World AIDS Day 2016


The blank page stares up at me, “World AIDS Day 2016”. That will be Thursday.

It’s not like it used to be when life was much more urgent, desperate. I think of the dead. I still sorely miss my friends, friends from our twenties and thirties. Gone. It’s like Remembrance Day, but I don’t like the war analogies that go along with that. I wonder what they would have been like had they lived with me into my upper fifties. If only treatments could have saved them. It’s been twenty years since the 1996 World AIDS Conference in Vancouver which was bursting with excitement over the promise of new treatments, combination therapies nicknamed “the cocktail”. I was on three, and then four drug combinations as soon as they became available, eliminating ones with severe side effects only to find new side effects with the alternatives. Lipodystrophy – fatty humps – and lipoatrophy – loss of muscle mass in my face, limbs and butt. So I sit on a cushion a lot. It’s chronic but manageable, don’tchaknow? I remember World AIDS Day 1993 when I took a bouquet of wild flowers to the AIDS Memorial. CBC News followed me around as I placed single flowers by the names of individuals I knew until I tearfully ran out of flowers before I had finished. That was the year of Jim’s last Christmas and I went home and wrote the first of many annual holiday letters in hopes of cheering him up. There was the year I put a call out for writers to submit stories of how HIV/AIDS affected them – and was pleasantly surprised with the response.

HIV is still here and, despite some attempts to downplay it, so is AIDS. HIV, and expectations that I would not live long, have rotted my teeth. As a yes-to-life gesture I am endeavouring to get my teeth fixed which will probably be a wholesale replacement with dentures. This is not merely cosmetic, though it is that, too. I am not eating as well as I could were I to have a full mouth of comfortable teeth. So the good folks at the U of T School of Dentistry have begun to fix me up. I can no longer deny that I might live long enough to need these damn teeth. All that remains is to come up with the funds.

My friends didn’t live long enough to have dental problems. I didn’t think I would either. As crises go, I’ll take this one.

Remembering “The Romans” – The Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, gay activism, bathrooms


spartacus-0612-jpg-650x0_q70_crop-smart

just an illustration🙂

I found it in the Yellow Pages, which I was checking out at the Toronto Coach Terminal on Bay Street. I had just arrived from Niagara College. It was 1979. I was 19. I thumbed through the book, checking “Baths”, which brought up bathroom fixtures mostly, then I think I tried “Saunas”. I can’t be sure how I found it; only that there it was, complete with a not-to-scale map. Turns out it was very close.

This was well before the mass bath-house raids by police of 1981 – well before I took that occasion to come out to my family.

So everything about Toronto at that time of my life was huge. But I found my way to The Romans, where I stood in line briefly to hear how men entered, what was said, what, if any, identification was required.

I rented a room, a real bargain, I thought, at less than $20. Once inside the facility, I noticed an active gym, showers, a lounge, a pool, two saunas (wet and dry), a whirlpool and a lot of faux pillars, statues and plants. This small-town boy was impressed.

Turns out the room was about the size of a train roomette, with a single bed and a locker, a small table and an ash-tray. But as I made my way through the maze of hallways to find it, it was clear that the decor was not uppermost on the priority list of my fellow bathers.

I do not recall all I got up to that night, perhaps for the purposes of this blog that’s for the best, but I have a vivid recollection of being with a guy I swore could have been Gino Vanelli who, at that time, had wild, dark curly hair (and all over his body!).

There were lots of men, in various states of undress, cruising the hallways, checking out the various facilities.

It was a pleasant initiation, the experience I would expand by visiting other bath houses over subsequent trips, in quick succession over the years, into the city.

Bath houses were so central to my early gay life in Toronto that I always kept money for a room separate from my beer money, in the event that I didn’t hook up with someone at a bar.

If ever I’ve had a “But for the grace of God, there go I” occasion (even though I have problems with that expression) it would have to have been February 5, 1981.

