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Here in Bucharest, where I've opted to spend several months with my Romanian partner, Romulus, I am, it occurs to me, a willful sexual exile. With my American passport, which can get me into any of the alleged sexual utopiasAmsterdam, Copenhagen, PragueI've chosen to make love and live life in a country where you can still be punished for any kind of sex act thought to cause a "public scandal."
Since Article 200, the Romanian sex crimes law prohibiting public scandal, has been used in the past to imprison gay people who merely ask a friend of the same sex to sleep with them, neither Romulus nor I can predict how it might be used against us. During those shaky, regretful moments when I begin to feel anguished about our risky romantic experiment, his way of comforting me is to say, "Sex gets better when it's dangerous."
In many ways my flight from the United States is an unsettled nose-snubbing at that smug cultural moment we have reached, in which gay liberation is turning into just another assimilation story and Manhattan is becoming a shopping, residential, and entertainment complex for singles of a single class. As a gay male who began honing his cruising skills several years before Stonewall in movie theaters, parks, public toilets, and Mafia bars, I always took for granted that my sexual preference meant I'd be rubbing shoulders with other marginalsthose drag-queen hookers, rent boys, alcoholics, speed freaks, and petty thieves who once shared inner-city gay bars across America with us "inverts." Even until the mid '90s, Times Square hustler bars still hosted a wild mix of classes, races, and predilections. When these bars closed, gay life in New York more or less ended for me.
Now Manhattan and its gay world have become "restricted neighborhoods," from which the various "vices" of being gay have been banished. But I still see homosexuality as a narrative of urban adventure, a chance to cross not only sex barriers but class and age barriers, while breaking a few laws in the processand all for the sake of pleasure. If not, I might as well be straight.
My Romanian partner and I met on an unlit strip by the Danube last year, after an online sex journal (nerve.com) sent me to Budapest to investigate male brothels. Because he is Romanian, Romulus was living the day-to-day survival trip that immigrants without work permits are forced to endure. Having left Romania, where the average salary is $80 a month, he'd made it to a series of Western European countries without a visa by dodging bullets at border crossings, hiding in container ships, or riding freight rails; then he got thrown out of Italy for a car heist.
Now he was marking time in Budapest and had fallen into a depression. His bisexual identity was, and is, complicated by the Latin macho codes of Romania, as well as by economic deprivations, which have sometimes decided for him whom he's had to fuck. By the time we met in Budapest, he was tired of living by his wits and selling his body. I, of course, didn't get it. All I saw was a handsome, hollow-cheeked bed partner whose hardcore masculinity excited me. What he saw in me at first was somebody old enough to be his father whom he might be able to trust, a financial way out of the mess he was in, and, incidentally, a very good cocksucker.
From the very beginning, our relationship has had an "old-fashioned" dynamic. Remember, if you will, the "rough trade" involvements of pre-politicized gay life. It's a "don't ask, don't tell" aesthetic in which the growing feeling between us is forbidden to be put into words. Since my friend isn't gay, it's understood that he will sometimes be sleeping with women. When he's with me, the sex is hot, though the roles are rigidly enforced. In bed, I do the work that would define one as "gay." He sits back, enjoys it, and maintains that the role he plays assures his manhood.
My friend's responses to me are, of course, shaped by his underclass perspective. He considers his body his strongest asset and uses it, sometimes cynically, as a power tool. Despite this, our friendship is a treasure chest of unexpected pleasures; our pairing is a dizzy, sometimes hilarious clash of cultures and classes, far different from that comfortable matching of equals that Mom, and now much of the contemporary gay establishment, subscribe to.
All the frills of the out gay life leave my partner in a kind of frozen revulsion. As much as he enjoys the wit, warmth, and attentions of gay males, he has no desire for, and no conception of, a community in which groups of men who happen to sleep with other men eat together in restaurants, stay in gay-owned hotels, or dance in clubs devoid of women.
When Romulus and I decided to go to the steam baths of Budapest, the avid looks of the many middle-aged men in loincloths filled him with resentment and panic. He reacted to their indiscreet desire the way most attractive women do when they have to walk past a construction site. Neither did he enjoy their presumption, or hope, that he was homosexual.
This lack of interest in a community of people with similar pleasure goals may have something to do with the fact that Romulus grew up in Communist Romania, where the concept of communities, rather than the unified social body, did not exist. And perverse as I may seem, I find life with him outside of any gay group culture strangely refreshing, as if I and my desire have been placed back inside the whole world.
Leading a life of clandestine homosexuality with a lover who doesn't consider himself "gay" has its difficulties. It ain't easy being foreign and queer in Bucharest. There are wild dogs in the street that could have rabies. Merchants quadruple their prices as soon as they lay eyes on me. I keep wondering if the neighbors can hear us moaning. But in the end, these risks are less painful than the steady erosion of my sex life in the safety of New York.
As the gay community of New York became more politically established, its support for me began to feel more like the dictation of a script by which I must act out my desire. I've chosen, instead, to write my own script, which is a mixture of old values and experimental approaches. It's a risky, shadowy thriller that won't ever make a pilot for prime-time television. It's also a wild flight toward pleasure. I may never go home to the norm.