Books and Writings
Wednesday, October 30th, 2013
I don’t write about my drug addiction very often anymore. There’s no shame there; I’m really proud of my recovery process. It just seems too delicate, too precious to share as publicly as I do my journey with HIV. That’s interesting, considering of the two diseases, my addiction is far more likely to kill me. So, when a member of The Tweakers Project invited me to contribute to an ongoing column in Frontiers magazine that spotlights people recovering from meth addiction, I felt it was an appropriate venue to briefly share my experience. Here is my column as it appeared in Frontiers:
I thought I had a right to get high; that I deserved it for all my pain. I figured any gay man who suffered through the 1980s needed to medicate. Living in West Hollywood as a young man, I was dodging bullets in a war zone, busily planning memorials and attending town halls while hoping to God I wasn’t next. My prayer was answered but came with a price — watching scores of men die around me.
Pop a pill. Snort a line. Check your nose and visit your friend in the ICU. Maybe others found healthier ways to cope, but I wasn’t equipped for the onslaught of mortality, the preachers on television proudly announcing the evidence of God’s wrath against people like me, the dire news that no medications could combat this plague and my own HIV-positive test results. I couldn’t comprehend my emotions, much less face them. So when treatments improved years later and the dying abated, I felt entitled to celebrate.
Pop a pill. Smoke a bowl. Stash the drugs and get back on the dance floor. That’s when I knew I was a drug addict. When any occasion qualified. Whether we were dying or living, I was high. Maintaining a functional existence slipped away, just slowly enough not to alarm me, as if the drugs were quietly sneaking out the door with my life. And along with it, all those broken promises it made about euphoric deliverance and endless nights of pleasure.
There wasn’t a single event that brought it to an end, because the truth is my recovery from drugs has been uneven and imperfect. Through the help of professionals and fellow addicts, I have slowly gathered the tools I need to remain clean and sober. Vigilance. Patience. And more honesty than is ever comfortable to me.
For the last 10 years I’ve been climbing back out of a hole I had finally stopped digging. I’ve managed to locate the man I had once hoped to be. I have found my joy again, which is truly the guiding emotion that helps me remain clean. I have come to terms with surviving AIDS and for living when so many worthy men did not. I have forgiven myself for having such good fortune and responding to it by sticking needles in my arm.
Today, my health and recovery are primary to my daily life. I have regained gifts and talents that had laid dormant for many years, and I use them in the service of others.
As a writer and HIV activist, I’m known for my sense of humor. But I’m dead serious about my addiction. I don’t want to go back there. I love this life too much.
Photo credit: Fulton County Sheriff Department, after my arrest for drug possession in February of 2008. If you have an issue with substance abuse, help is available. Consider programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or even Crystal Meth Anonymous (find out more about 12-step programs here and if one would be right for you), or check out reviews of treatment centers available at TheFix.com.
Other Posts on Drug Addiction:
“The Crystal Meth Connection of the Gay Porn Killer.” If ever a posting had enough searchable Google words, this might be it. A look at the Canadian accused murderer and why his alleged meth use made sense to me.
“My Muscles, My Disease: A Snapshot of Drug Addiction.” How my body-conscious lifestyle only fueled (and still reminds me of) my drug addiction.
“The Long Road Home from Relapse.” Assessing the destruction of a harrowing relapse as I drive a thousand miles home to family.
He calls it an exhilarating “exercise in perversion,” but I call it fascinating. A prominent gay health advocate who blogs anonymously as Promiscuous Gay Nerd asked himself the question, “What makes sex good for me?” To find out, he created a spread sheet and then tracked every sexual detail of 50 encounters (43 of them unique, living up to his promiscuous name). Reading his analysis and viewing the spreadsheet in all its grinding glory is a lesson in gay sex, pursuit, and why we chase “the strange” rather than “the intimate.” More ironic is the fact that the blogger rates the more connected and intimate encounters as the best ones. Might there be a lesson there about hanging up his promiscuous lifestyle and finding an ongoing partner? “I had boring sex with boyfriends sometimes, just as I have boring sex with strangers sometimes,” he told me in an online comment. “Perhaps that’s why all my exes are exes! I look forward to finding a man who can change that.”
“Travels With My Nephew” is a new book of fiction that covers the life of Dorothy DeMoore, a proper British woman with enough Auntie Mame in her bones to satisfy her gay nephew. Their adventures take them back and forth across the pond, as her horny nephew samples love and Dorothy learns lessons about cabarets and gay rights. The story is told by Dorothy to the writer of her memoirs, and the interplay between the two as she weaves her tale provides droll entertainment. Curiously, the occasional references to the dawn of AIDS seem out of step with an otherwise pleasant comedy of manners. But no matter — author Guy Wilson (of the Wilsons Arts Project, which has produced the book as a theatrical musical) keeps things moving at a fun clip. The cover photo of Dorothy (above), I might add, looks suspiciously like Guy’s husband, Nic Wilson. Just sayin’.
Our favorite poz fitness and nutrition expert Nelson Vergel (people still write me about the funny and informative video he and I did together, when Nelson raided my fridge to teach me a lesson) is involved in a new health site for men, ExcelMale.com, that provides nutrition and supplement information and forum chats with other people. It is not specific to HIV but does have great info. It offers a free membership to participate in postings (and they do hope you’ll purchase their products), but I was able to wander freely on the site and get good info without signing up.
Tuesday, September 24th, 2013
Note: This essay has been shared more than 15,000 times from this site since it posted in July of 2012. Some readers responded angrily, and the barebacking aspect of the story brought both cheers and derision (one comment accused director Max Sohl of “crimes against humanity”). Frankly, I just thought the story of the film and its sociological impact was worth investigating; I appreciated the candidness of those connected to the film, as well as the social scientists and CDC officials who served as background.
The annual Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco is noted for its unbridled embrace of every star in our sexual constellation. Even the fearless leather community that founded the event can sometimes appear tame amidst the outlandish kinks and clothing – and lack thereof – on display along the city’s tilted streets.
In the middle of this rowdy bacchanalia in the fall of 2003, Paul Morris stood at the booth for Treasure Island Media (TIM), the gay porn outfit he founded that features unprotected sex (barebacking) between its actors. This particular specialty was the singular driving force behind his smashingly successful and relatively new company.
