Cruising with Lazarus
Interview with the Barebacker
Back in the summer of 2000, San Francisco HIV prevention volunteer Vincent Gaither, AKA Sister MaryMae Himm of the legendary Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, was "outed" as a barebacker by a group of California AIDS dissidents calling themselves ACT UP San Francisco. Nude photos and the personal ad Gaither had placed on www.barebackcentral.net were circulated to the gay and lesbian press, as well as his peers. Almost overnight Gaither became perhaps the country's most highly visible barebacker -- a man who engages in unprotected anal sex. I chatted online with Gaither last fall as the controversy had begun to subside and looked him up recently after relocating to the Bay Area. He agreed to sit down with me for an interview.
David Salyer: So tell me what led to all the controversy last summer.
Vincent Gaither: In my role as one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, I sit on the HIV Prevention Planning Council which is a community planning group set up in San Francisco by the Centers for Disease Control to prioritize the money the city gets from the CDC for HIV prevention efforts. While sitting on that body, another organization found a personal ad I'd placed four years ago on a bareback website seeking partners and they publicized it. They showed my naked pictures to other council members and released the information and photos to the press.
DS: And this made you rather infamous.
VG: Yeah, there were articles about me in ten or fifteen papers around the country and most of them included a picture of me and my naked ass.
DS: How long have you been HIV+?
VG: 1990. July 8th, 1990. So about ten years.
DS: How old are you?
VG: I'm 34.
DS: How has HIV affected you and your life?
VG: I think it forced me to clarify how I view things, the decisions I was making. And it forced me to clarify what was important to me and how the decisions I was making affected me. You know, whether it was "Do I have enough energy for this or do I have enough energy for that?" Or whether it was "How much longer am I going to be alive?" It really focused me on my personal reactions to life.
DS: When did you move to San Francisco?
VG: I moved here in 1995 after my lover passed away. We'd been together a long time and when he died from AIDS I decided I had to leave Los Angeles; it was just too emotional for me. So I moved up here.
DS: Can you describe the complications of his death?
VG: He had MAI and MAC and wasted away. He went from being a very beautiful man to a skeleton of the person he once was. Witnessing that was really hard. He spent basically the last nine months of his life in the hospital. So after he died, I would still automatically drive to the hospital after work and it became real apparent to me that I needed to leave Los Angeles.
DS: What kind of work do you do now?
VG: I'm currently disabled. I volunteer for different sex-positive and HIV and AIDS-related causes and things that I think make the most valuable use of my time.
DS: And you're one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Which one?
VG: I'm Sister MaryMae Himm. The Sisters are an organization of 21st century nuns. We're the nuns for the queer community. We do everything that any nun does for their community, from supporting people and ministering to people, to helping them to find ways to keep themselves healthy . . . giving them spiritual guidance and helping them to find what works for them spiritually.
DS: And how do real nuns feel about you?
VG: I know several nuns and priests from the Catholic faith and a few nuns from the Buddhist faith who adore us on a personal level. But since we spend a lot of time fighting hypocrisy, we run afoul of organized religions that preach hypocrisy. So on a personal level, nuns usually love us and support what we do, but on an organizational level, the Catholic Church fights us as much as they can.
DS: When did you decide to stop using condoms and have bareback sex?
VG: After I found out I was HIV+, I began having dialogues with the men I was having sex with before I had sex with them because it was important to me that they knew I was HIV+. And in those dialogues a lot of times those discussions would lead to the question, "Do we need to use condoms or not?" And I began researching whether or not it was important or not to use condoms with other HIV+ men. I decided for myself personally it wasn't as important because I didn't believe there was a risk of reinfection with HIV. The risk came from gonorrhea, syphilis and other STDs, but not from reinfection from HIV. So if I was in a situation where I didn't feel at risk for other STDs, then it was okay for me to engage in bareback sex with them.
DS: Based on the data and research I've read, I don't believe in reinfection. I don't believe you can be reinfected with another strain of HIV. What are your thoughts about that?
VG: They have one case now. One case out of how many people who are engaged in anal sex without a condom? There are problems with that study and that information, like the fact that men lie and that scientists will sometimes create situations so that they can prove a point. I have yet to read any data that supports the reinfection theory. It doesn't happen with other illnesses and viruses, so why would it happen with HIV? I also believe that intrinsically we know what's good for us and what's not. I believe we're blessed by whatever creates us to know what's good for us and what's not. It's how gay men in the early stages of the epidemic knew it was about buttsex, no matter what the CDC and everybody was telling us. It wasn't about poppers. It wasn't about being promiscuous. It was about buttsex. So we started using condoms. I think we intrinsically know it's not possible to be reinfected.
DS: I hate terms like "barebacking" and "bareback sex." So trendy. How do you feel about them and how do you feel about being called a barebacker?
VG: There are worse things that I've been called. I sorta feel about it the same way that I feel when people call me a faggot or a queer. Duh . What was your first clue ? It's not a big deal to me. I think the terms are sensationalistic. We don't call oral sex something special. This is fucking without a condom and it's a choice two consenting adults make between themselves. The media and journalists have created a scare because of the disease associated with it. Instead of calling it what it is, which is just sex. It's just sex.
