Michael Leonard interviewed Michael T. Luongo,
The Voyeur and Gay Travels in the Muslim World,
about the humor and pathos in the field of AIDS and HIV prevention research, surprising historical differences in attitude toward homosexuality in the West and the Middle East, and his roundabout route to the publication of his novel.
Interviewer Michael Leonard: While The Voyeur is a work of fiction, you're basically known for your nonfiction travel writing, including editing the book Gay Travels in the Muslim World and having a story in the collection. Keeping this in mind, how hard was it for you to cross genres to write your first novel?
Michael T. Luongo: I think all writers have a bit of imagination no matter what they write. The fact of the matter is, and maybe this is a good lesson in persistence for all aspiring writers out there, I wrote The Voyeur a very long time ago. I started it in something like 1995 or 1996, not finishing it into what it became until 1998 or 1999. A lot of that had to do with being laid off for a period of time and having the luxury of finishing. I wrote The Voyeur before I became known for my travel writing.
All the while that I became a better and better-known travel writer, I tried to sell The Voyeur. By becoming better known in one way, and in fact, getting writing assignments as a travel writer while trying to sell The Voyeur, I was hearing comments like, Ďwe donít want the novel, but tell us more about the travel writing.í I was able to eventually sell The Voyeur, which was the baby I wanted to present to the world the whole time. You never know how your career will go as a writer. It is a strange path.
The Voyeur is inspired by your own experiences working for various HIV/AIDS organizations. But what precipitated you to write such a candid and honest fictional exploration of this particular side of New York gay life?
Can it be candid and honest if it is fictional? But yes, it is drawn from my experiences working in the AIDS and HIV prevention research field in the USA and Europe. I felt a few things as I was writing The Voyeur. Among them was that when you work in this field, there is a lot that is funny and a lot that is serious and poignant, itís all mixed together. I mean we would have meetings with people who would tell us the worst things and then something funny would happen, like a leaking rubber ejaculating penis would make a mess as we were talking, or we would walk the streets of Manhattan carrying boxes labeled Vaginas/Penises etc. and even in Manhattan, that would turn heads.
At the same time, I also felt that what fuels prevention, the actual process of how scientists and AIDS Service Organizations and governments make their choices and go about their business is a complete mystery to most people. Here we have billions of dollars spent and no one really knows what is behind the pamphlet. I wanted to explain that process and also humanize it, as well as humanize the people behind the research, whether the scientists or, especially, the subjects. Yet I wanted to do it in a non-preachy way. Not many ordinary folk will likely read reports about HIV prevention, but hopefully, they will read my novel.
The action in the novel jump-starts when a crazed man attacks Jason and he defends himself with a wooden penis. It's sort of funny and comical, and then the following newspaper article sets the tone for what is to come. Why did you decide to include this scene? And how were you able to balance the light-hearted moments with the some of the more serious issues that occur throughout?
The idea of the wooden penis for Jason to defend himself comes from the fact that I actually did carry wooden penises in my pocket when I did this work because it was the only weapon I had. I just let the imagination run wild, as we writers are likely to do, to let nature take its course, in my mind. I mean it is a funny idea, and well it would be something that papers, especially tabloids, would take a hold of. As I mentioned above this, the work of HIV prevention is full of both comical and tragic moments. In one moment penises are rolling around the floor, another someone you have worked with has died.
We also are dealing with sex, which is full of ideas for humor. Life is full of both humor and tragedy, as well as death. I felt that this book had to reflect that. Also, I think really if it were completely tragic, who would read it? So the ideas of mystery and sexuality are mixed with humor. Do I dare say that it is a Shakespearean technique to mix the two together, and hopefully, do it well?
Why do you think Jason initially gets involved in sex work? And what sort of influence do you think his mother has had on doing the type of work that he does?
By sex work, itís not prostitution, though that is a running joke in the novel, but sex research work. Jason has a clear need for approval and recognition. For many gay men, that can come from doing this type of work. Look at me, I am a martyr and mensch, putting other peopleís needs above my own, look at how I suffer for the community, but really he wants attention and recognition, so it is not entirely selfless. As well, he wanted to work in a gay environment, and AIDS, despite it not being solely a gay issue, clearly is a gay issue.
