highest.

We live in a world where Safer Sex is no longer the only responsible option, but can look back at an amazing time when it was. Back in that day the hypocritical religious promotion of Abstinence-Only (always for others, of course) was never an effective approach. Pre-discussing sex was also a less-than rational approach, as passion often arises fast and nonverbally. Still today, short of a vaccine, it is pharmaceutics and sex-positive politics that remain our best bet of “Getting to Zero” HIV conversions.

Back in 1988, print articles that dealt openly with how we in the gay community were negotiating sex were rare to nonexistent. So I wanted to share this early look at the Safe Sex movement, as practiced by the queer denizens of San Francisco during a time when we were all at risk of imminent demise, and were viewed by the general public as pariahs. The Safe Sex movement was never simply about condoms vs. no condoms, but include a set of political/sexual acts practiced by my generation of heroes, whose stories still have a lot to offer. I hope you enjoy reading them and want to share this.

Wheel of Fortune Keeps Me Spinning          Image result for wheel of fortune kay starr

I am a sexual male, not—I think—untypical of my generation, living in and among the various gay communities of the San Francisco Bay Area for the past two decades.

Ever since I discovered what my body can do, and unless I’m feeling really bad, I’ve wanted to have sex about once a day. Though this isn’t always possible with someone else, at least I always have myself as an acceptable, if not ideal, partner.

I’ve never been tested for HIV status, and don’t want to be. Instead, to be on the safe side, I presume myself to be seropositve and take all the appropriate precautions. And I consider myself to be in very good company. I join probably 50% of the gay men of my generation who can test positive for HIV antibody. I also belong with the 99%here in San Francisco who have altered our sexual activities along Safe Sex guidelines that our own community wrote and disseminated– in the face of overt federal inaction or unconcern.

I have also watched friends get sick, one by one. I have known, and been with, and sometimes been with to the end, too many. For years I believed my death was imminent. Each yearly post-holiday sale on soaps at the Skin Zone on Castro was my own private ritual of reprieve—I made it again! I began living as if each year were my last one, to do everything that was important to me so that I would never have to say: “If only…” More and more, I can handle the “idea” of living fully now as well as I can the “idea” of dying.

But I am still aware that I could be surprised any day by the arrival of the signs and symptoms of one of the sardonically-called Opportunist Infections, those harbingers of full-blown AIDS or ARC.2  Reality could overwhelm all of my “ideas.”

When I contemplate this possibility, why is my biggest fear not one of internment or interment—quarantine or death—but that I will lose my identify by losing my sex life? How is it that a sex drive can continue in the face of total danger, or my own mortality?

I know my own patterns by now. Lonely, day or night dreaming, I start with immediate Sex. But can never forget AIDS, the thought like a bucket of ice water dumped on two stuck dogs. Or my mind jumps to the oldest of all fears, Rejection. Or on to Guilt, which can also follow sexual acts. Or maybe, with a lot of luck, I may even find Love. Love frustrated, though, often leads right back to just more plain Sex.

Those are the points on my personal Wheel of Fortune, my own internal game show.  Just like in the classic song by Kay Starr, who was the Vanna White of 1951:

While the wheel is turning, turning, turning, I’ll be ever yearning for love’s precious flame.

Oh Wheel of Fortune, please don’t pass me by. Let me know the magic of a kiss and a sigh.

With that as its theme song, the rest is about actual gay men’s sex lives in 1988, our personal creative stories, reflecting our fears and fantasies here in the teeth of Death.

 

 Beyond Fear and Loathing in the South of Market

In honor of the gay baths, let’s begin at a lowly remnant of San Francisco’s South of Market glory days of leather and unfettered lust.3  The Gay Rescue Mission is a sort of queers’ Salvation Army for the down-and-out. As the neighborhood is gentrifying, it finds itself tucked among newly opened Yuppie eateries. “I’ve never seen such trendy places for IV drug users,” says one ironical denizen at the Rescue Mission. Their storefront opens early to provide free coffee and candy bars for those who passed the night outdoors, with a later brunch for stragglers from the nearby welfare hotels. A simple repast, though the place also features  beefcake, only it is the kind decorating the walls.

In a place of honor is a color photo of a fresco from Herculaneum-Pompeii. This, explains Rev. Don Dill, the Mission’s director, is “Saint” Priapus, a pre-Christian figure renowned  for his extraordinary member, shown semi-erect and nearly to his knees. But also for his compassion. Evening “worship” to this patron deity helps fund the Mission’s outreach, an example of sanctified carnality in the service of the homeless and PWAs.

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In front of the Mission storefront, I talk to Michael, a handsome Black man with painted red nails, who came here from South Bend, Indiana where “the closest thing to safe sex was clean sex,” he recalls. At the baths in Indian “they were in the showers all the time. But almost nobody was using condoms.” He came out to California for “a better chance to meet someone you like. And more sex.”

I also met Antonio, who hung around gay people when he was 18 or so in his home state of Texas, six years back, . Then he was married for three years, to a woman who knew he was gay. After the break-up he went to Palm Springs, coming out into “a completely gay world,” where he worked as a topless waiter at Daddy Warbucks—and all that implies.

The only person with AIDS he had ever heard of was the first man he met, an older man who got him a job. “I saw him a month before he died, but didn’t know what it was. I thought his sickness was just because he was an alcoholic.”

“Among the young guys, nobody would say they have AIDS. They acted like they were going to live forever. Their idea of safe sex was ‘I’ll fuck you, you won’t fuck me’. I know, cause I’ve slept with most of them. I thought I was safe without a rubber, but then I got the clap [gonorrhea]. Now I wear them.” Like a number of people still caught in an old South of Market trip, he tends to “tweak and freak”—pulling tricks during a speed jag. Recently he hasn’t been lucky; tomorrow he is due in court on prostitution charges.

Antonio says he is still looking for love in all the wrong places, but finding a place to sleep for the weekend is a more pressing need. The closest he ever came to being in love was “right away after I’d left my wife. He was a 15-year old, a runaway from Juvenile Hall. I’d known him for three years, a streetwise little punk. He had so much hurt. He fell in love with me but couldn’t admit it because he was straight.”

As if to punctuate this street conversation, a horn honks from a passing pickup truck and some jerks yell out, “DIE faggots!” I am proud of the responses they get from the folks at the front of the Mission: “Suck my big cock!” “You closet cases!”

That kids may already be wiser to safe sex precautions than their elders was born out by a group of under-18 runaways at Larkin Street Youth Services. Outreach workers Roxanne Robinson White and Dan Ford do a weekly safe sex group. “The kids do most of the talking, and begin by calling out all the ways to get AIDS. Here is their list, compiled in a record four minutes. “No condoms, unclean needles, booty bumping4, saliva (‘like a quart of spit’), and rimming.” They need prompting on a few more: pregnancy and mother’s milk. But there is no hesitancy in practicing with condoms—playing with them, getting whole fists into different kinds and opening their fingers. However I also heard tell, difficult to corroborate, that while these kids may be practicing safe sex with their tricks, they reserve unprotected acts for their “true loves,” whether male or female.

But by and large, gay youth in their late teens and twenties, the post-AIDS generation, seem to be doing fairly well. “At first they complained about not wanting to hear about the Good Old Days they missed, in the bathhouses for instance,” says John Karr, a longtime writer on the sex industry.4  “They came out into a world where safe sex is the norm. The generation that’s having trouble includes those of us who had years of free and easy sex.”

Novelist Andrew Holleran summed it up in the title essay from his book Ground Zero. He believes that the ‘70s equated sex with Freedom, a fearless reaching for the outward boundaries. But by the ‘80s sex came to equate with Death, as new limits, “so draconian and harsh,” got artificially imposed.

 

Guilty or Not Here I Come        Image result for john lorenzini AIDS

 When John Lorenzini was first diagnosed with AIDS in 1981 he became suicidal. “But I gave that up in favor of anger. You know, internalized anger is depression, so I turned it out instead of in. I became a fighter, and I think these have been the most productive years of my life.”5  Over the years this survivor has always spoken out about the need for sex, especially for PWAs. He now works for the revived East Bay AIDS Project and is learning to do massage for PWAs and health caregivers.

“AIDS provided an open season for sex-negativity, ‘homosexuality is bad,’ all the new puritanical attitudes. There can be nothing more harmful to us than those messages. It’s like a weak patient that they used to bleed. Sexuality is part of our lifeblood, and cutting it out is like killing people. And basically, if you look at AIDS education, it’s about cutting out sex. Even talk of safe sex is usually done so negatively. Even the ads in the gay press, stating HIV-negative like it’s a badge of honor, I now know what it must have felt like to be Jewish in Germany.”

“This says we have a double standard. PWAs are still the culprit, even in our own community. Partner selection doesn’t solve the problem; it’s what you do.

“The one question people are afraid to ask me is: As a person with AIDS, how in the world can you still have sex? I was cruising a well-known alley and a person handed me a note, assuming that I was spreading disease, offended that I was out in a space supposed to be for ‘safe’ people. As if I would do something more dangerous than he would. I can’t forget that.”

He hesitates, but then tells this story. “I went to a bookstore not too long ago and I stumbled onto a kid who had been hanging out at bookstores and parks for four years. And he was overwhelmed because I was the first person who’d ever invited him home, and the first person who he’d spent the night with. He couldn’t wait to have a shower together. He’d never done that and dreamed about it. Of course I told him I had AIDS. So it was lots of hugging and kissing.

“But all of a sudden I have a very big responsibility. I’m clear that it’s love, but it’s not my love. I have to help him explore something real about the gay world beyond casual sex. Am I the Carrier of Death or can I help him feel good about himself and learn to articulate his needs to have sex in a safe way? It turns my stomach that he could get fucked in a bookstore booth.

“He’s opening up. I know I won’t be his lover. He’s already asking questions about the gay community, how to meet people. I want him to have tools.” A name for those tools is Sexual Identity.

Our natural preference for one gender or another may be unconscious. (It’s merely indoor vs. outdoor plumbing, say I). The argument that it is not a question of choice has been a useful one in the gay lib armory. But sexual desire itself, or lack of it, is clearly socially conditioned, says Joseph Kramer, founder of the Body Electric School of Massage and Rebirthing over in Berkeley. That our sex practices changed dramatically when our young friends began to die is proof of that.

Image result for joseph kramer sexologist san francisco

“We are bonded around the death beds of lovers, like war buddies,” tells Kramer. “And sex becomes a physical anchor to mortality. I hear people say, ‘Sex isn’t important anymore, other things are—but that’s a conditioned response too. Worse, one reason many people don’t want to get tested is not out of fear that it might change things, but because it might mean that we’d have to acknowledge the possibility of having passed this on to others in the last five years without knowing. I see very little of this in print, but in private, in peoples’ hearts, I think it is this huge fear and sadness.”

He also tells about a man in one of his groups who described himself as feeling “dirty.” The horrible part is that most of the other men in the group agreed. We have been living with internal voices that call ourselves Tainted, Contaminated, Poisoned. Such an erotophobic sense of self echoes the homophobic messages many of us grew up with.

Kramer’s antidote is to return touch to its life-affirming role, since “there are ecstatic ways of having sex that are no risk.” Based in Tantric Buddhist techniques, he created erotic massage group classes to prove it. Very few in the Bay Area gay communities still practice unsafe sex, he feels, except those influenced by alcohol and speed (“suicide trips just under the surface”). But many who need touching aren’t getting it, including most of those who are sick with AIDS. Shouldn’t everyone be lining up for group oil massages? “Why aren’t there J/O clubs like there are McDonalds?” Kramer demands.

