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May 7, 2008

Killer Gay Sex!

by Tony Valenzuela

Crystal Meth Uncensored

Just after Valentine’s Day last year, the New York Times published an article called “A Kiss Too Far?” discussing how charged and potentially dangerous a public kiss remained between men. Accompanying the article was a photograph of two men embracing one another standing near Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture, lip-locked in a kiss. The caption read: “Could a gay couple who weren’t hired models get away with this in Manhattan?” When that article appeared I thought, “If a gay kiss is racy, even unsafe, in Manhattan in 2007, then actual gay sex—the lusty, panting, grinding rhythm of two naked male bodies—is dissolute by comparison.” The discussion of the New York Patient with his “reportedly hundreds” of unprotected sex partners while on crystal meth takes place in the same cultural context where a public gay kiss might incite a gay bashing.  This incredible reality of the taboo of ordinary gay affection biases any discussion of the “party ’n’ play” sexual behavior that is common under the influence of copious amounts crystal. This has never been an objective conversation—not in media, not in public health, not even among gay activists themselves. 

“I lost control,” he told me.  He met an HIV-positive couple from Connecticut with whom he did crystal in the summer of 2003, around the time his meth use became frequent. Throughout the AIDS epidemic he had managed to stay HIV negative by practicing one simple rule: He never bottomed without a condom unless in a relationship with a partner he trusted.  For 20 years he was primarily a top (often without condoms, he told me) and remained HIV negative.  But with this couple on crystal he betrayed his own rules.  “My inhibitions about protected sex went out the window,” he said.

By early fall 2004 he was doing crystal three weekends a month and became concerned. “Then I realized, my God, where am I?  Am I in trouble here?  Do I need to look at this closely?”  At that point he asked his therapist if he was an addict and his therapist said he was borderline. “He told me to stop completely and if I couldn’t, he would find me the help I needed.”  He did stop but within two months fell ill with HIV and has never done crystal again.  As for that couple in 2003, he’s not angry at them and says only, “They're very good people.  I don't blame them.  I blame crystal.”

Susan Kingston is a crystal methamphetamine expert and educator with the Public Health Department of Seattle and King County. “We portray this drug as if it’s its own cognitive entity,” she told me by phone. “We call it Tina. We personify it.”  Kingston is a no-nonsense, straight shooter who has worked on the gay–meth connection for over 10 years and takes a decidedly unfantastic approach to meth in communities where infectious hyperbole dictates the response to this drug.
Last summer she gave a talk she called “Crystal Meth Uncensored—What the DEA and the Media Won’t Tell You,” at Chicago’s LGBT community center, where she intended to set the record straight. “Despite what our hysterical Chicken Little media tells us,” she said, “only about 10 percent of gay men have used meth in the last year.”  She broke down that 10 percent like this: About half use crystal once or a handful of times and never again without any problems; the other half are what she calls “regular users,” and half of these will use meth problematically or have significant dependency, like the New York Patient had.  “So the media has it right for about 2 to 3 percent of the gay community,” she said.

What she’s resisting is the “crisis of the month” approach to gay health, and I think she’s right to do so.  Where some take the position that crystal meth use is so destructive it is worth stigmatizing, Kingston finds the approach counterproductive.  In fact, she discusses what she calls the “myths” of crystal meth—that it is the most addictive drug, hardest to get off, worst ever to hit the community—in an attempt at leveling with a population she understands as savvy around drug use and anti-drug messages.  “It oversimplifies the nature of addiction to say that one drug is worse than the other,” she told me and added with a penchant for catchphrases, “The most addictive drug out there is the one you are addicted to.”

In discussing his crystal use with me, the New York Patient slipped into the redemptive language of psychology:  “I was probably more open to or wanted to be more open to be free with myself, free with my feelings, free of that shame I carried so many years. Crystal gave that to me somehow.”  It is hard for people to understand, myself included, how any gay man in a large city could not know the risks involved with crystal meth.  But this is how the New York Patient described his progression to meth abuse.  Nobody, regardless of the substance, expects to develop a dependency, perhaps because most people don’t. 

