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June 12, 2019

Dear John

by Patrick Hurley

Dear John,

🌈 Happy Pride! 🌈

Your response to my letter was overwhelming.

Thank you so much for your honesty, bravery and wisdom. This dialogue that we’ve started feels like something that’s been missing from my life for decades. I sit in my own thoughts far too often, in feelings of isolation.In feelings of dread and loneliness. Instead of reaching out for someone else who might understand.

Thank you for reaching back.

I’ve been working on a new play. About this very thing.
The need for intergenerational dialogue between gay men. And the issues we should be sharing with one another.  There is no shortage of topics that I keep coming back to in my efforts to gain greater understanding. Like sex. For instance. Does sex still prove to be an issue in your life? I mean it must, I guess. It is for so many of us. I’ve been reflecting lately on how much of my own views of sex come from the straight world. From people that taught me about it. I only learned about heterosexual sex.  I had to teach myself, as most gay men do, about gay sex.It came mostly from awkward encounters in my early adulthood. Secret meetings. Phone sex. Answered ads.

This was the pre-digital age, so gay porn was only an option if I could summon the courage To walk into the local sex shop and buy a DVD, which took me about six months of passing by the shop before I finally went in, and then another few weeks before I left the straight porn section and casually, not too obviously, walked over to the small rack of gay porn, with their explicit cover photos and obvious titles. I bought two of them.   I Didn’t make eye contact with the cashier. Kept my head down. Took the dark black plastic bag they used for discretionary purposes and got the hell out of there.  My heart was racing, like I just stole something and gotten away with it. I watched them as soon as I got home. It was the first time I saw two men having sex. I was still a virgin. I had just come out that year. I was so shocked by it. Things were being done that I had no idea other men thought about.

When I was fifteen, I had the most massive crush on someone I saw pretty regularly in my life. Even writing this now, I find it hard to confess to who this was. I will just say it was a friend of my sisters. And he wanted to be my friend too. Maybe he thought if I approved of him, I would put a good word in for him with my sister. Okay, it was my sister’s boyfriend. I had the biggest crush on him. He played sports. He worked out all the time. And I was attracted to him in a way that made me excited and ashamed. I didn’t know until then what it meant to be sexually attracted to someone outside of abstract thought. Or a movie or TV screen. I had had crushes before, but all of them so shrouded in my self-denial, that they never got to the sexual attraction part. But with him. I was a goner. And he wanted to be my friend. Which meant, of course, intimate friend things, Like hanging out in his bedroom talking about girls and sports and stuff that I had no interest in. But we would sit close to each other. I would feel his leg on mine. He would put his arm around me when we were walking. And pat his hands on my chest. My arms. My back. You know, best buds kind of way. Never knowing how my heart raced every time he did it.

We eventually became fairly close for a few months. We skipped school together. Stole money from our parents’ wallets and would go to movies and eat at Denny’s instead of attending classes. Before long, I was, beyond my control, exclusively fantasizing about him. And only him. It became overwhelming, and seemed to take over all rational thought and behavior. One time when I was in his room, waiting for him while he showered. I stole a piece of his clothing (underwear) and used it for personal reasons (obviously) for like a month. All of this was coupled with the most self-shaming hate I’d ever experienced.

The pleasure of his company outweighed the shame, but it was almost crippling. I would see him kiss my sister and I would feel a sting of jealousy and then pain. And then disgust. Every thought of him was a betrayal. If he knew, what would he do? He called guys fags when he made fun of them. He was aggressive and angry sometimes. Would he hurt me if he found out.? Every day I had to put on this mask of heteronormativity and work on my gestures and make sure my voice sounded appropriately straight. It was a constant self-monitoring ; make sure I didn’t stand too close to him. Or look in his eyes too long. Or accidentally stare at him when we were changing in the locker room at the gym.

This performance became the person that was his friend. I was buried underneath. Crying myself to sleep at night. Wishing, hoping, almost praying for a way to fix this. I’ve never told this to anyone in my family, and writing it, I still feel that shame. That disgust.Worried what they’ll think if they read this.

And I was struck recently by how the reality of my relationship was all a created effort on my part, and my nighttime fantasies of this guy was a supplemented heteronormative narrative. By which, I mean, I would, in my fantasies, pretend I was female. So that I could picture being with him. I had no idea how to fantasize about two boys. I literally couldn’t picture myself with another male. Being with a man was fatal. Being with a man could kill us both. At this point, I genuinely believed that two gay men could create AIDS together just by having sex. I thought it was formed by the act itself, and I was never going to tempt that kind of fate. But I simply couldn’t stop wanting men. The desire, every time it came was like a razor blade slicing my heart into ribbons. Like the ones celebrities wore on red carpets to commemorate the dead and the dying.   And so I created fantasies that weren’t fatal. That could be. Even though they really, in truth, never could.

