Will the GreaTesT MomenT in LGBT HisTory Go Down in a Blaze of Meth?

BIG QUEER CONVO: Brad Lamm, Jeffrey Erdman, John Duran and Paul L. discuss the crystal epidemic and recovery. About 500 people participated in a discussion held at the Los Angeles LGBT Center's Village At Ed Gould Plaza, Oct. 6, 2015.
BIG QUEER CONVO: Brad Lamm, Jeffrey Erdman, John Duran and Paul L. discuss the crystal epidemic and recovery. About 500 people participated in a discussion held at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village At Ed Gould Plaza, Oct. 6, 2015.

BY CHARLES KAISER  |  “prTyfun4now: online means I’m looking.”  It’s a typical screen name attached to a typical invitation, a cliche found on every gay pick-up site in America, as any gay man even slightly acquaintanced with the rituals of online mating can confirm.  What an exciting world we live in, where a single uppercase letter can summon you into a whole universe of affiniTy, and catasTrophe.  I don’t know how the UpperCase code began, but on sites like Grindr, Scruff, Manhunt or A4A the capital T has come to signal a desire to fuck for hours and hours (and often days and days)  propelled by the fateful fuel of methamphetamine–a cloud of smoke that for many is the most exciting, and for everyone,  the most destructive recreational drug of our time.

 We live in an extraordinary era, the product of fifty years of astonishing progress.   None of us who were sentient in 1970 ever imagined that we could get this far so fast.  Now we are Congressmen and Senators, doctors and lawyers, movie directors and psychiatrists, pediatricians, a Secretary of the Army (designate)  and a thousand other things that no openly gay person could realistically aspire to back then. As recently as 2001, homosexual acts were still criminal in most American states. In 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis,  Time Magazine ran a story wondering if there would be any gay community left in the United States by the time the epidemic was over.

Today in America and dozens of other Western nations, most gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning people under thirty take our new status utterly for granted.  Younger men and women almost never pause to notice that we enjoy the greatest acceptance and prosperity our tribe has ever known, in the entire history of Western Civilization.   

And consider this: since last summer, we have had a president and a vice president and five members of the Supreme Court who agree (enthusiastically!) that we have a Constitutional right to marry.  We have seen rimming on network television in Britain and premium cable in America (thank you, Queer as Folk.)   We have almost the entire Hollywood establishment on our side, even though Big Straight allies like Matt Damon still slip up occasionally and tell gay actors they should remain in the closet.

crackedAnd yet, despite all this progress, a remarkable self destructiveness still afflicts hundreds of thousands of the best and the brightest among us. Once upon a time, we could plausibly blame this kind of behavior on the oppression of the rest of society. Now, not so much.   How is it possible that meth is the one thing in the world that straight people are so much smarter about than gay men? How did it become a symbol of glamor and youth for some of us, and a badge of stupidity and poverty for all of them, which is exactly what it should be.  How did a scourge that’s already flattened whole stretches of rural Appalachia and countless small towns in working class America, become so desirable for such supposedly sophisticated gay men in smart urban neighborhoods across the country?

It’s mostly about sex of course.  I asked one of the smartest people I know, who is also a former meth user, and one of my closest friends,  to describe his experience of sex on meth.  This is what he wrote:

“This is a very tricky subject for me.  I avoid even thinking about it for fear of getting sucked back into the horrible trap of feeling like it would be fun to do it again.  It was fun, for a couple of hours, but the price I always paid was very high–I usually got quite sick afterwards, and even in the best case, I lost a solid 24 – 48 hours after it was over. It’s like super-powered cocaine, in a way, and lasts much. much longer. It obliterates all resistance and inhibition, and seems to increase sensitivity around the sex organs, both ass and cock.  The brain is being chemically ordered to feel pleasure, and the pleasure is extreme.  You feel very powerful, energetic, sexy, horny, and always on the wild edge of bliss.  It’s very easy to enter into and stay within a mindset that is completely sexualized and focused–that’s why porn is so much a part of the experience, that IS the world you’re living in.  Having sex on crystal can feel like it’s the best sex you’ve ever had, even though for me there’s always a foretaste of the crash that waits like death at the end of what you know can only be a few hours–or a few days at most–of ecstasy.

I hate talking about this, because talking about it reminds me of the crash without the pleasure.  It’s horrifying and deadly, and even the sex seems terrible somehow–painfully too good to be true, dangerously, wickedly exciting.  When crystal comes to mind now, I think about Hannah Arendt’s advice to a young student: Read good books and avoid excitement.” 