Why is victimhood so often the antidote to the pariah status?  Where in the New York Patient’s “victim” profile do we make sense of his close and loving network of friends, some of whom I spoke with,  who stalwartly defend his character?  What of his successful career?  What about his resiliency, that quality that people in the helping services covet in their clients, the conscientious tending to his body and mind, his focused purpose on helping others?  He has risen to the occasion.  He is not a victim.  He, like the rest of us, is a full range of contradictions, experiences and possibilities.  He faltered.  He made mistakes.  He had very bad luck.  But he has responded proactively, imperfectly and profoundly.  The gay community (like every minority) is rife in narratives spun through the stifling categories of “villain,” “victim” and their successful cousin, “hero.”  Is our movement mature enough for complex characters?  Is the language of recovery, of spirituality, of psychology adequate to describe transgression without resorting to metaphors of sin and redemption?

Whatever combination of shame, pleasure, escape, adventure and denial that brought the New York Patient to use crystal, the drug undeniably contributed to his seroconversion, as it has for many other gay men.  But is beating crystal meth the silver bullet to stopping HIV?  “In Seattle we know a third of HIV-positive guys have used crystal,” Kingston said pointing out that the link is not necessarily causal.  “If we’re looking at crystal as the cause of increased HIV transmission and syphilis transmissions, then how do we explain the other two thirds?  We can’t blame all this on crystal.  Increases in unsafe sex and syphilis and HIV in New York City happened long before crystal meth showed up.”

The meta-narrative of the New York Patient’s crystal binges raised once again the specious question: Why do gay men risk their lives for sex?  “I think crystal meth is cart in front of the horse,” said Kingston decisively.  “Crystal meth isn’t fueling unprotected sex and hence HIV transmissions.  Gay men’s desire to have good old-fashioned sex the way it’s supposed to be is what fuels crystal use.”

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  comments 1 - 15 (of 16 total)     next > >>

Jesse, , 2008-07-07 15:43:21
Please...Tony V. has once again decided to come out of hiding to try and be a flavor of the month. Every couple of years critics like Valenzuela crawl out of the woodwork and complain about how much gay HIV prevention work sucks. But do any of them put in the hours/weeks worth of work to advocate for and actually create effective programming? How about helping to build up glbt health workers and advocates instead of incessantly harping about how much we suck?

Phillip Schwartz, , 2008-05-14 13:30:22
Than you for printing this story! I worked for 12 years as an HIV test counselor at a free clinic serving the GLBT community. Our client base was mainly unable to access health care elsewhere, many were non white and impoverished and many were also closeted. These circumstances put our clients at high risk for STD infection and HIV infection. I want to applaud Tony Valenzueala for publicly debunking some of the myths surrounding new HIV infections among men who have sex with men. Thank you.

Bruce, miami, 2008-05-14 13:03:36
First and formost i want to remind everyone that you do not have to be gay to catch HIV. I have been positive for 12 years and in my line of work on medical equipment been through treatment for being stuck with sharp objects 3 times. They power dose you with HIV mneds in an effort to prevent you catching the disease. I have a tattoo that i wanted many years ago.You can get this virus from many different paths today. Just protect yourself and those you love. Make them aware. Live Life and Love.

PAC, Baltimore, 2008-05-14 01:01:54
This is the most pathetic rationalization of the self-inflicted self-destructive squalor so many Gay men choose to live in, now rebranded as defiant acts of pseudo-liberation. The loveless compulsiveness, the men who intentionally chase down HIV to fill the "hole" in their lives; why examine this sad nihilism when it can be glamorized and everything else blamed on the MOSPs (Mean Old Straight People)?

josewilsonmontoya, long island, 2008-05-13 23:33:16
great story about gay men have been treated over the past 25 years since the beginning of HIV. I think we should be more aware about all the messages out there that instead of helping us is hurting us. Good job

Gary, Jacksonville, FL, 2008-05-13 18:25:54
As for that couple in 2003, he’s not angry at them and says only, “They're very good people. I don't blame them. I blame crystal.” So much for responsibility for your own actions. I popped POZ too after a bad crystal habit. Guess who I blame? ME!! Being high is not an excuse to forgo protection. It's just stupid, which I was and so was he. Seems like he still can't come to terms with the life he created.

