Sniffing Our Way Back

Sniffing Our Way Back

Everyone is cautious; the trails are empty; drag queens are forced to perform outdoors. But eventually we will get close again—and bring history another step forward.


Dade City, Fla.—The last time I kissed a man was almost a year ago, just before the virus closed the country. The gentleman caller standing outside my trailer had been giving me that look over the previous few days in the pool that serves as a gathering spot at our winter gay campground. On the day before I was to leave for the trip back north, this handsome chap mustered the courage to knock at my door. Since I would be gone before the gossip at the pool would undoubtedly identify me as a slut, I gave in to his advances.

I am no virgin, but when he touched me, I felt like Madonna descending those tiny aluminum steps. Then he laid into me with one of those enveloping kisses, the kind where your foot magically rises upward to the sun. I mostly remember his Juicy Fruit taste and musky smell.

There I was back to my roots with that primal move. It was the calling that began 50 years ago for me when I joined the Gay Liberation Front. Although hardly anyone in the LGBT movement mentions it these days, the desire to have sex without police, state, and church interference had brought us together in the first place, and the GLF was a consciously left group that saw ending this thousands-of-years-old oppression of same-sexers as part of the big radical project for self-determination. We certainly were not aiming to ape heterosexual marriage or collect a lover’s Social Security (though I wouldn’t mind a few reparations thrown my way for my suffering). We wanted to change the world. Many of us still do.

Woozy as I was from that kiss, I managed to climb into my three-quarter-ton truck pulling the trailer back home to Vermont. On the Interstate, the radio began crackling out the horror. Shelter at home!… Stay six feet apart… Wash your hands… Don’t eat out… The death toll today is 300… Experts say 100,000 will die by April.

How ironic that Covid attacks the ultimate tools we have for intimate connection—smell, taste, closeness—and also for the human, political connections we need to rebuild the left.

By the time I got to the farm in Vermont, it was clear that 2020 would interrupt a 45-year tradition of hosting gangs of people who’ve dreamed freedom dreams. The tradition began at the farm in the 1970s with my partner Andrew Kopkind, a brilliant journalist—whom I met in Boston’s cruising grounds one happy day in 1971 when the Vice Squad chased us out of the Fens—and continued after his death, in 1994, with the living memorial whose participants have been contributing to this series.

There are some things that Zoom just cannot replace. How do you Zoom a tasty meal of garden produce being served around a large table of comrades discussing Black Lives Matter tactics? Or extended conversations about works-in-progress, a problem of politics, or any subject that can be only scratched in a workshop? How do you Zoom the play of imagination that emerges from among people together? Or the fecund aroma of Chinese chestnut blooms begging to be compared to something you shouldn’t talk about? Or the sumptuous touch of your new lover slinking into the hot tub as Bruno Mars sings from speakers on the deck: “If you’re freaky, then own it!”

Now, nine months after the beginning of this new plague, there’s a baby bust. As I chugged into our campsite this year, things looked the same, but quickly the changes added up. Old mates keep their distance, and the bear hugs are gone. On the “trails,” the outdoor cruising sites, instead of little group trysts one sees the loner, and instead of that look, eyes are filled with caution. A neighbor who almost died of Covid says that three months after surviving the worst symptoms, he still can’t smell or taste; he fears those senses might never fully return. The pool has a quota now, and the drag queens at bingo are forced to lip-synch in the outdoor chill. In a campsite that always celebrated the realm of the senses, will this second plague be the one that sends us back into the closet, sexually speaking? We’ve all seen the attacks on social media about gay folks packed in bars or campsites, with claims that gays are creating spreader events. Same-sexers have always been high on the list of blame for spreading contagion.

Desire is political—like hunger—and not just because the right has exploited it for strategic gain. Closeness, sexual or not, is political; its opposite is alienation. One of the amazing features of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park was this “elation just to feel, talk, press against another shoulder, hear one’s own voice with others echoing, We are… we are… we are…,” as my dear friend JoAnn Wypijewski wrote here in 2011. A young man had told her and Kopkinder Prerna Sampat, “You know, if you count it up, the average college senior has spent two years of his life playing video games.” That fellow was 21. Like others they spoke with, he was drawn first by curiosity or protest, and kept coming because after so much solitude as a cyberborg, being close to others smelled like freedom.

The Trumpsters brayed that if Biden and Harris won, socialist guerrillas would overrun the government, and Cory Booker would move into your white neighborhood. To this, I borrow the language of the cyberborgs: LOL. Sadly, most Democrats are not of the left, certainly not the left of the 1930s, which inspired Social Security and, throughout much of the world, nationalized health care; or the New Left of the 1960s, which drove fundamental change like civil rights for Blacks, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and the sexual revolution. The left started those movements, and its agenda for peace, international solidarity, and liberation from forms of oppression that are interconnected excited millions toward positive change.

Now begins the era of the vaccine. Eventually, the new-new left, led by many young LGBT Black folks and their allied comrades in hundreds of radical organizations, who have struggled valiantly in this economic and health crisis, will gather together, get close, smell, taste, and love one another to bring history another step forward. And I cannot wait for my next kiss.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on and

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