He also points to, he believes, “the fifty percent of gay men who are heterosexually married and used to go to the baths. For many, ‘masseurs’—erotic ones—are the safe alternative, because of the wife.

Jim is one of those male sex workers, with a very developed sense of what he does. People reach me when everything else has failed.” He didn’t like the idea of working the street, so puts a display ad in the paper. “I used to get lazy and say ‘Why not drop this fake massage number that I really didn’t know much about?’ and just do it and get it over. But then I found that they’d get neurotic, couldn’t come, got grabby– awful for both people. So I began learning all these incredible massage techniques. Now even before I do any erotic massage with people, they are so relaxed and blissed-out that the erotic thing is a sideshow.

“A lot of what I do,” Jim maintains, “I think of as private theater. When I first started the hit song went: ‘I’m a private dancer, a dancer for money, I’ll do what you want me to do.’ It’s a world of make-believe. The first thing I do is I hug them, give them total acceptance no matter who they are, which is something you can’t get very easily or very often. Then while the massage is starting, during a neck release, I’m asking simple questions—Where are you from? How long have you lived in the city? What do you do? And you’d be surprised how easily fantasies come up.

“Then I try to link fantasy to reality. I might ask: ‘What’s the sexiest thing every happened to you in your life?’ and get some amazing answers. One military ‘brat’ tells me that when he was 12 he got picked up by a Military Police and fucked silly, the hottest and most incredible sex he can recall. And he went home and announced to him mom that he was going to marry the MP!

“The person leaving after their first massage has no idea that his fantasy world has already begun to change, some old fantasies shattered, such as the control-oriented S/M stuff, or money-for-sex fantasy (which is one I obviously have not let go of myself). I replace them with fantasies of touch and intimacy.”

 

Bringing Our Fears Into the Magic Theater

In the mid-80s sex has become quite theatrical. The anonymity of baths and backrooms has been replaced by dramatic sexual tableaux in which scenarios, sound effects and verbal fantasies are as important as size, shape and length. This particularly clear in newer areas of lovemaking: telephone dates, computer bulletin boards and classified ads. And it has been faced head-on by playwright Robert Chesley in his recent plays.

His big hit, produced last summer by Theatre Rhinocerus, was Jerker; or The Helping Hand (and further subtitled A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and A Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty). Though the play is pure melodrama, it works as catharsis because it reaches audiences who need to affirm that what they did before they knew better was good and not evil, who want to hear that sexual desire in not moribund or impossible, all transferred to other lives, to get a good cry about someone else, not themselves or beloved friends.Image result for jerker AIDS drama

Just listen to Kelly Hill, who directed the Los Angeles production of Jerker in 1986 and starred as JR the Vet in SF Rhino’s 1988 presentation. “I first read Jerker five or six months after my lover died. I loved the script from its first draft and was mad [he chuckles at the dramatic nature of the phrase] to do it. I was still sitting on all that stuff after Warren’s death.

“It was so early in the epidemic—only 200 or so had been lost, the AIDS ward at General Hospital had opened just two weeks before. He stayed there nine months, until he died. My sex life had been on hold for nine months, essentially. Our biggest fight was when he insisted, out of his guilt, that he could have given it to me. I fought back by saying, ‘How do you know I didn’t give it to you?’” Then there was this script about how two men were able to work out a consuming desire for intimacy but who couldn’t get together. I was playing a paraplegic who feels basically damaged and incapable of closeness. It was so clearly metaphorical.”

*****

Ken Dixon is familiar to those who saw him as the Black drag queen Wilhelmina Windsong in Pulp and Circumstances and then carried Leland Moss’s play Quisbies on its invitational tour to Kennedy Center. He is now preparing to direct David Mamet’s Life In the Theater at Rhino, but also has his own tale to tell.

Dixon used to work as a psychologist, the Human Relations Director for a Fortune 500 company that he credits with ending his psychology career. He left to do what he really wanted—theater—but didn’t find success in LA. In 1980 he took a short vacation to Europe, which lasted for five years, with all the theater work he could desire in Amsterdam. Not only that. “I’ve never had so much attention paid to me. It was heady, intoxicating. Being a Black American in Europe is kind of a charmed existence.

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“I don’t feel that anyone should apologize for what we went through in the ‘70s,” referring to that time of near-total sexual freedom for gay men. “Whether for a night or a weekend, or a long period, we began to relate to each other in ways men hadn’t before. It even changed the way straight men are able to be in the world.”

Back in California he met an old acquaintance “from a place that will remain nameless,” who had become a doctor. They are still together, and Ken is now artistic director of Theater Rhino. “When you know you are both sero-positive, you live with the possibility, but when it comes it’s still a shock. It’s the Time Bomb effect. You always have to wonder ‘Will it be me or him?’ Then when it happens, there is no more warning. There it is. Deal with it.

“Here I was, three months ago, away in Washington with Quisbies, about a man who died of AIDS. I was visiting a friend with AIDS there. And I get a call from my lover, days before the opening, with news of his Diagnosis. I couldn’t leave for a week. I got home on Thursday and he was admitted to the hospital on Tuesday. But we made love, that first weekend back together after the play opened. It was like a moment out of time.

“There has always been a sexual charge between us,” says Ken. “But when you get older it becomes different. In your twenties, your dick does a lot of your thinking for you. Now I find that a lot of the sexual energy I had ten years ago goes into my work in theater,” currently in a one-man show he is about to open at Exit Theater, “ allowing me to relive all those people and relationships in a safe context.”

 

Vanilla and Other Varieties of Experience

Not everyone with AIDS wants sex. Some feel too physically or emotionally weak, or are just not thinking clearly, much less in sexual terms. But many do. And some people are creating communication networks and new ways to connect, to provide hope for those of us who are HIV-positive, have ARC or AIDS, or don’t know.

Richard has lived with suspicion of his HIV positivity since 1979, based on some ongoing lymphadenopathy.6  “I thought I was dealing with this real well, until my best friend died of lymphoma six months ago, a slow lingering death. It really threw me. So I joined a group for HIV-positives, and that’s been great. I’d gone along thinking I was one of the lucky ones and then I found my T-cell count was low. And after my friend died I began to have dreams about my dying.

“I’ve gotten by this far without any symptoms, no ARC, I work full time. If anything’s changed, it’s a certain sense of urgency now—picking things I’ve always wanted to do and just doing them.” Now he is also going with someone who is sero-positive.

“I did have to deal with the question: Am I just doing this because it may be my last chance? But I realized that nobody knows how long we’re going to be here; that just becomes an excuse to avoid relationships. I’m very relationship-oriented. Whether one or ten years, why waste it? While I feel this healthy I want to do as much as I can. Later, there might be plenty of time to feel sick.”

Despite the warnings of his friends that it was crazy, since the two of them hadn’t spent more than a couple days in a row together, they recently went to Europe for a joint vacation. “It was wonderful. An interesting thing, the entire two weeks we were there I didn’t have a single dream about death. I love to sleep wrapped around someone and he’s one of the few people I’ve met who can do that. At this point in my life sex is important and I would like it 24 hours a day. But physical contact is even more important than sex.”

Leland Moss, co-director of The AIDS Show arrived in the Bay Area in 1980. “I went through a lot of different sexual lives, from a frenetic one in New York. I felt lost. So I moved to Berkeley and got into a Tibetan Buddhist program. There was no gay personality to that community, so I developed a certain split. Six and a half days of work, then driving into the City and going to the baths.”

His chosen den, The Hothouse, was “fabulous, wild, imaginative. Almost every room was designed for a different fantasy, 40 or so on three floors, and they changed the room motifs regularly. Plus a lot of fun people to fill them. There was one room with a motorcycle hanging from the ceiling, another had cobwebs, something out of the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty’s castle that the forest had overgrown. It was a very hot place.

I remember one man I played with there; a god-like body strapped tight into a harness. He said, ‘I love coming here, I can get whatever I want. I lead a charmed life, just bought a Maserati’! I swore I’d never play with him after that, he was so full of himself. But I did once more, I couldn’t help myself. I’d go there and pig out, then home to Berkeley to recuperate.

“I wrote the owner when he decided to close it, even before the City took action on the bathhouses. I asked permission to be in a room on closing night with a tape recorder and a photographer, to talk with anyone who wanted to. My idea was to create a coffee table book on the last days of the Orgy in San Francisco. I never got an answer back.”

Moss describes several years after of “craziness, because all the ways I’d related sexually I was not told were unsafe. And the alternatives seemed very vanilla and boring.” The sex he had cozened  up to over the years was much more like Rocky Road.

“You know, I’ve lived all my life waiting for this evanescent lover to appear and move in. Over the last few years [during which he was diagnosed with AIDS] I’ve come to know myself better, and I think that prospect is unlikely. That was when I started going to Shanti, developing a new circle of friends.” Twice recently, in person, Moss met people in a sexual situation who, after he told them about his diagnosis, changed their minds. Was it done nicely?

“On that level, nicely doesn’t matter; these were both people who had already shown they were attracted to me, but then were just too scared. I’m not likely to put myself in that position another time. Despite all my experience talking about safe sex, the last thing I want to do is tell someone I have KS and have him reject me.7 So I just stopped meeting people like that.

“Then I discovered the phone, and that was a lifesaver for me.” But phone sex, even with all the excitement but none of the danger, can’t do it all. Luckily, Moss has discovered a set of new services designed to bypass that tense moment of disclosure by making it a given. One is a monthly newsletter for HIV-positives and PWAs. “I met one man through its want ads. And there’s another organization called Trust, largely for guys into heavier scenes, and they’re trying to get a special section together for people with AIDS. I’ve already met several people I’ve had hot, safe sex with, and it’s continuing.”8

 

Tenderloin Angel, Trans Version

Aside from budding network relationships, Buddhism and the baths, though, some have found spiritual paths that replace sex. Our modern road to Golgotha is lined with social servants. Maureen Gammon from Larkin Street Youth Services passes me to Donna (Don) Stewart, desk clerk and associate of Hank Wilson at the Ambassador Hotel, the largest of the lifeline SRO Hotels in the Tenderloin.9 Above the front desk there are seven Open Hands meals lined up.10 Does that mean there are seven people with AIDS living in the hotel? Says Donna, “Oh no! Those are just the ones that haven’t been picked up yet. I think the current count is 34.” That comes to about one room in five.

Donna in turn introduces me to Joni Griffin. Joni, from her room as a resident of the hotel, serves as an unpaid “benefits advocate for my AIDS and ARC friends, along with my colleagues Stefan and Geoff (Stefan Rowniak, Public Health Nurse and Geoffrey Froner, Outreach Worker) from the SF Department of Health’s HOT, or Health Outreach Team, which visits the hotel daily.

Joni describes her sexual identity: “I’m a post-op transsexual, but my contacts are few.” She came to San Franbcisco from Nebraska as an infant. “I even recall riding the ferries before the Bridges were built. My parents had a good deal of wealth, but if you have money you have to tend to money, so I prefer to live this kind of life.

