My husband Dave and I were at a friend’s this last weekend for a pot-luck dinner. I was much taken by the paintings on his walls. Especially one fine art print of a gorgeous young man stretched out asleep along a riverbank. A water nymph stares at him, transfixed. I was staring, too, just as entranced. Hot men have that effect on me.
I learn his name is Hylas, a Greek youth famed for his beauty. For a striking face set off by locks of curly hair. The über-butch hero Heracles (or in Latin, Hercules) falls in love with him right off, asks him to go off and make a life with him. They set sail on the Argos for the adventure of their lives. The ship stops at Mysia. Hylas wanders off in search of a drink, a bath, a little R&R. But the water nymphs—the hidden powers of that place—catch sight of him, catch hold of him and never let him go. Hylas disappears without a trace.
Heracles is grief-stricken, angry, at wits end. He searches long and hard for his lover, but Hylas is nowhere to be found.
It's an old story. And one that's as current as today's news.
Many of us in the LGBT community grow up in less-than-accepting, welcoming or nurturing surroundings. We're socialized to avoid contact with others like ourselves. Taught to run from rather than support and befriend one another. Anything that offers a sense of belonging, that eases the emptiness we feel inside can appear very compelling. And so crystal meth, crack, other drugs of choice, alcohol abuse and other self-destructive behaviors become a way of life for many gay people.
How are we to respond?
Several years ago I received a phone call . A friend of mine worried about a friend of his, a young gay man running wild and headed for trouble. What could I do but listen. And write down the thoughts it stirred up.
This, then, from back then:
STUNNING THE BLOND GOD
From what I am told, I map the geography of his upper body. A faint trail leads southward from the oasis of navel. Northward, the ridge line runs through a ripple of abs to where well-defined pecs rise up, capped by
salmon-brown peaks of aureole and nipple.
Strong neck, square jaw, stubbled chin. Lips full in the flower of youth. Dusting of mustache, unapologetic nose, blue blue eyes. Windblown bangs drift across his forehead.
What in his upbringing could prepare him to fathom his own beauty?
He recently came out to himself after growing up in a conservative, homophobic religious tradition. His rugged good looks and generous endowment garner attention, praise, devotion. Heady stuff, I imagine, for one who spent years denigrating himself and his “sinful” desires.
He has thrown himself into the gay sexual scene with abandon. He supplements sensual exploration with heavy drug use. He regularly engages in barebacking and other unsafe sexual practices.
“I suppose I should get tested,” he says and laughs. His voice tone says he has no such intention. His behavior says he wants it all, wants it now, wants it no holds barred. No time to think, no time to consider. Take, taste, feel, feel, FEEL.
In his poem Syringe, Jim Wise describes
The stunning blond god,
His muscles straining against
The taut flesh of a body he
Was just learning to enjoy.
The godlike youth in Wise’s poem employs sex as a means of getting heroin into his system. He strips sex of its potential for celebration, emotional connection, a sense of being present to another human being.
People make such choices. So do gods. I feel sad when I tot up the costs.
What the gay youth, so recently out, seeks in his headlong rush, I don’t know. To heighten sensation? Numb the pain of losses incurred in coming out? Blot out the confusion of so many new choices? I doubt that he knows himself.
I cannot condone his choices, yet I recognize the wild eruption of feeling, the recklessness, the sense that the shackles have been thrown off and anything goes. I felt a similar rush in my own coming out journey.
Yet behavior has consequences, understood or not. And desire exerts a powerful pull. The (gay) poet Cavafy observes (in this translation from the Greek)
He swears every now and then to begin a better life,
But when night comes with its own counsel,
Its own compromises and prospects—
When night comes with its own power
Of a body that needs and demands,
He goes back, lost, to the same fatal pleasure.
So what of the rest of us?
In coming out I encountered men who shepherded me, acted as mentors, offered sage advice, modeled appropriate behaviors. I also found men who stood ready to take advantage of my naiveté [ nigh – eve – eh – TAY ]. While I learned something from both sets of men, I have maintained friendships with only one group.
We do others a favor, and bless ourselves and our entire community, when we treat each other with respect and genuine regard. We can celebrate the body electric—the body erotic, the body taut with pleasure and discovery of its own sexiness—in a way that honors the sacredness of all life, affirms the expression of our sexual selves, and builds community at the same time. Genuine connection, genuine community is hard work. It doesn’t happen easily. And by god, is it ever worth it.
Back to the present. My heart sank when I heard the news.
The young gay man, the blond god I'd written about, died suddenly. Tragically. Recently.
A car accident. "Accident?" Wish fulfillment? Disregard for life? Under the influence? So many questions. So much grief. Such a loss.
Hylas taken from us so soon, so suddenly.
After his lover's death, Heracles went on to do—well—Herculean deeds: slaying monsters, winning fabled prizes, going to hell and back . . . tasks that make the long labor-intensive work of building community look somehow do-able.
May we who survive each do our part to care for ourselves and those around us. May we reach out— and reach within—to find the strength required for keeping on. May we share that with each other.