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Stuck in Oz: Two Gay Men Tackle Love & Sex in the 1970s (Part 1)

Posted in 6. MY JOURNAL on March 12, 2018 by Richard Berkowitz

This is the story of a friendship that reflects the sexual freedom of the early LGBTQ movement of the 1970s. It’s also about how two friends responded in their own ways to a disaster that interrupted their lives.

What do we do when life as we know it starts collapsing all around us? How do we navigate a time of catastrophe? What voices do we trust?

My friend Richard Hendlowitch might be alive today if he hadn’t followed the recommendations of our government’s scientific leadership. Powerful forces of persuasion had convinced Rich and thousands of others to go down a dangerous path.

Rich spent the end of his life suffering needlessly from AZT, the first federally approved drug for AIDS. It very likely hastened his death at age 39. One year later, effective anti-retroviral drugs became available that could have saved his life. In a public health crisis, survival can depend on not blindly following official advice. This story is about one friend who did, and one friend who didn’t.

Photobooth X 1 Aug 1982
Me & Rich, August 1982.
Coming out on Christopher Street in the 1970s, which served as Main Street for queer life in New York City, was like Dorothy waking up in Oz. It was as if the world switched from dull grey inside the closet to glorious Technicolor once we came out. With its eclectic people, vivid colors and dancing crowds, joining in led many of us to question everything we’d been taught to believe about ourselves.

That questioning didn’t always stop there. The early gay-lib slogan, “We are everywhere,” captured the motley multicultural melting pot that was urban “gay” life in the 1970s. We were a movement without standards: all you had to do to join was show up. Wasn’t that the way America was supposed to be, the old “give me your tired, your poor…yearning to be free?” The social collision of the first generation of liberated queers, ran the gamut from filthy rich to broke-ass poor, from immigrants who could barely speak English to those who traced their lineage to the Mayflower. A political movement that bridged all societal divides was thrilling in its potential, but that doesn’t mean most of us thought about it or cared.

Loud mouths were all the fashion in the new “gay is good” era. It fostered confrontation and self-examination. Say something racist or offensive about any group and someone was usually nearby to confront you. Once we threw off the shackles of how we were taught to hate ourselves and each other, it led many of us to question everything we were taught.

But that’s my take on the years after “gay lib” began, which radicalized me. My friend Rich was more representative: he was just looking for sex and someone to love. He didn’t believe in changing the world; all he wanted was to make art and feel included.

To come out in the 1970s was to be part of a revolutionary cultural shift. The first post-gay lib generation no longer had to suffer in isolation. But unlike Dorothy, many of us couldn’t go home anymore. Once you believed “gay is good” you were literally or figuratively stuck in Oz.

With so many families turning their backs on us, and many of us not telling our families, friends became the building blocks for a new kind of family, the ones we pieced together for ourselves. Christopher Street taught us that there was safety in numbers, but it wasn’t just sexual exuberance that made the 1970s what they were: Wherever we congregated, queer friendships were in bloom.

Rich and I met in September 1977 during our first week at New York University’s Graduate Film Program on East 7th Street. What tipped us off about each other was that we both kept befriending women classmates. We were also the only two students lugging large, overburdened shoulder bags that made us look like fleeing refugees. We first bumped into each other while stepping outside to have a cigarette between classes.

 

“Got a light?” Rich asked me.

Three little words, but as soon as he said them, they resonated in a way that made us both start laughing.

“That is such a gay bar line,” I said.

Guilty as charged,” Rich shot back.

“What a relief. I thought I was the only one here.”  Rich nodded to say, so did I.

“That’s quite a pocketbook you’re hauling around,” he joked. “I thought mine was bad.”

“Yours looks like it weighs more than you do,” I responded in a regrettable body-conscious remark that was as much a reference to him looking thin as it was a sign of the newly emerging gay male gym culture.

“It’s the damn commute,” Rich explained. “I can’t just hop a cab back to my apartment when I need something, like these trust fund film school kids.”

“Tell me about it: I’m only a mile north of the Lincoln Tunnel but it takes two hellish hours in bumper to bumper traffic to get here.”

“You’re from Jersey?” Rich asked.  “So am I.”

In our first conversation, we were amazed by the coincidences in our lives. We’d grown up in the same blue-collar county, Rich in Rahway, me in Union. We’d graduated from Rutgers University that June, moved onto the same street in North Jersey, and ended up in the same classes on the other side of the Hudson River. Both of our lovers were named Robert, although Rich’s lover was called Bobby and mine was Rob. We had the same first name, though I called him Rich and he called me Richard.

XMAS 83 RICH N BOB CRPD 2

Rich & Bobby

37. RICH_&_ROB_cuddle_at_Rutgers_1976.jpg

Me & Rob

“Its like we’ve been living parallel lives,” Rich said. “So, tell me, who’s your girl?”

“My girl?”  I asked.

“Judy, Liza, Bette – oh, wait, you’re a Hebe: it must be Babs. For me, it’s Jayne Mansfield — my muse. She had no experience — but she knew Hollywood — so, she stuck out her big tits and climbed the Hollywood ladder the only way she could.”

That’s where you get your inspiration?” I asked.

“Oh, hell yeah,” Rich replied, “I have pictures of me putting flowers on her grave in Argyle, Pennsylvania. You should see her headstone – it’s a pink-shaped heart.”

