I LEFT HOME for college, LSU, when I was 17: bright if naive, nerdy and bookish, and struggling with my sexuality. It was 1985 and I was in the deep South. I’d spent my adolescence going to an all boys’ Catholic high school and a Southern Baptist church every Wednesday night and all day Sunday. At school I was pretty severely bullied for being a suspected faggot, and at church I was frequently reminded of the horrors of hell for the homosexual. Put bluntly, as a gay kid, I was screwed. I kept my desires buried down deeply, almost out of sight of my own consciousness.
But not quite. Homosexuality was hard to miss in the mid-’80s. Part of me hoped, as my parents dropped me off on campus and drove 100 miles back home, that I might finally have a chance to explore my desires and experiment with myself (and others). But news reports about AIDS, including widely circulated images of an emaciated and dying Rock Hudson, seemed tailor-made to reinforce a belief that, in my part of the world, seemed undeniable: being gay is so bad it will kill you. Hudson actually died on my 18th birthday — October 2, 1985 — a few weeks into my first semester in college, and I could read his passing as nothing other than a warning from god. I dated girls and didn’t try to have sex with a boy until I was 21, and then after that fumbling attempt and a failed (if loving) marriage to a woman, not again until I was 28. Now, at 47, married to a man, I consider myself functionally gay.
This personal struggle came flooding back to me recently when I picked up a copy of Dale Peck’s Visions and Revisions: Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS, just published by Soho. Peck has been one of our more important — and visible — gay authors, whose first novel, Martin and John, which appeared in 1993, remains a sophisticated literary response to the AIDS crisis. Besides fiction, Peck has written journalism and criticism, and Vision and Revisions brings together 25 years of his writing (from 1989–2014) about AIDS. Often mixing and remixing older and newer pieces, the book chronicles Peck’s attempt to understand the personal, political, and cultural ramifications of the epidemic. It movingly concludes with a shorter second part of experimental writing, “Thirteen Ecstasies of the Soul,” dedicated to a friend who died from AIDS; these prose poems both eulogize and celebrate the complexities of love and intimacy in the shadow of death.
I’ve been following Peck’s career for some time, in part because we’re nearly the same age (both born in 1967, though he in New York State and I in Louisiana), both gay, both writers, and both concerned with AIDS as a vexing reality of queer life. But in reading through Visions and Revisions, reencountering some pieces I’d read years before, I was struck anew both by the critical forcefulness of Peck’s commentaries and analyses — and by how divergent our experiences of gayness, by virtue of culture and geography, have been.
Peck opens his book with rhetorical flourish — offering a catalog and brief description of the several sexual partners he had as a young man. Even now, having had my own share of sexual partners, I found myself catching my breath at the list. Not because there are so many, but because I know this is a book about AIDS, and I’m already wondering if Peck will reveal his own HIV status. (No spoilers here, sorry.) Given my own background as a young man, my nearly knee-jerk response is to equate such listing with an impending moral lesson, or at least cautionary tale. But as I think about my life versus his, I realize that — of course — his inventory of same-sex partners in his early 20s necessarily will be far from my own of the same time (n = 1). Compared to the church-bound and Southern life I had in my early 20s, his experience would be much more normative for a young gay man arriving in New York City, hoping for his own sexual exploration and awakening in the 1980s.
Sure, Peck intends the list to be provoking — and it will be to readers from diverse sexual backgrounds, not just those like my own. His larger claim that steadily accumulates over the 200 pages of this book is that, despite AIDS, and maybe even because of AIDS, gay men must make sure not to lose joy in sex, to forget the pleasures of the body, of intimacy, of connecting, even of connecting anonymously and promiscuously with others. It’s a challenging thesis, even now, but Peck comes to it carefully and movingly, through his ongoingly intelligent discussion of AIDS and gay sexual cultures.
And he’s got some cred. His own involvement with ACT UP and other AIDS organizations in his youth was formative for him, and he traces his thinking as it took shape in and during one of the centers of early AIDS activism — New York in the late ’80s and ’90s. He met and talked with some of the most important early activists and literary figures in the movement, such as Larry Kramer, and he’s quite conversant with the scholarly and theoretical approaches to understanding how AIDS circulates, not just epidemiologically, but as a cultural trope. Peck knows his queer theory, but his writing in these pieces is cultural and political journalism, mixing a knowledge of academic theory with reportage and memoir. Extended engagement with the work of Douglas Crimp, Leo Bersani, Michael Warner, and Tony Kushner moves in and out of more personal reflections on the crisis, early activist efforts, horrifying government inattention, lovers lost to the epidemic, the relative “normalization” of AIDS with the advent of effective drug cocktails to manage HIV infection, and the long-term impact of AIDS on the larger culture’s understanding of gays and gay sex.
Peck is right when he argues that AIDS “dragged gay men into the spotlight,” allowing gay issues to move, somewhat, from the shadows of the counterculture and the closeted suburb to mass media attention. In some critical ways, the AIDS crisis gave birth to the last 20 years of gay rights initiatives. It also shaped a generation of gay men. From my own vantage point at the time, first in the deep South and then in rural Colorado, books like Bersani’s Homos and Kushner’s play Angels in America were like reports from the frontlines of the fight, and I gobbled them up in my late 20s as I struggled to form my own coherent — or at least livable — gay identity.
But the most compelling dimension of Peck’s analysis comes in his consistent turn to sex — not just sexuality or sexual identity, but sex acts themselves. His opening litany of lovers becomes something of a leitmotiv in the developing drama of his relationship to AIDS, personally, politically, and culturally. He rehearses debates about some gay men’s turn to unsafe sex despite knowledge of infection risks, noting how prevention efforts need to address the “psychology,” not just the “paraphernalia” of sex. For Peck, prevention can never come at the cost of pleasure, especially as the pursuit of pleasure asserts gay men’s right to their own self-fulfillment and self-determination. As he puts it, “every back-room blowjob, every hookup, every flushed condom and sticky-dicked walk of shame was a refusal to renounce the behavior that formed the core of our personal as well as cultural identities.”
I read such lines as poignant rage, as a shaking of the fist from the soul of a people under siege, facing not just the vagaries of mortal existence but the ongoing rejection of a society that, in its initial response to the epidemic, seemed fully content to watch queers die. In a way, this would be a familiar refrain if not for a clever, if unexpected twist. Peck remixes 20 years of writing about AIDS with some of his early journalism about serial killers targeting a range of men having sex with men (some gay-identified, some not), often in sadomasochistic contexts. Peck reported, for instance, on Jeffrey Dahmer and a series of murders in London.
The proximal placing of AIDS activism with the serial killing of homosexuals makes for uneasy reading at times, but Peck is trying to underscore a more generalized failure to attend to the lives of gay men: the slow response of police to investigate murders in the gay community and the press’s sensationalizing of them resonates with governmental inaction about AIDS and the spectacle of famous faggots dying on television. For Peck, the message is clear: “It just mattered that we were dying.” His journalism on the serial killings also allows him to talk, somewhat poetically at times, about the pleasures of BDSM, which the media represented as a perversion; people who allowed themselves to be tied up probably deserved to be killed. But for Peck,
BDSM was a way of reconnecting with an earlier era’s raptures of oblivion, culturally, through the hallowed milieux of leather bars, but also via paraphilias [or sexual “perversions”] […] because they flout the conventional associations of this or that object or behavior or environment.
At stake for Peck is not just the physical reality of AIDS but our individual and collective imagination of it. By the mid-1990s, Peck says that he “came to understand how completely AIDS circumscribed the body, not just as a material entity, but an imagined one.” How one imagines the disease — god’s punishment, accident of nature, motivation to explore new relations to intimacy and mortality — shapes not just a response to it but also how one understands and shapes the course of a queer life post-AIDS. Such an emphasis on the power of the imaginative capacity is perhaps unsurprising in a novelist, whose currency is creative force. As an aspiring writer myself in the late ’90s, I read more than my share of queer fiction, sifting through narratives to find models of a livable life.