Then, like the legend of Lana Turner fortuitously cozying up to the counter at Schwab’s, a beautiful and achingly masculine young man approached the TIM booth. He liked the TIM videos, he liked them very much indeed, and he hoped to one day document a few fantasies of his own. TIM star Jesse O’Toole was on hand and someone snapped a photograph of the two of them together (right). In it, the grinning young man with a leather cap appears to have found his long lost tribe, and O’Toole looks as if he has found a seven-course meal.
The photo was sent to Max Sohl, a sometime porn actor with a theater background whom Morris had commissioned to conceive and direct what would be Sohl’s first porn film. Sohl met with the aspiring model and asked him to complete a form that included a simple question: What is one of your fantasy scenes? In response, the young man wrote simply, “me getting nailed and seeded by a gang of hot guys.”
“The Black Party was coming,” Sohl explained in a recent interview, referring to the annual New York City weekend of leather men, parties and sexual adventures, “and I thought, ‘Okay. Let’s see how many men he can take.’”
And that is how Dawson’s 20 Load Weekend was born.
Prior to the onset of AIDS, condom usage in gay pornography was nonexistent – but that was before bodily fluids became synonymous with death and disease. For well over a decade after the crisis began, gay porn videos featured not only tightly wrapped penises, but their storylines – indeed, the actors themselves – suffered from a sort of dramatic malaise, as if sleepwalking through their sexual routine while trying to pay no attention to the man with KS lesions behind the curtain. The videos mirrored our own lack of interest in gallivanting about with the pizza man or diving into an orgy with strangers, with or without condoms. Many viewers simply returned to their stash of pre-AIDS pornography, which was condom-less but “justified.”
As AIDS deaths subsided with the advent of new medications in 1996, gay male culture responded with a vengeance. Circuit parties were born of celebration (before succumbing to their own excesses), safer sex behaviors relaxed, and there was a palpable longing to escape the horrors of the previous years. Reclaiming a bold sexuality – something many gay men believed had been lost forever – was a tonic for the post-traumatic stress they suffered. Younger gay men, who had listened to stories of an earlier, sexually liberated time as if it were a lost era of paleontology, were more than willing to explore whatever modern version might await them.
Unprotected sex since the arrival of HIV is nothing new – it is, after all, the primary reason for new infections that have continued fairly steadily since AIDS began – but in the late 1990’s the gay community proved again how comically adept it is at applying a little branding to any phenomenon, and “barebacking” entered the public lexicon. The irony may be that a new word was developed for the oldest sexual activity imaginable: having sex without a barrier. It wasn’t the sex that had changed, but the meaning and judgment associated with it towards, most specifically, gay men. Or, as AIDS advocate Jim Pickett said at a recent conference for people living with HIV, “When a friend announces they are expecting a child, I feel like screaming ‘You barebacked!‘”
But while intelligent minds and passionate advocates argued about the reasons and the proper response to barebacking, no one had dared document it on videotape for the erotic pleasure of others. Yet.
In 1998, two renegade companies formed to make bareback videos exclusively: Hot Desert Knights and Treasure Island Media (links definitely NSFW). None of the leading gay pornographers would consider producing them (although they were eager to market their highly-profitable backlists of videos produced “pre-AIDS” that featured bareback sex). The cheaply made videos by the upstart porn producers brought the sexual choices of an increasing number of men out of the closet and onto DVD players and computer screens.
The videos were uniform in their low production values, the older ages of the actors, and the fact that several of them appeared to have the physical manifestations of HIV. It was as if a group of men who had literally lived through AIDS said, “oh, what the hell,” and demonstrated the kind of sex they had been having amongst themselves for some time. Their exploits were perceived as an underground fetish that would never break the surface of more mainstream gay pornography.
But then Max Sohl met that ferociously attractive man from the Folsom Street Fair who was so eager to “get seeded” by a string of strangers, and with the sexual zeitgeist now primed for their arrival, they made a film that would forever change the porn industry and quite arguably influence the sexual behavior of countless gay men.
Re-christened “Dawson,” the budding porn star was served up in a hotel room over the course of New York City’s 2004 Black Party weekend to an ongoing parade of bareback tops. Their sex was filmed in a documentary fashion, without music, scripted dialogue, or any effort to hide the many cables and cameras crowding the room. Dawson’s fantasy had been fulfilled, and Sohl had the footage to prove it.
In June of 2004, Dawson’s 20 Load Weekend was released and was precisely as advertised.
It might first strike the viewer that the video was created in an unsettling world in which HIV is utterly absent; that is, until a revamped sexual choreography is pointedly repeated again and again. While orgasms in gay porn before AIDS typically showed the top withdrawing from his partner and spilling his semen across his partner’s backside, the tops servicing Dawson had a different and very deliberate mission: to withdraw only long enough to prove their orgasm, and then re-enter Dawson immediately to show the injection of semen.
This was not a film that was made in the absence of HIV, but was created because of HIV. You can practically hear a disembodied voice whispering, “Watch closely. This is how gay men have sex now. That is where semen belongs. Fuck AIDS.”
Depending on your point of view, it is either a transgressive act of eroticism or an incredibly irresponsible act that demonstrates how to become infected with HIV. Or perhaps both.
In the center of all of this was Dawson himself, and never has bareback porn had such a virile and athletic leading man, much less one that bottomed with such disarming delight. “He was a higher quality male model that hadn’t been seen in that kind of extreme scene,” said Sohl. “The movie changed things because of Dawson. He was adorable, and actually smiles and laughs. He is Cialis joyful in that movie.”
“Bareback porn companies have blood on their hands,” became a common refrain among gay men and health advocates. Gay sex advice columnist Dan Savage equated the videos to child porn, believing they take advantage of the naïve and the vulnerable. Some accused TIM of making snuff films.
The video was wildly successful, ubiquitous wherever porn was shown. Even Sohl was surprised. “Our staff and even my friends would say ‘I go into a porn booth, a sex party, a hookup, and its playing,’” he said. “It was everywhere.”
