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Sexual Roulette

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.

When Greg found out he might survive, the once proud and embittered Washington, D.C.-based AIDS activist decided to really start living. He packed his things and set off for warmer climes, the reemerging gay mecca of Fort Lauderdale, a place that a few years earlier had become an oceanfront urban hospice drawing skeletal men from gay enclaves up and down the East Coast. Greg's doctors pumped him full of drugs, and the virus quickly dwindled within him. His damaged immune system made an astonishing recovery. He ate normal meals, exercised, and ingested large amounts of prescription steroids to counter the withering effects of the virus. Within four months he'd put on 60 pounds, and the purple-pink coffee stains of Kaposi's sarcoma had vanished from his skin. He looked stronger and healthier than he had in years and, for the first time, felt imbued with real hope. And after five years of abstinence, he was overcome with sexual desire.

Bill was another story. Shortly after finding out he was HIV-positive, he decided he really did want to live. A year and a half later, his doctor pulled him aside and said, "You're not going to die of this." Bill broke down in tears. But while the protease inhibitors he was given kept his immune system strong and the virus at undetectable levels, he experienced countless side effects. His heart strained, his belly bloated, his limbs withered. He developed diabetes and constant nausea and became impotent. Many other men suffered similar side effects. The new drugs, it turned out, were not all good news. For many the side effects quickly became unbearable, and their doctors took them off the drugs. For those infected with mutated drug-resistant strains, the cocktails didn't work at all. Still the stats were unequivocal: Between 1996 and 1997, AIDS deaths dropped a remarkable 47 percent, and the wasted Giacometti face of the virus almost vanished completely. At the height of the epidemic, a buff body was an unspoken way of communicating good health and HIV-negative status. By last year, though, the HIV-infected were often stronger and healthier-looking than their HIV-negative counterparts, and distinguishing one from the other had become virtually impossible.

It was in this environment that John, Bill, and Greg started having sex again, lots and lots of sex. Although he was skeptical, John took the good news about the end of AIDS as a sign that maybe it was all right to start "sucking and fucking" with abandon once again. Bill, who had started taking Viagra, and Greg, now a solid specimen of masculinity, each looked himself in the mirror and decided that HIV-positive men had as much right to healthy sex lives as anybody else. Before long all three men found their paths crossing at Chaps, the Ramrod, and the Eagle, a triumvirate of Fort Lauderdale-area bars that had quickly adapted to the wind change in sexual attitudes.

The full-page ad for the Ramrod in a recent issue of HOTspots! magazine, one of a trio of glossy throwaways catering to the gay community in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, pictures a man's bare buttocks beside a cream-colored lube gun. "Lube Party," it reads. "Back by popular demand this Sunday." Elsewhere on the page is a rundown of the week ahead. Wednesday features $1 off for "uncut" men, Thursday is the "battle of the bulge" competition, and Friday is "Boot Camp": "$1 off all drinks for those in leather and military attire." The bar, which has a dark, shadow-shrouded façade, is set back from the road on Fourth Avenue in Wilton Manors and is easily overlooked. A menacing-looking monster of a man in tight, black leather watches over the parking lot, which on any given night is usually brimming with cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Inside, beyond the unmarked black door, dozens of men, many in black leather, jam the barstools nursing Buds and Heinekens. Eventually the bar area empties out as more and more men work up the courage to venture beyond the black partitions.

The traffic in the back room, a dark space where men find furtive and anonymous sexual solace, has increased dramatically since protease inhibitors were introduced three years ago. Traffic is even more brisk at Chaps and the Eagle, the Fort Lauderdale area's other "backroom bars," where mazelike areas out of sight of beer bottles and bartenders are specially designed to cater to sex. All three bars provide ample space for late-night sexual free-for-alls: Chaps has a squat, rotating table for group play; the Eagle has pitch-black "grope" rooms; the Ramrod a "bend-me-over" motorcycle.

 

Sex in these places is illegal, violating Florida obscenity statutes and, in the cases of Chaps and the Eagle, a Fort Lauderdale city ordinance prohibiting full nudity in establishments selling liquor. Along with patrons, owners could wind up spending a night in jail, as long as police can prove the owners knew about and actively promoted "lewd" behavior. "It's a misdemeanor," says Fort Lauderdale vice detective Vince Rizzitello. "If you own one of these places and the sex is helping you rake in the big bucks, sometimes you just write off the occasional arrest as part of the price of doing business." (Of the three bars' owners, only Chaps owner Stephen Holt returned phone calls, but he offered no comment on the backroom sex witnessed at his bar.)

Despite the legal and sexual hazards, the bars draw droves of HIV-positive leathermen like Greg and Bill and HIV-negative risk-takers like John, who, although he passed through the worst of the epidemic unscathed, regularly rolls the dice. These bars, where the increased activity looks like a watered-down version of the sexual madness that preceded the AIDS crisis, are good places to take stock of evolving attitudes on sex, death, and HIV among surviving veterans of the epidemic.

Oral sex, the quickest fix, is by far the most popular activity in the backroom bars, as it was in the '70s and early '80s, when blowjobs were often precursors to a slew of other activities. These days a blowjob, viewed by many in the bars as virtually risk-free, is often an end in itself. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, when most sexual exchanges were viewed with terror and trepidation, the "prevention people" at AIDS service organizations prescribed condoms for everything, including oral sex. The basic message -- all sex is dangerous -- gave rise to "jack-off parties" and slick campaigns designed to eroticize condom use and spread the news that the "best sex is safe sex."

Today that message has been diluted, and even AIDS-prevention leaders like Dr. Stephen Fallon, head of outreach for Broward County's oldest and largest AIDS service organization, Center One in Fort Lauderdale, acknowledges the comparatively low level of risk accompanying oral sex. HIV, transmitted through blood and semen, usually dies when swimming in saliva. The virus can, however, be contracted when genital fluids come in contact with abrasions in the mouth -- clearly a potential risk when you're on your knees in some dark corner servicing droves of men you've never met. Of far more concern, especially considering the often fragile health of the HIV-infected, are the myriad other sexually transmitted diseases -- including herpes, hepatitis, and gonorrhea -- that can survive in the mouth.

In the early days of his infection, when Greg was frail but still strong enough to leave the house, he would venture to the bathhouses in Washington, D.C., to "service" other men. "I felt I could be an orally receptive partner and not feel like I was putting anyone in danger," he says. He finally stopped going after he realized, finding himself with a "constant throat infection," that he "couldn't go to the bathhouses and suck dick all night without getting sick." These days, he says, he tries to limit the men he "services" to the HIV-infected. "HIV-negatives are much less likely to know what they've got," he says. "They are less likely to monitor their health and far less likely to talk about it."

On a Friday night in March, John, who is HIV-negative and an indiscriminate oral receptor, went on a whirlwind tour of the backroom bars as he does at least once a week. At all three places, there were dozens of men engaging in full fellatio, but not a single condom was evident. It was "Alcatraz night" at the Eagle, an older bar that shut down and then reopened a few years ago next to a lamp-and-mattress store in the Lauderdale Manors Shopping Center. The front room was laid out with rubber cages, and there was a mock prison shower towering above the bar. It was still early. In the back room a single man was on his knees, his face buried in another man's lap. Dozens of other men milled about, casting cautious glances at one another but exchanging no words.

 

At Chaps, the newest and most rambunctious of the backroom bars, John grabbed a kiss and an O'Doul's nonalcoholic beer from a bartender in a Boy Scout uniform. Gay porn played on TV screens scattered around the bar, and in a large cage in the center of the room, two robust black men in jockstraps were intertwined. Around midnight, beyond the black partitions separating the bar area from the sex rooms, an old man with a great big Santa Claus beard was on his knees. He paused from the oral work at hand, smiled, and surveyed the unzipped trio lined up assembly line-style against the wall, waiting their turns.

John, who still fears the virus, largely limits his sex play in the bars to oral sex. He is at once repulsed and entranced by the places. "I resent that those of us who are sexual addicts are faced with bars that keep thrusting it in our faces," he says. "It's like being a diabetic and having a tray full of candy thrown in your face every time you go out to socialize."

Bill visits the backroom bars less frequently than John does, generally preferring anonymous sex in bathhouses. Still, he defends the bars as good alternatives to more clandestine public-sex environments like Holiday Park or the restrooms at the Galleria Mall. "I think there are a lot of people who have a great deal of trouble integrating their sexuality into their lives," he says. "You could call it shame, but I see a lot of people who withhold themselves from sex until they can't stand it anymore, and they want to get it as quickly as possible. It's better they go to the bars than risk arrest going somewhere else."

