We talked with journalist and author Don Shewey. He was born in Denver, Colorado, grew up in a trailer park on a dirt road in Waco, Texas, lived the peripatetic childhood of an Air Force brat, studied at Rice University and Boston University, and now lives in midtown Manhattan halfway between Trump Tower and Carnegie Hall.
Don has published three books about theater and written articles for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and other publications. He has chronicled his psycho-sexual-spiritual adventures in essays that have been included in several anthologies, including “The Politics of Manhood,” “Best Gay Erotica 2000,” and “The Young and the Hung.”
Let’s meet this very interesting man.
How was your coming out process? Was it difficult growing up in a place like Denver in that time in a trailer park?
Strangely, I did not suffer much as a gay kid. I knew I was gay from a very early age (probably 4 or 5, seeing naked or nearly naked men undressing in locker rooms or at the beach) and although I knew intuitively that not everyone would appreciate my being gay, my secret was always safe with me. I had some advantages in that I was an unusually intelligent kid – my older sister taught me to read when I was 4 years old, so I was always on the lookout for reflections of my gay self in tiny little pockets of pop culture. Also my father was in the military, and although I didn’t get along with him at all – he was an illiterate racist alcoholic – because of his work we moved frequently, so I got exposed to all kinds of people at an early age and learned to adapt to whatever circumstances I found myself in.
What good memories do you remember from college? Did you find gay friends and lovers there?
Although I knew I was gay when I was quite young and came out to a couple of friends in high school, I didn’t officially come out until I was 20 years old. I didn’t have sex with another person until I was 19 (late bloomer!), and that was my college roommate, a preacher’s son from East Texas. I think of my first two years in college as my bisexual period – I was in love with two guys, and three women were in love with me. After those two years, I moved from Houston, TX, to Boston and that was the end of bisexuality. In the mid-1970s Boston had a large and active gay community that welcomed me with open arms. At that time, coming out was seen as a political act and applauded by the community. I thought that would always be true, but it turned out that was a mere bubble. Subsequent generations did not share the same political sensibility. My first partner – we called our partners “lovers” in those days – was a lawyer and a political activist, and I began my career as a journalist writing for the Gay Community News, a very well-respected Boston publication. When my career advanced and I started writing for mainstream publications like the Boston Phoenix and Rolling Stone, I took my gay identity with me.
Don refuses to watch any television news and he has very exacting standards when it comes to reading newspapers and magazines. He says:
“I wrote almost exclusively about the arts – theater, music, books, movies, dance, and performance – for most of my career as a journalist. I get my news from a handful of high-quality sources – The New Yorker magazine, the New York Times, and whatever smart articles my friends post on Facebook. I’ve always enjoyed writing about theater and music. Although I think and talk about sex all the time, writing about sex has always been a little scary because if you’re going to write anything honest or interesting you have to expose yourself quite a lot”.
Tell us about your ZINES where you write about eroticism, sex, desires, feelings, quotes and much more.
In 1992, I created a small handmade book as an end-of-the-year gift for my friends consisting of quotations, poems, jokes, cartoons, and dirty pictures arranged alphabetically by subject. This is a literary form called a “commonplace book.” I learned about it from my friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who published one of her own (My Own Alphabet). A number of famous writers, including the poet W. H. Auden, have published commonplace books. I’ve been making these books annually ever since. Many of them are posted on the website devoted to my writing archive. I read voraciously and collect good quotations, pictures, poems, and cartoons all year long. Anything smart or provocative that catches my eye goes into the file. At the end of the year I edit and produce the book, which these days I mostly circulate as a PDF.
When did your interest to write about sex start?
As a gay man living in New York City in the 1980s, AIDS hit my world hard. I lost dozens of friends, colleagues, and culture heroes. I volunteered with Gay Men’s Health Crisis to help take care of people who were sick and dying of AIDS, and I found I had some aptitude for caregiving. At the same time, I was very sexual. I’ve almost always been in relationships, and I’ve never been monogamous. After contracting Hepatitis B in 1984, I got very strict about having safer sex, and one of my primary outlets was attending j/o parties thrown by the New York Jacks, a masturbation fraternity that predated the AIDS epidemic. Through the New York Jacks, I learned about the Body Electric School and its introductory workshop “Celebrating the Body Erotic,” which was a life-changing event for me. At age 35, I learned a whole new paradigm for sex beyond getting it up and getting it off, a template having to do with cultivating erotic energy and moving it around the body with breath and massage and intention. I learned almost everything I know about this subject from Joseph Kramer, who founded the Body Electric School in the late ‘80s. I interviewed him for an article for the Village Voice in 1992, which was the first article I wrote that used the word “cock” several times, a VERY new experience for me. In that interview he talked about the concept of “sacred intimate,” someone who can help guide people toward sexual healing, whatever that looks like. Often it’s about working through shame and inhibition toward pleasure and connection. Joe Kramer, as a former Jesuit, has dedicated his life to healing the split between sexuality and spirituality, seeing them as almost identical in the way they evoke energy and other unseen forces. I took all the Body Electric School’s trainings in sacred intimacy, started a practice of mine, and used my skills as a writer to teach through my writing.
Another very interesting thing about your sex therapy is “Hold me now”…
During the infrequent periods when I was not in a relationship, the thing I missed most was cuddling, sleeping together, the sheer creature comfort of full-body non-sexual contact. And it troubled me how amazingly difficult it was to negotiate that particular pleasure in my life. If you wanted to get fisted on crystal meth, you could go online and have someone at your door within the hour. But ask someone to hold you in his arms, tenderly and lovingly, for an hour? Impossible. So I created the practice I call “Hold Me Now” because I want to live in a world where that is possible. Not that many people have actually booked a “Hold Me Now” session, but many many people talk to me about it because they’ve seen it on my website and it’s made an impression on them.
Do you still have a sexual fantasy you need to accomplish?
There are a few still cooking.
What it was the sexiest or most erotic underwear you ever wore in your life?
I love almost all kinds of underwear – briefs more than boxers, and jockstraps above all.
Do you have any favorite books and gay LGBT movies?
I consume a lot of culture – I read, I watch movies, I listen to music almost all the time, and I’m not very good at coming up with favorites. Some writers who had a huge influence on me as a young man: Gertrude Stein, Joan Didion, Jill Johnston, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett. I was a classics scholar in college, studying Greek and Latin, so the cadences of Homer and Ovid rubbed off on me. Among LGBTQ authors, I will read anything written by Edmund White or Sarah Schulman. I will put in a special word about Eric Rofes, an extraordinary writer and teacher and activist who sadly died young at the age of 52 (of a heart attack, in bed in Provincetown with his laptop open to Manhunt). He wrote a number of fantastic books, two especially that I recommend to anyone wanting to understand the impact of AIDS on gay men – Reviving the Tribe and Dry Bones Breathe. I just read David France’s How to Survive a Plague, which tells the story I recognize of what it was like living through AIDS and being a part of ACT UP in NYC in the 1980s and ‘90s. Gay movies? There are so many good ones – some of my favorites include Shortbus, Longtime Companion, Outrageous, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, Taxi Zum Klo. A recent film I liked very much is Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, which was nominated for an Academy Award year before last, a Colombian film about a shaman in Amazonia.
When you are in front of the mirror what part of your body do you like the most and what do you like about other guys?
I’m extremely hairy – that’s my Portuguese heritage. My husband calls me “gorilla.” I’m a big fan of body hair, the more the merrier.
Have you ever been in Latin America before? What do you know about Peru?
I’ve spent a little bit of time in Mexico and Brazil. And I’ve been to Peru twice to attend shamanic retreats way back in the rainforest jungle, which were extraordinary and extremely nurturing experiences. Except that the second time I was bitten by a sandfly and contracted a fungal infection called cutaneous Leishmaniasis, which turned out to be very difficult to treat.