Welcome to the gay '90s. There isn't a glory hole left in Manhattan or a single bathhouse in San Francisco. The largest Gay Pride contingent now marches behind the "Clean and Sober" banner. "How to find a husband" workshops and multiple daily support groups for "sexual compulsives" are held at gay community centers. Several U.S. cities have sponsored mass ceremonies where hundreds of same-sex couples are married in herd. The Advocate, the oldest national gay publication, has ghettoized all sex-related advertising in a separate magazine. Meanwhile, the safety net for men cruising outdoors in gay meccas has been rent by a growing police crackdown. In New York City, there are unprecedented arrests of gay male sex workers advertising in bar rags-inside their own homes. At private safe-sex parties, participants must strip before entering in order to weed out vice cops.
Nothing less than a revolution in the way we live and love is taking place. We've been burying friends, partners and family members for 16 years, and no one understands the excrutiating cost of AIDS better than gay men. Now we hear in Sexual Ecology that "HIV continues to saturate the gay male population at the same rate it always has," and that the community must confront the urgent task of discouraging promiscuity and rewarding monogamy. For Gabriel Rotello, the revolution hasn't gone far enough. But for a slut like me, having sex without taking risks for AIDS means staying alive--and that's the reward I need.
As finally reported by the media this year, cases of AIDS have been declining since 1993. Many were aware, but few publicized it. Some advocates thought it would jeopardize desperately needed funding; others thought if gay men were told, they would fall back into unsafe sex. Yet during this time the fear of a second wave of AIDS was transformed into a "fact" by gay journalists who sensationalized the findings of several studies. This served as the justification for calling in the state to crack down on sex establishments in order to protect the negatives from the positives-even as it denies all of us basic civil rights.
It's surprising that Rotello never mentions his activism in his book. In 1993, he used his New York Newsday column to urge the New York State Commission on AIDS not to remove oral sex without ejaculation from its list of unsafe sex acts legally banned in sex clubs. He had passionately exhorted ACT UP and GMHC to act on his conviction that too much unsafe sex among gay men was occurring and that oral sex, "condoned" as low risk by AIDS educators, was contributing to a second wave. When these efforts failed, he joined fellow gay journalists and others to form GLHPA in 1995. Their stated goal was "to prevent HIV transmission in sex establishments," dubbed by Rotello "the killing fields of AIDS." GLHPA took tabloid reporters into one club to hunt down unsafe sex; outraged columns and editorials were the product. In the face of gay men's refusal to use condoms for sucking or stop going to sex clubs, GLHPA resorted to public shaming and government intervention. The group held a closed-door meeting with top officials of the Republican Giuliani administration urging them to shut clubs where "unsafe" sex was occurring. With the decision to keep oral sex banned by the state sanitary code, incidences of oral sex reported by a posse of health department monitors were used to raid and padlock a dozen sex venues. This spring, gay bars have also been targeted.
To commemorate the 15th year since AIDS was first recognized, the gay press ran "major achievement" stories. Remarkably, none I saw even mentioned the invention of safe sex. Yet if there's on achievement that should have gay men holding their heads high, it's safe sex. Why don't we recognize this? It's time for gay men to speak out in defense of safe sex and to celebrate the enormous success we've had in curbing HIV and STDs. The keystone of sound prevention is individual responsibility; force and punishment are never effective. Like it or not, monogamy isn't the answer for everyone. We're human, we're not perfect, and not all of us can be saved.
In the way that only tragedy can, AIDS has united many in the gay community. But when it comes to our freedom of sexual expression, we've lost faith in ourselves and one another; instead we should be dancing in the street. Gabriel Rotello wants what we all want--for the plague to end and for gay men to be healthy and happy. But amidst the reactionary, assimilationist backlash against AIDS and sex, we must not lose sight of an important part of what we have to teach America: We're not all the same, and we don't have to be.