I used to have a lot of real estate in Los Angeles in the early ‘70s. That was after I was in the Navy from ’64 to ’67. But I divested, put the money into trust funds for the kids I raised.” She had adopted the three children of her brother, right after he was killed in Vietnam, and his wife vanished on receiving the news. “Those kids were used to seeing me dress androgynously, slacks sometimes, skirts sometimes. Their behavior toward me was more as a mother than as a father—they called me Na.

“There was a time when I tried to be more masculine. I took male hormones and even drank, to an extent. But the behavior part I could never get quite right. I was going through a lot of depression with the bottle. But when I gave up the steroids, testosterone and the gonadotropins, it was easy then to quit drinking. Within a couple of weeks of stopping trying to be a guy, I was okay.”

But it is not easy being a six-foot girl on these often mean streets. “I was beaten and raped in Portland and spent two weeks in a hospital there. When I got back I went to the Sexual Trauma Center; they turned me inside out and did the whole workup at SF General Hospital. That’s where they found I was HIV-positive, and also had an inoperable cancer that had metastasized. The sickness got so bad I couldn’t work.”

She now walks with difficulty, and a cane. So her devoted clients come to her room whenever possible. Like the skinny rough trade downtown Elvis with sideburns, tattoos and cut-off jean jacket, who waits by her door with a “we’ve got to talk” look in his eyes.

She describes her technique with PWAs at the hotel: “When someone is having a rough spot we try to help them avoid having to be 911’d to Ward 86.10  First we get their temperature down a little, then try to provoke them—motivate them really. They have to find the happy medium between activity and the rest that they need. But primarily by finding that what they need is in themselves. Hopefully I get to them before despair–and methamphetamines– do.”11

The day after our interview Joni is going to get on a bus for Reno. She will be met there by the shaman from a Paiute reservation near Pyramid Lake. “It’s for a healing, a renewal,” she tells me, a little embarrassed to talk about doing something for herself. “It’s like fasting for forty days, to fill in some voids in my own wisdom. But what I learn from the shaman and his council I hope to bring back here.”

“Oh yes,” confirms the Public Health Nurse, “she is considered ‘hamatinee’ or holy, revered by that tribe. She didn’t mention that she has a PhD in Anthropology? She was also on the phone to the Presidential AIDS Commission. But many of us are worried she won’t make it back from Nevada. She’s gotten very frail.”

Some gospel according to Joni Griffin: “Please let us, the homosexual, gay person, queens, be together and cure it [AIDS] with love and humanitarian concern. We’ve been the genius in society, the motivators of a particular and peculiar kind of fellowship. I found my family as well as my friends here. With our given nature we don’t usually have such stout blood-family ties, which is a shame. It’s our other family’s loss; they’re shortchanging themselves. My Master says to love, my Master doesn’t say anything about gender or anything else. And the ‘religious’ Right can put that in their pipe and smoke it.”

 

Once Again, Into the Breach

It’s a slow Monday evening. The VCR is tied up recording Polanski’s “Chinatown”. The weekend was just okay, a dinner party with old friends and a minor disappointment in love. I am still a single man. Some buddies say they are going to the San Francisco Jacks, a club for those who like to masturbate with other men as—it turns out—many do.12

The “members” enter, we leave our street clothes with a Black Adonis but keep on our shoes or boots. We sit and shmooze in some naugahyde chairs. Around us others are heard chatting, networking, most even smile. Eventually each of us wanders up to the group area. The lights are up, the ground rules have been signed on to: no oral sex, no anal sex, no poppers, no attitude please. It’s more relaxed than any bathhouse, more like what I imagine a traditional mens’ club to be.

There are the regular randy and/or jaded dudes, as well as the wallflowers and first-timers who may have been too scared to have sex with anyone for some years before. The tone is truly friendly, accpepting and egalitarian, despite that oft-quoted dictum about there being only two kids of queens—size queens and liars. If one approach is not appreciated, a gentle squeeze and a smile communicate that, never an abrupt pulling away, certainly not the known sting of rejection.

A buzz-cut bleached blond handles the music mix, which ranges from hip hop to Baroque, building to some 80-beat-per-minute stuff, then followed by the bird-twitter original of “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from Disney’s Cinderella.

The action has been hot and heavy for two or three hours, cutting across all lines of race, class and age. There are solos and duos plus adjacent appreciators, but also group scenes where any number wind their ways in—a veritable Saturnalia at times while loving within restrictions. Some have learned to work the limits well, including one guy with “melting eyes” who showed how slapping the palm of his hand with his dick worked wonders on those around him. Another, claiming it was his birthday, got simultaneous gifts from nine well-wishers, exemplifying the Safe Sex dictum: On Me, Not In Me.Related imageScene from SF Jacks painted by live performance artist Lou Rudolph, on-site documenter of sex and punk scenes.13

Jacks features a biweekly theme night (brainchilds of two of its founders John Karr and Jerry “Dr. Woof” Zientara): Rip My Clothes Off Night; Sausage Night (Italian sausage on Columbus Day); Auto-Eroticism (with real autos). People still talk about Bondage night, when two men were spiderweb-wrapped to a leather table on the ground floor, surrounded by generous attendees while others contributed from the 2nd floor balcony above.

Like any tasteful mens’ club, The Jacks provides a timely vacation from the world outside, when a safe escapade is just what the doctor ordered. “Truth. Beauty. Community.” These are bywords from stalwart Buzz Bense.14  Buzzy is a safe sex educator who edited “Hot ‘N Healthy Times” and  “Condom Sense.” Both were used as exhibits of taxpayer-funded decadence in a federal censorship campaign by Senator Jesse Helms.15

“It is not surprising that activities like Jacks, J/O Buddies, Uncut Club and the S&M Safe Sex Groups freak out conservative groups,” says therapist John Acevedo, the organizer of Hot ‘N Healthy safe sex groups at the AIDS Health Project. “And that affirms my faith in the ability of gay men to find ways that are safe, exciting and loving toward one another, without any outside control. It is very San Francisco.”

play-fair.jpgProbably the first Safe Sex guidelines, this seminal pamphlet/early exemplar of the San Francisco Model was self-funded and produced by The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

 

What Goes Around

The losses we suffered in the gay community have been many and major. John Acevedo lists “loss of friends, lovers, partners, co-workers, loss of a lifestyle, medical status and—much more difficult to put your finger on—the loss of one’s identity as a gay man. If I can’t fuck and suck anymore, to put it crudely, how can I be gay?”

But being gay is no simple matter of what we do in bed. You can be gay and sleep with no one, or be in a straight marriage. Lesbians and gay men can make love (safely now) to one of the opposite gender (it is more common than you may think); straights can and often have had sex with homosexuals. But being gay remains a matter of identity.

The AIDS epidemic has let us all in for some big swings on the aforementioned Wheel of Fortune. Happiness, Sex. Loss, Life, Death, and that special starred stop at Guilt (that one’s for us Jews, there’s Sin for Catholics, Shame for Protestants and Muslims, Karma for Buddhists). I know I am haunted by remorse– for the ghosts of loved ones who have died and those who will yet. And of many I have lost contact with, and can only guess about\.

Loss is an inevitability: in orgasm, le petit morte; at the eventual end of any relationship and each life; in survivor’s guilt, or in the closing down somewhat to survive despair and return to some normalcy. The effective magic of Theater is that it provides a practice spin of the Wheel, moving us briefly—and relatively safely—through all its points. Sex and good theater have this in common; both are places where we can deal with loss and death. And even play with it.

Whether gay sex has anything to do with procreation, it is certainly an act of creation. where we create and pass a modicum of “love’s precious flame.” During sex, and then in the stories we tell ourselves–and others– we can face shames and losses we’ve long preferred to avoid. These include never fully resolved traumas of childhood, unrequited longings or rejections left over from adolescence, and all the unmet dreams inherent in being an adult. Ultimately, like all of the ancient initiation rites, theater, storytelling and cinema provide places that help us come to grips with that old Grim Reaper.

So Antonio or Jim are not just merchandising their bodies, but essentially inviting us into their stories. And Joseph Kramer or Buzz Bense or John Lorenzini deliver safe sex goods  that are not only physical, but spiritually necessity.16  Richard, Leland Moss and Joni have crossed their own thresholds—positive tests and negative diagnoses—and come out okay on the other side. Sharing the dramas directed by Kelly Hill and Ken Dixon can take us past some blockages of Guilt and Fear that still surround sex. And move us toward finding other definitions: Agape, the love of brothers and of God; Comunitas, identity and belonging; and Whitmanesque Intimacy, the ability to honor and be honored by touch.

“In this age of Love is Death,” as one of our best theater chroniclers and novelist Ethan Mordden put it, although we may be “cut off from each other at our most intimate, the physical remains the essential communication of our fraternity, the door through which friends long to pass. How else shall we know each other?”

The stories we remember, in the end, are our real remains. They are shared personal pieces of theater about how to come to terms (maybe even playfully) with what we fear. Actually they are our surest way to transcend Death and dying.

 

Random Footnotes

1 The original title was a play on the outdated abbreviation PWAs, People (Living) With AIDS was preferable to “AIDS Victims”. Note that in the late ‘80s the term AIDS was still au courant. The revision to HIV/AIDS became more accurate after the Human Immunosuppresive Virus was identified as the causative source of AIDS.

2 AIDS Related Condition was still the terminology used in 1988

3 By order of the Health Department’s Dr. Mervyn Silverman, on October 10 of 1984, all bathhouses were closed in San Francisco, a move that caused no end of controversy within the gay community.

4 Booty bumping is a form of injecting speed directly into the anal mucosa without the  need for or danger of a needle, but reportedly with rapid results.

5 Though I did not know this at the time of writing, Lorenzini was the person who had chained himself to the San Francisco office of the US Dept. of Health and Human Services while carrying a banner that read: “People With A.I.D.S. Chained to a Sick Society.” In 1984 this was only the second known occasion of civil disobedience in service of AIDS activism. As the pandemic grew, ACT-UP! would involve thousands in civil disobedience. It was the only reason we got HIV meds through FDA roadblocks. From Emily Hobson’s book Lavender and Red.  https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520279063

6 Enlarged and sometimes tender lymph nodes under the arms, at the jaw line or around the groin. Along with severe night sweats, these were signs of out-of-control infection, dreaded signals of the end, before effective medications were developed.

7 Kaposi’s Sarcoma, an “opportunistic infection” involving lesions on the body, both on skin and in mucosal areas like the mouth. They were often described as “angry purple” in color, and soon became marks of shame, a symptom one might cover in public but couldn’t hide in intimate encounters.

8 This may seem apocryphal now that online has mostly replaced in-person cruising as a means of meeting up. And phone sex seems almost quaint in comparison to chat lines, sexting and live video feeds, not to mention meet-up web sites. On the other hand, HIV-positive status still seems rarely announced openly on sex sites. La plus ca change…

9 Single Room Occupancy hotel rooms were the refuge of those who could only scrape together enough to spend a night, a weekend or a week indoors and off the street. In SF they are clustered in the Tenderloin and the 16th and Mission areas. As gentrification increased, they rose in cost from $200 a month in the early ‘90s to $500 a month during the first “Dot Com Bubble,” and now $800. Rooms in shared apartments now go for as much as $2000 a month, apartments for $4-5,000. We don’t really need to look elsewhere for increasing homelessness’s cause.  The trend to convert SRO hotels to “supportive housing” with subsidized rent and wraparound services is one component of some successful efforts to reduce chronic homelessness in San Francisco. The prototype for this was undoubtedly the Ambassador Hotel, built in the Tenderloin in 1911, but from 1978 on managed as a mixed business/mission of mercy on the principles of “harm reduction” by the beloved yet self-effacing activist Hank Wilson. http://www.ebar.com/obituaries/index.php?sec=ob&article=419

10 Ward 86 was the first dedicated AIDS unit in the country, and a model to others. Not only was it staffed with nurses who were themselves positive, like George Jahlbert (also know by his Radical Faery names of Chenille and Crow), by courageous lesbian nurses like Val Robb and Joanne Green (the first to die of an accidental injection of 30ccs of blood), and doctors who refused to wear the insensitive head-to-toe protective clothing  seen around the country when fearful medical personnel came in contact with “tainted” AIDS patients. It was also populated with community angels like Rita Rocket who brought her song and dance routines to the ward, and by Brownie Mary who regularly delivered her medicinal treats.

