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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Problems Need Solutions

It's twenty years since the first Hero Party and the foundation of a deliberate attempt to strengthen the gay community and help us look after ourselves in the face of AIDS. Hero did a huge amount of good, it gave gay Auckland a face, inspired similar groups in Wellington and Christchurch, and it gave us an organisation that could act as a public voice for us, until it collapsed in a mire of corruption and broken trust.

Yes, I'm still bitter about the money from the street collection, collected for people living with HIV, that a certain group of Hero trustees "borrowed" to cover a shortfall and never returned. Yes I'm bitter about the  CEO who embezzled funds then escaped back to Australia.

But before that sad side of the story, there was a huge amount of good that came out of Hero.It made us visible, it gave us a reason to take pride in being queer. Visibility matters, and so does pride. Hero when at its best and strongest was inspirational. I doubt we can recreate it, not sure we should even try, times have changed. But its underlying message is still right on the money. We need to take pride in ourselves, we need to find ways to pass down to new generations the experience and wisdom we have gained, and yes, we still need to explain that being gay is perfectly normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

Today we have nothing like it. We have no organisation that can give us a sense of pride. We have no organisation that is linked into the gay communities in Auckland or nationally. We have no voice. Some people argue we don't need one, that everything is just fine, and could we please stop making a fuss.

They're wrong.

The recent nasty, vicious anti-gay attacks here in New Zealand over the last few weeks have been disgusting and cowardly, as bullying so often is. Homophobia is real and nasty, and it needs to be opposed.

Heterosexual kids don't complain of being bullied for being straight, and then try and kill themselves. Ignorant, nasty vandals don't scrawl "Filthy straights" on heterosexual business-owners' property and break their windows. Straight people don't feel a need to describe themselves as "gay-acting". Straight people don't have terrible suicide and drug abuse rates for being straight.

Michaelangelo Signorile puts it like this: "Queerness will always be marginalised and will always need its own movement because it goes against the larger heterosexual system."

We are a marginal community that has been granted a degree of tolerance by wider society.We will always be marginal. But today we have no voice, and I believe we need one. There are some wonderful, smart queer MPs but they are largely concerned with their own party issues.

It's great to see some level of community response coming through for the two women who were attacked, wonderful that GABA and Urge are doing something positive. Outline is working towards growing itself into something more than a counselling service, and there is potential there for something good to happen. Other people around the country have been talking about the need for something, some group or network, that can respond and speak with a credible voice on our behalf. If something new does arise it will have to show it has a good level of community connection to be taken seriously, but that's not impossible to achieve. And as someone remarked, the Sensible Sentencing Trust is basically Garth McVicar and a fax machine - one dedicated person can make a lot of difference.

When shitty things like these attacks happen, we need someone the media can go to for informed and intelligent comment. We need an organisation that is focussed on the needs of the queer communities that exist here. We have no leadership today, no one who can speak for us, either in Auckland with the biggest queer population, or nationally.

One thing that give me some comfort is the cyclical nature of gay history. In the 1960s we see the birth of Gay Liberation politics, and then watch it slowly fade into commercial complacency of the disco years over the 70s and early 80s. Then AIDS, however tragically, provided the push for a different sort of politics, and had the effect of pulling us together. Perhaps now, twenty years on from the birth of Hero, we will see some other movement, some other way of uniting us and fighting back against our enemies.

Without a sense of community and pride, we will continue to see more and more gay men contract HIV, we will continue to see queers attacked simply for being who we are, we will continue to see our youth harming themselves. We need to act, we need to unite, we need to do something about it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How I Lost my Virginity ( for the Second Time)

Sometimes I hear newly diagnosed HIV+ guys say they'll never have sex again. They feel dirty. They fear passing the virus on to another, which is pretty understandable. They feel undesirable, unsexy, also pretty understandable as a reaction. But it doesn't have to be that way. I didn't have sex with another man for more than three years in the 90s. I barely even masturbated. Sex just seemed irrelevent at best, a terrible disease and death-ridden thing at worst. Over three years without sex - I did feel like a virgin again.

Some good friends helped me through that phase in the best possible way.

They had supported me in the mid-90s when I was so sick and we all thought I was dying, and they were there as I was recovering, helping me get back on my feet and into life again.

When I was sick I'd totally lost interest in sex, and as I was recovering, I was stuck in a head-space where I saw myself as polluted, dirty, unsexy, and unloveable. They saw this on some level, and decided it was time to ease me back into the gay mainstream, step by step.

There was a private gay sex-club called "Volt" running in Auckland in those days, and they took me there one night.

I was a bit excited about going out, especially to somewhere like this, but apprehensive as well. I'd spent an awful lot of time in sex-clubs in the old days. The Mineshaft in NY was still open when I lived there, and I was a regular. I've always liked them, the way they operate, and the men you can meet in them.

