“How come you wear a red ribbon?” asks my hunky, straight, Italian trainer from Stouffville. “I’ve only seen them pink.” The times I land at the St Mike’s ER in inner-city Toronto, young nurses ask, “What is KS?” when I deliver my patient-standard explanation of why cellulitis flares up on my legs, a persistent side-effect of chemo and radiation treatments for Kaposi’s sarcoma in the early 1990s, before HIV meds. When an HIV-negative guy wants to hook up with me — I’m in an open-sex marriage — and I say no thanks, often he replies, “You’re undetectable, right? I’m cool with it.” I reply, “HIV is criminalized in Canada; you know that, right?” Typically, I’m stonewalled there or insulted or, worse, ignored.
Gay men — and people in general — have narrow and short attention spans. I’m in the business of the HIV movement, I wear ribbons, I memorialize the lives of infectious gay men in books. I have to be familiar with public-health, scientific, legal and cultural arguments. I think of HIV as a chronic manageable, but episodic, disability with physical, emotional and cognitive ups and downs over a lifetime. Most guys don’t have to. Who’s to blame them? Who breaks the lusty groping with a come-hither of “Hey, hot bud, I have a nine-inch dick — and an episodic disability that I must tell you about or you might charge me with criminal activity.” It’s a deal-breaker, wouldn’t you say?
Some of it is TMI; some is impossible to remember because being gay seems guided by societal and self-imposed rules and pressure (“I’m muscular, clean and sober, UB2”), denial, a hangover of fear and a shitload of stigma and shame.
I touch down in different regions of Canada over the course of a year, chatting and sexing it up with young men: complicated, guarded, curious but courageously giving it a go in a country that tells them they are fully liberated and legally protected but whose queer culture whispers otherwise under the proud maple leaf. They worry about body image, making money, studying and finding a man. They negotiate their kink amidst heteronormative expectations that they should marry a decent, gainfully employed Canadian bachelor. Some tell me how relieved they are when diagnosed with HIV but how frightening the prospect of taking pills is. They assure me that HIV is normal, but they will not tell their families or the guys they are hooking up with, neither about fisting or fletching nor about their HIV status. The criminalization of the nondisclosure of HIV seems to be way down on their to-do list. I think they mean that HIV is commonplace but not normal.
Older guys living with HIV watch, with some indignation, the Truvada whores moving in on the sexual trade: “We are progressive; we take pills and fuck (good-looking) pozzies!” “Go fuck yourself,” spits a strapping 30-something barebacking bear I know in Winnipeg. “Where were you when I was sad, lonely, horny and undetectable? You came up with a lame excuse, a fictitious partner or called me reckless!” Often, the looming spectre of criminalization is eclipsed by the accumulated historical pain and an inheritance of incomplete and insincere conversations.
Being gay in the neoliberal market makes us maquiladoras in the digital production of fuck. Daily, we feel the pressure of producing spectacular sexual highs and lows; fuelled by meth, aided by GPS apps, we interpret and reframe the criminalization of the nondisclosure of HIV in oblique ways. We comply and swallow and resist and make do. The Canadian law that criminalizes the nondisclosure of HIV, the inter-fag bullying of hypersexuality, the sexual apartheid between pozzies and HIV-negatives and other social maladies are not the first thing in mind or to be ethical about. Cyber life only rarefies this Hello Kitty, pressure-cooker queer atmosphere. How come hook-up sites demand HIV disclosure but have no checkmark for “Are you nuts?” I applaud our efforts to put the criminalization of HIV on the queer landscape, but the young and the helpless, the gorgeous and the gargoyles are still trying to make sense of the AIDS sexquake that shook us only 30 years ago. Grappling with a legacy of horror, neglect and disappointment will take more generations.