Fisting, HIV and the rejection of Leather.

Although the bathwater has long since turned tepid, neither person moves. Limbs float on top of murky liquid, skin smelling of lavender and eucalyptus. The ebb and flow of water against the body subdues the mind, transporting thoughts to an oasis of infinite, rippling pools. A sudden movement awakes me, tearing me from long sought tranquility. We look at each other across the water; resigned, withdrawn, distant. He hoists himself onto his knees; falling water smacking on water. He shuffles closer, liquid frothing as it crashes against his body. The eruption destroys the stillness, ushering in a new period of wakefulness and anxiety.

Beneath the surface, his hand explores, crawling into the unexplored darkness. As the hand seeps deeper, my breath quickens. The entry of a finger transports me to my last rectal exam; the intrusion of a third hits a nerve that causes my back to contort. As his body disappears beneath the surface, he whispers, the sound barely escaping narrowly parted lips.

“Relax”.

The breath tickles the lob of my ear.

“Just…Relax…”

I had known it was going to happen.

Earlier discussion had spurred angst, trepidation, reluctance.

Fear.

But a fear of what? And why? Sure, the seemingly barbaric act of shoving a fist up ones arse naturally poses a risk. You can tear things, rupture membranes. But in the right hands (pun intended) fisting can be a wildly pleasurable experience.

Fisting is not a ‘risky’ sexual behavior. HIV, Chlamydia, Syphilis are not invited to the party. As it turns out, my aversion to fisting has roots in contemporary gay history. While fisting has come to be accepted by the community, in days not too far gone, many regarding it as an act of vulgarity. By association, the rejection of fisting meant a rejection of the Leather community. The AIDS epidemic provided the perfect opportunity to propagate internal homophobia and police Leather sexualities.

***

Gay identities fracture along specific cultural and behavioral lines. The Leather community is one of the more established subgroups, born from a rejection of the prevalent effeminate stereotypes during the 1940s. The Leather community is far from monolithic, divided into numerous subgroups. Sexual practices often distinguish the group from the wider community. The practice of fisting has long been tied to Leather community.

The 1970s ushered in a period of unabashed gay sexuality. With more visibility and acceptance than ever, gay men established niche cultural spaces that celebrated their unique identities. While bathhouses were established homosexual meeting grounds, less prevalent were the bars and clubs devoted to specific sexual behaviors. In popular Leather enclaves, such as San Francisco’s South of Market district, spaces were entirely devoted to the act of fisting. Though not technically a club, the Catacombs provided a private arena for public fisting. As cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin notes, the Catacombs provided an environment where “a person could experience a hand in his butt…in total, absolute comfort.”

Despite the sexual liberation, gay community politics was rent with divisions. Internal prejudice toward the Leather community was prevalent. The sexual practices in which these men engaged often driving society critique. There is no need to dwell too greatly on this. Suffice to say, yes there were divisions, butt, for the most part, individuals stuck to their niche groups and lived a somewhat happy existence.

This was to change in the 1980s. As AIDS ate away at the queer social fabric, gay men found unity in an unprecedented attack against their brothers in leather. When a mysterious disease tied to sexual behavior erupted in California and New York City, those who practiced ‘unnatural’ sexual behavior fell suspect.

In July 1981, the New York Times reported the discovery of a rare skin cancer in 41 homosexual men in America. The specific cancer, Kaposi's Sarcoma was seldom seen in healthy Caucasian men living in the Northern hemisphere. What was first met by intrigue morphed into a large scale crisis that would forever change the nature of the gay community. Kaposi's Sarcoma, along with pneumocystis pneumonia, went on to become emblematic of the AIDS epidemic. More men were to die from AIDS than the total number of US soldiers lost in Vietnam.

When met by crisis, it is not uncommon for individuals to assign blame, hoping to rid society of a damaging impurity. It is a social practice that dates back centuries. And so, throughout the first decade or so of the crisis, sexual behaviors characteristically associated with Leather (particularly fisting) fell victim to medical apprehension. While these behaviors were not risky, sex educators were quick to suggest otherwise. The gay community finally had a means to monitor their sexual behavior. Leather groups had ushered in a virus, and their perverted culture would suffer.

***

In the absence of social and political care, gay men took it upon themselves to educate and to be educated; to understand and ultimately defeat the mysterious virus. Safe sex manuals became common place, offering a means to remain up to date with the latest medical news and developments. The manuals were sex positive. It was certainly unreasonable to assume all men adopt a policy celibacy. So gay men did what they could to maintain mentally and physically healthy sexual relationships. Naturally, with the passing of time, behaviors once deemed a risky were welcomed back into everyday sexual practices. As wonderful as all this dissemination of knowledge may be, there was a limit. You see, science was rather fast to recognize that fisting a low-risk behavior. Yet, sex manuals conveniently withheld this information.

For almost a decade.

Why was this the case? Why were sex-positive health educators so instant that fisting be avoided? Surely, in all their sex positive glory they ought to have celebrated the discovery that fisting is safe. AIDS allowed for the eradication of the practice distained by the wider gay community. This policing was an indirect assault on the Leather community.

AIDS did not cause the attack on fisting, it merely lent legitimacy.

It must have been easy to buy into the anti-Leather hysteria of sex educators. Despite campaigns to close bathhouses, many were finically able to remain in open during the early years of the crisis. For instance, in San Francisco in “sex clubs and bathhouses remained open … in defiance of a city order to shut down” in 1984. Leather clubs, much smaller in size and number was quick to disappear. They not afford attorneys to fight their legal battles. And then there was the shifting demographics at South of Market. This urban haven for Leather was disappearing. It would be hard not to believe that the Leather community was not hit hardest by AIDS.

Of course, AIDS was not caused by fisting (nor other kinks). Nor was it caused by the frequency of sexual partners (another prejudice toward Leather). As for the demographic shifting of South of Market, Rubin notes that the area had been redeveloping since the 1970s. Yet no one was to know this at the time. And so, the Leather community was stigmatized, blamed for starting a crisis. In her study of South of Market, Rubin sums up the anti-leather hysteria a contemporary quote: “The Angle of Death spreads his black leather wings.” All gay men were suffering because of the Leather community’s exaggerated ethos of free liberal sex. Their freedom had to end.

***

Naturally, as the story so often goes, victims become the unsung heroes. The Leather community feverishly fought in the battle against AIDS. An active member of the Leather Community, Graylin Thorton, recalls the apathy of the wider community’s desire to raise awareness. The Leather community was at the forefront of raising awareness helping men in need. They worked tirelessly to raise money for the community at large, despite the blame and victimization they faced. By 1982, infected men were facing staggering bills thanks to endless hospital visits. Work discrimination only exacerbated finical needs. Even the faintest suspicion of an AIDS diagnosis was enough to warrant a man losing their jobs. The AIDS Emergency Fund was one of the first charities to help financially struggling men maintain care and keep possession of their homes in light of foreclosures. Today, the Aids Emergency Fund has distributed over $30,000,000 to improve the livelihood of those living with the virus. The founding members were proud members of South of Market’s Leather scene.

***

Lying in that bathtub, I was utterly ignorant, unaware of the gay community’s disregard of Leather. Nor was I aware that discourse around fisting operated as a tool prejudice and discrimination. It is mind boggling that during a time of extreme uncertainty and hardship, the non-leather community capitalized on the epidemic, policing the sexual practices of which they had long deemed perverse. All the while, the bravery and organization of the Leather community is largely pushed out of the historical record, eclipsed by the larger organizations such as ACT UP.

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