1986: Donna Summer Has Left the Building

Chapter XIII of my ongoing personal chronicle of the 1980s, “Years of Living Precariously”, in A&U Magazine.

“Eventually, the movie houses closed. The Anvil closed, the Saint closed, the baths closed, Fire Island virtually shut down, Provincetown was Province-Ghost-town, the Castro became deserted. Dancing stopped. Laughter was muted. Every person was a potential Bodysnatcher. Entire armies of men sheathed in rubber. There was no joy in Gomorrah. Donna Summer had left the building. Young gay men had nothing to do, so they joined gyms.”


1986: Donna Summer Has Left the Building
Part XIII of an Ongoing Chronicle of the First Fifteen Years of the AIDS Pandemic
by Bruce Ward

David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask) sold 100,000 copies in 1969, and remains one of the best-selling nonfiction books of all time.

I was fourteen years old when I read it, clandestinely scouring the indices of my mother’s psychology books, in search of the word “homosexual.”

Here is an excerpt from the one brief chapter Reuben allows on the matter of homosexuality, his shortest chapter in the book:

The majority of gay guys, when they cruise, dispense with the courtship. They don’t even have time for footsie or love notes on toilet paper. Homosexuality seems to have a compelling urgency about it. A homosexual walks into the men’s washroom and spots another homosexual. One drops to his knees, the other unzips his pants, and a few minutes later, it’s all over. No names, no faces, no emotions. A masturbation machine might do it better.

No names. No faces. No emotions.

Well, that didn’t sound appealing to me at all. I ran the other way, as fast and as far as I could.

Following my HIV diagnosis in 1986, reeling from the stigma and rejection by paramours, the dental clinic, the media, and by society, in general, a new cycle of shame emerged.
I turned to the darkness of porn movie houses and gay bookstores, trolling bars until closing, sometimes even on weeknights. I figured that as long as I was turning heads, even in the darkest and dirtiest of atmospheres, as long as I was desired by desirable men, then I must still look good. And if I looked good, then I must still be healthy. As long as hot and healthy-looking men were willing to have sex with me, then I was able to keep panic at bay. There would be plenty of time to be reclusive and celibate—when I was covered in spots and as thin as a toothpick.

With each encounter, I wanted more. The more I had, the more shameful I felt. The more shameful I felt, the more depressed I became. Was this all that would be available to me now? Is this what I was worth? The more depressed I became, the more I thrust myself into that world. I was an addiction cliché. I was Batman in reverse: do-gooding healthcare education worker by day, the Religious Right’s poster child for deviant, diseased homosexual at night.

I followed the “safer sex” guidelines of GMHC and the NYC Health Department, so it wasn’t the sex act itself that was shameful to me. And I was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Despite the religious Right’s call to have people like me castrated, I knew I wasn’t purposely putting anyone’s life at risk or adding more risk to my own. But the shame and secrecy enfolded me as tight as a shroud.

So this is what was left of life: nameless, faceless sex in dark, seedy balconies that reeked of desperation. With married men from Connecticut who were also each overflowing with shame and despair and lust. With other newly minted Positive men who didn’t care anymore, who just wanted some human touch, some validation.

Maybe David Reuben was right, after all. I did not deserve to be loved.

Anything, anything to fill the void. The fear in the air was palpable. The desperation. The loneliness. The anxiety. And yet none of us could talk about it with each other. We were all terrified. The only way we knew how to deal with the emptiness was to be with each other in the way in which we were accustomed: in silence and in shame.

And now there was evidence to support what we had been taught all our lives: Sex with another man was so unnatural and so against the laws of nature that it literally could kill you. AIDS was a real downer for liberated sex junkies everywhere.

We all thought this would be over in a few years.  We thought if we just fought hard enough and long enough, if we shouted loud enough, if we showed our determin-ation and stamina, surely this would be over. 

But the bodies continued to pour down like water.  Jim, Michael, Bo, Vito.  The AZT was toxic, the doctors were helpless, bodies shrank to ninety pounds.  

I remember walking into a hospital room and thinking I was in the wrong room because there was a eighty-year old man in what was supposed to be Michael’s room.  And the old man was Michael, who was thirty-six. 

And there would so, so many others yet to come.

Eventually, the movie houses closed.  The Anvil closed, the Saint closed, the baths closed, Fire Island virtually shut down, Provincetown was Province-Ghost-town, the Castro became deserted. Dancing stopped.  Laughter was muted.  Every person was a potential Bodysnatcher.  Entire armies of men sheathed in rubber.  There was no joy in Gomorrah. Donna Summer had left the building. Young gay men had nothing to do, so they joined gyms.

About bdwardbos

Writer (plays, essays, memoir, blogs), actor (theater, film, TV), teacher, HIV/AIDS educator, cat whisperer
This entry was posted in A&U Magazine, aumag, health, HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ, Years of Living Precariously, A&U Magazine, YOLP and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to 1986: Donna Summer Has Left the Building

  1. Harry Breaux says:

    A walk down memory lane. I loved how you wove the connection from the devastating into the bloom of the gym craze. Loved it.



  2. Dann Dulin says:

    Bruce! I loved Donna Summer and I LOVED your story on her. Dann Dulin xx


    • bdwardbos says:

      Thank you, Dann! I often feel that I am screaming into an abyss of disinterest, dismissal, and downright derision, particularly from the younger generations of gay men. So any comments of support, such as yours, helps to propel me to continue the work. So – mucho gracias! 😎💕

      Liked by 1 person

  3. patriciarogers8757 says:

    Bruce…I am a big admirer of folks like yourself who write of their personal experience, takes a lot of courage to be so revealing. I have benefited greatly from those who have been wiling to take the leap. This is so well, done, creative and clearly heartfelt about the devastation of the AIDS epidemic…Especially was struck by the paragraph about how the gay scene shut down in NY, etc. beautifully done..a “Bodysnatcher”…

    Thanks for sharing this. love, P


    Liked by 1 person

  4. louisew27 says:

    Bruce, you write breathlessly. The reader has this build up of angst, anxiety and fear along with the sense of urgency you are describing. Well done and thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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