For the next few years, I struggled with the notion of maybe I should have been a woman. Obviously, this is not something I could choose, but I wanted so much to understand how to fix this huge problem in myself.  And since I could never be with a man and women could, I thought about this.
It never made enough sense, and eventually my mind stopped trying to fight my own nature. I just kept thinking about sex without me in the equation.
Just other boys. Other men.

As time went on, by my late teens, I was picturing men doing things that I thought made me perverted to even think about. I was repulsed by my own inquisitive nature.

So when I put that first gay porn DVD on, when I saw these men doing the very things that I thought were impossible; things I thought only I was thinking about, I felt a weird sense of validation. Of relief. It would be a few years before I actually got the courage to try any of them with another person, but it had at least been a life raft for me.

My entire sex education came from porn.  And I’m not suggesting this is a negative thing. I don’t have a negative view of pornography, and in fact, I believe it can be a positive thing in the world. But that’s another letter.

I was so afraid of sex for so long that the few encounters I had were not as indicative of sexual experience as they were of hurried necessities.

And so when I finally began to shed all of that shame, all of the repulsion and fear, I started exploring myself and others. And though a lot of people, including many in the community call it “promiscuous,” or “slutty,” some friends even suggest exploration of one’s sexuality is a compulsion, a vice that should be abstained from. It seems to me that I’m being told to attach shame to sex yet again.

When I look around at where the gay community is right now, I see a lot of issues around sex. Sex is currency. It’s a commodity. It’s value. But it can also be a weapon. And a source of shame. Of self-hate. I have to assume that my experience with sex isn’t unique.

But we’re all different, and young gay men seem to be in a place where they can view sex as something not to be feared, and that’s great. But, as I said, I see a lot of judgment against other men who are sexually active. I hear words like “slut,” “whore,” and “promiscuous” thrown around constantly. We invalidate each other’s experiences far too often.

But do we have a real dialogue about it?

I don’t think we do.

What was it like discovering sex and sexuality for you? Before the epidemic? I’ve never had this discussion with anyone who comes from the generation before me. I feel like gay sex education can be taught if we understand the gap. The 30 years where HIV/AIDS was the only factor when discussing sex between men.  Sex almost came with a surgeon general warning. And that fear and panic didn’t go away, it morphed into something else.

You had an experience before the AIDS crisis, I had mine during, and now men are having them post-epidemic. But the thirty years of this crisis removed all possible communication about sex that didn’t involve seeing other men as potential risks. As dirty.

The word for being HIV negative in the community, as you know, is “clean.” If you’re not “clean” what are you? And so this 30 year gap leaves us all in a state of being on one side of it or the other.

There’s no communication in-between.

I want to start that dialogue. It’s super personal, but I think it needs to be done. Do people understand it? The fear of sex was so great. Partly because of the world where sex meant death, but also from the years and years of shame and self-hate over my own identity. Sex was a mess for me.

I turned down sex with at least ten people before I ever had it. Because they seemed villainous for even wanting it. I couldn’t keep an erection the first few times I did it. The pressure and fear were overwhelming. Which meant I couldn’t ejaculate the first few times.  I wouldn’t allow myself to be submissive to another man until I was in love with my first boyfriend. The psychological reasons for this are not unique to me.  Other men are experiencing this still, I’m sure. I sit in the idea that I’m supposed to get to a place with sex that’s deemed “healthy.”

I don’t know what that is.

I think it’s the straight world’s version of monogamy and commitment.

I don’t know.

It’s still there. Inside of me. When I go to get routinely tested, for example, my palms sweat, my heart races and I have to meditate in the waiting room just to get through. I’m still half expecting bad news. I can’t explain why.But all of the ways that I felt broken by sex, are the things I know will help me mend.

I want to mend.

I want being a gay man to go beyond sex. It’s so much more. But that feels like a gigantic hurdle we’re still staring down.

But I’ll keep trying!

Thank you again for your letter. And your show.

I know it sounds trite, but my life has been altered by it. And as a writer myself, I know that’s not a small thing to hear.

I hope this dialogue continues!

Thank you so much!

Until next time.

Your comrade in words, deeds, and love,

Patrick

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Patrick Hurley

Writes Plays & TV. Rewrites Queer History.

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