And the great part about it is–you won’t lose your teeth, your job, or, sometimes, your life until many months or even a few years later!  But you know you’re in trouble when a whole episode of Law and Order (SVU) focuses on the murder of an AIDS-promoting gay meth dealer.

Gay men live in a culture that reveres sex and abhors most taboos.  That’s partly because gay culture’s first and most important accomplishment was to overturn one of the greatest taboos of the Judaeo-Christian era.  But once that was lifted, millions of us became taboo-phobic, a syndrome that was most disastrously apparent at the onset of the AIDS epidemic.   At a time when we were literally “fucking ourselves to death,” in Larry Kramer’s memorable phrase, the most sensible people were the ones subjected to the worst vitriol.   In 1982, a prominent New York doctor named Dan William was denounced as a “monogamist…stirring panic” just because he suggested posting signs in bath houses warning of the dangers of promiscuous sex.   The following year Kramer wrote, “our continued existence as gay men upon the face of the earth is at stake.  Unless we fight for our lives, we shall die.”  And yet most people still refused to listen.

A screenshot of the conversation Henry Scott had with a Meth dealer on Grindr.
A screenshot of the conversation Henry Scott had with a Meth dealer on Grindr.

Eventually, because of people like Kramer, and institutions like Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and ACT UP, the epidemic produced a transformational event in gay culture: the moment when millions of gay men, united with millions of lesbians, finally shifted their focus from self-gratification to a battle for survival. This in turn built all the gay institutions that eventually produced the magnificent victories that we are enjoying today.

To confront the scourge of meth, we need another transformational moment.   We must recognize that websites that not only glamorize meth use but actually allow dealers to advertise their wares (read Henry Scott’s excellent piece) may not be violating any statute but are certainly committing a crime against our community.   Anyone who does anything to make meth look like a normal feature of our lives is committing a crime against our humanity. Of course the determined users will always find a way to get their fix.  But why should young men in particular be inundated by an online world where Meth is not only accepted but even celebrated?

      The combination of Prep and Meth offers a dangerous illusion of invulnerability.

Prep seems to be extremely effective at preventing HIV infection if taken religiously, every day.   But how many people will remember to take that pill in the middle of a speed-fuelled, week-long binge?

“I don’t care what pills you’re taking–I’m wearing a condom:”  Those are the online profiles I admire.

As I wrote many years ago in an essay on unsafe sex that was published in QW and later reprinted in The New York Times, “The first duty of every revolutionary is to stay alive.”  Today I am still longing for a culture of life, in which every one of us is fighting for each other’s survival–instead of acquiescing in a culture of hedonism untouched by the slightest hint of social responsibility.  I bow to no one is my enthusiasm for a culture of sex drugs and rock and roll.   But I also believe with all my heart that crazy, amazing sex is not only possible but better with condoms and without meth.

In just half a century we have made incredible progress in transforming the way we are treated by the rest of society.   But all of that progress will be hollow, until we also manage to transform the way we treat ourselves.

Charles Kaiser is the author of The Gay Metropolis, the landmark history of gay life in America, 1968 in America, and, most recently, The Cost of Courage.  Read a recent review of his new book in The Washington Post.

Comments

37 COMMENTS

  1. Very astute. Falls short of calling out the vapid, media-infested myths that fuels the ignorance. It’s not 1975 anymore, life does not revolve around the discos, and Prep is a get-by drug for people who don’t want to think. It’s high time gays moved away from the Will & Grace/Looking clone lifestyle, and acted like adults who’ve had 30+ years of compact history to learn from. The opposition, the religio-nuts don’t give a shhh about you – in fact they’re probably thrilled that addiction and HIV are at alarming levels.

    Is the answer McMarriage? No. 50% failure rate among straights. However, all this notion that life is a big party is ridiculous. The operative word: addiction. And *news flash* most of the bar owners and site owners and all that are straight – making cash off your misery. Stop fighting for the bottom, or you’ll get there.

  2. A very interesting article, except: “I also believe with all my heart that crazy, amazing sex is not only possible but better with condoms” — BETTER with condoms? Really? Listen, all concerns about diseases and drugs aside, how do condoms improve sex? If I know that both my partner has no STIs and is HIV negative, do you think we should still go ahead and use condoms, you know, just to make everything feel BETTER?! Really????

