Goodbye to Steven, my sex hero
I hadn’t intended to start my blogging career with an obituary, but sometimes life just hands us the unexpected, and I need to write about Steven Brown before I write about Bettie Page or dildos in Tennessee or any of the other things on my list to deconstruct, chew on, go over, share, kick around, or unpack with you.
Not that Steven’s death was exactly unexpected. He’d had HIV since the early days of the epidemic, probably, that halcyon San Francisco time when practically no one could see the clouds massing. He was at least a 20-year survivor and perhaps closer to 25. In short, he was a person who literally wasn’t supposed to exist; back when HIV was seen as nothing more or less than a death sentence, he stubbornly did not die, nor did he even really get sick. He was one of the world’s longest-term survivors. So it was possible to know him, and for a long time, and receive two clear observations: He was truly living with HIV, and HIV was not, for everyone, the sudden death sentence so many people used to believe it was. Until fairly recently it did not seem to scathe him, although perhaps I don’t know and didn’t glimpse the inside story. Steven was just one of the people that others drew inspiration from, inspiration for survival. Then a short while ago word got around that he had begun to fail.
“To fail” — that’s the sort of euphemism for getting sicker that my grandmother would use. It seems so harsh and judgmental as I write it, though, like calling erectile problems “impotence.” Our culture doesn’t give much space to those who don’t succeed, at being healthy and alive as in other ways.
But let me tell you what a success Steven was, and not just at waking up every morning for decades after his diagnosis. He lived his own life, one most people on the planet couldn’t envision, much less arrange for themselves. To start with, he’d had enough sex to really know something about it. I met him when he was a trainer at the original San Francisco Sex Information, before the staff changed over and changed the training along with it. He had been there since practically the beginning, in the early 1970s, not long after he came to San Francisco to do all the things people migrated here in those days to do. He became a sex surrogate, one of the few men in that profession, and one of even fewer who worked with both women and men. Yep, Steven was a bisexual man, one of the men I moved to San Francisco from a largely lesbian existence in Eugene to meet (if you want to know more about that, my essay “Beyond the Valley of the Fag Hags” in PoMoSexuals, will take you on a walk down that mile of my memory lane). I fell in love with one wonderful bisexual man after another, first David Lourea (one of my instructors at the Sex Institute), then Robert, then Steven.
I ended up with Robert, also a SFSI trainer, but you know what Maude said in “Harold and Maude”: “That’s nice, dear, go out and love some more.” I was on my way to Steven’s house on Twin Peaks for a play party in 1991 or thereabouts when Jack Prosper, the eponymous leather daddy of The Leather Daddy and the Femme, appeared to me. Jack was Steven Brown’s love child just as he was Robert’s and David’s, and that of the San Francisco I felt I had missed by not moving here back when Steven did.
Steven was one of the three or four most charismatic people I ever knew. And whether he was burnished into heightened awareness by his surrogate work, his prodigious appetite for joy and play, or just because he was made that way, he taught me a few things about sex that I still consider quite wise. He said his surrogate work showed him that most people’s sex problems could be alleviated, if not fixed, simply by touch: that if we humans got as much touch as the cats and dogs we have invited into our lives, we might not so often use sex primarily for contact. With our basic touch needs met, sexuality would not have to carry that burden, which is not always about a desire for sexual pleasure and erotic intimacy, but rather pleasure and intimacy, pure and simple.
And he introduced me to the notion of the “style conflict,” which is a useful way to understand the snaggles humans get into about all kinds of things: not just problems between partners and family members, workplace personal conflicts or our deep disapproval of our old friend’s new lover, but between people of different orientations, different religious beliefs, Red states and Blue states, Republicrats and Demagogues. Susan Sontag wrote about the importance of taste: it “governs every free… human response,” she said. Steven meant something akin by his version: not style in clothes or decor, taste in books or music, but the way someone understands those and zillions of other things, including their own identity as shaped by them. So homophobia was a style conflict, and so was the aggravation the sex therapists call “desire-phase discrepancy” (you want to fuck, your partner doesn’t, or vice versa; or you want to fuck one way, your partner the other. Style conflict). Monogamists and polyamorists have a style conflict, especially if there’s one of each in a relationship; sex radicals have a style conflict with traditional-values people.
But besides speaking to all these diverse and problematic philosophies and identities, the notion of the “style conflict” is, like Steven usually was, light-hearted: makes huge cultural and irritating personal differences seem like they might melt away if we were able to engage enough compassion, communication, insight. We’re not enemies: we’re caught in the throes of a style conflict! It’s an egalitarian notion, and, I think, one of the foundations for understanding sex-positivity. It’s made a huge impression on my ability to live with difference.
One more thing, and it’s just as profound as the other three and maybe one of the keys to Steven’s living well for as long as he did. I paraphrase Steven Brown on safer sex: “When you only have one or two things that really get you off sexually, it’s very hard to change your patterns and embrace safety. What if anal sex without a condom was the only thing you liked? Using a condom could seem like a real sacrifice. But if you get off on 120 different things, it’s not such a radical change to still have access to 118 of them.”
If you ever wanted an articulate reason why erotic exploration is a good thing, consider that.
Steven died last night. This morning Robert woke up from a dream of a brilliantly-colored ivory-beaked bird. He said the colors kept changing, and the bird said it wanted to stay, but that it had to go. It said something like “Love is good,” and then it was gone. Robert has friends in the dream world, I think, who give him info, or maybe he just intuited that the time for Steven to fly away from us had to be near. Goodbye to the bird, and goodbye, Steven. And for the rest of us? May we all discover at least 118 things we love.