Kim Watson, New York, 2008-05-13 15:53:05
Re-inventing the wheel from HIV 101,STD,STI's is fantastic...I am 23years HIV positive,living with AIDS,but I am of trans-experience female,I am employed at one agency as the Navigator and Retention Care Specialist,I will always be your ally.....each one teach one. Kim,.

Johnny Guaylupo, brooklyn, NY, 2008-05-12 16:40:31
Hello, I thank you for bringing this back to life, this is the NAKED TRUTH and we should all know about it!~

Rod McCoy, Washington, DC, 2008-05-12 11:05:10
I'm an HIV educator, and I became infected in 2002. The question put to me was "How could you be come infected?" The truth is I enjoyed sex with condoms, but felt I couldn't share that with anyone. Demonizing unprotected sex (and the people who practice it) won't make HIV or AIDS go away. Honest and nonjudgmental messages about unprotected sex with REALISTIC strategies for reducing risk is what's needed. Especially since many naysayers have unprotected sex themselves! Thanks, Tony!

James, Minnesota, 2008-05-11 14:57:14
This article should be published in the TIMES magazine and on the front page of every newspaper in the country. Unless this information is given to the general public this disease will continue to be mis-represented.

David, Atlanta, 2008-05-10 11:33:12
I dont buy the author's argument that just because other groups are also sexually irresponsible, its ok for gay men to behave that way. Just like lung cancer from smoking, heart disease from overeating, HIV and other STDs come from promiscuity. The more cigarettes you smoke, the higher your risk for lung cancer. The more anonymous sex parters you have the more likely you will become infected. Sure, sex between consenting adults should be a right but promiscuity is hazardous to your health

Jim Pickett, Chicago, 2008-05-09 17:58:45
Fantastic piece! Would like to let readers know about IRMA - International Rectal Microbicide Advocates. Our global advocacy group supports the research and development of safe, effective and acceptable rectal microbicides that could provide extra protection with condoms, or some protection in the absence of condoms. They could be in lube or enema form, for example, and would be another prevention tool. There is vaginal research happening too! For more on IRMA www.rectalmicrobicides.org THX

agnes, new york, 2008-05-08 19:16:44
i am an hiv-negative woman in love and in a committed relationship with an hiv-positive man. his viral is very load is undetectable. we sometimes have unprotected vaginal sex--really just some strokes. i definitely feel stigmatized, particularly from other women, about that and have rarely told other folks because of it. people look at you like you're crazy. as if there is no way to reduce your risk or simply make an informed decision to take a risk once in a while and feel ok about it.

Sergio Sanchez, Los Angeles., 2008-05-08 19:14:18
I completely agree with you on every single point. I have been working on the HIV field for 14 years, always dealing with the impositions of CDC and OAPP contracts. They are so narrow that don't left any room to improve or for feed back from HIV poz people. I am too a long term survivor, and I am too a gay man claiming his right to have sex, love and the natural way. It is a choice among two people, not goverment has to be allow in it.

Thomas B. Bowie, Jr, Village of Rossie, Upstate New York, 2008-05-08 16:05:13
I am glad to hear Tony is alive and well. I was fortunate to bring his show to Hartford back in 2000. I was working then as a positive gay man bringing information to other positive men through one of the many HIV Prevention Programs offered under the Clinton Administration. Then all education that was honest stopped in the years of the Bush Administration. All the work done to that point was put aside as ASOs and CBOs ran for cover to continue funding under the new rules of Bush. Pray its over

comments 1 - 15 (of 16 total)     next > >>

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