The Path of
The need for social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic has created intense feelings of isolation, although people have still chosen to interact with each other in various ways. This short, personal reflective essay, which documents a walk taken on December 1, 2020, explores common links between HIV/AIDS and Covid-19, while addressing the concept of cruising among seemingly discreet gay and bisexual people in a public park. The text examines the complexities of subjectivity, voyeurism, and codes of sexual behavior, as well as generational differences, within the LGBTQIA+ community, as it considers issues related to guilty pleasures.
The day in question was December 1, 2020, which marked the 32nd anniversary of World AIDS Day. In the late 1980s and 1990s, I had used the entire day to reflect upon the tragic ways in which the HIV/AIDS crisis was damaging my life, although in the 21st century, I have to admit that the amount of time I spent contemplating the ordeal had been diminishing significantly. Yet, the year 2020 triggered an intense response from me, given the Covid-19 pandemic. The two health crises were colliding together in my mind, and I found myself reliving some of the same heightened trauma that I had experienced as a younger person: I was afraid to socialize and interact with people and, just like during the AIDS crisis, I was terrified to have sex. I hid inside my apartment, like many other people, trying to follow the guidelines for social distancing, but as the months dragged on, I needed to temper my feelings of isolation and decided to venture outside to take walks now and again. It was to lift my spirits, buy groceries, soak up some sun, exercise my body, or merely nod hello to my neighbors—at least those were the reasons that I told myself initially. While I enjoyed traipsing around my neighborhood, my real pleasure was in looking and imagining what might be taking place in a park near my building. My thoughts in this essay ultimately reflect upon on a specific walk that I took in the park on World AIDS Day during the Covid-19 pandemic, as I explored various paths of indulgence.
The park is located on a hilltop and stretches downward on two sides to a valley. The larger neighborhood is primarily working class, composed of lower- and middle-class individuals and families, and is ethnically and racially diverse, although one side of the valley is dominated by a Latinx population and another section has a significant Jewish community. To add to the diversity, the neighborhood has experienced a significant influx of LGBTQIA+ people in recent years. Serving as a common ground that unites the eclectic neighborhood, the park is comprised of idyllic lawns, gardens, and numerous pathways.
Among the many picturesque trails in the park, one is favored by a number of gay and bisexual men, some of whom may identify as transgender, intersex, or queer. This diverse group of individuals often cruise the walkway looking for social and sexual encounters, and one could say that the landscape architecture is designed such that it actually might help facilitate these types of interactions. First, this particular path is remote from the rest of the park. The route is not heavily trafficked because it is quite steep, connecting the top of the hill to the valley below, and the entries at either end are separate from the larger main entrances to the park. The trail serves as a kind of private footpath attracting the physically fit, the curious and adventurous, and/or a select group of gay and bisexual men who knows what possible carnal activities might occur along the way. Second, the walkway sinuously twists and turns, snaking along the side of the rugged hill, and it is surrounded by a heavily wooded area. One can easily stop or look without being wholly noticed. Here and there, the trees and lampposts tilt at odd angles, and the retaining wall, composed of large, rough stones, undulates along the side of the trail. Small niche-like spaces are, thus, created, and people can easily nest together in private inside these little hideaways. In addition, a couple of the lamppost lights have been broken or painted over, making certain areas of the path darker at night. It is, therefore, an ideal place for individuals to meet, seemingly by happenstance, and have a sexual rendezvous.
One might think these types of sites would have literally and figuratively died during the AIDS crisis and would not, consequently, exist during Covid-19. Yet, these areas of potential interaction remain. On this largely cloudy December day, I walked the path for approximately three hours, from mid-afternoon until twilight. During this period, I observed more than twenty people. They were all by themselves, doing largely the same thing. They stood to the side of the walkway or interacted with the wall, either leaning or sitting on it. There were no benches or clearly defined resting spots that warranted any such stoppage, yet they had all chosen to pause and wait, often for a long time. Then they sometimes meandered up or down the trail and stopped again. None of them was obviously sexualized in dress or demeanor. In fact, they were mostly low-key and inconspicuous—or what is often described as ‘discreet’ in gay culture. See “discreet,” Urban Dictionary, https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=discreet (accessed December 1, 2020); and Harry Thomas, “‘Immaculate Manhood’: The City and the Pilar Giovanni’s Room and the Straight Acting Gay Man,” Twentieth Century Literature 59, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 596-618. One could easily walk the path and have no idea what was happening. Yet, on a number of occasions, I saw two men go back and forth on the trail and then have a conversation for a few minutes before walking away together. Others played on their phones but kept looking around eagerly to see who might be passing by. I imagined them chatting on Grindr, Scruff, or other types of dating and sex sites to create an encounter—perhaps to meet in person or maybe just connect virtually. The need for interaction of any kind seemed to be of the utmost importance, even on a chilly December day. In fact, as the cold weather was beginning to settle in, the desire seemed somewhat more pronounced. Today might be their final chance for one last hoorah before a brutal winter. Most of the leaves had fallen, and the trees would soon no longer provide hidden refuge for interactivity. The end of autumn marks the end ofsuchfrolicking,that is, until spring approaches, and the cruising might begin again.