But Peck is also acutely aware, as I was as a young man, of the particularity of location, the importance of place, in nurturing — or stultifying — both the imagination and the body. He acknowledges that being in New York at the beginning of the epidemic likely kept him alive:
I moved to New York and joined ACT UP and, after meeting several people my age who were HIV-positive, [I] realized that my health had been protected partly by geography (I lived in central Kansas until 1985, where HIV had yet to make deep inroads) but also by fear: because of the ephemeral (to me) threat of HIV, and the more palpable menace of homophobia, I didn’t come out until I was nineteen, didn’t lose my virginity until a year later, in 1988, by which time the tenets of safe sex were well known, and undoubtedly saved my life.
I read such a passage with a shock of life-course recognition — but a course with a difference. We were essentially moving at the same times, first in 1985, when Peck moved to New York while I moved to a different part of the South. But that difference is crucial. For the “tenets of safe sex were well known” in some places; they were actively hidden in others.
Peck came of “sexual age” in New York and had access to an emerging activist community, but many others of us grew up under the shadow of AIDS in deeply homophobic parts of the country. We had little hope of finding communities that would help us develop gay identities during a time of both health and psychological crisis. Indeed, the fear of AIDS, coupled with rampant homophobia, kept me fearful for both my soul and body. And not all of the homophobia was vectored through organized religion. I remember going for my first AIDS test in the early ’90s. I was starting a new relationship and was regretting — actually fearing for my life — my college-age fumblings with another young man.
I sat in the clinic while the nurse drew blood. Another nurse inquired what test I was getting, shaking her head with disgust as my blood-letter told her: “That AIDS test.” I had to call two weeks later to find out my test results, and when the nurse on the line looked at my chart, she said, “I’ll have to let you talk to a doctor.” She curtly put me on hold and I immediately stopped breathing. Even now, writing out this story, my breath shortens; I thought I was receiving a death sentence. The doctor came on the phone and told me that I was negative, everything was fine, that only a doctor at the time could report such test results in Louisiana. I nearly sobbed with relief, and only later got angry: why couldn’t the nurse have told me that a doctor would have to report the results? Her abrupt and dismissive comment — “I’ll have to let you talk to a doctor” — seemed designed to punish me for even just seeking out the test. At the time, I was still indoctrinated enough into homophobic Christianity to believe I just might deserve such punishment.
I eventually moved out of Christian fundamentalism, the South, and compulsory heterosexuality to find safer harbors in more open communities, but not before leaving my family, attempting a marriage, divorcing, and finally finding a gay community in rural Colorado — during the heady days of that state’s struggle with an amendment that legalized discrimination against queers. That fight, curiously, helped politicize me, allowing me in the mid-’90s the opportunity to form not just a personal but socio-political queer identity. I’m not sure that I could have done so through AIDS activism at the time, though I became involved in that work later. The imprinting of fear was too strong. I had already swallowed a toxic brew of HIV-aided homophobic self-hatred, a viral hellfire that, to this day, I can feel circulating in my veins.
Many contemporary gay youth won’t grow up in such circumstances, face such tortured struggles, run the risk of their minds being poisoned as mine was. Peck himself says, “I don’t recognize many of today’s teenage gay kids, who have ways of being that didn’t exist or weren’t possible when I was their age.” I know exactly what he means. Just last night my husband and I watched a video of a straight male teen asking his best gay male friend to go on a prom date. The straight boy had seen his gay friend’s tweet about wanting to go to the prom, and he decided to do this as an act of brotherly love for his pal. Such a gesture — so kind, so accepting, so generous — could never have happened in my high school in the 1980s, where some of the teachers themselves were prone to making homophobic comments. It took me years to overcome the damage wrought by such homophobia — a damage exacerbated by a cultural milieu that understood AIDS as just punishment for queers.
The reality is that such caring gestures might still be difficult in some parts of the country, in some locales where the battle for the minds of young people still pivots partly on sexuality. Peck’s reflective accounting of AIDS as a physical and cultural dimension of such battles is a timely reminder of how far we’ve come, but also a tallying for some of us of the damage already done. Lives were lost, absolutely, but so too were the souls and psyches of many survivors damaged, particularly as AIDS was used to spread the poison of homophobia. Peck puts his faith in healing through the body: “I would like to eroticize our knowledge of the world and each other.” I am not always sure how such healing might work. But it’s a question to which many of us from my generation and Peck’s have committed our queer lives.