Posts tagged “sex

How I Survived a Plague

Kergan Edwards-StoutI survived a plague.

It once seemed unfathomable I’d ever write such words, let alone experience just such a cataclysmic event.  Growing up in a bland but largely protected Southern California suburb in the 60s and 70s, I had no clue what lie ahead.  Acquaintances, friends, co-workers, and lover, dead.  A myriad of others infected.  Who could have foreseen the years of public apathy, private sorrow?  Emerging decades later into a world where few seem to acknowledge the experience occurred, let alone the toll taken.  Somehow, though, I stand here today having survived the AIDS epidemic, and I still marvel at how.

In 1981, when what would eventually become known as AIDS peripherally entered our national consciousness, I was 16 years old.  I’d known I was attracted to other boys as far back as I could remember.  Hitting sixteen, I was able to put my driver’s license to good use, beginning weekly sojourns to a bookstore in neighboring Long Beach, CA, where I’d spend my allowance on LGBT fiction, The Advocate, and gay porn. This avid need to read and learn would serve me well, as I distinctly recall that moment when I first saw a headline about a gay cancer, attacking the New York community. KerganHawaiiIn July 1982, at virtually the same moment the disease was being renamed, from GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) to the more accurate AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), I was experiencing my first sexual encounter, on a family vacation to Maui. Lying on a hill overlooking a beautiful, deserted beach cove, I finally gave myself over to the stirrings I’d long felt. Even as this older stranger initiated me into the ways of gay sex, I was cognizant of the disease attacking gay men, fully aware of the wolf at the door. Moments after finishing, I pulled on my bathing suit, quickly hurrying around the corner of the cove, only to bump into my sister, on her way to find me. The realization that mere seconds separated me from discovery introduced a gnawing element of fear to the moment. But that factor of fear may very well be the reason I’m still here.

How to Survive a PlagueWith the release of David France’s Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, now on DVD, I was immediately reminded of those many years and how, for me, sex and fear became — for better or worse — inextricably intertwined. The film skillfully communicates the era’s panic and anger, as well as the resolute determination of the LGBT community to combat the virus. As I watched it, long-forgotten voices and faces materialized, transporting me to a time in which I often felt as if engaged in a secret war.

I was reminded of James, so closeted that even a meal in public was conducted in whispers. I remembered hushed conversations about who had “it;” the line between the “have” and “have not’s” never more apparent. I thought of those awkward dinners where my date would reveal his sero-status, and I would attempt to finish the meal pleasantly, as if that news hadn’t really mattered. And I remembered the first man I personally knew to die, always-smiling Jon, who went so quietly, few even registered that he was gone.

Today CondomsAs a youth, growing up, sex had been labeled both a sin and something to treasure, and these warring contradictions, added to the lessons learned from my dysfunctional family makeup, bore in me a sense of prudery. Mix that prudishness with a lurking transmittable disease, and my sexual awakening proved not the spree of abandon I’d long imagined, but instead a series of battles, each encounter fraught with the fear that HIV could enter my body at any time, at the slightest provocation. This led me to study everything I could about the virus, to fortify myself. This quest for knowledge, however, proved difficult, as each news account seemed to give varying and often conflicting instructions. It can be spread through saliva. No, it can’t. They’ve discovered a drug. But it doesn’t work. It can’t be spread through oral sex. No, wait–it can! No, it can’t! A cure is coming. No cure to be found.

Each sex act became a scientific experiment. If one condom was effective, would two be even better? Am I using the right lubricant? What is nonoxynol-9? Is microwavable plastic wrap the preferred barrier for rimming, or non-microwavable? Such questions made it difficult to lose myself in the moment, but they also allowed passion a momentary respite, providing a window in which to turn my hyper-vigilance into action.

Desperate at seeing my community under attack, I found myself at AIDS Project Los Angeles, first as volunteer and later as staff, where my efforts centered on HIV prevention. It was my goal to keep other gay men HIV negative, but even that was fraught with uncertainty. We acted as if shamans, sprinkling our mystical educational nuggets across the landscape, but we were more used car salesmen than anything, selling the masses education we didn’t really believe in, with few of us actually practicing what we preached. We advocated using dental dams or plastic wrap for rimming. Finger cots or latex gloves for ass play. We preached using condoms for oral sex, and pretended that the flavored lubricants we hawked actually enhanced the act, as if everyone wanted to taste synthetic strawberry instead of cock.

