Vancouver
12 min

For each other

The causes of unsafe sex are many and complex, the solutions difficult and gradual

I smile at him as I walk past, then stop beneath the large cedar tree next to the path. He finishes talking to the guy he’s with, then moves beside me. We smile at each other and I realize my hunch is right: the man is about 25 and clearly Indo-Canadian. And he has a beautiful smile.



“Like to fuck ass?” he asks.

My lucky day, I think. Then nod. And swallow.

He reaches over, stroking my hardening cock.

I pass the test. He jerks his head toward the far side of the tree. “Follow me,” he says, then starts off. He stops to see if I’ve followed and gives me another peek at his big smile.

Not much moonlight out tonight, I think, as we navigate the hillocks, rocks and tree roots. The smell of the wet cedar forest is one of nature’s strongest aphrodisiacs, at least to gay druids seeking a night of flesh worship.

We round a huge cedar, well out of sight of all but the most persistent voyeurs.

Turning to face me, the sexy man smiles hugely, rubs my cock. I return the gesture. After a minute we’re both ready for action. He takes off his long coat. He has no shirt underneath. He drops his cotton workout pants while turning around. I am presented with a firm, hairy and truly delightful butt. After playing for a while, he asks to be fucked. I reach into my pocket and pull out a condom and lube.

Quickly, he turns around.

“You’re not going to use a condom, are you?” he asks.

I smile and nod.

“I only get fucked bareback,” he says in a pleading tone.

“Sorry,” I reply, feeling like I’d never meant it more. “I only do safe sex.”

He sighs. Shrugs. Hikes up his pants. Sighs again. Grabs his coat. Leans over and kisses me on the cheek.

“Have a good time,” I say, feeling a little stupid, as he heads back to the main path.

The incident leaves me feeling uncomfortable. Old feelings are stirred up. For the first time in years, I can’t get it out of my head: what would it have been like to just give in to what I really wanted to do. What would it have been like to fuck this gorgeous stranger without a condom? What would it have felt like to experience raw flesh inside raw flesh? To experience that silky feeling that I’d not felt since 1985?

For years, I have shoved such thoughts into the deeper recesses of my psyche. My decision making was no longer a considered one: my so-called choices had become a collection of simple, but automatic, equations: SILENCE = DEATH, VIRUS = DEATH, UNSAFE SEX = VIRUS, CONDOMS = LIFE, DISCIPLINE = CONDOMS, SURVIVAL = DENIAL. The response had become automatic. No thought needed: just wrap it, slather it and push it.



I am a survivor of my generation of gay men.

My best friend is dead. My chosen-family kid brother is dead. I am one of the few left alive of the gay men I played, partied and fucked with in my first four years after coming out in 1981. I can still recall the day I picked up the newspaper to read about the “gay cancer” felling otherwise healthy men in the largest US cities. I can remember the tone of alarm in the newspaper articles, the mounting sense of horror that was spreading throughout North American society. There was talk of concentration camps.



I can remember looking at my lover, Ross. Wondering if we yet had whatever it was that was killing others just like us. We talked about it often. Getting it out in the open somehow reduced that welling sense of panic we felt as the papers reported more and more deaths. Of course, our favourite theory was that poppers caused Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), as the disease was at first called. Our friends shared the same belief; some had already given up poppers. Not me. Whatever the cause, it didn’t stop us from playing. We had an open relationship. Ross would have affairs with men 15 or 20 years older than we were. They’d go on for a week, a month, three months. I would go to the Roman’s bathhouse, which could boast some 400-plus customers on a typical weekend night. I’d look for the hottest redheads-I was pretty exclusively into redheads at the time-and then either top or bottom, depending on what they were into. I was 22.



Ross and I were regulars at Boots bar in Toronto, a place noted for its butch men. It’s where we met, where we went to drink and dance and where we went to pick up a third for our threesomes. The first time we had a threesome, we caught the clap. I never knew peeing could be so painful, but I felt frankly smug about catching my first STD. In those days, a time when we thought penicillin would cure all the nasties, catching an STD was one of several life-passages for a gay man. It wasn’t so funny when we picked up another guy from the same bar a week later and caught gonorrhea yet again. I remember hoping that the murderous gay cancer in the headlines had nothing to do with STDs.



We all know the rest of the story. A generation of gays lost, their beautiful bodies withering away. A whole demographic of people wiped out because they’d dared to throw off society’s hatred of gay sexuality and instead lived and loved in the energetic spirit of the times. By 1984, people with Karposi’s Sarcoma eating their faces were a frequent sight at the corner of Church & Wellesley. I can still remember the horror of recognizing the stooped and scrawny skeleton of a man walking by my street-side perch one day was the quickly withering remains of an incredible hunk I’d fucked the previous year. It knocked me out of my smug self-absorption. It knocked me right out of town, literally for greener pastures-back to university in a smaller city.



*This sudden die-off of people we knew, people we admired, the most vital and alive people in our community, was a profound shock to virtually my entire generation. Vancouver lost the best of the gay leadership. I know people my age and a few years older who went to dozens of funerals a year for nearly a decade. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of their friends simply slid off the face of the earth as if being snatched in a nasty game of checkers.

