It Wasn’t Me — Monkeypox and Gay Shame

When I was a young gay man in 1997, an older co-worker cautioned me about safe sex. We were having a happy hour cocktail at Tiger Lily, a bar near Boston’s Symphony Hall, where we both sold tickets over the phone. He must have been in his sixties at the time, and I surmised that he had seen some action so, dutifully, I listened. He said that I should never, ever, no matter how much I trusted someone, “take the gloves off.” As further explanation, he proffered “an old Jewish joke”:

“There’s only two of them left on earth. One turns to the other and says, ‘It wasn’t me.’”

I have always had safe sex. Well, mostly. Despite Mike’s admonitions I took the wrapper off a few times, mostly during several long-term monogamous relationships, however, owing to effective high school sex ed scare tactics, 80s AIDS hysteria and/or 90s survivor’s guilt, I’ve mostly “kept the gloves on.” Now, of course, this hardly matters, as the drug, PrEP has rendered condoms quaint (even vintage) to most men who have sex with men. Given my generational background — I became sexually active in the late 80s — I still can’t quite come to terms with this, but, dutifully, I try.

Recently my boyfriend and I shared a meal with two younger men who I imagine I had better call “queer.” They were, like so many of their generation, wise and introspective and open and what the kids call “sex positive.” I was curious: “How often do you use condoms?” I asked. “Condoms? I can’t remember the last time,” one answered.

Good for them. They should enjoy. Even my dear co-worker Mike might say, “Mazel tov” if he fully understood the ins and outs of the efficacy of PrEP, which has proven more effective at preventing HIV than condoms. He might also be impressed by the statistics surrounding other sexually transmitted diseases, which, while higher because of all the raw-dogging going on, are nonetheless subdued by the fact that many men who take PrEP are comprehensively tested for STIs every three months during treatment.

It’s indisputable that PrEP has engendered a new sexual revolution and I’m thankful that public health and science have made it safe(r). Let’s face it: Gay men have a lot of sex and we’re not gonna stop. Yes, there are exceptions, and I am wary of alienating the “A” in the LGBTIA+ rainbow, but right now I’m referring to hoes like me. I didn’t grow up with the terms “sex positive” but after a three-decade journey from cautiously-out teenager to out-and-proud adult, I have learned to embrace the designation “slut.” I suppose you could say I’m one of those old(er) queens who views the societal acceptance of gayness with a tinge of suspicion, even though I’ve been around long enough to have lived some of the horrors of its opposite.

Recently, after eight years of monogamy, my boyfriend and I opened up our relationship. Although our sex life remains robust, we reasoned that we should enjoy ourselves while we were still young and in good shape. Nonetheless, during those first few dalliances after dark, part of me was still morbidly afraid that any extra-marital contact would irrevocably contaminate me. I just couldn’t shake the visceral, cellular-level carryover from that old HIV hysteria and stigma. It was like I’d be totally cool for a while, having a grand old time, and then all of a sudden I’d be bungeed back to the feeling of panic, as if I were seventeen again, sitting in a dingy clinic, clutching a handful of safe-sex brochures. For those of you who weren’t there, all you need to know was that HIV still had the feeling of a death sentence and thus each slip — due to inebriated effulgence, envelope-pushing or downright stupidity (guilty!) — necessitated not only a harrowing search for a compassionate sexual health clinic, but also a nail-biting two-week turnaround on your results.

My generation didn’t get the head-on AIDS crisis, we got its quiet, shameful aftermath. We knew what caused HIV infection and some of our cohort got it anyway. Antiretroviral therapy showed up around the turn of the decade, so in my small circle of late-80s queers, infection wasn’t characterized by long, drawn out illness so much as it was by sudden, jarring disappearances. One HIV-positive friend was renditioned by his Mormon family in the middle of the night; another cut off all contact with us to start a new life in the desert. This type of conspicuous erasure manifested viscerally in a hypochondriacal obsession with constantly checking ourselves for any signs of infection, symptoms we heard about mostly through rumors: bleeding cuticles, protracted fevers, mouth sores. We’d go over and over all the ways we could have had blood to blood contact, no matter how tenuous, regardless of how careful we’d been, even though HIV was rarely passed through casual contact.

So, over the first few months of my new, non-monogamous late-40s life, I realized I had some… what do the kids call it?… “trauma” to address. Thank heavens I had access to my Uniquely Gay Superpower: The ability to Fuck It Out. Much can be exorcised carnally. Daddy issues? Try domination, family play. Inhibition? Attend a midnight party and check your clothes at the door. By 2022 I had almost banged out the last of my shame, screwed the fear out of my fat cells, had even begun to look less side-eyeedly at those mystifying young queers who had cast off condoms altogether and then…

Enter: Monkeypox.

This disease has nothing to do with safe sex and everything to do with what the Pandemic has denied us for so long: intimate physical contact, even of the non-sexual variety. It also compounds the societal shame circulating around those of us who chose to be sexually active after (or during) the period of Corona-jail. And, dammit, it precludes the use of my Gay Superpower to fuck the shame out of my system.

Last week the federal government declared monkeypox a health emergency. I am uneasy, not so much because I’m worried for myself or my boyfriend, (fortuitously, we’ve both been “off the stroll” for a while). No, this grating, generalized anxiety is for… everyone involved! I can’t quite put the feeling into words, except to say that with every refreshing of my Apple News app, it’s like a bell of shame is struck inside me.

On Wednesday, I went for a chiropractic adjustment with my lovely, accepting heterosexual doctor. Somewhere during the treatment — which involves close physical contact and long exhales — I found that I was holding my breath. I had the sudden realization that if I happened to have monkeypox, his entire practice could be imperiled. What was that zit-looking ingrown hair on my arm? And then there were vestiges of a removable tattoo on my shoulder that could be mistaken for a rash. Perhaps it was only me, but I could swear his breathing changed too. I wondered if I should explain it to him. But what if I had been exposed? Hadn’t the initial CDC guidelines surrounding the asymptomatic spread of Covid been wrong? After I left his office everyone on 3rd Avenue seemed on high alert. On the 7 train, I could swear I saw passengers angling for just a little more personal space. Could they tell I was gay?

We continue to learn more details about how the virus is transmitted. It certainly isn’t behaving like it was in Africa. Interestingly, the WHO advises that people who have recovered from monkeypox use condoms for 12 weeks until it’s known if the virus can be spread through semen. So, who knows? Rubbers may make a comeback a-la high-waisted stonewash jeans. For the moment, it looks like the city and state are finally ramping up their vaccination game, and for this I am grateful. I received my vaccine about two weeks ago, after countless attempts at online scheduling. Personally, I have no problem with the authorities telling me to limit my sexual interactions. For the most part, I have complied. I am, however, critical of one specific action on the part of public health officials, namely, the timing of the vaccine rollout.

Had they not considered what gay dudes do from May to August? Could they not have figured in some exponential stats and gotten ahead of it, especially considering the ever-expanding proliferation of Gay Pride festivals around the world? And if they did not, why didn’t they? I feel like an entitled harlot for asking.

I spent last night on the roof with my neighbors, the same neighbors I was with in March of 2019, when we were all waiting to find out how the world was going to change forever the last time. We know that monkeypox isn’t passed so easily without prolonged, intimate contact, so we didn’t forego any hugging or kissing as we said goodnight. But I could swear everyone was holding their breath a little.


Image: Hudson Skyline by Matthew Hurst, licensed under CC 2.0

Darren Chase
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