Sex Is Our Birthright
Chuck Forester revisits the early epidemic in his new novel
by Raymond Luczak
Because I’d grown up in the Upper Midwest, as in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin, I was always interested in learning of LGBT writers from my area. I was thrilled to learn that Chuck Forester had come from the Upper Midwest, and that he has a brand-new novel Eat, Sleep, Love, which involves the early days of the AIDS epidemic, coming out soon from Querelle Press.
Raymond Luczak: What were your growing up years like?
Chuck Forester: I grew up in Wausau, Wisconsin, where winter lasts six months and there were as many Catholic churches as Lutheran churches in town, but I was raised Unitarian. From as early as I can remember, I wanted to get out of town and live in a big city. My older brother regularly beat me and told me I’d never be a man. My family was upper middle class, and starting when I was in eighth grade, my family and a wealthy family began spending a great deal of time together, so I had four parents, two blood siblings, and four non-blood siblings until I went away to college. After my first year at Dartmouth, my mother married the husband of that couple and my father married his wife.
Tell me about your early days in San Francisco.
I moved to San Francisco in January, 1972; my son was born four months later. I came out a year later. In the early 70s San Francisco was gay Nirvana. A thousand men arrived every month to live freely. The Castro was a neighborhood of strangers, and we were learning how to live as gay men. Following in the steps of the Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice straights in the 60s, I was free to be whoever I wanted to be, and I could have sex whenever I wanted it. I smoked dope, and I experimented with LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. The middle class had abandoned the city, so we moved whenever a better place became available. South of Market after dark was a playground with leather bars for the serious as well as for the sisters. The men at the Stud opened their minds with LSD and turned sheds behind Victorians into hobbits’ cottages. There was a bathhouse for the suit crowd and another bathhouse for the young and frivolous; the penultimate pleasure palace was the Hothouse that was designed for serious sex by serious sex players. Around Castro Street gay bars popped up overnight like mushrooms. The bartenders at the Midnight Sun and Moby Dick were overnight rock stars, and Toad Hall on Sunday had a line round the corner of horny hoodie-under-denim jacket men. There was a bar for blacks and there was another bar for the nothing specials. There were seventy-seven bars in the city and the twenty-two baths were scattered all over.
Today the city is too expensive for the artists and the outcasts who had made it a haven for the imagination when I got here. People still go to work on Muni and the cars are always crushed at rush hour, and it’s even harder every year to find a place to park, but I live here because I love contributing to the city’s sophisticated scene. What I loved the second I got here and still hold dear but miss the most is the joyful optimism of the early 1970s. Minutes after I crossed the city line and bought my bellbottom jeans, I believed that since my generation had stopped segregation in the South and stopped the war in Vietnam, gay liberation was the next logical step, and that by the time I died, I’d be living in a peaceful world of love and caring. I still believe everyone can be better.
Tell us about your growing awareness of the new AIDS epidemic.
In 1980 a friend came back from Hawaii where he’d gone to catch up on sleep. I dropped by and he said he was out of breath when he climbed up from the beach the second day. He slept the rest of the time he was on the Islands. I was part of the team who brought Tommy meals and stayed with him overnight. He died of a disease that no one had ever seen. I heard the rumor that six men that shared a summer rental in Fire Island Pines had all died of a mysterious disease and it was linked to gay butt sex, so I knew something weird was going on.
I flew to L.A. to see my friend Jerry after he moved there from New York where he ran the kitchen at the Guggenheim Museum. He was opening his own café on Santa Monica Boulevard. I met him at his bungalow. He said he’d been tired but once he had enough energy, he’d be back at work. He also died of a mysterious disease. I was a member of the Board of the Human Rights Campaign Fund (now known as the Human Rights Campaign). At my second board meeting in 1981 before the virus was identified or AIDS had a name, the board debated whether HRCF should get involved with the issue of men’s health or stay with our emphasis on civil liberties. We chose the former but I had no idea that the community was facing its biggest challenge.
I’ve been HIV-positive since 1978 and somehow I knew that I wasn’t going to get sick, not something you tell friends who are dying. I stopped going to memorial services, but each of the more than eighty friends who died continues as part of my soul.
