I have outlived myself. Fifteen years ago today my T-cell count was 22. The other day my doctor told me my last count was 822. What a difference 800 makes. It’s like money in the bank. Even better!
October 11, 1995, is the day I began an antiretroviral cocktail that I got by winning a lottery under a “compassionate access” program. Compassionate access translates in the pharmaceutical world as “you are so close to death that we don’t follow all the rules.”
The lottery existed because my friend Brenda, a passionate AIDS activist, had sat down a month earlier with the president of Merck, the maker of Crixivan, and when told that it worked, but we’d have to wait, she replied, “My son Brett died five years ago. My son Michael is dying now. I cannot wait.” A lottery was created, and I was a winner (of the 100 people in my doctor’s office who entered, three of us won). Now I know that I would have gotten the meds within a few months, but then it was like winning $10 million.
This column is my response to still being here. I am halfway, exactly, between my 59th and my 60th birthdays. What do I need to say that is still unsaid? You are helping.
Reader comments have been insightful (when not annoying or cloying): Recently I was chided for what I was leaving out. A lot of what I leave out is about sex and sexuality and sexual healing.
As a therapist, as a gay man, as an American, I have internalized a lot of prejudices about sexual expression. I like to think of myself as the “guilt-free” therapist: able to hold most anything my clients put before me with compassion, curiosity ... without judgment. Again and again, the most liberal and socially conscious people still judge the sexual behavior of others and/or themselves. This is sad. If my silence is complicity, it is even sadder.
I have worked to free myself of a good deal of inhibition. I enjoy my body. I enjoy sex. I enjoy sex with other men.
I have been advised by well-meaning friends who read my columns in draft to tone down the sex: “A little sex goes a long way.” Perhaps, and maybe that is just a subtle way of holding back, of not acknowledging who I am and what I really do.
It’s pretty simple: I have more sex than most of my friends and acquaintances (and the quality of it seems to be higher as well, in many cases). I expect to be attacked for this statement (as before in this forum): ”You are tall and thin and blah blah blah ... ”
Well, last week I sat and spoke with a man I knew 30 years ago, He is writing about Peter Hujar, the cult photographer who was my lover in the ’70s. The writer and I are the same age: He is heavyset, round, balding, not tall, and he said the most wonderful thing: “Not since my 20s, when I was cute, have I felt as attractive as I feel now. I am sought after in the most surprising way by many men who want me just as I am.”
I am convinced that at least 80% of our sexual attractiveness comes from how we feel about ourselves. Come on, we all know men who are not classically attractive who are irresistible to men and/or women. We also know physical beauties who are unwillingly celibate — anything but sexy.
A few of us are born or bred with this confidence; most of us have to claim it. I put myself in the latter category. Assisting people in finding their inner beauty and comfort in their skin is a mission.
The saddest comment on my first column came from the eminent gay/AIDS activist Larry Kramer:
“Most gay men, I more and more believe, don’t have much sex at all, or any, certainly not enough, but live lives, as Thoreau said, 'of quiet desperation.' ... I think it is impossible for any gay man to have sex today without the sword of Damocles hanging over their head.”
I disagree with Larry on this. Of course it’s true for some. It is not true for many, and I want it not to be true for more. I know that it is possible to be gay, HIV-positive, and 60 and have a wonderful fulfilling sexual life.
When in my practice and at Friends in Deed I meet terrified newly diagnosed HIV-positive men who think they can’t have a full life or follow their dreams, I can honestly tell them that although I cannot promise anything specific, I know it is possible. I have been HIV-positive for almost 30 years and I am living a wonderful, challenging, full life, including the realization of many of my dreams. With more to come ...
Those of us who are elders have a responsibility: Prejudice and internalized prejudice kills. I just left a vigil in Washington Square to mark the tragic recent loss of four gay teens to bullying-prompted suicides. We must speak up and say:
“Yes, it does get better ... hold on, there are wonderful possibilities for your future.” There’s the new 20, the new 30, the new 60 ... .ahead!