Billy-Ray Belcourt’s debut memoir, A History of My Brief Body, is an exercise in candour. The book is Belcourt’s first non-fiction collection, and the award-winning poet, author and scholar doesn’t shy away from exploring his early life on Alberta’s Driftpile First Nation, first loves and the experience of writing and grief. And at the start of his essay on sex, intimacy and Grindr, Belcourt reflects on his experience of hook-ups with startling honesty: “I allow myself to tiptoe into economies of desire in which I’m a fetish or a compromise,” he writes. In an excerpt from that essay below, Belcourt recalls a sexual encounter gone wrong, ruminating on the politics of hook-ups and apps.
It’s deep into August 2015. I’m about to leave my apartment to welcome incoming First Nations, Métis and Inuit students to the University of Alberta. Out of habit, I check Grindr. Almost immediately, I receive a message from an attractive white guy who had written to me a couple weeks back. The right mix of lonely, horny and heartbroken justifies the possibility of a last-minute hook-up. I was already going to be a few minutes late anyway. You looking? he asks. Yeah, you, I respond, even though I should be out the door. Yeah. I’m so fucking horny. You a bottom? Home alone? Yeah, I bottom. Want to come over? I answer, maybe too quickly. What’s your address? Grindr users don’t mince words. The app has made sex easy to come by for men who’ve been told their desires were to be shunned from public life. Sex, or something akin to it, will make you abandon in an instant the “you” you’ve sculpted over years. I send the stranger my address, and he shows up about fifteen minutes later. (My instinct is to suggest that anonymous sex pressurizes the figure of the stranger, makes it into a pleasurable category.) I feel as though I’m selling a false product, that I’m not his type, that he can fuck someone better looking. So when he does show up, I’ve already decided I will bend backwards for him, literally and figuratively. It’s only 10 a.m., but he looks as though he hasn’t yet slept. He’s sweaty and fidgety, as though racked by street drugs. I know this isn’t the ideal situation to put myself in, but I can’t pass him up. Ideality, I reason, is an arbitrary qualifier anyway. He’s about 5’10, thin with a six-pack and light brown hair. His eyes are large and blue, and he’s wearing sweatpants and a hoodie, both of which somehow make his slender body look sculptural. He’s a twink, one of the most fuckable body types in the Grindr universe. I didn’t think you’d come, I admit, self-deprecatingly. Oh, why’s that? he fires back, winking at me. Because you hadn’t said you were actually on your way, I lie. We laugh. I want to cry. Here we are, I say as we enter my two-bedroom apartment. I let myself into my head to note that this feels like a cheap, amateur porno.
I immediately take him into my spare bedroom and unzip my jean shorts. You learn to cut to the chase in the drama of hook-up culture. I’m wearing a jockstrap, which he requested, but nonetheless I feel like an erotic being in one, a rare occurrence. He makes me into a one-sided object of his desire by ceasing to say more than a couple words at a time to me. He turns me around to push me onto the bed. He alternates between licking my asshole and pushing his finger in. He then jumps onto the bed to shove his large dick into my mouth—pictures of which admittedly caught my attention during our earlier chats. He thrusts his dick into my throat despite the gag reflex it elicits. He coaxes a pulsating vulnerability out of me and this turns him on. I can feel tears welling up in my eyes, but I don’t want him to stop. I want to feel as though he can snap me in half. He bends me over again and rubs his dick on my butt. I don’t feel comfortable anymore, but I don’t let him know this either. He jerks off, and, without warning, ejaculates on my asshole. I don’t notice until he puts his clothes on. That was weird, he says, breaking the silence. What do you mean? I mean it wasn’t weird, but I usually don’t cum that quickly. Did you cum on my ass? I ask, knowing the answer. Yeah, sorry about that, that usually doesn’t happen. He laughs. I didn’t even get to fuck you, he adds, registering to me that he doesn’t comprehend the depth of my question. I feel violated. I grab the Kleenex box next to the bed to wipe my ass, cautiously, methodically, so as to avoid semen sliding inside my anus. I head to the bathroom to use the adult cleansing wipes I’d recently bought. When I go back into the living room, he asks if I have water. Sweating and out of breath, he drinks the bottle’s contents in one gulp. I still have to make it to the university, so I walk with him to the elevator. Once there, I make poor use of my words and ask him if he’s clean. Yeah. Well, I mean I hope so, he jokes. I spill onto the floor. I wouldn’t have let you do that if you had asked. Cum on my ass, I mean, I respond, frustrated, sick with worry. Oh, well I guess that makes sense, he says, without compassion. Standing in the lobby, we say goodbye to each other. I never see him again.
