February 14, 2014
Writer and Activist Jim Eigo is almost the prototype of early New York AIDS activists. He, like many others, became a sponge of AIDS related information at a time before the media was forth coming about the epidemic, and long before Google. Using his hard won knowledge he, and other activists, designed two reforms of AIDS drug regulation to accelerate drug approval and expand access. Eigo is featured in "United in Anger: A History of ACT UP" and "How to Survive A Plague" and continues as a vital member of ACT UP. In his essay below, Eigo shares the role community has played in his life, driving home the theme of this year's Play Smart cards -- "Together." Learn more about Play Smart.
Every movie theater features the unending play of light and shadow across inhabited space. Where the onscreen acts are sex acts, this electrical storm can feel like visual amplification of a horny patron's nervous system. Neither passive nor stationary, this audience moved as much as the ambient flicker. Voyeurs, exhibitionists, most of us became players in the action as well. Aisles allowed for pursuit and flight but also forced encounters with dozens of other bodies over the course of a few-hour stay. Rudely, gloriously, a brush with another hard body could transfigure the prevailing light show. Jutting flesh has a way of breaking through the thickest projections.
To become part of the show was to see, hear, feel, smell and taste it. But the movie never went away even after live action took over. Expanses of semi-naked flesh became mini-screens. Play could be one-on-one or involve big, roving clusters. In the mid-1980s theaters I frequented, most sex was low-risk, manual or oral. Here you were engaging anyone, everyone, men you'd never have elsewhere thought to be attracted by, all races, ethnicities, ages and points on the Kinsey scale of homosexuality. What a revelation! I found reinforcement for this communal aspect of sex in the growing ethic of safer sex taking root in the gay community that, outside, I was finding my place in.
For the next few decades I conducted most of my very active sex life in a succession of New York City sex spaces. The men who used these spaces created a full culture there: human, sexual, social, imperfect and unique to each space. Each culture had meaning for the men who made it. For some of those men, that meaning was central to their lives. There were times in my life when one or another of these sex spaces was, for a period of months or years, the principal source of joy and comfort in my life.
Whenever the ruthless economics of Manhattan real estate or city authorities shut a sex space down, they wiped out a culture. It was the soft extermination of a tribe: no immediate blood was shed, but a land was taken away, and a language was forbidden to ever be spoken again. More than once I felt betrayed by my community when a space I and many other gay guys depended on was boarded up in the night and the community response the next morning was silence. When the city shut a sex space down, it was usually in the name of public health, behind the fig-leaf of a dated, misinformed state sanitary code, goaded by a few well-meaning, misguided community voices.
Not long after I began my decades-long journey of reciprocal self-discovery with the bodies of all those other men, I became an AIDS activist with ACT UP/New York. That activism was of a piece with my sex life. I did one to support the other. For the next five years it was all I did. After I left ACT UP, for a few years my AIDS activism took the form of peer-to-peer safer sex outreach in gay sex spaces. And now, in the past year, I've returned to ACT UP, spurred by a recent rise in HIV infection among queers -- especially young gay guys, gay guys of color and transgender women.
But today, peer-to-peer sex outreach is an endangered species. So much guy-on-guy sex originates in a phone app and gets negotiated in the ether, often with mutual assurances that each is "clean." Such terminology is incomprehensible to an aging sexual reprobate like me. I am far from clean. Often I am dirty. But I am, though sexagenarian, still HIV-. Maybe those dirty old gay sex venues weren't so unhealthy after all. They have been integral to my personal practice of safer sex: I always found safety in numbers. I have not been the only one. (In fact a recent study locates the principal site of HIV transmission among "men who have sex with men" not in all-male sex spaces but in long-term relationships.)
I believe that today's rising HIV rates for gay guys and transgender women is a community problem that requires community action. That's why, as a lover of art, a lover of the male body and an AIDS activist, I rejoice that today's peer-to-peer sex activists have the fourth iteration of PLAY SMART materials from Visual AIDS to distribute. I wish I had them back when I was doing outreach to gay movie-houses and baths. I know that the denizens of today's sex clubs and parties are not the sole targets for these materials. But as a veteran of such venues, I know first-hand how useful their customers -- often in need of protection on the fly -- will find these engaging, sex-positive materials.
Although the materials in the PLAY SMART campaign contain condoms -- and how useful that they do! -- this is not a simple repackaging of your daddy's safer sex kit. The campaign's written materials deal with some of the most pressing HIV-related issues that our community faces today. They explain that in 2014 HIV prevention goes beyond condoms. They give information on the emergency drugs you can take if you think you've been exposed to HIV (PEP), or the everyday drug you can take if you think you're routinely at risk (PrEP). They tell you how HIV is sometimes criminalized and how condoms have sometimes been used to prosecute prostitutes -- and how you can fight these injustices. They tell you how getting an HIV test is the baseline for all HIV prevention and treatment. All the materials give you links so you can find out more.
That's doing a huge amount in a very tiny space -- but there's more! The PLAY SMART materials are artworks too, from four fine, foxy artists: Benjamin Frederickson, Silvia Prada, Carmine Santaniello and Jayson Keeling. Their sexy, affectionate images are hot -- art that is also activism at its most loving -- and they just may help spare you exposure to what is still a serious infection. So collect them all! Trade with your friends! And then -- why not? -- you can all PLAY SMART together!
Jim Eigo has written on theater, dance, art, literature, sex and the design of clinical trials. He helped design two reforms of AIDS drug regulation, accelerated approval and expanded access, reforms that facilitated the delivery of many treatments to people across the world. His short fiction has appeared in such volumes as Best American Gay Fiction #3, in such periodicals as The Chicago Review and at such online venues as Cleaver Magazine and Bohemia. His first published art work appears in The Poetics of Space from Intima Press. In January 2013, after an absence of twenty years, he returned to ACT UP NY to work (mostly) on HIV prevention.
Read more Play Smart Essays:
Dee Borrego: "HIV Criminalization laws become a self-defeating, and even dangerous, proposition to the health of the community it is intended to be protecting."
Ricardo Gamboa: "Gaping tear in the time-space continuum situated in urban Central America would seem to have nothing to do with sex-positive, homoerotic trading cards promoting HIV prevention and social awareness around stigmas of HIV/AIDS. But what else has queerness been for cosmopolitan gays of the modern metropolis besides a dip into a dark hole for another kind of pleasure or wormhole."