YOU'RE going to want to slap me after a few paragraphs, so let
me acknowledge even before I start that I grew up in the South,
and that Southerners rarely abandon a cultural assumption that
is almost hard-wired into us: That there must be limits to
tolerance, and that there are times when we simply must tell
people that they are wrong and that their ideas are dangerous.
Still, that does not mean that we Southerners are necessarily
fascist. Some of us have read a little Locke. We strongly
uphold individual freedom, the right to speak out and the right
to pursue happiness. Nevertheless, I've been hearing a new idea
lately that is both wrong and dangerous. That is the idea that
higher quality sex is worth dying for, and that life after 40
is so worthless that one might as well have better sex and die
This idea is being put about by a fairly new organization
called Sex Panic.
On Jan. 4, Examiner medical writer Lisa Krieger wrote an
excellent piece on why HIV infection rates among gay men have
not declined in three years. She quoted Eric Rofes, former
director of the Shanti Project here, who described, probably
accurately, what is going on: "There is a dawning realization
that many gay men are engaging in unprotected anal intercourse
not because they're drunk, or due to self-hatred, but because
(sex) is a meaningful act . . . Sex acts are a major part of
what constitutes your identity . . . anal sex was seen as an
"There was the notion that this act . . . was something that
was easily given up, all the time . . . But the act is very
powerful. It gives meaning to who you are, as a gay man."
Krieger also quoted Scott O'Hara, a former porn star who is HIV
"Feeling a man inside me, condomless, that's when the sex
becomes spiritual in its intensity . . . I believe in
exchanging bodily fluids, not wedding rings."
I am not proposing that we horse-whip O'Hara, or that we try to
shut him up. I only propose that we gay people do what a
Southerner would do when someone says something outrageous:
That we glare him down after he speaks and tell him he is wrong
and that what he is saying threatens the lives of young gay
Some of those young gay people are my friends.
After I read Krieger's piece, I was particularly worried about
a young friend named James, who I knew would read the O'Hara
quote and find something appealing in it. James is 21. He's a
senior at UC-Berkeley who has struggled greatly with his
sexuality, with his self-esteem, with promiscuity, with
insecurities about living up to the gay ideal of beauty, with
fears about whether he can succeed in the world he'll face when
he gets out of school.
I invited James to lunch to talk. I showed him Lisa's story,
and then we set out across Buena Vista Park, walking west. The
gay logo was all over the sky that day - rainbows - and I was
enjoying life, despite my advanced age and the fact that I
haven't had much sex lately. I asked James, Is sex worth dying
He didn't think for long. It depends, he said, on whether the
person you're having sex with is a one-night stand or whether
he'll stay with you. And it depends on when you die. If you
don't die until you're in your 40s, then yes, he said, sex is
worth dying for.
I was stunned and kept silent. I waited for a few neurons to
fire in his head so he'd realize that he'd pretty much said
that my life doesn't have much value because of my age.
He's actually very smart, and he knows perfectly well that I'm
49. Even Berkeley seniors aren't very smart, though, when gay
group-think and Berkeley Left-think has gotten hold of them and
they're not thinking for themselves. I'm not blaming James. I
used to believe that stuff myself. We grow up.
But that's the problem in a nutshell: It's gay group-think,
combined with most gay leaders' strong investment in fringe
ideologies, and the awful hunger of young gay men for
community, social approval and the existential high that Scott
O'Hara says you'll get from dangerous sex. Not too long ago, no
one at a dinner party I attended had even heard of Sex Panic.
Carol Ness, who frequently reports on lesbian and gay issues
for The Examiner, did a story on Sex Panic in October and had a
hard time finding reaction. Few people had heard of it.
But in November, Sex Panic had a conference in San Diego during
the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force's "Creating Change"
meeting. Stories about the conference appeared in the Nov. 27
issues of Bay Times and the Bay Area Reporter. At the next
dinner party I attended, everyone knew about Sex Panic.
And guess what? Everyone's opinions precisely matched the Sex
Panic propaganda printed in the local gay papers. There are
entirely too many gay men in this town who are not sure what to
think until the Bay Area Reporter prints the fringe point of
view and tells them what to think.
I give a lot of credit, though, to the Bay Area Reporter's Liz
Highleyman. She worked in a quote from a lesbian, Robin Tyler,
who said in San Diego: "It does upset me to see gay men still
getting sick . . . Do what you want, but I'm not going to clean
up after you this time." We should listen to Robin Tyler. She's
telling us that lesbians aren't feeling very tolerant anymore
toward gay men's promiscuity and immaturity. I'm sure there are
plenty of straight people who agree.
There will be a backlash if Sex Panic prevails. And make no
mistake about it: A backlash is exactly what Sex Panic members
want, because a backlash would help to keep gay people on the
fringes of society, which is where Sex Panic wants us.
Sex Panic people may think that absolutely anything (except
those who speak out against them) should be tolerated. But
lesbians, Southerners and most of the rest of America
understand that there have to be limits on what ideas get our
blessing and what ideas don't. Guys (And I hope Tom Ammiano is
A lot of stuff has happened in the world while you were reading
nothing but the gay newspapers. We might mention 1989, when the
Berlin Wall came down. After 50 years of disastrous experiments
all over the globe, 1989 was when we knew for sure that Leftist
ideology is somehow fatally flawed and does not work. So why
does the gay movement still have all its eggs in such a basket?
And everyone except queer theorists seems to know that Foucault
is dead, that he pretty much admitted before he died that he
had been a young poseur. As long as we're deconstructing
cultures, why don't we deconstruct the gay subculture we've
produced since Stonewall?
Is it really all that fine? Is the right to public sex really
so important to us that Sex Panic's agenda should become our
agenda? Why does the gay elite that claims to speak for us want
to keep us marginalized?
The gay community in San Francisco is large, secure, mature and
diverse. Many of us - maybe most of us - are in the mainstream
because that's where we want to be. It's all right to stand up
to the brats in Sex Panic and say in a loud, firm voice: Stop
claiming to speak for all of us.
And above all, we should say to young gay people that there are
plenty of things that make life worth living after the age of
40, though we have to make our own lists and post them on our
There probably still will be sex after 40, and there are dear
old lovers who've become best friends, dogs, garlic, wine,
opera, Unix - but that's just my list. You make yours.
Meanwhile, all you wonderful young men (I wish I could take all
of you to lunch): Pursue your happiness. Don't accept life on
the margins of society. Join the mainstream.
Demand, to use Bruce Bawer's metaphor, your Place at the Table.
Take seriously the principles that apply to all equally in
American society - that it's about responsibilities as well as
Take care of each other. Don't give your all to anyone unless
you like him and trust him. Use a condom.
And if you insist on rebelling (I'm sure you will), then please
consider rebelling against Sex Panic, the people who are
telling you that a sex act - any sex act - is worth more than