Sex EssentialsWe made every effort to keep our messages “sex positive,” to ensure we didn’t add to the years of shame gay men had suffered, being made to feel less-than. While fear had proven an effective deterrent for me, “scare tactics” were frowned upon. Marketing campaigns depicting those ill or dying was forbidden, so as not to offend those with HIV, or to imply that death was a foregone conclusion. Instead, we repeatedly insisted that not only was safer sex hot, but it could be even hotter than sex without condoms. As if anyone believed it.

To sell this vision, we created workshops around enhancing intimacy and building self-esteem, the theory being that by feeling better about oneself, more care would be taken around sexual health. If you care about yourself, you’ll use condoms. But that message was faulty, as the reverse would also be true: If you aren’t using condoms, you’re an unfeeling asshole who doesn’t about anyone, especially yourself.  Which led men to again feel shame. Guilt trips are rarely effective.

As months became years, what began as a quiet war eventually grew to a loud roar. Nights in West Hollywood were an endless cycle: handing out condoms at bars, engaging in street protests, attending meetings for QueerNation or ACT UP, and leading courses in safer sex. We screamed until hoarse and marched until we couldn’t stand, then went out dancing all night and had as much sex as possible. I recall seminars such as Marianne Williamson’s A Course in Miracles and Louise Hay’s Hay Rides; more than once wondering why I was there. Many of those attending were HIV-positive, searching for healing. I was there because… what? Was I seeking community? A sense of belonging? To cruise hot guys? Or was I searching for a cure for what ached in my soul?

Shane Michael SawickUltimately, however, why I was there wasn’t important. The important thing is that I was there.

Shane Sawick was HIV-positive when we met, with a t-cell count of less than 200, which technically meant that he had AIDS. As we began dating, technical became actual very quickly, and within two years, he was dead.

When I’d first heard through a friend that Shane was interested in me, I was flattered, but didn’t give it much thought. He was HIV-positive, after all, and while I acted like it didn’t matter, it did. There was little hope back then, and I knew what the road ahead held. I had no desire to go down that path; I was afraid. Not for my physical health, as by then I was as knowledgeable as most doctors, but I feared what such loss could do to my soul. How can one begin to indulge in loving fully, knowing there is an expiration date? Why experience what you know will be fleeting? And how can you ever move forward again, having loved and lost?

The idea of a relationship with Shane scared the shit out of me, but I knew I had to face that fear, however messy. I’d beaten my fear of infection through education, and thought I might beat my emotional fears by confronting them. I chose love, in all its complexity, and found myself rewarded. Connecting to another, giving fully, putting his needs ahead of my own — these molded me into the man I am today. Experiencing horrific pain and sadness through his death and that of my friends created shadings within, deep pockets of understanding, ultimately making me a better human being, partner, and father.

Russ, Kergan, Mason and MarcusThroughout the crisis, I met countless number doing everything possible to educate, empower, and eradicate a deadly disease, while a much larger number of people did nothing. Those of us engaged in the fight might not have done everything we should have, or could have, but the mere act of doing is what kept me sane, and maintaining a healthy respect for the disease kept me HIV-negative.

Love, mixed with more than a little bit of fear, is how I survived the plague.

Kergan Edwards-Stout’s debut novel about one man’s battle with AIDS, Songs for the New Depression, was winner of the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ category, shortlisted for the Independent Literary Awards and named one of the Top Books of 2012 by Out in Print and others.

Photography: Kergan Edwards-Stout  as a child and in Hawaii (provided by author); Paul Staley (How to Survive a Plague); Kergan Edwards-Stout in a condom ad (Today Condoms) and performing in an AIDS Project Los Angeles safer sex education campaign as Biff Boffum, to Lawrence Jurado’s LaToya Latex (Ed Freeman); Shane Sawick (Ed Freeman); the author today with his family, Russ Noe, Mason and Marcus Edwards-Stout (Sara+Ryan Photography)

Cross-posted on Huffington Post and LGBTQ Nation.


