% IssueDate = "06/01/03" IssueCategory = "Interview" %>
I went to California for college and got degrees in playwriting, BFA from California Institute of the Arts and MFA from the University of California. After a year working as playwright with a theater troupe based in Baltimore (Kraken, the group in which the actor-clown Bill Irwin and the director Julie Taymor did their early work), I came back to New York. In the East Village I continued writing, but mostly fiction (of a sort) now, stuff that was published through the 1980s in the little mags and art-&-lit tabloids that flourished in a very lively downtown NYC scene of the time. I continued following the performing arts scene very closely and became friendly with dancers, actors and performers; I would occasionally write about that scene. I also worked with a group opposed to US intervention in Central America.
But the biggest thing that happened in my part of New York in the 1980s was AIDS and drugs. I was never involved with drugs, but they flooded my neighborhood, and I was an active homosexual. So by 1986 I found my neighborhood, my profession and my kind ravaged with a disease that the government barely acknowledged existed. I did volunteer work with GMHC and started working with ACT UP shortly after it started up in 1987.
I practically stopped all other work. I was directly and daily engaged in AIDS treatment activism from 1987 through 1992. My colleagues and I quickly became expert in the way AIDS drugs are developed in the US. Over the course of that work, with the well-informed and "mediagenic" hordes of ACT UP backing up those of us who were doing highly technical research, I would wind up testifying before Congressional subcommittees and sitting on several federal and private AIDS investigative and advisory committees. I wrote the first draft of the federal policy that expanded the access to experimental AIDS drugs. It was that whole notion of fast-tracking AIDS drugs, as watered-down and imperfect as the final policy has been, that gave us the cocktail of drugs that in a few years would enable lots of people with AIDS to resume less burdensome lives.
By 1991 I knew I was physically and mentally exhausted from the AIDS work I'd been doing, and one by one I shed myself of my various AIDS commitments. ACT UP was falling apart, and without that group to back me up, I was less and less sure who I was speaking for. Also, I was HIV-negative. By 1992 many HIV-positive people were doing important treatment work. They were better qualified to be direct spokespersons about the disease. When I returned to a real life after those years, I began writing about sex between guys, because I was interested in homosex surviving the viral onslaught of the AIDS years. Soon I was publishing short erotic fiction in several anthologies and magazines. I started doing some modeling for a few friends; some of that has appeared in fashion and skin mags, in galleries and on murals. In the mid-1990s I began doing sex-positive AIDS prevention work.
On the strength of my erotic writing, in 2000 the Mavety Media Group (which produces and publishes the all-male "adult" magazines, Inches, Honcho, Mandate, Playguy and Torso, as well as three "girlie" mags) hired me as a staff writer. Six weeks later they asked me to become Managing Editor of Playguy and a few months later, of Inches. I continue to edit those two magazines today. I'm also an associate editor at Honcho.
Raj Ayyar: I love your passionate opposition to those gays who want to ape a heterosexual monogamous lifestyle or see that as the only viable option in the context of AIDS. Can you share some of that passion with readers of Gay Today?
Jim Eigo: I am HIV-negative and I know many sexually active gay men who have also managed to remain HIV-negative throughout the epidemic. For me, a lot of the thrill of being homosexual has been in being part of a sexual brotherhood in which, in theory at least, any one of us might be the lover of anyone else-maybe of several at once if all the stars align. I felt that the sexual networks and contacts that men had developed over the 1970s had helped men spring into action in the early 1980s when urban gay men had to suddenly cope with the enormity of a strange and deadly epidemic. These informal networks became in essence the ad hoc service organizations that cared for the sick when the government response to the disease was so meager.