But at this stage of my life I was still feeling fragile, and as I said, definitely not feeling sexy. I had a negative little voice in my head telling me I should never have sex again, that it was wrong - and that's something I hear a lot from guys with HIV.

I was lucky - I was bending over the pool table to take a shot, when I felt a hand run over my arse. It was totally unexpected, and one of the most sensual and exciting feelings I've ever had. I couldn't believe that some man thought I was hot, that a guy would touch me that way again. I turned around and saw a tall, handsome, very sexy man grinning at me.

Of course, we started talking. One of the first things I did was explain my situation, being poz and everything. This tall, handsome and sexy stranger turned out to be a nurse who'd worked in the UK with people with AIDS. He was completely unworried and totally calm about the prospect of us getting naked and having fun. Like I said, I was lucky - I couldn't have met a better man to end my celibacy with and make me feel good about being a sexual being again.

I took him home, a little nervous about it all, but we had a fantastic night of mind-blowing sex and talk and fun. It was just wonderful for me to realise that even though I have this virus in my blood, I didn't have to give up on the joy and pleasure of sex and physical affection. It felt amazing that a handsome man would actually find me attractive and desire me. It felt so good to be desired again - I can't tell you how good that felt. I can't tell you how grateful I still am for the wonderful way he took me out of that dark, unhappy space where I only saw myself as a walking disease, a bringer of death, and was able to see myself as a full human-being again, capable of connecting physically and emotionally with other men. And for me, that's what being gay is all about - the fact I want my primary emotional and physical connections to be with men.

We didn't become lovers, and he's left Auckland now, but I always feel like I owe him, and the friends who insisted I come out of my shell, a huge debt.

They helped me bring joy back into my life, and that's something a lot of poz guys lose. I've been lucky.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I've Been Thinking...

I've been re-reading Patrick Moore's book "Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the History of Radical Gay Sexuality". I really like it.

He looks at that great flowering of the new gay culture that was taking place in the late 60s- 80s, before AIDS struck, and considers what gay life would be like today if this hadn't happened. At the back of the book is a list of over 1000 names of artists and similar creative types, held by The Estate Project for Artists with AIDS who died - imagine the cultural impact they would have continued to have without this plague.

It is very much an American take on the situation, but America was in the vanguard of both Gay Liberation in the 60s and 70s, and then the fight to deal with AIDS, so that's not unexpected, and there are parallells to be drawn.

What I like is the way he shows the culture that was being developed - and it was a new and radical and at times chaotic and self-indulgent one - but it was a culture, a varied and international one. It was our culture, and one that influenced how we did "being gay" here in NZ as well. It was messy, but it was vital and alive.

Is there still such a thing as "Gay Culture", separate from the mainstream, or are we being pulled into conformity with the wider world, expected to settle and marry and be just like everyone else? Surely for that to work, society needs to accept us as much as it does everyone else?

Even in NZ, homophobia is still very real - witness recent reports of verbal abuse for guys walking hand-in-hand down Ponsonby Rd, somewhere I and others in this town would consider a safe space to be openly gay in. The fact we need to consider if we are in a safe space to be ourselves shows that even though things are better, even though we are legal, we still live in a society that would basically like us to shut up seeing it's clear we won't go away.

Gay men, lesbians, trans - all of us queers, have the right to be ourselves wherever we are. We shouldn't have to stop and think "Is it ok for me to hold my lover's hand here?" It should be as easy and natural for us as it is for straight couples. We have no need to apologise for who and what we are. We have nothing to be ashamed of.

To think "Don't rock the boat, try and fit in, we're just ordinary people really" is just buying into wider patterns of societal homophobia.

Guys who call themselves "straight-acting" are buying into it as well. Face it guys: There's nothing straight-acting about having another man's cock in your mouth, hands or arse, or yours in his, no matter if you drive a V8, play rugby and are more bogan than a tow-truck driver.

We live in a society that at best tolerates us - at worst it persecutes us. Look at the shocking rates of drug and alcahol abuse we have, the high rates of mental health problems and our terrible suicide rates. These are not the signs of a community or communities that are solidly integrated into a welcoming society.The small gains we have made are great, but they don't address the wider problem of homophobia. It is still acceptable to be openly anti-gay in a way that no-one would dare do about Jews, Catholics or Maori today.

The fact that HIV in NZ is still overwhelmingly passed along in the gay world, from man to man, also reflects this. Why don't we care enough about ourselves to take care of ourselves? Why do so many gay men hold themselves in such low value that they will risk their health and life in what they know is an unsafe sexual act? Why don't we love ourselves enough to look after ourselves and each other better? Why don't we have the social ease and support that helps us here? Why aren't we as a group doing more to combat this?Why don't we have institutions that can effectively engage with the gay world and deal with this?