Author Xavier Axelson Makes the Leap from Erotica

Following success as a writer of erotica and as columnist for Examiner.com, author Xavier Axelson has surprised readers with his debut novel, Velvet, a work of historical fiction which tells the tale of a royal tailor.  While still containing the potent mix of love & longing for which he is known, the novel format allows Axelson to explore other elements which the short story format didn’t allow.

Prior to Velvet, Axelson had cultivated a devoted following of readers for his shorter, more steamy work, leading venerable critic Amos Lassen to anoint Axelson “a master of the erotic.”  Now, however, with a new and different tale to tell, I was eager to learn more about Axelson’s journey between genres and formats, and the inspirations behind his work.

Kergan Edwards-Stout:  Xavier, you were so gracious in interviewing me for Examiner, it is great to be returning the favor!  With Velvet, you’re finally releasing your first novel.  I guess the obvious question, given your success with erotica, is what made you decide to write a work of historical fiction?

Xavier Axelson:  It was a complete surprise.  I didn’t start out with the intention to write a historically-based novel.  Then again, I never thought I would write erotica!  I just go where the story and characters tell me.  They are driving, so I simply follow behind and trust they know what to do and how to steer.

What can you tell us about Velvet?

It is the story of Virago, the royal tailor, and is set against a backdrop of decadence, privilege, and intrigue.

When you begin a new work such as this, especially when it contains historical elements, how deeply do you delve into research of the period?

Velvet is based on historical ideas, but the world and its characters within are completely fictitious.   I love research.  I find it is a great way to take the fear out of the unknown.  In this case, Velvet was a pleasure to research because I love the Elizabethan, Medieval and Shakespearean periods.  This story opened my eyes to so many unique details involving the coronation of Elizabeth I, the interior structures of castles, and even how the blind learn to sew and cut patterns.

Prior to this, most of your work has been with short stories and novellas.  What prompted this leap to the novel form?

I didn’t set out to write a novel!  I initially assumed that Velvet would be a novella, but, as the story progressed, the characters became more generous with their voices and stories.  I felt it was my duty to return the favor and ensure their voices were heard.

While other authors pick one genre to focus on, it seems that you write what you want, regardless of genre. 

It’s true.  I don’t stick with any one genre.  In between Earthly Concerns and Velvet, I wrote a short story called Cravings that was published as part of a zombie/horror collection.  I’d never thought about writing a zombie story–and that’s exactly what intrigued me.  I refuse to believe in genre imprisonment.

Where does your desire to write come from?

It comes from a need to write.  I feel compelled to do it, as writing is an extension of my physical self.  It speaks to my truest, most authentic self.

Most of your earliest literary success has been with the erotic.  What is the most common misperception of erotica writing?

That it has little literary merit.  However, I find the works of Henry Miller, Marquis de Sade, Anaïs Nin, and The Sleeping Beauty books by Anne Rice to be worthy defenders against such misconceptions.  Erotica does not automatically equal pornography.

In addition to being described as a writer of erotica, I’ve also seen you labeled as a writer of psychological horror.  Given all these different labels, how would you describe yourself?

Well, erotic, exotic, and a little psychotic!

In your work, is there a fine line between the three?

I think many people feel intimacy, whether sexual or otherwise, is terrifying.  Psychosexual elements fascinate me, and while there is a fine line between the erotic and horrific, it is this line that is the most appealing to walk along.  The idea of the beautiful grotesque and the terror found in the mundane are both subjects I enjoy exploring.  Lines were meant to be crossed, as long as you’re brave enough to face whatever it is you may encounter on the other side.

With your background, is there a concern on your part that your work might not be taken seriously?

I don’t think what I do is serious.  My writing is incredibly personal to me and while I may be attached to what I do and view it as important, I am not curing cancer or stopping global warming.  That being said, what people may or may not think is beyond my control.  My writing speaks for itself and there are many works of erotic fiction that are masterpieces.

Who would you name as the top three people that inspire you, and why?

Tennessee Williams, because his writing awes me, his ability to dig into the darkness frightens and inspires me to follow after his characters… Lars Von Trier, because his visions are startling, eye opening, and undeniable.  And Georgia O’Keefe, because I believe in the power of the natural world she conveyed in her art.