And then later, in the early 1990s in NYC, under the David Dinkins administration, gay New York began to flourish sexually again, as a host of gay public spaces opened. The overwhelming amount of the sexual activity that I observed at these spaces was what we'd call "safer". I believed that in fact the safer sex practices that were being fostered in certain spaces could help men maintain their health in private situations. Some studies showed that men used condoms less often in the bedroom than in public situations, less with people they knew than with strangers. I knew that in Australia and some European countries bathhouses have been used effectively to help enable men to practice safer sex.
The original safer sex movement of the early and mid-1980s was fueled by fear. Certainly a decade later that fear was no longer effective, at least on a community-wide level. Fear is after all a short-term, animal response to threatening conditions. It does not persist, particularly when it appears the threat is less. I felt all the lectures about condoms were no longer effective. But what might be effective would be if gay men themselves took over their group sex spaces and made them better places, more inclusive and more responsive to their desires and needs, one of which would be the maintenance of their health, fostering an ethic of sexual reciprocity and group responsibility that realized that if the sex is better for you it will be better for me too.
I feared that if gay men abandoned their sexual networks for mass, viral-enforced monogamy, what had been the backbone of our community would wither, we'd have no more community than heterosexuals have in post-urban America. I still fear that. But I believe we are far from an activist moment right now. There have been two great periods of gay activism since the Stonewall riots of 1969. The first in the years immediately after Stonewall, fueled by thousands of people coming out of the closet and building on lessons learned from other liberation movements, black and feminist. The second great period of activism was in the late 1980s, triggered by the response to AIDS, but culminating in movements with wider agendas (Queer Nation and the Lesbian Avengers of the early 1990s). You can't create the conditions of social revolutions and it does not seem to me that we are anywhere near another radical homosexual mass movement at this moment.
Sexual health is more than freedom from a virus, but that seems to have escaped the monogamy crowd. If monogamy were satisfying for large numbers of gay men, certainly the viral assault of AIDS would have induced them to take it up. They never did in large numbers. We need to discover the ways in which men can be safer and multi-partner at the same time. Men's needs are different from each other, and over the course of an individual man's sex life his needs and desires might shift radically. (For example, when I first wrote about sexual promiscuity in 1997, I talked about how anal sex was not a core activity in my life. That's changed. I'm still safe-but now buttfucking is a major part of my sexual life.) Effective prevention activism would involve gay sex spaces and have real men working with each other-very hands on you might say-to find pleasurable and emotionally satisfying ways to maintain sexual health. Men will not practice safer sex if it's not fun.
Raj Ayyar: I liked your stance on the culture of the Baths and sex clubs. You see them as community havens, safe from the prying censorial eyes of a homophobic world and gay bashers. You mention that unspoken norms of safer sex are likelier to operate in bathhouses than in the privacy of bedrooms. I think many gay men miss the pulsing excitement, the vibrancy and most of all the sexual democracy of the 70's and early 80's Baths. Old and young, closeted and 'out', white and non-white 'armies of lovers' groped, thrust, moaned and held each other in those dark corridors, busy orgy rooms and sweat and cum drenched cubicle bunks.
Raj Ayyar: Is it possible to reconstruct that culture with some changes today?
Jim Eigo: I don't know. For one terrific night in 1995 the AIDS Prevention Action League (APAL) took over a New York City sex club (now a Chelsea art gallery) for a Save Our Sex party. We publicized it on the Web and in little flyers around town. It was a mid-week night in early September so we were astounded when more than 400 men showed up! It was a fine night. Go-go dancers fucked on stage and regular Joes fucked in the audience-and in every corner of the several rooms on two floors. There was no problem with unsafe sex. The safer sex that was going on, much of it communal, some in semi-private, was wild. Of course, condoms were everywhere and the people who came to this event were self-selected. They knew we were convening to celebrate the possibilities of safer multi-partner sex. Within a few months the city had closed down this space too. But I like to believe those conditions could be recreated on a regular basis. The feeling of sexual energy and camaraderie on the night of our SOS party could have lit the city. (I know that the New York Jacks parties I have been to-masturbation only-have been large, friendly, inclusive and fun, a real sexual community.)
