Passion with Audacity: the Era of Safe Sex

An Update

“Passion with Audacity” by Mark Freeman, FNP was published in November of 1988 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.

Image result for saint priapus

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.


“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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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 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


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.

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.

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