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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Eight Years On & I Still Miss You

Eight years ago, on July 26th, I sat by the bedside of one of my most loved friends as he lay dying in the scummy, dank AIDS ward in Athens.

David Turner was so lovely, so kind, so smart and funny. He came into my life in the 1980s when I was living in Istanbul and he brought a group of US students over who were studying Byzantine history - he was a historian and a scholar. David was old friends with another friend of mine from my youth, John, who was visiting me at the time, so we all met up. David has spent part of his youth at school in Auckland where he'd met John, but his mother was Greek, and he was always happiest there.

That first day we met we three had an uproarious slightly drunken lunch together, filled with such lewd and vulgar sexual jokes and stories that we actually made a group of English tourists get up and leave the restaurant in disgust.We didn't care. David loved to shock, loved to confront, but tried hard not to hurt. We had a fairly immediate sexual frisson. But he lived in Athens, and I lived in Istanbul, and although we got naked and had fun a few times, we soon decided we were going to be friends, not lovers, but I loved him.

It was a friendship I treasured, because of who he was. He'd stay with me when he could on a his visits to Turkey, and I stayed at his flat in Athens a number of times over the years, and we'd stay up drinking and smoking and arguing, with David excitedly insisting on listening to one more album, one more piece of music. He had a tendency to play Bruckner, very loud. All sorts of people would wander through, Greek and foreign -  theology students, historians, anarchists, guys he had fucked, old lovers, archaelogists and scholars from the British School in Athens who were experts in their areas of speciality, and usually experts at drinking litres of wine as well. It was a fascinating, cosmopolitan and and multi-lingual group, slipping from English to Greek to German to Turkish depending on who was there. We were young, we were living in a great part of the world. We had so much fun together.

David was a strongly believing Greek Orthodox Christian who saw no conflict with that and being gay. He even got us an audience with the Patriarch of Constantinople. We had some great arguments over religion, and he really knew how to argue. And he knew how to laugh. Every time he visited Hagia Sophia in Istanbul he'd make a point of going to the grave of the Venetian Doge Dandolo just to spit on it. Dandolo had led the Fourth Crusade which had sacked Constantinople. The Greeks have never forgiven Dandolo.

I went back to Turkey in 2003, travelled to Syria, and then was going to visit him in Athens, stay again in that familiar flat. He'd been unwell for a long time, with all sorts of strange little illnesses, but no-one thought to test him for HIV, and he never suggested it it seems. That's sad, as he had been  one of a group who had fought  to set up some basic HIV care in Athens. The assumption was that he was so well-versed in it that he would have been testing, but he hadn't been.  By the time he'd finally been diagnosed with HIV, he was incredibly ill. And in a move I still do not understand, even though his Drs knew he was allergic to penicillin, they gave it to him anyway to treat one of his infections. He developed Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a truly horrible condition where your skin peels away from the underlying tissue, even the mucous membranes in your nose and the interior of your eyelids can come away.

I didn't realise just how sick he was till I got there. At the time I was still Chair of the NZAF, and his friends all looked to me as someone who could help, someone who knew more about HIV and AIDS than they did, but as soon as I saw him I knew he was dying.

His body, that beautiful sexy body I'd kissed and held and loved and fucked was doubled in size, thanks to the steroids they'd put him on to counter the Stevens-Johnson. His skin was a mess, coming off in sheets. His mind was wandering, he was confused, but we had stretches of lucidity where he told me how envious he was of me getting to Syria, to Damascus and Aleppo - we promised to go to Mt Athos together. I stayed in his flat, so strange to be there alone, no partys, no loud music, just his books, icons and music all around. Strange to lie alone in that bed where we'd fucked so many years ago. He was surrounded by friends, and that was a blessing. He had an American colleague down the street who was deeply involved, and his friends from the British School, and they were good to me too, but I felt alone, bereft. My trip had so far been full of excitement and renewing old friendships, and here with one of the men I most valued, one of the friends I most wanted to see, I was only in time to watch him die.

Every day I had the routine of going to visit him, to sit by his bed. It was through him I had come to love Athens as a city, but now it seemed hard and unforgiving. The AIDS ward he was in was in a shabby old piece of a hospital, an early 20th Century red brick place is what I remember, with just a few rooms, there was a gaunt African refugee dying in the room next door. It was a deeply depressing place to be. I hope they've changed it since then.

