World Aids Day 2014: as i travelled in to central London to speak at a ‘Let’s Talk About Gay Men, Sex and Drugs’ event at the Charing Cross Road Manbar, there were only a few red ribbons around on the tube – and only on gay men it seemed – with no acknowledgement of the day on the front page of the Evening Standard. They missed the scoop, which i found on the BBC website when i got back home: “HIV evolving into milder form” – a team of scientists in Oxford are telling us their research reveals “the virus is being “watered down” as it adapts to our immune systems.” They even speculate “the virus may eventually become “almost harmless” as it continues to evolve.” Apparently the antiretroviral drugs are targetting the more virulent forms of the virus and encouraging the milder ones to survive.
The scientists are keen to point out HIV is still deadly and isn’t going away in a hurry – but also saying: “We are observing evolution happening in front of us and it is surprising how quickly the process is happening.”
I want to say the same about gay life based on some of the things i heard at the Manbar last night. The community gathered on Charing Cross Road, a cross generational event and it was a relief to be at a World Aids Day event that made room for the expression of our intellect, emotion and creativity – rather than being just another fundraiser, where we are encouraged to drink beer and throw money in buckets. It was actually more than a little bizarre to be in the former 79CXR, once known as a haunt of lustful and sleazy pick up vibes, hearing intelligent, witty and insightful words from so many men. Pubs have been hugely important in gay culture during recent decades, but they can rather reduce us all to a low common denominator of predatory, drunken behaviour. Speaking to each other, about things that matter, is not the norm on our gay scene which often provides us a wordless escape from our lives into altered queer realities. On this night however I felt the potential of our social spaces to serve as community hubs. I remembered how AIDS brought us together as a community – the slow response from the authorities forcing us to become more organised, more militant and more compassionate with each other – and i felt some of that spirit last night.
I also saw how COMPLEX our situation has become. There are so many levels to our situation: every speaker last night had something different and something fascinating to say to the crowd in their 5 minute slot. Dan from ACTUP spoke proudly of their action to deliver a load of bullshit to the door of UKIP that had happened that very day. Scene podcasters Dylan and Jack, poet Alexis Gregory and several open mike contributors presented tales of gay party life, which comes over as ecstatic, hilarious and tragic at the same time. In just a few years things have changed enormously, and those that would deny that there is a massive drug use crisis in gay London have got their heads in the sand. Two decades ago injecting drugs was unheard of on the scene, but now slamming parties are quite normalised; the inability many experience to have sex without drugs came up a lot – also the difficulty of finding someone to play with who doesn’t use chems. Grindr was compared to cottaging – it used to be that gay men went into public toilets to find strangers to have sex with, now we sit at home and do it. (My memory of cottaging suggests that the adrenalin of fear – of attack or arrest – was great enough to get the ecstatic juices flowing. Although you would see the occasional drunken man in a cottage, taking drugs was not going to work, you needed your wits about you to indulge in this dangerous game.)
I stood up to offer some poetic insights into the situation, based on my 25 journey with the virus and the internal, spiritual, transformation it provoked in me. Telling the pub that my lowest cd4 count back in the 90s was 3 earned me their focussed attention. I was not the only one bringing some spirituality into the night – young poet Nasser spoke of how we need faith in something in order to steer our personal ship through life’s waters: in ourselves, in a god, in Cher – something! In the contributions i saw how this complex situation of lust, drugs and disease forces us a gay community to move beyond judgement. There were several pleas for this last night, and I felt the call resonated in the crowd. The drugs open the gates to great times, there is no point in denying that. Condom free sex is glorified in porn and in life as the best thing on earth (though other perspectives were expressed last night, were given some much needed air). If we judge each other’s behaviours the conversation will go nowhere. It’s not hard to see that many men are using each other like commodities to be enjoyed and discarded. it’s clear that drug use gets out of hand for some, and that underlying our behaviours is our old friend SHAME. We are only a few decades into our gay liberation, we are still inventing, re-inventing, what it is to be a same sex lover on this planet. We clearly need to love each other, and ourselves, more. As a community, a tribe within the human family, we have some serious healing to address. What has encouraged me after attending this gathering of scene queens who care is that there are signs of that healing, of expanded love and some spiritual awareness emerging from many angles and from every age group.
The night’s revelations peaked for me when Gregory Mitchell, writer and activist on PrEP, presented a vision of the future where a daily Truvada pill would provide protection against infection from HIV. Greg, who was growing up when homosexuality was still illegal, and remembers pre-aids sexual freedom, has remained hiv negative and enjoyed an active sex life over the decades (though in the 80s he said he stopped having sex all together, it just became too scary). He proudly sported a #TruvadaWhore t shirt and painted a picture of happier times to come. So far, PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis, is showing a 99% success rate. A two year trial is currently underway in the UK. It is estimated that if men who are at risk of infection use PrEP it could be possible to eradicate the virus from the gay community within two to three decades.
Is there a sense growing amongst us, a wisdom emerging, that understands that nothing is ever entirely dark or light? There are two sides (at least) to every story. The drug mania, like HIV, is part of our evolution as a sub-tribe of humanity freed from centuries of repression. In some parts of the world we are still persecuted – African presidents call us Satanic – and still live in abject fear. Here in the west we have gained some freedom – including the freedom to destroy ourselves through unbridled excesses. I believe we owe it to our brethren and sisters around the world to rapidly evolve through our collective crises and become powerful examples to the world of the LOVE, LIGHT AND HEALING we bring to the human family. The powers that be are not going to stop us throwing ourselves off the cliffs of insane addictions and incurable diseases, as in the 80s and 90s if we want to create a better, stronger, more caring, more creative, queer community we have to do it for ourselves.