June 26, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Gay sluts are back
By Simon Sheppard
COCKSUCKING WAS ONCE , believe it or not, viewed as an act of political rebellion. In the early, palmy days of gay liberation, sex-radical manifestos celebrated the "revolutionary" potential of male-male sex. It was sodomy versus patriarchy. Or as one slogan had it, "Up the ass of the ruling class."
Orgasm now! If consumer capitalism thrives on delayed gratification, orgy rooms do not. And back in the 1970s, San Francisco was just one giant orgy room, or so nostalgia would have us believe. Homo sex was everywhere, and it seemed only Armistead Maupin actually had a job. Those were innocent times, when the aftermath of an evening of fellatio at the Boot Camp or fisting at the Slot could be remedied by a good night's rest and maybe a visit to the clap clinic. Then, within a short decade, the Edenic orgy came to a crashing halt in a swamp of viral death.
And yet even death can't stop desire. Despite ongoing troubles with AIDS and the queer community's love affair with respectability, gay sex is back. A confluence of factors some good, some not so have resuscitated queer sluttishness. First came battle fatigue and the dawning realization that the epidemic was going to be around for a long time to come, so carpe diem, dammit. Then came the rise of the Internet: in a place like San Francisco, getting laid via AOL is as easy as ordering a pizza (assuming that the pizza delivery boy stands you up half the time). The rise of new drug regimes has made HIV seem less threatening, even though it's still plenty deadly. And despite all the rearguard backlash against sodomy, the discourse about sexuality has broadened greatly in the past three decades. What was once unspeakable is now just more fodder for talk shows. Queer as Folk is a hit. Sex, including homo sex, including kinky sex, just won't shut up though whether this has to do with what Herbert Marcuse dubbed "repressive tolerance" is worth pondering.
Death = respectability
In 1982 I edited the program book of what was then called the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade, back before "pride" went from being a deadly sin to being a political agenda. On the very last page there was a short article warning of a mysterious new disease that had begun cropping up among gay men. That was just before the deluge, before everything changed. Gay men, just emerging from millennia of oppression, were still fighting the battle against shame when boom the wages of sin became plain to see on the faces of frail men stumbling through the Castro. The unspeakable had rained on our parade.
We began marching around in ACT UP T-shirts that read "Silence = Death," but in our heart of hearts there was the unspoken, ghastly knowledge that sex, too, could equal death. In the late 1980s things were god-awful grim on the fuck front.
We queers had once done our time in high schools where the good girls-sluts dichotomy held sway. But we'd broken free to become happy, proud sluts ourselves. And now, our enemies cackled, we were paying the price. Buena Vista Park was defoliated. The bathhouses got shut down. As leathermen died off, the South of Market stand-up-sex backroom bars disappeared too. Tumbleweeds blew down the empty reaches of Castro Street.
Sluts those of us who survived went out of style.
The threat of HIV was (and is) real and deadly. But the epidemic was also seized on as an instrument of control, by assimilationists within the queer community who wanted us all to behave like good girls and by those in the larger heterocentrist culture who were both envious of and repelled by men who numbered their sex partners in the dozens. Or hundreds. Or thousands.
Partly as a result of AIDS, many more men came out always a desirable thing. But a goodly share of them were less sex-positive than those who'd gone before, and some young queers bitterly blamed their enforced self-restraint on men they decried as old libertines. And it turned out that the ruling class, too, had its fair share of homos, and not all of them wanted to rock the yacht.
Many Respectable Gay Leaders proclaimed that we were really no different from everyone else, that our pre-HIV carousings were just growing pains. That immature sowing of wild oats, they said, had been a symptom of the internalized homophobia that robbed us of self-respect.
Sexual radicalism was supposedly defunct, derided as another dead end of a failed countercultural moment. In place of the '60s' genderflex hippies in the Haight, the '70s' gay radicals, and the '80s' self-consciously butch clones with poppers stuck up their noses, the new face of the queer movement was "responsible folks making responsible demands." Gay marriage. Gay adoption. A place at the table. A place in the ranks. A broader, sadder but wiser queer community demanded every right that hets have, even the right to be boringly desexualized.
Gays began settling down in monogamously coupled bliss. Some moved to the burbs, bought that BMW, spent their days at Ikea and the Metropolitan Community Church. Given the large proportion of het marriages that crash and burn, it should come as no surprise that many of these domestic arrangements didn't last as long as hoped. Some did, though, and more power to 'em. As long as it stems from true mutual desire, not just from jealousy and fear, monogamy is a fine thing. Sometimes it even works out.
Sluts on the rebound
But not everyone longs to raise rug rats and exchange vows in church. And sluts should have rights too. When Rosie finally, finally, finally came out, she didn't do so for the sake of her queer brethren and sistren, nor as a challenge to straight hegemony. She came out for the sake of "the children," deriding the more radical queers who'd urged her to come out as "gay Nazis." Thanks a whole fucking lot, hon.
