Excerpt from Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son
By Richie Jackson
My bruising first sexual experiences were compounded by an unrelenting fear of AIDS, which was still new in the early 1980s. So much was unknown about the disease in those days. I got my rules of engagement in 1983 from a new and controversial safe sex pamphlet called “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach.” The authors were Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, with medical and scientific guidance from Dr. Joseph A. Sonnabend. This informative if controversial—again, so little was known about AIDS that the publication was met by some with skepticism, derision, and anger—pamphlet was a clarion call to the gay community to keep ourselves and one another safe. And for me it was the Gay Commandments. Callen and Berkowitz were the first to introduce the revolutionary concept that gay men should use condoms. My sex life was just developing, but I stuck close to those dos and don’ts, and have done so all these years, for better or for worse.
Back when I was living in a dorm, teeming with young, attractive gay men, I trained myself to hold back and not entirely let myself go. My guidebook warned to kiss only with mouth closed or on the body; to always make sure to wash before and immediately after sex; showers were suggested not only as foreplay, but as a discreet way to see your partner in the light, naked, so you could check for lesions, rashes, or abrasions. I bought, as directed, a fingernail scrub to adhere to the rule of scrubbing under your fingernails with antibacterial soap after sex. Before I had even begun I was forced to abandon the notion of sexual abandon, something I had looked forward to becoming accustomed to. I was extremely lucky to have learned about safe sex just in time.
I struggled with condoms and lube. The pause that was necessary in the proceedings to remove the condom from its packaging, lubricate, and roll it on while maintaining an erection all telegraphed that I was pausing to ward off disease and possible death, to protect myself from this man whom I was now trying to be intimate with. I couldn’t shake peril for performance. Alone in my dorm room I would practice using lube and a condom. I would put them on and masturbate, trying to attain a matter-of-factness, to get used to the sensation. I looked to find ways to eroticize these tasks so as not to dispense with them. The common refrains “I don’t like condoms” and “Condoms don’t feel as good” weren’t compelling reasons not to use them. I kept telling myself that this thin sheath of safety was not an impediment to intimacy, just a barrier against fatal illness.
I had been on several dates with Eric, a nice salesclerk from the local Conran’s store. One night after a fantastic date we started to fool around, and as things progressed he wanted to have sex, and I said we couldn’t because I was out of condoms. He said, “Let’s do it anyway,” and as alluring as he was, I said no. I wasn’t being self-righteous; I was just too scared not to use condoms. He got dressed, left my apartment, and I never heard from him again.
Meanwhile, Jesse Helms, the Reagan Revolutionaries, and Jerry Falwell and his im-Moral Majority were screaming that AIDS was God’s wrath on gays. And there was a common saying at the time that when you have sex with someone, you are having sex with everyone they have ever had sex with. As a result, my fear was crippling. I know that because my sexual matriculation coincided with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, I have been scarred for life, left with the lasting untruth that lingers still: Sex equals death. I have never had sex without the fleeting thought of death racing through my brain—even now, even married. Any cut, sore, abrasion, or birthmark has always startled me, and the fleeting thought of Kaposi sarcoma, a skin cancer affecting people with immune deficiencies, nearly paralyzes me. My flaccidness waves its white flag.
Richie Jackson writes the monthly column “In Gay We Trust” for The Advocate. He is also the author of “Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son,” published by HarperCollins, which is available at amazon.com/Gay-Like-Me-Father-Writes/dp/0062939777