At 11 p.m. that night, more than 150 police carried out simultaneous raids on four of Toronto’s most popular bath houses, arresting close to 300 men. “Operation Soap” was the largest mass arrest in Canada since the October Crisis of 1970. This was long before police “sensitivity training”.

Had it not been a weeknight I might very well have been swept up in the raids as I was a frequent visitor to bath houses on my almost-weekly trips from St. Catharines to Toronto bars and baths.

Until the events of that night I was leading a tortuous double life as a twenty-one-year-old, secretly trying to extinguish my homosexuality during the week as part of a conservative church and inevitably giving in to my natural instincts on the weekend (or whenever my days off happened to be) in the anonymity offered by the big city across the lake.

I came out to my parents, writing them a letter.

I was livid when the pastor of my church wrote a letter to the local paper praising the actions of the Toronto police.

Assuming that television cameras would catch me at the protests, following the raids, I came out to my parents, writing them a letter. Their positive response included them telling me that my brother, Craig, had come out to them a few years earlier. Understandably, neither they nor Craig were interested in telling me so long as I was part of the fundamentalist church.

The bath raids brought me out of the closet, frankly feeling more angry than liberated, and I count myself among the thousands in Toronto who can trace their passion for gay liberation politics through the tumultuous events of the raids and the subsequent massive demonstrations. I hung out with Rick Bebout and Chris Bearchell (who gave me a button which read “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”) and others, at a few meetings/parties at The Body Politic. I later wrote, infrequently granted, for TBP (the excellent forerunner to Pink Triangle Press’ Xtra!) – particularly when, in January, 1985, police arrested men having sex in public washrooms in Welland and St. Catharines.

Niagara Regional Police released the names and addresses of the accused. Most media outlets ran them – before trial – including my employer, but not before I engaged in a heated argument with my boss. He insisted on “the public’s right to know” (read gossip) while I argued that the extreme sensitivity of the charges far exceeded the seriousness of the allegations.

Very few of the accused fought the charges. In rural west St Catharines a 42-year-old father of two, and a Sunday school teacher, was found dead in his car, having soaked himself with gasoline and set off his lighter. Just days earlier, he had been at the Fairview Mall. Three hours before his suicide, he had been charged with gross indecency.

He missed his trial; didn’t enter a plea. He was never convicted and yet he, and many others, had already been punished by the police and the media. The St. Catharines Standard was an outstanding exception, not only withholding the names of the accused but also doing a series of reports on the phenomenon of anonymous sex, even “tearoom sex”.

It was heart-warming to find so many of the activists with whom I had cut my political teeth, in the aftermath of the bath raids, now playing key roles in Toronto’s response to the AIDS crisis.

Using a pseudonym, so as not to upset management at the St. Catharines radio station where I was employed (I’d already caused a ruckus by “coming out” in the local paper), I worked with other activists on various information and political action campaigns through my years there in the 1980s.

When I was diagnosed with HIV, and then AIDS, not long after moving to Toronto in 1988 it was heart-warming to find so many of the activists with whom I had cut my political teeth, in the aftermath of the bath raids, now playing key roles in Toronto’s response to the AIDS crisis.

The Pride parades in Toronto, now held each June, got their biggest shot in the arm following the raids. What had only loosely been called a “community” was now a community indeed. We became very adept organizers and campaigners of all sorts.

Another of the lasting legacies of the raids is the almost universal disdain with which the Toronto Sun is held in the LGBT community. The paper, and most notably columnist Claire Hoy, were constant cheerleaders of the brains behind the raids at the Attorney-General’s office and Metro Toronto Police’s 52 Division. Ironically relations with the police have greatly improved over the years.

The Sun? For “old-timers”, at least, not so much.

Reprise: A human wreck at ‘Wreck Beach’


It was my first visit to the west coast, that summer of 1996, and – given my fragile health – I was determined to make it the trip of a lifetime. I would fly to Vancouver and then take the train across Canada to return home.

