Remembering Luis López-Detrés
September 20, 2016
Luis López-Detrés is gone. Long Live Luis! If you're reading this and you're a family member, you may want to stop here. When a conversation turns to HIV, for gay men it generally turns to sex -- and that's what's about to happen here.
A few years ago, Luis and I met at an ACT UP reunion. I hadn't seen him in twenty years. He came right up to me and asked, "Did we fuck?" I smiled and said, "Are you fucking kidding me?" Then, he did something I will never forget. He jumped into my arms -- he literally jumped, so I was holding him across my waist -- and he kissed me deeply. I wanted to fuck him immediately. The walls of time and space collapsed at my feet; I was 25 again, with a missile in my pants.
Flashback to 1991: I fucked Luis outside an ACT UP meeting, a few times in the building. Twice we did it in a van right outside Cooper Union. It was great, because Luis was an excellent lover. We were both young then, with sturdy bodies and active minds, and we were passionate about sex in the age of AIDS.
What right do I have to judge anyone who doesn't adhere to condom use? What right does anyone? In that van, or maybe in the bathroom downstairs, Luis and I had unsafe sex.
I am telling you this not because I want shame heaped on me or on the memory of Luis. Luis was a remarkable advocate for condom use, and he dedicated his entire life to HIV/AIDS. I am telling you this because it's true and as true today as it was yesterday: Gay men are still having sex and not all are using condoms or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
I ask myself this: Luis was positive, and I was negative; it was 1991, and AIDS was still all around us -- what made us have unprotected sex? The answer is pretty easy: Sometimes, the will to love is stronger than the will to live, at least in the moment of attraction, seduction and sex, at least among men who haven't built their identities, or solidified their self-worth, or educated themselves about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections -- or maybe because of those things. Young gay men, all kinds of gay men, are having sex without condoms or PrEP every day.
Luis was an activist. His work helping people with HIV/AIDS honored the traditions we both grew up around. He was a fighter, and as sexy as he was, he was even more passionate. He fought right alongside me, and actually right past me, until his dying breath. No one can besmirch a man who came to the mainland U.S., found himself in an epidemic and made a conscious choice to effect positive change on that culture. New York City in the 1980s was ground zero for the AIDS epidemic, and Luis never ran from it -- he faced it head on.
This being America in 2016, we should honor Luis by also remembering that HIV/AIDS is an even greater disaster in Puerto Rico. If AIDS culture were the Catholic Church (a faith Luis and I shared as children), St. Luis of San Juan should be the patron saint of AIDS. Luis himself was an atheist; I pray for San Juan and the islanders.
Luis died on September 9, but not of AIDS. He died of a heart attack in his sleep. He went to bed -- probably with a smile on his wide, masculine face -- and in his sleep, his heart said goodnight. The heart can never rest.
I imagine in his sleep Luis had a conversation with his heart. His heart asked, "Have I not beaten strongly enough for you -- all these years?" And Luis thought of the choices he could make; he thought of his answers, because his heart was tired of being so full: He was in love with a good man; he loved his extended family; and he had certainly given love back to this community of strangers. Gay men who spent any time at all with Luis -- gay men like me -- were extremely grateful for his generous heart, too.
At that ACT UP event, we laughed and talked about old times like two prom kings at a class reunion. I was living five hours away on a farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. And Luis, strictly urban gay, was toiling in the field of AIDS. I was glad to see it.
We exchanged numbers but never called. When you get older, you'll know why: At our age you don't call unless you mean it. A few months later, I saw that Luis had a new boyfriend. They looked really good together, and I was happy for them. They would post photos until the day Luis died. It was great to see him living his life so well, with a guy he clearly loved, and that it happened in his late 40s. It gave me hope at 50.
I seroconverted five years after sex with Luis, which had nothing to do with him. But when I think about the stories we tell of the early years of the epidemic, I think we often present a different view of sexuality than the one I lived.
Men were having unsafe sex all the time -- that's how the epidemic rages on, even today. Then, as now, or at least since the late 1990s, incidence in men who have sex with men occurs at relatively the same rate every year. You need no further proof that protection from a virus is not always first on our minds when we are having sex.
Luis was committed to stopping the spread of HIV. So, in his honor, a little emotional truth about gay sex is in order.
When we have sex, we take a risk, and the truth is we do this all the time. We use condoms -- or avoid them. We use PrEP -- or we can't afford to access it. We use post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) -- or our insurance, if we have any at all, doesn't cover it. We've learned that people with virally suppressed HIV have negligible risk of transmission -- or we just assume the status of our partners is negative or undetectable rather than talking about it. These are all ways we mitigate risk.
Though, sometimes, we take greater risk and in doing so we embrace the truth: Risky sex happens. Harm reduction matters very much when you want to end HIV/AIDS, but it seems risk is equally relevant: Risk is sexier to many gay men. Taking risks is harder to prevent.
In a situation like ours, Luis and I might have benefitted from seropositioning -- that is, negative on top, positive on bottom. In the absence of other prevention tools, we might need to talk about sexual positioning as harm reduction. We can discuss oral sex, which Luis and I had without condoms with no ramifications -- and about rimming, which I also did without protection -- and how oral sex and rimming are forms of harm reduction. We desperately need to talk about PrEP and how in an epidemic it should be free and available to everyone at risk for contracting HIV.
Many will disagree or say I am being sentimental, but like other talented, intelligent and beautiful men I have loved, Luis was worth high-risk sex even in the age of AIDS. A middle-aged man now, I wiped my face of tears and pushed forward, not back.
I looked up at the sky the night after Luis left this world. I confessed to the gods: I would still take that risk with no regrets today. From my farm I saw a blue star explode, and I am convinced the moon highlighted the clouds in such a way that spelled his name out across the heavens: "Requiescat in Pace, Luis," it read.
Read Matt's blog, Kick Rocks.
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