10 Project Open Hands, a community-based effort to provide meals or groceries, originally for PWAs, was one cornerstone of the “San Francisco Model” of care. This refers to homegrown initiatives, self-help and mutual aid in the face of the Ronald Reagan administration’s indifference and a federal Do-Nothing policy, even as the death toll rose exponentially during the 1980s and early ‘90s. Largely in response to ACT-UP and other activists’ pressure on drug manufacturers and the DEA, the HIV “cocktail” (lower doses of multiple medicines) finally broke the incessant rise of the death rate when it was introduced in 1995. AIDS activists then increased the push for affordable access to countries worldwide. Recognizing that many of the early caregivers for PWAs were lesbians and women in general, Open Hand was to expand its services to women with breast cancer, and eventually to people with other chronic illnesses.

11 Amphetamines that the US Armed Forces provided to our GIs overseas during WWII to increase their “productivity” created a postwar desire for benzedrine inhalers,  pills known as “bennies”, and a home fabrication version called “crank.” When its formulation was purified into a crystalline form, methamphetamine began the “speed” epidemic. What started in California with Hells’ Angels as dealers, gained popularity in the gay community as an instant cure for self-hatred, and is now endemic in all financially depressed areas of the nation, most particularly in Trump voters’ country.

12 Karr’s gay porn column “Karrnal Knowledge” still runs in San Francisco’s LGBT weekly Bay Area Reporter. Its writing takes a tongue-in-cheek and hand-on approach. http://www.bayareareporter.net/arts/art_article.php?sec=karrnal&article=284

13 Lou Rudolph, himself as naked as everyone at the Jacks, hurriedly painted huge works like this one that he completed in media res in a few hours. His style was to paint live and quickly. Lou died of AIDS in 1992 at age 41.

14 Buzz Bense and his partner Bob West went on to found Eros on Market Street in the Castro District in 1992. It is probably the only sex club whose opening was attended by the mayor of its city and other celebrities (though fully dressed). Eros is a two-story safe sex location with sauna and open play spaces, but not legally a bathhouse, since all places with private rooms that could not be monitored had been made prohibited by the San Francisco Department of Health in 1984. http://www.erossf.com Buzz Bense died in November of 2016 of liver failure, and was feted by a large and loving going-away party at the Center for Sex and Culture on Mission Street, a location where the SF Jacks still continues to hold its get-togethers on the second and fourth Monday evenings of each month. http://www.sexandculture.org/events

15 Jesse Helms, a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan and an influential anti-gay bigot from his North Carolina Senate seat, died in 2008. While there weren’t precisely celebrations of his death in California, he had already been memorialized in the trailer “Jesse Goes to Heaven”for the 23rd annual Frameline Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in 1999. Jeff Iorillo’s trailer can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6S1OG3jn66s. Helms had already twice made the cover of Diseased Pariah News, a magazine of beautifully sick humor that reflected the angry mood of the Positive community in the early 1990s. This delightfully dark resource is well worth a look if you want to get a good idea of the zeitgeist of those times. Issue #1 is now available online at https://issuu.com/tomleger/docs/dpn_01_complete.

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16 Kudos for the widespread availability of condoms go to the SF AIDS Foundation and the City & County of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, who stepped up early. http://www.sfaf.org/hiv-info/hot-topics/from-the-experts/10-moments-that-changed.html

And a Last Note?

Some developments, such as PrEP, indicate that the era of Safe Sex, and need for it in the gay community, may be ending. After over 30 years and three generations since AIDS entered our lives next year there will be a clinical human trial is to be held, of a vaccine designed to be as wily as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus itself holds promise to end this pandemic. At long last. But while we see whether it works or disappoints again, all the stories of how we survived can still continue to be a real source of shared Pride.

Passed and Present: Midnight in Havana

It is around midnight in Havana, and our room is only a block or so from the gay bar Las Vegas, which did not exist on our last visit here back in 2001. Another few blocks on is a corner—known for some reason as the Big Bang, which in Cuban sounds more like ‘pingpong’—that is gay cruising central, right where La Rampa (23rd St.) meets the Malecón. This sea wall is an evening living room for all of La Habana, the traditional locale for cheap dates, family outings, older couples and innumerable crews of teenaged kids.

But we are not out tonight, even though it is a Friday. Ken has been feeling sick with the same coughing thing I’m just getting over. We try turning on the telly. First there appears a printed quote from national forefather José Martí, whose rebel army fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt and died in battle to free his country from Spain only to have it fall into the hands of the North Americans, along with Puerto Rico and the Philippines in 1898. His quote had to do with Culture being the path to Freedom. Then the tv switched to an old version of Wuthering Heights already in progress. We watched as much of the tacky ‘90s costume drama as we could.

But it simply couldn’t hold a candle to the Cuban/Spanish film we saw today in Teatro Yara at the top of La Rampa, one of many hundreds of offerings in Havana’s New Latinamerican Film Festival, currently celebrating its 38th year. December is high tourism season, and there is an International Jazz Festival and a Pan-American Crafts Fair going on as well.

The film we saw was “Esteban,” a 2015 first feature for tv-based director Jonal Cosculluela, and it merits description. The nine-year-old moreno title character (a previously non-professional Reynauldo Guanche every bit as believable as the youngest actor in “Moonlight”) is the only child of a beleaguered but still radiant mother (the truly lovely Yuliet Cruz). On the street she illegally sells soaps, packaged noodles and “intimacias,” a euphemism for tampax. Esteban is solitary, and quietly sad—possibly he will be gay, definitely he is lost. Until one day his ears lead him to stop outside the apartment of an old, rather derelict piano teacher (the amazing Cuban master actor Manuel Porto). It turns out the child has a gift, but more importantly he has the strength and determination to overcome: this crusty teacher’s repeated rejections; an inability to pay for lessons; and his mother’s stubborn antagonism to her child’s fantastic desire. Unlike almost every other film released today in Cuba, it has neither sex nor violence nor X-rated language. And despite being as far from melodrama as can be, it was a three-hanky flick for me. I know I am just a sucker for films about sensitive kids and unlikely father figures.

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It helps that we now recognize every detail in the film. Among these are the short school uniforms, color-coded gold for primaria (elementary school), red in secundaria  and blue for colegio. Also familiar are examples of a dismal economy, the mother too exhausted to cook who gives her boy 10 pesos (40cents US, but a lot to someone who may make only the equivalent of $10 US per month) to buy a pizza on the corner, and the son who then goes without it, to save the money toward a first piano lesson. Then there are the newish yellow cabs, like SEATs from Spain and Russian Ladas, plus all the ‘40s and ‘50s American classic cars held together by baling wire and genius that are referred to as almendrones (due to their almond-like chubby rounded lines, at least prior to the ’57 Merc).  After only two weeks in Cuba none of this seems foreign.

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And all the music in the film is provided by four-time Grammy winner Chucho Valdés. The leader of the Cuban orquesta Irakere, he is probably one of only a handful of true piano masters in all the history of Jazz. Also in that class of five I would list Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Thelonius Monk, and for the last one either McCoy Tyner or my man Fats Waller, but friends of mine would argue for Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett. At any rate it was a real coup getting him to write and record the soundtrack.

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Proof of which we heard the night before, catching Valdés for the first time since Irakere overcame State Department difficulties to play in San Francisco about ten years ago. And he shone. It was the opening night of the Havana Jazz Plaza International Music Festival, and el maestro provided a compendium of Cuban jazz. He’d take a standard like “For All We Know (We May Never Meet Again)” jazz it slowly with feeling, then swing it to a cha-cha beat, or maybe it was a guaguanco. Then he towel-fanned himself in the Yoruba ritual manner while the clave beat-keeper of his cuarteto did a traditional call-out to the orisha deity Ogun, this time on his batá talking drums. Next, he introduced special guest Omara Portuando, of  worldwide fame via Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club album. After Celia Cruz she is Cuban vocal royalty. Valdés tastefully accompanied La Omara with pared down piano behind “Dos Gardenias Para Tí” and “Besame Mucho” as the crowd roared. To top this, he then brought out two current US jazz greats, New Orleans trumpeter Terrence Blanchard and Philly’s Christian MacBride on standup bass. They stayed with the combo for the rest of an amazing evening; both looking glad to be in 86-degree Havana in December, playing with such a hot ensemble.

 

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So how was Culture doing in Cuba a week after the passing of Fidel? All partying had been cancelled during the luto period of mourning. But international festivals must go on. And though all the popular-priced tickets (20 pesos, 10 peso students) for the Jazz Fest opening gala had sold out, some tix were still available to tourists, at a whopping $20 US. But then some foreign tour groups must have bribed their way in and took over whole rows of sold-out seats., creating verbal conflicts between newly entitled visitors. But the rest of the huge Teatro Mella (the same size and period as the dearly departed Coronet Theater  in SF) was cool. And the organizers adjusted by simply half-filling each aisle with folding chairs and standing folks four-deep in the back. Did I already mention that the concert was glorious?

The film festival was put on by venerable government film institute ICAIC, which in past decades has released prestigious films including Santiago Alvarez’ documentaries from the ’60s like “Now,” a history of the US civil rights movement narrated by Lena Horne, and the prize-winning Cuban gay classic “Fresas y Chocolate”(1997 Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio). The festival, utilizing 14 mid-Havana theaters as venues, showed an average of six films a day in each one—over a period of 11 days! Film fanatics, along with ordinary Havana residents, lined up an hour in advance of each showing, especially with the entry price of 2 pesos (8 cents US),  Yet even this could not go without a typically Cuban hitch. An hour before one popular Cuban film, a line formed while in the ticket booth a seen-it-all employee counted money: once, then the same bundle of bills again, until on the third count she started to fall asleep. “Are there tickets for the film?” I asked. “No tickets,” was her mumbled response. “Come back at three.” But the film would start at three, and I already knew they refused entry after a movie began. Thinking it was my Spanish, I asked a Cuban in the line to try to find out what was up. After an equally hopeless exchange with her, it looked like she didn’t sell tickets, that was someone else’s job. “Eso es Cuba,” was his dispirited assessment. Luckily, trying at another theater, a patron mentioned that you could always buy a passport of 7 tickets for 10 pesos. Done!

The Cuban ideal is that nobody be excluded from Culture. Remember that the first national campaign of the Cuban Revolution (even before the nationalization of foreign holdings) was a literacy campaign that reached 100% of the population, all genders, ethnicities and occupations in three years. Victory was proclaimed in the fight against illiteracy by 1963. And Cuba continued through the US boycott to be the cultural vanguard of Latin America, with world-class dancers, musicians, writers and filmmakers, even baseball players. Yet it has remained a social backwater because of inflexible rules from above and the attendant lack of initiative. The Cuban Communist Party is right to worry that many among the young generation may wind up with no concept of the necessary sacrifice and fortitude of their elders.

