Longform

Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive

Page 13 of 27

On the other hand, Jackson added, given time and the right medicine -- especially since the advent of antibiotics -- the infectious-disease specialist often had the satisfaction of actually curing his patients (as opposed to, for example, a cancer specialist who might know from the beginning that death was inevitable and only fought to prolong its coming). In fact, the battle against infectious diseases had been so successful that by that time in the United States, it was something of a backwater specialty compared to oncology. From a medical/scientific standpoint, this new disease offered Cohn and Judson and other infectious-disease specialists and epidemiologists a new medical challenge.


In 1981, Gourley was still deeply immersed in movement politics and writing for local gay publications. Armed with an acerbic wit and confrontational demeanor, he might well have gone over the top with his readers except for Woodyard's influence.

"What you have to say is important," Woodyard cautioned, "but if you scream and yell in somebody's face, they're not going to hear what you're saying."

Some of Gourley's writings took the form of satire about issues he saw causing division within the gay community. One such piece was titled "The Day the Queens Became Men" and poked fun at hyper-masculinity. He submitted the piece, complete with its tongue-in-cheek "Gay Manhood Oath" ("I swear by all that is butch that I will never engage in nelly, silly, swishy or frivolous behavior"), to Out Front. That time editors returned it, telling him that while "entertaining and meaningful...it would be the better part of discretion not to publish it."

Gourley had half-expected the rejection. Gays were no different from straights when it came to not wanting hear about their own foibles, Woodyard reminded him.

Among the other things that Gourley discussed with his lover were his concerns over what was going on at the bathhouses and whether there was a link to immune-deficiency diseases. There had still been no official cases of the disease in Denver, but the plague was hitting close to home. Woodyard was hearing of friends back in New York who were getting sick. Then he learned that his former lover, the man he had been with before Gourley, was ill, too.

It was the summer of 1981 when Gourley wrote his first piece about the plague. By this time, he knew that researchers with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta were warning that the disease seemed to be following the same routes of infection as hepatitis B. Gay men who had been infected with hepatitis B (by some estimates as much as 60 percent of the gay-male population) were likely candidates for this new terror. That included Gourley, who had earlier volunteered for Judson's hep B study only to find out he wasn't eligible: He'd already been exposed, and a vaccine wouldn't do him any good.

He and Woodyard finally stopped going to bathhouses, but with the feeling that it was probably too little, too late. However, he didn't panic. No one knew if exposure meant infection and whether infection meant a person would necessarily die.

"Kaposi's Sarcoma. Wow! A cancer all our own," Gourley wrote in a paper published by Out Front titled "Queer Cancer."

"How much energy should we as gay men be giving to this latest malady that is beginning to afflict us? Based on the raw numbers of known cases, it is really quite rare, and if you take a look at all the other health problems faced by gay men, it's pretty insignificant.

"The major health concerns of gay men remain alcohol and tobacco abuse, the various V.D.'s, viral hepatitis, intestinal parasites and queer-bashers."

Gourley noted that a lot of cancers were caused by lifestyle/environmental factors and "therefore we get the same cancers as straight people. See, we really can be just like them -- if we abuse ourselves enough!"

There remained, however, the question of why this particular cancer seemed unique to young gay men. "Is it perhaps a manifestation, a message if you will, from our collective spirit that all is not well in the gay male world as we swirl into the Eighties?

"The straight moralists, of course, have an easy explanation as to why we get certain of these diseases in rates way out of proportion with the general population. 'You fuck too much, you perverts.'"

Society, Gourley said, was in part to blame for gay sexual behavior because it gave "us very limited space to interact with one another -- restrooms, grimy bathhouses, public parks, dingy bars...this environment served to institutionalize quick impersonal sex that did not allow for getting to know the other person on any but a fleeting sexual level." The gay liberation movement had changed some aspects -- bathhouses and bars were no longer grimy or dingy -- but "what hasn't changed is that we still are relating all too frequently to one another as sexual objects."

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Steve Jackson