Adult bookstores which had previously shunned TIM videos responded to customer demand and began stocking them, even creating bareback sections on their shelves. Gay porn sites that once refused to feature bareback clips began including them. Dawson and the film became the definitive symbol of a bare, wanton sexuality that eschewed condoms and refused to be denied or intimidated by the virus.
Soon, more companies produced bareback porn, and they were able to attract “collegiate jock” types who were younger, more muscular and the very picture of health and vitality. The faces and bodies in bareback videos had been transformed, erasing all evidence of HIV, much like the invisibility of HIV/AIDS in our broader culture.
When considering the legacy of his film, Sohl is more pragmatic than proud. “The concept of taking twenty loads in 2004 was beyond taboo, but to say it in 2012… it doesn’t seem as extreme today,” he said. “I’m sure someone else would have done it. It just so happened to be us.”
Neither does Sohl admit to any trepidation about the safety of his actors, then or now. “I’ve been doing this since 2004, with thousands of men, and have had only one guy claim to get an STD (on my set),” he explained. “Probably 50 percent of my casting job is being an HIV counselor,” he adds, without a hint of irony. “I spend a lot of time talking about HIV. My feeling is that people need to be responsible for their own actions and make informed decisions.”
One of the people making decisions while living with HIV is none other than the actor known as Dawson, who disclosed his HIV positive status to The Windy City Times in 2005. While his HIV status may surprise no one, something else he said in the interview was sadly revealing. “It was after turning positive that I made the decision to look into doing a movie for Treasure Island Media,” he said at the time. “I had seroconverted a few months before…”
After an HIV diagnosis, many people use it as an opportunity to re-examine their lives, make different choices, or otherwise take steps to enjoy their life in whatever ways are important to them. For the man who would be Dawson, his seroconversion was followed by the choice to be an unapologetic cum whore in front of video cameras. This may have been his fantasy, but it certainly fuels the stigmatizing belief that people with HIV are irresponsible vectors of disease, spreading infection and abandoning whatever sexual values they may have previously held.
Perhaps, then, the film was a treatise on the kind of sexual liberation available to HIV positive gay men today, demonstrating the “new normal” for those who take their meds, eliminate the viral activity in their blood, and “fuck freely and without fear,” as TIM founder Paul Morris once put it. Or did it simply portray poz men as sluts, a charge leveled by disgusted (and possibly jealous) HIV negative men?
“What a person is seeing has more to do with them than with us,” said Sohl. “The best mode of action is not to confirm or deny anything. I will see a scene online that I directed,” he says, referring to the many porn sites that pirate pieces of his work and give them new titles, “and it will be renamed ‘negative bottom takes poz loads,’ as if it were a conversion scene. We never said that. Or people think the bottom is using crystal meth. That says more about the guy watching it than what actually happened.”
That relationship, between porn and viewer, is something of particular concern to some HIV prevention advocates who believe bareback porn encourages unsafe sex in real life. This resulted in AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s recent campaign to mandate condom use on pornography sets, a move that was popular on a simplistic level but did nothing to address the myriad of factors associated with actual HIV risk and relative safety, such as an undetectable viral load, serosorting, or the precise sexual behaviors involved.
While social cognitive theory states that we make behavioral decisions based on watching others, very little research has been conducted on the causal relationship between bareback porn and real behavior. In what little has been studied, researchers can’t decide if barebackers watch a lot of bareback porn, or bareback porn makes people barebackers.
It is a riddle that Max Sohl is surprisingly happy to solve. “Absolutely” he said. “Of course it is going to influence what people do.” When asked, then, what is the responsibility of porn, Sohl would have none of it. “The responsibility of porn,” he says impishly, “is to make the guy watching it shoot a load.”
Dawson is, now and forever, committed to videotape and featured on dozens of online porn sites, happily receiving the prize he so ardently desires. He and his progeny of newer, younger porn actors have crossed a line and they’re never coming back. Their video escapades are available online everywhere and for everyone, including young gay men who are just coming out and surfing the internet for validation of their sexuality.
What those young men will almost certainly see online are depictions of unprotected sex, because bareback videos now outperform scenes of condom usage on every site that carries them – and most of them now do. It is unquestionable that bareback sex will be viewed as typical to the uninitiated, and anyone crafting safer sex messages to those young men is going to have a difficult time trumping those images. The “use a condom every time” message is officially dead, drowned in buckets of bodily fluids by Dawson and his barebacking brethren.
Dawson’s 20 Load Weekend redefined bareback porn and the men who appear in them. It influenced subsequent videos and expanded the availability of bareback films. It depicted a prevailing truth about gay sexual behavior “post AIDS,” and arguably encouraged risky sexual adventure-seeking. It led to the saturation of bareback porn online, making unprotected sex normative to whomever might be watching. To dismiss this film, to minimize its social and cultural impact, would be to demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of gay sexuality today.
“Barebacking is a right,” gay anthropologist Eric Rofes once wrote. “After all, practically every straight guy in the world gets to do it without being told they are irresponsible, foolish, or suicidal… Barebacking is liberation. Barebacking is defiance.”
How foolish, prescient, liberating, enlightening or destructive barebacking may ultimately become is something that may only be revealed in the next chapter of our gay community’s troubled history.
(Photo of Dawson and Jesse O’Toole courtesy of Max Sohl and edited for content. Other images courtesy of Treasure Island Media [NSFW].)
TWO MORE POSTS ON BAREBACKING and/or GAY SEX:
“Your Mother Liked it Bareback” loses all patience with the finger pointing and judgments being hurled around between gay men when it comes to choices about unprotected sex. In short, it asks us to broaden what it means to have “safer sex,” and to acknowledge there are now many prevention techniques that do not involve condoms. Check it out.
“Why I Stopped Going to the Baths” is a riot, explaining my decision to stop, well, going to the baths. Any posting that begins with “The last time I went to the baths I stepped in poop,” can’t be all bad, right?
Tags: aids, barebacking, culture, gay, hiv, meth, Recreation, research, serosorting, Sexuality, testing
Posted in Books and Writings, Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, Prevention and Policy | 1 Comment »
Wednesday, August 7th, 2013
“We’re born naked… and the rest is drag.” — RuPaul
When I was nine years old, I took my parents’ album of the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees” and memorized every syllable of Gwen Verdon’s show stopper, “Who’s Got the Pain When They Do the Mambo?” Once I was satisfied with my lip-synching and choreography (I decided that a mambo was a dance in which young boys gyrated and flung themselves on and off the living room sofa), the number was ready for public display.