I recall a pre-AIDS Body Politic feature story about the day that all the gays disappeared. In the story, the straights in the world awake to find that all the hairdressers and dancers, all the most creative people, had suddenly disappeared.



One woman wants to know why they also had to kidnap her husband. It was my favourite Body Politic story for a long time. Then it became true, in slower motion, like a horror movie.



“Is it coming for me next?” was a question I often asked myself. My friends told me they asked it a lot, too. Sometimes we talked about it. Sometimes we made a point of talking about everything else. And when community leaders said that they thought using condoms would probably make a difference, some of my friends were quick to start using them. In just the sort of irony that makes this disease so confounding, these “early adapters” in my circle of friends are now dead. I waited. I hated putting on rubber.



My memory was still very much alive with my past sexual experiences with women. I’d hated wearing a condom when making out with women. And I still remember thinking, as I decided at age 21 to date only guys from then on, that I would never have to wear a rubber again. There was such a rush of freedom, such a sense of exhilaration that I could go through life enjoying sex with guys and never again have to worry about pregnancy, never again have to restrict sexual intimacy by dressing my dick in an artificial barrier.



Back at school, I fell in love with a man with far less sexual experience than had I. The fear of giving him whatever it was that caused the disease they now called AIDS led me to reacquaint myself with rubbers. My whole generation did the same thing. There’s something about terror, about seeing people disappear, about wondering if you’re next, or maybe that it’s the person you love, or maybe the person you’ve just met an hour ago and are fucking. Will I live to see 30? I wondered for three years before scientists invented a test that could tell whether you had caught the HIV. The stress was intense. Will the condom save me? I wondered. My friends voiced the same thought. Nobody knew for sure for a couple more years, but the propaganda scared us into protected sex. The headlines scared us into it. The fact that the human spirit needs hope, no matter how slim, scared us into it.



The good and great gay activists who devoted themselves to the early years of AIDS education and care for the sick got it right. The condom worked, at least for those who hadn’t yet been exposed to what would one day be discovered as the virus that weakens the immune system enough to make it vulnerable to deadly contagion. The condom worked, yes. And a generation of activists did their best to simultaneously terrify us into using it and also eroticize its use so that we could more easily incorporate the barrier into our lovemaking. Making condoms seem sexy-and sexualizing the act of protecting you and your sex partner-was the brilliant strategy that saved tens of thousands of lives in this country.



There was another, equally brilliant move that departed from the government-sponsored AIDS prevention message of almost every other western nation: our activists understood that men need to get “wet.” There’s a sensation when raw skin touches moist flesh that is simply not reproducible with a rubber on. Men, particularly horny men, and most particularly horny intoxicated men, will seek out moisture. Canada’s AIDS activists decided to label oral sex as low risk, in keeping with the best knowledge available (and reaffirmed to this day). Other countries labelled it high or moderate risk and suggested that men wrap their cocks before every sex act. Canadian men could accept a minimal risk if they wanted to get wet.



Over the years, the brilliance of the Canadian strategy would emerge as information came in from the US and other nations which pushed the idea of using a rubber “every time.” Those nations found that many men who failed to use a rubber on one occasion, even for oral sex, would often figure they’d just done something risky, assume they probably got exposed to the virus, and so take less care in the future for all activity-even fucking without a condom.



Abstinence rarely makes the hard grow stronger.

***

In April 1994 I wrote a feature story for Xtra West exploring the “lifestyles of the young and unsafe.” One of the first journalistic pieces published in North American gay media that explored the “second wave” of HIV transmission, it recounted the experiences of three local young men who felt either invulnerable to the virus or who stopped using condoms because sex was more romantic and intimate without. In contrast, one young gay man shared that his secret to staying safe was an optimistic outlook and a concrete plan for his future.



David Richardson, then the coordinator of Vancouver’s Man to Man program noted that “safer sex is unnatural.” After all, most heterosexuals in long-term relationships think nothing of having unprotected sex when they’re not avoiding unwanted pregnancy.



But gays are expected to exercise an almost monk-like discipline in matters of body fluids. By 1994 maintaining that commitment was proving to be “more difficult than anyone bargained for,” noted Richardson.



As we face yet another World AIDS Day on Dec 1, and only months before Vancouver erects its overdue AIDS Memorial, now is a good time to take stock, brace ourselves for a short-term trend of increasing new positive test results from the local clinics, and work as a community to reverse it-yet again.



More than a decade of psychological and social science research has found, as Richardson predicted, that the lecturing, fear-inspiring tone of safer-sex messages no longer work for many men and transmission rates are rising again in Vancouver. After six years of declining numbers of positive HIV tests in this city, the statistics have reversed direction. And while the number of actual positive tests increased only slightly-440 in BC in 2001 compared to 413 in 2000-there are other people out there having unprotected sex without knowing, or perhaps in rare cases without caring, that they are HIV-positive.