DS: Did you think the way your particular story was reported was exploitation?
VG: It was very exploitative. The other guy who was "outed" with me, they didn't show his picture at all. But because I have a nice ass, they decided to show my ass in almost every paper. And most of those papers never bothered to call me and find out what the rest of the story was and how I really felt about sex. They were putting my ass in their papers just to sell papers.
DS: I saw it. You have a really nice ass.
VG: Thanks. It gets some attention.
DS: Have you ever barebacked with a woman?
VG: Not since I was positive.
DS: Are you looking for love?
VG: Love is a great thing. It's important to me. I love being in love. I love the experience of love.
DS: Do you believe in the possibility of long-term monogamy?
VG: In the past I have. I've had long-term monogamous relationships and I've had short-term open relationships. In the past I was wedded to the idea of long-term monogamy. As I've grown older I've become more flexible. I think it works for some and it doesn't work for others, and the decision about whether or not to be monogamous has to be between myself and my partner.
DS: What if you fell in love with someone who wouldn't bareback?
VG: Then we wouldn't bareback. Two consenting adults can make that decision for themselves. If I loved you enough I would have to respect the choices that were important to you. If not being able to engage in one behavior is so important that I can no longer be in a relationship with you, then how much did I really love and respect you?
DS: Do you think you might have ever infected someone?
VG: I know I have never knowingly infected someone. I've worked really hard to make sure I don't. For a very long time I wouldn't have sex at all with HIV- guys and now when I engage in sex with them it's difficult for me to respond to them emotionally and physically. It's difficult for me to fuck HIV- guys. And I refuse to engage in unprotected sex with them.
DS: Would you describe yourself as a very sexual person?
VG: Other people would describe me as a very sexual person. I think I'm just comfortable with sex and sexuality. I've worked very hard to get rid of the shame and guilt and all the baggage that we as a society put on sex. I'm comfortable with it. I do what works for me and my partners.
DS: What's your favorite sexual activity?
VG: I don't think I have one. I love buttsex, but I also love oral sex, and I love really passionate sex. I love sex where people are open and free and two people can come together and have an experience and be fully present.
DS: Like you, I've been in the public eye before. I know what it feels like to have my picture in the paper and feel like I've lost control of my life. How did you survive the controversy last year?
VG: I have a lot of people in my life who really love and support me and understand me. They were a great help and they allowed me to talk openly and honestly about what was going on with me. And I also got a lot of calls from guys who said they saw my "ad" in the Bay Area Reporter (a San Francisco based gay and lesbian newspaper), and I would have to gently explain to them that it was a story and not an ad and that maybe they should read instead of just looking at the pictures. But then a lot of people called to say they knew this was really hard for me and they were sorry. Some called to say that the people doing it to me were wrong. I got that a lot from the public. So I tried to focus on the sources of support and not listen to the bullshit. I fought long and hard to become empowered and to become free of bullshit about my sex life. I'm not going to stop doing what I do because people may not understand it.
DS: ACT UP San Francisco, the group that created this controversy surrounding you, are what is known as AIDS dissidents.
VG: I like the term AIDS denialists. They believe that HIV doesn't cause AIDS and they believe that HIV was created as a form of propaganda to stop gay men from having sex. It's an insane notion. Men are dying.
DS: You know, I have a regular column, I'm a safer sex educator, I lead workshops and I'm in the public eye...and I just don't have naked pictures of myself on the internet. But I've seen quite a few naked pictures of you on the internet. What's up with that?
VG: I'm an exhibitionist. I get off on men looking at me. Although I wouldn't necessarily do a porn video, I do enjoy having my pictures out there . . . it gets me hard, and it leads to interesting interactions with other people. I try really hard not to let people lock me into a box. Naked pictures on the internet doesn't make me a slut. And it doesn't mean I don't have an intelligent view of my sex life. It just means I have naked pictures on the internet. And perhaps the fact that you draw conclusions from what you see without talking to me says a whole lot more about you than it does about me.
DS: And what do you say to people who say that having nude photographs online and a personal ad soliciting bareback sex is just asking for trouble?
VG: Don't play in my sandbox. You don't have to have sex with me. I'm not going to stop doing what I do because it upsets you. Don't look at it. Change the channel. Take some personal responsibility for the choices that you make. I've taken personal responsibility for the choices I've made. I get off on having people look at me. I'm a pervert and it works for me.
DS: Well, I have to admit I liked looking at your pictures.
VG: I like that you liked looking at me. That works for me, too.
DS: I was a little bit nervous about meeting you because I'm actually attracted to you.
VG: We can talk about that when you turn off the tape recorder.
DS: Suppose we had sex, how hard would it be for me to get you to wear a condom?
VG: Really easy; I have some in my bag.
For the record, we went out to eat pastrami sandwiches. But I'll be seeing more of Vincent Gaither. You can contact him yourself at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News.