POZ Exclusives : Killer Gay Sex! - by Tony Valenzuela

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May 7, 2008

Killer Gay Sex!

by Tony Valenzuela

The Absence of Politics

On a Fuzeon preparation mat, a laminated work station that comes with the drug, the New York Patient places alcohol pads, two syringes and two small vials, one with sterile water, the other with the powdered medication.  With the larger syringe he draws the sterile water out of one of the tiny bottles and shoots it at an angle into the other filled with this powerful drug that has kept him alive for three years when other treatments have failed.  We are in his living room.  He’s wearing khaki shorts, flip-flops and a pale baby-blue print shirt which he lifts to show me his belly covered in a shocking rash of welts—red, bruised and painful.  He grabs my hand and directs my finger to one of the injection-site sores, a smooth, flat and surprisingly hard lump of inflamed tissue about two inches in diameter.  He lifts the legs of his shorts to show me his thighs, also covered.  The fabric from his clothes can become an unbearable irritant, and every day he places ice packs to soothe the pain and swelling.  With his fingers he searches, alternating from legs to belly, right side to left, for a spot with the least amount of tenderness.

The Fuzeon powder takes 10 minutes to mix in water, and at that time he draws the prepared mixture into the smaller syringe then flicks it gently with his finger to release air.  He locates a small area on his thigh more in recovery than healed amid this field of sores, dabs the spot with alcohol, takes a quick deep breath, then presses the needle into his thigh letting out a small gasp as it disappears into his leg.  Slowly the liquid drains into his subcutaneous fat and almost immediately bubbles at the surface of his leg into a reservoir that will take several hours to absorb.  Every day, twice a day he repeats this procedure. “I wouldn’t be here without it,” he tells me.

This is what can happen with HIV in its most rare and dangerous of strains.  Preceding the injection, he’d swallowed 18 pills, a staggering array of HIV prophylactics and vitamins, down in one gulp of smoothie he’d prepared with protein powder, fresh strawberries and apple juice.   On the coffee table sits a square black zipper case, the size of an extra-large makeup bag, which stores all these medications taken every day to stave off his difficult-to-combat virus.  He will soon start Isentress, the first integrase inhibitor class of HIV medication approved by the FDA in October—a respite if not permanent alternative to the harrowing daily injections.

I watched the unsettling scene as if in another time, say the early ’90s, evoking the history of AIDS suffering I know mostly from the literature of the day, the devastatingly immersive detail of misery by great chroniclers of that era, men not much older than I who bore the brunt of the plague.  The New York Patient is of that generation, but his experience with AIDS is distinctly of this time—solitary, stigmatized, yet hopeful that pharmaceuticals will take him from one decade to the next.
“I was put back on Fuzeon,” he told me somewhat exasperated, after failing a different regimen that caused his liver enzymes to skyrocket.  “I was feeling like I wasn’t succeeding in my treatment even though I was putting so much work into it.  I also had this interaction with a guy I had romantic feelings for that didn’t work out.  I started getting angry at the virus, angry at the medications, angry at the injections,” he told me. “In the past I felt frustrated for having the virus, but never angry.  Now I felt really pissed.”

Anger has not come easily to him in our conversations.  He had told me he felt “numb” during the initial crush of media attention that portrayed him as depraved.  He felt scared to be so ill and grateful to get better.  His process of picking up the pieces has depended more on a spiritual awakening than a clenched-fisted response to poor decision making and even worse luck. 

A friend of mine recently commented that the absence of anger in HIV activism today is the absence of politics.  By politics he did not mean “equal rights,” or the sort of “Fight AIDS” activism that resonated in the past but feels meaningless now.  The absence of politics, of anger, is one in which the voice of ordinary gay men unbiased by funding streams and institutional affiliations is rarely heard outside the researcher’s qualitative interview.  Anger is an emotion the New York Patient could hardly access given the anger directed at him, at people who do meth, who have unprotected sex, who become HIV positive.  The New York Patient’s anger is not externalized; it’s directed at his virus, at his tainted blood, at himself.  What he is reflecting is a state of affairs of being a gay man today, in particular one with HIV.  Anger is not allowed.
It barely seems to matter that he, like others with HIV, is stigmatized, or that gay men’s sex practices are pathologized, as long they keep HIV-negative men uninfected.  Gay men’s very existence is equated with disease in a call to protect the “general public” while our national LGBT leaders are more inclined to call gay men “complacent” than to indict a health establishment that has built an entire industry around the so-called deficits of gay men.  How have we arrived at this place where in the interest of health, stigma has become institutionalized?

From his living room we moved to his bedroom where he showed me his altar sitting on top of a bureau. There sat a small Buddha statue, some rock crystals and a golden elephant. He had a quill and a stack of papers he said were prayers. He also had the results of his last blood test, his health insurance certificate and a flyer for the Path to Self-Mastery workshop at Friends In Deed.  “The circumstances of your life do not determine the quality of your life,” he said, one of the teachings of his Mastery class.  On the wall above his altar hung a painting, quite beautiful, that he did in a workshop at GMHC: vivid colors of red meant to signify pain, green for hope, yellow for light, blue for serenity and purple for melancholy in abstract blocks side by side like dramatic rock formations.  He has taken refuge in the spiritual, which along with psychology, has come to mediate our inner selves with the world at large.  The personal used to be the political.  Today it is simply personal and best worked on in therapy.  What we are left with is accountability that starts and ends at the individual.  This is a time in American HIV activism that is militantly anti-political.

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