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Don't Ask / Don't Tell

The Gay Man and "The Scene" in the Year 2000

June 2000

Photographs are by Tomás Gaspar, whose work was featured in the Electric Blanket (Visual AIDS Artistsâ Caucus). In 1998 his AIDS photography received recognition at the World AIDS Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. His work is currently represented by

It's a Friday night and the place is absolutely oozing with testosterone. Somewhere out there in that sea of masculinity he waits for me. (Come out, come out, wherever you are.) Our eyes meet and he says, "Hi." I answer his call. God, he is cute -- nice body, not smoking, and he looks clean. The conversation progresses with ease beyond Where are you from? and What do you do for a living? So far, so good. My antennae go up as the nature of the interaction shifts into the possibility-of-a-date mode. He comments that I am nice looking, intelligent, and have a good sense of humor, adding that it might be nice to have dinner sometime. Sure, why not?

Then, an hour and a half later, the conversation begins to slow down and he says, "Well, I'd better get going. It's been great talking to you, but my boyfriend is waiting downstairs for me." Now the other shoe has dropped. Don't ask/don't tell. So I stumble over toward my friends who have been waiting in the wings. A little dumbfounded, somewhat defeated, and plain fucking pissed, I replay for them this latest episode of Sex in the City!

When the possibility of writing this article was brought up to me, I immediately thought to myself, Wow! One does not often get the opportunity to put down in writing what one has been kvetching about all along -- MEN, MEN, MEN! We all do it at some time or another. Funny how it seems to coincide with being single. Perhaps I should say it is synonymous with being "unattached." Naturally, whatever picture I paint here is somewhat biased because I am a gay man. I cannot begin to shed light on what the "gay scene" is like for women, or for anyone else who may be, in new millennium terms, "experimenting," "transgender," "bisexual," or "curious"!

While most of us spend time talking about the men in our lives, past, present, and future, what in fact is going on out there and what are we all talking about? How much is divulged when we engage in a conversation or find ourselves in a sexually charged situation? Is HIV status, for example, or whether you are in a relationship discussed? What is going on in the back rooms of bars and sex clubs and in the dating scene, and how is the experience different for all of us? In addition, for the outdoor lovers, what else do we get at the beach besides sand in our boom-booms? And what do those on the other side, behind the bar for instance, see going on from their point of view? I am by no means an expert. My knowledge is part perception and part what I have encountered personally.

I entitled this article "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" simply because in my experience (and I use that word lightly), in the so-called gay scene certain things just are not spoken about. Maybe it's true for society as a whole. I don't know. But I do know that in the hundred years that I have been single, only on three occasions has HIV status been discussed with a potential partner, whether for a one-night stand or in a potential boyfriend situation. Am I perhaps alone in this?

So what is the gay "scene" all about these days? Basically the players and the game seem to be the same as ever, but the atmosphere has changed a bit. The physical aspects of what is attractive seem to be at the forefront of what is encountered within today's gay social scene. In an era when time is at a premium for most of us, the focus has shifted dramatically toward what the "mainstream" deems desirable. Usually this means an Adonis-like muscleman, most likely tattooed and pierced. Just flip through most gay publications and you will find pages and pages devoted to this ideal. Don't get me wrong! I enjoy looking as much as the next guy. But what happened to the idea that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder? Let's face it: Most of us don't look like porn stars in the morning (or any other time of the day), do we?

It's as though the "scene" is the Normandy invasion with a minefield lying dead ahead! Nevertheless, as many of you I am sure would agree, it should not all be taken too seriously. We must always keep our eyes and minds open to new experiences. It can, after all, be fun, even if it is sometimes filled with lies and mutually accepted delusions! So what is going on? Let's go first into the arena within which a great many gay people meet, the bar. So let us away to Friday night once more and the sea of testosterone. Back before my adventure with Mr. Wonderful, when the evening was young and I was idealistic.

The Bars

Shortly after my arrival, I begin what I call my weekly adjustments. Those standards I have set seem more flexible now, or are they? No smoking, not too tall, no blondes, no facial hair, not too feminine, but not a deer hunter either. This all seems reasonable. But what if it's just for a "good time"? You know, a little tits and ass, as they say?

Now it begins -- those adjustments I referred to earlier. Okay, he can smoke as long as he "mints" before we kiss. The height? Well, that doesn't really matter much once he lies down, does it? Blonde is okay as long as it is natural, and five-o'clock shadow is acceptable. Last but not least, the gender issue: Hey, maybe the softer side of him says "Bottom," and wouldn't that be a dream? For some perhaps.

