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"You Bet Your Life"
9 May 2007
What is life like for young gays after 25 years of the Age of AIDS? How do they perceive the HIV/AIDS paradigm in their own lives?
First of all, young gays, like all young people everywhere, see themselves as somewhat invincible. Death is something that happens to old people or others, not themselves. And overall, this view is not incorrect. How does HIV/AIDS affect their lives and their thinking? Many do live in paranoiac fear of it, but quite a few are seeking the thrills of extreme experience – facing the life and death fear factor that is an inherent part of gay sex in a world that believes in HIV/AIDS. Believing that one could so pleasurably, even orgasmically, lose one's life with each act of uncontained male to male sex, makes every encounter that much more exciting.
To view it from such a vantage increases the inherent sexual excitement, as it is really quite a high to join with another and stare death orgasmically in the face when one is young. Consider it to be a bit like reaching orgasm just as you jump out of a plane not knowing if your chute will open or not. Quite a rush! And quite addictive! Yet very few deal with anything other than common STDs unless they have run their bodies down in self destructive fits of drug taking or other forms of self abuse.
But often, especially when they are dealing with extreme emotional pain, many young gays seek escape – seeking love in usually all of the wrong places and with all the wrong faces. The bars or the company of other young gays experiencing similar lives is where many are able to feel at ease and be themselves. The quest for the next eternal love wards off feelings of rejection, low self esteem, shame, guilt, and fear of the majority. Others still pursue the emotional escape that is temporarily found in alcohol, drugs, or sexcapades. The life of a young gay male is often exciting, fun, and very hedonistic, yet for those that suffer the most extreme inner pain, death by AIDS becomes an unconfessed though desirable way out.
Gay culture is, and always was, primarily a youth obsessed one. It is based on living a lifestyle that is usually dependent on one's youthful sexual attractiveness. But alas, almost all young gay males do get older. With aging comes the body changes, graying or balding hair, wrinkling skin from too many days at the beach or park, and pouches where a six pack used to be, loss of their teeth from drug abuse or lack of care is not uncommon for those who overindulged in such. And some gay men do not age willingly or gracefully, and age is often fought off tooth and nail by laser treatments or gym workouts by those who can afford them.
The emotional aspects of coping with one's homosexuality have never been easy when one is living in a predominantly heterosexually based society and world. Although the majority are fairly well adjusted, particularly as society becomes more and more accepting of gays, many do still have problems dealing with aging. As some gay men reach their mid 30s to mid 40s, they can find themselves living very unfulfilled and often times lonely lives. By the mid 40s, a lot of gay men begin to feel sexually isolated. Between 1991 and 1996, the number of new "AIDS cases" rose twice as fast in persons 50 and older. [Older heterosexual adults dealing with illness also have more severe disease courses and a shorter survival time. They also often no longer feel attractive and can feel that their life is not worth living.] They are not invited to the parties. Some are still working dead end or minimum wage jobs. Their love life has often produced disappointment. Some have buried their lovers, if they did have one. Often, they have no spouse, nor wife nor children to live for. Only a few are involved in giving to the larger community, or giving of themselves to a cause, which can give a person a sense of purpose or reason to live. They often have no outside interest in anything other than the bars or the gay scene, which is no longer so friendly. Those who have been immersed in a hedonistic lifestyle sometimes (even often) become very self-centered. The hedonistic life does take a toll. For those who have not successfully integrated their lives, the result is often an internal death wish from seeing life as quite meaningless and empty.
A lot of gay men actually do have an internal death wish which gets louder as they age. Ask and you shall receive goes the saying. HIV/AIDS becomes the way out of a seemingly meaningless and empty life. Often, with the pity and care that is received from those closest to the diagnosed, it is the first time that some felt truly loved or cared about.
Back in the 80s, as gays came painfully out of their middle American closets, the emotional pain and rejection of their family and friends and churches was often too much to bear and many wanted to quickly get off of the planet and out of the pain. HIV/AIDS diagnoses with the immediate prescription of deadly poisonous AZT often provided them the means. For those wishing to exit the planet quickly today, the modern AIDS drugs do not kill quick enough. It is not the same today as it was with the AZT monotherapy of 12 years ago. With the AZT monotherapy, the side effects were usually immediate and drastic, and the patient would live for an average of 8 months to 1½ years. Today, with HAART drugs, it takes much more time to damage livers or kidneys or cause neuropathy or lypodystrophy for those who have chosen this course.
For the panicked HIV positives that do not want to go quite yet, taking the drugs does alleviate a lot of the panic and fear factor of quick death, as they feel they are doing something to ward off death yet keep the promise of desired death near in hand. And believe it or not, lessening the fear factor of inevitable death most likely does keep the immune system from shutting down and staying shut down as happens when someone is living in a fully panicked state of mind of quick and imminent death by HIV/AIDS.
The cost of taking the HIV drugs these days is usually long term, instead of short term. As many of these guys age, their hearts, livers, and kidneys just cannot take the beatings from the harsh HAART drugs that their bodies could withstand when they were in their 20s to 30s. Often, the effects (they are not side effects) are gradual. They also seems to depend on factors like drug abuse, and many other forms of emotional and chemical stress. Those that live relaxed, relatively "clean" lifestyles generally fare well until the national median mortality age and sometimes even longer. But then – and just ask around – who, in a predominantly straight and youth based society, wants to be an old, tired, lonely, gay man anyway?
Michael Geiger is a member of the board of directors of HEAL San Diego.
© 2007 by Michael Geiger
Originally published at "You Bet Your Life"