Personal Dispatches: Writers Confront AIDS

A Dialogue with John Preston on AIDS, Sex, Death, and Illnesses of the Soul in the Gay Community

by Rich Grzesiak
Copyright © 1990 by Rich Grzesiak. All rights reserved.

writer John Preston, from Phyllis Christopher PhotographyTake one subject no gay writer is really comfortable with AIDS. Contact a gay writer-editor and sexual partisan who, in his mid-forties, is suddenly aware of his own HIV+ status. Raise some tantalizing questions about whether AIDS is helping or hurting the quality of our literature, the effectiveness of our politicking, the degree of attention AIDS receives to the detriment of other life threatening gay diseases, the strength of our own positive self images as a healthy people. And, in all immodesty, I think you will discover in this interview a discomforting, if not thought provoking, colloquy between two people of very divergent views.

John Preston is no stranger to gay writing, having been one of the first editors of The ADVOCATE during the 1970's. He's a sexual radical who championed the activities of the leather community during the eighties, a writer with any number of short stories, novels, erotica, non-fiction work and journalism to his credit. To his admirers and critics, he is a partisan who champions his ideas in an intelligent style that divides him from the shrieky polemics of others.

Not to his surprise but to his complete dismay, Preston learned of his HIV+ status some three years ago [2001 note: that would've been circa 1987]. It blocked his motivation to write for a time, but eventually recharged his batteries. One way he copes is to write. Utilizing the extensive network of friends he has among other gay writers and activists, he has succeeded in compiling Personal Dispatches: Writers Confront AIDS [St. Martin's Press; $17.95/hardcover], the best anthology of writing about AIDS ever produced. Novelists Edmund White and Andrew Holleran, essayists Andy Kantrowitz and Michael Bronski, and others all contribute some disturbing some might claim superbly discomforting literary essays on how they've confronted the maelstrom of AIDS in their ranks.

While I retain the deepest respect for John, I found myself quarreling with many of the scribes represented in his anthology, so I began my conversation with him in an inquisitive, if not combative frame of mind. Here's how it went:

RG = Rich Grzesiak; JP = John Preston

RG: One essay I struggled with in your book is by Robert Dawidoff you claim in your introduction his essays ("The Names Project" and "Memorial Day, 1988") sum up the purpose of Personal Dispatches. Dawidoff claims AIDS has invigorated our writing, a point I differ with. Do you think this is the case, and why?

JP: There had been a falling off of purpose in gay writing and now it has obtained startlingly clear direction. I don't think his point is all that different from a literary manifesto in a fall, 1989 issue of Harper's which called into question many aims of North American literature. There is such an autobiographical drive among American writers there has ceased to be writing about anything larger than themselves coming forth

RG: Style was and is obscuring substance? Content obscures form? Andrew was obscuring Holleran from us?

JP: In the case of gay novelist Andrew Holleran, I think his essays, like those in Ground Zero, were totally changed by AIDS In terms of his career, I think AIDS much invigorated his writing

RG: I imagine you also believe AIDS has revitalized gay politics?

JP: It fell apart five years ago it's still falling apart But I think these advances have come at too great a cost we haven't gained good things as a result of AIDS to the negation of everything else AIDS has certainly changed the whole terrain of our existence and how we view it, and those changes are what Dawidoff writes about

RG: AIDS has lent a lot of direction and intense feeling to gay writing and even, especially in the case of Randy Shilts', sold many books

JP: I would challenge that severely. Shilts' book was driven by some fairly melodramatic narratives and written for a general audience. On the whole, books about AIDS have not done well with the reading public nor do AIDS books do well with gays themselves. There was this huge expectation AIDS books were going to sell well because of the marketplace's proven appetite for self-help books, yet we've seen a marked desire not to read about, let alone deal with it. This makes writing all the more intense it becomes even purer, if you will

In Ground Zero, Andrew Holleran makes the point he didn't want to read about AIDS for a long time, so he didn't write about it either I think that perception continues to be a major threat. The world itself doesn't want to pay attention to AIDS in 1989 the UN's World Health Organization (WHO) used a military metaphor in asserting we are losing the battle against AIDS through complacency.

RG: I believe AIDS is actually sapping gay political strength. AIDS has eliminated a percentage of the total political cohesion available to gays for legislative struggles for gay civil rights. The struggle for AIDS issues has enabled us to barely hold onto the progress we've made for asserting gay civil rights AIDS activism has gotten in the way of fighting for gay rights, if you will.

