Like plenty of other gay men, writer Robin Hardy lived it up in the 1970s and early '80s. He had lovers across North America and Europe, made friends with gay intellectuals and once hung out in a Toronto bar with a leather-clad Michel Foucault. He reveled in sex clubs and communal sex, to judge from his passionate writings on those subjects. By Hardy's account, it was more than a good time. "It seems naive to say this now, but the men I saw around me in those days were at once not just potential lovers but brothers," he recalls in "The Crisis of Desire." And then the walls closed in. AIDS killed hundreds of thousands of gay men, and it also destroyed a sense of brotherhood that had grown out of sexual attraction. By Hardy's account, it made gay men seek shelter in a dull monogamy and turn into supplicants at the feet of doctors, their own families, the government and the media.
Actually, "The Crisis of Desire" is only half of the book Hardy intended to write, according to the lengthy introduction by his friend David Groff. Hardy died in a hiking accident in 1995 but left behind a lengthy book proposal, drafts of a few chapters and extensive notes. Groff, a freelance writer and former editor for Crown, tried to stitch them together. And in the book that emerged, Hardy urges gay men to take control of their health, their sex lives and their fates.
In a few places, Hardy's book is downright heart-rending. He writes achingly of his Dutch friend Hans, who chose to "quit" rather than keep struggling against HIV. Physician-assisted suicide is legal in the Netherlands, and Hardy was in Amsterdam when Hans was tidying up his affairs. "The pages of his daily agenda for the year 1991 were filled with notes of what he had yet to do up to a certain day -- and then abruptly blank for the rest of the year," Hardy reports. Hans died comfortably at home among friends after drinking a poison under a doctor's supervision. Hardy can't help but compare him with other terminally ill friends whose lives ended in madness or with guns or handfuls of pills. "Beyond sorrow and my loss, I saw a victory against a virus that knows no love," Hardy writes. "In the final stages of his illness, Hans wrested control back from the disease, refusing to give it any more of the suffering and trials that it demanded. Of all the deaths I have seen -- and I have seen too many -- only his had dignity."
Yet while Hardy is adept at sifting through the intricacies of loss and bereavement, his attempts at activist sociology often miss the mark. Consider his argument that gay men need to bring friendship and eroticism back into their lives: "Bound through our sex together and our histories, suffused with anger and ever-transforming desire, planted in different landscapes but fed by the same underground streams, we could find in fraternal love a paradigm we might healthily embrace." It's an odd point to dwell on, not because there's anything wrong with friendship or eroticism but because modern gay America has plenty of both. (Ever been to a gay bar on a weekend night?) Yet Hardy is wistful -- even nostalgic -- for the political activism and easy sexual intimacy of the 1970s, and only by the standards of that era does gay life today seem sterile and tame.
Before the epidemic, Hardy was part of a revolution that was going to create alternatives to monogamy and heterosexual marriage. Gay politics in the 1990s is nowhere near as momentous. The gays-in-the-military debate, his book argues, is merely a distraction from the plague; same-sex marriage, when justified on the grounds that it would domesticate gay men, is "anathema to the historic truths of gay liberation." And because gay men tried before AIDS to create a "new ideology of relationships," Hardy even gets worked up over men who succumb to "unconsidered notions of love and marriage." His bitterness is sad, and it's also ironic. What's the use of a liberation movement if people can't make choices that the liberators dislike?