1986: Donna Summer Has Left the Building
Part XIII of an Ongoing Chronicle of the First Fifteen Years of the AIDS Pandemic
by Bruce Ward
David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask) sold 100,000 copies in 1969, and remains one of the best-selling nonfiction books of all time.
I was fourteen years old when I read it, clandestinely scouring the indices of my mother’s psychology books, in search of the word “homosexual.”
Here is an excerpt from the one brief chapter Reuben allows on the matter of homosexuality, his shortest chapter in the book:
The majority of gay guys, when they cruise, dispense with the courtship. They don’t even have time for footsie or love notes on toilet paper. Homosexuality seems to have a compelling urgency about it. A homosexual walks into the men’s washroom and spots another homosexual. One drops to his knees, the other unzips his pants, and a few minutes later, it’s all over. No names, no faces, no emotions. A masturbation machine might do it better.
No names. No faces. No emotions.
Well, that didn’t sound appealing to me at all. I ran the other way, as fast and as far as I could.
Following my HIV diagnosis in 1986, reeling from the stigma and rejection by paramours, the dental clinic, the media, and by society, in general, a new cycle of shame emerged.
I turned to the darkness of porn movie houses and gay bookstores, trolling bars until closing, sometimes even on weeknights. I figured that as long as I was turning heads, even in the darkest and dirtiest of atmospheres, as long as I was desired by desirable men, then I must still look good. And if I looked good, then I must still be healthy. As long as hot and healthy-looking men were willing to have sex with me, then I was able to keep panic at bay. There would be plenty of time to be reclusive and celibate—when I was covered in spots and as thin as a toothpick.
With each encounter, I wanted more. The more I had, the more shameful I felt. The more shameful I felt, the more depressed I became. Was this all that would be available to me now? Is this what I was worth? The more depressed I became, the more I thrust myself into that world. I was an addiction cliché. I was Batman in reverse: do-gooding healthcare education worker by day, the Religious Right’s poster child for deviant, diseased homosexual at night.
I followed the “safer sex” guidelines of GMHC and the NYC Health Department, so it wasn’t the sex act itself that was shameful to me. And I was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Despite the religious Right’s call to have people like me castrated, I knew I wasn’t purposely putting anyone’s life at risk or adding more risk to my own. But the shame and secrecy enfolded me as tight as a shroud.
So this is what was left of life: nameless, faceless sex in dark, seedy balconies that reeked of desperation. With married men from Connecticut who were also each overflowing with shame and despair and lust. With other newly minted Positive men who didn’t care anymore, who just wanted some human touch, some validation.
Maybe David Reuben was right, after all. I did not deserve to be loved.
Anything, anything to fill the void. The fear in the air was palpable. The desperation. The loneliness. The anxiety. And yet none of us could talk about it with each other. We were all terrified. The only way we knew how to deal with the emptiness was to be with each other in the way in which we were accustomed: in silence and in shame.
And now there was evidence to support what we had been taught all our lives: Sex with another man was so unnatural and so against the laws of nature that it literally could kill you. AIDS was a real downer for liberated sex junkies everywhere.
We all thought this would be over in a few years. We thought if we just fought hard enough and long enough, if we shouted loud enough, if we showed our determination and stamina, surely this would be over.
But the bodies continued to pour down like water. Jim, Michael, Vito. Bo, John Martin’s adorable roommate. The AZT was toxic, the doctors were helpless, bodies shrank to ninety pounds.
I remember walking into a hospital room and thinking I was in the wrong room because there was a eighty-year old man in what was supposed to be Michael’s room. And the old man was Michael, who was thirty-six.
And there would be so, so many others yet to come.
Eventually, the movie houses closed. The Anvil closed, the Saint closed, the baths closed, Fire Island virtually shut down, Provincetown was Province-Ghost-town, the Castro became deserted. Dancing stopped. Laughter was muted. Every person was a potential Bodysnatcher. Entire armies of men sheathed in rubber. There was no joy in Gomorrah. Donna Summer had left the building. Young gay men had nothing to do, so they joined gyms.
Bruce Ward is A&U’s Drama Editor, and he has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception. His plays, Lazarus Syndrome and Decade: Life in the ’80s, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the original Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline, and he was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100. You may follow him at: bdwardbos.wordpress.com.