 

At first glance, Rich came off as borderline anti-Semitic (he wasn’t), bereft of feminist consciousness (not completely) and apolitical. To me, activism was self-esteem, a belief that people deserve better, but Rich didn’t see politics as a way to get there.

While my women friends were politically engaged, my gay friends weren’t. The only way I could lure one to a protest was to tell him how hot the guys would be. We all mocked the self-hating queens depicted in the 1960s gay classic, “Boys in the Band” as so last generation, but in private, we struggled to accept ourselves, and with good reason.

In 1977, who really knew what it meant to be a “gay man” or how to live one’s life? It had only been four years since the American Psychiatric Association ended their longstanding diagnosis that “lesbians and gay men” suffered from a mental disorder that was curable with psychotherapy. Now, suddenly, we didn’t. We could still be fired from our jobs, kicked out of apartments or arrested by police for a variety of reasons. It also left our sex and love lives criminalized, all of which begged the question, who were we?

As I recall, we acted like we knew, but it’s not as if we had relatives to model ourselves after or to rebel against. Coming out was the first step but where did “queers” belong? How do we build a life? Bette Midler’s 1973 gay anthem, “Friends,” offered one suggestion to those who’d just come out:

And I am all alone 

There is no one here beside me

And my problems have all gone

There is no one to deride me…

I had some friends, but they’re gone

Something came and took them away

And from the dust to the dawn

Here is where I’ll stay

Standing at the end of the road, boys

Waiting for my new friends to come…

 

“Who’s your favorite filmmaker?” I asked Rich.

“Douglas Sirk and Hitchcock but now I’d have to say it’s John Waters.”

“I love him!” I shouted. “I actually met Divine when I saw him Off Broadway in ‘Women Behind Bars’.”

“Honey,” Rich paused for dramatic effect, “I met John Waters!”

How?”

“I wrote to him about wanting to make films and he invited me to his house in Baltimore. He said, ‘don’t waste your money on film school – use it to make films.’”

“I want the whole story,” I told Rich. “We have 45 minutes before next class. Let’s go somewhere to talk.”

“Should we do a quick beer and cruise on Christopher Street?” Rich teased.

“It’s fifteen minutes to get there and fifteen minutes back. Is it worth it?”

We raced to the West Village with our shoulder bags flopping as fast as our tongues. By the time we reached Boots & Saddles, I was already thinking, Rich could be a soul mate.

Chatting away at the bar as Donna Summer serenaded us on the sound system, Rich and I clinked our beer bottles together in a toast to how grateful we felt to be exactly where we were in that precise moment in time.RB RH JUNE291980 CRPDWhen we got back to class on that warm, late summer afternoon – beer-buzzed, sweaty and panting from racing back — we looked like we’d just come from having sex. We were bubbling over from something that felt even better: two men affectionately reassuring each other as we confided our most intimate experiences. This began a profound level of trust and intimacy that would last the rest of our lives.

We became inseparable at school, two creative spirits who wanted the best for each other. We didn’t want to compete – we wanted to help each other be the best we could, the best we two “faggots” could. I had friendships like this with women, but it was harder to find with gay men who, just like straight men, were often raised amid unrelenting pressure to compete and adopt adversarial relationships. Rich was the gay brother I’d longed for.

We began double-dating with our respective lovers and having dinner at each other’s apartments. It felt so cutting edge, especially at a time when we couldn’t step outside looking like lovers without fear for our safety. When Rich’s other best friend, Angelo, started joining us, my friends and his friends became our friends.

In an age before cell phones, the two Roberts would call and comfort each other when the two Richards were late getting home from NYU. Rob and Bobby became suspicious of our whereabouts when film shoots began to stretch a full day of classes late into the night. As our first semester was ending, their suspicions became justified.

One night a film shoot ran past 2 am. Rich and I had class seven hours later with two back and forth commutes, so we crashed overnight at the nearby Club Baths. Gay bathhouses offered student discounts. I forget which one of us had a joint that night, but I remember us giggling hysterically in our cubicle and bopping to disco hits playing on the sound system that muffled the recurrent sounds of men having sex nearby.

CLUB BATHS AD photoGay bar guide ad, 1977

We decided to dim our room light, open our door and check out the men prowling by. But as one towel-clad, half-naked man after another cruised past, the mood changed, our giggling stopped. One passing guy provoked a gut reaction in Rich.

“Holy crap!” Rich whispered to me. “That’s my type.”

Rich re-wrapped his towel around his waist and flashed me a see-you-later grin. As I was about to tell him, “the girl can’t help it,” a handsome man stopped in our doorway. He nodded to me. I froze in desire. He walked in, slid off his towel and I shut the door.

CLUB BATHS AD pageWe hadn’t gone to the Club for sex but resisting it in a bathhouse didn’t last long. Rich and I often talked about the strain our grad school schedules were putting on our relationships and the challenge of keeping sex alive with a longtime partner, especially amid the kid in the candy store aspect of gay male culture. In 1977, who else was there to talk to about such things?  Parents? Doctors? Syndicated advice columnists?

Like so many others, we were trying to find the balance between what we needed, what we wanted and what we valued. As Rich saw it, “What’s the big deal about sex with strangers while you’re in a relationship? Sex doesn’t have to mean anything.” Then, in his half-hearted, perfectly awful Jayne Mansfield imitation, he added, “We can have our cake and eat it too!”

Rich knew Bobby saw other men. Lots of gay couples operated by mutually created rules that permitted sex with others but with agreed upon boundaries. Sometimes they worked; sometimes they didn’t, sometimes they had to be renegotiated.

Rich and I went to the baths several times that year, which posed a concern: sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Gay bar guides ran public service ads urging gay men to get tested every three months. Rich knew about the two free STI clinics run by gay men for gay men – the St. Marks Health clinic located a block from school and the Gay Men’s Health Project in Sheridan Square. I dreaded going alone but not with Rich. We’d share a joint on the streets as we walked to the clinic (cops left us alone back then) and make slut jokes while filling out our “Patient Sexual History” forms.

“Excuse me,” Rich told the clinic receptionist as he handed us clipboards, “my friend here is gonna need much more paper than this.”

My laughter ended with a Q-tip twisted into my urethra to test for gonorrhea. Rich took it all in stride: “Pills, shots and appointments aren’t pleasant, but look at all the fun we have. Once in a while, you gotta pay the piper.” But that didn’t ease my squeamishness.                                                                      *       *       *BULLDOG Show 1971Rich grew up breeding bull dogs and visiting flea markets with his family. He developed a passion for buying old furniture and restoring and selling it at a huge profit. He could make money doing what he loved, be his own boss and avoid minimum wage jobs.

Having worked at McDonald’s, I admired that. We’d both grown up being told that a college degree guaranteed lifelong financial security, a place in the middle class, only to discover when we got to Rutgers, that it was no longer true. Guys mocked us for wanting to be artists. We thought we’d have our degrees to fall back on, but we knew that if we didn’t make it as filmmakers we were doomed to what we saw as soul-sucking, insufferably hetero, 9 to 5 office jobs.

As our year at NYU ended, I was just getting by on food stamps. I took a work/study job through NYU for the summer, a secretarial position at a left-wing filmmakers’ collective. Rich was selling art deco furniture, which enabled him to skirt the economic decline hitting our friends. Those with trades — decorators, plumbers, haircutters — saw their incomes rise, while college-educated, debt-saddled friends faced diminishing prospects.

That summer, when Rich and Bobby returned from Provincetown, I told Rich I had to take a one-year financial leave of absence from NYU. He was devastated, but so was I.

In spring 1979, as Rich finished his second year at NYU, I realized that my $140.00 weekly salary didn’t leave enough savings to return. I knew that whatever I was striving to be, wasting 3 hours a day commuting was not how to get there – living in NYC was. It was a painful decision but when Rob told me he’d never move to Manhattan, I left him, knowing I was hurting him and fearing I’d never find love like that again. We knew we’d stay close; maybe one day we’d reunite.

When NYU granted me a second year’s leave of absence, I had to do more than just pay rent and bills. I told Rich I was going to try to make extra money as an escort, which he knew I’d dabbled in at Rutgers. He was concerned: “For how long? What would be enough money to stop?”

I told him the truth: I was holding onto my job and just going to try. If it didn’t work out, I’d never be able to return to NYU.

I found a cheap apartment in Chelsea where Rich and my friends could crash and hang out. Once my escort ad appeared, I was earning $1,000 a week — a month’s salary at my job. It was hard for my friends to fathom, or criticize. I left my job to escort full-time. I’d never seen so much money. I didn’t stop to wonder “for how long.”

After two months of sex work I needed a break and a beach, but when I landed in Miami, something was missing. I called Rich and offered to buy him a plane ticket. “I’m already paying for the rental car and motel,” I argued, “so please come down.”

“I’d love to get out of this bitter cold.”

“I’ll drive to Key West,” I said, desperate to convince him. “It’s the new gay Provincetown but with palm trees and tropical heat.”

That hooked him. For Rich, it was always too cold; for me it was always too hot.

KEY WEST PK Banana300dps
Picking bananas: Rich in coat, me in T.

It was night when I picked up Rich at the airport. We decided to rest before the long drive to Key West, so we went to a bathhouse to nap, shower and check out the men. We were surprised as New Yorkers that hardly anyone was there, so we relaxed in the sauna and took pictures of each other goofing around.

“One day when we’re old and gay,” Rich said, “we’ll look back on these pictures in our rocking chairs and reminisce.”

BATHS MIAMI RICH Jstrap 1980 CRPD  BATHS MIAMI US X 2 Feb 1980

At 24, the only thing that scared me about being a gay man was growing old alone, so Rich’s image of us in rocking chairs was reassuring. He now saw us as lifelong friends. That’s what I’d wanted since the day we met.

How does one capture the way intimacy ferments over time? It’s not tangible things or dramatic events that are key; it’s the slow, prosaic accumulation of ordinary moments shared by two people yearning for someone who will always be there, a connection where conversation flows as easily as silences and grows over time into something greater than its moments.Gay Pride June29 1979 US 2 at 256W15thRich told Angelo that Key West was where he realized how much he meant to me. As Americans, we tend to have instant recall about what we gave to others and amnesia about what others gave to us. It wasn’t until after Rich was gone that I realized we escaped that — the tally, the keeping score, what friends give that don’t come with price tags.

In June 1980, Rich earned his Master’s degree with a film he made in Rahway. I went out to help, but Rich could tell I was itching to get back to the city. I apologized that I couldn’t hide it, but Rich said, “With me, you don’t have to. I’m not even sure you can.”