When we were here in 2001, practically everybody in the country was reading, be it  textbooks, novels,  newspapers, and especially romance novelas and comic books. Not anymore. With three channels, TV is now fairly ubiquitous. And telephones are no longer so rare that entire blocks got their messages from the one lucky neighbor that had a landline. Cell phones have begun their cultural takeover, Android and Google are not yet in the house, but AirBnB is in the waiting room. The US Government (read CIA) tried and failed to set up a bot-like social media app called ZunZuneo that peppered Cuba with “surveys and questionnaires”. Can Tinder and Grindr be far behind?

Those hotspots of conversation and flirting and complaining, the plazas in every Cuban city and popular parts of The Malecón are now full of people looking down at their phones. One difference, though—here people share their phones, and what they have discovered on them, with each other. Another difference? Connectivity comes at a premium, as much as $2 or $3 US to buy wifi access cards good  for an hour. This was expensive even for us. And  when I mention US dollar prices, I am actually talking about “convertible currency” CUCs which unlike actual US dollars are legally in circulation. Changing 100 US gets you only 87 CUCs. Euros and other currencies are traded at a much less punitive exchange rate. But hey, we have kept the island suffering under a boycott for decades. It’s payback time.

Most sales are still in Cuban pesos, outside of the tourist economy. Coffee that will be $1 CUC or more at an air-conditioned restaurant, is still 1 peso (4 cents) at the stalls on every street. And street vendors still chant their ages-old pregón, the unique cry for each item, be it for cebollas, mani or pan suave (onions, peanuts, soft bread rolls). Women call the vendor to stop, lower a basket from a laundry-bedecked balcony, pull it up on its rope.

Another tradition shows staying power is the persistence of the Yoruba religion based in African customs that parallels Catholicism in Cuba. Many wear necklaces and bracelets to indicate their belonging to an orisha, and initiates of both genders wear all white. I used to work with Cuban refugees to the States; they had arrived when Fidel responded to charges that Cubans were not free to leave by emptying his prisons and creating the Mariel boat lift. Most of the “marielitas” that I worked with still had santería altars behind the doors of their SRO hotel rooms on the 6th Street Skid Row in San Francisco.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the presence of police on random corners. Their increase or decrease has always been a clue to latest Cuban Communist Party policies. Many hold muzzled attack dogs on short leashes to enforce revolutionary morals, by intimidating queers for instance. I had the unfortunate experience of having one of those monsters growl and immediately lunge at me, getting about two feet away from my face. I took the chance of demanding to know of the officer, in Spanish, if he was incapable of controlling his dog? People on The Malecón later told me it was no slip, that they regularly experience such near-assaults. While CENESEX, the pro-sex, pro-gay and pro-trans government agency, headed by no less a figure than Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Wilma Espín who started the Cuban Women’s Federation and her husband Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and now president. But this does not eliminate daily, petty and sometimes serious oppression of queers. In the biggest cities public displays of affection are still a no-no, unless you are a hetero couple, and most LGBT people are not out to their families.

Outside the drag bar kids still try to hustle the several CUCs cost of admission, and once inside the price of a beer or rum, about the same. All travelers are fair game, the perpetual line being “Where you from?” Italy? Germany? Mexican tourists are also relatively rich here. But we were at the bar until late last night, which provided more than enough of surly straight guy studs, giggling amateur possibly-18-year old prostitutes and Mafiosi-style bouncers.

Especially after the emotional catharsis of “Esteban” earlier this afternoon, we are both happy staying in for the night. We recently got back from a cross-island trip with stops at Bay of Pigs (including an amazing tour of a national park that included a cave filled with thousands of bats and a snake coiling and uncoiling from a cleft in the wall trying to catch one), at the French-ified town of Cienfuegos, home to singer/songwriter/bandleader Benny Moré (a Cuban Nat King Cole), and the cattle-rich city of Camaguey with its entire street for film buffs and excellent Casa de la Trova  (troubadours, traditional soneros) on the way to the far Oriente, Cuba’s tropical and majority Black second city of Santiago.

Though I lost my prescription reading glasses on a very long bus ride back from Santiago de Cuba, I’m now glad to just lay in bed to read the last chapters of Rabih Allamedine’s new novel, the Angel of History. Rabih, as well as being a Middle Eastern queer novelist and a friend, was recently nominated for the National Book Award for his last book, an Unnecessary Woman. His amazing and very gay new novel  flashes back to the Castro District during the height of the AIDS epidemic. So it provides an appropriate counterpart to an American’s view of the dilemma of Cuban life post-Fidel.

 

Earlier in the day I had wept and laughed with brave young Esteban. Tonight the guffaws and sobs are for me, for my generation and our youth.

And yes, Martí could well have been right about culture being the path to freedom, at least when it is freedom from the limitations of the past…Hasta la Victoria Siempre.

Visayas, Philippines Post

Ken says he has never been any place he loved more than here. We are on the small (circumference two hours by motor scooter) and witchy island of Siquijor. That is what most Filipinos think of it, based on its traditional healers. These are famous for a technique of passing a glass vessel filled with clear water and maybe a few black stones over the patient, which changes the water’s color and, depending on what is afflicting them, somehow fills it with non-liquid stuff. For example, shards of broken glass when passed over the joints of someone suffering from arthritis— now cured. Such white magic healers are harder to find these days. They’re old now and their children have moved off the island, often to pursue careers in the healing professions (just like many other Filipinos).

But rumors of dark arts on the island persist. Even voodoo dolls, which belong to the Afro-Caribbean vodun tradition. On the other hand the Philippine islands were connected from the 1600s to Spanish ones in the New World via the Galleon Trade in slaves, cane sugar, spices and gold. A more recent example was passed on to us: during an election year one friend of a cousin was campaigning for Estrada here and forgot warnings to drink only bottles you opened yourself, due to a rumored risk of poisoning. The first of their party to drink one promptly fell down unable to speak. Instead of freaking out, they immediately asked for a Healer to save the person, and an antidote was brought, which worked. The cousin’s pal was pleased that they had stayed calm; if they’d shown much alarm, the cost of the Healer would surely have been higher than 500 pesos ($12 US). This reputation for sorcery keeps most Filipinos away from the island, which may be what has saved it so far from the fate of degradation by tourism that has ruined Boracay or Phuket… and even Bali.

There are some small resorts for divers, and even a couple medium-sized ones, catering mostly to other Asians visiting from Korea or China, plus Europeans and a few Israelis or Kuwaitis escaping their respective national repressions. The Aussies and Americans mostly haven’t found it yet. So as yet there is no Mormon-owned Marriott or Malaysian-backed Shangri La, no U.S. fast food franchises masquerading as elegant dining spots, nor 7-11s replacing the mom-and-pop stores where everyone shops for beer or soap or petrol in one-liter Coke bottles to fuel the ubiquitous scooters and motorcycles.

But here on the windward side (for six months) of Siquijor Island, facing out toward the Sulu Sea, is the paradisiacal place that makes Ken so happy to be here with his cousin Pia and her daughter Samantha. And me too, to see him and to be with him, overflowing. It is more than just fun, snorkeling and learning to ride motor scooters around and across the island. But that is not enough. Just what is so perfect about this place, you may well ask.

It is not just the half-dozen bamboo nipa-hut style bungalows at the small Villa Marmarine, opened by a retired Japanese couple to help provide work and tuition support to put island kids through college. Nor the nearly empty super-fine white sand coral beach, which Ken immediately went down to; he came back excited to report that the dark patches in the shallows at low tide were not seaweed (that is fluorescent green) but thousands and thousands of tiny purple spiny starfish, plus the occasional sea urchin.

It was not merely that the welcoming wavelets were lukewarm, and the water clear to four feet down. Actually, the sea— dark beyond the shallows— he finds terrifying and immense. It extends north into the South China Sea, to the Indian Ocean south, and farther to the vast Pacific, way out to where the sun rises. “It’s like it is just waiting almost infinitely to come for you, to call you in and take you away,” he says.

We see the ocean from the deck chairs on our bamboo-floored balcony, through bougainvillea, nipa palmettos, a flat fan palm, a few maybe 3rd generation papaya trees bearing small green fruits and finally, at the sand’s edge a cluster of tall coconut palm trees— one is even leaning, ever so stereotypically, over the beach. The scene is straight out of Robert Louis Stevenson, the book or the movie (“Yaarrhh!” as Long John Silver continues to say), from The Island of Doctor Moreau (“Are we not men??”), out of Jack London’s tales of Hawaii or Paul Gauguin’s paintings of women in Tahiti.

But nope, it is not even the coconut trees or Treasure Island allusions that make this place perfect for Ken—and me. It is the fact that the locals are his people, Visayans, speaking the language his mother speaks and her ancestors spoke back before the time that Magellan first make contact with them, just 90 miles away on the larger island that would become the Spanish colonial capitol of Cebu. And where he was summarily dispatched via machete by the native soldiers of chief Lapu Lapu. Since then the Visayans have gained a reputation for hospitality.

And his people are beautiful. Always kidding each other and ready to laugh (complaining means losing face), constantly social, in actual conversation or just the gossipy chatter called “chismis”. And unlike in other SE Asian countries we’ve been, here jokes and word play, irony and even sarcasm are understood. Then again, they have been living under colonization by the Spanish, the Muslims, the Americans and then during the war years by the Japanese. And it is considered better to laugh than to cry. It is also true that since the US arrived, and even after independence from us Americans, English has been the language of school instruction and is now the common tongue between the Tagalog of the national capitol Manila and the regional “dialects” like Visayan. which his family speaks.

Needless to say, Ken’s people are not only beautiful on the inside. Women in slim sarongs, skin-tight jeans or even in Daisy Dukes run most of the businesses here, and usually own them (all except for the important corporate ones, such as San Miguel beer or the shipping lines). Filipinas score in every world beauty contest. And Trixie Maristela, a “ladyboy” from here just won the “alternative” World Queen Pageant in Bangkok, which gets broadcast all across Asia to an Oscar-sized audience.

And the guys. They are gorgeous and they are showing off everywhere. Tatted and sunglassed ones on motorcycles. Svelte ones in school uniforms with tight shorts packed into jeepneys, or working class muscled ones hanging off of motorized trikes. And at night, when almost all girls are kept in at home, the boys and men are out on the street, half without their shirts on. Even if males are not to your taste these guys demand attention.

And there are too many stories about sexual adventures between straight guys and gays to dismiss. I was once with an ex visiting his hometown, on a jeepney with ten of the guys he grew up with. They asked in Tagaog if I was his husband. “One of them,” he shot back, and then translated for my benefit. Have you slept with any of them, I asked, rather aghast. “All of them! When I was growing up here, one at a time they would knock on my bedroom window. But not in public.” There are also the usual tales of married men who were “so drunk I didn’t know the girl was a guy.” Sure you didn’t! One straight friend told us that most of the single guys who visit from the oil-rich Arab states come not for females but for males. He’d lived in Kuwait, where he and a gay colleague were once stopped and arrested, “because the cop was attracted to my friend.”