Many of the people subtly flirting on the walkway were young, probably in their twenties. While the coronavirus has had an impact on everyone, I learned that many young adults had been forced to move back home with their parent(s) for financial or other reasons, and some had experienced difficulties; for example, domestic violence was on the rise in 2020. Richard Fry, Jeffrey S. Passel, and D’Vera Cohn, “A Majority of Young Adults in the U.S. Live with Their Parents for the First Time since the Great Depression,” Pew Research Center, September 4, 2020, (accessed December 1, 2020); and Allan Mozes, “Study Finds Rise in Domestic Violence during COVID,” WebMD, August 18, 2020 (accessed December 1, 2020). One obvious reason was that everyone was largely stuck at home, closely confined, and feeling frustrated. Another issue was that alcohol was being consumed in greater quantities. Michael S. Pollack, Joan Tucker, and Harold D. Green, “ Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID - 19 Pandemic in the US,” JAMA Network Open , September 29, 2020, doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.202 0.22942 (accessed December 1, 2020). In addition, homophobia, which might have been stifled or temporarily tolerated in the family previously, could not be hidden or ignored any longer. These young people had no clubs, bars, or community spaces to visit. The footpath in the park was, therefore, their outlet, providing a needed respite from the tumultuous changes of life in the past year.
Walking along the route, I kept thinking about the various connections between HIV/AIDS and Covid-19. One obvious similarity is that the viruses pit two very basic human impulses against one another—the desire to congregate and interact with other people versus the fear of infection and potential death—although such opposing forces have been common for many socially and sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., polio and syphilis). Another more significant link between HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 is the way in which the two viruses were extremely politicized to the point where the U.S. government actually allowed many more people than necessary to become infected and die as a result of its own negligence. One might add that the annoyance for some individuals about having to put on a condom during the AIDS crisis could be seen as similar to the frustration for many people about having to wear a mask during the Covid-19 pandemic. But ultimately, the similarities might be few. A major difference is that an HIV infection lasts a lifetime, yet a positive Covid-19 diagnosis is typically temporary. See William Haseltine, “Lessons Learned from AIDS for the COVID - 19 Pandemic,” Scientific American, October 1, 2020.HIV has also tended to be more concentrated within specific populations, namely gay and bisexual men and BIPOC populations, while Covid-19 is a worldwide pandemic and can presumably attack anyone, although the BIPOC people have suffered more cases and deaths disproportionately. In 2018, statistics revealed that 69% of HIV infections were gay and bisexual men, 24% were heterosexual, and 9% were intravenous dru g users. African American/Black and Latino men were infected much more than white men engaging in male - to - male sexual conduct. See “HIV in the United States and Dependent Areas,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last reviewed November 24, 2020, In addition, drugs are required to save and sustain the lives of people with HIV/AIDS, and no vaccine exists, even after forty years. In contrast, drugs and other means of treatment may or may not be needed for people who become infected with Covid-19, and a number of vaccines were rushed. Haseltine, “Lessons Learned from AIDS.” While many similarities and differences are apparent, I wondered if such issues were on the minds of these young people quietly cavorting in the park. Although everyone was appropriately masked, I have heard that many of them view HIV/AIDS as a past trauma and Covid-19 as a greater concern for the elderly. Did any of them know that December 1st is World AIDS Day?