And then he died, as I and his American friend and his girlfriend sat there that evening. I could tell it was coming, I'd seen it before, I've watched enough friends die to know it. He died. And after we sat and gave the Dr on duty the information he needed, he told us we had to help take the body to the morgue.

That was particularly brutal, just minutes after watching him die, to be told in an off-hand manner that we were expected to do this. I remember us using a sheet to move his body onto a gurney, then pushing it through the ward and down a ramp to a strange, cold little morgue with a few icons hanging on the walls. And that was where we left him. It was brutal, but it was also right somehow I guess, that people who loved him helped took him on that journey.

Then there was the aftermath back at the flat. The phone calls from his friends, Greeks speaking in broken English, trying to understand. "Dead? What do you mean - no, he can't be dead!" Their disbelief, their sorrow, his brother arriving from the country, dumb with grief, looking for clothes to dress him in. I got stoned and went out to a gay bar, Aleccos, got drunk and picked a guy up and took him back. It wasn't the best sex, but I guess I needed some skin contact, there in David's bed. He would have understood.

And I couldn't stay for the funeral, I had flights that I couldn't change, had to get back to Istanbul, then London, to get back here. I took one of his icons from beside his bed as a memento, an icon of the prophet Elijah being fed by ravens in the wilderness, and I see it every day and think of him.

But eight years on, and the grief has dulled, but my darling David, you wonderful, funny, outrageous man, I still miss you, I still think of you, I still love you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Is It You or Is It Me?

What years of agonising aversion therapy, hormone treatment for some, being prayed over and beatings and prison couldn't do, Shortland Street scriptwriters have managed. Again. They turned a gay character straight. Again. Jonathan McKenna on his return to the show has now fallen for Gabrielle, when years ago his youthful  character was hailed for helping break down sterotypes about gay men.

Obviously the ex-Gay movement, homophobic religious types and the few remaining psychiatrists who claim we are mentally sick should get on a plane and find out just what their secret is, because they succeed in turning gay men and women straight with remarkable frequency.

I know, I know, it's a TV soap opera and has little to do with reality, but still, I find something nasty about the way they do this. Australia isn't much better, with "Home and Away" nicknamed "Homo Away" as any gay character they ever bring in is quickly moved on. It's like the way the Soviets used to re-write history, air-brushing inconvenient leaders out of photos and history. And even though it's fiction, it tries very hard to pretend that it represents New Zealand. Just without the sodomy.

Given the number of gay writers involved in the show, you'd think they could keep one gay character going in a reasonably realistic manner - they do it for everyone else.

Why can't the lesbians stay lesbian on Shorty? Why can't the poofs stay poofs? Or is being gay really just "a lifestyle choice" as our enemies like to maintain? That is certainly the message you get from Shorty. "Yeah, you're a guy who likes guys at the moment, but don't worry, we'll cure you!" Part of it is obviously financial. The show needs advertisers, and gay men just don't sell that well. Straight men like looking at pretty lesbians and imagining themselves with them, so you can get away with that a bit more - but obviously not too much.

Do people really change from gay to straight with such ease? Not in my experience, and certainly not if you look into any of the research. Changing people's sexual orientation is largely seen as impossible for most, and uneccesary as well. Now, I do know that for some women, love is more important than the physical gender of the person they are with, so some women do move from loving women to men and back - it happens. But most who call themselves lesbians tend to stay that way in my experience.

A long time ago I knew a couple of straight men who decided to "turn gay" out of (I am serious) deeply helpd political convictions based in a radical style of feminism. They thought being with men would help undermine the patriarchy. Last I heard they'd both gone straight again. It didn't take, because where you sit on the spectrum of human sexuality is pretty deeply wired in. And yes, it is a spectrum, but most people tend to be clustered either at the straight end, or the gay end - there really aren't that many occupying the middle ground.

I sure as hell didn't "choose" to be gay, and I get really pissed off when people talk about it as a "lifestyle choice" - it's not a choice, it's an integral and natural part of who I am, just like my height and eye-colour. And it's not something that you can suddenly change by flipping a switch.