Given that list, with all of their unique viewpoints and themes, when you look at your own work, is there one overarching theme or message you want to communicate? 

Hope, and the belief in oneself to find the light in the dark.

Xavier Axelson can be found on facebook, twitter, his website, and on Examiner.com.

Cross-posted on Kergan Edwards-Stout and Huffington Post.

 


THIS SHOW IS SO GAY gets even gayer–with me!

A huge shout out to Ken Schneck at THIS SHOW IS SO GAY for the fun interview.  He had actually read the book and done his homework, leading to some really great and surprising questions.  I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to be on the show, and hope that you all check it out.  The podcast is online, and the show is carried on several radio stations, so listen and let me know what you think!


Am I a Slut or a Prude?

Thongs

The other day, a friend who had just read my debut novel said, “Wow, Kergan, I didn’t think you were that sexual!”  His reference was to the amount of sex which occurs in the book, which admittedly is a lot, but his assumption about how that translated to my own sex life prompted, on my part, some self-examination.  And not with a dildo.

You see, to set this up properly, I am a 47-year-old gay man, with a few pounds of extra fat, and am rarely viewed these days as a sexual being.  I long ago entered the Invisible Era, which, for gay men who work out regularly, occurs at age 28.  (It is several years earlier for those who do not.)  In my daily life in suburban Orange County, CA, those I interact with see me primarily as partner to my not-legally-wed-hubby, Russ, and father to our two boys, Mason and Marcus.  As such, our days are filled with school, work, home, and sports, with me serving as glorified chauffer, cook, maid, tutor, nurse, and personal shopper.  That I have had, and continue to have, sexual thoughts and experiences never seems to cross most people’s minds–though they rarely leave mine.

Perhaps sexual longing, past a certain age, makes some uncomfortable.  Perhaps it brings up images of our parents.  Perhaps people assume I can no longer get it up.  Perhaps the visual of me tucked with my toes behind my ears, belly bulging even more than normal, isn’t appealing.  Or perhaps, more likely, people just don’t care one way or another about my sexual cravings.

But it wasn’t always this way.  In my twenties, I was a Professional Gay, living in the gayest of gay cities, West Hollywood, where the prospect of sex was all around me.  During the day, I worked at AIDS Project Los Angeles, running a safer sex program, where thousands at Pride witnessed me pulling strangers out from the crowd, strapping a dildo onto them, and rolling a condom down it with my mouth.  (Yes, I’m highly skilled.)  But, strangely enough, that prowess didn’t directly translate into getting dates.  Instead, each night my friends and I would perform our mandatory WeHo welcome wagon duties and circulate through the clubs, our route never varying.  My constant fear was that if I didn’t go out, that would be the one and only night Mr. Right would be there, and I’d have missed him. So I went out relentlessly, always hanging self-consciously on the periphery, fearing rejection, and invariably returning home alone.

Still, I did manage to have lots of sex.  In fact, if being a slut is determined solely by the number of people with which one has slept, I clearly win the crown, as my number is quite staggering.  But sex for me was always in the context of a relationship, or in a test-run of a potential mate.  There was always the expectation that the sex would or could lead to something more, which allowed me to separate myself from others.  In my mind, what I was doing was quite different than simply hooking up, and somehow “better.”  I looked down on those who fucked without introduction, as if the simple addition of a shared meal or movie substantially altered the meaning of the encounter. The irony, of course, is that while this self-serving world view allowed me to remain “pure” and above the common sluts, I may have had more sexual partners than they ever did.

I was both slut and prude, at the same time.

There is a part of me that regrets such prudishness.  I would’ve loved to have more fully explored all the sexual pleasures available to me.  There was so much I didn’t do, but I wonder now if that prudish hesitation is what kept me alive.  So many others from those days, including my partner Shane, weren’t so lucky.  But the combination of my own judgmental nature and my stellar HIV education kept me firmly in check, with condom in hand.

