Life Styles in Gay Community Tempered by Threat of AIDS
“Everyone’s scared, but life does not stop--neither does your libido,” said Allen Morrison, 36, one of the happy-hour crowd that gathered recently at Keith’s Touch of Class, a popular gay bar and restaurant in Studio City.
Like the rest of the gay community, the regulars at Keith’s live with the knowledge that homosexual and bisexual males are at special risk of developing AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a little-understood, primarily sexually transmitted disorder that has killed about half its victims.
The statistics are sobering. As of May 31, 912 cases of AIDS had been reported in Los Angeles County, 95% of them among homosexual and bisexual men. Of those afflicted, 52% have died. Los Angeles has the third-highest number of recognized AIDS cases in the nation--10,678 on June 3, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Los Angeles ranks fifth in AIDS cases per 100,000 population, behind New York, San Francisco, Miami and Newark, N.J.
57 Reported Valley Cases
For whatever reasons, the San Fernando Valley has not been as hard hit by AIDS as certain other areas of Los Angeles. Nonetheless, as of April 30, the county’s East Valley Health District, which includes Studio City, had 57 reported cases. The Hollywood-Wilshire district had 315.
As Jerry Coash, who counsels AIDS patients and their families in Los Angeles, said: “Unfortunately, we are in a time of plague. Remember, there is no cure for this.”
Acutely aware of that fact, homosexuals in the Valley, as elsewhere, report they have made changes, small and large, in their individual life styles in response to the specter of AIDS.
In contrast to some gay enclaves on the Westside, the Valley has a reputation for offering life in the slow lane. Explained Alan Bouchard, 36, who tends bar at Keith’s: “You go to West Hollywood to find a lover. You move to the Valley to settle down.” But no one is depending on the Valley’s square image to protect him from a disease that has been called the New Leprosy.
Beer From the Bottle
The best theory to date is that AIDS is the most devastating consequence of infection by the HTL-3 retrovirus, which is spread among heterosexual as well as homosexual people through the exchange of bodily fluids, including blood and semen. To date, saliva has not been implicated, but in some gay bars, patrons pass up a glass and drink their beer straight from the bottle.
“I’m not kissing less,” said Pete Taylor, 52, a free-lance photographer and a deacon of the predominantly homosexual Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley in North Hollywood.
But, Taylor said, he has modified his behavior in other ways. Taylor said he still has sex with men he meets at his neighborhood bar, but less frequently. He estimates he has halved his number of sexual contacts, to four a month.
“I’m probably a little more critical than I was before. I’m probably a little more discriminating in the people I have sex with,” said Taylor. He worries about AIDS, he acknowledged, but not enough to consider celibacy.
Sexuality ‘Gift From God’
“I have a pretty good faith structure,” he explained. “If something like that would happen to me, my faith would take over, and I think that would see me through it. I’ve long since come to the realization that my sexuality is a gift from God, and it is a gift to be celebrated just like the many other gifts from God.”
For about a year now, Taylor said, he has been carrying a condom in his wallet, a practice that has become common in the gay community only since the discovery of AIDS. The practice is encouraged as part of the “safe sex” movement that has emerged here and in other cities with significant homosexual populations.
If some gay men are partying less out of fear of AIDS, some never partied much at all. According to Carin Sutherland, who runs the Meet Market, the Valley’s only gay and lesbian dating service, AIDS is very much on the minds of the approximately 300 men who make up half her clientele.
As Sutherland explained, her service is geared toward people who disdain one-night stands and anonymous sex. “Our clients are looking for major commitment,” she said. “If they were straight, they’d be married.”
Some Clients ‘Guppies’
Many of her clients are what have been called “guppies"--gay urban professionals. They are willing and able to pay a fee of $40 and up in hopes of meeting others of the same sex who are sane, well, solvent and ready to settle down.
Sutherland believes West Hollywood is unfairly stigmatized, but she noted: “I’ve had people say, ‘I don’t want to meet any West Hollywood types.’ And by that, they mean bar-hopping and what they refer to as the ‘bath-fly mentality.’ ”
Sutherland screens potential clients and turns away individuals who have live-in lovers and those occasional straight couples interested in “branching out,” as she delicately put it.
AIDS is not a health problem in the lesbian community, but as the Rev. Loni Allen, assistant pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley, noted: “I have heard that lesbian women are much more concerned about being with bisexual women.”