Do soap operas have a duty to tell the truth? Yes and no. Obviously it's fiction. But if they only portrayed Maori as drug-dealing gang-members who kill their babies, there would be a justifiable outcry. If they portrayed all nurses and doctors as drug-addicted lazy and incompetent, there would be an outcry.

But if they turn a gay man straight - well, who cares? And have they ever turned a straight man gay? I don't think so. I'd love to see TK and Owen realise their mutual antagonism really stems from their long deeply-held love for each other. But we won't see that.

Visibility matters. It is important that we queers are seen on TV, and seen as normal and part of everyday life - because that is the truth. We are normal. We are part of everyday life. As the old Gay Lib slogan said "We are everywhere!" It is important that young queers of whatever stripe see ourselves represented and know they aren't freaks, and know they aren't alone in the world.We are not something to hide from, to be afraid of, or something to wipe out.

I guess the main imperative is commercial, but that's really not a good enough excuse. We need to be seen. We need to be shown to be part of mainstream NZ culture. Because, that is what we are, and we deserve nothing less.

Monday, July 4, 2011

More Life Online

Yes, I have been assimilated by the Apple Borg, and yes, I love my iPhone, but it does make me stop and think. Most gay men who have an iPhone or Android will know at least one of these icons: Scruff, Grindr and Recon. And there are lots more, Manhunt, Gaydar, Adam4Adam to name just a few.

All designed so we can get a root, or maybe love, not just in the privacy of our own home while online, but when we're out and about through the apps on our phone.

New technology = new ways to  hook up. Is this what happend when they invented paper and ink?

It is kind of weird to have my phone chirp at me from my pocket while I'm walking to work and find someone in Texas thinks I'm hot and will be out here in 3 months and do I wanna hook up? Weird, but cool in a strange sort of way. Hey, it's flattering even if it will probably never happen. (He was HOT btw).

I love the way I can monitor the different time-zones on scruff, as the screen fills up with people from different parts of the globe. You can see the changes in time as the population on the screen alters over the day - Asia, Europe, the Americas, back to our part of the world.

And there are the guys you see on different sites, presenting themselves slightly differently. Scruff is a bit more bearish, grindr a bit more gym-bunny, but I often see the same guys on lots of sites. A mate joked with me the other day that we chat on five different platforms now. Then he told me I hadn't logged into scruff for a while. Sometimes the phone can go crazy with messages coming - so good for the ego - some days no-one woofs or says I'm hot - sad face.

I have a friend I've never met, we only chat on recon, and we've been talking for nearly 2 years now I guess. He just had a (non-HIV related) health scare, and we've been talking about that; I really like him, and was quite concerned for him, so it's been a real relief to hear he's ok - and that's kind of strange when you sit back and think about it. Here is this guy I've never physically met, contacted through a gay fetish site, and we now have a friendship that involves a lot more than anything sexual. He's an academic too, so we often talk about ideas as well. It's a bizarre way to know someone. But I'm glad I know him.

Of course, there is the joke of being in a gay bar and watching half the men sit there, beer in one hand, phone in the other, busily looking at who is hot on whatever site they're using and ignoring the living breathing men around them. Sometimes it seems like nearly the whole bar is doing it. And you have to wonder just why we can't get off the phone and talk to a man who is sitting close by. It connects us and disconnects us at the same time.

It is very similar to online hook-ups, but it feels even more pared back, leaner. Messages tend to be shorter, more to the point, because it's harder to write on those keyboards I guess. One mate said the question he gets most often on his phone is "How big's your cock?"

I know some guys have met the love of their lives through online dating/hookup sites - I haven't heard of it happening via these phone apps yet, but it's bound to have happened by now, and nothing wrong with that - how you meet is not important.

How much is real and how much is fantasy, or a carefully shopped photo? A mate was talking about someone he'd just met in real life the other day and said "He really has to stop using that photo on scruff, it must be 10 years old at least!". You never can be sure just how it's going to be until you meet in the flesh, and then, well, sometimes it just doesn't work. And sometimes it is a blast.

The thing is, and I guess it's to do with NZ's small gay male population, that I tend to use these apps for socialising more than anything. I can't think of the last time I actually picked a guy up with one.