Today, in the Grindr Generation, there are so many issues with which men grapple, I’m not sure I could navigate love and sex.  Putting all of my physical stats out there?  No, thank you.  Photos of my cock?  Not until MiracleGro expands their product offerings.  Figuring out what “type” I am? Well, I could be a bear, given my extra weight–or do my 6 straggly chest hairs and full head of hair immediately disqualify me?  And let’s not even get into whether I am a top or a bottom.  I’ve always hated having to categorize myself, but the lead character, Gabriel, in my novel expresses my feelings better than I ever could:

Although far from butch, I really like to fuck.  And, though not incredibly femme, I also enjoy a hard dick shoved up my ass.  That these acts should somehow become confused with personal characteristics was both unfair and misleading.  In my not-so-distant past, I have been fucked silly by a rather overweight bald man, who favored lavender and pearls and, the very next day, served my saucisson to a ravenous French marine.  Both proved thoroughly enjoyable, but what label did these experiences warrant?  (Please don’t say “whore.”)

To say that I am simply “versatile” is also misleading, as it implies that I am capable of performing stupendous circus tricks at will (“And, folks, you should see what he can do with a cantaloupe!”)  Basically, “versatile” means you have no morals and will open your ass for anyone.  Although I am not always incredibly picky about my choice of partners, I do like to think that I have guidelines, however mutable.

As a younger man, my head was filled with such guidelines, but as I age, the lines between what I view as proper and improper have blurred, more than just a little.

Our eldest son, Mason, recently had the sixth grade “health talk” at school.  While the school nurse, understandably, focused on anatomy, conception, and health risks, we took this as an opportunity to speak with him further about all that sex is and can be.  We talked about love, and lust, and urges.  We talked about knowing when the time is right, and the importance of expressing feelings not only through actions, but through words.  And, most importantly, we talked about respect, for both our partners and ourselves.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if you think me a slut or a prude, for it is how I view myself that matters most.  The number of sexual partners we have isn’t as important as how respectfully we treat them–and how we feel about our actions later.  After all, one can have sex with a thousand people and still be a prude.  And, if you’re doing it right, you can have sex with only one, and still be a slut.

Cross-Posted on Huffington Post and Bilerico Project.


An Epic Kind of Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately. I’m grateful to be able to give it, and equally humbled to receive it, from Russ and the boys on a daily basis.

At a recent reading/signing for my novel, Songs for the New Depression, a woman asked if the book was about depression.  A valid question, given the book’s title, but “depression” is not what I was going for…

The title actually comes from an old Bette Midler album, for whom lead character, Gabriel, has an affinity.  Gabe has long been challenged by his past, particularly his unwillingness to fully deal with his emotions, which has lead to a long string of quick sexual encounters and ultimately futile relationships.  He has taken the easy route, never really facing his issues and, as much as he may want love and affection, he has no clue as to what real love is, let alone how to fully give himself to another.

When I was younger, I was much the same.  For me, though, sex was never casual.  It was all about finding “the one”.  I pictured an all-engulfing, romantic kind of love, but whenever I did feel “the fireworks”, a fire would soon follow.

It wasn’t until meeting Shane, who had been diagnosed with AIDS, did I rethink what it means to love, both in giving and receiving.  Prior to jumping in, as I would previously do, with him I carefully weighed my options, considering all outcomes, before entering into the relationship.  And that considered approach, in turn, led  to a more adult type of relationship, a richer love, and eventually a personal awakening.  Through giving myself over to someone as not only as partner, but caregiver, I finally faced my fears and darker emotions.  Through love, I discovered who I am and the strengths I have, and I am all the richer for it.

Many people think, because I attribute this to my experience to Shane, that Russ must feel slighted.  But Russ understands how transformational real love can be.  Russ and I moved slowly into our relationship, making sure it felt “right”.  And there is something about that more considered approach which not only feels authentic and “grown up”, but also seems to lead to an ever-increasing emotional connection and deeper affection.  Despite our 9 years together, our love continues to evolve, strengthen, and flourish, growing more rich and nuanced every day.

Thus, the theme of my book is not depression — or depressing.  Rather, it is all about love.  Wanting love, sometimes desperately.  Not knowing how to love, or what it really is.  Confusing sex with love.  Finally finding love–and then losing it.  And how love has the power to fully transform one’s own soul, if only we let it.

Love can be redemptive, changing our very existence.

To me, Songs for the New Depression is about that epic kind of love, fully engulfing.  Real love is not the fireworks.  It is the slow burn that comes from total enrapture.

And this song exemplifies just that: