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THEATER REVIEW At Last: A Tribute to Etta James THEATER REVIEW
At Last: 
A Tribute to
Etta James
Playwright: Jackie Taylor. At: Black Ensemble Theatre, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: ...

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GUEST COLUMN How I didn't get AIDS
by Andrew Miller
2013-07-09

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This is how Jake got HIV:

Despite his ambivalence toward hook-ups, Jake set his iPhone on stun and Grindr-ed up a handsome young man who thought Jake was handsome, too. With him Jake hoped to blunt, at least for a while, his unremitting ache to be desired and loved.

Jake is unassumingly and unconventionally sexy: Tall and skinny. Blond hair, brown eyes. Prematurely receding hairline. A porn'stache. He's smart, verbal, athletic, artistic, talented, and ceaselessly curious about life. Lovable.

He trekked from Avenue B to Greater Chelsea, buzzed, was buzzed in, walked up five flights, knocked, entered, kissed, took off his T-shirt, kissed some more, kicked off his boots and socks, took off his jeans and that which was between him and his jeans, and let desire make sex seem an antidote to loneliness. His handsome young man had turned out to be not nearly as handsome as advertised, but Jake felt obligated, obliged; so he persevered.

Top and bottom had been pre-negotiated, and when the not-as-handsome-as-he-had-hoped young man slid, condom-less, inside him, Jake assumed, because his suitor hadn't mentioned HIV, that he was negative, too, and wouldn't be barebacking him otherwise. At the last moment, Jake felt unsafe, afraid—paralyzed.

The man in Chelsea assumed that since Jake hadn't mentioned HIV, he must be positive, too, and so he proceeded unencumbered. They were both wrong.

This is how Miles almost got HIV:

A few months later, to prove to himself he'd still have a sex life despite his new HIV status, Jake Manhunt-ed Miles, who turned out to be even more handsome than Jake had hoped. With Jake, Miles hoped to quash, at least for the evening, his unremitting longing to be desired and loved.

Jake assumed that since Miles hadn't brought it up, he must be HIV positive, making safe sex unnecessary. Miles assumed that since Jake hadn't brought it up, he must be HIV negative, making safe sex unnecessary. They were both wrong.

Back at home, when he looked in the mirror and saw Miles's face staring back at him, Jake realized what might have just occurred. He phoned Miles and told him to take post-exposure prophylaxis if he was, in fact, negative. Then he suspended his Manhunt account and deleted Grindr from his iPhone. Miles went to the ER and got PEP—a pill combo that can prevent infection after exposure. He remained negative.

This is how Tim could have gotten HIV and tanked his T-cells:

Tim is a tomcat. He's magnetic, successful, and boy-crazy. He travels frequently for work, and there's (at least) a guy in every port ready to get drinks, dinner, and after-dinner mints. The guys Tim attracts are handsome and successful as well: I know because he forwards their Grindr photos to me, both proud of himself and wanting my approval.

Tim's boy-picker is broken. The boys are all charming and everyone's idea of good-looking, but Tim wants a husband, and the men he dates and sleeps with do not.

Tim always has safe sex. But one night in Minneapolis with a strawberry blond North Dakotan, he got carried away, and fluids were exchanged. Back in New York, he confided in me, and I gently demanded he take an HIV test. He was frightened. I insisted. He said he didn't want to know. I offered to go with him. He'd say yes but then cancel. Like a handsome ostrich, he planted his head firmly in the sand on the banks of the River Denial and remained there, paralyzed.

After many months, Tim got tested. He remains sero-negative.

As I approach 50, I find myself, through a fortunate situational quirk, surrounded by gay men whose father—or at least big brother—I'm old enough to be. The thirty-somethings are all handsome. The twenty-somethings are all adorable. From them I learn what it might have been like to be a father or a big brother or an uncle—to feel proud of, and get angry at, and take care of, and be loved by, someone for whom my love is unconditional.

From me they learn, some for the first time, that another gay man might desire to be with them for something other than sex. I suspect my avuncular cardigans make them feel safe. They like me. They respect me. They trust me.

I give them books for their birthdays, I remind them to call their moms on Mother's Day, I approve the boys they date, I console them when they get dumped, I noodge them about smoking too much, I loan them twelve bucks for cigarettes when they're broke. And I teach them about the twenty-first-century gay version of the birds and the bees: safer sex strategies, PEP, PrEP, the meningitis vaccine, and, for those who are positive, the importance of drug compliance.

