I first hear of AIDS in 1979, the dawn of the epidemic. I’m a young actor living in a shoebox in unfashionable Brooklyn when my gay landlord says, “Have you heard that all the guys in the Village are getting sick? They’re calling it the gay cancer.” I still see Ray sitting there, still see the terror in his eyes, still feel the terror that shoots through me. We both know that what he is describing will kill him and maybe me.

Ray is a middle-aged, swishy queen who designs those glossy advertising leaflets that get stuffed into grocery bags. This ultra-effeminate Junk Meister believes it is his duty to make grand pronouncements on all manner of things, especially our neighbor’s taste: “They put a Queen Anne balustrade on a rococo staircase. ‘Mother’ was not amused. WE DON’T DO THAT!” Ray is a throwback, a relic. One gay friend tells me after meeting him, “I haven’t met a faggot like that since 1952!”

Ray and his friends are “ecclesiastical” queers: deacons, choirmasters, and church organists. They are ever so judgmental, ever so genteel, and ever so degenerate. They love trying to shock me with reports on what they’d been up to the night before and they’d been up to plenty. “Can it really be healthy to have that many strangers piss in your mouth?” I enquire. (Hell, can it really be healthy to have that many anything piss in your mouth? Youth wants to know.)

Ray’s longest live-in lover is a self-ordained Black Pentecostal preacher with a leg twisted by polio whose few remaining teeth are rotting in his head. One arm has grown only half as long as the other and has a withered hand swinging uselessly from its wrist. Whenever we speak, I stare at this appendage and flash on Richard III. I often hear Preacher dancing in the kitchen above me, giving thanks to the Almighty who has done such a commendable job of assembling him. Once, while sitting in the backyard, I hear these boys at love play. Preacher must be anointing him because Ray is shouting praise to the Creator: “Oh, Jesus, look what he’s doing to me!”

I don’t know about Jesus but I prefer not to look.

One night, Ray and Preacher take me to a notorious gay bar way west in Greenwich Village: the Toilet. (I ain’t makin’ this up: the Toilet!) The dress style ranges from crotchless black leather pants to crotchless black leather pants with metal studs. And, the metal studs are on the penis, not the pants. While who knows what is going on in the back room, we are entertained out front by the floorshow. This consists of an acrobat pulling his upside-down body up a thick iron chain, link by link, with his anal sphincter muscles. Yes, this intrepid aerialist climbs up the chain with his asshole!

Ray is convinced that every male on our block (and on earth) is in the closet. As we sit on the stoop, he whispers his assessment of passing male neighbors: “Oh, get her, Mary! She can’t be straight. It’s just too put together.” He takes especial delight in regaling me with tales of his friend who is into “scat.” That’s scat as in scatological. No piss-queen he, this scallywag enjoys eating excrement. (And you thought that the drag-artist Divine was the only homo given to shit-eating grins.) Ray’s feces-feeding friend has his pooing-paramour swallow a handful of unchewed raisins, then excrete a hot, steaming “raisin loaf” into his eagerly gaping mouth.

“Can it really be healthy to do that?”

“No problem,” Ray assures me in his signature blasé tone. “Worst that can happen is you catch hepatitis and you get a shot. Easy.”

“Ooookay. If you say so. Easy. Right.”

II. Dale

While acting in the Victorian drag-comedy Charley’s Aunt, I have a gay dresser: Dale. His job is to move my costumes around backstage so I can change back and forth from being a young man to an old woman. He also helps me with my wig. I sit in front of the dressing room mirror looking like Johnny Carson’s “Old Aunt Blabby” as this nineteen-year-old kid squirts me with hairspray and his tears. He is covered with bruises from punches delivered by his older boyfriend. This boyfriend is a nasty piece of work. On the seat of his jeans, he wears an insignia patch with an odd design that includes the initials F.F.A. Dale explains that this stands for “Fist-Fuckers of America” of which his boyfriend is a card-carrying member. The design is an abstract representation of an arm buried elbow deep in an anus. (Actually, once I know what F.F.A. means, the design ain’t all that abstract.) As he enlightens me, Dale giggles and shrugs like a teenage girl apologizing for her hotheaded, hot-rodding beau. Then he bursts into tears.

Dale and Mr. Fist-Fucker go to gay clubs together and have sex with strangers to make each other jealous. It’s a stupid, dangerous game, especially for Dale. He’s the “fem” part of the duo and doesn’t know how to duck. Charley’s aunt hands Dale a tissue, then takes his hands in hers and makes him promise to leave his abusive lover: “I don’t like the sound of this character. He’s too old for you and too mean. Fist-fuck my ass! Uh…no, I better rephrase that. I mean, the hell with this F.F.A. business. And you stay out of those clubs too, young man. You ever hear of AIDS?”

Then Charley’s aunt chucks Dale playfully under the chin and chucks him out of her dressing room so she can get laid before curtain. Dale is kind enough to play lookout for Auntie while she does her pre-show, pelvic warm-up exercises.

