Interview With a Circuit Partier: What's the Pastoral Response?

Spirituality Column #26

After talking recently with Michelangelo Signorile, author of Life Outside, _and critic of the gay male circuit party scene, I wanted to talk with someone who is experiencing that scene. My question is: What is the appropriate pastoral response to individuals involved with the circuit?

The one man I know to be a regular on the circuit party scene is a friend from the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. Steve Smith agreed to talk about his experiences for this column. Talking with Steve gave me a clearer understanding of the humanity behind the behaviors about which some people have been sounding an alarm.

Steve Smith, at age 37, has stopped his cocktail treatments on the advice of his doctor, because the drugs just aren't working for him anymore. In spite of trying different combinations, his viral load continues to soar into the hundreds of thousands, and his CD4 cells keep falling. HIV positive since 1988, he's a handsome guy with a sexy gym body. He is a bright, articulate, and accomplished broadcast journalist. He's a long-time active participant in the circuit party scene. He has used powerful recreational drugs to amplify his party experiences. In spite of the fact that he seems to be carrying a drug-resistant strain of HIV, he admits to having unsafe sex in what he terms "negotiated" circumstances.

Steve was raised as an "Air Force brat," moving a lot throughout his childhood. He ran away from home at 16, and lived on his own for most of the rest of high school. After receiving his bachelors degree in journalism, he did an internship at CBS, and spent the remainder of his career at CBS in various capacities, such as field producer of local TV news, and the editorial director for KNX news radio. He left that career on disability in October, 1994.

He has been a member of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles since 1988, and serves as the current president of membership. He got involved with the AIDS Project Los Angeles Writers Workshop in November, 1994, and has since had a couple of short stories published by Simon and Shuster. He is now more than halfway toward completion of his "magnum opus," a novel.

Although diagnosed HIV positive in 1988, it wasn't until 1991 when his immune system showed an appreciable decline. He started AZT then and was on it until 1994, when he started on a combination treatment of ddC and AZT. In August 95, with t-cells at 300, and with a viral load of 300,000, Smith began a triple combination therapy, using AZT, 3TC, and saquinavir. His viral load became undetectable in May of 1996. He was then switched to high dosage ritonavir (norvir). This caused constant nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, sleeplessness, and neuropathy. This cocktail was discontinued within a month. Then he tried crixivan, d4t and 3TC, and showed a viral load below 100.

Steve perked along for awhile on that combination while living in Provincetown, where he says he went without the same kind of health care he was accustomed to in L.A. But he sensed that something was not right. In spite of his "comfortable, quiet life without recreational drugs," his viral load climbed from 10,000 in October 96 to 106,000 in February 97.

Currently, his viral load is at 175,000. At the last medical appointment, his doctor said, "We've tried everything and nothing's working. I don't know what we have left." Steve was told to discontinue all medications he was currently taking because they were overtaxing his liver. Now he's waiting on genotyping to find a protease inhibitor that might work. Meanwhile, he continues on prophylactic drugs.

Steve talked with me one recent morning from his apartment in West Hollywood.


SP: What's your current physical condition?_

SS: I'm fairly hail and hearty. I don't feel the same fatigue that I did in 1994. No gastro-intestinal agony these days. But I'm not quite right... there's a lot of skin stuff, a lot more sleeplessness and low grade fevers. I get sinus infections like clockwork.

SP: How did you react when the doctor said "We've tried everything and nothing's working"?

SS: It was a jarring moment. I never heard it put quite so bluntly, even though I kind of knew it. To have him say it really shook me up a bit. However, the decision to go off all medications was met with a certain relief. I don't have the raging toxicity going through my body every day. Nor the worry of having to remember the regimen. My health may be going to hell in a hand basket. Who knows? The hope is that this respite will be brief, that we'll learn something hopeful and encouraging from the genotyping, and it will give us a general direction to proceed. But there's no guarantee of that.

SP: So how's your emotional state these days?

SS: My general emotional state is not good. It's as bad as it's been in the course of this whole epidemic. I'm flummoxed. I don't know what to expect. Over a whole ten year period, we had a kind of a template about what's going to happen... you could plan and make rational decisions based on what you saw happening to so many friends. It was surreal because we were this infected minority, living among a happy and blissfully ignorant majority. It was like marching off to Bosnia in the morning, and coming back to Paris in the evening.

But now there's more of a disconnect. I see the ones who are dancing in the streets, talking about the miracles. But then there are those of us who feel it is almost bad form to pipe in, "Well, there are those of us for whom they don't work." I'm truly stymied in terms of moving ahead with my life. I don't know what the future is. I'm a cynic. I've seen too much death.

SP: Where does your hope lie?

SS: My hope lies in a tremendously supportive family who truly gets it, who lets me be depressed when I need to be, who buck me up when it gets to be too much, who really provide a true support system. I'm speaking about my blood family and my chosen family. I reached a rapprochement with my family in my early 20's, and we have a very honest, open relationship since then. My parents are real advocates in AIDS work in rural Montana.

I wish I could say I have deep faith. I get in touch with the joy of living... you know, epiphanies where I stand there saying this is why you're alive, why you're on earth. Those epiphanies, those moments of clarity and pure joy, are white-water rafting in pristine waters, or playing tether ball with my nephew, or writing a perfect piece of prose. But most of my epiphanies are either a sexual connection to another human being, or a sensual connection to my tribe. Most of the time I'm not hopeful... the age in which we live, the lack of civility, etc... so when you have those moments of pure joy and beauty and goodness, they're uplifting.