As for his mother, the work he does, sex, is a real problem for her. She wanted a doctor in the family, and now she has one, but he runs around half-naked all over town, watching men fuck each other. Hardly a motherís dream, but he also likes to aggravate her with it, put it in her face what he does.
When Jason tells Mark that he's going to head the research project on the sexual behavior of gay men, Mark isn't supportive at all. Jason, however, thinks that Mark doesn't understand all the wonderful things he's doing for gay men in general. What do you think lies at the core of their conflict?
Jasonís working on this project clearly hits too close to home for Mark, in terms of the type of gay men the project involves. As well, and this is part of martyr and mensch syndrome, Jason takes no time for his partner, itís all about him, though he says itís about working to improve the lives of all gay men. He ignores Markís needs in the relationship while he basks in all this glory. I mean, we all know about people who head charities and later hear stories that they were horrible to their families. That becomes the case with Jason, but his family, as a gay one, is himself and his lover.
At one stage, Jason tells his mother that he's a hustler, and that he sleeps with a bunch of sleazy men. Why does Jason keep tantalizing his mother over the phone with such shocking statements, knowing all the while that she's really quite conservative?
Why does anyone do what they do? I think it helps to also show his need for approval. He is never going to get it from his mother, but maybe he never did and that is why he seeks it in other ways, via the media, via other researchers. The scenes with his mother have a lot of humor, in my opinion, but they also get at the psychology of Jason, as well as drive the plot, because they help to reveal the process of his own thinking as well as the continuing evolution of his own projects. She is also in essence the Anne Bancroft character in this if you consider the relationship in Torch Song Trilogy.
While Jason comes across as rather frustrated with his skewered priorities, you portray Ricky as an unadulterated party boy. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon when he suggests going to the sex clubs and porn theatres to interview the "captive audience." Do you think there's more to Ricky than meets the eye?
Ricky is my favorite character and some people who have reviewed the book say he should have been the main character. Of course, it would clearly have been a different book then. Ricky is a sex addict with a brain, who uses his knowledge to help the project since his life has been one long, ongoing sex research project with a lot of subjects, as he explains. Ricky is someone I would like to be, or maybe half of what I am. He has fun but still gets his work done, and clearly is needed for the project, and stylistically, with his sense of humor, he is a wonderful foil to how uptight Jason can be. By placing the two together, I feel you really bring out the contrasts between the two characters as they react to the same environments.
Ricky's idea of interviewing HIV positive men who are drawn to such anonymous sexual encounters in such places is a good one. But from your experiences in the real world, how difficult is it to realistically do this?
You might be surprised! The reality is that within sex environments, a lot of pretension is already stripped away, whether youíre a janitor or a CEO, youíre naked and fucking, so right there is certain realness and a certain leveling of the field, which can lead to certain honesty. Obviously though not in all cases. Also, depending on the layout of a location, especially a bathhouse with individual rooms, one-on-one conversations can be possible, often more easily than in a bar or a pride event. Research also shows that a greater percentage of HIV+ sexually active men are in sexual settings versus non-sexual settings, which was the type of person being sought out in the course of the research in the novel. However, a group sex place is more difficult to do some recruiting.
Jason has a frank discussion with Ricky about the nature of promiscuity and about the flawed research that is slanted towards rich gay men. Why do you think he is forced to talk so candidly to Ricky about this?
I feel that what he is saying there is very true. Actually, the New York Times Magazine just had a thing about clinical trials and research and how people in trials are skewed a certain way, which makes trials have certain results. It is the same with HIV and sex research in the gay community, as well as any kind of research in the gay community, whatever the gay community is, of course!
I also feel, and this leads into some of my travel work, most research about gay men and lesbians is skewed very heavily to white wealthy gay men, and this impacts political choices like marriage, which is a clearly a white wealthy gay issue, not one relevant to the lives of most gay people at all, but only to those already well established and protected. Also, and in the scene, he specifically talks about this issue, many projects reuse the same people again and again, making for very limited applications of much of the research.
When Jason starts going out in the field and cruising the train stations, he starts to feel that he is no longer the observer, but instead the observed; he then becomes like a frightened and paralyzed child. Why do you think Jason's childhood memories exhibit such a powerful force on him?