The following year, Dale approaches me at a party. He isn’t covered with bruises. He’s covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma: a walking corpse. We chat amiably about nothing, then he leans close and whispers, “I guess I should tell you. I have AIDS.” I feign surprise, “Dale, no!” Then I squirt him with my tears. His now-attentive older boyfriend appears and shepherds Dale home. The F.F.A. insignia patch is gone from his jeans. Charley’s aunt finds an empty room away from the party and hides there with her dark, dark thoughts.

III. Clap Test

In and out of drag, I had been a busy boy, or should that be a busy, stupid, selfish, reckless jackass? So, when I heard that a noted doctor was looking for volunteers for free AIDS tests, I jumped. This was in the early days of the panic when medical science was flailing around trying to figure out what the hell was happening and what, if anything, could stop it. To qualify for the test, I had to be a sexually active heterosexual male who had never had a homosexual experience. I qualified. The female graduate student who took my detailed sexual history was disconcertingly sexy but disappointingly unimpressed.

Hmmnnn…maybe I hadn’t been as busy as I thought.

The doctor was a charming, boyish type with humor and compassion to burn. (Why can’t they all be like him?) He was intrigued and terrified by this baffling new illness; it wasn’t even called AIDS yet. When he asked me to lie back and pull down my pants so he could conduct a test for gonorrhea, I laughed:

“Ya know, Doctor, when I was a kid, sitting on a Brooklyn stoop, the big boys scared me with tales of a ‘clap test’ in which a metal rod was shoved up the penis and then a button was pushed that opened the top of the metal rod into something like umbrella spokes. And, then this spiked rod was slowly pulled and twisted down and out the urethra. Ha-ha-ha, kids, can you imagine such a thing?”

“Oh, we still do that,” he said, approaching me with shiny, metal rod in hand. And before I could escape, he had this shiny metal rod shoved up my urethra.

Pain! Oh, pain! Such pain, you don’t know!

He then pushed a button, and just like the big boys on the stoop warned me, “BRANG!” A dozen metal spoke-spikes sliced into the deep inside of my dick. I hadn’t known there was a place that deep inside me that could feel that much pain. And I’m talkin’ pain here. What I talked about before, the part when the charming, boyish doctor shoved the shiny metal rod up my dick? That hurt. No foolin’. It really, really hurt. But this, this is what you call your pain. Once he had peeled me off the ceiling, the charming, boyish doctor enquired, “How we doing?”

“Oh, I’m fine, doctor, but if you think you’re taking this implement out of my penis, you are sadly mistaken. I intend to go to my grave with this apparatus protruding from my dick. Because there is nooooooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOO waaayyyyAAAAAEEEEOOOOAAiiiiUUUUEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And he pulled the shiny metal-spiked rod out, twisting it all the way. At that moment, I swore to never again, never ever again engage in any form of sexual activity hetero or homo. Nor would I ever again urinate. Never ever again. Never ever. Ever.

Great fear and stigma were associated with this mystery disease, so all the medical tests were conducted anonymously. I was a number. On the appointed day, I was to phone the hospital and tell the operator my number to receive my results. My fate. Negative = Life. Positive = Death. This seemed easy enough until the day dawned when I was to phone and my home phone was suddenly, mysteriously dead. Was this a portent? I feared so as I crept to the corner phone booth, brooding all the while…

What if I have it? Wait. I can’t have this “gay cancer.” I’m not gay. Yeah, but a lot of actresses that I slept with had knowingly and unknowingly slept with gay guys.

I’m flagellating myself this way as I dial the hospital, pausing before entering each digit. I hang up, walk around the phone booth, and re-dial several times. I go weak in the knees and have to lean against the phone booth wall. I am a-scared. Then an uninterested voice answers. This voice doesn’t know what results it’s delivering. I could be calling for a diabetes count.

“Results for Number 0725?” I croak.

“Negative.” Click.

That’s it. No “Thank you for participating.” No nothing. But I’ll take it. This is one anti-climax I can live with. I’ve won the lottery of a lifetime. I stand in the phone booth stunned by my reprieve and vow to not stick my dick where it doesn’t belong and to be an all-around nicer person or some such silly shit. Then a not-so-nice person bangs on the glass, “You using this fuckin’ phone or what?” I exit the booth to get on with my all-around nicer life and immediately wonder if that sexy grad student who took my sexual history would like to help me celebrate.

IV. The Queen of Clean

Before I move into Ray’s place in Brooklyn, I’m living in a microscopic sublet overlooking an All-Nite gas station on 10th Avenue in Chelsea. The apartment is owned by Dudley Do-Right. No foolin’. The owner looks and sounds exactly like the clueless Canadian Mountie of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon fame. And he is going on tour in the operetta Little Mary Sunshine to portray (if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’) a Canadian Mountie. He is tall, blond, and super-straight the way only seriously dissolute faggots can be. He is, without question, the single most anally compulsive person ever to iron his underpants.

