The Risk of Loneliness

Last week I tweeted, "Thinking about loneliness as a driver for HIV infection among black gay men." I followed it up with a Facebook status update about how my friends rarely talk about marriage equality, at least not outside the abstract, but they do talk about loneliness, an insight that seems particularly relevant in these times. What inspired my brief social media exploration of this topic? Perhaps just reflecting on some of the conversations I've been having with other black gay and bisexual men. I think that the issue of loneliness is perhaps critical to how we think about HIV prevention and treatment issues.

I've seen firsthand the way that the fear or reality of loneliness structures our choices just as much as the economic realities that we experience or the litany of other structural forces do. I've talked to so many of my brothers about the reasons behind their sexual and romantic choices, and the desire for companionship and even the fear of being alone is always present somewhere. In a sense, the fear of loneliness is really rooted in a fear of being undesirable. In many of our communities, being coupled is the ultimate and most tangible expression of desirability. Isn't the anxiety and fear around loneliness really about a kind of fear of failure, in a sense? Social failure, perhaps? Romantic failure? Sexual failure?

HIV prevention has had a lot to say about black gay and bisexual men, our sexual behaviors in particular, from the policy, practice, and research perspective. I haven't seen HIV deal meaningfully with loneliness, and by extension with romantic love, intimacy, sensuality, desire, and eros, perhaps because loneliness and despair are not seriously considered. I also think it's taboo for a lot of us to talk openly and vulnerably about loneliness.

More about HIV: Do I think black gay and bisexual men have condomless sex because they are somehow lonely? No. Certainly not. But there is something about the way that our behaviors are negotiated, the way that our agency is asserted or not asserted, the way that we think about our own spectrum of options, and perhaps a desire to feel deeply that structures these choices. It's hard to see loneliness outside a social reward/punishment system, which is why many of us internalize these toxic homonormative and masculinist notions of desire and desirability and end up experiencing greater alienation and isolation in the process. We are a kind of city of beautiful but lonely men, daring not to transgress the rules of "no fats or fems" or "disease-free"/"I'm clean, you be clean too."

Risk is not just about behaviors, nor has it ever been. Condomless sex and "risk," as understood in the context of HIV prevention, is not about failure. Risk is a sensibility, an awareness, a desire, I think, to feel deeply, to feel something, because so many of us feel a kind of numbness, which is how we cope with being marginalized. There is pleasure, certainly; we are not merely the bleakness we endure. But there is suffering, which is the absolute core of oppression, another realm that neither HIV prevention nor LGBT politics has ventured into in a meaningful way.

Barebacking is not a drive toward death or an inclination toward reckless behavior, as some alarmists would suggest. It's about people wanting to live life at its deepest. Sexuality, in whatever manifestation, is life-affirming. Sex between us, in our various roles and explorations of pleasures and fetishes, is rich in symbolism, which may be one of the few outlets for expression for those of us who are denied other means.

Semen exchange, which is why I think the reproductive metaphors tend to animate the discourse, is, in essence, about being alive, being human, connecting to the primal, because on some level, perhaps intuitively, we sense this. Of course, this isn't always the most optimal way forward, for a variety of reasons, though maybe sometimes it is. Either way, to seek to understand it isn't to justify it, and we must do our due diligence to better understand how desire, pleasure, and romance function for us as black gay and bisexual men so that we can more effectively develop strategies to keep each other safe.

Loneliness suggests a crisis of meaning, because our ability to ascribe meaning to our lives and locate ourselves in some kind of larger narrative helps bring comfort to us. Structural violence interrupts that process. That's why art is so important for us to understand these larger and complex issues, particularly around loneliness. More than any behavioral science research, the exquisite and painfully beautiful letters from Joseph Beam to Essex Hemphill, and Hemphill's poetic responses to Beam, around loneliness are key to understanding the experience of black gay and bisexual men in this country.

So what do we do with this? Well, we must continue to imagine models and blueprints, intimate practices, ways of being in the world that aren't wound so tightly to models of romantic love, family, friendship, and sex that are separated by oceans. In the oceans I believe is where loneliness resides. We must better understand and develop intimate practices among each other that provide a greater spectrum of not only romantic possibilities but platonic ones, where touch between us isn't taboo. Sexual roles and sexual desires should not be an ending but a beginning. The often-quoted Beam line "black men loving black men is the revolutionary act" must be taken out of the realm of the aphoristic, the ideological, and operationalized.