On the train home, I watched Manhattan’s skyline come into view. I was sure life at 24 couldn’t get better than this, but a gathering storm was about to change everything.

GAY PRIDE June 1981 US on street CROPD Gay Pride, 1980.

NEWS TRIBUNE RH MAR 1 1980

NEWS TRIBUNE 2 RH Mar 1 1980

 

END OF PART 1.

Stuck in Oz: Two Gay Men Tackle Love & Sex in the 1970s. Part 2

Posted in 6. MY JOURNAL with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2018 by Richard Berkowitz
Photobooth X 2 Aug 1982

Me & Rich, August 1982. Showing swollen gland under my left ear.

In August 1982, STI testing confirmed my worst fear: immune deficiency. Everything I’d read about AIDS convinced me I was doomed. Then my doctor, Joseph Sonnabend, told me that I could survive if I didn’t further tax my immune system by exposing myself to more STIs. In the 1970s, STIs became rampant, but sexually active gay men had the highest rates by far.

VD PLAGUE 1979 A

America’s National LGBT Newspaper, The ADVOCATE, Nov. 27, 1980.

Sonnabend made sense. From our first encounter at Gay Men’s Health Project, he warmed to my concerns about STIs, but I hadn’t realized that Sonnabend was an STI expert with a history of distinguished lab research. He said I had something to offer in fighting AIDS and introduced me to a like-minded patient, Michael Callen.

Gay lib politicized Callen and me in a way that made Sonnabend’s ideas resonate. We didn’t trust the medical establishment with its history of pathologizing homosexuality even after the APA’s 1973 change of heart. Under Sonnabend’s scientific guidance, Callen and I wrote articles that offered community-based solutions, a do-it-yourself approach to activism that anyone could embrace.

In December 1982, in “A Warning to Gay Men with AIDS,” we detailed the dangers of AIDS patients putting blind trust in medical experts. In May 1983, we self-published “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic,” regarded as the invention of safe sex for AIDS. In June 1983, Callen and I were part of a group of 11 gay men who created the “Denver Principles,” a landmark document that refined doctor/patient relationships.

Our writing stressed that lifestyle changes in the 1970s were driving the epidemic in gay men. That angered “gay” leaders who’d championed sexual freedom.  Even our invention of safe sex became easy to marginalize: we didn’t have what people look for in experts.  But its also true that the community response to AIDS wasn’t just a full embrace of mainstream professionals – but the de-legitimizing of anyone who questioned them.

DEramo Rodgr attack PwacPoster83  RODGER M EmailSxPos Feb2008 2nd

The AIDS debate in 1982-83, pitted us against gay leaders who chose a collaborationist approach. They got the government to respond and they accepted their experts without challenge. Most gay men, like Rich, followed along.

I’m not suggesting that the apolitical Rich and the activist in me was all that led us down different roads when AIDS began, because with all my political awareness, AIDS was foremost a medical crisis. Fighting AIDS wasn’t like fighting for LGBT rights. Now there were life and death consequences to “taking a stand” but few saw the distinction. (For example, it was courageous for activists to engage in civil disobedience to pressure a pharmaceutical company to lower the price of the drug AZT, but it takes independent expertise to know if that drug may pose more harm than healing.)

Unlike Rich, after I came out, I wanted to change mainstream America — not join it. Long before AZT was hailed as our salvation, I questioned everything. Rich sought shelter in what was familiar. I did too, but my shelter was distrust of established authority, not reverence for it. Activism taught me not to put faith in government institutions that had a history of brutalizing women and all minorities, even in the name of science.

By the end of 1983, gay life underwent sweeping change. Safe sex helped STI rates plummet. Rich and Bobby tried closing their open relationship. When his grandparents died, Rich moved with Bobby into their house in Rahway, and further away from me.

Blacklisted by gay leaders who distributed funding, I was unable to find work in the community response to AIDS. I needed a way to support myself.

 

“Can’t you make money off your writing?” Rich asked me.

“Not enough to live on. I want to write a book but that takes time. Maybe I could use my safe sex expertise to go back in the biz.”

“Don’t do that,” Rich said. “It’s crazy out there. Guys aren’t sure what to do.”

“Do you think they’re having safe sex?”

“Some are, some aren’t. No one is sure what to believe.”

“I want to write full-time but how do I pay rent?”

“Tell me about it. Now that I’m working full-time, even when I find film work, I can only be available on weekends.”

 

I wanted to ask Rich if he was fooling around, and if he was, if he was being safe but I didn’t want to sound like I didn’t trust him when I always knew I could. Despite his Master’s degree, Rich was stuck in the corporate job we’d dreaded. It prevented him from pursuing what he loved, but he needed health insurance. Many friends were frantic to find any job that came with health insurance. Rich became demoralized, so I did what I could to cheer him up.

Every week I queued up one of our favorite movie scenes on my VCR, hit pause and dialled him at work. As soon as he said, “Audio Visual Department,” I hit play:

“I should have killed myself the first time he put it in me.”

Rich burst into laughter. “Oh, oh, oh…Piper Laurie in ‘Carrie’!”

 

Rich and Bobby went to visit Angelo who’d moved to Florida. During their trip, they discovered a jobs boom in Orlando theme parks and decided to move. I felt left behind.