Itís part of the mystery of sexuality and how he became what he is. We also, of course, and here I am giving away maybe too much, we learn he had done this all since childhood, and this is how it is manifesting itself into adulthood. Itís also a similar theme in some literature where the hunter becomes the hunted.
There's a part of Jason that wants to become the next "It boy" and use the research project to get to the edge of what he wants. But what do you think it is that Jason actually wants?
Jason wants recognition; he wants people to tell him how wonderful he is. He is not getting this with Mark, his boyfriend, and he never got it from his mother. Within AIDS and HIV prevention, as ugly as the disease is, there is an obvious glamour to it as well. I think this is also one of the disconnects. Elizabeth Taylor and AMFar and dresses and red carpets, and oh, by the way, there are some people dying, too, with lesions all over their body.
When Jason discovers that Mark is cheating on him, he sort of goes into denial, thinking that he's not to blame and that he's the victim Ė he even goes into his researcher mode. Why do you think Jason's in such denial about his relationship with Mark?
Itís both an issue of betrayal and also of having to admit to how his own behavior has impacted things. He is someone who, like the charity women who are mean to their families, canít connect to those closest to him. Sometimes also researchers canít see the obvious. And who wants to accept blame when things go wrong anyway?
The Village Chelsea and the Meat Packing District are synonymous with gay life in New York. They are also the areas where a lot of AIDS education is conducted. Would you like to tell us a bit about the connection between AIDS and the homeless, transient and desperately poor?
Things have changed tremendously within those areas and the Meatpacking District has virtually no gay associations left at all, itís full of Paris Hilton lookalikes running to the latest useless boutique. I talk about a time when Giuliani was shutting down anything gay or sex related within those areas, and now, with that and real estate values, the areas are totally different. Clearly having HIV can impact housing choices in many ways. Though much has changed with new drugs, people with HIV on disability canít work, need access to inexpensive housing, and need housing near social services. This is the reason for groups like Housing Works. The vast majority of social services in New York are in Manhattan.
What I remember also were some people I worked with who chose to be homeless in Manhattan, rather than have a sometimes 2-hour ride to services from the far outer boroughs. Also, itís very important to have people similar to a certain population helping to deliver or test HIV prevention programs so people can relate to them. Education of course plays a role in all this. I remember we used to write dates in numerical format. For instance April 15, 2007 would be 04/15/07. We had clients who had never seen dates like that and did not show up for appointments because they did not know what that meant. If youíre poor, you canít eat right, you canít take medicine right. All of this impacts treatment. AIDS is not over by any means.
It's interesting that when Jason asks Barbara, the manager of one of the gay bars, whether he can interview the clientele, she goes into denial, telling him that "these guys don't even know that much about HIV." How prevalent do you think these attitudes are?
I think they are very prevalent. That is a fictional rewriting of something that actually occurred for me with a bar in Chelsea. You also have to remember that AIDS has also been sanitized. In the 1980s, you saw the images of people dying, with lesions and hollow faces. Now, you never see that. Partly it is because of advanced treatment, but people are still dying. Ironically, also, and this is something which is not well addressed, when fewer people die of AIDS and HIV, more people can become infected. This is among the reasons why the HIV rate continues to climb.
By the end of the novel, how has Jason's attitudes to the people he loves Ė particularly that of Mark and his mother - changed?
He realizes he has been ignoring Mark all along, and maybe does not deserve him. He also realizes maybe he never needed his motherís approval anyway. The novel does end unresolved in that sense, but we realize Jason has made this personal discovery. Maybe, though, he wonít have anything he had before. We donít really know.
In the acknowledgments section you make a comment about Rudy Giuliani. Nationally, he comes across as a rather liberal Republican, but you portray him as quite ruthless. For those of us who don't live in New York, can you tell us a bit about the kind policies he instituted that so raised the ire of AIDS workers?
I shudder to think what the United States would be like if he were elected President. I sometimes call him the long lost lovechild of a hidden relationship between Eva Braun and Mussolini. As an Italian American, he also embodies the worst characteristics of outer borough Italian Americans that I despise.