But here even the hetero guys are sweet, good natured and friendly (though maybe more so to foreigners?) and are highly sentimental. As with all romantics everywhere, they are quick to be hurt, and very capable of lashing out when drunk. Their taste in music tends more toward soft rock like Air Supply, even among those who sport Megadeath t-shirts, and embraces singers like John Denver and even Johnny Mathis. And then there are the “mayas,” straight-identified males who just happen in bed to prefer “bakla” or “bayot” in Visayan—a conjoined word made out of “bay” (female) with “iyot” (penis). Ken’s 78-year old uncle filled us in on that word origin!

It stands to reason. Many boys are as slim as ingenues, but may have definition from hard work. And a lot have style, the coolest clothes and haircuts like TV stars. Others however do act out effeminately, as a challenge to the world; they can be easily spotted and heard screeching at top decibels with their girl friends in the mall. Did I mention that mall social culture in Cebu City started a few decades ago with a Robinson’s department store at Fuente Osmena where kids hung out all day hoping someone would buy them something— and has proliferated into The Place To Be for everyone on weekends and holidays. There are now seven full-fledged malls, all are air-conditioned but differ along class lines. Among the bigger locales, one has an I-Max screen in its multiplex, another an ice skating rink, and several feature internal mini-railroad trains. Here young boys and girls, or boys and boys, try to hook up. Plus of course via texts and online, with everyone on iPhones and Samsungs at the high-end malls. There’s no need for gay bars in Cebu several people told us, because gays are a sizable and accepted part of every place.

Gender and sexuality aside, Visayans are sincerely warm people. And here on Siquijor island we can see them as they have always been— it is like Cebu City seen 35 years ago. Before the malls, the 7-11s on each block, and before the big hotels arrive. They probably will, though, now that an airport is being built here. But for now a “Where are you from?”  is a real matter of curiosity, not just a lead-in to another sales pitch. Little girls on the streets wave to us. Their mothers smile. Daring adolescent boys try to slap hands as we ride by. Older boys respond to our huge smiles and men nod in greeting.

When I stop to take a picture of an old-fashioned wood frame house from the last century, the family there invites us into their backyard, to the one-year anniversary of the passing of their grandmother. We do accept glasses of water, but not the plates of fiesta food they proferr, since there are six of us. And for Filipinos to make such invitations is almost mandatory. Yet not insincere.

 

SE Asia Travel Blog 2, 1 January 2016

THE LADY & THE MONKS

All these finch-y birds are tweeting and chirping from about five feet off our little balcony, even though they haven’t found the sunflower seeds I put out. A big crow comes a craw-ing, followed by another. The finches stop their chirp and hop up to the house’s eave. Crows finish their noise and fly off eventually, and the little guys return to their branches and restart their song.

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street football with a rattan woven ball

Two to a bike, school kids peddle past razor wire-topped walls around the mansion across the road. But on our side are 20-foot tall bamboo grasses, banana trees and some unknown fruit tree welcomes big black moths. Just up the road is the old house where The Lady’s father, General Aung San was assassinated by the generals who took over in 1946 after he agreed to independent zones for the country’s ethnic tribe peoples. The wars still continue against them, seventy years later.

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But daughter Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Chi) just won the country’s first real election in decades— by an amazing 90%. And the entire country is waiting the promised transition. But will the crows actually fly away?

I’ve wanted to visit Myanmar since it was Burma (named by the Brits after the majority ethnicity). This was a land of Great Britain’s rubber plantations (along with the slavery practiced around rubber in the 19th century Congo by the Belgians and in the Amazon against the Putumayos by everyone). It was the Burma of British Imperialist par excellence Kipling in a poem put to music:

On the Road to Mandalay/Where the flyin’ fishes play
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China/‘Crost the Bay!

And on the other hand, also of George Orwell’s biting colonial critique novel Burmese Days. Either way, our take on this country has always been Eurocentric.

Its military rulers have: sacked the country of its riches in rubies and other gems; delivered its resources like natural gas exclusively to China; created Naypyidaw, a new capital built as a high-security gated community for the Army brass; terrorized its own population; all the while maintaining genocidal campaigns against its minority groups to the North, East and South. Its “outlaw nation” status was fully justified.

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By contrast, the grace and calm fortitude shown by Daw (lady) Aung San Suu Kyi since her 1990 election to president was overturned by the military and she was placed under house arrest has been an inspiration to the whole country, and then the world. Adoration of her is widespread, especially in the liberal cities. Her picture, as well as that of her national hero father, were forbidden. Now they are displayed in every cafe and business. Even the sole Jewish synagogue in Yangon (ex-Rangoon) no longer has a congregation, but proudly shows its last caretaker in two photos with Ben Gurion (including one in Burmese drag!) and one visiting Suu Kyi in her home.

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Obama has visited Myanmar twice, in a first critical visit meeting with The Lady as well as the government. In one of his only unalloyed international policy successes, Obama’s State Department got a promise of democratization in exchange for dropping the country’s outlaw status in 1990. This led to the relatively clean election this year, and her party’s overwhelming victory, which surprised even the military. Strange, isn’t it, how people used to being yessed all the time come to believe it? Their own hype Trumps reality.

Aung San Suu Kyi is herself forbidden by a special law from running for President, due to her “criminal” past, though she swears she will still be the leader. Now even the top general of the dictatorship says he has changed course, and will support her as the country’s natural ruler, and do everything in his power to change that law. Why the remarkable about-face? Some say his hip son sat him down and had a talk with him. This makes sense, but even if apocryphal it makes a good story.

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Our last full day in Yangon fell on the Full Moon, a particularly auspicious day in the Buddhist calendar. We had planned to return to the huge central Schwedagon Paya (pagoda) where 1000s are expected. But now, with a better appreciation of Yangon’s heat and humidity, plus distance and crowds, we decided to go back to our local temples. We had walked up to one on our first night in our McMansion neighborhood, but got lost in a warren of monks’ quarters and never found the temple with the huge Seated Buddha.

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Today we found it. And it was stunning, a beautiful smile, skin painted white, lips red, snails-hair in perfect curls. We only saw one other foreigner and he looked like a missionary, talking in English to an clearly well-informed Burmese guy in board shorts and a Cools t-shirt. I asked a question and got a long, intelligent response, though he was not a guide but a serious theological student of Buddhism. The missionary-type said he was late getting back to his wife, and the Buddhist guy offered to show us the way to the Reclining Buddha across the way.

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It turned out to be probably as big as the famous one in Bangkok, but was not covered in gold. Lying on his left side, propped on one elbow, this is the Buddha at the time of his death, with a calm only Enlightenment can provide. He knows all his past lives, but that this would be the last. And his body appears to be about the size of half a football field, or at least a full basketball court. At the end you see the soles of his feet, about 25 feet high, covered in a pattern of arcane signifiers representing all the past lives he walked through.

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We were able to ask our guide about the monastery we had walked through that night. It turns out there are 46 separate monasteries for monks and novices, and assorted Dhamma centers or schools for children, connected to the Reclining Buddha temple! And sixty-some more around the Sitting Buddha. It is a huge concentration of monks, each walking in file every morning to receive rice and curry offerings for their daily meal, along the same road that houses the German Embassy as well as the house and museum of General Aung San. This is where he was assassinated in 1946, two years before the British granted Burma its independence. It is the house where Aung San Suu Kyi was born, and her baby brother drowned in the swimming pool before the family moved out in 1953. The Victorian era houses on the hill followed the monasteries by many thousands of years, of course, not vice versa.

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Our guide’s teacher joined us for the visit to the Reclining Buddha. And was happy to answer questions before he left us for the noon meal, the last time monks eat during the day. He was less theologically inclined than his student, but told us the story of the Monks Protests. In response to a raising of gasoline prices by the military government, which of course led to much higher food and living costs for the poor, the monks had held peaceful prayer vigils at some offices. They did this because regular people would have been imprisoned if they had tried even this mild form of protest. But the military, paranoid to the nth degree, sent police and fired on the monks, killing some. The protest vigils continued and31 were joined by regular Burmese. This was the real turning point in the military dictatorship’s stranglehold on power based on fear.

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We gave a donation to the monk’s order, placed in his Buddhist prayer book (in English!), and received a blessing for safe travels and good luck. After the guide helped us through the same maze we had gotten lost in the other night, he also asked for a donation. Theravada, the type of Buddhism found in SE Asia (different from the Mahayana of Japanese Zen) places more emphasis on merit, the gaining of it through offerings, as well as the usual rules of right living. We were glad to contribute, both to the school’s master and to our helpful guide. It was a real pleasure being led through the monastic quarters, seeing dozens of dogs that had discovered some sanctuary there from the rocks and kicks and starvation outside the temple walls, monks bathing in a building near a centuries-old royal Victorian house, knowing when to take off our shoes (including for one 100-meter stretch past an old imperial cemetery). Sadly, the one thing we forgot to ask was why the Buddha has snail hair. It is a mystery.

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So who is responsible for the sea-change going on in Myanmar? Certainly the monks, standing in for the whole population. Credit is due to Barack Obama for brave leadership that encouraged the people to believe that the world cared. And of course, to the national heroine Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for her quiet determination over 25 years of arrest.

But the change will not come without problems. The loosening of dictatorship, as we have seen in countries from Iraq to Egypt, does not only lead to freedom. There are rightwing Buddhist monks urging genocide against the Muslims in the South, pitting one ethnic minority group (the Rakhine) against another (the Rohingya). And Aung San Suu Kyi has maintained silence on this, at least publicly. In fact, she must be very careful about how she first exercises power. The military retains control of all state resources for now, and talks about a “slow, careful” transition. Which probably means they feel there is still money to be raked out, and are in no hurry to give up their scams.

But change will come, if not as easily as one hopes. The finch bird is on the branch, puffing out its breast feathers. And the crows are on notice.

SE Asia Travel blog Dec. 12, 2559 (year of the Buddhist Era)

MARKY AND THE KING OF SIAM

When I first visited Bangkok in the 1980’s, skyscrapers were still rare, and many peoples’ wooden houses fronted small canals, with tipsy little canoes connecting them to the great river Chao Phraya. Selective memory of walks along a canal neighborhood highlights a hawker pushcart that served steaming pad thai, and a tinier one offering an amazing mix of pastel green  worm-like confections, plus sweet beans and various pink and black chewy things.

One time at a movie theater with hand painted posters ,  a vendor grilled cuttlefish  over charcoal on a cart, then put them through hand-cranked metal rollers, shredded them and sold them with a little plastic bag of chili vinegar. It sure beat popcorn.

“Kraithong”, the feature they showed, was based on Thai folklore, about the Crocodile King, a very butch guy with the power to animorph into a reptile, in a cave under the river with his bevy of sexy queens in alligator-print bikinis. Even without understanding a word, it was totally charming—until one scene. Some toddlers frolicked on the river shore and children swam happily, before a crocodile pulled them under. And they were gone, screaming. But the audience reaction was more shocking yet. When each child disappeared, there was a ripple of laughter. As we ate our cuttlefish strips, I recall thinking: This is the strangest country I have ever seen.

Three or four visits later it no longer seems so strange. But exquisitely sensitive in ways we barely discern.  And understandably proud, as the only land in SE Asia to have never been colonized. As was seen in “The King and I,” where Anna found ways to confront her boss, the Siamese king.  Theirs is a deeply non-egalitarian society, in which everyone knows their place in the hierarchy, so never loses face. Even that laughter in the theater makes sense to me now. It was not cruelly ghoulish, but came out of deep uncomfortableness—one of several dozen forms of smiles and laughs that Thais can distinguish between, and name. These include the Boss is Wrong but Boss is Always Right smile.