ANGELO n RICH FLA

Rich & Angelo, 1988

I returned to work as a safe sex escort on a mission: It’s never too late for safe sex. From my renewed vantage point, I saw how many men assumed it was too late for safe sex, that they were “ticking time bombs” who’d already been “exposed.” Some clients showed signs of AIDS. I rarely knew what to do or say. Feeling helpless, I became addicted to cocaine and inaccessible to my friends. I went home to my family in Union to get clean.

Grappling with sobriety meant facing how I’d hurt those who cared about me. My friendship with Rich was brutalized. We made plans I kept cancelling at the last minute; one weekend I stood him up to stay overnight together at a hotel.

To my ex-lover Rob, my return to Jersey was a sign to reunite. I went to see him but when he answered the door I froze. He’d lost so much weight that skin hung off his arms. I couldn’t process my worst fear, but I knew that being together was what I needed. We kissed goodnight believing that we were starting a new chapter. Sick as I thought he was, I was still attracted to and in love with him.

The next morning, a friend from college offered to take me out for a ride. I was still half-asleep. We didn’t get far, when his car broke down, so I called another friend to help.  When he arrived, he gave me a piercing look and said, “What’s wrong?”

 

“I’m tired.”

“Tired? I’m not buying that. You look like you just lost your best friend.”

Knocked off balance, I scrambled for a reply. “I saw someone last night…I’m worried he may have AIDS.”

 

As soon as I said it, I knew it was too close to the truth. My friend demanded to know who it was. My refusals to tell intensified his curiosity. I later learned that he went home and called mutual friends trying to figure out who it was.

It was November 1989, TV “sweeps month”, when annual ad revenues are determined by ratings. Despite waning fears and no evidence of AIDS being spread by casual contact, local news media went on one last rampage about contagion, one more fabricated news cycle to boost ratings.

A few days after seeing Rob, I called him, but as soon as he heard my voice, he flew into a fury about me telling people he had AIDS. I tried to tell him I hadn’t, that I never would, that I just mentioned “a friend,” but he wouldn’t let me get in a word.  He just kept calling me every hateful thing he could think of, in a voice that pierced like the rage of a dying man. When Rob slammed the phone down, I felt gutted.

I decided to wait and show up at his door a few days later, but I got a call from Dr. Sonnabend who was also Rob’s doctor.

“Rob committed suicide,” Sonnabend said.

I just screamed, as if trying to expel what I couldn’t bear to let in.

“You need to know what happened,” Joe told me. Rob had slit his wrists in the bathtub, but since he did it with his best friend in the next room, that meant it was not a serious attempt but a desperate cry for help.

Joe continued, “His friend had the sense to call me while waiting for EMS. I stayed on the phone until they arrived, but they refused to intervene. I’m sure they could tell Rob was gay. They must have assumed he had AIDS and they were afraid of getting exposed. There’s no other way to explain it. From when it happened until they arrived, there was time to save him, but they declared him dead and let him bleed to death.”

I knew what I’d done and hadn’t done, but I’d still been a catalyst in the death of someone I loved and left and hurt, someone who was now dead at thirty-four.

ROB COLORED GIRLS 77

Rob, 1977.

No one knew what to say to me until Rich sent a plane ticket to visit him, a bookend to the one I’d sent him ten years earlier to visit Key West.

The spaciousness of Rich’s house felt so grown up. He showed me how he’d screened in the back porch to keep out bugs and installed a hot tub. As he gave me a tour of the work he’d done on his quintessential suburban home, it hit me for the first time that he made a great husband, a term I’d never thought of using before.

ORLANDO RnR Dog Apr90

Me & Rich, Orlando, Florida, Dec. 1989

Being together was healing even amid talk of those we admired who’d died from AIDS. Now, Rob was gone too. Rich kept insisting it wasn’t my fault. I needed to hear it from the one friend who was part of our history and knew what Rob meant to me.

When we were alone, I apologized for what I’d put Rich through with my addiction. Bobby was contemptuous of me but my friendship with Rich survived, even as he wondered aloud, would we?

As our bond felt restored, Rich’s told me he’d tested positive for HIV. I didn’t want to leave him and go home. I joked that I wanted to move in with him and live like The Golden Girls, but the truth was, I did.

Based on what I’d learned from Dr. Sonnabend, I gave Rich my “hope” speech about keeping sex safe, about prophylaxis against the deadly PCP pneumonia, and about staying away from AZT. I didn’t want him to give into despair.

During my stay, I noticed that as soon as Rich and Bobby got home from work, they went straight to the liquor cabinet, tossing me a hello without stopping until they’d poured a drink. The times were taking a toll on all of us.

After I returned from seeing Rich, I was discussing Rob’s suicide with Dr. Sonnabend when he interrupted me. “I thought you understood,” Joe said. “Rob was suffering from a bad bout with colitis. That’s why he lost weight — Rob didn’t have AIDS.”

That was the thing about AIDS in the 1980s – when you thought things couldn’t get worse, they did.

A few months later, Rich received blood test results indicating worsening immune deficiency. Suffering from fatigue, working full-time became impossible.

Every year brought news reports of a forthcoming AIDS vaccine that never materialized. Previously raised hopes were dashed and replaced by new promises that also never panned out. When AZT, a drug that had been shelved in the 1960s due to its toxicity, was heralded as the first federally approved AIDS treatment, it became all the rage.

Under Dr. Sonnabend’s tutelage, Callen became a fierce opponent of using AZT in the long-term way it was being prescribed. But with aggressive segments of the activist community championing its use, few in despair could resist.