Raj Ayyar: Parodying Shakespeare's Miranda and Aldous Huxley, you exclaim "O gray new world!" in response to the new AIDS era gay sex-phobia that sees promiscuity as politically incorrect, sermonizes about condoms and extols monogamy/gay marriage (that limping hetero imitation). How can one escape this enforced grayness, getting back to celebrating homosex and the gay body?
Raj Ayyar: Is there a rough-hewn parallel between those who preach a monogamous 'sexual ecology' ostensibly for health reasons and the tirades of the Religious Reich in the U.S. (Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham et al.) thundering about AIDS as punishment for 'unnatural' and evil sex practices?
Jim Eigo: Some of the strongest gay voices from the mid- and late-1990s that spoke out against gay sex spaces and the men who frequented them-or at least against their somehow inherently unhealthy lifestyles-were former colleagues of mine from ACT UP. These included the columnist Michelangelo Signorile, the author, editor and producer Gabriel Rotello and the playwright and novelist Larry Kramer. Larry and I had also been close friends. I liked them all, and I loved Larry, a passionate and generous man to whose support I owe some of my success as a treatment activist.
All these men, like me and most people who are public activists at some time, operate from a tangle of motives, some pure and some impure. I have no desire to impugn the motives of former friends and colleagues with whom I had major disagreements. In fact, I think they all believed they were helping the gay community when they called for the city to shut down gay sex spaces and advocated monogamy as the only way toward a happy and healthy gay community. I think they were wrong. But the only parallel I see between their positions and that of conservative Christian orthodoxies is that they share a desire to impose an abstract system of ideal conduct onto the complexity of human life and desire. I'm no more monogamous than I am heterosexual, and no amount of haranguing from good (or ill) intentioned proponents of a particular system of "right living" would help me find a satisfying life in the worlds they propose.
Raj Ayyar: As a long-standing ACT UP activist, what kind of new face of AIDS activism do we need today?
Jim Eigo: ACT UP, like all significant grassroots movements, was born of a very particular set of circumstances. AIDS had ravaged gay urban enclaves for several years. People's fear and grief was changing to anger at the inept political response to the crisis. New York had lots of talented, smart, media-savvy people who were ready to take things in their own hands. They became ACT UP. For several years we were remarkably effective waging battles on several fronts-experimental treatment, housing, immigration, discrimination, health insurance, needle exchange, pediatric AIDS, racism and sexism in the health system. We started locally but our targets from the beginning-the federal government and drug companies-were national and even international. Soon chapters sprung up everywhere.
But as ACT UP was disintegrating in the early 1990s, many people involved in the organization continued their AIDS work by starting other types of AIDS organizations, like the Treatment Activist Group (TAG ) for those interested in working on issues of experimental AIDS treatment and Housing Works for those working to provide shelter for people with HIV. Other ACT UP members moved to more mainstream AIDS and gay organizations (like GMHC or the Lambda Legal Defense Fund), or to do AIDS work for the state government. That work continues today. It's important, albeit more narrow and local than ACT UP's original mission. Right now, that might be the best way to effect real change in the lives of individuals with HIV.
In 1995 and again in 1997, in response from many gay voices calling for the shutdown of gay spaces and the fostering of gay monogamy, I was part of a group of activists that tried to get a local, sex-positive form of AIDS prevention activism going. (ACT UP had no significant involvement in prevention activism.) Those organizations, the AIDS Prevention Action League (which I've mentioned) and Sex Panic!, each enjoyed several months of modest success (local for APAL, national for Sex Panic!) before petering out. Both these groups tried to work with local sex spaces to make them safer, more inclusive and pleasurable spaces. I envisioned a treatment activism that used these spaces to sponsor an ethos about safer sex that men would carry back to their more private sex spaces-their bedrooms. In Guiliani's New York City this could never occur. I still have the dream, but the political forces in New York City today do not permit any aboveground gay sex spaces to exist frankly. We have only quasi-private spaces, and bathhouses that deny sex occurs on the premises-not an environment that's conducive to men talking about their sex lives and working together to make them better, safer, more satisfying...
