Finding Common Ground
Among Its Many Heart-Centered Aims, The Billys Embraces Unity Across Serostatus
by Lewis Nightingale
Photos by Dave Hall Photography
It’s a hot July afternoon at a Billy Gathering 150 miles north of San Francisco. More than 100 gay men—most in their fifties and sixties, some in their twenties, thirties, and forties, several in their seventies—are spending a long weekend at a peaceful mountain retreat center. Some are in workshops, while others have quiet conversations on shady porches. The pool area is packed and almost everyone is naked. You see bellies, butts, and chests, several with top-surgery scars. You see different skin shades and body types. You see who’s cut or uncut. What you don’t see is who’s negative or positive.
For decades, HIV status has been central to the identity of most gay men. Yet on this afternoon, we are one community, all significantly impacted by HIV/AIDS but not defined or divided by it.
Here in Northern California—long a birthplace of innovation—a new understanding is emerging of what it means to be a long-term survivor, one that is inclusive of all gay men over fifty. Whether negative or positive, we have all survived, and now we are growing older together.
For the past three years, The Billys, a gay men’s social group, has partnered with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF), through its Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, a wellness and social activity group for gay, bisexual, and transgender men over fifty, regardless of HIV status. This collaboration has shown great benefits for both groups. Dusty Araujo, a Billy and a health educator at SFAF, explains: “We both serve a community of older positive and negative guys, and this has helped many men to view each other as one community, not separate communities.”
The Billys is not an AIDS service organization (ASO), but many Billys are HIV-positive. The Billys is not a group exclusively for older gay men, yet more than eighty percent of Billys are over fifty.
“One of the things that I think our community needs to unlearn,” says Vince Crisostomo, program manager of the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, “is that not everything revolves around HIV. We are in the process of defining what it means to live, what it means to thrive. HIV is just a part of it. It’s really the aging process that we are looking at because this is where we find common ground.”
Paul Mueller, The Billys’ Board President, shares this view: “The Billys has a thirty-year history of breaking through isolation by providing connection. It’s a model of healing and support that is perhaps the most effective and caring.”
The Billys, a group of around 1,200 gay, queer, bisexual, and gay-trans men, defines itself in its mission statement as “a heart-centered community woven together by shared values” such as compassion, generosity, authenticity, and respect. Billys blend ritual and ceremony with fun and frolic. Diversity by age, ethnicity, and income is actively encouraged. Most Billys live in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, north of the city, but some men travel from many other states and even a few other countries to attend Billy Gatherings.
Gatherings take place in rural settings, six times a year. Most gatherings run from Wednesday through Sunday, and attendance ranges from fifty to 150 men. Gatherings include workshops and evening activities like dances and talent shows, as well as time for relaxing, socializing, sharing meals, and volunteering to make Gatherings run smoothly. Women are sometimes welcome, but Gatherings are predominantly comprised of gay men. In addition, fifty to 100 men attend monthly Potlucks in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, and Sacramento.
The Billys is distinct from the Radical Faeries, founded in 1979 by Harry Hay and others who wanted to create an alternative to what they saw as the assimilationist attitude of the mainstream gay community. Billys are often called “faeries with watches,” due to their preference for structure and schedule. Heart Circles, a tradition borrowed from the Radical Faeries, are a core ritual at all Billy Gatherings and Potlucks. Men sit in a circle and, over the course of several hours, speak and listen openly, honestly, and lovingly. As described on the website of The Radical Faeries of Albion, “Heart Circle is a place where you witness and are witnessed just as you are—your authentic self, speaking from the heart rather than the head and expressing all and any emotions that are present for you.”
Michael Hampton, a retired paralegal, has lived in San Francisco for almost forty years. He has attended Billy Gatherings since 2013 and has been an active participant in 50-Plus for the past four years. “I feel welcome there. It’s the same feeling I have about The Billys. They invited me in and accepted me just the way I was. I just love being around The Billys,” Michael says. “We have fun together. I think they know my spirit and my heart. And I get fulfilled every time I go to a Gathering. I feel safe and I feel welcomed. I should have joined The Billys twenty years ago. Luckily I lived long enough to be a part of it now. When I got there, I knew I had arrived at the right place, among my own tribe.”
The Billy Club, as it was first called, began in the summer of 1988 when a group of rural gay men living in the hills of Northern California came together to support each other in dealing with HIV/AIDS. “Billy” was a term of endearment between lovers, as pastoral as the men who used it.
Thirty years later, The Billys is one of the oldest gay men’s social organizations in California.
Although The Billys was born out of a need for connection around HIV/AIDS, its roots go back to the 1960s, when hippies flocked to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco with flowers in their hair. In 1967, the Summer of Love captured the world’s attention. That fall, Hair opened in New York, celebrating the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution.
In the new gay neighborhoods of San Francisco and New York, clone culture emerged as the dominant style. But not all gay men embraced this hyper-masculine, sexualized image of tight 501s, boots, tank tops, hoodies, and bomber jackets. Along with many of the hippies of the Haight, these free spirits rejected urban life and, gripped by a “back to the land” imperative and utopian ideals, headed north to Humboldt, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties.
Land was cheap and restrictions were few. Communes flowered on the coast and in the hills. In the early 1970s, more than a hundred gay men settled in the rugged mountains of Mendocino County. They built houses, dug wells, planted gardens, lived off the grid, and reveled in their seclusion and freedom.
But San Francisco was only a three-hour drive south. Horny country boys could play in the city by day and make it home that night, if they didn’t find a bed to share. By the mid-1980s, HIV and AIDS had infected paradise.