The premiere was a simple affair, exclusive and unannounced. Mrs. May from across the street had stopped in for afternoon coffee, and opportunity knocked when Mother busied herself in the kitchen for a few minutes.
Not a smart move, Mother, leaving Mark alone with the company.
“Mrs. May, would you like to see me do a song?” The unsuspecting woman gave a polite “yes, that sounds nice” and before Mother could run interference I had turned on the stereo and dropped the needle at the precise moment where Gwen breaks into song.
Mrs. May stared and stared, her hands folded neatly in her lap, as I brought out every sashay, twist and thrust in my dancing arsenal. My moves may have been imperfect but I vocalized brilliantly, thanks to Gwen. As I struck my final pose, arms reaching for the heavens, frozen and triumphant, I saw mother standing in the doorway, holding a plate of cookies and breathing heavily through her nostrils.
Future performances would be limited to my bedroom, where I could conjure an audience cheering with acclamation and mothers wouldn’t put you on restriction.
It is that boy, the cheerful but feminine performer, that I always feared would creep out of me as I navigated young adulthood as a gay man. I worked to shed his characteristics, to replace every soft gesture with a wooden one, to embrace the gym and tank tops and Levi jeans with the same fervor I once had for my beloved Broadway musicals, with mixed success.
And then, a lifetime later, as I worked for an AIDS agency in Atlanta in the 90’s, destiny called. An upcoming drag contest to benefit our agency was suffering from poor participation, and my boss asked if I would consider entering.
Being a drag queen, even for a night, terrified and delighted me. But the performer in me won out, wouldn’t you know, and Anita Mann was born. I created an interactive video rendition of Donna Summer’s “This Time I Know It’s for Real” (below) and won the contest.
Soon I was performing with “the camp drag queens of the south,” The Armorettes, who hosted a Sunday night show at Atlanta’s now-demolished Armory to raise funds for AIDS organizations (they are still performing, now at Burkhart’s). Over the years they vigrx info have raised over $2 million dollars, and their show was a sellout every week. But my own phobic notions lingered.
I didn’t want to be known as a drag queen (“It’s comedy! I’m a performance artist!” I would insist). I never appeared anywhere in drag but on that stage – I would always get dressed at the show, and was out of drag for the final curtain call, in a bid to display whatever masculine credentials I had to offer.
I would hear other gay men make disparaging remarks about drag and I withered, unable to admit I was playing to a packed room every Sunday.
The nexus of shame and shamelessness is a complicated one. Each week I put on full display the very things about myself that I had worked so hard to reject — my femininity, my silly pursuit of acceptance through laughter and applause. And just as I gained confidence in what I was doing and why, I would lose a potential boyfriend when he learned of my weekend talents.
As a growing meth addiction encroached on my free time, I abandoned Anita Mann to its demands. Anita’s dress and wig would be relegated to a duffel bag hidden in the back of the hallway closet. I had found a vocation in drugs that offered twice the shame and every bit of the need to keep quiet about it.
It took a few years before Anita would make her comeback. Armed with a TV set and a sense of the absurd, Anita performed at a sober fund raising event. Her rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (below) grows more insane by the moment (watch out for the swinging TV set!).
And yes, I am aware that I speak of her in the third person. Maybe it is because I view her as a character I have created, and perhaps it is the remnants of shame, and of my need to keep her at a distance.
It’s strange, how those things about which we have drawn the most shame are also able to liberate us, not to mention help others. My HIV status. My drug addiction and recovery process. My drag personality. As I have embraced each of these, I’ve found self-acceptance and a way to carry a message of hope, and even joy, to others.
Meanwhile, I still struggle with the need to project as much masculinity as I can muster. I swagger more than I sashay. I sport a beard when possible. And I work to maintain a strict gym regimen.
It’s important for me to stay in shape if I expect to fit in that dress.
(This is a revised version of a posting that appeared on this site on March 15, 2012. Good drag bears repeating. — Mark)
Tags: acting, culture, drag, help others, meth, recovery, Recreation
Posted in Anita Mann and Acting Gigs, Books and Writings, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease | No Comments »
Friday, July 26th, 2013
“Did I ever tell you about the night that Emil died?” my brother Richard asked me. It was 1992, and AIDS had taken Richard’s lover a full three years earlier. The death ended a love affair that had lasted more than a decade.
I cocked my head. “Well, I was there, Richard, so I mean – ”
“You were there after,” he said, and downed his drink. “Don’t you wonder what it was like just before?” He asked the question nervously, a perfect match for the cigarette he held in one hand — a long broken habit, suddenly resumed — and the cocktail in the other, which had been requested shortly upon his arrival to my apartment.
“It’s not like I was trying to keep it from you, Mark,” he said, and he offered the glass for replacement. It was an odd thing for him to say.
I walked to the kitchen and unscrewed the vodka bottle, beginning to feel nervous myself. Richard talked as I cracked an ice tray.
“Emil had one of those lines that went way in inside him…” He was beginning a story I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear.
“A hickman,” I said.
“Yeah,” he answered, and he reached for the drink while the ice was still twirling. “But something was wrong with it the night before. It was swelling. So we took it out.”
I returned to the couch. Richard paced.
“The next morning the nurse came and Emil was being stubborn. He didn’t want the new Hickman.” He gulped his drink and took a breath. “I got an inkling what he was up to when the nurse said ‘Emil, starving yourself is not a pretty way to go.’ But Emil kept saying, ‘no, no, I won’t do this!’ and I remember he looked so weary, Mark. Just exhausted.”
This isn’t the visit I planned, I thought to myself. I meant for my brother to see the new ceiling fan I had installed. But my handiwork couldn’t compete with the story that was now rumbling out of him.
“I walked the nurse out and went back to Emil. He reached up for my hand, and he said, ‘you knew that today would be the day, didn’t you?’”
