Sexual Roulette

Despite the risk, HIV-positive gay men are engaging in unsafe sex in the wake of improved AIDS medications. Don't believe us? Check out South Florida's "backroom bars."

By all accounts Greg Scott, a solid, 37-year-old "gym boy" with a dirty-blond tuft of hair under his lip and a stylized biohazard symbol tattooed on his midriff, should be dead. Twelve years ago, approaching graduation from nuclear-power school at the naval training center in Orlando, he found out he was HIV-positive. The Navy forced him out of the closet and into early retirement, and the former enlisted man prepared for the inevitable -- his name stitched into a quilt, chiseled onto a gravestone, whispered from a pulpit.

The test results were not all that unexpected. Greg had been sexually voracious. When Navy doctors asked him on a questionnaire to estimate the number of sexual partners he'd had, he scanned the options: 1 to 5, 5 to 10, 10 to 50, 50 to 100, 100 to 500, 500 but less than 1000, and more than 1000. "You don't have any bigger categories?" he asked without a hint of irony. As a young man, fueled by alcohol and crystal meth, Greg went on all-night sexual binges. He'd enter the St. Mark's Baths in New York City on a Friday evening and emerge the following morning "with every part of my body just raw, not a bit of sexual energy left."

By the early '90s, the once-strapping sailor had withered to 130 pounds of jaundiced flesh and protruding bones. He'd become "radioactive," a diseased pariah, a dead man walking, splotched purple and pink. His face was sinking into his skull. He was covered with knots and boils. All around him friends were dropping. Greg hung on, though, surviving on anger and fear and meager disability benefits from the U.S. Navy.

While Greg withered, another veteran of the baths remained strong and healthy. Bill (who asked that his real name not be used, for fear that he'd lose his job) was a social worker who'd kicked booze, broken with a lover of 19 years, and seemingly staved off depression. But the smile he wore was a fraud. Inside he was lost, desperate, suicidal. He was an orphan who, as a young man, grappled with his sexual identity. His adoptive mother, a victim of child abuse who died when Bill was 14 years old, despised men and encouraged her fragile and effeminate boy to do the same. Neither therapy nor copious amounts of sex and alcohol could erase the misery of his childhood. In 1991, as Greg battled to stay alive, Bill went looking for death. He lay on his stomach on a bathhouse mattress in Fort Lauderdale and tried to snatch the plague from another man's erection. He says more than 1000 men, most without condoms, penetrated him in the three years before he tested positive. He'll never know which one gave it to him.

In many ways John (who also requested anonymity for career reasons) was far more fortunate than Greg or Bill. The 53-year-old former lounge singer, a product of Catholic guilt and parochial schools, spent his youth in New England's gay sexual underworld, cruising for action on street corners in Hartford and Boston. By the time the gay community had its coming-out party in the '70s, John had already amassed a considerable number of sexual partners, although true decadence was yet to come.

In the late '70s, he moved to Miami and frequented bars like the Hole and the Mine Shaft, real "pigsties," he says, where the sex was "shoulder to shoulder" and it was not unusual to see a man "getting fucked on the bar." In those days John, now a recovering alcoholic and self-described sex addict, was averaging 600 partners a year. The disease should have taken him; by 1985 his old friends were dying -- all of them. But John was spared. "Why me?" he would ask, rolling the question around in his head, at once guilty and grateful. HIV-negative and gripped with terror, he stopped going to the bars. Like so many other survivors, he found refuge in monogamy. By 1990, though, his relationship had ended, and John moved to Fort Lauderdale to start life anew. Alone and sexually anxious, he was torn between the compulsion of his desire and the self-loathing that accompanied it.

In 1995, by the time John had begun to venture back to the bars, Greg was near death, and Bill, who had tested positive the year before, was awaiting its onset. The AIDS epidemic was well into its second decade, and more than half a million Americans had been infected with the virus. Gay men, though, were no longer dying in record numbers. As a result of radical changes in their sex lives -- widespread condom use, increased monogamy, the demise of anonymous sex -- infection rates among gay men were plummeting, and many men were growing weary of the safe-sex straitjacket they felt was smothering their sexual freedom.

Then in 1996 a "miracle" occurred. New drugs called protease inhibitors moved from clinical trials into the medical marketplace. Doled out in myriad combinations of pills, known as "cocktails," the drugs, which seemed to all but obliterate the virus in the bloodstream, were the next best thing to a cure and at least temporarily saved the lives of Greg and Bill and thousands more. For many the AIDS crisis seemed finally to be over, the virus transformed from an almost-guaranteed death sentence into a long-term, manageable disease. That prognosis electrified the gay community and quickly transformed the sexual behaviors of thousands of men.

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