Marching Orders For...
ELI SANDERS: A lot of people were very impressed with the recent ad campaign you paid for in New York City, the one in which you tried to de-glamorize crystal meth use among gay men by linking meth use to catching HIV. We were certainly among the impressed, and now we want to gather your marching orders for crystal meth dealers.
PETER STALEY: Actually, I don't want that to be the focus. Issuing marching orders for gay crystal dealers is crazy. Gay crystal dealers are by and large crystal addicts. They've already lost their job because of their addiction, and dealing is a job that they can start without having to get hired by anybody. They're very desperate people. They're not going to take marching orders from me or anyone else.
That's why the ad campaign we did in New York wasn't targeted at people using the drug. It was designed to warn those who haven't used crystal to stay off the drug. Once you're hooked you've got to find your own way out. My ads can't help you then.
So if you could give marching orders to some group of people on this issue, who would you give them to?
Gay men in general, and in particular the guys who are not using meth. I feel strongly that if a person who would never use meth is having brunch on a Sunday with others who have used meth that weekend, and is listening to the meth users share their experience in a joking way—if the listener doesn't say anything, then by his silence he is playing a role in meth's popularity in the community. He's playing a role if he doesn't say, "What the fuck are you talking about? Don't you know that destroyed the lives of some of my friends?"
By his silence he's complicit.
Absolutely, he's complicit. In my mind, this kind of silence is a form of pushing.
So why do so many people remain silent?
The whole basis of our community is very libertarian. The gay liberation movement's primary focus has been fighting against those who are trying to tell us how to live our lives, so we're very reluctant to tell each other how to live our lives. And rightly so. I have a strong libertarian streak. But I hope our community only takes that so far.
For example, if we had been completely libertarian during the height of the AIDS crisis in the '80s, there would have been no pressure from some gay men on other gay men that condoms be used all the time. That was our greatest hour as a community—when we started helping each other, as well as pressuring each other, and started expecting that we take care of our own. Now, here we are again, faced with a situation where the health of many gay men is under serious threat. We need to start helping and pressuring each other again.
Your ads were in Chelsea, New York's gayest neighborhood. Imagine that you had a huge number of gay men lined up in gay neighborhoods all over America. They all have megaphones. What would you have them shout at other gay men about meth?
This drug is making people sick, it's killing people, it's destroying lives, it's destroying careers, it's destroying relationships. We're better than this. We're a community that does amazing things. We're fun and we know how to party. But we also care about each other and care about our health. Now we're playing with a party drug that's destroying lives and we need to ask ourselves: Is this really what being gay means? Is this really what we want?
And your answer?
No. Those who are trapped by crystal right now are living the worst lives on earth. I speak from experience. It's very sad and depressing, and we are better than this. There's no reason we need to be this self-destructive. I'm hoping we've gotten to the point where crystal use is no longer glamorized, but if I still need to de-glamorize, here you go: What's glamorous about amphetamine-induced psychosis? What's glamorous about losing your job, your boyfriend, your teeth falling out, getting STDs on a monthly basis or HIV? What's glamorous about living on a sexual hamster wheel where you just can't get off?
You said you were speaking from personal experience. Can you talk about that?
No. I'm not going to go into my personal stuff, because my family's read too much already. But I will just say in general: I had a great life. Miraculously, I survived the dark days of the AIDS crisis in the '80s and the early '90s. And I survived that only to be brought to my knees by crystal meth. Getting sober was the hardest fight of my life, far harder than staying alive in the '80s as an HIV-positive man. Nobody should get into this drug. It's something I still struggle with, and probably will continue to struggle with the rest of my life.
In a way, your life story mirrors that of the gay community as a whole in the last 25 years—struggling through the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, and surviving, but only to succumb to the scourge of crystal.
Right. I think crystal is the major health problem in the gay community now, and that it feeds the other ones that we deal with. I firmly believe that if it weren't for crystal meth we would be experiencing a decline of newly HIV-infected gay men every year. Instead we are seeing, nation-wide, an increase where an increase shouldn't be happening, and most of that is being driven by crystal meth.
Are you optimistic that this can be turned around?
I lean towards pessimism, only because we're up against a drug that has a not undeserved reputation of giving gay men the best sex that they've ever had. That reputation is an almost unbeatable marketing tool in the gay community.
I've never understood why it isn't seen as a bit pathetic to need to turn to a destructive drug in order be able to enjoy gay sex.
Well, you have to try crystal sex before you can make a judgment call like that. You go to a different place. It's a chemical thing that happens in your brain. It lessens inhibitions. Very few of us can do that on our own. And crystal does that very effectively and very immediately. Unfortunately, as I'm saying this right now, I'm providing a major advertisement for crystal, and that's the problem.
Well, then what's the effective counter-marketing? I mean, when even people who have been addicted to the drug, and now hate it, still give it rave reviews in terms of allowing them to have the best sex they've ever had, what do you say to keep people off of it?
Well, put it on a scale: best sex of your life on one end of the scale, and on the other end, you destroy your life. Do you want to destroy your life in order to have great sex?
A lot of people are answering yes. What type of people do you think they are?
People who don't think enough of themselves. People who have issues. And as a community, on average, we carry that burden more than others because of the way our society has raised us. The self-loathing of the homosexual is not some trite propaganda. It's a reality, and that plays out in choices that are made.
Well, but at a time of increasing rights and acceptance it can also be seen as an excuse. Perhaps we can return to the brunch scenario, but now let's say you're the person who's facing a friend who's finding crystal alluring. What do you say?
Why do you hate yourself? Why don't you love yourself more? Why are you internalizing the hatred that ignorant people have shown you all through life? ■