My friend Charles Sanchez is the creator of the musical web series Merce, about an HIV positive New Yorker. But enough about him. Charles and I constantly argue about which one of us has spoken to Bruce Richman most recently, and for how long. Bruce also lives in New York so Charles appears to have the upper hand, but I’m convinced my calls with Bruce are more intimate and consequential.
Charles and I behave like smitten teenagers because Bruce Richman, who burst upon the HIV activism scene a few years ago trumpeting the breakthrough message that “Undetectable Equals Untransmittable” and who wears a five o’clock shadow like nobody’s business, is totally hot. He has an effortless masculinity most of us can only approximate.
Charles first set his greedy eyes on Bruce last year at AIDS Watch – while Bruce was speaking to me, mind you. Charles artfully shoved me aside while trying to cobble together a coherent thought that might entertain Bruce. He was mildly successful.
Charles and I try to not push our rivalry, because fighting over the affections of Bruce Richman can be hard on a friendship. Besides, there’s way too much competition.
“Are you seriously writing about how hot Bruce is?” Damon L. Jacobs asked me. It was a curious question coming from the famously sex-positive PrEP advocate who is no stranger himself to steamy, shirtless photos (if you were following these important activists on social media, you’d know that). After some prodding, Damon admitted that “Bruce is simply a gorgeous human being on all levels.” Yawn. “Clearly, he has a sexual chakra vibrating loudly,” he adds. Something is vibrating, I’ll vouch for that.
Damon then went on to say what a brilliant mind Bruce has and then listed his many accomplishments, all of which I already knew and are beside the point. “But let’s face it,” Damon offered, at last. “The man is sex on a stick.” Yes. Thank you.
There’s an important lesson in all of this, and I will get to it right after another frivolously indulgent Bruce Richman story.
None other than David Drake, who sealed his place in AIDS history as the Obie-winning writer and star of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me (and who wore very little clothing with sensual conviction every night on stage), has been bewitched by Bruce.
“I wasn’t sure what he wanted,” David told me. Bruce had been inviting David out to coffee relentlessly — even though the two had never met – so Bruce could discuss his project, the Prevention Access Campaign. David wasn’t sure if the meet was legitimate. “And then I checked Bruce’s Facebook page and saw his photo,” David said sheepishly. He decided a cup of coffee wouldn’t kill him.
“I was sitting there staring at him,” David recalled, “and he’s very sexy. He’s talking about his campaign but there’s this… energy there. I remember wondering to myself, ‘Is this an innocent meeting? Is this a hookup? Is he going to fuck me or what?’”
The gay HIV activism landscape is cluttered with sexual tension, of course. Cheeky muscle man Jack Mackenroth has made a cottage industry out of getting naked to fight HIV stigma. Famed photographer Duane Cramer (who shot the Greater Than AIDS campaign) and longtime survivor Ed Barron are giving me daddy deliciousness, while younger activists like Houston’s Mike Webb and Australia’s Theo Tsipiras are downright swoon-worthy.
What gay HIV activist hasn’t had an AIDS conference crush, or something more illicit? The New Zealand activist Charlie Tredway, in our on-camera interview at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, didn’t mind sharing his sexual game plan with me. “My Scruff app is going crazy,” Charlie told me. “I’m going to concentrate on HIV education here until at least Wednesday,” he said, as his sly grin became fully engorged, “and then it’s just going to be dicks and ass.”
Hotties on the AIDS scene are as old as Doc Martens. Peter Staley, the star of How to Survive a Plague and a man who can still rock a Keith Haring tank top, was among a vast cadre of hunks during the early days of ACT UP. His photos of AIDS activists at play during that time might as well be cover art for a vintage Falcon Video highlights reel.
Peter clearly delights in sharing the sexual shenanigans of the early ACT UP days. “We fucked like bunnies,” he told me. “A sexual hookup diagram of our early membership could be titled One Degree of Separation. I always found it deeply ironic that Larry Kramer gave birth to ACT UP,” he said about the sex-skeptical icon, “because it quickly became the most sex positive movement in American history.”
“That’s why I love today’s PrEP activists,” Peter continued. “They are bonding in more ways than one, and their sexual hookups are often political statements, breaking down generational and serostatus divides. Which reminds me,” he added, “I owe Bruce Richman a call.”
Gay HIV activists are not role models, and that’s the beauty of it. We’re negotiating the sexual terrain like everyone else, and are just as capable of falling in lust, getting drunk, feeling horny, cruising Grindr, and sticking things into other things. And I find great comfort in that. HIV is about fucking. As advocates, we needn’t be coy about our own familiarity with hooking up or the sexual mechanics involved.
“Sex and play are a natural and functional part of who we are as activists, who we are as human beings,” Damon L. Jacobs told me, putting on his therapist hat. “That fusing of fucking each other while fighting the establishment was crucial to our relevance and power as a political movement even before Stonewall. In light of HIV, many revisionists wanted to downplay, ignore, or act ashamed of that history. But that sexual connection is a foundation for the activism and deserves to be celebrated.”
Meanwhile, my friend Charles Sanchez insists that his infatuation with Bruce Richman has subsided. “I’m over it now,” he lies. “I don’t even think about what he looks like, not anymore. We’re friends.”
And then I tell Charles about some new photo of Bruce I saw online, and away we both scramble to the nearest laptop, our frantic fingers working the keyboard in a lustful panic.
(My apologies to the many gay HIV activists who were not named in this piece. You’re all really hot. You are welcome to send me documentation that might ensure your inclusion in future posts of this nature. – Mark)
Whatever will become of governmental HIV prevention messages targeting gay men, what with the new administration’s queasiness over all things homo? Earlier this year I praised the fabulous gay dance video produced by the CDC’s Start Talking. Stop HIV. campaign. Now that same program has released a new video of gay men of color having a conversation about prevention, PrEP, and HIV treatment. It deserves to be shared widely, because there’s simply no telling if these targeted messages will exist one year from now. Something tells me the CDC is rushing these products out at a fast clip before the new administration shuts them down entirely. If anyone needs another reason to #Resist the daily outrages of Trump, this is as good as any.