First Person

How gay sex became a seminal motivation of–and reward for–HIV activism

Bruce Richman, circa 2005

My friend Charles Sanchez is the creator of the musical web series Merce about an HIV positive New Yorker. Charles and I argue about which one of us has spoken to Bruce Richman most recently, and for how long. Bruce also lives in New York (I live in Baltimore) so Charles appears to have the upper hand, but I’m convinced my calls with Bruce are more intimate and consequential.

Charles and I behave like smitten teenagers because Richman, who burst upon the HIV activism scene a few years ago trumpeting the breakthrough message that “Undetectable Equals Untransmittable” and who wears a five o’clock shadow like nobody’s business, is totally hot, at least to us.

There’s an important lesson in all of this, and I will get to it right after one last indulgent story.

None other than David Drake, who sealed his place in AIDS history as the Obie-winning writer and star of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me (and who wore very little clothing with sensual conviction every night on stage), has been bewitched by Bruce.

“I wasn’t sure what he wanted,” David told me. Bruce had been inviting David out to coffee relentlessly — even though the two had never met – so Bruce could discuss his project, the Prevention Access Campaign. David wasn’t sure if the meet was legitimate. “And then I checked Bruce’s Facebook page and saw his photo,” David said sheepishly. He decided a cup of coffee wouldn’t kill him.

“I was sitting there staring at him,” David recalled, “and he’s very sexy. He’s talking about his campaign but there’s this… energy there. I remember wondering to myself, ‘Is this an innocent meeting? Is this a hookup?’”

Duane Cramer

The gay HIV activism landscape is cluttered with sexual tension, of course. This explains in part why HIV prevention campaigns targeting gay men have been so sexy and sex-positive. The men behind the campaigns are driving it. Cheeky muscle man Jack Mackenroth has made a cottage industry out of getting naked to fight HIV stigma. Famed photographer Duane Cramer (who shot the Greater Than AIDS campaign) and longtime survivor Ed Barron are daddy deliciousness, while younger activists like Houston’s Mike Webb and Australia’s Theo Tsipiras are swoon-worthy.

What gay HIV activist hasn’t had an AIDS conference crush or something more illicit? The New Zealand activist Charlie Tredway, in our on-camera interview at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, didn’t mind sharing his sexual game plan with me. “My Scruff app is going crazy,” Charlie told me. “I’m going to concentrate on HIV education here until at least Wednesday,” he said with a sly grin.

Peter Staley

Hotties on the AIDS scene are as old as Doc Martens. Peter Staley, star of How to Survive a Plague and a man who can still rock a Keith Haring tank top, was among a vast cadre of hunks during the early days of ACT UP. His photos of AIDS activists at play during that time might as well be cover art for a vintage Falcon Video highlights reel.

Peter clearly delights in sharing the shenanigans of the early ACT UP days. “A sexual hookup diagram of our early membership could be titled One Degree of Separation,” he says. “I always found it deeply ironic that Larry Kramer gave birth to ACT UP,” he said about the sex-skeptical icon, “because it quickly became the most sex positive movement in American history.”

ACT UP activists at the 1993 March on Washington

“That’s why I love today’s PrEP activists,” Peter continued. “They are bonding in more ways than one, and their sexual hookups are often political statements, breaking down generational and serostatus divides.”

Gay HIV activists are not role models, and that’s the beauty of it. We’re negotiating the sexual terrain like everyone else, and are just as capable of falling in lust, getting drunk, feeling horny, cruising Grindr. And I find great comfort in that. HIV is about sex. As advocates, we needn’t be coy about our own familiarity with hooking up or the sexual mechanics involved.

“Sex and play is a natural and functional part of who we are as activists, who we are as human beings,” Damon L. Jacobs told me, putting on his therapist hat. “In light of HIV, many revisionists wanted to downplay, ignore, or act ashamed of that history. But that sexual connection is a foundation for the activism and deserves to be celebrated.”

Mark S. King, founder of My Fabulous Disease, is Queerty’s HIV/AIDS writer