JP: AIDS activism and gay rights activism can't be separated, no matter how much you might want to, and it's a profoundly shameful flaw in how our general society works The kinds of moral metaphors society uses in dealing with AIDS are simply a fact of life. You cannot expound on AIDS and gay rights as two separated, unrelated issues. The fact one saps the strength of the other is an irrelevant mind game.

RG: I was startled to learn you are HIV+ Did you have apprehensions about publicizing that? Did you want to simply continue your writing as if it wasn't there?

JP: Absolutely! At first, I shared it with an extremely small network of friends. There were just lots of issues, some of which were peculiar to me. It didn't take many testings of the waters to discover that because I was a pornographer a lot of people assumed I was HIV+, and I deserved it more than others.

That was difficult to take. It was very strange but clear to me I never assumed I was not HIV+. The moment I heard about AIDS, I recognized myself as someone who was highly at risk. Given my activism when I learned I was HIV+, it was something I was totally unprepared for.

My first reaction was to not tell anybody, to try to cope with it, which was made all the more difficult because people were dropping like flies all around me. Then it became a slow process of recognizing that withholding information is really disempowering It leaves one totally vulnerable. This information becomes so [emotionally] powerful, and controlling it is such an impossible task. One spends incredible energy managing this information. It became this huge block in doing any writing. I also found myself in very peculiar situations which I think anyone who is HIV+ goes through there would be moments when I would spontaneously tell somebody totally inappropriate this piece of information, as opposed to telling a good friend. That imbalance made me completely crazy because I am who I am, and I am primarily a writer.

When I was finally able to write about it, the information lost its power over me. Today it's ancient history to go back three years when I cared so much about who knew and who didn't.

As soon as I finished this book I wrote an article for Harper's for the section called "Annotations" in which I annotated my T-cell count.

RG: You write, "I learned I was infected with the disease myself." What do you mean when you write that?

JP: That I have a drastically lower T-cell count, but I haven't been ill from the disease, I have only been ill from the drugs [medications].

RG: I hate the word "love," but I care for a friend who has been HIV+ for some seven years, and there's a terrible amount of worry there. For someone casually reading Edge Magazine who is HIV+, what advice would you give?

JP: I've worked with enough people who are HIV+ to really hesitate to give a quick answer to a question like that. People's needs are unique. The most general advice I might offer is that individuals should control their health care. What infuriates me are those who don't know what's happening to their bodies or the treatments they're being given, mainly because they're unwilling to challenge medicine.

That's a very complex issue I'm not suggesting people toss aside their medicine and go off and love their crystals, but they don't ask their doctors questions, and they're not motivated to deal with more than one doctor. I always deal with two doctors because each one in their own way gives me information which I can better understand. People should read, talk and challenge more

RG: I know Lon Nungesser, a man diagnosed with AIDS for well over nine years (he's author of a book aptly titled Notes on Living Until We Say Goodbye and the recently published Axioms for Survivors). He stresses he has not undergone any experimental AIDS drug treatments as part of his regimen. He admonishes people to be extremely careful in accepting prescription of any experimental drug and he seems to be doing OK.

JP: By the same token, there are lots of people who don't do very well, and there are plenty who derive a great benefit from experimental drugs. When these drugs don't work, there's no pressure to keep on taking them. If a test drug really made me ill, I stopped taking it. I currently [1989] don't take any drugs, but I constantly talk to physicians about my options.

Whether one should take experimental drugs is a very personal issue. I have a very hard time with people who say you should or shouldn't take this drug, and I struggle with doctrinaire types who say one should go to certain prescribed lengths in seeking treatment[s]. At the same time I do think if experimental AIDS drugs become the major form of medical care given to people that's really bizarre. By far the majority of people I'm know in cities like Boston and New York [do this]. It's also clear patients must take chances if we are to make any progress in testing these drugs.

RG: Gore Vidal claims, "Death does not worry me because death is nothing no thing, literally." How does John Preston deal with death? Do you give it much thought?

JP: I give it no concern. If there is anything beyond death, I firmly believe it's something we can't perceive

RG: In his essay "Wandering the Woods in a Season of Death," Allen Troxler recalls an ill friend with meningitis so severe he "had a reservoir for drugs implanted in his skull." I know many folks, including one dear friend who recently died of AIDS, who are revolted by scenes of medical procedures which invasively and unnecessarily prolong life and rob one of the dignity of death. Would you consider, once you are diagnosed with AIDS, authorizing such medical procedures?

JP: No! One of the things which absolutely repulses me is the idea of a long, drawn out illness. I am also very aware and poignant is not the word that my real family who would take care of me when and if I do get sick are men and women in their twenties. I trust them quite totally to do whatever I choose to do but the idea of a long drawn out illness zapping their lives and energies is untenable to me.