Since that visit almost all of the canals have disappeared under a system of eight-lane roads with pedestrian overpasses. SkyTrain rails appeared above some major old canal routes (considered expensive to ride compared to the 2-cent public busses), and then an underground subway was built to carry more of the traffic that dozens of ferries and riverboat routes still transport across and along the huge river artery that snakes through Bangkok. It is not easy to move over 10 million people, a population that had increased two and a half times the population when I first visited.

On one trip we took a bus ride to Kanchanaburi, site of the Japanese war crimes shown in the David Lean film “Bridge on the River Kwai”, a version of WWII in which all the victims are British soldiers captured and tortured by Japanese warlords, instead of the entire local population. Before we even got out of the Bangkok metropolitan area (which is about 6,000 square miles) I looked down an alley at dusk, and yelled. Well, who wouldn’t scream if they saw an elephant being led out onto a major thoroughfare? None of the other passengers, that’s who. I heard another of the dozens of Thai laughs, a not-unfriendly one perhaps called the Wow Look at That Ignorant Tourist laugh.

WELCOME ALONG!

This time Ken and I are back in Bangkok at the beginning of a 9-week SE Asian tour. It is the cool season, as opposed to the rainy season, which means a mild 88 degrees Fahrenheit on a good day, or 95 on a bad one. But in the central city we almost never walk in the direct sun, thanks to the luxury hotels, apartment buildings or condos, and Trump-like office towers on every block. And in Siam Square, the shopping malls. One after the other, easily a dozen, side by side. Working Class malls with electronics and an anchor department store. Middle-class ones with Forever 21 and Burberry. Then one with a Maserati dealership, another with a Rolls Royce showroom, and each with its own Louis Vuitton store. And an appropriately priced food court.

And all along this “miracle mile” is a Parade of Elephants. Statues of elephants, many painted in fantastical styles, from small ones to quarter-size. Families take pictures of their kids next to them. This is as close as they will come to a real elephant in Bangkok streets these days. It’s now illegal to lead them here—which was a form of begging, since Thais adore their royal animal. However, it turns out that walking on sun-heated concrete can cause these massive creatures to have heart attacks. So it is a good thing that they remain in the North country.

the fresh fruit and veggie tree
the fresh fruit and veggie tree
Thai Art-deco theater in a mall with Dhami Boo.
Thai Art-deco theater in a mall with Dhami Boo.

On an unintentional mall tour (it’s the quickest way to get to our public transportation) there are some actually worthwhile sights. They include:

*A five-floor cultural center with art-based stores features an demo of Virtual Reality tech, across from a ’50s art deco movie palace.

*An internal courtyard with a tree made entirely of fruits and vegetables, fresh ones.

*A gorgeous thin 20-something in a black Versace suit demoing one of those Segway-like skateboards in a high end gadget shop. Sorry, no photo of him, as I was thrown completely off-balance in more ways than one.

*Two high-end shop-girls on the floor trying to fix the automatic sliding glass front of a store.

between two malls
between two malls

Outside every mall are multi-story Christmas trees, but without Xmas icons– no Santas, much less Baby J’s. Instead, one features a mickey mouse-eared theme, another Snow White with her Seven Dwarves. Plus, enough lights to power a small third-world country. Which Bangkok is not, if it ever was. Although in the country there is still enough ethnic discrimination, rural poverty and government corruption to go around.

 

FAERIES, A FERRY & A FLOATING MARKET

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On Sunday we are led by faerie friends on a bicycle excursion to Bang Krachao. This is a less developed almost-island in a curve of the river across from the cargo ship docks, known as Bangkok’s “green lung.” Getting there involves 20 minutes of peddling via huge intersections and through an industrial part of the city, then a 5-minute ferry boat ride, which used to cost 5Baht, but now goes for an inflated 25B including the bicycles, which is 75 cents US dollar. Then a ride past farms and small rural homes, and into an Eco-Park, on tree-lined paved roads beside lakes, unpaved ones through jungle marshland. It is an enchanting place, full of birds and butterflies but remarkably free of mosquitos. (Ken disagrees, as he got bitten there.)

At the park’s far end, we are led by Dhami Boo, our experienced farang (foreigner) faerie guides us onto a maze of raised concrete walkways over watery food-growing areas. They are about three feet wide; quick turns require slowing the bikes down. I hear that a doctor friend of ours, on a prior visit, fell off the walkway and into wires and waterways—three times. It is a little like an Indiana Jones ride, of about 3 kilometers. So my both nerves and my butt are happy when we arrive at our destination.

A little tired on bicycle in 95-degree weather
A little tired on bicycle in 95-degree weather

The Floating Market is no longer held on boats and now happens every weekend. Three long rows of stalls under awnings draw tourists from Bangkok, almost entirely Thais, but with the occasional foreign Asian or European farang. It is a real farmers’ market, and the offerings are local, artisanal and amazing. I hear there is a section for Chinese-type plastic goods, toys and clothes, but we never saw it. Instead, each booth offers fresh discoveries. There are seed stores and potted tropical plants, some hung in empty tiny coconut shells. Also fanciful toys made of coconut shells. Bunches of bananas. A stall of plastic bagged chili sauces. An herbalist. A lady and her son selling tropical fruits they grow; I buy a papaya, and a cherimoya (custard fruit) for a mere 35 cents— they go for $6 a pound back in SF, if you can find them.

herbalist goods
herbalist goods

Sweets are sold on a stick (deep friend balls of sweet dough around a sweet-savory chicken sausage), in a ceramic boat (taro pudding with candied coconut and grilled shallots), or in a scraped half baby coconut (coconut ice cream with all those chewy things I’d first tasted on the old canal), plus many more we didn’t try. Each was about 20B or 55 cents, plus an extra 5B for all those chewy add-ons. But first were the food stalls. Fiery northern fishball soup. Green papaya salad with fermented (and stinky) black crab. Clear broth with veggies and chicken feet. Chili-crusted fried chicken. And those are just some that we had at one stall among dozens.

Isaan northern Thai hawker  stall fare
Isaan northern Thai hawker stall fare

Next to it was a juice place featuring a fruit I had never seen, nor had anyone in our group. The one Thai guy with us, though he grew up on a large fruit and poultry ranch in Isaan, said they never grew it, so he wouldn’t try it. The teenager vending it said it was a fa-kaw, accent on the kaw! A next-stall neighbor said it’s called gac fruit (scientific name Momordia cochinchinensis). And it is incredibly strange-looking, all spiky day-glo orange on the outside and Vampirella purple with large black seeds inside. He let me try some of a cut opne one. It tasted…sweet. The juice was thick red nectar, not like any other fruit I know. I am in heaven.

What is it? Gac!!

This is the best market I have even been to. Not Byzantine like the one in Budapest, not as gargantuan like the sook in Fez. Nor what Les Halles must have been like in Paris, before it was torn down to become the Pompidou Art Center. But small, homey and very relaxed, with handmade wooden benches and gazebo areas dripping with flowers and vine tendrils and lined with giant ceramic water jars the size that Sabu jumped in and out of in my favorite film of 1940, “The Thief of Bagdad”.

Ali Baba water jars
Ali Baba water jars

I love this place. Though “designed” there is nothing Disney-fied about it. It is done on a small scale to provide local sellers a chance to market to an adjacent megalopolis. And it is by a canal. So as it turns out, the old Bangkok I remember is not quite lost forever in the face of modernity. And it seems obvious that Thai people who arrive, by jeep or motorcycle or bike, appreciate it too.

calm at Floating Market
calm at Floating Market
kid playing in a gazebo at the Floating Market
kid playing in a gazebo at the Floating Market

One last note, for all our Jewish friends out there. It is Hannukah, though no mall decorates for it. But it is also the King’s birthday, called Father’s Day since Bhumidol Adolyadej, king of Siam since 1946, is absolutely beloved here. He and the queen are revered as the ones who have always watched out for the interests of the poor, and he’s really seen as the father of each Thai. There is huge fear at what may come at his unspeakable but immanent demise, particularly between the factions of Red Shirts (rural) and Yellow Shirts (urban) who have battled it out on the streets and in parliament during recent years. Because he is gravely ill now, on the King’s birthday this year there will be no fireworks, but at dusk everyone will come out of their house with a lit candle to say a prayer for his health. Here there are no giant menorahs or cartoon Maccabees. But it is a festival of lights nonetheless. Also the time of year I remember my own father Ben Baruch Freeman’s yahrzeit. May his memory, as we say, be for a blessing.

Matches made in heaven

My good pal Lisa and I, at school.

San Francisco Education Fund Blog

In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re celebrating the unexpected friendships that have formed between some of our volunteers and teachers. We sat down with a handful of our volunteer/teacher pairs to talk about how their partnership has unfolded since they started working together. Check back each day this week for a new story.

A dynamic duo: Mark Freeman and Lisa Bishop

Inside jokes. Witty banter. Completing each other’s sentences. It’s what’s expected after 18 years together, right? That’s how long volunteer Mark Freeman has worked alongside Ms. Lisa Bishop. In that time, they’ve worked at four schools and shared their passion for hands-on learning with hundreds of students. They’re both happily married (to other people), but form quite the dynamic duo in the classroom.

Q: How were you paired with Lisa?

Mark: Your organization looked at my background and said, ‘Oh, we think we know somebody you might enjoy volunteering…

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The Quilt Goes to Motown, Mark Freeman Part 4 of 4– originally published in Coming Out! August, 1988

final part of 1988 cover article on the visit of the Names Project Quilt to Detroit

What Makes a Volunteer?

I ask a group of three “unfolders” what brings them to this work, and all three answers are the same: Guido. “He used to cut my hair. I was impressed by his commitment to a cause greater than himself. My commitment has always been to family, but he seemed able to make all these people family.” “Same here. He has the ability to cause people to feel. He begins by taking interest in you and it’s contagious. Before you know it, he’s got you under his spell.” “Guido’s my older brother. A lot of his friends are gone. He used to live in San Francisco and I used to go visit him with my wife and baby.”

Guido, it turns out, is the volunteer coordinator for the Detroit Names Project. How does someone become an “inspiration?”

“I was a studio hairdresser, movie studios. So when I moved to San Francisco I was already loaded, had a soon on Union Square near Macy’s in ’74, a house on 16th and Castro. I was shooting speed, speedballing with coke, and was always with boyfriends who were broke. Form there I went downhill to the Tenderloin, the Slot, a sleaze hotel South of Market, and the sex clubs in between. No way I was going to quit there.

“So I moved back here to Detroit to stop. No program. I just quit. But it was during that time that my best friend Jay—we used to have a summer home on Fire Island together during our twenties, see, we were both studio dressers when we were 18, we thought we were the Golden Boys—well, he got sick and died then. In fact, when he died, that’s what he said to me: ‘We lived the Golden Days. Who thought they’d ever end?’

“But these are the Golden Days now, I think. These are the times when gay men can discover the sense of their own worth—all we were doing then was coming out of the closet and being party boys with the sort of ‘movie star quality’ that gay men were supposed to have, dressing well, doing every kind of drug.

