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HIV+ and Healing Waters

July 26th, 2006

SUNDAY JULY 9, 2006 – AMERICAN RIVER, CA “All Hail the Princess!” they sang. Me, the Princess, their mascot and figurehead, a straight guy in a boat full of gay men with one a female guide anchoring the stern. In the bow of the river raft, I wedged myself into an awkward position to capture their faces as we plowed through waves and holes of the South Fork of the American River near Sacramento, California. Preoccupied with photography I wasn’t pulling my weight with the paddle. Therefore, I was the Princess.

The day dawned for me in Seattle to the sound of birds chirping, a groggy cup of coffee, and a heroic Mindy arriving promptly to take me to the airport at first light. If this travel keeps up I’m afraid I’m going to run out of gracious friends for the airport run.

The assignment call sheet was simple. 10 a.m. camp arrival, set up, lunch, rafting and safety classes. From 1 to 6 we raft. At 7 we’re back at camp for dinner, evening games, and fireside hang out. The next day is a 10 a.m. breakfast, closing ceremony, and camp take down. My job, for HIV+ Magazine, an affiliate of Out Magazine, was to document 15 gay men with HIV rafting the American river. It is a weekend program run by the San Francisco-based non profit Healing Waters whose mission is to “empower, inspire, and enrich the lives of people challenging HIV/AIDS through wilderness adventures.”

What this summary didn’t tell me was how kind and welcoming the group would be–or how much ribbing I’d receive as the photographer. Or that my weekend would conclude with a gay man giving me advice on straight sex and the female condom, a contraceptive I’ve never used. But, if I find a willing partner, I guess I’ll have to try. He had rave reviews.

I don’t have much regular contact with the gay community; my social existence is largely restricted to the limited culture of the mostly white, mostly middle class, and mostly straight Seattle climbing community. Sure, I remember the AIDS Northwest condoms being handed out with packets of lube in the early ’90s. I had a male friend attempt courtship by repeatedly exposing himself to me. I’ve heard female friends loudly dissecting the pleasure of their recent sexual experience together as if to announce to the community that, yes, they were comfortable with their sexuality and themselves. I have been relentlessly pursued by drunk men at parties and, after a night of clubbing, even had a young man follow me down the street yelling “But I swallow!”

These aren’t necessarily positive experiences; these moments can make me feel guarded and cautious, fearful that I might offend or, worse, lead someone on. It is how I imagine a straight woman might feel, particularly when out for the night at a bar: wary of male attention.

This weekend did not have this kind of attention; the ribbing I received elicited a few apologies but, to be honest, I was often laughing too hard to notice the jokes were at my expense. I think when you get a bunch of boys together the humor often nosedives into the gutter; when you get a bunch of gay men together all the potty humor and homo-eroticism is even more valid because, well, they’re gay. And it becomes even more hilarious.

I laughed. I felt accepted. I learned something about life with HIV and witnessed an intimacy originating from the experience of mutual hardship. Not only do the men I met have to deal with societal acceptance, they have to face sero-sorting, a blood-borne disease separation adding another layer of complexity to relational negotiation. When and how do you tell a potential partner about your HIV status? What will his or her reaction be? What about the work place, you insurance provider…or your family? Coming out can be hard enough; having to come out twice is not something I’ll even pretend to understand. But today HIV seems to be less of a death sentence and more of a lifestyle change. Although mortality is a handful of pills taken twice a day.

I may have been the only one thinking these thoughts for the weekend was a time to live in the moment, to laugh at who fell out of the boats, to relax. Healing Waters is about escape into the outdoors, a reminder of vitality and experience. Yes, each participants is well medicated. Yes, there are side affects; nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, loss of sensation. Sometimes they’re not sure if it’s the HIV or the medication but they do know one thing. Partners have died, friends are no longer around, but they are alive.

I was teased, ribbed, and kidded but as one of the guys in my boat said, between refrains of Old Man River, “You have to keep laughing through the tears.”

Well, as the Princess, the only tears I had were from laughing too much. It was a great time.

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