As a brief coda to that, I should add two things. Lots of people who are coordinating the national peace movement right now are vets of AIDS and gay and lesbian activism, including the media coordinator, a good friend and an alumni of ACT UP. APAL, Sex Panic! and Queer Watch. And lord knows we could use a new prevention AIDS activism, if only to advance the technologies of safer sex-condoms that did not interfere with the sex act (like the outdated things we're still using!) or effective microbicides that rendered condoms obsolete.
Raj Ayyar: As editor of Playguy and Inches, are you trying to create new spaces for gay erotic freedom and expressiveness?
Jim Eigo: Every month Playguy and Inches get letters telling us how much we've helped certain readers, how we've helped guys come to terms with their sexuality, how we've provided the only place where some readers feel safe enough to be gay, to act on their desires for other guys. The fact of the matter is that vast tracts of this very religious country still live pre-Stonewall (oops, I almost said "pre-Stone Age"). In many towns and in many families it is still terribly difficult to come out, to be known as a guy who likes and desires other guys. The mags I edit tell many men who live in difficult, constrained situations that they are not alone in their desires, and we provide them with a sexual connection. Of course, for many of our readers who are out and active, our mags exist only to fuel a good wank. I figure that being party to a hundred thousand sex acts in a given month is a pretty good reason for a magazine to exist. (And then there's all that redeeming social content.) But I should add that the magazines I edit are newsstand magazines, and as such we are subject to the same considerable censorship pressures that other magazines in our class are. For certain types of highly personal sexual expression, zines and Web logs are more effective.
Raj Ayyar: Do you think that gay porn is a creative adjunct to 'safer sex?'
Jim Eigo: The first years after the AIDS epidemic, 1981 through 1986 let's say, coincided with a burgeoning of all-guy porn mags, the beginnings of home video and the consequent shift of gay flicks from film to tape, from theaters to the home. I think some of this was fueled by a need for safer sexual alternatives. Masturbation is as safe as sex gets, and pornography exists to aid masturbation.
Raj Ayyar: Given the post-9/11 Bush military-industrial dictatorship in alliance with Christian fundamentalism, have you been targeted, censored or harassed in any way?
Jim Eigo: I began working against the Vietnam war in high school. I was once told that when radical activists broke into an FBI office in suburban Philadelphia, they found that a local chapter of the New Mobilization for Survival, an anti-war group I had been working with, had been spied on. (Post-Watergate revelations later taught us just how much surveillance had been going on.) In ACT UP we believed we were being spied on when law enforcement agencies repeatedly responded to our internal plans before they become public. For a spell, all of us on the Coordinating Committee of ACT UP found our home phones riddled with clicks that finally after several months left as inexplicably as they had come. We suspected wiretaps. At the height of ACT UP I was arrested 4 times for AIDS-related civil disobedience. I'm not sure if this constitutes harassment, but I do know that in every AIDS activist trial that I was ever involved with, my own and others, the cops lied in their depositions-needlessly, because we'd all wanted to get arrested and were not contesting that we'd broken laws.
And about today? A few weeks ago I joined about 300,000 other people (a gloriously diverse bunch) on First Avenue (for those of us the cops didn't thwart) for a peace rally at the UN. I lost count of the number of lone non-media guys standing on tops of cars and trash receptacles, taking still and video pictures of the crowd. I smiled and waved at them all. And pornographers whose products are distributed widely have known for a while that they cannot talk about people under the age of 18, or animals, or shit, or blood, or non-consensual sex. Most have become frightened enough in the Bush years to refrain from using material that deals with drugs or underage drinking even. But the growing paranoia and self-censorship in the porn world was triggered by Bush's tainted election and the ascension of anti-porn crusader John Ashcroft to the seat of Attorney General. 9-11 may actually have diverted some law enforcement away from smut. These are the manifestations of censorship or harassment that I recall off-hand over a long career as an activist and a shorter one as a pornographer.