“There’s something more, something innate in gay men: a sensitivity of spirt, and I discovered it in myself. I’d never thought it was there. You know, I used to not talk to certain people, if they didn’t ‘walk right.’ Now I spend my mornings putting socks on people who can’t walk at all.

“I know what made be become an AIDS volunteer was missing that time during the last stages of Jay’s illness, due to drugs. Now, I realize that however small the thing is that we for someone, there’s no way to measure it. Taking a guy to the store this morning, no big deal, it was an hour to me. But it was the first time in a a month he’d gotten out, anywhere. It matters.”

Such conversions “on the road to Damascus” can seem unbelievable, or like cloying televangelism, until we know someone like that personally. Seen from one side of the Treatment vs. Transcendence controversy*, this may smack of fatalism, or a tendency to romanticize death in the gay community. But AIDS is not a historical aberration; some such disaster has occurred in every generation. Only since the advent of antibiotics have we somehow convinced ourselves that we are exempt from mortality. People like Guido are not giving in to death, but they have learned that it is impossible to make love to Life without a willingness to embrace its other side.

*During the ‘80s a false dichotomy put ACT UP activism (“Your laws are killing us!”) on one end and Louise Hays’ A Course In Miracles (“You can will yourself well!”) on the other. It might help in the understanding of that division to recall that the successful AIDS meds treatment “cocktail” was still nearly seven years in the future at this writing. The only medication then available was AZT alone. About half of those who chose to take it died of its side effects. And among those who refused it, half died of AIDS complications.

Civil War era, United States.

            “Come lovely and soothing death,                                                                                        Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,                                                                                 In the day, in the night, to all, to each,                                                                                                Sooner or later, delicate death.

            Praise be the fathomless universe,                                                                                               For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,                                                                        And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!                                                                               For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.”

Walt Whitman, When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d

RIP Queen
RIP Queen

The Streets, the Women & Children

The picture painted for me by this Infectious disease nurse is so bad it is hard to believe. “We have a 25-year old IVDU, probable ex-prostitute. She’s down to 95 pounds and hanging, literally, on her crutches. She couldn’t eat because her mouth sores [thrush] were so bad; she couldn’t sit because of her herpes. She sends her girl, a four-year old, two blocks away to a soup kitchen; the kid brings them back food.”

Another of the handful of nurses helping the worst-off make their way through a callous bureaucracy, takes me to see. The streets of Mack Corridor are potholed, most of the houses are boarded up, some with official red notices tacked to the door. More than not are empty, maybe from fires as far back as the Detroit Race Riots of 1967. Or else their owners just got sick of the neighborhood. This wood-framed one is a drug house.

You can tell, not because it is any more or less ramshackle than the others, but by the 11-year old sitting on the stoop all afternoon. He’s skinny, with the torso and long legs of a running gazelle, but his boy is not a runner. He is a spotter, old enough to watch the street for outsiders, and to be paid in crack or dollars.

He has instructions not to let anyone in, not even the tall blond nurse standing out on the sidewalk. But he knows her and sends a message upstairs for her patients to come down; a slim woman on crutches, KS bumps all over her face, and a little girl, cute as a proverbial bug, with corn-rowed hair and a cough.

“The mother is much better,” explains the nurse, “compared to a month ago when she was pointed out to us by her sister who is alienated from her but did care enough to get some medical care. This woman hasn’t let anybody touch her in over a year. We have found that’s a crucial thing, getting the first barrier down. She’s doing so well now; her doctor said it wasn’t the AZT: ‘It’s too early.’ Only one week. It’s the care and concern and knowing that someone is paying attention to her.

 

“Call me Champagne,” said another woman, kids running in and out of the scantily furnished but very clean living room of a brick house not far from 6-Mile and Woodward. “I used to carry money belts on airplanes, my boyfriend got me a stage passport. And I saw a lot of entertainment people come in to buy drugs; that was before I was shooting. We didn’t know anything about Crack, only Raw—heroin to sniff. It’s like different people. Heroin addicts’ bodies get all marked up, they get diseases. Still they take only so much, to stop being sick. But a crackhead, their mind is gone, baby. They do it all day and night, never get enough. Non-stop.

“I’ve go six kids but two of them I didn’t raise. Their grandmother did, upstairs. What’s important to me is that I stay healthy enough to take care of my babies.”

Like her, two of the kids are infected with the HIV virus; and the four-year old shows symptoms. “At first they thought he was retarded; he wouldn’t talk and walked with a limp. Then they found an ear infection== his balance was knocked off. By then they had taken my kids away, and his foster parents said he wouldn’t eat. Partly it was sickness, but party he was withdrawn because he was 16 months old and he’d never been away from me before.

“The boy was finally examined and diagnosed. The foster parent heard the word AIDS, she was real religious and had other foster children, so when she found out, I got my boy back. Two months later, I got the other kids back, too. He’s four years old now, and taking AZT, but none of us has ever been hospitalized. The baby (who also tested positive) is 15 months old and she seems to be doing fine, even in this heat wave.” Her daughter’s long dark hair is blowing in the fan’s draft as she tilts her head back toward it, smiling.

“I’m a pretty private person, that’s why I haven’t’ got into a support system. But my family knows. My son’s pre-school teacher knows. My grandmother, she definitely knows but may not really understand. She is a trip—a retired factory worker, Chrysler. What you call a beer drunk. She talks about people all day, me included. But if I need her, my grandmother is in my corner.

“She’s the one who called those people and told them I had abandoned my children for a month. That’s what made me stop using drugs. They took my babies away. When my boy got home from the hospital, he was so puny and looked so pitiful and I felt so guilty—that’s when I stopped for good.“

Champagne says nobody is willing to admit they have AIDS because so many people think you can touch somebody and get it, “but I’m too wrapped up in my own situation to do anything for anyone else. My kids have got nobody but me. This girl is how I’m keeping my sanity, she keeps me from falling apart.”

 

A Puerto Rican woman can’t think of a name to give herself, no hero or role model, but says she wants it to be Spanish. I’ll call her Lola, as in Damn Yankees.

“They say I’ve had the virus for eight years, but I don’t know. I was always shooting up; I was so fallen down I wouldn’t know anything from then. I first noticed, after I was in prison for a year, getting tired for no reason. I wasn’t doing drugs there.

“Every time I feel like shooting up now, I go to Vida Latina [the primary agency serving Hispanics]. Because all your friends are dope fiends, so there’s no place to run to, especially for us Latinas. ‘La Casa’ is a good place, but I don’t know if half of them really understand us. We’re liars. We’re cheaters. We say we’re clean, anything. We’re scared to trust anyone.

“But, you know, if I need help and I go to an addict, he’ll help me faster than a straight person would. All the junkies I know are willing to share; if nothing else, experiences. Even the ones whose tests came back negative. We’ve sat in my house and cried together. All we know is street shit, and there’s nothing to teach you about AIDS out there. One girl said, ‘I hear you got AIDS’ and I said yeah. Why not. I told her—my throat hurts, my lungs hurt, a pimple lasts a month. And there’s nowhere to run to at three in the morning.

“I’ve always made my money by cashing checks or boosting [thievery], since I was little. My father was a drug addict. I learned to dress up, I’d look like Marilyn Monroe, different wigs. I’m a booster; it doesn’t matter if they’ve got a chain on something, I find a way.

“There’s only one thing I can say I’m proud of. I’ve never given my kids away. People talk about us like we’re dogs. People say drug addicts don’t care about their kids, but they’re wrong. I have a daughter, 16, that’s been staying with me. ‘You’re my mother,’ she says, ‘I don’t care what you have.’ Last week I took my daughter and two of her girlfriends, whose mother is a drug addict like I am, to Bell Isle [Amusement Park]. It was the first time I’ve enjoyed myself in 14 years. I see now what’s important. And I heard one of them say, ‘I wish my mom did half the things for us your mom is doing now.’ We’re getting close, only at the end.

“But my two boys have already got [dealer-style] beepers. My oldest, I can see the anger and the hurt in his eyes, like, ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself for having AIDS, you did it.’ He hates me. He was accepted into college. But instead it’s fast money, fast life. I think my kids are going through this because of me.”

Lola finishes: “I want to tell people, even if they have the virus, they still have a chance. Don’t share needles. Don’t just fuck with anybody without telling them. Tell them. I feel that people with the sickness are the only ones that understand.”

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Detroit Comes to the Quilt

It’s hard to imagine that the Names Project began little more than a year ago, with a meeting of eight people. It was a local response, recalling traditional family quilts stitched by loving hands. Its effect has now spread across a continent. It is an unusual message, here in death-avoiding America. And a deeply religious message, one found in the rites and rituals of every ancient culture: that a deep, soothing truth can be found in the midst of pain; that of a victory of love and pride over shame and fear. The Names Project Quilt may just have created the perfect modern manifestation for this tribal truth, and sent out an unlikely group of evangelists to share it. But rather than staying, relatively safely, in the gay ghetto of San Francisco, these evangelicals departed our left-coast Jerusalem for more hellenistic places, such as Phoenix and Detroit.

“I thought we weren’t going to have anyone here,” admitted Jack Caster, the tour manager who used to live in Detroit. “But there are a lot of families coming. Old people. Kids, groups of teens. And more Black people than in any other city except Baltimore, where their Black mayor came and read names.”

The cities in the South, Southwest and Midwest are facing farm crises, new unemployment, old divisions. They are places where sex, though practiced no less, is kept decidedly quieter. News of a “homosexual disease” may come, and be received accordingly. But when the reality arrives, it is too late to blame anyone. These are one’s own husbands, wives, children and parents. By naming, and thereby honoring each one as a person that belongs to us, the Quilt facilitates such awareness.

What places like Detroit, or mid-sized cities in the heartland, can teach about how to deal with some  new realities may lead the way for the rest of country in confronting the “next wave” of this crisis. The Quilt directly reached 8-10,000 Michiganders, even bringing in many from the suburbs who “hadn’t been downtown in years,” and raising some $15,000 for local AIDS service agencies.

“It’s a gritty old town,” says the dynamo Infectious Disease nurse who drove through a bombed-out zone within sight of the glittering new Renaissance Center and a multi[million dollar medical complex. “But it’s a good old town. People here, by and by, don’t live lightly; they’re driven. If you work for an auto company you work your average of 60, 80 hours a week. What happens if you’re laid off? If you live down here, you’re scrambling to survive.

“If you drive these streets early in the morning, you’ll see people lifting up the boards over windows and slipping out of all these brick buildings. It’s like a Hooverville. Or the Warsaw Ghetto. But the vegetables from that garden there will be sold in that empty lot over there, come August. It’s like a victory garden.

“Same with the families we see. Most of them demonstrate an enormous wellspring of loving and charity and grace and tremendous courage they never knew they had in them. The stigma is still there—people forced to live in the basement, or denied participation in holiday dinners. But with many others, AIDS really acts as the impetus to draw the family together. They realize that they have to set things aside—judgments about IV drug use, fear of the disease, homophobia—because truly they need each other.

Misheberach (Prayer for the Ill)                                                                       

May the one who blessed our ancestors, Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Leah, Rachel and Jacob, bless _____________, along with all the ill amongst us, and all who are touched by AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. Grant insight to those who bring healing, courage and faith to those who are sick, love and strength to us and all who love them. Merciful Parent, let your spirit rest upon all who ill and comfort them. May they and we soon know a time of complete healing, a healing of the body and a healing of the spirit, and let us say: Amen.

                                    –from the prayerbook of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco