Memoir Dangerous When Wet is a wild and witty ride from author Jamie Brickhouse, where he details his struggle with alcoholism, living in the ’90s heyday of gay NYC and dealing with his mother, the headstrong Mama Jean.
Dangerous When Wet is newly out in paperback, and we caught up with Brickhouse to talk about the gay man/mother relationship, meeting his partner of 25 years after a cruising park hookup and how gay life has changed for the younger generation.
QUEERTY: How do you think a younger gay audience can relate to Dangerous When Wet?
BRICKHOUSE: First of all, I think that the story of my relationship with my mother Mama Jean is universal no matter what age you are, whether you’re 50 or 15, that the parent/child relationship is universal, that the mother/son relationship is universal, and that the mother/gay son relationship is universal. Though my mother was what some consider to be a stereotypical “gay” mother, dominant, overbearing, but certainly that type of mother will always exist, and the common dynamic between mothers of gay sons. I think they can certainly relate to that story whether it happened to someone their age or to someone a generation or two ahead of them.
Why do you think so many gay men are close to their mothers, or that that’s such a strong relationship?
First of all, I believe that gay men and straight women have a natural affinity for each other, and I think that dynamic starts with the mother. I think that for many gay men, their mothers are their first fag hags. Because I think gay men are in touch with the feminine sides of ourselves, and we’re in tune with that with our mothers in a way that a straight son is not and in a different way that a straight daughter would not be.
You deal with alcoholism and promiscuity. Why do you think these things are still a problem among gay men?
I think that for a lot of gay men, part of being gay is part of being “fabulous and sophisticated” and glamorous, and a lot of times people perceive alcohol and drugs as being a part of that sophistication and glamour, which continues to prevail in the gay world as it did time immemorial. In the old days before the pickup apps, booze was a problem because most gay men went to bars to meet each other, that was just where you had to go, so there was that drinking culture that was ingrained in the gay world.
Certainly gay bars are still prevalent and popular, but you don’t need them anymore to find gay men whether it be for sex or boyfriends or companionship. But still, the alcohol and drug culture continues to prevail with the party circuit, which is drug infused. So I think we still continue to glamorize and fetishize alcohol and drugs as something that makes life fun, and it certainly can. For some people, alcoholics and addicts who can’t handle it, there’s the feeling that you need it to have fun and to be sophisticated and glamourous. I think that’s just the way it’s sold in the gay world today.
How was New York in the 90’s? How have things changed or stayed the same?
When I came here in 1990, Times Square was still the crossroads of Broadway and sleaze, and the Gaiety which was a legendary all male, all nude strip club right near Times Square. So I came here when Times Square was still Times Square. And the crime rate was at an all time high, so there was still this grittiness to New York. It was like a hangover from the 70’s which I loved. Also, the gayborhood was Chelsea. It was the new gay neighborhood.
At that point, Chelsea was just starting to become the gay hub, having moved from the West Village, now it’s Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea is pretty much the Upper West Side, there are almost no gay bars left. And you could still pick up people on the street. I miss that! It just doesn’t happen anymore, or maybe it’s because I’m too old and nobody wants to pick me up on the street, I don’t know, but this was before the apps. I feel like New York isn’t as cruisy in public spaces as it used to be because now everyone does their cruising behind the veil of Grindr, Scruff, Growlr, or pick your app of choice.
OK, so how do you feel about these apps? You bring them up a lot.
I think they’re all rolled into how social media is changing the culture at large, gay, straight, trans and everything in between. I use the apps, so I’m a part of the “app culture.” I don’t use them addictively but I use them and they’re convenient. There’s not a lot of spontaneity like the kind that came with meeting people out in public or in the cruising areas. There’s not the excitement of meeting someone face to face and just going with it, as opposed to meeting someone on an app where it’s just kind of clinical…you give each other a clinical description of who you are and what you want, so there’s not the excitement of finding out what a person likes to do in bed or what they look like naked.
What was your most exciting pickup experience?
It was meeting my partner, Michael, who I’ve been with for 25 years. We met at the rambles, which was a popular cruising area in Central Park, which probably isn’t now, we met there 6 weeks after I’d moved to New York, he’d been here for six years, and neither of us had been having any luck with anyone else, and he just magically appeared. And we had sex, and then afterwards, there was something special about the way we held each other, and then we talked afterwards, then we went out on a date later. We’ve been together ever since. Rarely do those kind of hookups turn into a long term relationship, and now ours is a quarter of a century.
What’s your secret to longevity?
Fucking other men.
Is that so?
Well, a lot of people have asked me that, and when I say this, straight women’s faces fall because it’s not the answer they wanted, straight men are jealous, and gay men kind of smile and nod. We opened our relationship 3 or 4 years into it and that works for us. I mean, in every relationship gay or straight, the sex part goes away or at least seriously ebbs, and a lot of people can’t get past that. Of course, we still have our sexual needs, and a lot of people think that because they have to look for sex outside of the marriage, the marriage or the relationship should end. I think that being in an open relationship and being open about it with each other has kept us together for as long as we have been.
How do you feel about gay men getting married?
I think it’s absolutely fantastic that same sex couples can be married. It’s a huge step for gay rights and I’m absolutely for it. Because I came of age when gay marriage was an option, I’d never needed the validation of marriage. I’ve never needed marriage to validate our relationship. We might get married more for practical and legal reasons, but it’s not something that I’ve ever needed. It might be generational for me. I came of age when I didn’t think it was an option nor did I need it to be an option. I thought ‘well, I’m gay, so I don’t have to get married.’ I saw it as ‘I don’t have to get married,’ not ‘I can’t get married.’
The book is also your coming out as HIV positive. Why was it important for you to do that here?
I was diagnosed as HIV+ in 2002 and I was in the semi-closet about it until I published this book. Of course my partner knew, he’s not positive, and a handful of close friends knew, and that was it. I never told my mother Mama Jean, and that was the main reason that I kept so quiet about it because I knew it was her biggest fear. I never wanted her to know that and she died not knowing it.
When I started writing the book I was on the fence about it because I certainly didn’t judge anyone else for being positive, but I realized I still had my own shame and embarrassment about it. I came of age when the AIDS crisis was exploding and it was a death sentence and safe sex was protocol, so I felt ashamed that I got it, like I should know better. I was on the fence about revealing it. I didn’t think I wanted the world to know that.
What pushed you toward revealing it?
I wanted this book to be completely honest and true, and the fact that I’m HIV+ is an important part of this story. Me becoming positive was my mother’s biggest fear and I became HIV+ because of my drinking, because that was when my safe sex protocol went out of the window. It is germane to the story I’m telling.
It was the best choice because it was right for the book and it was right for me. I told my father and he died knowing that about me, and I’m glad. Now everyone knows I’m HIV+ and I don’t care who knows. Nobody has shut the door in my face or shunned me or told me I’m stupid for becoming HIV+ or any of that. It was all really about my own fear and shame and how to deal with that.
Tell me about this concept of “POZ Pride”
Not only am I glad that I revealed that, but I’m proud to be HIV+. What I mean by that I’m owning who I am and it’s a part of who I am. It’s not all of who I am, but it’s a part of it. Being gay is a part of who I am, just like being an alcoholic in recovery is a part of who I am just like being HIV+ is a part of who I am, and I’m proud of all of those things. That’s what pride is really about. It’s about owning who you are. When I first thought about it, it didn’t make sense because I thought ‘why would you be proud of having a disease or having a virus?’ but I am.
I’m proud to be open about being an HIV+ person who is living with it and living well with it. I’m very lucky because by the time I was diagnosed, the cocktail had already happened, so there were already good drugs. I’ve never had any side effects from the drugs that I’ve taken. I’m lucky. I think that the more people who come out as HIV+ just as they’d be out about any other aspect of themselves, it takes away that shame and that fear that society still has around HIV.
Will we see a Dangerous When Wet movie?
I hope so! I can’t say anything right now, but there are a couple of movie deals in the works.
Who would you cast as yourself?
I’d love Eddie Redmayne to play me because I’d finally be really hot! Actually, I do think he’d be a great choice because he’s such a great actor, he can play anyone, and he’s a ginger like I am. I’d love for Meryl Streep to play Mama Jean…actually I’d love for her to play Mama Jean and me. I think that’d be a real tour de force for her. Also, Melissa Leo would make an amazing Mama Jean. The role she played in The Fighter was a working-class Boston version of Mama Jean.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a West Coast book tour for the Dangerous When Wet paperback, and I’m working on another memoir, this time about my father. He called me Jamie-poo and I called him Daddy-poo in the last years of his life. That’s a memoir about my relationship with him. So Mama Jean had her turn, now it’s his. The working title for that is I Favor My Daddy.
Dangerous When Wet is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. On Wednesday June 1st, Brickhouse hosts Dangerous When Wet: Hilarious & Heartbreaking Stories about the Lush Life – An Evening of Storytelling at The Duplex in New York City. For more information about the author or upcoming events, visit www.jamiebrickhouse.com.