Do you know under Giuliani, bars could not put out condoms or they would be shut down as promoting sex on the premises? Did you know that a woman walking in Times Square who had a condom on her possession could be arrested as a prostitute? It was horrible for prevention.
When Giuliani became mayor, parking around gay clubs in Chelsea overnight became illegal. It was a clear plan to drive out gay businesses and clubs, like the Limelight. Morality? His marrying his mistress and divorcing his wife in a press conference without her knowledge beforehand? I have no problem with cheating on your spouse. I did that. Itís when you pretend you are more moralistic than others. Changes to parking laws to destroy clubs, condoms in bars, women carrying condoms, destroyed prevention, he was also racist. It was my understanding that he never met with any politicians who were not white during the time he was in office, and clearly official police violence against minorities increased tremendously.
If you think oppression of civil rights is bad under Bush, I think it will be ten times worse under Giuliani. Also, he wanted to have us ignore the elections and allow him to continue to be mayor after 9-11. Imagine. Do I have to explain more? Yes, he has gay friends, but he is not a gay-friendly person if you look at his record as mayor. His own children donít want him as President and are supporting other candidates, Democrats at that. Have I said enough? Please donít get me started.
Sex also plays a large part in Gay Travels in the Muslim World. It's a fascinating collection of stories. What inspired you to put this book together? And as the editor, what criteria did you use in selecting the various pieces?
In a nutshell, it was 9-11, and the subsequent wars. I did find, though, that when I put together Between the Palms, a collection of gay travel erotica stories, the contract of which I first laid eyes on the morning of 9-11, I realized that there was a strong interest in doing this kind of book. Up to a third of the stories submitted for that collection took place in Muslim countries, or were about men who met men from Muslim countries on their trips to Europe for example.
In 2003, during Ramadan, I had also done a series of reports for New Yorkís Gay City News on Islamic countries. We looked at Afghanistan, Turkey, Jordan and Morocco. It was to some degree the genesis of this project also. You comment that sex plays a large part in the collection. It is not the focus by any means, but of course it occurs throughout certain stories since, after all, sex is a natural part of life.
Would you like to comment a bit on this issue of the "gay identity" that recurs throughout the stories, and the strange dichotomy that seems to exist between Western and Eastern attitudes towards homosexuality?
Gay is a very Western concept, and a very recent one. Within Islamic countries, homosexuality and same-sex love was always seen as normal. Itís quite celebrated in poetry and literature, and you can find diaries explaining how shocked Middle Eastern diplomats were by how shocked Europeans, even in France, were about homosexual behavior. The problem is that those Western attitudes permeated the Middle East and got stuck in this Victorian timeframe. At the same time, the notion of doing is being Ė that having same sex relations identifies and separates you from the general population - is Western.
What I mean is that just because Middle Eastern men might have sex with each other does not mean they identify as gay in the Western sense. At the same time, you do have some people who identify as gay and are heavily discriminated against Ė such as in Cairo and the Cairo 52. The problem is that when people claim behavior creates identity and then seek to separate because of that identity. That is the clash that is seen as Western or part of American domination of the culture. Not necessarily the behavior which itself is not necessarily unaccepted.
Your story ďAdventures in AfghanistanĒ is one of the most enlightening and surprising. It also shows that you took some risks. What was it really like to walk the dusty streets of Kabul and get yourself involved in a gay Afghan party?
Well, Kabul is an amazing city. People are extremely welcoming of foreigners. One thing in general in all Muslim countries, which we as a Christian society (and America is a Christian society) is that hospitality and welcoming strangers is integral to Islamic culture. After all, itís a religion of the desert; you must help your fellow man. People commonly greeted me and said hello, invited me for tea, with shouts of ďchai, chai,Ē it is something quite unforgettable actually, this welcoming.
At the same time, to a degree, as an Italian-American, I pass as Afghan in some cases, remember that on television, most Americans are blond and blue-eyed, so that is the image of Americans around the world, though even by looking at me, I would be considered more Afghan-American, since I had a different type of presence from someone raised locally. As for the gay Afghan party, if you read my story I clearly was initially cruised in the Western sense and that is what sparked the conversation. I mean, on the streets of Kabul it is hard from a gay perspective to tell at times whether men are cruising you or just being friendly, or really what is going on.
The culture is very homosocial and sometimes men easily bring up the subject of gay sex, or homo sex as they might call it. When this guy whom I met talked about meeting his friend, I thought of course it would be fascinating to see what transpired conversationally, and then of course, meeting him and all these other men and this whole party where I donít know at any moment whether I am going to be killed or raped or just fed and adored by all these men was quite an experience, plus I had no idea where I was. This was not the only time I had done this in Afghanistan to try to get at deeper truths.
This idea of giving sex for money, and the fact that so many men are open to the possibilities of sexual exchange in these countries, is shocking. But none of these men would ever identify themselves as gay. How do you think their behavior would be viewed by the wider society?
Well, exchange of sex for money is not as common as people think at all, and it is not a common theme in the book, either. There are a few stories where that happens, but not most of them. One thing to remember is that as a foreigner, you do have a lot more money and resources than most people in the places youíre visiting. As well, Shariah law, or Islamic law, even if in theory Ė and I am not a religious expert Ė might ban sex between men, it also has a component that says nothing happens if there are not 4 witnesses, so really anyone can do whatever he or she wants to do, as long as there are no witnesses. This applies to sex between men, to rape of women, unfortunately, to adultery, to all kind of sexual behaviors.
Sexual fluidity is a theme that is frequently touched upon. People in these societies seem to move easily between sexes, male-to-male and male to female, with little bother. Do you think it has always been this way in these societies?
It was once this way in our society. What changed it is the creation of the word homosexual, and eventually the gay rights movement causing a social separation between people based on with whom they slept. If you listen to older gay people, they complain that at one time, they could have sex with anybody until gay rights came along, making people choose to define themselves. So this fluidity is really normal, and is still within these societies. Of course, the separation of people by sex, men not socializing with women, depending on the country, makes it all the more like this, too.
Do you think the Muslim world will ever see a modern gay rights movement?
It has a gay rights movement. It has it in exile in Europe and the USA where Iraq and Iran are concerned, but it also has it in Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and some other countries. A wonderful resource for learning more about that is with www.globalgayz.com, the website of Richard Ammon who wrote a story in the collection.
The stories are set from Morocco to Mauritania, to Oman, and then on to Bangladesh, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but what story Ė and by association, what country - most resonates with you?
Afghanistan really resonates with me. I would love to live there if I could ever work it out to be the case. I also really love Turkey - the men are so handsome and Istanbul is an eternal city of its own, like an Islamic Rome. I also really enjoyed Jordan. It was a place where one can also experience in a safe way meeting people from both Iraq and Palestine who are refugees rebuilding their lives from the Iraq War and also the turmoil of Palestine that remains unresolved nearly 60 years later.
Familial tradition is something that also resonates throughout. It is expected that Muslim men should marry and have children; usually by the time they're thirty. How do you think they would view our Western lives, where independence from one's family and making one's own way in the world is encouraged and even prided on?
It is seen as strange. It does make it obvious to some that we are indeed gay men, but I do remember that many of the men I know in Afghanistan, knowing that I am gay, knowing what I am, still wonder why I donít want to get married and have children. Itís not that we donít have those examples in the West, particularly among ethnic groups here, such as even Italian Americans who live at home for forever, or Jewish boys who are stereotypical mamaís boys, as well as within Latin cultures where the family is everything, and unlike white gay men who move out of suburban communities away from the family, Latino gay men often have to build their gay lives within their own greater community.
This notion of independence, depending on the place is very foreign, it is very Western. This is also one of the cultural clashes between East and West, not just here, but in Asia and in Africa, family is viewed differently.
In the most of the stories, these Muslim men coexist with poverty in beautiful lands that inspire excesses. How does this reality affect family connections and priorities? How does family connect people who have so little in worldly goods?
We have so much in this country, but really we donít have anything. I was just at my parents in the suburbs, a land of malls and Wal-Mart, but really what is that? It does not make people closer. I find the happiest people tend to have the fewest things. More cars, I-Pods, computers, etc. donít make people happy, we become slaves to things. They say Americans are happy, but I think when I am overseas, the most miserable places often have the simplest easiest forms of happiness, because a lack of things brings people closer together.