I'm not with any major religion, and I don't meditate. I was raised Methodist, and was a youth fellowship leader, acolyte, and soloist in church. At age 15, when I realized who and what I was and what the church thought of me, I knew I didn't belong there. There was no place for me there.

SP: How would you characterize your relationship to the party circuit?

SS: There is something very profound about a bunch of men who deep in their hearts believe that they're dying, and they show up regularly on dance floors around the nation, nipples to the wind, torsos glistening, a pulchritudinal fantasy. It's a joy to be there in community and look around and say, "Dammit, we're still here, and we're not going to spend all our time in memorial services."

Sure there's a lot of shallowness and posing in the circuit party scene, but it is one of the places where we can gather as a tribe and be together and tacitly acknowledge our magical connection to one another. As supportive as my parents are, I could never explain to them the feeling on a dance floor at 3 in the morning, levitated by this music, when everyone has love in their eyes, and you're dripping wet. It's this ritual we've devised that's feeding souls... Maybe they're getting twinkies instead of red meat, but it's giving them something.

I'm not going to defend the legacy of promiscuity that has stamped the gay community. Those of us who came out in a certain age were socialized to a certain kind of code of conduct, and to seek solace and validation in certain ways. That has scarred and limited many of us. Many of us still struggle with how to live healthier, more meaningful sexual lives. However, there is something to be said for the person with HIV being a sexual being, being fully in touch with his libido, and with his desire for other men, and acting on it in a responsible fashion. I know that I and many others have negotiated mutual agreements to engage in unsafe sex. We are not brain damaged. We are not amoral. We have read the spotty statistics on the effects of reinfection.

However, speaking for myself, I have made a reasoned and considered judgment that when balanced against the opportunity to once again enjoy a somewhat normal, free, sharing sexual experience with another consensual human being, the trade off is worth it for me. I am not willing to have my most intimate exchanges swathed in latex for the rest of my life. That may be selfish and shallow for some, but it must be said.

I'm not talking about coming in someone's ass. I'm talking about fucking without condoms: riskier sex, not the highest risk sex. This is not a policy I adopt with most, or even many sex partners. This is something that I do with someone I'm going to see on a regular basis, whose health is relatively stable, and with whom I discuss the possible damaging consequences.

SP: Don't you worry about infecting someone else with a drug resistant strain of HIV?

SS: I've spent more than a decade thinking of myself as a leper, and my responsibilities to the larger society. I've read all the literature, and been a little sex nazi. I don't feel that way anymore. I don't feel like I have a right to go into a sex club, stick my dick through a hole and infect someone with impunity and spread on a strain of the virus that may be untreatable. But I do feel that among infected people, bereft of really meaningful physical interaction, spontaneous profound sex is defensible over this negotiated square dance we've learned to do. There are some people who are more sexual than others. Unto themselves, as a community, they have a right to develop their own rules as to how they conduct themselves with one another.

The thing about it is there are so many people who feel this way but who know it's politically incorrect to talk about it and so they don't. That's why my statements sound so outrageous when actually they reflect a significant number of men. You can't tamp down an impulse as primal and as affirming as sex indefinitely. Maybe for a decade, but it ain't going to work forever. So you choose fewer and fewer partners. Negotiate carefully what you're comfortable with, honoring everyone's rules, even condoms for blow jobs if they need it, and proceed accordingly.

I am pessimistic. I've buried scores of fabulous men who are now forgotten. I have given up so much of my own future. I'm left with this much narrower, greyer, colder, more menacing world.

SP: What's your attitude towards Signorile, Rotello, and Kramer's recent arguments?

SS: I haven't read Signorile's new book. Or Rotello. So I feel unqualified to respond.

SP: But you've heard or read many of the arguments they present in their books?

SS: There's a lot that is wrong and shallow and superficial about circuit parties, and about human beings. Circuit parties fill a need for this community. As long as they throw them, people will still come. Does it cause us to objectify each other, and stratify and segregate our community? Yes. But I don't think it's a crisis. We've got bigger issues to look at. In the end it's an attempt to have fun, which we've had precious little of in the past two decades.

I am fatalistic. It's like we have a secret... As I wrote in a recent personal essay, "there's a certain romance in dying young: a noble death after a valiant struggle, surrounded by keening loved ones. Now suddenly it's a whole different play, and I stand in the wings feeling frightened and somehow cheated. I have forgotten how to behave like someone who takes his future for granted. I was prepared to die, but I don't know yet if I'm ready to live."

I feel a lot of guilt, I feel guilt when I go back to corporate functions that I'm invited to with former colleagues, and they look at me, and I look so healthy, I project that they're thinking I'm "shirking." I feel guilty when I run into a wife of a colleague and she gives me a blank ghost- like stare, and she tells me that she'd been told that I was dead. I feel guilty for having put my family through a roller coaster of emotions and there's no end in sight. I'm the dying son, and I've been afforded a special status because of that. I feel guilty that I spend so much time in navel gazing and self-pity, when there are other issues of greater import, and so many people who live with so much more unfairness and uncertainty. I internalize the feelings, take them to therapy and cry. I know it doesn't paint a flattering picture of me as a person. I do have many wonderful qualities and sensitivities, but I am not a fully evolved person... I've been acted upon, and I feel cynical and bitter and tired.


So what does it mean to respond pastorally to individuals like Steve?

©1997 by the Rev. A. Stephen Pieters