Remember AIDS?

If I need to explain why this is another example of how gay men and the dominant culture do not respect or honor our own dignity, pain, and passion, then the cause of internalized self-worth in gay men is dead as well.

Today is World AIDS Day and it appears to be an afterthought for… well, for everybody. On facebook, on TV, and in my email inbox. AIDS and all the bravery, horror, and heroism of that time is not something anyone wants to acknowledge when we’ve got Black Friday sales and the Hollywood Christmas Parade.

I get it. AIDS is not sexy and it’s not even lethal anymore for those of us lucky enough to be on meds. But AIDS killed more American men than World War II and a combination of those war dead and the dead from every American war since.

We fought and won a victory of sorts from the plague. Guess it’s over. Move on.

That’s all I’ve got. What else is there to say?

I miss my best friend, Alvin Lorenzo. I miss my boyfriend, Tony Pruzzi. I miss my mentor, Gustav.

If I need to explain why this is another example of how gay men and the dominant culture do not respect or honor our own dignity, pain, and passion, then the cause of internalized self-worth in gay men is dead as well.


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Getting Real with Getting Old

The Angst of Diminishing Superficial Beauty

When I was 22, I sat across the table from a San Diego County Healthcare Worker who told me I had 6 to 18 months to live. That’s what they told newly diagnosed HIV positive men in 1987.

It seemed that getting old was not a state of being I’d ever need to face.

Until now. I’m 54 and healthy.

I’ve buried many friends who died during the plague, received a reprieve from death thanks to medications, and am now missing more than a half million peers who could be helping me sort out this aging stuff. And, as an added bonus, I now get to watch my face and body wrinkle and sag.

In all the chaos, fear, and grief of the plague, it never occurred to me that survival would include getting old.

The most glaring challenge of aging, and one I’m not hearing anyone talk about, is sex. Or, more to the point of this post, diminishing access to sex.   

For gay men like me who have received copious amounts of joy and validation through sexual encounters, facing waning access to the quality and quantity of those encounters is psychologically daunting.

If you are a man who doesn’t relate to the swelling of contentment that follows one or more particularly hot sexual experiences, you probably should not read this post. That’s because a big part of me just doesn’t believe you.

Men want to stick it in.

Even when sex would literally kill us, we still wanted to stick it in. It’s a powerful force of nature that refuses to be tamed.

Denying the power of sexual energy is like denying global warming. Unwise.

I also don’t want to be judged for my sexual lifestyle and I’ve found that type of judgment usually comes from the white picket fence gays doing their best to adhere to the demands of a hetero supremacy culture.

I’m not interested in retiring like a straight person. Gay culture is not only more interesting, it serves my authentic mental, physical, and spiritual needs. And much of gay men’s culture is tied to sex.

In another post, I will explore what we might do on the other side 50 that is not tied exclusively to sex. I’d written a four-page post on those topics when I realized I was hiding my most shameful and painful real feelings about getting gay-old behind those topics.

My ego’s deep desire to avoid the topic of diminishing superficial beauty makes it clear that this is exactly what I need to be writing about.

So, here it is.

Before hitting puberty, I thought I was one of the least desirable kids at school. With lots of reinforcement from my older brother and one or two adults responsible for my care, I was under the impression that I was an idiot, that I didn’t know how to carry myself, comb my hair, or dress right, that I was an embarrassment to be seen with, and that anything I said only revealed how hopelessly stupid I was.

When I started having sex with men, and I started young (in Junior High), all of that changed. Much of that is captured in my memoir, Drama Club.

Sex and offers to have sex helped define my sense of self.

Suddenly everyone was laughing at my jokes. I was told how smart I was. I was often the center of attention. In this new secrete society of gay men I was popular. A man named R.L. Ferguson became not only my lover, but also my mentor regarding all things that active adult gays needed to know.

Sex was a form a protest against the establishment. Gay sex was illegal in the three states I grew up in. That just made getting a blowjob even more intense. It was defiant, liberating.

Through R.L., and the men he introduced me to, I learned about the 1978 realities of STDs, civil rights, things that get a gay guy arrested, and the slang we use to negotiate sexual tastes. This was all the stuff my older brother and adults didn’t know or would never tell me.

Being desirable afforded me protection, information, and what at the time I thought was most important of all, SEX!