The first time LGBT-related advertising was deemed suitable for New York subways, it was to sell AZT to gay men. Ads appeared on bus shelters in “gayborhoods” and in the LGBT press. The AZT campaign became so pervasive that by 1990 I couldn’t pee at a gay bar in Chelsea without staring at activist flyers urging me to go on AZT. Public critics of AZT, particularly Callen, were accused of “murder,” of robbing dying people of their only hope, of having the blood of anyone who listened to them on their hands.

In August 1990, Rich called to tell me, “I started AZT.”

“Rich, I know it’s hard to accept that there isn’t much yet for immune deficiency, but you don’t technically have full-blown AIDS.”

“But my T cells keep falling — and you, Michael and Sonnabend are almost the only people saying these things. I can’t do nothing while my blood tests keep getting worse.”

The study the federal government used to approve AZT had major flaws. Some gay men enrolled in the study sent their pills to commercial labs to find out if they were getting AZT or a placebo. Those who discovered they were getting placebos convinced others whose pills tested positive as AZT to share them. Reports leaked out that the study results were no longer viable, but the FDA approved it anyway.

The tens of thousands like Rich who jumped on the AZT bandwagon after 1987, were taking the recommended dose of 1,200 milligrams per day. Today the recommended dose is 600 or 300 milligrams. I talked to Dr. Sonnabend about how I could dissuade Rich from continuing AZT. I had Callen call Rich to plead with him to reconsider. One day, Bobby got on the phone and screamed at me for making Rich even question AZT.

BIRTHDAY Card AZTshoulda Oct93

His last birthday card to me states, “Should have listened to you about AZT…”

As Rich’s letters to me reveal, by 1992, he was struggling in every way that people with AIDS often did: the stigma and isolation, the fear of death, the piercing laments over what we might not live long enough to do.

As the first safe sex generation took over as editors of LGBT publications, I could get published again. Rich would listen and advise me through drafts of each article. When a magazine arrived in his mail with my latest piece, he was elated.

“I know you’re going to get your book published if you keep writing like this.  I just hope it happens while I’m still here to see it.”

I enlisted our friend Joey to go with me to Orlando every few months to share expenses, so I could spend more time with Rich. Joey and I stayed at the Parliament House, a 1950s style two-floor motel that was always packed with men cruising for sex. It offered cheap rooms, mostly for sex, and featured a dance club where disco divas and gay porn stars appeared on weekends, as well as a swimming pool, a leather and western bar and a sex shop. One night, Rich insisted on meeting us there. He arrived with Angelo and Bobby, looking emaciated and frail, carrying a portable IV in a backpack. It was then I saw that he was dying. What does it feel like to realize that you won’t live to see 40?

Despite his obvious pain, Rich insisted on walking the length of both floors of the motel amid gay men on the sexual hunt who were stunned by the sight of him.

In his quiet way, that night Rich embodied what it means to take a stand, to refuse to be bound by shame or stigma, whether he saw it that way or not. Our little New York posse retreated into our room. We shared a joint and reminisced about the days after I moved into my apartment and we all got to know each other.

That fall Rich was diagnosed with lymphoma. By spring 1994, it was spreading despite chemotherapy. As his prognosis dimmed, visiting Rich took place in a series of Orlando hospitals. The last time we were together, he was under hospice care at home.

DYING RH RB JG 94

Me, Rich & Joe: Our last time together, May 1994.

One day, Rich grasped my hand. He was hooked up to monitors with such vividly colored blinking lights that it made me think, “how gay.” I pulled up as close I could to his bed as Rich searched for words through a morphine haze.

“Promise me you’ll keep writing, that you won’t give up until your book gets published.”

“I won’t give up, Rich. I promise you that.”

“It’s not just your story, it’s my story too, to tell the next generation. If they don’t like the truth, fuck ‘em. Tell them we didn’t like it either.”

I didn’t go to Provincetown in the summer of 1995 when Rich’s family held a ceremony and scattered his ashes. It felt more important to be with Rich while he was alive. I didn’t have money left to go. My own health was in decline.

By fall, I was dying of AIDS. In my despair, I asked Dr. Sonnabend to put me on AZT. Like Rich, I wanted something, a magic bullet, an escape hatch. Sonnabend explained how recent studies confirmed his warnings: 1200 milligrams of AZT per day hastened death.AZT ARTICLE W JOE SONN

As 1995 ended, Sonnabend got me into a study testing new protease inhibitor drugs. Two months later, my Kaposi sarcoma was gone. My blood counts rebounded. I’d survived long enough to get the drugs that keep me alive today.

                                                                     *     *     *

In 2009, OUTFEST, the Los Angeles LGBT film festival, awarded Best Documentary to Daryl Wein’s indie film Sex Positive. The movie was based on my 2003 book, Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex. As a guest of OUTFEST, I invited Angelo, who left Florida for San Diego, to stay in my hotel room. Our conversations veered often to Rich. Recalling the good times were a testament to how grateful we felt for the years we had with him.

 

“I don’t want to weird you out,” I told Angelo,” but I feel like Rich is here when we talk about him.”

“I feel it too,” Angelo replied, “who cares if it’s just wishful thinking.”

