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Jesse Monteagudo's Book Nook
Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures

Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures by Eric Rofes; Harrington Park Press, 10 Alice Street, Binghamton, NY 13904-1580; 352 pages; $24.94.

In Reviving the Tribe, author-activist Eric Rofes wrote about "regenerating gay men's sexuality and culture in the ongoing epidemic." In Dry Bones Breathe, written two years later, Rofes tells us that "AIDS, as we know it, is over." rofes.gif - 15.65 K
Eric Rofes

To many gay men, such a statement would be utter blasphemy. AIDS remains the leading cause of death among gay and bisexual men. Queer men, especially the young and the nonwhite, continue to seroconvert, and a large percentage of urban gay populations are HIV positive. AIDS is not over for those who have AIDS, who are HIV+, or who know and love those who have or are.

Rofes himself, though HIV negative, has been at the center of AIDS activism for over a decade, has lost many friends to the epidemic, and is the lover of an HIV+ man. How can he say that "AIDS ... is over"?

Though Rofes recognizes the continuing impact of AIDS in gay male and bisexual communities, he points out that, "[f]rom the outset of the epidemic AIDS emerged as two distinct entities: AIDS the biomedical syndrome and AIDS the event. ... [A]lthough AIDS the biomedical syndrome continues to march forward, the event of AIDS as epicenter gay men came to know it in the 1980s is over."

There are three reasons for this: "(1) AIDS no longer usually means a quick and ugly death; (2) Since 1990, new and highly visible sexual cultures have appeared and taken root in urban centers; and (3) the volume and rate of loss for gay men has declined dramatically. ... Influencing this powerful yet often unrecognized shift is another matter quite separate from AIDS: the passage of time ... accompanied by a tremendous influx of young gay men" who spent their entire gay lives under the shadow of the epidemic. "Yet," Rofes adds, "the formal structures of gay community life have not acknowledged this shift."

Dry Bones Breathe takes its name from Chapter 37 of Ezekiel, which refers to the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian Captivity. Like the Biblical Jews, this "passage captures a spirit of renewal that is sweeping gay male communities. ... When we look at the emerging cultures that gay men are creating at the end of the 1990s - from rural men's networks to urban circuit parties, black men's discussion groups to conventions of bears, cruisy coffee shops to huge church revivals - we know they rise out of the ruins of a painful past but offer hopeful visions of community beyond crisis." Rofes even proposes that we "abandon the acronym 'AIDS' altogether. ... Efforts to recreate and revive community may be assisted by letting go of this term ... and using the phrase 'HIV disease' or creating a new acronym, one that is invested with the meanings of the new millennium."

I am not sure if I can cross that bridge to the twenty-first century. After all, AIDS continues to affect too many of us, and the fact that AIDS is no longer at the center of our consciousness twenty-four hours a day does not erase that truth.

Still, an almost two decades' obsession with an epidemic can be psychologically crippling, and it is understandable that gay men everywhere are determined to continue our lives, communities and cultures in spite of AIDS. Those who would criticize queer men for having a good time - and even, God forbid, having sex - do not understand human nature, or the resilience of the Gay Spirit.

Rofes devotes much of Dry Bones Breathe to a detailed account of "post-AIDS identities and cultures." Rofes is very critical of gay busybodies like Larry Kramer, Gabriel Rotello and Michelangelo Signorile, who pontificate about queer men's lives - especially queer men's sex lives - from their lavender towers. Rofes, who mischievously compares the utterances of Kramer, Rotello and Signorile to similar comments made by Anita Bryant and Timothy LaHaye twenty years ago, attributes the gay pundits' harsh statements to their "failure ... to come to terms with the AIDS epidemic" and to the natural tendency of middle-aged men to condemn the excesses of the next generation. Rofes, who is himself in his mid-forties (as is this critic), knows better than to tell young gay men what to do.

Rofes, like this critic, is a strong advocate of gay sexual freedoms and a vocal opponent of the current crackdown against queer sexual cultures. Rofes, along with Latino HIV+ activist Tony Valenzuela, organized last year's Sex Panic Conference to deal with the crackdown. Noting that "[s]ome of us are not panicking about continuing HIV infections about gay men", Rofes plays down the hysterics surrounding "barebacking": "Instead of seeing ... unprotected anal sex as the primary activity resulting in HIV transmission among gay men ..., people see the barebacking parties and men who cruise the Internet seeking raw sex as the culprits transmitting HIV."

Rofes realizes that "gay men have been willing to take many risks to fulfill their desires for specific sexual acts with other men", and does not expect HIV transmission to stop completely. Instead, the aim of AIDS education should be to "diligently and gradually reduc[e] the level of HIV infection over a period of decades" (my emphasis). Rofes's comments can be misconstrued, and explains why, to many people, "Sex Panic" is wrongly synonymous with "unprotected anal sex".

Rofes is very open about his own sex life, details of which he willingly shares in Dry Bones Breathe. Some readers might not want to read about Rofes's penchant for rimming, or his visit to Leather Buddies, a San Francisco sex club.

But Rofes, like many activist queers, believes that the personal is political, and uses his own experiences as a way to illustrate his "framework for low-risk promiscuity". Since rimming can transmit all sorts of germs, Rofes tries to limit the risk by "allow[ing] myself to rim four times a year and get rimmed four times a year." Though Rofes's decision to "ration rimming" might not be foolproof - what if one of the four "beefy butts" he rims this year is the beefy butt with the intestinal parasites? – it seems to keep him relatively safe - and relatively happy.

Eric Rofes has earned his right to have a good time. As a writer, teacher, health worker, gay and AIDS activist, Rofes twenty-year career as an openly gay man is one of our community's most prolific.

Rofes ends Dry Bones Breathe with a description of the Pleasuredome, a Sunday night dance club in San Francisco that features 1970's music from 9 to 11 p.m. "I dance now, a few times a month, at Pleasuredome. I have new friends I meet on the dance floor and my feet come alive to the music of the past. Sometimes I'll stay at the club after the music changes and the boys with shaved bodies and ripped abs take over." Like Rofes, our community has learned how to dance again. Or perhaps we never forgot.

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