Raj Ayyar: What do you make of the new naked monolithic imperialism of the U.S. government, as the sole unchecked hyperpower today?
Jim Eigo: Saddam Hussein has been responsible for much misery. I worked with the Urgent Action Network of Amnesty International in the early and mid-1980s. so I was publicly opposing the man's policies at a time when Donald Rumsfeld and the Bechtel boys were still kissing his ass. So I suffer a very particular shudder of revulsion when a Dick Cheney wraps himself in the mantle of human rights while our forces are busy making Baghdad safe for Halliburton. As a U.S. citizen, what worries me most about our recent intervention in Iraq is that it was backed by a U.S. populace, more than half of whom believe the Iraqi hierarchy had been directly involved in a plot to topple the twin towers. Not even the White House was peddling this fantasy. When a country is as powerful as the U.S., and its citizenry is generally disengaged from the rest of the world and ill-informed about it (despite all the citizens of the world among us!), the potential for a future dominated by successive campaigns against "security threats" and "enemies" is extremely disquieting.
Raj Ayyar: Do you still live in Manhattan, in Whitman's 'city of orgies, walks and joys?' Do you think that NYC has lost much of its vibrant, throbbing excitement and celebratory multicultural flavor after September 11, 2001? That it's contracted into a sullen potpourri of races, cultures and sexualities? And maybe right where Bloomberg and the Republicans want it?
Jim Eigo: Manhattan is the love of my life, mostly for the sheer density of experience here, and the range of its peoples. I both live and work in downtown Manhattan, in what was, after the fall of the towers, the frozen zone, and I've never considered leaving. On the morning the Trade Center was hit, I walked down Broadway to work while thousands of sooty but calm New Yorkers were marching north, away from the Trade Center. The South Tower dominated my view of the sky; before it fell it loomed over Lower Broadway. By 9:30 the fiery gash across several floors of its facade was pulsating like a radiating wound and choking smoke filled what had been an incomparably brilliant blue sky. When I got upstairs to work, less than a mile from the Trade Center, everyone had gathered back in the heterosexual mags' art department, because its wall of windows afforded a view of both towers, and because someone had brought in a TV. We all watched the flames, smoke and falling bodies, and then the collapse of the towers, through the windows and on television at the same time. That morning my 80-year-old father, who still works in downtown New York just a few blocks from the Trade Center, was caught for some time in the smoke and the mayhem.
I mention all this to impress on your readers how directly millions of New Yorkers and commuters were engaged in the events of that day. I don't find the post 9-11 city "sullen". And it's never been more multi-cultural. But I do think the city is incredibly sober. You don't recover from such a shock to the system in a short period of time. And the disastrous conjunction of Republican president, congress, governor and mayor will mean that, despite all the outpouring of good feeling for New York immediately post 9-11, we will never receive the recovery aid we should. And the very fuckers who promote policies that will make the US the target for more international hatred have fed like vultures off the ruins of the twin towers and are stronger now than ever.
Raj Ayyar: How do you deal with the standard moral conservative jibe that erotica 'encourages' and instigates the young into premature sexual experimentation and possibly into 'unsafe' sex?
Jim Eigo: Of course in this country no one below the age of 18 can legally purchase (or access) the stuff. Everyone that I know in the industry works to comply with that law. I think that when kids go through puberty they will be driven to find out what the overpowering changes in their bodies and emotions mean. In my own personal development, art was important in my discovery of my sexual attraction to other guys. In the summer after 8th grade, I stumbled onto Greek and Roman naked male statuary through the plates in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and became quite obsessed. And the comic book hero Green Lantern gave me a consistent hard-on. (For other people and other generations, underwear ads or Baywatch might provide similar stimulus.) Young people who are denied access to porn will still find the sexual representations they need to develop as sexual beings.