As I reflected on these concerns, I thought about my relationship with these young people on the walkway. While I was not interested in engaging in sexual relations and never attempted to watch any couple have sex in one of the so-called hideouts—that is private—I was clearly a voyeur. I enjoyed seeing a number of people go in and out of the hideaways in the wooded areas, sometimes more than once. My thoughts were sometimes aroused, and at one point my curiosity was piqued. When I was certain one of the larger hideouts was empty, I ventured inside to see what I might discover and noticed obvious remnants of their sexual and social activities. I was relieved to find many used condoms and numerous torn condom wrappers and was not surprised to see a couple of empty plastic liquor bottles and a few soiled napkins. In a way, my worries about the seemingly self-indulgent nature of this younger crowd had been answered. The remains of their activities suggested that at least some of them were indeed taking precautions to protect themselves from HIV and Covid-19. As I looked at the objects on the ground, I also thought about safer sex practices during HIV/AIDS crisis and Covid-19. During the HIV/AIDS crisis, condoms were considered essential, and PrEP has become an alternative since its approval in 2012. “Pre - Exposure Prophylaxis,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention While Covid-19 can be found in semen and feces, scientists have not yet proven that the coronavirus can be transmitted through these bodily fluids. Scientists have, nevertheless, recommended wearing condoms and masks, among other precautions, when engaging in sexual activities with people outside one’s immediate home environment. William F. Marshall III, “Sex and Coronavirus? Can You Get COVID - 19 from Sexual Activity?’ Mayo Clinic, June 16, 2020 I should add, given the nature of this project, that scientists have also indicated that outdoor activities can be a low or moderate risk depending on the nature of the interpersonal contact, and one might say that having sex outside, where Covid-19 does not transmit so easily, could be noted on the list of potential safeguards for sexual activity. Mayo Clinic Staff Writer, “Safe Outdoor Activities during the COVID - 19 Pandemic,” Mayo Clinic, December 10, 2020 , https://www.mayoclinic.org /diseases - conditions/coronavirus/in - depth/safe - activities - during - covid19/art - 20489385 (accessed December 26, 202 0 ) Promoting safer sex might not suit everyone’s moral standards, but it can save lives, which in the end matters significantly.
While working on this project, the most sexualized encounter that I experienced directly was that I saw two people grab their crotches to show off the bulk of their manhood in their trousers. At first, I thought the gesture was meant for me, but I realized quickly that they seemed to be fondling themselves for any male who was entering the top of the path, as if to signal that this walkway was a gay-friendly zone. Otherwise, no one seemed concerned by my presence even though I walked along the trail for hours. In some ways I saw myself as the omniscient seer who could observe the larger spectacle on view without somehow being noticed. But to be frank, I felt largely ignored. I was likely perceived as an invisible middle-aged person—merely a shadow of a human in the eyes of these youthful people. In the end, my study has just as much to do with them as it does me. Although I may identify as a gender-neutral gay person, I could tell that within the complex categories of LGBTQIA+, I was designated A for asexual in this instance. That’s the course of action that I had chosen for myself, and for better or worse, that’s the so-called road that I had been assigned by these younger people. My project ultimately reflects an unfulfilled burning want that I was too afraid to participate in when I was younger during the AIDS crisis and am still too uncomfortable to indulge in now during the Covid-19 pandemic. My path of indulgence is specifically about my projected fantasies and desires—to feel fulfilled, vicariously, through the lives of others. While safety should always be an essential concern, my hope is that we may learn to acknowledge and be mindful of our own needs and impulses, as well as those of others, even if they all might be guilty pleasures.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “HIV in the United States and Dependent Areas,” last reviewed November 24, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis,” n.d.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Risk for COVID-19 Infection, Hospitalization, and Death by Race/Ethnicity,” updated March 12, 2021.
Fry, Richard, Jeffrey S. Passel, and D’Vera Cohn. “A Majority of Young Adults in the U.S. Live with Their Parents for the First Time since the Great Depression.” Pew Research Center, September 4, 2020.
Haseltine, William. “Lessons Learned from AIDS for the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Scientific American, October 1, 2020.
Marshall III, William F. “Sex and Coronavirus? Can You Get COVID-19 from Sexual Activity?” Mayo Clinic, June 16, 2020.
Mayo Clinic Staff Writer. “Safe Outdoor Activities during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Mayo Clinic, December 10, 2020.
Mozes, Allan. “Study Finds Rise in Domestic Violence during COVID.” WebMD, August 18, 2020.
Pollack, Michael S., Joan Tucker, and Harold D. Green, “Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US,” JAMA Network Open, September 29, 2020.
Thomas, Harry. “‘Immaculate Manhood’: The City and the Pilar Giovanni’s Room and the Straight Acting Gay Man.” Twentieth Century Literature 59, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 596-618.