Hospitals have always been enemy territory. My body, too brown to be innocent, enflames the nurses’ racialized curiosities. For them, there’s always the possibility that my pain is illusory, dreamt up in order to get my next fix. Or maybe I just want somewhere warm to sleep because the world is too hard on an NDN like me. This is never the case, for me at least, but their imaginations run wild nonetheless. I jump into my car and begin frantically searching Google to gauge the “severity” or “riskiness” of the hook-up. Most websites I visit suggest readers seek medical attention to see if they’re eligible for PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis, an antiretroviral drug that can prevent HIV from latching onto your body if administered quickly enough, usually within 48 hours of exposure. Instead of going to the university, I email a colleague to cancel five minutes before I’m due to speak. I drive to the STI Clinic, which is hidden at the back of an old and low-functioning downtown hospital. Filled with bodies confronted by their sexual histories, the STI Clinic is not my favourite place to visit. You have to go through a loading dock to get to it; once inside, you walk past the patrons, who avoid making eye contact. The receptionist, located behind a Plexiglass window (which seems antithetical to a more ethical, more feminist hospital), asks what your reason for visiting is, as if it could be anything. I tell the receptionist I have questions about PEP and that I’m hoping to see a nurse. She looks puzzled but pages a nurse anyway. With a nurse, I replay the event: his semen, I sheepishly confess, likely got inside my anus. She asks if I was penetrated, to which I say Technically, no. She points out that if my anus wasn’t penetrated, it’s unlikely that semen entered my bloodstream. She explains that PEP is administered only to patients whose risk of infection is exceptional: a prisoner raped by an HIV-positive inmate, for example. The drug, too expensive to be handed out to anyone with anxiety, needs to be approved by Alberta Health Services. Nonetheless, she suggests that I visit an emergency department to get a second opinion from a doctor. They might approve you. I would give it a shot, she concedes. I wait an hour in the emergency room at the University of Alberta Hospital. I ask the nurse at the triage station when I might see a doctor. She tells me that I likely won’t see one for at least three hours, that my case is not life-or-death, that I’m still breathing, and that the doctor would likely send me away untreated. She suggests I make use of the STI Clinic downtown. I might not die in the lobby, I think to myself, but a world is still in the balance. I leave despite myself. I work on campus for an hour, then drive to a nearby walk-in clinic. I can’t shake the pestering sense that something is amiss. The receptionist asks for a reason for my visit. I’d like to ask a couple questions about my sexual health, I say, trying to maintain at least a sliver of secrecy in the small room peopled to capacity. Oh, like STDs? she wonders aloud, without concern for my privacy. Yup. I clear my throat. I explain what has unfolded to a doctor whose attention seems to be elsewhere. I ask if she knows about PEP and she admits that she doesn’t, that she’s just returned from the Middle East and that cases like mine didn’t come up there. Men in the Middle East are having gay sex, I think to myself, but she probably wasn’t a doctor they felt comfortable seeking help from. It feels as though I’m utterly without agency in the face of an ignorant doctor who has little knowledge about harm reduction. After I note the worry that I can’t shoulder alone, she excuses herself to contact Alberta Health Services. The walls, paper thin, can’t conceal the irritation in her voice. Speaking to a nurse, she says she doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time with such a silly matter. Her footsteps approach. You’ll have to wait about eight to 10 weeks to be tested, she says, coldly. Thanks, I manage, half-heartedly. I don’t think about sex for weeks without a wave of anxiety overpowering my libido. Han Kang: “I hold nothing dear. Not the place where I live, not the door I pass through every day, not even, damn it, my life.”
My story, I now understand from a distance, was one of the unequal distribution of public knowledge around sexual health. I was being conscripted into a culture of fear that makes STIs such as HIV into public enemies. Without care, there is no room for harm reduction. What’s more, I had no audience for my misery. With no one around to apprehend the exigencies of my emotional tumult, everywhere I went became a zone of abandonment. How was I who was barely enclosed in an “I” supposed to trudge through solitude’s thick overgrowth?
Since, I’ve been fixated on the loneliness of being denied care where it is said or expected to be integral to a social operation. From the deleterious way men vie for sex to the room for disregard in the medical world, care is withheld or obliterated in an existential way, stripping some of sovereignty to the extent that we put a ban on the production of joy. Jill Stauff gets at something like this with her concept of “ethical loneliness,” which for her is “the isolation one feels when one, as a violated person or as one member of a persecuted group, has been abandoned by humanity, or by those who have power over one’s life’s possibilities.” It’s during moments when the self is negotiated with others—in sex, in medicine and public health—that one is prone to being pulled off course and thrown into a crisis of ontological proportions. I thus see it as my job to lay bare the catastrophic conditions that meet those who are wrenched into a world of loneliness where there are no bodies, just burning houses built from scratch.
Excerpted from A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt. Copyright © 2020 Billy-Ray Belcourt. Published by Hamish Hamilton Canada, an imprint of Penguin Canada and division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.