Richard looked at me but didn’t acknowledge what must have been a growing expression of shock on my face.
“I knew Emil wanted me to say yes, so I did. But inside I was screaming ‘NO! NO!’ ”
Richard stopped, and I found the silence torturous. “Well,” I said, “it sounds like he was, uh, in charge of himself.”
“Oh, he was in control all right,” he responded. “He told me to go get the book. The one about how to kill yourself.”
Richard’s next few remarks would be lost on me. I couldn’t get past The Book.
“So I’m reading him the chapter we had picked out,” Richard was saying, “and it suggests washing down the pills with alcohol. We had some Seconal and I found some Scotch.”
I knew about assisted suicide but had never heard of the mechanics of it firsthand, or considered the logistics a caring lover would undertake — or had witnessed the haunted result like the one that now sat chain smoking across my living room.
“I made some toast for him just like the book said,” he continued, “and while we waited for him to digest the toast I opened the capsules and put the stuff into a glass.”
I imagined my brother sprinkling powder into cialis soft tabs a glass while Emil looked on. I wondered what kind of small talk that activity encouraged.
“I poured the scotch, a couple of good-sized shots, and he wanted it right away.” His voice trailed to a whisper. “I wanted him to wait, to wait, to wait… I wanted to hug him. I wanted to do it right, you know? But he kept reaching for the glass, and I would say, ‘no, Emil, wait, please wait, I want to say I love you again…’”
Tears were filling Richard’s eyes. His hand shook, knocking his glass loudly on the coffee table as he set it down and brought his hands to his face.
And even so, he went on.
“Emil downed the glass in one gulp and made a face, and then he just laid back on the pillow. It took about twenty minutes.” Richard looked up at me and managed a sad grimace. “Emil always said that when you go, you go alone. I hated that for him. I wanted him to feel me there, you know? So I held his hand real tight…”
I stared at my brother. Tears now streamed from his face. His eyes conducted a dazed search around the room as they tried to focus on something, anything that would bring some comfort or clarity.
I couldn’t tell what I was feeling about this. Was it pity? Was it shock? How many kinds of pain can we distinguish within our soul?
“The book said to wait twenty minutes after his heart stopped, you know, before calling the doctor. I kept leaning over him and trying… trying to hear his heart. But I couldn’t because my own blood was pounding in my ears! And those next twenty minutes…”
“What were you doing…” I asked, startled by the sound of my own voice, “during those twenty minutes?”
“Screaming,” he said simply.
Silence engulfed my apartment, surrounding the word.
I put my arm around him and he continued to weep. Please be all right, I thought. Please be happy again, Richard. My brother. My brother.
He received my embrace but his heart had taken distant refuge. It had long been numbed by the effects of the spent cocktail glass, sitting impassively on the coffee table, occasionally clinking with the sound of shifting, melting ice.
This post is adapted from A Place Like This, my chronicle of life in Los Angeles during the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. (Photo above: Richard, left, and Emil in 1986.)
Suicide was a common feature of life for gay men in the 1980’s. But rather than it being a result of bullying or despair, with which it is often associated today, it was very often a gesture of empowerment for embattled AIDS patients wanting to die on their own terms, sometimes with the assistance of those who loved them most.
Our elderly have always shared these mortal intimacies. Assisted suicide has even been institutionalized with the common use of a morphine drip in hospitals and hospices, which calms the patient and, when increased to certain levels, hastens death by shutting down the body.
As for Richard, he has recovered from his loss 25 years ago and lives happily today in our home town. “I often think of that night, and consider my feelings about it,” he told me recently. “I can honestly say I don’t feel even a twinge of guilt. I have plenty of regrets, but not about that.”
Wednesday, July 10th, 2013
“There were people who displayed remarkable courage then. People who lived and died by their promises and shared the intimacy of death…”
– Once, When We Were Heroes
My brother Richard would later refer to it as a “command performance.” It was 1989, and he had phoned me after weeks of frustrating silence about the declining health of his lover Emil. Richard said that Emil wanted to see me. “Tonight,” he said. Charlie, my partner at the time, and I walked through their front door within an hour.
Richard led us to the sofa in the den where what looked like a mountain of blankets had been piled. I looked toward the blankets, and Emil’s head — small, ancient and childlike at once — peered out. A curved brass reading lamp reached over Emil’s face, casting a dramatic yellow glow across his forehead and onto his face.
It was as harsh as the fluorescent strips I had often seen above the hospital bed of so many dying friends — shining straight down, showcasing the sickness beneath. Who lights these guys? I wondered absently.
“Hey there, Emil,” Charlie said. “How’s it going?” I had learned not to lead off with a remark like that.
“Hello, Charlie,” Emil said weakly. His voice was a strained breath that worked without the cooperation of vocal chords. He looked shrunken.
Emil proceeded to express how much he had valued our friendship. “…and Mark,” he breathed out, “I want to tell you how much I appreciate you giving that blood for me…”
It had been an experimental treatment for people with AIDS, giving them the blood of people who were HIV positive and healthy. It was nothing, really. Sixty minutes of my life. Like so many promising treatments, it didn’t work.
“It was easy, Emil, really –”
“Nevertheless,” he interrupted, willful to the end.
The blankets moved slightly, and Emil produced a tiny, aged hand from them. It trembled slightly as he motioned to Richard, who acknowledged the signal and left the room. Charlie and I sat there wondering what more to say, finally surrendering to the silence.
Richard returned with an envelope and placed it in my hands. A lovely parting gift? I thought, astounded.
I smiled toward Charlie and noticed that Richard and Emil were without expression, lost in their silent, exhausted daze. I opened the envelope and pulled out a $100 gift certificate to Macy’s. Charlie and I looked at the paper admiringly, and I said how thankful I was.
Richard managed an almost perfectly horizontal smile, and I knew at once he was the one who bought it. I thought of him driving across town for the item, on strict orders from Emil to purchase the certificate and from what store, and Richard wondering if his lover would be alive when he got back.
Emil cast sleepy eyes on Richard and I knew it was time to leave. I leaned forward toward Emil and barely brushed my hand across the blanket as a farewell. Richard led us out, and stood on the porch as we drove away. I watched him close the front door. The porch light blinked out.