My purpose in being out there was to attend the XI International Conference on AIDS. As a “scholarship” recipient, with registration and basic expenses covered, I stayed with others on similarly limited budgets in the residences at the University of British Columbia. A more beautiful university campus I have not seen, built on a large, elevated point of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the city’s west end.

Campus maps clearly showed several beaches nearby. They did not, however, indicate changes in elevation. So it was that I set out to find Wreck Beach, a place of some considerable legend, in Canada anyway, that I knew to be “clothing optional”. I left my room, at the Gage Residence and Conference Centre, in the early morning of my first full day there, skipping breakfast – as was my habit back then – even though it was already close to noon by my jet-lagged body clock.

I took my time, walking around the campus to establish some landmarks in my mind, being admittedly wasteful of physical energy which was at a premium. I continued to recover from a serious AIDS-related illness, cryptosporidiosis, a parasite which gives understated meaning to the expression “feeling shitty”.

Crossing NW Marine Drive, loosely wrapping its way around the tip of the campus, I found myself in  which, for what I mistook to be a more urban park, did not seem to have a lot of signs. Looking for a path to the ocean, which I could unmistakably hear through the sky-high Douglas fir trees, I came upon a trail I would only later discover had been created by nothing more than rain run-off. It seemed like a path to me. I could forgive the Parks Department for such a primitive trail, given the unspoiled nature evident everywhere the eye could see.

I began my hike downward, stepping over fallen branches, carefully walking around patches of mud, all the while trying to absorb the sheer beauty of the lush plant-life; the unfamiliar songs of the coastal birds. The terrain was becoming progressively steeper and this path I had found did not zigzag across the hillside the way I would have expected. It soon became necessary to grab hold of trees just to keep my footing. I was glad to be wearing comfortable sneakers, although hiking boots would not have been an overly cautious choice to have made. As the grade of the slope increased – calculating such things has never been my strong suit – I began to let myself slide from tree to tree, grabbing on for dear life. Then I fell – still upright, such was the steepness – and began a precipitous plunge. As alarmed as I was, and I cannot overstate my initial sense of panic, I kept my wits about me and watched for obstacles that might injure me. I don’t recall how long this took but I don’t think twenty or thirty seconds would be an exaggeration. Finally I felt my back brush lightly over a patch of rock and I landed in a thicket of ferns, small twigs, coming to a stop with sand kicking up between my legs and spraying my face. I lay there quickly doing a mental checklist of any injuries and, finding none, I stood up only to realize that – somewhere between standing upright and falling upright – I had let go of more than a few trees. To my horror my pants were, uh, soiled.

After quickly forgiving myself, given my health and the excitement of the last few moments, it seemed quite fitting that I should need to wash my clothes on this clothing optional beach even if my very first walk in to the Pacific was to do laundry! I cleaned myself up, using the clothes as I peeled them off, and then tip-toed in to the pounding surf, scrubbing as I went. Now, completely naked and with no dry clothes to wear, I claimed an isolated part of the beach and draped my jeans and shirt across a couple of large rocks. It would be a few more minutes before the sun would come from back behind the trees I had just fallen through. It would be some time more before my clothes were dry. That’s how I got one of the worst sunburns of my life, on parts of me which had not seen the sun for an extended period of time, and how I learned – later from another delegate to the conference (who did not get the whole story of my first day at Wreck Beach) – that vinegar works wonders on taking the sting out of a sunburn!

Much more could be written on the time travel-esque atmosphere created by some of the Wreck Beach regulars. 

 

No offence to ‘black dogs’ but I got real today


Bright and early this morning, before I could slip into dishonesty, I volunteered to my diabetes specialist that I was depressed.  Actually it was more like joining in conversation with her as she wondered aloud if any ‘black dogs’ were about.

There’s always something cathartic about admitting this after circular self-arguments about whether I am or am not.  What’s with the shame? Jeez, I’ve been treated for major depression for over twenty-five years – what’s the big deal if I have a flare-up that meds, at least temporarily, don’t seem to be helping?

