Let’s Talk HIV: My One-Night Stand With Spalding Gray

by Michael Petrelis

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday December 14, 2011

The year was 1990. I had moved to Washington, D.C., to start organizing a chapter of ACT UP, in a city where we surely needed an in-your-face, AIDS-specific activist group.

A month after I arrived, an acquaintance from ACT UP/New York put me in touch with the monologist/actor/writer Spalding Gray. He was looking for a diverse cross-section of people with AIDS to appear on stage with him at George Washington University for a one-night discussion about living with HIV.

My acquaintance thought I'd be perfect as the angry PWA activist of the evening, and I soon received a call from Gray, who the next day came to my apartment for a brief chat. He was talking to everyone who would appear with him on stage, to get to know us a little bit so we weren't total strangers meeting for the first time before an audience.

After answering Gray's questions, he said I was free to ask him anything since he was after all going to be posing personal and political questions to me at the university. He wanted an honest exchange with each of the PWAs, not a situation where he was the interviewer directing the dialogue.

Feeling provocative, knowing he was straight, married and had kids, I asked Gray if he'd ever had a sexual experience with another man. The question surprised and pleased him.
"No, I haven't and it's because I've never gotten in touch with the feminine side of my sexuality," he said.

Before he left, we chatted a bit more about the federal government's abysmal commitment to PWAs, treatment development, and science-based prevention targeting gay men and injection drug users.

Two nights later, a sold-out crowd packed a large university auditorium. The audience consisted mainly of young college students with a healthy smattering of Washington's artists and musicians, all ready to participate in a night of frank political words and emotions.

Gray brought up two single gay men living with AIDS and the sweetest most loving sero-discordant couple, Frederick Nunley and George Guarino. I can only recall them and not the others because after the event they were among the founders of ACT UP/DC.

Nunley was negative and Guarino had been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, and Gray inquired about their sex life and how they managed to find mutual pleasures without Nunley contracting the virus. They spoke plainly about the joy of anal sex with condoms.

Guarino brought forward the most appreciative wave of love and support when he said it was sexy to change top and bottom roles, depending on the mood and deciding who would wield the riding crop when they wanted to whip up some fun.

The larger issues framing the discussion were homosexuals and our lives at that moment in time, and how the larger culture was coming to terms with our fierceness and fabulousness.

AIDS claimed Guarino after a long and valiant fight, and Nunley is still among the living.

I was the last speaker of the evening and Gray's queries to me were about controlling my anger and channeling it into the activist realm. The evening was officially about AIDS, but the larger issues framing the discussion were homosexuals and our lives at that moment in time, and how the larger culture was coming to terms with our fierceness and fabulousness. Recruiting for the nascent ACT UP chapter was my final point.

Then Gray asked me the closing question posed to all speakers. "Do you have a question for me?"

Looking directly into a very friendly set of understanding eyes, I said, "Yes, Spalding, I do."

A gale of laughter and clapping erupted at my line and serious delivery. The rush of being an actor before an audience that is ready to eat you up was enthralling. I knew from the twinkle in Gray's eyes he was making a form of theatrical love with me. His happiness anticipating my question was a pleasure to see up close.

"When you came to my apartment and told me you'd never had a male-on-male sexual encounter, you claimed it was because you hadn't explored the feminine part of your sexuality," I said. He nodded his head and licked a lip, waiting for my question.

"Well, why do you think it wouldn't be your masculine side that would lead you to have sex with another guy? Gay sex is not so limited just to two sides of anything."

Smiling broadly, Gray said until that very moment it just hadn't crossed his mind to think like that about his sexual interests, but it sure was fun to be asked such personal matters before an adoring audience that all wanted a cure for AIDS, or at least a federal government that gave a damn.

He thanked everyone for joining him on his quest for better understanding by the American public about the AIDS crisis. There was much hugging after the show and ACT UP/DC quickly got organized, angry, and into the streets.

Sadly, decades of mental anguish and chronic physical pain led Gray to take his own life in 2004.

I'll always remember him as someone who played a small part in 1990 in boosting our local ACT UP chapter, helped educate college kids, and provided a platform for PWA voices.