We drove through the lovely, tree-lined streets of their neighborhood with our mouths half opened, with words begun and then abandoned. Only after driving for miles did I succeed in delivering a full sentence.
“So, Charlie,” I said, realizing I still held the envelope tightly in my hands, “how do you think we should spend the gift certificate?”
Two nights later we would find ourselves on their sofa again, in circumstances far more grave. Charlie and I were bleary-eyed from the chaos that had begun with Richard’s phone announcement an hour before, delivered with stunned clarity, that Emil had died.
We were in the den where we had received the gift certificate only days before, but Emil wasn’t there. He had spent his last days in the master bedroom, by Richard’s side. Charlie turned to the windows behind us and pulled the blinds away. We could hear a vehicle approach.
“Don’t,” I said. “We shouldn’t. We better not look.” He released the blinds and the car — or hearse, or coroner’s truck — drew nearer and was now chugging just outside the window, just beneath us and beside the front steps.
We stared at each other, dissecting every sound, and then knowing when Emil was being taken. We heard wheels, barely squeaking across tile floors, rolling out of the master bedroom toward the front door. A heavy door opened and then closed. I wanted to pull the shades wide open and see for myself, and I didn’t dare.
The vehicle changed gears and began the retreat down the driveway. We held our breath as it drove slowly down the hill and faded away.
Richard walked in to the den and we sat up straight. Just shut the hell up Mark, I said to myself. Don’t start talking now because you’ll just screw it all up.
Richard asked me to stay the night, and Charlie went home to await further instructions. Richard and I didn’t stay up, didn’t talk much at all. He went to bed and I feel asleep on the couch.
I was awakened in the morning by Richard’s voice. He was on the phone across the room, speaking to someone culled from the worn pages of an address book he held cradled in his lap. I quietly rolled over and watched him. He was beyond the grasp of any healing embrace.
Every call began the same, with his weary hello and then saying he had some very bad news. And then he would say it out loud. Emil had died. It was something he had been terrified of ever saying, but that now would be repeated a dozen times on the morning of his lover’s death. He usually made it through the first minute or so, but then would be barraged with condolences and have to say “thank you” and “yes, he certainly was” and “I know he is no longer in pain” a few times during each call. And it was that part that would break him, until he convulsed again into sobs and his goodbye would be hard to understand.
He would sit there and catch his breath, finding the next name in the address book through teary eyes, and then pick up the phone again. And again.
It is one of the most powerful images of my brother that I have.
I sometimes dream of it.
(This is adapted from my book, A Place Like This, about the dawn of the AIDS epidemic in Los Angeles. I am so grateful for our progress since then, but also feel strongly about sharing the truth, and the intimacies that we experienced as a community during the darkest years. Scenes like the one above are still playing out — 7,000 gay men die of AIDS in the United States every year. Pictured above are Richard (left) and Emil. — Mark)
Wednesday, May 29th, 2013
Every month or so, a group of people in my area host “poz socials,” a house party for people living with HIV. I found myself at one recently, because I thought it was important to make an appearance since becoming a literary superstar.
I was settled into the living room sofa and liked the spot very much. Sharing a couch with regular folk has an air of humility about it, while its angle allowed me to be viewed by a large number of the guests milling about.
I should proceed with caution, I thought. If he is a stalker and I engage him haphazardly, he’ll steal my social security number and soon claim we’re Minnesota’s latest newlyweds.
“Well now, what magazine do you mean…?” I said, and then I smiled demurely. It’s best to display warmth when you are recognized in public. But carry mace.
“The magazine you’re holding in your lap…” he said, “with the cover facing me? I saw some copies on a table at the front door, I think. That’s you, right?”
“Oh, this magazine!” I said, waving it in my hand as if I’d just discovered it, “yes, well, they’re sending me so many you know, boxes of them, I just thought people might appreciate me bringing a few of them to –“
“…and there’s a stack of them in the bathroom, too,” he continued, “which I thought was odd, and outside on the back lawn. Someone laid them across the grass to spell out OZ. Is this magazine about The Wizard of –“
“No! POZ.” I fingered the cover’s masthead like I was teaching the alphabet on Sesame Street. “P-O-Z? POZ. POZ Magazine.”
“Well, it just says ‘OZ’ in the back yard now. I think they had to make room for the lawn chairs.”
This man was irritating me. He hadn’t even begun to ask about my thoughts on fame or on balancing family with my public persona or about Having It All. I became concerned with his comprehension skills.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he went on, “it’s sprinkling now so I don’t think anybody is out there anyway.”
“It’s what?” I asked. I scrambled up and dashed outside to retrieve what were now slightly soggy copies of the magazine off the lawn.
I settled for a while on the back patio, carefully dabbing the magazine covers and giving the crowd inside some relief from the excitement of my presence. I wondered if the Kardashians ever had to dry their own magazines. I suddenly realized how very alike we are, those girls and I. Well, maybe not Kim. Unlike her, my sex video was a crystal meth-induced camera phone escapade that I have refused to commercialize. No, Khloe is my true soul mate. The sassy one.
The party’s host, Sebastian, stepped outside.
“Hello, Sebastian. You have a lovely home,” I offered. Graciousness. So important. “I wonder if I might trouble you for some ballpoint pens. The Sharpies I brought are going to bleed if I have to autograph these wet magazines…”
“I was just going to ask you about that,” he said. “The buffet table seems to have been set up for… some sort of signing?” I had arrived early to hang the poster-sized blowup of the cover in just the right spot, scotch taped over Sebastian’s original Keith Haring lithograph. The Haring seemed a tad pretentious anyway.
“Yes, that’s right,” I answered. He had an expression that I clearly mistook for annoyance.
“There are magazines stacked all over the buffet table,” he said.
I raised an eyebrow. “I brought plenty to accommodate the crowd so –“
“There are only fifteen people here…”
“…so they might be able to share with their friends and loved ones,” I finished.
Sebastian breathed a little too strongly through his nostrils for a moment. “If it’s all the same to you,” he said, rather slowly, “I really need the buffet table.”
“You need the buffet table?” This was the first I had heard of this. I bet Khloe has people for this sort of thing.
“Yes,” he said. “I need the buffet table. For the buffet.”
