In June 2021, I set a rare mid-year intention. Things were looking up then. The holiday surge had subsided, and the vaccines – to the majority of us who wanted it – were widely available. I thought I should start thinking about dating again.
But, pandemic or not, I’m not a good dater. I’m not a “first impression” kinda guy. More charitable description would analogize me to fine wine that takes time to appreciate. Friends who know me well had said that I was caustic when they first met me. My approach could be an unconscious front for my insecurity and awkwardness when meeting new people.
In a romantic setting, call it bad flirting.
I thought I would thrive with online dating during the pandemic. I assumed people would be more open to getting to know people without meeting them for a while, like virtual pen pals. I thought it’d be romantic. But invariably they’d lose interest after a few days of back-and-forth.
Most gay men are not into Jane Austen novels either. We don’t swoon over Mr. Darcy or try to emulate him. (Read this and this if you need more background on the connection between Jane Austen and letter writing.)
If I meant business about pandemic dating, I knew then that I had to find potential dates in person, not online. I had been in a year and a half of introvert hibernation; what little social skill I had was rusty at best. So my intention was a fractal of my long-term goal:
I will put myself in situations where I don’t know most people and learn to tell my story.
Then Delta hit.
The reality is, after more than one lockdown, you learn to adapt. You learn to live with the pandemic, because there is no avoiding it completely, even as an introvert. During the summer surge, I still managed to enact my intentions, in ways that made me feel safe and without posing dangers to others.
I went to my first house party in years (outdoors), where the only people I knew were the host, her husband, and one mutual friend. I had prepped for the outing by telling myself that all I had to do was stay for an hour. I ended up staying for three (even after the mutual friend left). I was pleasant, and my attempts at humor didn’t offend anyone.
There were a couple of things that could’ve led to some sexual or romantic potential. I went to a clothing-optional yoga and mediation retreat for queer men (another story) and joined a LGBT hiking group in Griffith Park. Nothing sexual or romantic came of either group, but I made a couple of new friends – no small feat for a middle-aged wallflower.
When Delta started to wane, I even did a couple of pre-pandemic-style hookups. They were purely physical, and we didn’t do anything high-risk. Not gonna lie, it felt good to kiss and touch someone. There was no what-if’s. It was sensual and uncomplicated.
We’ve been on this merry-go-round before. In the 1990s, we had conversations about status and you trusted people to be honest. Hookup sites now have people’s vaccination status next to their HIV one.
It got me thinking. If and when COVID starts to go away (or just becomes manageable), and as I start to have sex more, with different partners, I need to think about HIV protection. There is no AIDS vaccine yet, but there is PrEP.
Some in our community are opposed to PrEP because they believe that PrEP would encourage gay men to be promiscuous. Believe it or not, for all its medical horror, these critics had thought an upside of AIDS was that it reined in what they saw as the excess of the sexual experimentation since the Stonewall rebellion.
When I consulted with an infectious disease doctor about PrEP, she said the medical community still recommends that I use a condom during sexual intercourse. The half-hearted way she said “medical community” felt like she was distancing herself from it. As in, I know why you’re here, but I still have to say it, like the speedy-mouthed disclaimers in the last 3 seconds of those cheesy commercials about new drugs that no one could make out or bother to. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t believe in it, but more because she knew when people like me go to her for PrEP, we’re thinking exactly of exchanging bodily fluids in a way that doesn’t involve a condom.
Because I can still catch other STDs, I filled in the blank for her, eager to move on.
Exactly, she said. It doesn’t change the fact that unprotected sex and sex with multiple partners are still high risk.
For a long time, I was against PrEP too, but not for any prudish reason. My initial objection to PrEP was more ideological. We haven’t found a cure or a vaccine in the four decades since the first AIDS case in the U.S. Big Pharma has been making a lot of money from people with HIV all this time. They talk openly about how profitable the HIV market is and analyze its trend like they’re selling smartphones. And now they’ve found a way to profit off people who are not HIV-positive by inventing a pill that we have to take every day to be effective. I just didn’t want to contribute to their coffers.
In that period of deliberation, my friend - a dyke - told me: Get it and be slutty. We both had cut our political teeth on AIDS activism in the 1990s. And despite the apocalyptic public health messages that equated not wearing condom with death, many AIDS activists told us not to be afraid of our sex and to embrace our kinky sides. They gave us harm reduction. AIDS wasn’t a moment of paralysis, but one of experimentation. AIDS activist Douglas Crimp even explained how, against conventional wisdom, our promiscuity and creativity had saved a lot of us from the epidemic.
Be Slutty should be the refrain of PrEP commercials. No disclaimers needed.
In the end, the horny side, the side of “if you take the blue pill, they will come,” won out.
I’m three weeks into taking PrEP. Recently, I had a dream where I found myself at some sort of party sitting next to a handsome stranger. We had a great conversation, at the end of which I asked him for his name - something that I’d be too shy to do in real life. For what it’s worth, his name was Chatterton. I don’t remember much else, but I remember feeling brave when I woke up.
If even my subconscious is sold on my mid-year intention, I am ready for the next phase: Be Slutty.
For more stories about AIDS activism in the Asian American community, check out my new book, Love Your Asian Body!