to expect. She’s oddly reminiscent of Roseanne Barr – if Roseanne had played a beat poet in an Andy Warhol film.
My favorite part of the performance was a series of monologues narrating her journey from small-town teenage runaway to Alphabet City druggie chick to Raconteur Revolutionary. Penny is, to say the very least, a colorful character, and her engaging salt-of-the-earth manner and spontaneous spit-fire spunk drew me deep into the digressions that make up her story. It’s hard to believe I saw a one-woman-show and not a widescreen epic, so transported was I to the exciting yesteryear Penny wistfully described, a civilization gone with the wind.
As Penny pointed out, one major wind that blew that world away was AIDS. Thunder crashing. Lights flashing. Factory whistle. Wicked witch cackle. That’s what you would I hear if this were my over-the-top version of a show like Old Queen (“New Old Queen?”). AIDS has always felt far more melodrama than reality to me.
I can count on my hands all the HIV positive people with whom I’ve ever been more than passing acquaintances, at least insofar as they’ve shared that information with me.
This is, of course, in stark contrast to the generation of gay men before me, almost entirely wiped out by AIDS. I am old enough to remember that time, not as one who lost scores of loved ones, but that time in You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video
general, when AIDS and gay seemed almost synonymous. The first time I remember being aware that there were gay people in the world was when Rock Hudson’s diagnosis was made public.
If AIDS and gay were synonyms, I learned AIDS first, and long before I was sexually active or even sexually conscious, I understood about safe sex. It used to bother me the way people would say, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay. As long as you’re safe,” as if protecting one’s own body from infectious disease were a question of morals. Or something.
About a week ago, I reconnected with an old flame and he told me that, since we last each other, he tested HIV positive. This is not some after-school special moment where I reveal how I found out I was positive or an inspiring tale of how I somehow stayed negative, but “learned my lesson.” No. I hadn’t seen this guy in years and have had several negative test results since. And I only have safe sex, including when I was intimate with this guy. I say this, well, first for my mother (who reads this), but really to say that my reaction to the news about my former fling’s HIV was not about my own health specifically, but the bigger idea of AIDS and its role in my world.
Having never had sex in the pre-AIDS era, I never experienced safe sex as any kind compromise. Sexually, there are no good old days for me to want back. But is it really that simple? I wonder if, for my generation of gay men, sex has an inherent danger, like the skull-and-crossbones label on a poison bottle. How and how much has that played into who we are and how we connect with each other?
I hear about and read about (and watch videos about) barebacking, the new post-AIDS term for unsafe sex, as a fetish/political statement. I sympathize with all the backlash against barebacking – there is a false sense of security because today, people with HIV can lead relatively normal, healthy lives, for the most part, at least to the outside eye, so we, the new generation of gays, fear AIDS considerably less and have let our guard down; thus those alarming statistics about new HIV infection among young gay men.
But is the anti-bareback movement really about protecting these guys? I think it’s also because we like to live in a bubble where we feel invincible – “If I follow these safe sex rules, then I am not going to get AIDS.” People made me feel like gay = sick and I want some kind of code to live by so I can feel safe, and not like some contagious untouchable. It’s like an obsessive compulsive needing to wash his hands ten times to feel comfortable. These barebackers are ruining our denial.
The existence of barebacking reminds us of that time we slipped, or the chance you get it from blowjobs, or the what if the condom broke. After all, can we gays expect ourselves to live up to a 100% safe sex code all the time? How many babies are born (or not born) because straight people screw up? (No pun intended.) We don’t want to think about that and barebackers going “raw” on purpose forces us to acknowledge that none of us is actually safe.
Furthermore, we don’t want to be the sickies or sickos in society anymore. If 1980s gays were known for AIDS, then Today’s gays are known, for what? Fabulousness? Makeovers? Hollywood gossip? Something clean and non-threatening.
Penny Arcade spoke of a world where expression and originality came before consensus and conformity. She is not afraid to be weird or uncomfortable or dangerous because in her day, you had to be to express yourself if you weren’t an upper-middle class straight white male. (And because, frankly, she is a bit weird, uncomfortable and dangerous….)
Somehow, somewhere along the line, the mainstreaming of our gay culture has caused many of us to either ape the mainstream at large or at least create our own microcosm of the mainstream, maybe more fabulous, but just as dumbed down. Penny Arcade could have stayed in her hometown and lived a more normal life, but again and again, decade after decade she chose to go underground, always outside the system. Were all the gays she encountered there just doing time until “Will & Grace” would make it okay for them to hold hands at the Mall? There aren’t many of them left to ask, but Penny’s message is very clear on this. They were brilliant and passionate and they had something to say. Browsing online tabloids, flipping through reality TV, pondering my own disaffectedness, I’m inspired and refreshed by Penny Arcade.