Raj Ayyar: What do you make of the time-honored cliched insistence that there is a dichotomy between 'erotic art' and pornography? Is there such a dichotomy?
Jim Eigo: At its best, pornography is both therapy and art. So I don't see a dichotomy between art and porn, though I think there are always interesting distinctions to be made. We could consider porn as a subset of erotic art (all sexual representations). The word pornography derives from the Greek words for prostitute and for writing. So for me, for a particular sexual representation to be pornography, money has to change hands. If we ever evolve to a post-money Utopia, porn will cease, though I hope sexual representations, erotic art, will continue. I also think that for something to be pornography, a primary aim of its creator or creators has to be arousing the audience, helping it get off-the work has to be framed or edited with that in mind. I consider some homoerotic representations to be both porn and good art. Some films of Joe Gage or erotic fiction of RJ March certainly qualify. Since I've edited Inches, I've written several review columns about homoerotic painting and drawing, and have developed a close relationship with the people who run the Erotic Art Workshop at the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation here in SoHo. I think the purveyors of porn and the creators of high erotic art have always fed each other-and are sometimes the same people.
Raj Ayyar: Is a lifestyle of 'safer sex' compatible with occasional bouts of monogamy? I'm not talking about lifetime monogamy/serial monogamy as a policy here, but rather about a desire to bond exclusively (for awhile) with someone special.
Jim Eigo: I don't see why not. I have friends who are halves of committed, sexually exclusive couples and have maintained safer sex practices for more than a decade. Other friends have been committed safely to one guy for shorter periods of time. But I shouldn't pass myself off as remotely expert in this. In my personal life, even when I've been involved intensely with a certain other guy, I have not been involved with him exclusively. For as long as I've seen myself as a member of that human subset, men-who-have-sex-with-men, I've seen myself as free to sexually interact at any time with any other member (or members) of that subset. I don't pretend that this is a satisfying model for anyone else, or will be for me for my entire life.
Raj Ayyar: As a queer activist, editor, critic, do you see a post-Stonewall U.S.-centric model of gay liberation as universal or do different non-white cultures within and outside the U.S. need to come up with their own models?
Jim Eigo: Culture and cultures are incredibly complex and dynamic, especially in an age in which information is traded so promiscuously and so many people travel far from the places in which they were born. So let me tell a parable that happens to be true. A few weeks after the collapse of the World Trade Center, my best friend Joey, a gay Filipino national who's a longtime resident of New York City, 38 at the time, convened a brunch at a restaurant in the Chelsea section of the city-which sometime in the mid-1990s replaced the West Village as the city's gay neighborhood. Joey invited his best friends in the city, a dozen or so guys who knew each other primarily through Joey and who came together at Joey's social occasions. All of us were male and all were gay, but otherwise, none of us had similar backgrounds.
We were Pakistani, Israeli, Latino, African-American, Southeast Asian, European. The three of us who were white were of different classes and ages. The youngest of us was in his 20s, the oldest in his 60s. Our occupations were similarly varied. What we all did have in common was that, at some point in our lives, in order to openly express our sexual affection for other males, we decided to more or less transgress against the cultures within which we were born and raised. For me, and I think for a lot of the other guys that Joey brought together that morning, this brunch was the first joyful occasion we had known since the fall of the towers. For a few hours in a New York City restaurant we created a meaningful gay culture. There is no stable gay culture, only gay cultures, and they vary from place to place, group to group, moment to moment. If there comes a day when these cultures no longer serve anybody, they too will pass.
Raj Ayyar: Is there anything else that you would like to share with readers of Gay Today?
Jim Eigo: Listen to everyone. Believe nothing.
Raj Ayyar: Thank you, Jim. This has been a pleasure.
Jim Eigo: Thanks for the opportunity.