Jealousy is a common response to intense fame. You see it all the time. Well, maybe not you. But I do.
My road to sizzling celebrity began a few months ago, when I was invited to appear on the cover of POZ Magazine because of an essay I had contributed about HIV stigma among gay men. I give full credit to the staff of the publication, for instinctively knowing exactly what the world needs right now.
And if you’re thinking the answer is me, well, that’s lovely and understandable but not really true. What the world needs now is a message of tolerance toward people living with HIV.
Delivered by me.
Negotiations between myself and the publication were heated, I will admit. First they claimed Leibovitz was busy and Scavullo was dead, and then they rejected my request for body painting at the studio to sculpt my abs. Oh, and I had to wear a shirt.
I don’t mean to embarrass anyone, but allow me to share with you portions of the email I received from the POZ editorial team. They responded together, they said, to put a stop to my “playing staff members against one another and telling us each that you liked us best or that a fellow staff person wanted us fired.” Like I would be caught doing that.
They then went on to say that “while we appreciate your enthusiasm for this cover shoot, we don’t believe that having you pictured in the throes of actual stigmata would serve the story or our readership.” My concept was meant to be ironic, although I can’t really explain why and it’s my response to most situations in which I don’t get my way.
“And although we do acknowledge that Carrie is an iconic film about stigma,” the irksome memo continued, “our readers might respond unfavorably to a cover model with a bucket of pig’s blood dumped on their head. People with HIV are sensitive about blood. Even pig’s blood. Your being outfitted in a prom dress does little to minimize the impact.”
They said nothing about the remake of Carrie to be released this fall, and the obvious promotional tie-ins I had outlined in my proposal. Which is all to say that we must stand tall against those who wish to blunt our artistic vision.
Now that the June issue has been released, available everywhere fine periodicals about HIV are available, I’m mulling over the idea of a multi-city tour or better yet, an AIDS benefit in which famous artists recreate my POZ Magazine cover, people like Peter Max or Warhol, and then auction them off. The powers that be at POZ, as you might guess, say this idea is quite impossible for reasons they refuse to enumerate.
I considered all this as the poz social was drawing to a close and I was slipping copies of the issue under the windshield wipers of the cars on the street. Face down, of course, so my face might greet the driver as he settles in his seat. I continued up the neighboring blocks, because good literature appeals to everyone and Sebastian was giving me attitude about the boxes of magazines he claimed were blocking his driveway.
Should you care for a personal appearance at your next gala, by all means contact me. I require the usual fees, plus Perrier water, Intelence, Norvir, Isentress, and Flomax. And please find me a sizable entourage, to do entouragey things with me.
If it’s good enough for Khloe, it’s good enough for me.
All kidding aside, I could not be more humbled and heartened by the response to my POZ Magazine essay on HIV stigma and gay male community. Even if you have read the piece, I would encourage you to visit the comments section on the POZ site — now with over 100 comments that will inspire you, anger you, and break your heart.
Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013
This memory still brings back fear and melancholy, like a ghost story that stubbornly haunts me after all these years…
Over and over, footage of Rock Hudson standing next to Doris Day was playing on television, and he looked ghastly. His skin was wrinkled and sunken as if by very old age. It was 1985, and it was one of the last close-up images most of us would ever see of the movie icon. And it was terrifying.
My heart was pounding, and I tried to listen to the voice-over, which spoke of the sudden illness of Rock Hudson and speculation that he might have AIDS. Throughout the newscast, memories of a night in 1982, nearly three years earlier, sprang to life. The images taunted me and screamed at me and said gonna getcha gonna getcha gonna getcha …
Charley and I had recently moved to Los Angeles and the city still held such mystery and promise for us. We were excited about spending our anniversary at the gay restaurant New York Company, where you got a candle on your table and mushrooms on your prime rib and they would probably sing to us or bring a special piece of cake.
No sooner had we settled at our table and ordered drinks than Charley started nudging my arm and staring at something behind me. I glanced in that direction, and was stunned to find Rock Hudson seated there, talking with another man.
In our short time in Los Angeles, I had developed the attitude that famous people deserved their privacy and one shouldn’t ogle them. I thought it was cool not to care they were there, even though I was dying to look. In any case, Charley was staring across our table in a gay restaurant directly at Rock Hudson and I wanted him to stop right this minute.
I was definitely jealous, not only of being upstaged by a movie star at my anniversary dinner, but because I wanted to look at him so badly myself, and Charley had the perfect view. So I pestered poor Charley for the next ten minutes about how rude he was and how I couldn’t believe he found the man so fascinating and why couldn’t he pay attention to me on this special night and all sorts of other such lies.
“You men having any fun?”
There was no mistaking the voice, and I looked up from my pouting stance to Charley, who was grinning across our table at the man behind me. “Sure,” Charley managed to say. I turned around and Rock Hudson was smiling at me. I was a star struck boy and there was no hiding it now.
“Yeah, me too,” I said. How completely embarrassing.
“You sure?” he asked, “Because my friend and I were just discussing it, and I was saying that the two of you were having a fight.”
Rock Hudson was discussing me. Rock Hudson was discussing me.
“Uh no, not at all,” I lied, jumping in before Charley had a chance to say what a bitch I was and how I thought you shouldn’t ogle movie stars. “I think we’re just kinda tired. As a matter of fact, today is our anniversary and we’re celebrating.”
“Yeah,” said Charley, “we’re doing fine. How are you tonight?” He was playing along, had forgiven me, and was asking Rock Hudson a question. This was unbelievable.
“It’s really wonderful that you two are having an anniversary. How long have you been together?”
“Three years,” we said in unison.
“That’s just great. Congratulations.” At this point he introduced his friend, who went “way back” and who’s name I couldn’t tell you in a million years, and then he offered an invitation. “Come sit with us, boys. Have a drink. It’s a special occasion.”
I looked at Charley, holding on to my “protect their privacy” stance for a few more seconds, but he had already risen to join them. What the hell. Like I would have refused. I took my spot beside Rock Hudson because I would have broken Charley’s arm if he had tried that seat and he knew it. Another round of drinks appeared, and the star launched into clever stories that I don’t quite remember but were more than fascinating at the time.