The gay men of Mendocino County were frightened by the illness and death that engulfed their friends and neighbors like wildfire. Ron Van Love, an original member of the Billy Club, recalls, “Having an isolated lifestyle made living with AIDS much more challenging, and made it more important to find other gay men who lived rurally so we could support one another. I loved living the homesteading back-to-the-land lifestyle, yet I longed for contact with other gay men.” Lives born of joy and independence were now lives of fear and isolation.
Board President Paul Mueller, himself a longtime rural resident, continues the story. “In the late 1980s, HIV/AIDS service dollars were becoming available to Mendocino County from the federal government, but local health department staff did not know how to identify and/or support rurally living gay men in need of help. Several women working in the county health department talked with a gay couple who had attended a few Radical Faerie gatherings in Oregon. They wondered if that sort of event would work in Mendocino County. A crude mailing list was compiled from tattered address books, an invitation was sent out, and in the summer of 1988, over 100 gay men attended the first gathering of the Billy Club. It was immediately perceived that there was a hunger or need for ‘community’ that transcended the immediate issue of HIV/AIDS.”
Division by HIV status continued to dominate gay life, especially in cities. But even at the height of the epidemic, the idea began to slowly percolate that AIDS impacts all of us. As positive men began to live longer, some negative men saw the loss of friends and lovers as shared trauma. Survival might not just mean not dying; survival could define and unify a generation of gay men who lived through AIDS together.
ASOs have long provided services to HIV-negative people, mostly around prevention. In 2014, SFAF received a grant from The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to establish a wellness network and social activity group for gay, bisexual, and transgender men over the age of fifty, regardless of HIV status. As stated on the website of the Elizabeth Taylor 50+ Network, “Those of us coming out as gay, bisexual, or trans men were often shunned by family and society. We came to San Francisco for community. We have survived the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Many of us have experienced the stigmatization of being gay/bi/trans, and are still being traumatized by the HIV epidemic.”
Most members of 50-Plus live in San Francisco, but some come from Oakland and Bay Area counties. Harry Breaux, an actor and long-time San Franciscan, has been a Billy for eight years. Like Michael Hampton, Harry has attended 50-Plus meetings since their inception. Three years ago, Harry was a board member of the Billy Foundation. He approached Vince Crisostomo about a collaboration with The Billys. “I believed in both groups,” Harry says. “What I saw was that the 50-Plus guys needed to get out of the city every now and then. I thought, if anyone should be at a Billy Gathering for a weekend and have their souls lifted, it’s these people.”
Crisostomo has worked closely with The Billys to ensure that the greatest number of 50-Plus members can attend Billy Gatherings. This year, between ten and twenty members of 50-Plus will go to each Billy Gathering, and many more will join the monthly potlucks in San Francisco. He has seen mutual benefits for both 50-Plus and The Billys: “After every Gathering, at our Wednesday dinners, we just have people share their experiences. It’s always really positive, and that motivates other members to go. It’s also inspired Billys to attend our Wednesday dinners.”
The relationship between The Billys and 50-Plus is productive in others ways as well. “Many of the 50-Plus guys were Billys at some point,” Crisostomo explains, “so there’s a shared history. Being able to reconnect with that part of their lives, and sometimes with old friends, makes them realize that this community is still there.”
Dusty Araujo, liaison between The Billys and 50-Plus, notices the positive results in 50-Plus members: “We’ve seen guys who attend a Billy Gathering for the first time and they’re unsure and think maybe they should go home, and then after one day, they turn around and blossom, they’ve found community. It’s made a change in how they perceive themselves and how they connect with other people.”
Diversity and inclusion are other benefits. 50-Plus members vary in race, ethnicity, and income. Billys Board President Mueller notes, “Another gift to The Billys is that through the 50-Plus program, we have been able to welcome more men of color, which increases the richness and relevance of our gatherings.” A primary objective of both The Billys and 50-Plus is to reduce isolation and loneliness. Real-life engagement, at places like 50-Plus Wednesday dinners and Billy Gatherings, is crucial to creating connection and community.
While many older gay men, both negative and positive, now see themselves as “long-term survivors,” Crisotomo prefers the term “The AIDS Generation.” “If we are in the process of rebuilding the community,” he argues, “why would we not want to include everybody who wants to show up?”
Many of us are reaching and passing seventy. Most of us didn’t plan for retirement. Few of us have children. Some have loving and supportive siblings, nieces, and nephews. Not all of us will succumb to “early death,” despite the dire predictions. We will continue to lose friends and lovers. Some of us will be old! Will we care for each other, as we did for our peers in the early days of the epidemic? Will younger gay men help care for us? They often talk of losing a generation of mentors and role models, but we didn’t all die. Will we become the “forgotten generation”?
The Billys and the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network are addressing these concerns. Vince Crisotomo is also a Billy. “It doesn’t matter why we come together,” he declares. “It’s the fact that we do come together, finding that common ground and working toward a future where everyone is thriving.”
Ron Van Love, an original member of the Billy Club back in 1988, still regularly attends Billy Gatherings, with his husband Scott, whom he met fifteen years ago at a Gathering. “So many of my friendships and connections who I made through The Billys are part of my life now,” he says, “and new friendships are being formed. Living in the hills of Mendocino County, my lifeline to the gay community is through these relationships.”
The Billys, formed by independent but isolated rural gay men struggling with HIV/AIDS, is now a vibrant community of heart-centered gay men, young and old, negative and positive. Connection has remained the core value of The Billys for thirty years, and it will continue to sustain us as we move forward into an old age that many of us never expected.
For more information about The Billys, log on to: www.thebillys.org. For more information about the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, visit: http://sfaf.org/client-services/50-plus. For more information about the photographer, log on to: davehallphotography.com.
Lewis Nightingale is a Billy and long-term survivor in San Francisco. Contact him via e-mail at: [email protected].