Can you speak a bit about the fusion of homosexuality with some of the conflicts that have been going on in the world at large post 9/11 and how the ongoing, brutal war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan affects the everyday lives of the people in the stories?
When I speak with people about the book, I remind them also of some the things blending with homosexuality, which have been part of the discussion since 9-11, and these things are also in the book. First among them is Mohammed Atta, one of the men who flew a plane into the Twin Towers. There was some discussion that he might have been gay and needed to prove his masculinity to his father and that is what made him a terrorist.
The Taliban and their love-hate relationship with homosexuality was a constant theme in media, and also, quite simply Abu Ghraib and the homoerotic sexual torture that was used on prisoners. There was also the case in Kurdistan of the ďgayĒ terrorists who filmed themselves having sex with each other, but all of these are things that are too difficult to discuss in a few simple sentences. Homosexuality and the reactions to it Ė both by the West and the Middle East Ė have been a constant theme in this war. My book tries to tease some of these issues out.
Gay Travels in the Muslim World is a significant contribution to the ongoing dialog of gay cultural differences and similarities between the East and the West. Keeping this in mind, what would you like your readers to take away from this collection? And by association, what would you like your readers to take away from
For Gay Travels in the Muslim World, that to do is not to be. That places are far more nuanced than we give them credit for, in spite of what is in the media. That even under wars, people live their lives. Also that we need to get over our hangups and fears. Even with oppression, and there is serious oppression, it is important to visit and see places regardless of whether you think it is right politically or supports an administration. There is nothing more that works towards peace and cultural understanding than an actual visit. Your presence builds bridges. I can tell you things about Iraqis and Afghans that can only be found out by visiting. These people can know so much more about us than what they see in the news.
The Voyeur, I also want people to have a better understanding of the things that are behind an intervention, behind a pamphlet, behind the use of condoms, behind all the stuff you see to prevent AIDS. At the same time, I also want something that is not preachy, that really makes people think about the various reasons why people behave the way they do, engage in risky behavior, why it is so difficult to protect oneself, as well as to humanize the people behind the research in HIV and AIDS prevention.
Do you have any favorite authors, writers that you call upon for inspiration when you are writing?
You know, I really enjoyed Larry Kramerís Faggots and the way he calls upon Jewish angst in his writings, the neuroticism of family. I believe some of that is reflected in
The Voyeur. I also love Robert Rodi who wrote a series of books - Drag Queen, Rent Boy, etc. - all based in Chicagoís Boystown area. He writes with an incredible sense of bringing streets and surroundings alive, all this peripheral stuff that happens when youíre just walking down the street having a conversation like the homeless, shop windows, crazy people, other homos and their goings-on, etc., and I think reading him has influenced my being aware of these things in my own writing.
And finally, now that you have written your first work of fiction, and have successfully published nonfiction travel writing, would you like to share with us some of the details about what is next on your agenda?
Well, I have to be honest, I want to travel less and freelance less. I want to write some larger projects. Gay Travels in the Muslim World was so successful; I would like to plan out a larger, longer piece of my own, a gay travel memoir of my experiences throughout Afghanistan. I had started it and never finished and after talking with so many audiences about this book, I think the time is here. It is a project I have thought of for a very long time.
I have also been working on four different novels. One a chick-lit kind of thing, another a gay love story set in Buenos Aires, remember I live there part time to do the Frommerís Buenos Aires guidebook, another in Iraq, and I have been thinking of writing an historical novel set in the African colonies under Mussolini. I have not had the time, I really have not, but maybe, after some upcoming non-stop travel, I will be able to. Of course, I say that now, but the world is a very large place, and I am a very curious person!
Michael T. Luongo is a freelance writer and photographer living in New York. His credits include the
New York Times, Bloomberg News, Conde Nast Traveler,
National Geographic Traveler, the Advocate, PlanetOut and many other gay and mainstream publications.
Michael Leonard is a freelance writer and contributing reviewer to curledup.com.
His interview with Michael T. Luongo was written in conjunction with his reviews of The Voyeur and Gay Travels in the Muslim World. © Michael Leonard/2007.