The Man Who Taught Me How to Be Gay
I thought escorting would buy me freedom. But it was one of my clients who taught me that I already had all the freedom in the world.
Illustration by Kelsey Wroten
In the early 90s, I was living out my 20s in New York City, and Michael Alig's infamous Disco 2000 club ruled Wednesday nights. Dressed in outrageous outfits, our faces made up in horror movie glamour, my friends and I would get high and dance until the music ended. Then we'd pile into my best friend Aaron Blue's Alfa Romero and speed east through the city toward Save the Robots, an after-hours club in the Lower East Side where drag queens, businessmen, club kids, and hitmen would dance together for hours, lost in the music. Eventually, we'd end the night at Florent, eating escargot and French fries.
We owned the city back then. Caught in a swirl of drugs and parties. We thought we were invincible.
By 1996, Aaron Blue would die from a heroin overdose, and Disco 2000 would crash in scandal. But those nights still burn in my memory, bright and fierce and full of magic.
It was during this time that I went to work as an escort. I was a junkie with no job, dependent on my rich father for money. I thought being a whore would solve all my problems, allowing me the freedom to buy drugs and club all night long while answering to no one.
It wasn't until I met Laurent that I learned how unfree I really was.
Laurent was the second client I ever saw, and he taught me that all of life is a choice—that we choose our destinies and the course of our future each and every day, and that all that was right or wrong in my life was of my own making. Whatever I became, his only preference was for everything I did to be as beautiful as possible: "It is every gay man's duty to create beauty and to force it down the throat of the world," he'd tell me.
He had a round face, curly blond hair, faded milky blue eyes, and soft Southern cadences. He lived on the top three floors of a brownstone that looked out onto a quiet, tree-lined section of 17th Street, from which the city took on a lush, decadent kind of beauty. And he was dying of AIDS, which he called "the cancer."
He would make me rose tip tea infused with just a hint of opium, and ask me to read for him from a collection of Hart Crane poems. Certain passages would make him cry, and he told me the story of how, after being beaten up for cruising male crew members on a luxury ship, Crane threw himself overboard, toasting a crowd of partygoers before plunging to his death. "We have always paid such a heavy price to be allowed to suck dick," Laurent said.
The second time I met with him, he asked if we could get naked together. We did cartwheels around his living room, bumping into furniture and rolling around on the floor.
It was hard not to stare at the purple lesions on his pale, near-translucent skin. "They're like little paintings of a disaster that is occurring inside me," he would tell me. "Reminders of my future. Tiny outlines of death. Yet when I look at them, all I can see is life. All the men I've fucked, all the men I've loved, every breath I ever took, all the choices I made. I have lived the most gorgeous life imaginable. And I know in death that every beautiful man I kissed, every hand I held, every drugged out boy I danced with will be waiting for me with chocolate and champagne and strawberries," he laughed.
He fell, breathless and naked, into his large blue leather couch.
"Do you have any idea how lucky we are? To be gay? To not have to live by their rules? To be able to create the lives we want? Our lives get to be great works of art. You get to be as beautiful as you want to be. As bright and shining as the stars."
One day I arrived to find a small pool filled with lavender bubbles and hot water in the middle of the room. I sat beside him, reading him Lorca poems, drinking champagne and talking about my day. He always wanted to know how I spent my time, even mundane things like laundry and grocery shopping.
"It isn't being a whore that makes you interesting, or being a junkie—those are just moments, snapshots that distract us from what's really interesting," he said. "It's the tiny moments, the way your lover farts in his sleep and it makes you want to pull them even closer, the way you feel as you stumble through your day, paying your bills, washing your dishes, the things you think while you're wiping your ass. If there is a God, then that is when he reveals himself."
Once I told Laurent about a sex party I went to. His eyes grew wide as I told him about my adventures. When I was through he clapped his hands and ran about the room in a manic fit, dancing to the song playing in the background.
"We are such decadent, beautiful monsters."
"You don't think I should feel bad?"
"I don't know. Maybe it was too much?"
"The whore asking me if sex is too much? Nothing is too much. We are free. Promise me that you will never feel guilty for being who you are and doing what makes you happy. "
He lit candles throughout the apartment as we rolled hash joints, and we would dance wildly, without regard for the world outside. Laurent would roll on the floor, kicking and screaming and singing as loud as he could. Once he took me to his rooftop, where Manhattan sprawled against the dark sky like a giant burning altar, and he told me a story of his first love with an art thief who lived in Rome. He told me about wild adventures smuggling drugs from Marrakech into Spain, and strange gatherings of Satanists in France "that always turned into rather boring sex parties," he said. "I could almost have accepted their stupidity, but the boring sex, that was unforgivable."
He painted elaborate tales of summers on Fire Island and parties out on the west side docks. He made the world seem magical.
"The world will tell you you are amoral, and they will call you evil," he said. "They will use religion and God and all sorts of silly, banal reasons why you should not be allowed to live your life. Being free reminds everyone else of the chains they have chosen. Living your life the way you want reminds them of the ways they have compromised, sacrificing themselves on altars of Christianity and mediocrity. We will be the great beasts. We will choose life over everything. Being gay is the key that unlocks the door. We don't have to live our lives by anyone else's rules. We have a choice."
Like Aaron Blue and so many other people I knew back then, Laurent died because of the life he chose—the heavy price paid for living life on one's own terms. I often wonder if it was worth it. Is there a point where a life lived in extremes is no longer a life worth living?
But then I think of Laurent, in his beautiful brownstone surrounded by priceless works of art, dancing and singing and paying whatever price was asked of him for living his life his way.
"I regret nothing," he once said to me. "Not even the moments that hurt the most, not even the ones that burn with shame. I regret none of it."