She asked if I had a friend I could talk to when I’m feeling down.  Several came to mind.

Not unrelated, my diabetes is not controlled at this time (it would help if I did what I was told).  I promised her I was already back on track and showing positive results. That’s true.

My weight is down about three kilograms.  This is not good as my bony ass feels tremendous discomfort in typical meeting chairs.  I can’t find a good cushion.

I’ll see my HIV doc on Friday when more of my blood test results will be revealed.  I can’t say I’ll be surprised if there’s a problem.

Affirmation: I deserve to take the best possible care of myself.

Out for 35 years


Reading something which noted that 1981 was 35 years ago jarred me into realizing that it was three-and-a-half decades ago this very month that I officially came out of the closet, by which I mean letting my family know that I was gay.

It was in the context of the uproar over the bathhouse raids by Toronto police in which, but for luck, I was not involved.

This weekend’s cold temperatures remind me of the cold nights spent protesting the raids, a fear of being seen on the TV news which propelled me to pen a letter of coming out to my Mom and Dad.

It was met with a phone call from Mom in which she assured me of their unconditional love for me (after I had imagined worst case scenarios of a different kind for no reason).

35 years!  I was a fresh-skinned 21-year old then on the eve of the first cases of AIDS being reported in the United States.  I managed to escape the first waves of death which swept through the community and now count myself among ‘long-term survivors’.  AIDS still seems very real to me but I no longer take for granted that I will die prematurely.  I’m trying to accept that there are some things I just don’t know.

There have been other things which could have, and could yet, kill me but, for now, I am trying to re-experience the energy I recall from those powerful days of protest in 1981.

Chasing the HI on a glucose meter


I spent the afternoon yesterday in the Emergency Department of Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital after a drug overdose, albeit accidental, when I tried to eliminate a “HI” reading on my glucose meter with two, then three times the recommended dosage of my insulin.  It was lost on me that doubling and tripling up on a time release insulin formula was plunging it well beyond my control, rather than naively reining it in.

“Stop chasing the ‘HI,” quipped the ER doc after an uncomfortable stay, clearing me out with an IV, a cookie and some orange juice.

Indeed.

Thank you to staff of my housing co-op for providing me with a ride to, and a taxi from, Mount Sinai and to Ryan for staying with me pre-treatment.

Leaving Unit 503 upright


I am surrounded by boxes, both packed and empty. This week I am changing units within my housing co-op, moving house for the first time since 1992.

When I re-located to this building 23 years ago I thought, with good reason, that my death was imminent; that I would be here a short time before being discreetly carried out, feet-first, in a black bag – as had been the case for several other friends with AIDS before and since.

Diane Frankling Co-operative Homes, formerly Bleecker Street Co-op, has historically given priority for its rent-geared-to-income units to people living with HIV/AIDS, persons with mental illness (I am, therefore, dually qualified) and women escaping abusive relationships.

Just one floor up and across the hall, dominant morning sun will be replaced by the afternoon’s; plants will need to be re-positioned accordingly. Rather than a view of Cabbagetown roof-tops I will look on to another apartment building and, to my left, a partial but exciting view of Toronto’s impressive skyline.

While I have purged a lot of stuff, and packed quite a bit more, the move just one floor up has me in a sense of suspended animation. Clothes remain on hangers because, well, they can be carried upstairs just like that. It’s the same with my plants.

What I can only pack figuratively are 23 years of memories from here – the early house parties, the cats which I have loved (Sujata is only beginning to suspect we’re up to something), the recovery from my 2003 crash (John Kerry, I so relate to your broken femur!), and the guests and uninvited who have plopped down on the dump-bound sofa.

The weight of these years is affecting me emotionally, positively and poignantly, but it is a marker of the new era of HIV/AIDS that I am leaving Unit 503 walking upright.