If monogamy is an AIDS-accelerated gay trend, it is no easier for many homosexuals than it is for many heterosexuals. A 55-year-old Valley man, who has lived with another for 28 years, said he walks the tightrope of being both committed and sexually active in the era of AIDS, the way he always has done it--by cheating very carefully.
“I have my ‘mistresses,’ but only other men who are also monogamous and whom I’ve known for years,” he said, asking that he not be identified.
According to the Rev. Ken Martin, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley, more and more male couples in his congregation of 250 men and women are saying, in effect: “At least until this thing is over or we know more about it, we are going to be monogamous.”
One result, he said, is that more and more such couples are turning up for counseling, asking such questions as: “How do you keep the sexual and erotic spark going in your relationship?”
Not surprisingly, at a time when an active libido heightens both risk and fear, some homosexuals are seeking group therapy and other forms of professional help for what is being called “compulsive sexuality.”
Bill (Cricket) Fisk, 27, of North Hollywood, who has lived happily and monogamously with Alan Bouchard for the last eight months, said one consequence of AIDS is that some people are trying to make a buck on it. Gay publications such as the Advocate carry ads for expensive vitamin regimens, for example.
AIDS Insurance Policy
The AIDS crisis also has produced an AIDS insurance policy.
Since January, Coastal Insurance Co. of Santa Monica has offered a policy, designed to supplement major medical insurance, that pays holders who develop AIDS about $70,000 a year in additional benefits.
According to company Vice President Jim Hotinger, more than 500 of the policies, with an annual premium of $194, have been sold in California, Arizona, Nevada and Washington state. Hotinger believes gays have bought most of the policies to date. “We can’t say for sure because we don’t ask for sexual orientation on the application form,” he said.
Ingi Sorensen of Sherman Oaks is the company’s agent in the Valley. “This is not a gay disease,” said Sorensen, reflecting both medical opinion and the firm’s marketing strategy. Thus, Sorensen leaves application forms for his product both in local gay bars and in blood banks. The company recently sent a mailer about the policy, one of two such policies in the country, to about 10,000 health-care providers in Arizona.
Such a strategy makes good business sense because of the growing conviction among those who know most about it that AIDS is essentially a blood-borne or sexually transmitted disease rather than one of sexual orientation.
As Coash, the AIDS counselor, observed: “More gay men are carrying condoms in their wallets, that’s true. I just wish more straight men were. A lot of the hubbies who are ‘working late’ and are actually picking up a little trick on Sunset are taking HTL-3 straight home to suburbia.”
Because of the virulence of AIDS, Coash said he believes everyone should avoid sharing razors, for example, and thinks all sexually active couples should consider use of spermicides containing nonoxynol 9, which may kill both HTL-3 and the virus that causes herpes.
The Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley, one in a worldwide network of churches that ministers especially to gay and lesbian Christians, is reacting to AIDS in many ways, said Pastor Martin. It is launching a “videotape ministry,” making high-quality tapes on homosexual religious subjects, which the church hopes to distribute nationally starting this summer.
Two have been completed, one called “AIDS: A Present Crisis, A Present Grace” in which four AIDS patients talk about their experiences, including the disorder’s impact on their faith. A tape on “safe sex” is planned next.
At present, the church has a single member known to have AIDS, adjunct clergyman Steve Pieters. The church has buried five members and non-members who died of the disease in the past year, Martin said.
His church provides the consolations of religion to AIDS patients who may have been shut out of more traditional religious groups even before they came down with AIDS. It also tries to assert “theological sanity” on the emotionally charged issue of AIDS.
“We have tried to be real clear as to who God is and where God is in this crisis,” Martin said. “The most obvious thing you do is make it clear that God is not punishing people for being sexual.
“God does not give people diseases.”
‘Sex Negativity’ Feared
Martin fears that dread of AIDS will trigger backsliding to what he terms “sex-negativity.”
“Let’s not go backwards,” he said. “Let’s not go back to Victorian sexuality. We were just beginning to develop some health about these things.”
Martin tries to be Christian on the subject, but he is clearly furious with fundamentalist ministers who are using AIDS to fan anti-homosexual feelings. “If there’s going to be a judgment here, and if God holds true to His pattern, it’s not going to be against us,” he said.
Proud of the gay response to AIDS, Martin sometimes is disappointed in what he regards as straight society’s general indifference. As the minister observes: “If the AIDS crisis were taking place in the heterosexual community, we would be there.”