Research tells us not to panic and lash out but to try new, frank strategies. An innovative advertising campaign in early 2002 warned gay men of the miserable health complications, including vomiting and diarrhea, that go along with the medication used to treat HIV. And reminded them since, clearly, some wished to forget it, that the virus is eventually fatal and the medication is not a cure.



Research has also confirmed that many of the people at most risk of having unprotected sex have significant “issues” in their lives: particularly homophobic families, strongly internalized self-loathing, a history of sexual or physical abuse, addiction to alcohol or drugs often resulting from any of the above. Self-esteem is often a huge issue for people raised in a homophobic house, a homophobic church, a gay-bashing schoolyard. These people are now largely immune to being motivated by traditional, scary safer-sex campaigns. “You need self-esteem to think you are worth protecting,” David Richardson told me in 1994.



Add to that, the hormones of youth that have just come out and started exploring their sexuality, or are experiencing their first coupling and find that latex creates a psychological barrier. “Fear is not a motivator for long-term behaviour change, especially for young people,” Richardson said. A decade of research, and a generation of gay youth, proved him right on that, too.



With such powerful underlying matters at work, there’s no point at all in ostracizing or getting angry with people who fail to practice safer sex every time. Clearly, our community would make more progress by continuing to share information about health risks on the one hand, while simultaneously establishing new organizations aimed at improving the general health and self-esteem of gay men who need an extra boost. One group, Gay West, went to the regional health board in 2001 with exactly such a proposal.



They asked for $125,000 in program funding and another $145,000 start-up allowance. Costs would have covered forums, workshops, space for a community centre and staff resources. Shockingly, it was rejected. More shockingly, there are persistent rumours that other local groups, in a fit of territoriality, opposed Gay West getting the money, despite the great success of similar groups in Seattle, Britain, Sweden and Australia. Future success in reducing new AIDS cases will take money and there has not been any new money from the provincial and federal governments for a long time.



Perspective, however, is everything. While media make it seem like the entire gay population is skipping on the rubber, the truth is that most gay men are wrapping their sausages. Most straights don’t face the stress we feel at age 20 or so of staring down the reality of a lifetime of sex with a rubber coating. Some gay men have burned out their rubber tolerance and, after repeated testing, are having unprotected sex within a relationship-just like most straights. It’s not foolproof-your lover could lie, cheat, and bring home a nasty present.



The lexicon of “risk assessment” has entered our lives. My last lover and I did it in the final year we were together. It made me nervous as hell after 17 years of wrapping it every time, and I do mean every time. But I thought about the wilderness kayaking that I love to do, and which is certainly not risk-free. And the big-boat sailing I so love. And my mountain hiking in grizzly territory and canoeing on northern lakes. For that matter, there’s the excess weight I carry around. We assess risk in our lives every day.



Now, I’m single again. I wrap it every time. I take extra condoms to the bars to hand out if someone I know is picking up a cutie and needs some rubber before hitting the road. For me, condoms are a way of expressing love and friendship to others, as well as protecting myself.



***
A few months after my experience with the barebacker in Stanley Park, I’m back and involved in a sex session with five guys. We’re working over a cute Asian man, maybe 25 or so. After blowing him for a while, one guy turns around and backs his ass over the Asian guy’s cock. I have no idea whether the Asian is wearing a rubber.



I pull some condoms from my pocket and hand them around. I put one on and start fucking the Asian. I stop after a while. Someone takes my place. I ask, “You got a wrap on that thing?”



“Yes,” he replies, “one that you gave me.”



But then I catch the eye of the guy who had backed his ass onto the Asian’s dick. He’s giving me a look that would have withered someone less arrogant than myself. He doesn’t say a thing, but he doesn’t have to. He clearly feels my intervention amounted to unacceptable policing and was ruining his mood.



He leaves.



I’m not sorry to see him give up. And then I realize that the Asian’s dick had not been wrapped.



It took me a few days to get out of my head the fact that the young Asian gay man-or his partner-may have been exposed to a life-changing virus. For no good reason.



The next night, I’m home and working the Cruiseline looking for a hot encounter. I’ve recently broken up with my lover of four years and want something light and fluffy and without complications.



One guy’s message gets my attention.



“Hot bottom, West End, have my own place. I want to suck some hot cock, get my horny ass fucked.”



I get ready to reply. Then comes the rest of the message.



“Looking for someone into barebacking.”



I move on.



But I’m left with this nagging feeling that we’re not taking care of each other. I don’t mean this in the over-dramatic tone of much of the media, which has profoundly exaggerated the extent of unprotected sex (for all the hoopla, the reality is that most unprotected sex occurs between already HIV-positive people, which is not to suggest they’re making medically sound choices). Yet, the sad truth is that there are people out there who don’t understand how absolutely precious life can be. I don’t want to stigmatize them; after all, they have enough in their lives and I won’t judge them. But the fact that they feel that way, and are prepared to expose themselves to a lethal virus tonight, means that we’ve each failed to make them feel valued and important.



We can do better as a community.



We must.



* Gareth Kirkby is the managing editor of Xtra West. He’s single and available. But condoms are mandatory.