Dudley is neat. Dudley is orderly. Dudley is certifiably psychotic. He has large padlocks on all the internal doors of his tiny apartment and insists that I padlock myself into whichever room I happen to be using. So while cooking in the kitchen, I am to padlock shut the front, bedroom, and bathroom doors. He will allow me to decide if it is necessary to padlock myself into the bathroom: “It’s up to you, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.”

Meal times are a special chore. After eating, I am to wash, dry, and individually bag each plate, pot, pan, cup, glass and utensil. Dudley has thoughtfully supplied me with a plethora of Baggies and plastic ties. So I am to use my fork, wash my fork, dry my fork, bag my fork, and store my fork. The same goes for each plate, pot, pan, cup, glass, and utensil. Bag individually. He says this is to prevent roaches. I have my doubts.

Dudley has one of those tape-labeling guns with a letter-wheel attached. You’ve seen these in action. You select a letter, then pull the trigger and the letter is pressed into the tape.

“Amaze your friends! Enjoy hours o’ fun just labeling stuff.”

Dudley uses this handy space-age device to label everything in his apartment. Everything. A strip of tape that says DESK is stuck to the desk. PHONE is on the phone. LAMP is on the lamp. Framed photographs on the wall are labeled ME AND FATHER JUDE. (Another ecclesiastical queer.) Oops, almost forgot: the photo frame is labeled FRAME.

Of course, the second Dudley hits the road, I hunt for his porn collection. He’s gotta have one and I figure there has to be a tape-label trail leading right to it.

Lemme see here: if I was an unhinged, anally compulsive operetta tenor, where would I hide my porn? Hmmmnn…find filing cabinet…uh huh…open cabinet drawer…all files neatly labeled…natch…let’s see…CONTRACTSRESUMÉS…PICTURES…ah, here we are, PORN.

The “Prince of Padlocks” has a collection of erotica consisting entirely of photographs of homosexual gentlemen pissing and shitting on each other. I am most taken with the photo-essay of two nude fellows smiling and clutching beer cans while weeing on each other’s legs. Thomas Eakins could not have bettered this evocation of innocent male camaraderie.

I carefully replace Dudley’s porn, wipe my fingerprints from the filing cabinet and look in his closet. It is a cornucopia of fairy furbelows. Forget Little Mary Sunshine: Dudley belongs in the Village People. On the back of his closet door hangs a policeman hat, a fireman helmet, an army helmet, a cowboy hat, a sailor hat, a train conductor cap, a bee-keepers helmet, and a diving bell. Okay, so I exaggerate a little. But considering Dudley’s appetites, a diving bell would have been the most practical chapeau of all. Here is Dudley Do-Right—the Queen of Clean—captivated by crap. (Are you listening, Sigmund?) I search his apartment for large rubber drop-sheets, but finding none, conclude that Dudley holds his scatological soirées elsewhere.

I spend a few miserable months in Dudley’s den listening to 14-wheelers screech through all 72 gears as they pull in for gas at all hours. I also scrupulously ignore all of Dudley’s house rules while entertaining my guests with his costume and porn collections. The most unpleasant aspect of living in Dudley’s is the 3AM phone calls. He doesn’t have an answering machine, so if I don’t answer the phone, it will keep ringing. The callers are always male and always in a state of hushed frenzy.

“Is Dudley there?” they grunt through clenched teeth.

“No, he’s on tour with Little Mary Sunshine,” I helpfully offer.

“Aw, shit. Hey, who are you?”

  • Hang up. Fast.
  • Spray phone with Lysol.
  • Disconnect phone.
  • Padlock bedroom door.
  • Cower under covers.


I don’t know whether to blame the atom bomb or men landing on the moon or something in the water or bad genes or bad potty training for all this “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine, ain’t we dirty little boys,” juvenile-junk that is so much a part of homosexual behavior. And, I don’t care what Ray said. I don’t care how many quack doctors give you how many shots. If you are using each other as toilets and forgetting that an anus is not an entrance but an exit and definitely no place to store an iron chain, then you are cruising for a bruising. I know, I know, the gays felt aggrieved by the mean old straights and had to bust out and find their place in the sun. So, comes along the Stonewall riots and gay liberation and disco and coke and poppers and the baths and, and…and it just couldn’t go on. You know it and I know it and they know it. Now, some of them knew it then. Ray knew it in 1979 when he told me about the gay cancer. I saw it in his eyes.

I know. I know. It was not just the homos who were out of control. I admitted that, didn’t I? We heteros were petulantly, criminally irresponsible, too.

  • We were all “putting it about,” as the Brits say.
  • “Nowt so queer as folk,” as the Brits say.
  • “Nowt so dead as queers,” as I say.

I had a sense of impending doom at the end of the 1960’s and the same millennial dread hit me when AIDS hit town at the end of the 1970’s. I felt it in my Brooklyn waters. It had to end. And it did. It ended for Ray and every man who walked up his stoop and through his vestibule. Every man except me. AIDS got ’em all. Like the Canadian Mounties, AIDS always got its man. It got Dudley, too.


“The Gay Cancer” is an excerpt from Jack Antoni’s new novel, Boy Outa Brooklyn.