I do think part of it lies in  the effects of AIDS. I compare it to WW1: It took out a huge section of a whole generation of gay men, and often it seemed when watching, it took the best and the brightest. That generation of men would be in the 40s-50s now, and at the peak of their careers and social and cultural power. We've lost a lot. And younger gay men are largely ignorant of the work and effort it took to get us this far - we haven't been effective at connecting with them beyond a superficial level, we lost the newly emerging culture that could have been such a strong force in making our world better and stronger as we lost so many of those men who were helping create it.

The current model for being a gay man demands that you pretend everything is fine now that we have had Law Reform and can get our relationships legally recognised. Indeed, a lot of guys probably think everything is fine - it is for them, their parents welcome their partner home, everyone at work knows they are gay - what's the big deal?  But everything isn't fine. Gay men are still attacked, insulted, reviled and persecuted, just for being gay.

If you can't walk down the street safely while holding your lover's hand, it means you're not accepted - you're not equal - you're not welcome, no matter how you try and dress it up.

There is a lot of effort put into making New Zealand life bi-cultural with regard to Maori, and deservedly so. But when it comes to the gay world, there is no expectation that people dealing with us also be bi-cultural in a gay sense. We do have a culture - we do live differently and face different problems from the straight world, and we do things differently.

Today in New Zealand we have no voice of gay leadership, and we have a greatly diminished sense of gay culture. The bars and clubs provide the main social spaces, and good on them for giving us that at least, but they can't give us everything that we need to build a strong, happy and empowered community.

That has to come from us, we have to learn to love ourselves and each other, we have to take care of each other, we have to recognise that we have more in common that just a taste for cock and arse. We have nothing to be ashamed of and we don't need to apologise or compromise who we are. We should be proud of being gay - it's a gift - celebrate it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Please Feed the Bears

Bears. Cubs. Otters. Admirers. Cuddly. Furry. Fun. Love 'em, hate 'em, we're here.

I guess I'm a bear. I'm hairy (not so much on top these days...) got a little gut going on. But it's a hard group to pin down and define. Often it seems like we're defined by what we're not. We're not all young, we're not trying to be pretty, we're not 'smooth' (hairless) we're not obsessed with flash clothes. But even that doesn't quite get it right, because I know young bears, I know smooth bears, I know gay guys who hang out in the bear world because they don't feel like they fit in elsewhere.

I think one of the things I like about the gay bear world is that it is inclusive. You don't have to be hairy, you don't have to be big, you don't have to be a certain age, you don't have to be anything really; just a man who is into men. And isn't the essence of being gay? Loving and desiring men?

In many ways it's a continuation of the clone culture of the 70s and early 80s. The clones were really the first group of modern gay men to make a new identity, to be proudly masculine and open about loving and fucking other guys, a reaction against the older queen stereotype that was common then. But the clone became a stereotype of its own, just like the bears have to some extent I guess. If you're too young to understand what a clone is, watch Al Pacino in "Cruising". New York gay life pre-AIDS. Clones got flack in their time, but I think they also deserve praise - they were sexual radicals, guerillas who didn't give a fuck about the mainstream. And of course, so many died, and so many others got burnt out looking after the sick.

It has really exploded as an identity in gaydom over the last decade or so, so it's popular - obviously there is something in it that a lot of guys really like. There are bear parties everywhere these days, from Iceland to Istanbul, from Auckland to Amsterdam. It's become a commodity in some ways, an identity turned into a product, but, and perhaps I'm biased, it still doesn't feel like it's sold out to me. There is now even Bearbook - like facebook but for bears.Updates and photos tend to be way more sexually graphic than fb though.

We have a Bear Week here in February now. The first one last year was huge fun. I hear that there are going to be quite a few guys coming from overseas just for this. that's pretty amazing, that having a week of fun dedicated to this group can pull in international gay tourists.And no, this doesn't count as advertising cause they've already sold out of some stuff - I'm just thinking about it what it means.

You do see a lot more facial and body hair in a bear crowd. I read that as an enjoyment of being physically masculine. You won't smell much cologne at a bear event, or see a lot in the way of designer clothes, so there's a feeling around it of earthiness, or that's what seems to be aimed for. I like that I'm not going to get sneered at for having a hairy back and  shoulders in a bear crowd, I  like that I can be myself. There is something I find relaxing about the bear world. I just find it an easy place to be, an easy group of guys to hang out with.

There is an acceptance of getting older, of our bodies changing, and not that urgent need to stay young and pretty that some other parts of the gay world go for. I think as a group we're more sexually sophisticated as well - yeah, that's code for "We're kinkier than most" or at least, even if not into kink yourself, we aren't shocked by whatever it is you like to get up to, and we're usually relaxed about seeing it in public too.
Bears are friendly, but we like to push the boundaries a bit - there's a streak of non-conformism there, and I hope that stays, because our own non-conformism breeds tolerance to others. As being a bear becomes more mainstream, and more of a group that advertisers and other commercial groups aim for, there is a chance it'll lose that, but let's hope not.
Come and play - we're friendly.