Everyone keeps asking me why I want to live in the Bay Area. The answer is simple: because I can. Yes, I know it's more expensive than Atlanta. I know it's 2,000 miles away from Atlanta, the city where I was born. I know they have earthquakes here. I don't care. Frankly, I need a change, a fresh start and a clean slate. And with all due respect to the beautiful state of Georgia, I can no longer endure annually seven months of summer with oppressive humidity. Being warm-natured in general, my HIV drugs have literally turned me into a little furnace and I'm tired of feeling the sweat rolling down my back into my underwear. For the record, the only time I like to sweat is during sex.
California isn't perfect. Sure the climate is moderate, but these people elected Ronald Reagan their governor once upon a time, thus igniting a political career that continues to beg the question: Why did we put a mediocre actor in the White House? And at least twelve Californians actually believed O.J. was innocent. That still gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Anyway, I have this cool apartment near Lake Merritt in Oakland. I share one side of a duplex with another gay man (no, we're not involved; we just share expenses) and my landlords are a gay couple, two men who had me sign a lease stipulating that I could use the hot tub in the backyard at my own risk. The mental image of me floating face down in a bubbly hot tub soon dissipated upon the realization that it's far more likely I'll be having sex in it than dying there.
The biggest dilemma for me in moving to the Bay Area is that I have only one close friend here. So I have to build a new support system from scratch. Last summer I began hanging out on the Internet in chat rooms frequented by gay men. I thought this might be a good way to make new friends. Chat rooms, as some of you may already know, are segments of a computer system where participants can engage in live discussions with one another, as long as they can type. Chat rooms are apparently the technological mother lode of potential sexual partners for gay men. They're kind of like Internet bars, only you don't have to buy anybody a drink. You can just start chatting, exchange photographs via e-mail, and cut to the chase. You can do all this from your keyboard, sitting in your underwear, even if you haven't taken a shower all day and your hair has a bad case of bedhead.
My chats with San Francisco area men invariably went something like this: "Hi, my name is David. I'll be moving from Atlanta to the Bay Area in December. Would you mind chatting with me for a few minutes?" "Hey, I'm (fill in the blank). Hot photo. When you get here let's meet for coffee. Are you poz? Do you bareback?"
Okay, admittedly I paraphrased a bit, but out of five gay men I chatted with regularly, three of them brought up barebacking (unprotected anal intercourse). That was every bit as jarring as having them think I take a "hot" photo. I've never taken a hot photo in my life.
Gay men are awfully uninhibited in chat rooms. One of my regular chat pals, a red-haired, 29-year-old bearish dude, told me with a knowing hint of gallows humor that he was "HIV positive and planning to stay that way." When we got around to discussing sex (well, his photo really was hot), he told me he only accepted "direct deposits." In other words, he wanted a particular body fluid (semen, people), my body fluid, inside his body. I discussed this with the one close friend I have in the Bay Area and he said it was pretty much the norm. As a human being living with HIV, this is unsettling. As a journalist and sex educator, it's fascinating.
Even my first visit to a San Francisco bar was like an oddball HBO sitcom moment. I don't like bars much, primarily because I become a psycho magnet the second I enter one. I chose the Lone Star, a San Francisco bar I've always wanted to visit. The Lone Star is a bear bar. Bears, in the gay community, are generally acknowledged to be big, hairy guys. This is my favorite kind of gay man. I would, in fact, date Sasquatch, if he were real and available and gay. But I digress.
Anyway, there I am, a little hairy gay guy (5'7", 150 pounds -- strong winds have been known to knock me off balance), and who do you think comes right up and hits on me? The only guy in the bar smaller than me! And he was wearing shorts (something I think should be prohibited in bars) and no underwear, a condition that became obvious once he hiked up his pants leg revealing an erection about the size of an infant's arm. I found this really disconcerting. Usually I have to at least slow dance with a guy to make that happen. I fear this poor man must have been in a state of Viagra-induced arousal.
I have relocated to the Bawdy Ol' Land of Oz. I feel a little bit like Dorothy, that naive country farm girl, whisked away from her Kansas home by a tornado and plopped down in Munchkinland . . . except, of course, that I rented a U-Haul and drove to the Emerald City myself from Georgia, ending up in Oakland, kinda like a suburb of Oz. There was no Yellow Brick Road, but the Golden Gate Bridge is an enchanting substitute. I've yet to meet a good witch or a bad witch, although I'm fairly certain I heard one of those Emerald City boys bellow "Fresh Meat!" the moment I arrived.
Before I moved to California, I lived in the southeast exclusively. Born in Georgia. Raised in Alabama. Spent my adult life in Atlanta. I've been sexually active since my late 20s, a safer sex educator and peer counselor for over six years, a sex columnist for three years, and a person living with HIV for seven years. I thought I'd been around the block a few times. But you know what? I'm a suburban white boy who rode my bike in a far less sexually-charged neighborhood. Utopian weather and dreamy scenery aside, I'm now living in a parallel universe, a mesmerizing realm of all things sexual -- lovemaking, lust, objectification, deviation, orientation, power, pleasure, perversion, carnal, casual, commercial, anal, oral, group, serial, sadomasochistic, fantasy, freedom, desire, disease, revolution, you name it -- all resting on an unpredictable fault line.
Because I'm a Gemini, I frequently have competing emotions. Like right now. I'm simultaneously excited and scared. On the one hand, the Bay Area is someplace I've wanted to live since I was eleven years old and spent a summer here visiting an aunt and uncle; I love the ocean, the bay, the bridges, the architecture, the weather, and the way it energizes me. On the other hand, "Oh my God, what was I thinking? I've moved to Sodom!"
Well, it's done. I followed my dream. I gave my ruby slippers to the Salvation Army. I could have stayed in Atlanta repeating, "There's no place like home. . . ." But like many people living with HIV or AIDS, I hear my body clock ticking just a little bit louder, reminding me that life is for the living and I'm still alive. That day last summer when I decided I wanted to pack up my belongings and move 2000 miles away from my home was the same day I looked in a mirror and said, "Screw you HIV; today you lose." For seven years, HIV had affected every decision I made, from diet and sex, to career and goals. It reminds me of that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman find themselves in a dark and creepy forest contemplating what lies ahead of them. "Lions and tigers and bears," they fear. That forest bodes trouble, sure, but even as a child the thing I always liked about that particular scene is how they lock arms, burst into song and walk right into their fear.
I feel a song coming on . . . Leathermen, bikers, and bears, oh my!