Most are uninterested in the history of my membership in ACT UP, but a few, like Jake, are curious, even insistent. One recognized me in the recent ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague, in which I appear for two-and-a-half seconds. I answer their questions and try to explain what it was like to be 23 in the East Village in 1987.

Here's how I didn't get HIV:

I got scared, I got lucky, I got fucked up on drugs that make sex superfluous rather than drugs that make sex inevitable, unmerciful, and unmanageable, I developed avant-garde sexual tastes, I drank too much and passed out, I got lucky again, I had sex only sporadically, I got older, I grew indifferent. Finally, I weighed the risk of a paramour's bedbugs against the pleasure of skin-to-skin contact, put in a Pet Shop Boys CD, and escaped into Pride and Prejudice, in which sex is dancing and dancing leads to the altar.

At my annual physical, the impossibly well-built blond nurse practitioner does the standard panel of blood tests—CBC (normal), comprehensive metabolic panel (good), cholesterol (could be a lot better). Then he takes out the consent forms so he can do a separate blood draw for an HIV test.

We've gone through the same routine for years now. I tell him to save the insurance company money, and I make the same joke about the "immaculate infection." He says, "Take one just to make me feel better." It's always negative. At my last checkup I even blew off the meningitis vaccine I have urged everyone else to seek out.

Tim got lucky. Miles got good advice. Jake got HIV. I got the new St. Etienne album, a pint of Java Chip and a pint of Rocky Road, and first edition hardbacks of Edmund White's Nocturnes for the King of Naples and Forgetting Elena that someone had left in the dollar bin at the Strand by mistake.

Jake, Miles, Tim, me—none of us has any realistic tools to cope with the reality of the way HIV has colored our lives dark, dark gray.

On June 22, I gathered with my old ACT UP comrades at a reunion I helped to plan. Some are positive, some are negative. Some are ill, others, healthy. Many are married or otherwise partnered; some are raising kids. Many have successful careers; some, like me, are single and have watched their lives careen off the rails.

Although some have clearly found successful coping mechanisms, none of us, I suspect, has ever shaken the specter of HIV that twenty-five years ago inspired us to risk our lives to save our lives. And twenty-five years later, a new generation is struggling, many unsuccessfully, for a mechanism to cope with the virus that tortured us then and terrifies them still, while the rapture and love they desperately crave eludes them.

This essay appeared in slightly different form in The Huffington Post on June 21.

Andrew Miller was the co-founder and news editor of Outweek magazine and has taught writing, journalism, and TESOL at Polytechnic Institute of New York University. He is now a book editor at John Wiley & Sons, HarperCollins, Hearst, and Random House. His byline appears frequently in the LGBT press, especially New York's Gay City News, and he has also contributed to and ghostwritten several books, including Crisis: Growing Up Gay in America, and LGBT Youth in American Schools. He writes about many other subjects as well. A native of Brooklyn, he lives in the East Village in New York City. @amillernyc and linkedin.com/in/andrewmillernyc .

Important information about HIV, safer sex, and AIDS

What don't I know about safer sex? tinyurl.com/lvm7627 .

Where can I get a free HIV test fast?

New York City: tinyurl.com/mylv3jv .

Chicago: www.centeronhalsted.org/testing.html .

San Francisco: www.sfaf.org/hiv-info/testing/ .

Los Angeles: www.apla.org/health-and-wellness/hiv-testing/ .

Elsewhere: hivtest.cdc.gov/ .

What is HIV re-infection ("super-infection")? tinyurl.com/meec54p .

Why should we use condoms if we're both positive? tinyurl.com/mfny5s2 .

What is post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP)? tinyurl.com/lumoqar .

How do I get PEP fast? tinyurl.com/2fvxzeb .

What is pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)? tinyurl.com/n6watj9 .

What happens if I don't take my HIV meds regularly? tinyurl.com/lrdks6d .

Why do I need the meningitis vaccine in New York City? tinyurl.com/lk3vx9c .

What do members of ACT UP have to say? actuporalhistory.org/ .

What was the ACT UP / NY Just-Don't-Call-It-A-Reunion? actupnyalumni.org/ .

Who the hell are you anyway, Andrew Miller? tinyurl.com/o7h6hh8 .


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