A Beautiful Risk

Tired of hiding the truth, she transitioned into a male sex worker. He’s been in a struggle with societal norms — and himself — ever since.

Sex workers frequently claim that theirs is a job like any other, an exchange where two people get what they want. Some say it's even better than that, because they are offering intimacy to some extraordinarily lonely people. There's a word for that they use: healers.

Those same healers, however, will simultaneously admit that they sometimes opt out of sex work for personal reasons. Emotionally revitalizing a client can be emotionally draining, they say, and part of being able to keep the job under control is to know when to take a break.

In recent years, plenty of academics have come out in support of the idea that sex workers are healers and that their profession should be legalized, including Jeffrey T. Parsons, professor and chair of psychology at Hunter College, where he researches sexuality.

Michael Rauner
Naked but for a cross, Gray reads a story he wrote about the night he was penetrated by an HIV-positive client.
Michael Rauner
Naked but for a cross, Gray reads a story he wrote about the night he was penetrated by an HIV-positive client.

"There are psychologically well-adjusted sex workers out there," he said. It just depends how and why the sex work is done. For "the male escort of the 21st century" — who doesn't live in a brothel or have a pimp — Parsons doesn't see a problem: "He advertises. He screens his clients before they come over. He may very well negotiate what's going to happen ahead of time. He has a lot of agency in the work that he does."

Parsons would appear to be describing someone like Gray. But as much as Gray has enjoyed his sex work, there have also been times when he has experienced guilt and shame about it.

During a spiritual healing session of his own (the "hippy-dippy" kind, not a sex encounter), he realized that the image of one particular professor having sex with him had been chasing him for months, and he didn't like it. He realized he felt like a failure in connection with the sex work, which was why he was hiding it from friends and family members.

Comparing it to a fall from grace, he says he was no longer perfect or good in the eyes of others. He was, in fact, a criminal, and eventually he internalized that. But after recognizing that he was feeling guilty for no good reason, he says he was able to move past it. "What is so fucking wrong with being a sex worker?" he now demands to know.

While he may have emerged from his own guilt, Gray is still seeking the general approval that came so easily to his former female self. Sometimes that need, coupled with his tendency to take risks, can get him into trouble.

About two years ago, Gray was in the Castro at a client's home, and they were sitting on the couch, drinking beers and talking about death. The client had lost quite a few gay friends to AIDS in the '80s, and was himself HIV-positive. Gray had lost people to AIDS in Thailand. In bonding over their losses, "I became really attached to him," Gray says. In fact, he often became attached to clients, and sometimes had a hard time continuing to charge for sex he liked.

Gray wound up performing oral sex on the client on the couch. They then took a shower, where foreplay continued. The client pissed in Gray's mouth, then carried him to the bedroom. The naked men began rubbing their genitalia together, and Gray liked it very much. He felt a strong connection with this man.

Then something changed. Although there was no discussion, the client was seemingly making an attempt to penetrate him. Was he really going to do it? Gray felt paralyzed. He said nothing.

The client inserted his penis — without a condom — into Gray and had sex with him, which had the potential to expose him to HIV.

As an HIV-prevention counselor for the city of San Francisco, Gray obviously knew better. He knew he was supposed to speak up. But he couldn't. "You always think that when you are raped, you'll be like, 'Fuck you. Get off me,'" he says. "I was thinking, 'I have to do whatever this guy wants me to do, and then I'm out of here.' My body did me a favor, and I kinda floated out."

A couple of days later, a still-paralyzed Gray talked about what happened with a friend, who insisted the encounter had been rape. Gray determined that he needed a post-exposure prophylactic — a kind of morning-after pill that fights HIV contraction. He had a 72-hour window in which to do so.

On the third day, he broke down crying at work and had to explain to his boss that he believed he was raped, and might have been exposed to HIV. His boss — a queeny gay man — said, "Honey, this is serious," and sent Gray to a clinic, where he took an assortment of medications. "I puked a lot," he says. "It feels like shit."

Gray says he tested negative for HIV, and feels extremely lucky.

Afterward, he began to reevaluate his feelings about a lot of things, including HIV and sex work. He had always hated HIV, to the point where he wished it were a person, so he could punch it in the face. He once believed he wanted to have sex with someone who was HIV-positive without a condom as a way of standing up to it, as if to say "Fuck you." But after the incident and having to confront fears of actually contracting the disease, that fantasy seemed dangerous and stupid.

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