 

AZT helped to change America. The election of President Reagan undoubtedly hastened the rush to drug deregulation. We can never know precisely the extent to which the rapid approval of AZT hastened this process, but it was a significant milestone along the way. Drugs can now be marketed with less stringent efficacy and safety standards, resulting in disasters such as the approval of VIOXX which according to most estimates caused over 40,000 American deaths. This is how AZT helped to change America.

That lesson is the best way I know how to honor Rich.

FIRE IS RH n RBHymie Stndg Fire Is Sept 1982
Fire Island, Labor Day, 1981.

PrEP: PREVENTION & PROFITS

Posted in 6. MY JOURNAL on February 20, 2013 by Richard Berkowitz

Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP for shorthand, is a new effort to prevent sexually transmitted AIDS by giving HIV medications to those who don’t have the virus but who are considered high risk for getting it.

The first scientific PrEP study, known as iPREX, tested the drug Truvada on gay men. The results were greeted with sensational enthusiasm by several doctors and researchers who said iPREX was a “game changer,” and a “milestone,” that HIV prevention was “forever altered.”

What came next were jubilant claims by some gay men that condoms could now be replaced by a pill that has limited side effects and won’t harm you; in other words, that you can fuck as much as you want without using condoms and still avoid HIV.

However, as time has passed, it seems that the initial enthusiastic reviews of PrEP probably represented the voices of a small minority. As one critic noted, “The volume with which a view is promoted doesn’t necessarily represent the extent to which a view is held. A few people can make a lot of noise that drowns out everyone else.”

After extensive reading and talking to doctors, here’s what I’ve learned:

PrEP should only be an issue for those who can’t or won’t use condoms.  For them the use of PrEP makes very good sense.

We shouldn’t judge those who are unable or unwilling to use condoms. On the contrary, we should understand that there are many different circumstances and reasons that lead some to that point.  We should be supportive in minimizing their risk for acquiring HIV by using PrEP.  It’s a harm reduction measure, like providing clean needles.

But here’s the first problem: Can a drug that has the potential to reap millions of dollars in profits be marketed only to those who can’t or won’t use condoms?  There are already troubling signs that it can’t be.

Unlike the promotion and sale of anti-HIV drugs, safe sex education has no financial returns.  That’s why there must be a role for government and not-for-profits.  Otherwise, it can seem like the only value people at risk for AIDS have, is as consumers of drugs!

The history of AIDS in America has taught us that getting money for properly targeted safe sex education has rarely had the adequate government or other support it deserves. This is absolutely scandalous.  When people say safe sex education doesn’t work, we have to remember that there hasn’t been much of it, and what little there is, has rarely been properly targeted.

We should also be looking critically at where the promotion of PrEP is coming from.

Many doctors and even advocates have financial arrangements with pharmaceutical companies; they have glaring conflicts of interest, which we should at least consider in evaluating what they have to say about PrEP. They may believe in what they’re doing but you can’t avoid the fact that they receive money from the drug companies that stand to profit from their recommendations.

It’s interesting that the promotion of PrEP appears to be greatest in the U.S.  In these economic times when public health education budgets have been slashed, it seems obvious that health departments can put the responsibility for prevention on entities that pay for drugs, like insurers, whether private or government. That makes it easier for budget cuts and safe sex education cuts because paying for prevention falls on the insurers.

We still don’t know how great the demand for PrEP will be, but when figures become available, it’s likely that most men will keep their trust in condoms — the only prevention intervention that has an established track record.  To reiterate, condoms are the only thing that we know, from many years of experience, work.

This is not the time to further weaken safe sex education. The promotion of PrEP means we have to further strengthen it. Unless the promotion of PrEP goes hand in hand with prevention education, it threatens to undermine support for continued condom use even further.  The term being bandied about now – particularly by activists — is “combination prevention,” but I’m having a hard time figuring out what that means. They say we have to reduce the confusion over the term “combination prevention,” but their attempts to clarify it left me just as confused.  Do they mean you have to use a condom and PrEP?  Well, no they don’t seem to be saying that, so what do they mean?  I still can’t tell.

We have many years of experience to be confident that condoms can work, and maybe in time we’ll be able to say the same about PrEP — but not yet. What’s at stake is your life.

AIDS history has taught us that we should always be wary of enthusiastic recommendations that don’t yet have a track record to back it up.  The early use of high-dose AZT is one example.

As we said in How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, safe sex is about more than preventing AIDS.  The promotion of PrEP seems to conveniently overlook or downplay all the other sexually transmitted disease risks, (gonorrhoea, herpes, primary syphilis, nonspecific urethritis, Chlamydia, CMV, etc.) many of which can be prevented with condoms.  This is especially true for the highly sexually active who may be more likely to use PrEP.

While some argue that condoms are a barrier to intimacy, others actually find that they enable intimacy by freeing people from the risk of a life-changing infection.  By removing the threat of transmitting HIV, condoms can actually enhance intimacy.

It’s a tragedy that HIV still infects 41,000 new people a year, but with 300 million Americans, it seems that lots of people are also doing something right.

Safe sex isn’t always easy.  We need to encourage and support each other to keep on doing it.

 

February 20, 2013

I want to thank Mark Adnum of Nightcharm.com for instigating and inspiring me to write about PrEP during our recent interview.

The Man Who Put the First Gay Dick on TV

Posted in 6. MY JOURNAL on February 6, 2013 by Richard Berkowitz

Background notes for the How to Have Sex in an Epidemic video interview clips that follow this post.