A couple of years ago my partner and I decided that 25 years was long enough to live in sin, so we got hitched at one of those city hall group-commitment-ceremony extravaganzas. Despite our initial ambivalence, the ceremony was actually rather lovely. And then we headed down to the reception. The party room featured a photo display titled something like "Love Makes a Family." The photos all pictured pair-bonded same-sex couples embracing at least one child.
Even then, even there, I felt marginalized. I did not see myself in those pictures. I did not see what would have passed as my partner and my "family" at the time, which included me, William, his two long-term fuckbuddies, the young man I was tying up and spanking, and an extended family of other tricks, nonsexual pals, and sometime fuckbuds. The fix was in. We sluts were second-class queers. The good girls held sway. Sodomy had gone from being a threat to het power to being a laugh-tracked joke on Will and Grace.
Last month ABC's Nightline devoted a week to queer-themed programming, featuring what seemed like an endless succession of gay and lesbian couples proclaiming to straight America that, gee, we're just like you, except we have matching genitalia. It would have been refreshing if at least a couple of gay men had pointed out that though most queers do indeed have a lot in common with straight society, a notable number of us have a whole lot of sex partners and/or wide-open relationships and still manage to live happy, fulfilled lives. Assiduously dull Ted Koppel will praise sex clubs and anonymous tricking only after hell has acquired a nice, thick layer of ice. But he sounded like a flaming libertine compared with the good-girl queers on the show, such as the nice old gent who declared that being gay was only incidentally about actually having sex, or the lesbian who denounced the goings-on at pride parades in tones worthy of Pat Robertson.
The public, civil rightsy, fundraising, PFLAG'd face of queer America doth strive mightily to make us all sound as respectable as can be: "AIDS has taught us a terrible lesson, and so we've decided to grow up and lead sex lives as unadventurous and inoffensive as, well, the rest of you." But you can only hold your breath for so long. A funny thing happened on the way to respectability. Gay men starting having sex, more sex, again.
And, as any female-to-male transsexual can tell you, testosterone gives guys the souls of sex pigs, no matter how polished the facade; even conservative homo Andrew Sullivan, who'd been hectoring us to grow up and settle down, got caught posting ads on a barebacking Web site.
But most of all, the gay sluts are back because sexual pleasure, the giving and taking of erotic delight, is just plain (if not simply) good. That's not to say that all the club boys are tweaking toward Utopia. There are plenty of serpents in Eden redux: drug-resistant gonorrhea, rampant speed addiction, sex that's not just promiscuous but harmfully compulsive. Most alarmingly, there's been a quantum increase in unprotected anal sex, not only between those already HIV-infected but also among the not-yets. People who work in AIDS-prevention programs will confirm what we all already knew: queer men are having more sex, and less of it is condomized. One artist who's celebrated the gay sexual underground for the last quarter century says, "I thought we'd learned something, but apparently we have to go through it all again. It's like watching the replay of a train wreck, in slow motion."
One argument for gay marriage is that officially ennobling (theoretically monogamous) male-male relationships would decrease "promiscuity" and thereby reduce HIV infections. The theory may well have a grain of truth, but it recruits the virus to enforce moralistic notions that good girls say no. Fuck that. "The consequences of nonmonogamy are terrible," says Dr. Tom Coburn, one of George Dubbya's chief AIDS advisors. "It tears up relationships and can make people vulnerable to STDs." Well, sure, the STD thing is true: lifelong monogamy is a damn good way to guard against anal warts. But there's clearly a moralizing agenda at work here, too, the kind of antisex pecksniffery that makes some of us want to go out and get gang-banged with condoms just for the hell of it.
So how to keep queer men safer while not joining hands with the antisexers and homophobes? It can be a delicate balancing act; public health officials who sound even a little alarmist about the current state of affairs have been lambasted by more than a few queers.
Gay sluts are back, god bless 'em, a little bedraggled, maybe, but bravely marching toward the future, hard-ons in hand. The renaissance of unapologetic homo-lust is not without risks, but neither is it without rewards. All sorts of things are life-threatening cigarettes, Big Macs, SUVs but few are nearly as much fun as getting fucked.
Yes, I'm thoroughly happy to be in a wonderful, very long-term relationship with a great guy. But I'm also totally thrilled that I've had sex with hundreds of men in my lifetime. (Maybe even more, but who's keeping count?) Men are like snowflakes: no two are alike. And each has something to offer. One of the great things about being a pariah is that you don't have to play by the rules. And one of the best things about being a queer man, better than going to Palm Springs or idolizing Cher, is having sex with other men, be it one in a lifetime or three in one night.
Cocksucking will most likely never regain its revolutionary cachet. But gay sexuality, once exiled to medical journals and would-be marriage beds, is back where it belongs in queer hearts, minds, souls, bedrooms, back rooms, tearooms, sex clubs, dark parks, bright beaches, honeymoon suites, cheap hotels, bus stops, locker rooms, and wherever else two men look at each other and think, "Oh, yummy." So tonight, my dear and wonderful, brave and foolish fellow sluts, let's all make love in San Francisco. And live to tell the tale.
Simon Sheppard is the author of Hotter than Hell and Other Stories (Alyson Books) and the forthcoming Kinkorama. He loiters at www.simonsheppard.com.