  3. Addiction is addiction. If you don’t understand it, then the topic isn’t ever going to reach its intended audience.
    “But why should young men in particular be inundated by an online world where Meth is not only accepted but even celebrated?” is to me an ignorant question. Addicts young and old do not become addicted because of exposure. You don’t catch it!
    Honest straight-forward conversations and press which includes talking to gay youth one-on-one and by peers about meth use is most likely the most effective path just like it is for HIV-prevention.
    Addicts don’t see reason. All the arguments in the world won’t persuade an addict that pleasure of any kind should be delayed or put aside.
    The epidemic is no different today, than it was in the 80’s or 70’s. There are ways to deal with it. TALKING…lots and lots of it is the start.

  4. No. It won’t. It’ll go down because self-righteous people, who think the health problems of the gay community are entirely the fault of gay men (NOT the sort of thing we say about other groups at risk of HIV), don’t place anything like the amount of energy into campaigning for PrEP, for adequate HIV treatment and against HIV and gay stigma, especially for POOR gay people and men of colour, as they did for gay marriage and social acceptability. I’m not saying there isn’t a problem of drug use in the gay community but it has deep roots and won’t be solved by the usual Kramer-style lecture.

  5. Well written, and accurate. I tried (very hard) to campaign against drug use in the 90’s , as it was prevalent in the clubs and the circuit scene….and people were dropping like flies. It was tragic. The campaign was: “Live life OUT, not Up” and we pitched it at every circuit event, along with the establishment of community centers. I gave up eventually, because of death threats and the clear indication that people were just self destructive……but those were harder times, and easier to “give up.” Now? no excuse, yet this legal drug prep has people wasting their health (i.e. staying attached to a big-pharm drug that is unnecessary, thinking it protects them from HIV all the time….so? “I can be reckless again.” Duh…. There is no reason to….except to silently want to self destruct (either by slipping up, or by degrading your body slowly by introducing unnecessary drugs into it all the time.). Bottom line? You either want to live, or die. I prefer to be around people who want to live, thank you. And? That doesn’t mean you can’t have intimate relations …..just not blinded drug induced ones (but hey, some people are just deeply conflicted and “need” drugs to reduce self loathing over being intimate. Cray cray….. But what can you say?

    • @patrickmahoney, It DOES work! I used to run a drop-in center for LGBTQ homeless youth, ages 18-24 in San Francisco. The majority of whom were addicted, and mainly addicted to Meth. When I did a facilitated workshop and slideshow on the dangers of meth and showed my clients slides of what they could look like years along in their addictions, several of them cleaned up. The REAL truth about addicition is that it IS the ultimate decision to live or die. And relapse reclaimed the majority of my clients lives, but, two or three cleaned up and survive today with productive lives. Education and prevention (and teaching younger LGBTQ folks positive communication skills), are KEY factors in determining how that occurs. Thank you for work over the years, & for stating the clear blunt truth about Meth & barebacking in the LGBTQ community and what it does. Cheers.

  6. p.s.s. Two other little things to note, if you really want to end this downward spiral. One, the gay community is literally “in bed” with the drug dealers, etc….. take the profit away, and things will change quicker. Also, predatory men (not necessarily older, btw) like the drug culture because someone cranked up will make love with a rock (or a creepy slime-ball) when they never would if sober. So, pretty boies? Get smart, or get used….badly. Then, die…. Thats the short of it… And FYI, all those groups are corrupted in this way. Me telling that story out loud garnered the death threats, so be careful how you communicate that……users want their piece of meat, and will do most anything to get it. Everyone worries about young women who go to Hollywood “to be stars,” then get used and discarded…..but men are actually more at risk than the women, because they think “it can’t happen to me.” WORD: it can, and it does….daily. Just go to a Meth addiction group one evening, and listen to the stories…..

  7. gay men have been using meth for 20+ years so this is not some new epidemic sweeping our community. It just has become more visible with social media. Instead of looking for other guys who are “partying” by cruising the disco, or hitting the bathhouse. You can now just go online. So your raising an alarm on an issue that has been around for a couple of decades. The community is not holding meth up as something to celebrate. Sure some do when they are in the cycle of addiction, but that is not representative of the majority of the gay community or the community as a whole./

  8. As my old school counselor Mr. Mackey said drugs r bad! And u know what he was right.

    Tina is worse than heroin.

    But please don’t tie it to BB sex! I only BB and sex in condoms isn’t sex at all. It is cuming in a baggy. Sharing body fluids, some ones seminal fluid penetrating your rectal lining, their DNA mixing with yours. That is the ultimate expression of sex.

    It’s not politically correct, but it’s facts. The majority of people in a recent survey didn’t use a condom the last time they had anal sex.

    TasP, PrEP, PrEP, Gardasil, Twinrx, doxycycline. If u r sexually active and don’t know what each of these can do to protect u when u BB u r not being responsible. Face it boys Condoms r dead, long live the condom lol

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