In the middle of the epidemic I led the campaign to fund a first-ever gay and lesbian center in San Francisco’s new Main Library. We made clear from the start that we didn’t want a dime that would go to an AIDS organization. Our initial goal was $1.3 million, greater than any goal by a LBGTQ group at that time. In the end we raised $3.5 million because $1,000 donors would have their name and their partner’s name on a plaque in a public space for a hundred years. The only other way our names would be that public then was on an AIDS quilt. I wasn’t cut out for street activism, but the library campaign gave a grieving community hope for the future.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about HIV/AIDS?
Before there was a test for the HIV virus I knew I was infected, and I made a pact with the virus: if I die, you die, and for forty years the virus has kept to the pact. Blood is shed in every revolution, but instead of the blood of our revolution being shed in the street or on the battlefield, ours was shed in poorly-staffed and overcrowded emergency rooms and in the beds that we shared with our lovers. AIDS profoundly changed the community; we grew up and sex is now scary. The community that I knew when I came out burst with hope and joy because the men of my generation were free for the first time in our lives. Because AIDS didn’t discriminate, when the people that made decisions for the nation learned that their gay son died, they discovered that gay men are no different from other men. Today AIDS is a treatable disease and some men see being infected as the mark of a real gay man while others see it as a pesky inconvenience, but AIDS reshaped every gay man’s sexual universe. For those who remember AIDS, it’s the mantle of history that we carry the rest of our lives. Our response to AIDS proved to the world that we did a better job than they did educating the community and devising caring ways of taking care of our own. With AIDS we claimed our stake as legitimate Americans and as living breathing human beings.
What has helped you survive as a person living with HIV?
My mother Betsy started every day fresh and what happened the days before didn’t matter. That may have been what got me get through the most harrowing years of my life. I went to countless fundraisers for AIDS organizations and donated generously to them. For two years I helped Michael my partner of eighteen years die hoping to the end that he would live. Michael planned an elaborate fiftieth birthday party for me at the John Pence Gallery. The party was to be a surprise, but he told me about a week before because he’d had to ask friends to address the invitation envelopes because his hands weren’t strong enough to write. Michael died the day before the party. One of Michael’s great loves was hosting a dinner and never wanting to be acknowledged, so I went ahead with the bittersweet party. After the big name guests left, a group of close friends and I held hands in a circle and I remembered Michael with my eyes closed. By staying active I hope I’ve been a role model for infected men.
Just how autobiographical is Eat, Sleep, Love?
The main character Charlie McKey has many of my urges, and he’s as smart as me. Like me he’s promiscuous, he avoids arrogant people, and he distains men who aren’t courteous. We differ in our upbringing. Charlie was raised by an absent California father close to the poverty line, and I was raised in an upper middle class fractured Wisconsin family. In a way Charlie is the kid I wanted to be because he ran away from home when he was nineteen while I waited until I was twenty-eight, married, and had a son before I came out. I hope that I’ve conveyed the jubilant spirit of the times I’ve lived.
What do you hope readers will come away with after reading Eat, Sleep, Love?
Gay men need to get back to enjoying sex. One of the greatest pleasures in my life was sex, and I want the younger generations to know that there was a time in our history when gay men weren’t embarrassed by our bodies, a time when we loved exploring each other’s bodies, and a time when we thought of sex as a celebration of life. We have passed the dark days of AIDS, but I want the men who follow me to know there was a time when San Francisco was a city of strangers like me, and I was amazed that such a city of freedom could exist while everywhere else gay men were locked up and murdered in the name of the Lord. I want the readers of my novel to know that sex is our birthright as gay men and a gift to be nurtured. Our sex can be recreation so we don’t need to be afraid of sex. A chapter in the novel describes what Charlie believes makes a sex date great fun and memorable.
AIDS sent gay men into bunkers. I want readers to climb out of the bunker and discover that life can be joyful and that touching each other is powerful medicine. Life is short, so get off your phones and enjoy life’s splendors. Push yourself!
To order Eat, Sleep, Love, visit: www.querellepress.com.
Raymond Luczak is A&U’s Fiction Editor. He interviewed writer Nicola Griffith for the March 2019 issue.