It's interesting to me that for most of my life I failed to see the significance the bar plays in the gay social world. Simply put, it is a place to meet people. It can take you in many different directions, depending upon where you would like to go. To sex, to date, to conversation, to dance, to drink -- the possibilities are endless. You are in control. There are bars geared toward different styles of gay life to suit everyone's tastes -- cruise bars, leather bars, dance bars, piano bars, bars with back rooms, whatever your preference. The lights, the music, the beer, whatever, the bar is a safe place where you can be yourself (or whomever you want to be). Come on, now. We all do it. We have different faces sometimes to suit the situation. Sometimes you are there with friends, sometimes solo; sometimes on the prowl, sometimes not (yeah, right!). Whatever the case, it is mating season and this is National Geographic Explorer! Most of what I have experienced in the bar scene has been fun and at times interesting. I've encountered a cross section of people and at times good conversation. What I find interesting is what we do or do not talk about. I stated earlier that HIV status did not seem to be one of the topics in the Do Talk About column. Again -- my opinion, my experience. I mean, don't get me wrong. You just wouldn't walk up to someone and say, "Hello, my name is Whatever, and I'm negative or positive" would you? Depending upon the nature and direction of the conversation, or unless both of you are about to go back to his or your place to screw around, why bring it up?

If you are going to have sex, it should be talked about ahead of time, not on the floor inside his apartment, don't you think? Then there is the pressure of, Well, if I suggest we put on condoms for oral sex, what will he think? Moreover, am I in the mood for a mouth full of latex? And can you contract anything that way anyhow? Sound familiar? On the other hand, if you find yourself in what I referred to earlier as the possibility-of-a-date mode, when do you talk about it? First date? Second date? Now? Don't ask/don't tell?

There are many people who feel, why talk about it initially in the date case, simply because at this early stage who knows where things may or may not lead. Truth is, how much do we really want to know until we absolutely have to? I have personally been in both situations and have been guilty of not talking about my own status or asking his. There seem to be many different issues at stake. In both the one-night stand scenario and the date mode, what if your potential partner's status is different from yours? He is positive and you are negative, or vice versa. Knowing sooner rather than later gives you both the option of an open discussion about it. So why don't many of us do it?

Ask Dr. Laura Schlessinger maybe? Not! Moreover, it is not only in the bars that this happens either.

Baths and Back Rooms

Not that I would know first hand, of course, but I've heard that in the back rooms, rest stops, bathhouses and out at the beach it appears to be the same. Upon entering an establishment where sex is going on between two or more consenting adults, you will usually find that condoms are provided. (Hear that, Mr. Mayor?) But public sex is forbidden, so who knows if they are being used. Popular consensus appears to be: for fucking yes; for oral sex no. And let's not forget that new theme park attraction, barebacking. Now there's one not created by Disney!

Picture this: A bathhouse here in New York City. You're there and ready for action. There is a hot couple onto you like bees to honey. Your lucky day! After the usual cat-and-mouse thing, the three of you are naked in a room going at it as if you've never had sex before. Lots of kissing and sucking going on all around.

One of them turns to you and says, "Do you want to fuck us? We don't care if you don't wear a condom if you do us, and don't mind wearing one if we do you." Now, what does that mean? You immediately think, Well, now that I have had both of you in my mouth, you tell me that! Just what are you saying? Are they taking chances, or saying they are positive?

Don't ask/don't tell. We all make choices, don't we, but isn't it fascinating that rather than talk about it we make those choices before hearing any options? It's a lot like making an uneducated guess, isn't it?

And if you happened to find yourself in a back room situation, what would you do there? What is everyone else doing? What exactly is the protocol there? Again (so I have heard), condoms are there for the taking. Little table in the corner in the straw basket! (But you didn't hear that from me, did you?) Yes, it is an individual choice. Nonetheless, how many of us will stop to put a condom on that big beautiful cock attached to Mr. Leather Man 2000? Get real! Some of us might, I realize, but many more will not. True? Perhaps the behaviors we are willing to participate in vary with the situation, the mood, or how long it's been since we've had any! After speaking with a variety of people on both sides of the asking/telling divide, it appears that condoms are being used much more frequently for anal than for oral sex. Much more.

Brief Encounters

Which brings us to anonymous sex. Talk about don't-ask-don't-tell! You know, those encounters at rest stops, out at the beach, in the park, or on Amtrak on your way to D.C. maybe. No name, no eye contact, no kissing. You know the kind, don't you? But sorry -- I stand corrected. Not all anonymous experiences are filled with no-nos. I have myself been guilty of thinking I found Mr. Right out on some Interstate somewhere, in Central Park (oops!), or out at the beach. Here in the new millennium it appears that a good number of people engage in so-called "anonymous" sexual encounters. Interestingly enough, how the "a"-word is defined varies quite a bit. Furthermore, it seems we all tend to rationalize our behavior and the choices we make in various ways as well.

Just stop and think for a moment. How is the anonymous sex engaged in at the gym or bathhouse different from, say, that engaged in in the park or at the beach, or from a one-night stand, or from a sexual encounter at a social gathering? Well, okay, sometimes you get their names and other times you don't. But truth be told, there isn't much difference, is there? Some might say, Listen, bathhouse sex or a one-night stand is different from being out among the pines. Sure it is. There are ticks and poison ivy in the woods!

Imagine a bright sunny summer day. Blue skies, waves pounding against the white sand, flies nipping at your ankles (preferably male). You've been sitting there all day long, reading the same page in that book of yours and moving in and out of conversation with your friends. After a few hours of watching the parade of half-naked men go by, you're just about at the boiling point! Then it hits you, the cure for what ails you. You make your way into the dunes to commune with nature. Pretty quiet back there, lush and serene -- but watch out for poison ivy. Just as you're about to head for the exit trail, you spot a bunch of fellow nature lovers peering into the trees! Lo and behold, next dune on the right behind the pine trees, four hot guys are getting it on! While the onlookers are keeping their distance, you approach, and three of the guys nod for you to join them! Bingo! Love and the tropics! Again, not exactly the best time to say, "Hold that, uh, thought, guys, while I go back to my blanket to fetch a condom." Don't ask/don't tell.

Apparently where we search and how we search depends a lot on the individual. Each of the possibilities has aspects that appeal to various tastes, stretching from back rooms, to love in the dunes, to online orgies, to those hot and steamy circle jerks at the gym. Point is, as human beings, warm-blooded animals, we all harbor an innate desire to be loved. No kidding! Perhaps all the emotional unavailability we encounter via anonymous trysts, one-night stands, and the like is what drives us toward that desire with even greater tenacity and fervor. Don't you think?

Behind "The Scene"

Some of you may be asking how I came to some of these conclusions -- nothing we didn't already know! My methodology was quite unscientific, actually. Primarily it involved keeping my eyes and ears wide open, speaking with people in a variety of situations, and intertwining what I found with my own personal experiences. Much to my amazement (not!), a good amount of what I heard from people is that much of what is being talked about centers around men. Oh, yes, and that separate category, the ex-boyfriend -- an Area 51 we won't be going into here. Save that for the psychiatric journals! Anyway, the more I heard the more I began to wonder what the picture looked like from the inside looking out. By "inside," I mean what those behind the bars or those who are involved with gay-oriented groups see going on.

"You wouldn't believe what I hear from some guys," a bartender tells me. "I guess short of going to church and risking penance, we'd rather kill two birds with one stone in a sense. So we have a drink or get a haircut as we spill our guts!" "Bartender E" we'll call him reveals to me that most of the conversations he hears center -- you got it -- around men and sex. Naturally, he is constantly being propositioned. It's mostly idle chatter, he says, but some guys are very serious about it. (As an aside, you must realize that E is absolutely adorable, and the reason he turns them all down is because he is madly in love with me!!) Apparently I'm not the only one on Fantasy Island. E goes on to tell me how men pour their hearts out to him about everything from unrequited love to ex-boyfriends and the hot number they want to ravish at the end of the bar. Goes with the territory, he says. It isn't real. We all try not to take it too seriously, because people after all come to the bars to escape reality. "Listen, my love," I say to him, "after six beers, for some this is reality!" Then he hits me with the bombshell of how many of the guys who work the bar think a lot of us are unhappy. He adds how many people it seems take "the scene" all too seriously.

Funny how as we speak the Eurythmics are playing on the video screen. Sweet dreams are made of this. Everybody looking for something. E points to the screen and says, "See what I mean." Poetic justice you say? Time has come for me to break his heart again -- until next week, that is.


Anyone out there into the group thing? Ever heard your "married" friends say to you, "You've got to change your venue. You'll never meet anyone decent in a bar." Which makes you one of the pack, I guess. Right about that time is when you hear those three words: "Join a group!"

I must say that I agree with them to a degree. Like the bars et al., nowadays there is a group to satisfy everyone's tastes. The chances of crossing paths with someone for something other than you-know-what do somewhat increase, I'll give them that! But, why do people make it sound as though these so-called groups are a gay man's key to happiness and everyone in them is a Messiah? Never been much of a joiner myself, but never say never, right? What I've heard from people involved in various groups, ranging from the friends of the friends who have a friend who is gay, to support groups for anything, didn't vary too much. When it comes down to brass tacks, it's men and sex. My take on this is that if we interact under the guise of a common cause found in a group setting, perhaps it becomes easier to stay within the boundaries of propriety and divert the focus away from those two favorite subjects. Try it, you'll like it, as they say!!

I hope I haven't offended anyone who is reading this article, nor painted a picture of complete gloom and despair regarding my take on today's "gay scene." I'm sure you will agree that much hasn't even been touched upon here. How can it be, within the scope of one short article? What I hope I have achieved is conveying to you that, underneath it all, it's wonderful to be able to be who you are. And while we all take it much too seriously at times, it's good to step back, make choices, and laugh at the reality of life.

So where do we go from here? Back to that Friday night and the sea of testosterone, remember? I've got a story to finish: Not only does Mr. Wonderful follow me around the place. He does, looking over the shoulder of his partner. But wait, it gets better! Much later that evening he once again approaches me. We come face to face and he says to me in an extremely demonstrative voice, "I want you to suck my dick!"

With a gleam in my eye and a song in my heart, I lean over and whisper in his ear, somewhat lustfully but with some bite in my voice, "How about you suck my dick, and then I'll send you back to your boyfriend?"

How sweet it is. Thanks for listening.

Jeffrey Piccolomini is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn. This is his first contribution to Body Positive.

Back to the June 2000 issue of Body Positive magazine.

This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
See Also
Fact Sheet: HIV/AIDS and Young Men Who Have Sex With Men
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
More Personal Views on HIV Prevention for Gay Men


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