I'm very saddened that some people have committed suicide the very minute they learned they are HIV+. It's becoming clear that HIV+ is not necessarily going to become AIDS over a period of time. It seems probable this might very well happen, but there is no uniform agreement I have found in medicine that everyone who is HIV+ will come down with AIDS. We just don't know for sure.

I assume I have been HIV+ for many years I just didn't get tested until very recently.

RG: A lot of the AIDS writing unnerves me in that it deals only with anger and empowerment, to the exclusion of spirituality or anything deeper. This type of AIDS writing speaks mainly of coping with the disease politically and angrily, and I find that very empty. If there is a theme in your book I find disturbing, it is those writers who only respond to their disease via politics that's a very short term solution to a long term problem

JP: I think anger is a totally acceptable approach to a terminal disease which claims the lives of so many young people. I urge people to read Kantrowitz's essay, "Friends Gone with the Wind," where he merges the angrily political with the spiritual. Other essays in my anthology also explore spiritual components of AIDS. I don't question or apologize for a great deal of anger in this book

RG: One of your contributors writes "It is a form of sentimentality to think that death confers meaning." I believe death has meaning.

JP: The dynamic that writer refers to is the phenomenon that somehow people who die from AIDS are saints, a concept I find demeaning.

RG: I honor them more, because of all the suffering and pain they've endured here.

JP: First of all, not everyone who succumbs to AIDS experiences great suffering, and secondly, how is that form of gay death any more noble than those gays who die from cirrhosis of the liver, or any other kind of death which can be lingering?

RG: I'm very uncomfortable with the way I behaved in the late seventies and early eighties the sexual behavior and sexual radicalism I used to embrace. I find it embarrassing when I reflect on it I really wish I hadn't acted like that because I think I harmed a lot of people

JP: I'm sorry you feel that way; I certainly don't. I know we can harm people in our emotional lives, but I don't regret those days. How do you think you harmed people?

RG: [What I will say is] even to this day there are a certain number of sexually irresponsible gay men whose values and behavior I am immensely uncomfortable around.

JP: I find nothing unique about the behavior of gay men in that regard.

RG: There is another slogan of the free sex, pre-AIDS era I see red over: "The personal is political." I've seen people victimized in gay life who have taken that tenet to mean that "the political is personal," to the point of correcting every politically incorrect nuance out of one's mouth. I do think "the personal is personal," and has no connection to any political agenda whatsoever.

JP: While one of my anthology's contributors may subscribe to that sentiment, I do not. I think that concept has been taken to an illogical extreme. I can only think it comes from people who can't change anything but their own personal lives, folks whose horizons are too limited.

A year ago, Outlook [a political periodical] had this incredible roundtable discussion where lesbians and gay men discussed child abuse As I read it, I noticed it became more and more suffocating. The issue was dissected in such intensely narrow terms, especially the concept of communal obligations, what is power and who uses it.

I think we have gotten to the point where these types of narrow discussions based on that precept "The personal is political" suffocate all political discourse

RG: My own sense is that gay men tend to take worse care of themselves than other groups do. I appreciate all the AIDS activism that occurs, but it bothers me there are other venereal and addictive diseases which hurt gay men that take a back seat to AIDS.

JP: Before I moved to Maine, I might have agreed with you about gay male health behavior. Having lived in New England for the last decade, my view is that gay men take better care of themselves than the general population. I think that the urban experience skews one's views of gay men. The number of gay men you could get to go to a health fair today does not compare to the experience I observed when living in New York and Los Angeles 10 years ago.

On the other hand, alcoholism and drug abuse are clearly out of control problems in the gay community, No one gets a handle, comes close to, or wants to deal with them. Socially, the urban gay world continues to revolve around bars.

However, the immediacy of AIDS' physical horror takes precedence over addiction diseases its mortality rate is much quicker than those gays who take years to drink and drug themselves to death.

RG: I remain astounded by the numbers of gay men who suffer from low self-esteem internalized homophobia -as we enter the 90's. I suspect this trend has worsened with AIDS.

JP: That's because we have a very skewed view of what progress is. What astonishes me is gay men who decide that progress and affirmation lies in the hands of state legislatures. This has a great deal to do with your views about drugs and alcohol we have no concept of having to take care of a community. Gays have no concept of helping one another and building a community. On a therapeutic level, we ask other people to affirm us this style makes for lousy politics, lousy mental health, and horrible self images. In the Outlook feature I alluded to, none of the participants had any concept of the proper care of gay youth, or that there was any way of understanding the idea of gay youth other than as a sexual victim or sexual athlete.

We don't take care of one another!!!

RG: Amen! Glory be to Susan Hayward.