In April 1983, as Michael Callen and I were nearing the completion of How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, I got an idea while watching Men and Films, Lou Maletta’s pornographic, all-male, public access cable TV show.  At the time, many sexually active gay men I knew still didn’t want to hear about AIDS, so I was thrilled when Maletta started talking about it on his X-rated show.  I thought, “Why not call him to see if Michael and I could promote our booklet on his program?”  Prime time TV wasn’t ready for safe sex, but Men and Films sure was.

Men and Films began as a gritty, weekly review of the newest releases in hardcore gay male pornography; it featured graphic video clips accompanied by Maletta’s tawdry, sex-soaked, voice-over commentary.

Raised in working class Brooklyn and clearly untouched by higher education, there was something unabashedly “dirty-old-man-ish” about Maletta’s talking style, a lurid tone and twang you might hear at a 1970s sex club, but startling when it was blaring from the TV in your living room — just a click away on your remote control from CNN or Pat Robertson.  In fact, in a 1995 Calvin Klein TV commercial featuring half-naked, post-pubescent teens, Maletta’s X-rated drawl was featured in the ad’s voice-over – a juxtaposition so jarring it led to accusations of “kiddie porn” and enough public outrage to get the ads pulled from the airwaves — mostly because of the way Lou sounded. The ensuing media firestorm, which was better advertising than any TV ad could hope for, was even covered by the G-rated Entertainment Weekly.

Although Maletta later expanded his programming to LGBT news and profiles of underground artists, when Men and Films began, it was interviews with porn stars.  Lou could always be heard off camera, flinging salacious questions or pressuring his guests to pull down their pants and show what they were known for: a bubble butt, a big dick, etc.  It was scandalous TV even for Manhattan cable public access, and many NYC activists were appalled that right when AIDS began, Maletta’s garish, weekly porn revue took off and bloomed at the same time.

MALETTA HX JAN97 1 Crop

Lou was a great self-promoter: He generated juicy, first Amendment press coverage in the Village Voice and other media when some of his segments ran into censorship problems over video clips that included “penetration.”  Lou was being forced by the station to cover the offending shots with a digital black dot, but in his effort to salvage every square inch of naked skin that he could, he made the dot so small that whenever the actors’ fucking moved left or right, the dot had to move and follow along too. It didn’t take long to realize that Lou needed target practice. In clips where the actors were getting close to orgasm and their movements quickened, it got so dizzying to follow the dot back and forth, that some of the penetration could be glimpsed for a second, but by that point I was laughing hysterically with friends who called to make sure I was watching this First amendment insanity.

Whenever Lou had to air a censored segment, he ended it with the station’s phone number along with text urging viewers to call in to protest.  Was he serious?  Call a station manager to complain about not being able to see the entire dick going in and out on the 11pm broadcast?  Many gay men were so uncomfortable with Lou’s depiction of sex that they were more likely to call and ask that the show be taken off the air, in part, because it could be viewed by anyone in Manhattan who had cable TV – even by kids whose parents had yet to figure out the new adult content controls.  Men and Films was so accessible, it inspired a pop-cult satire on the TV show, In Living Color — a series of offensive but hilarious skits called Men on Film.

To conservative, assimilationist gay activists out to prove to America that all gays were just like them, Maletta was a nightmare; but since the new breed of AIDS activists felt the same way about Callen, me and  We Know Who We Are,  I called Maletta with a mounting sense of empathy.

To my surprise, Lou and his apartment-based studio were across the street from where I live.  He agreed to do a segment on “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic,” with one condition:  First, I had to get him an interview with Dr. Joseph Sonnabend who was showing up on the local news: The building co-op board where Joe had his medical practice refused to renew his lease because he was treating people with AIDS.  It became a landmark court case that established the nation’s first anti-discrimination protections for PWA’s, and Lou’s coverage was among the best. (That clip is coming soon.)

It was a cloudy day when Michael Callen and I went to Lou’s 5th floor tenement apartment to be interviewed.  There were S/M accoutrements scattered about, huge shelves of boxed porn tapes and lots of video editing equipment.  After gazing around the apartment and meeting the S/M loving Lou, the S/M loathing Michael wanted to leave. I convinced him to stay, but he managed to extract a moment of humorous revenge:  During the first question in part 2 of the interview, as Lou fires off a list of kinky sexual activities, Mike makes a comical hand gesture toward me, as if to say, that’s Richard’s area of expertise.

Lou and I bonded that day. I began producing weekly reports on safe sex issues and co-anchored a weekly LGBT news segment as the half hour Men and Films expanded into the hour-long Gay Cable Network, which segregated the porn into a separate show, away from the political and cultural news.  By 1991, when Lou retired, he had created the most extensive video archive of LGBT life in the 1980s.  It was purchased by New York University’s Fales Library for preservation before he died.

The two-part interview with me and Callen are in the next two posts.

Part 1: Michael Callen & Richard Berkowitz being interviewed about their booklet, HOW TO HAVE SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC, in May 1983.

Posted in 6. MY JOURNAL with tags , , , , , on January 30, 2013 by Richard Berkowitz

PART 1: Richard Berkowitz & Michael Callen being interviewed about their booklet, HOW TO HAVE SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC, in May 1983.

Posted in 6. MY JOURNAL on January 30, 2013 by Richard Berkowitz

Best CALLEN RB @ Typewriter