Superficial beauty brought me more than my fair share of dating opportunities and sexual encounters, even with HIV in my veins. Without beauty, I doubt my first roommate situation would have materialized when I moved to San Diego in 1985. I would not have received my first job as a fry cook in a restaurant owned by a gay man.

Superficially beauty allowed me to pay my rent when I ran ads in Frontiers magazine as a masseur. It allowed me to travel to New York City for the Gay Games in 1992, and subsequently secure a room on Fire Island.

It got me access to clubs, VIP rooms, and private after parties. At sex clubs I could choose the guys I wanted to play with. It landed me a job dancing on a box at the Palm Springs White Party, a life event that made it clear (if only for an instant) that being the focus of desire has its limits in its ability to heal the frightened boy inside me.

It’s one of the big reason’s I won International Mister Leather in 2007. It’s the reason I could not keep up with all the offers from guys on hook-up apps.

But that’s mostly gone now.

That image of myself as a powerful being is threatened as age slowly takes away the attributes that once allowed me to have so much access to sexual validation.

I lived in West Hollywood for nearly 30 years, from 1991 until 2018.

Men would pull over and offer me a ride when I was waiting at the bus stop. Guys would usually try to catch my eye as I walked down the street. I received big tips as a bartender at Revolver and as a waiter at Figs. It felt like everyone wanted a piece of me.

So much so, that it was annoying.

That’s no longer a problem.

Guys I pass on the street invariably are not interested in checking me out or even making eye contact. My hook-up apps do not draw the onslaught of attention that they once did. My workouts at the gym are now free of guys offering me advice on how to work out, compliments on how my shorts fit, or the size and shape of any particular body part.

Now, it’s time for the younger guys to have all that kind of attention.

It’s time for me to learn how to be in the world differently.

While discussing this idea with a member of my gay family, who is also a therapist, the suggestion was made that I need to grieve the loss. The instant he said it, it felt right!

If the plague was good for anything, it taught us the transformative healing power of facing loss. Pretending people are not dead does not help us celebrate their lives or integrate the beauty of their love into our souls. And, pretending my circuit body days are not behind me will not help me honor the delight and stressors of that life or transform the journey into wisdom. Grief transforms experience into wisdom and wisdom brings peace.

I am also aware that daddy culture is a real thing.

I was “daddied” by guys before I was expecting it; calling out “daddy” during sex or on hook up apps was my unceremonious initiation into Daddyhood.

It appears to me that the daddy image can simply be a look, just as superficial as a circuit queen look. Stepping into it in that context, however, feels like I’m just moving closer to my sell-by date, repackaging aspects of a failing resource.

It’s still grasping.

I’m interested in “Daddy” culture that puts social responsibility on the Daddy to use the wisdom he’s cultivated during his extended time on planet earth. I’m intent on providing generative, protective, and challenging space for my peers and our younger brothers so that we can use our authentic intrinsic instincts (sexual energy) to bond, grow, and love.

Honestly, I wish I were above this kind of vanity. It would hurt less.

Ways through this?

  • Acceptance
  • Clearly understanding the roles of youth, adults, elders, and ancients
  • Cultivating mature masculinity (as opposed to “boy” energy)

Those will be in another post.

For now, as much as it must infuriate those that have never felt particularly beautiful, the fear and loneliness are real for me.

Judging by the waves of beautiful guys I’ve watched come and go through West Hollywood (and The Athletic Club, Golds, and Crunch) decade after decade, there are plenty who’ve felt, or feel, the same way.

I wonder where they are now, what they are doing, and if they’re ready for the next step of gay men’s evolution.


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29 Gay Men Murdered in Fire – “The Lord had something to do with this.”

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the largest gay massacre in America. I did not know that until I saw this post on Facebook today. In June of 1973 I was enjoying the summer break between my 2nd and 3rd grade years in grammar school. Forty years have gone by and not one of my educators mentioned this massacre. I have worked and lived in a gay city my entire adult life and I have not heard about his until today. How is that possible?

Tomorrow the SCOTUS is going to announce their decisions on marriage. If it goes our way, do we just say “thank you” and blend neatly into hetro-normative society forgetting all the hate? Do we continue to bury this type of history because it makes the middle class assimilationists uncomfortable?

I’m just asking here, because the burial of this story for forty years – the story of my people being hideously murdered in mass – is outrageous.

Again, how is this possible?

Where are our mentors?

I’ve often heard people talk about so many of our mentors being dead. I have to admit that sometimes I’ve dismissed those assertions as hyperbole – people just exaggerating reality to match the pain in our hearts.

I did some Googling and found out that our feelings are – at least in this case – are supported by actual facts. Our mentors and my contemporaries are just gone – wiped out by an incomprehensible plague.

The CDC says that there have been 636,000 US deaths from AIDS – a great majority of them happening over a ten year period.
Factor into that – that nearly all of those deaths were gay men – and you start to get a sense of exactly how devastating this loss is to our sliver of the rainbow.

But really, how many people is that? I looked up the populations of West Hollywood, the Hollywood District, the Silverlake District, Beverly Hills, Culver City, North Hollywood, and Malibu.

Their total populations are 321, 933 – only half the number of people killed by AIDS.

I kept Googling.

According to Wikipedia:World War II = 418,500 US deaths.Vietnam = 58,000 US deaths.Iraq & Afghanistan = 6,717 US deaths.
That’s 483,217 total US deaths from war – still significantly less than the loss we’ve suffered from AIDS.

A paralyzing fact that we as gay men must grapple with, is that many of our gay mentors are dead. It’s not a theory. It’s a reality – a reality that is just one more challenge for us as a people.

Add to that reality another fact we don’t seem to want to talk about – those of us that are still alive are walking wounded. We’re veterans of a plague that killed more people than Vietnam, World War II, and the Gulf wars combined.

And yet we have no VA to tend to our psychological wounds.

Rick, it is heartening to hear your desire for mentorship. We want to do it. And being of use to you will undoubtedly help us heal some very serious wounds we are carrying.
In addition to mentoring the youth, we need to heal the veterans.

We are missing our mentors too. We are missing our contemporaries. We are jealous watching you grow into adulthood with ALL of your friends by your side who will be there twenty years from now. Friends you will be able to talk to over brunch and reminisce about all the crazy times you had together when you were young, divinely stupid, and more beautiful than you knew.
I believe that mentoring the young adults and healing the elders can happen simultaneously.

We already love you. You’ll learn to love us.

You remind us of ourselves and those men we have lost that we wish we could introduce you to. Even though you will never be able to understand what it was like to an AIDS Vets any more than we can understand what it was to be a Gulf War Vet, you can help us help you.

You can help us by listening to our long stories and letting us give you more advice than you want to hear. You’ll help your elders heal our horrifying past. In in that exchange, you’ll learn from your tribal elders how to build on our stellar successes so that you can surpass all our monumental achievements.

Experience

My tennis shoes edge towards the lip of the granite precipice and my heart races. I feel the sun on my face and a surge of adrenalin in my arms, legs, and chest. My older brother and I have made it to the precipice of the crazy rock formations that create a centerpiece for Vedauwoo National State Park. We smile broadly, without words, into the summer breeze. At 13 and 16 the view before us is something we can only experience. Appreciation will only come decades later. After becoming numb to the beauty of city living, and the long absence of a deceased sibling. But for now, the view is spectacular and the sheer drop, breathtaking.

Quality over quantity

Contemporary culture would have us believe that all endings are bad – that a perfect world is one where no one dies, no one ends a relationship, and no club or institution ever closes its doors.

This fantasy places our intentions in the wrong place. Instead of investing in the quality of our own lives, our relationships, and our institutions, we shoot for something far less important – longevity.

Tragic deaths are not the ones that leave grieving friends and family to ponder the rich full life of the deceased. Tragic deaths are the ones of individuals who never had a chance to touch their individual greatness.

Relationships that build up the dignity and joy of the individuals involved do not suddenly become failures when the couple grows in different directions. If both members of the couple have invested in honesty and integrity, their six month relationship may serve its purpose – preparing each for an even better (maybe even longer) relationship with someone else or perhaps living a happy single life.

Clubs and institutions may need to close their doors to allow the energy they have created to be released into the world where it can be transformed into something even better.

Focusing our intentions on quality requires more emotional risk, more introspection, and more creative thought than the mindless trudge towards uninspired longevity.

Quality requires all of that effort for sure, but the returns are high. Focusing our expectations on excellence rather than survival creates lives we actually want to live, relationships we will miss when they are gone, and institutions that are relevant to those that they serve.

MikelGerle.com