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.

Although Gray continued doing sex work, he found himself feeling withdrawn.

"I stopped having sex for free," he says, and then quickly adds, "Even though sex is never free." He moved in with his mother in Anaheim, and worked as an HIV educator in a prison. He stopped talking about sex outside of his job, and for about six months he stopped having sex altogether. Most mornings, he swam laps, which became a kind of escape. He still swims almost every day, and also gives swim lessons to kids and the disabled. He also turned to faith: He is devoutly Catholic, and still goes to Holy Redeemer in the Castro every Sunday.

As for the client, Gray never talked to him again.

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.

A couple of months ago, Gray — seeking some cash and maybe a thrill — placed another sex ad on Craigslist. That same client answered. Although Gray isn't sure whether the man knew whose ad he had responded to, he let it be, and says he wishes him well.

That shrugging off seems to be part of a larger pattern for Gray, who has a hard time thinking of anyone as his enemy, or standing up for himself. He says he's always felt close to vulnerability, and seems intent on allowing others to control his fate. That is, apparently, all a part of the beautiful risk.

"It was a healing experience to know this man," he says of his alleged rapist. "It was really interesting."

At the Center for Sex and Culture on the night of June 4, the packed house was baked in body heat. Just as it had been the previous night, San Francisco's first sex worker art performance, Formerly Known As, was sold out. Attendees sipped Tecate and brown-bagged wine, and those who didn't get a seat procured impromptu floor mats.

The first act involved two sex workers who had reworked biblical hymns into sex-work theme songs. Other standouts included an animation sequence by former professional diver Scott Upper revolving around a set of disembodied shark jaws and projected on a screen, and "The Pornographic Imagination," a doleful song by a Satanist in a sportcoat who called himself Christraper Sings.

With two acts left, emcee Kirk Read took the stage and thanked the audience. "This is like church, in a way," he said. "We're listening to each other."

"Hallelujah," someone cried.

"Our next performer," Read continued, was Stephen Gray. "He's a good Catholic boy ... and I believe he's a Fulbright scholar. I have very high hopes for this young man."

Gray took the stage and disrobed. When he was finished, he stood proudly as a man with no penis, and the audience burst into wild applause.

"This is a piece that I wrote about a man who was and still is a very special client," he said. "It's called 'Jimmy Inside Me.'"

Gray read confidently, sometimes shifting his weight from one foot to the other, and taking care not to go too fast or too slow. The story wasn't exactly straightforward, and although it documented the night he was penetrated by his HIV-positive client, it also wove in Gray's emotions, memories, and dreams, including his androgyny and his obsession with his father. "I will always be in between the masculine and the feminine, like a channel, where blood and sweat and cum once flowed," he read.

"There is a girl with me, in the air above my body," he continued. "A little girl boy. She cries and I hold her hand and run through the terrain of that place where this thing is, this thing I want to devour. That I want to battle in the heavens."

When the story was over, the audience broke into whoops and hollers in perhaps the strongest reaction of the night. Gray gathered up his clothes and walked back down the aisle naked, waving at the audience with the hand in which he carried his shoes. He disappeared into the darkness at the back of the room as Read reclaimed the stage. "God, the human body is such a miracle," he said. "Sometimes I feel like more people getting naked in public is the only way."

For the last act, a tall black performance artist stripped down and did unspeakable things with a corncob. Then the lights came on to signify the end of the show.

As people filed out of the room, many stopped to talk to Gray, congratulating him and shaking his hand. "Where could I read your stuff?" one guy asked.

Gray was composed and steady. And although the performance has its challenges — he was hot, and had a hard time standing still for so long — he felt good about it. "It's better than when I read it to myself," he says. "It's better than reading alone."

Peter Jamison contributed to the reporting for this story.

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