Bill and Greg prefer the bathhouses because they are much cleaner and more comfortable places to seek sexual pleasure. They are generally well lit and private and feature lockers, gyms, individual rooms with sheets and mattresses, swimming pools, saunas, steam baths, and showers. There are two bathhouses in Fort Lauderdale, on Broward and Oakland Park boulevards. Like swingers clubs the bathhouses are on sturdier legal ground than the bars because they are private clubs that require membership for entry and don't sell alcohol. At the start of the AIDS epidemic, bathhouses in cities like San Francisco and New York were mainstays of gay sex life for the most sexually liberated men. Blamed in the mid-'80s for the rapid spread of the virus, most bathhouses were shuttered. Though the clientele of the Fort Lauderdale bathhouses dwindled to a trickle, the establishments never closed their doors. Today business is booming.

Bill spends most Saturday nights at the Clubhouse on Oakland Park Boulevard, a bathhouse that attracts an older, less physically exclusive clientele. He rents a room and spends a few hours waiting for sex to come calling. Bill, who refers to sex as "play" and is these days exploring his most masculine fantasies, straps a strip of leather around his bicep and sprawls out naked on a mattress. The door to his room is left open, and men wander up and down the corridor, peering inside. He hopes another HIV-positive man will stop by and offer to have unprotected anal sex with him. On most nights he's not so lucky and settles for oral sex and lots of touching. "The hardest thing in the world in the baths is getting someone to fuck you," he says. Though he's no longer interested in using condoms, Bill says he has no intention of infecting anyone. The first thing he does when he settles in at the baths is put away the condoms that are usually laid out on a table by the bed. "If a guy looks on the table and there's no condoms, he knows I bareback and I'm HIV-positive," says Bill. "The message is clear." Still, just to be safe, he always discloses his HIV status, which is not to say everyone else is so responsible. "I'll tell someone, 'You know I'm positive,'" says Bill. "They'll say, 'Oh really, so am I.' Of course I'm thinking, 'Why didn't you tell me earlier?'"

When Bill says he likes to "bareback," he's using a word that carries all sorts of political baggage. To bareback is to make a conscious decision to banish condoms from the bedroom and embrace the inherent dangers of "skin on skin" sex. In many cases it is a political as much as a personal decision, one that in recent years has polarized the gay community.

Before AIDS most gay men, willing to risk getting STDs like the clap or gonorrhea, almost never used condoms. When it became clear that unprotected anal sex was killing thousands of men, condom use became almost universal. Or at least that's what the AIDS-prevention people would like to believe. Although unprotected sex is only now starting to come out of the closet, it persisted throughout the darkest days of the epidemic, according to Greg. "People turned to condoms out of sheer terror," he says. "Condoms are an artificial panacea. I think people were often using them improperly and with great irregularity. Condoms slip off, they break, and they fail. The only real protection is full disclosure."

 

Greg is part of a growing number of HIV-positive men who have, since the arrival of protease inhibitors, embraced sex without condoms. He is also one of the most outspoken proponents of bareback sex in South Florida. "We were condemned to sex with a barrier," he says. "The possibility of enjoying the intimacy that comes with the exchange of bodily fluids was taboo, forbidden, off-limits for the rest of our lives."

Both Greg and Bill belong to the same local barebacking group, a loose organization that matches up men through an e-mail list and occasional sex parties. Their membership in this new brotherhood has put them at the margins of gay life.

A February cover story on barebacking in POZ magazine, a national glossy catering to the HIV-positive community, drew a barrage of virulent letters. "My stomach turned in disgust and my T-cells probably dropped due to the stress of being so upset over your bareback articles," reads one letter. "I was outraged to read about the attitudes of those who bareback," reads another. "Are their lives so empty that they have to resort to such risky behaviors to feel alive?" Such reactions are not unusual when it comes to discussing barebacking, a behavior Greg and Bill view as risk-free as long as their partners are HIV-positive. That attitude is clearly controversial and still medically questionable.

A few years ago, when it became evident that some infected men were engaging in unprotected sex, the medical establishment began looking into the likelihood of reinfection. Many believed that one HIV strain could piggyback on top of another, forming a supervirus that would kill people twice as fast. While that scenario has recently been disproved by AIDS researchers, the jury is still out on another form of reinfection. Many, including Center One's Dr. Fallon, believe that the exchange of bodily fluids, rather than creating a supervirus, facilitates the spread of drug-resistant strains. That scenario is supported by a number of research studies and an article published last July in the New England Journal of Medicine. "After they proved there was no superpathogenic virus, a lot of HIV-positive people thought they had nothing to lose if they had unprotected sex," says Fallon. "That's certainly not true." If the research Fallon is talking about proves to be accurate, increasing numbers of men in the coming years will become infected with mutated strains and stop responding to the protease cocktails.

Of more immediate concern is the nearly 40 percent of Broward County's 130,000 or so gay men, many of them HIV-negative, who, in a countywide survey on gay sexual activity published last year, told Department of Health researchers that they find it difficult to limit themselves to safe sex. Unlike Greg or Bill, most of these men have not embraced barebacking as a full-fledged lifestyle change. Instead many are dabbling in risky behavior because they are under the fallacious assumption that AIDS has been all but vanquished among gay men. "The new drugs have given people a new lease on life," says Ken Fontaine, a vice president at the Poverello Center, a food bank that feeds 3000 HIV-infected men and women in Broward County. "They've also promoted a devil-may-care attitude. People need to remember that we haven't defeated this. There's not one person cured of this virus."

Still, many of the youngest gay men often approach potential sexual partners with the naive view that healthy-looking young guys couldn't possibly be positive. A marginal few, who through some warped sense of survivor guilt view HIV-infection as a sort of badge of honor, are actually eager to contract the virus. Greg and Bill have encountered these men -- "bug chasers" looking for "gift givers" -- in person and online. "This is not some membership in a club," says Greg. "This is not some tribal badge of honor. This is still a bitch. Nobody in their right mind would want this." As for the handful of HIV-negative men who have fully embraced barebacking, Bill says most of them try to limit their sexual partners to other negative men. "There are barebacking parties for positive men and for negative men," he explains. "Negative guys want to bareback, and they don't want any chance of getting the disease. I suppose that's OK. I just wonder, how do you know? How do you know? At least I don't have to worry about it. Negative barebacking I really don't understand."

 

An invitation to one barebacking party in Hollywood reached Dr. Fallon recently through his office e-mail. (He's not sure how he wound up on the mailing list.) "Bring a towel and a hard dick," it read. "Brad needs to be fucked repeatedly so come help him out, OK?" No mention of HIV status was included.

Although unprotected anal sex is relatively rare in the backroom bars, both Greg and Bill have barebacked on occasion in those places with other HIV-positive men. They excuse the sexual abandon in the back rooms because, they say, most of the men are "positive anyway." Tell that to John, who thinks a "few might be positive," or to the tourist who spots the ad for the "sodomy in the park" party at Chaps in Scoop magazine and decides to indulge with the buff and healthy-looking men inside. "Most of the people I've seen doing really risky behaviors are tourists," says Bill. "They come down here, and I don't know what enters their minds. If they do it in Florida, it's like it doesn't count. They would never do these things at home."

At the Ramrod one night not long ago, a pantsless man in his forties was bent over the motorcycle out back. Another man's arm was halfway up his rectum. There was an almost gentle rhythm to the "fisting," and when they were done, the second man slowly removed his fist and quietly kissed the side of the other man's face. They parted without exchanging words.

Although it's not a high-risk activity in and of itself, fisting -- a once popular feat of "sexual athletics," as Greg refers to it -- has for years been known as the most dangerous form of sexual behavior. In the old days, before AIDS, anal sex and fisting often went hand in hand. The tears and abrasions that are frequent byproducts of fisting leave the rectal tissue raw and exposed, creating the perfect scenario for the transmission of HIV from one man's sperm to another man's bloodstream.

John was one of 12 founding members of the Miami-based Fist Fuckers of America. The other eleven are dead. Today John has cut fisting completely out of his sexual repertoire, but Bill, who was a member of the now-defunct group, continues to partake on occasion.

"Fisting burst onto the scene in the late '70s as part of this gay machismo thing," says Greg, who used to be heavy into fisting before the epidemic. "Fisting is the pinnacle of manly sex. In the late '70s, to be a successful sex jock, this is something you had to do. It was very, very popular among the hottest, youngest set. It was about reaching this sexual high bar, and it proved to be definitely very, very dangerous." Greg says that, during the AIDS crisis, fisting completely dropped off the map. "It became really marginalized," he says. "Fisting was really on the edge. It was bad-boy behavior. These days it's starting to experience a rebirth again among the young muscle set."

Not long ago Steve Cox, Greg's musclebound, HIV-positive boyfriend of two years, was part of the South Beach "muscle boy" scene, where sex and recreational drugs often collide with potentially deadly consequences. Steve had been living at his mother's house on Jupiter Island but moved to South Beach after the protease inhibitors brought him back from the brink of death. He moved to Fort Lauderdale after being turned off by the heavy drug use and reckless sex among the young gay crowd in South Beach. "The crystal was so rampant it was a problem," says Steve, a transplanted New Yorker who once used crystal meth with great regularity. "In New York it had gotten to the point where I was sprinkling it in my coffee in the morning in order to get to work," says the former stockbroker. In Fort Lauderdale, although drugs are not unpopular in gay dance clubs like the Copa and the Saint, Steve and Greg say they are far less prevalent than in South Beach and are generally rare in bathhouses and backroom bars.

To counter the misconceptions that have given rise to the new recklessness -- fisting, barebacking, and oral sex -- Dr. Fallon started a new outreach program at Center One last October. Using a subtle approach to AIDS education that contrasts starkly with the hard line of the "condom code," Center One's Infinite Edge Productions stresses personal responsibility and doesn't mention the words "safe sex" in its printed materials or at the recreational outings it organizes. "We're targeting those guys who may need a little nudge to go back on the side of safety," says Fallon. "That might mean putting up a poster over a urinal, handing out a condom outside a bar, or having a good-looking guy tell them, 'Be careful tonight.'" Among the most effective of the program's new posters is a black-and-white glossy featuring a bare-chested young man standing in a graveyard. The text reads, "This year, 21,000 Floridians will die from a 'chronic manageable disease.' Don't get someone else's blood or sexual fluids into your body. You can manage that right?"

 

In light of plummeting infection rates among gay men in the last few years, most AIDS service organizations substantially scaled back their gay outreach programs and focused their efforts on groups in which the spread of HIV is clearly surging: heterosexual women, Haitians, and African-Americans. But Fallon thinks a "we've won the war in the gay community" mentality is premature, that it's dangerous to ignore one group to focus on others. "In October we went from the gay outreach portion of this department being less than 12 percent of our budget to being a full third again," says Fallon. "That's right around where it should be."

Greg and his lover, Steve, both active in the Broward County chapter of the People With AIDS Coalition (PWAC), are trying to spread their own versions of the safe-sex message, one stressing not condom use but full disclosure of HIV status before every sexual encounter. "If you are HIV-positive and don't disclose to your partner, you are reckless," says Greg. "The best protection is honesty." In the old days, when condom use was pretty much a given, there was an unnatural silence about HIV, according to Greg. "To disclose said it mattered," he says. "I felt really uncomfortable with not telling people I was positive, but every time I tried to disclose, I was met with such a negative reaction. It was a lot of, 'I don't want to know that, that doesn't matter, we're going to wear condoms.' It was a kind of denial about what we were dealing with." Last year PWAC issued a formal decree in support of making disclosure "a fundamental principle of HIV prevention." Although that group does not formally endorse barebacking among HIV-positive men, more and more of its members, feeling healthy and hopeful, are exploring unprotected sex.

What many of these men are ignoring, according to Fallon and others in the AIDS service community, is that in the end most of them will still die of AIDS. Although no one knows to what extent the drugs will prolong the lives of the HIV-infected, research indicates that the prognosis is not nearly as good as scientists first thought. In fact, according to researchers at Stanford University, patients on protease inhibitors might live an average of only six months longer than their non-cocktail-taking counterparts. "We're seeing that the drugs are slowing up the parade in front but not in back," says Fallon, meaning that those on the drugs will live healthier but still greatly curtailed lives.

In the end, researchers believe, death will come quickly. Also, increasing numbers of patients -- as many as a third of those who've taken the cocktails in the last three years -- have developed resistance to the drugs. "Unless we come up with something that can't be resisted and conferred, the death toll will start to come back up," says Fallon. That means the great big sex party that many men have started to embrace in the bars and bathhouses may soon be over, and men like Greg, Bill, and Steve may start to waste away once again.

"I don't know how severely my life has been curtailed by this disease," says Bill. "It's a bad situation. I don't know whether to buy disability insurance or retirement." Having glimpsed death and survived, Greg believes that optimism kept him alive long enough to see the protease inhibitors hit the market. "Everything is icing on the cake at this point," he says. "I am so proud to be surviving at 37. I have so many friends who are now ashes who would love to experience 34, 35, 36, 37, so many who didn't even make it to 30. How lucky am I that I am going to see the year 2000."

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address:
Jay_Cheshes@newtimesbpb.com


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