The conversation wandered onto Trivial Pursuit, the game which was then new and all the rage.
“Yes, I’ve heard of that,” Rock said. “I haven’t played it yet.”
“We’ve got the game, Rock,” Charley said. “You should really come over some time and we’ll play it with you.” I couldn’t believe what he was saying. He actually called Mr. Rock Hudson “Rock.” Furthermore, my partner had just invited this man “over some time,” like that was really in the realm of possibility.
More drinks arrived. This man can drink like a cow, I thought, and not even show it. He was playful, though, and shot a few looks my way that I would have taken quite differently if it weren’t clear I was celebrating my anniversary with the man to my immediate left.
“It’s a great game,” I found myself saying. “You wanna come over and play it with us?” I was a teensy bit smashed, no doubt about it.
“Yes, I would.”
I’m sure there was more to it, more of a rationale as to why he felt comfortable crashing our anniversary evening, but I don’t remember. His friend kindly begged off of the event, and it was decided that Charley would take his friend home while I rode with Rock so he had no problem finding our apartment. I still will never believe he parked his classy import on Edgewood Avenue, because it made me nervous parking my car there. Once inside, I found a full bottle of Scotch, poured him a drink, and gave him a tour of our tiny apartment until Charley got back.
I was no fool. What we had here was a prescription for something… unseemly. But I was barreling through these bizarre circumstances and wasn’t weighing the specific possibilities. That’s a lie. I was pursuing it because I suspected what was to come.
We played the game for a couple of hours, Rock winning and drinking. Before it was over the Scotch would be history and I would offer to roll a joint. “Pot makes me horny,” he said, “so I don’t know if I should–” and of course I was passing him the joint faster than you could say Star Fucker.
He talked about movies. And sex. And people he loved and hated. The juiciest tales began with “I was really drunk one night when” and the meanest had to do with people he thought had treated him badly professionally (“You need Julie Andrews like you need a knife in your back,” said he).
Charley had taken it all in, but knew when enough was enough. He excused himself quite late to go to bed, Rock offered to go, I wouldn’t hear of it, and we continued sitting in the dining room passing the joint.
I knew what was being played out. Questions floated about in the back balcony of my head, just within earshot. What kind of guy was I? Was I going to have sex with this man right here in the living room? What about my anniversary? What about the man I loved asleep in the bedroom? Was Rock Hudson as well hung as everyone said? Some questions got my attention more than others.
Rock made motions for the umpteenth time that it was time to go home, so while he whispered another insincere goodnight, I drunkenly opened the pants of Mr. Rock Hudson. The fact that this was a famous escapade had overruled the anniversary etiquette issues.
Thirty minutes or so later, I stood in my robe outside the bathroom, wondering what Rock Hudson thought about the rust stained bathtub in which he was quickly showering. The sex had been in near dark, and without the pretext of romance — no tender caresses or meaningful glances.
I can remember only one direct look from the man. I stared down upon his face after the exhaustion of labored sex — too much bourbon, too much pot — and my eyes tried adjusting to his face in the dark. And then there it was, staring back at me, with a surprisingly impatient look. Stern and almost elderly.
“Are you done?” he asked blankly.
Well, life ain’t the damned movies, I suppose.
I would make small talk with him as he toweled dry and dressed, and then me, in a final act of staking my claim, asking for his autograph. Yes, so help me, I asked the damp, drunk and spent star to scribble “All my best, Rock Hudson” on a piece of notebook paper before his hasty exit down the duplex stairs and out to the dingy street below.
I watched the car pull away and walked slowly back to the bedroom, where Charley was sound asleep and snoring. I laid down in the dark and the night replayed in my mind. Was I triumphant? Excited, thrilled, guilty? I had just bedded the ultimate male screen icon of a generation, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to feel about it.
Rock Hudson was now a ghastly figure on a television screen in my living room. My heart raced every time the evening news began and some new tidbit of information about his disease, his sex life, his kiss with Linda Evans on “Dynasty,” his lovers and his drug treatments were reported with morbid tones and oh-my-God urgency.
I had not yet been tested for HIV. In 1985, what was the point? There were no known effective treatments, the first drug treatment, AZT, was just being introduced and people with AIDS were dropping like flies. It was politically incorrect to get tested because it could lead to discrimination, brand you as terminal and assure you that every pathetic image of a dying AIDS patient applied directly to you.
And that is exactly what the Rock Hudson coverage was doing to me, test or no test. Magazines and Dan Rather news stories were talking to me specifically. ROCK HUDSON HAS AIDS, the headlines screamed, AND MARK KING WILL DIE AS WELL.
“Rock Hudson is now resting in his Los Angeles home beyond a doctors care,” reported Mary Hart on Entertainment Tonight, “and Mark, you’re an idiot if you think you can escape this now. You’re dead as a door nail, buddy. What were you thinking?”
I would stare at the coverage without a word, and nod my head at parties when someone said how tragic it was and excuse myself.
My parents had been told the censored version of the anniversary night story that very next day, and called me in Los Angeles shortly after Rock was reported ill. “Why not go down to the hospital?” my father asked. “You could try to cheer him up, maybe bring Trivial Pursuit!” I explained the man had a million fans and wouldn’t remember me, without mentioning how trivial the pursuit had been.
In October of 1985, Rock Hudson died in his home. News reports tortured me for months to come.
(Edited from A Place Like This, by Mark S. King. Copyright 2008.)
I love checking the analytical data produced by my blog software. It tells me what pages of my site you are visiting, what link sent you here, and even where you live (Hello, Cleveland! G’day, Sidney!). It also tells me what keyword searches bring people to my site, and once I sort through all the porn references (that piece on porn star Dawson still reels in the readers), the most popular Google search that brings people to my site, still, is the two words “Rock Hudson.”
Since interest in him remains so high, I don’t mind sharing this piece again (it appeared on my site in 2010). It allows me to provide a perspective on AIDS, celebrity, and our communal fear during the 1980′s that those Google visitors might never have expected.
Thanks for reading, and please be well.
Wednesday, February 27th, 2013
The turning point could be traced to August of 1998. It was the month that, for the first time in well over a decade, the Bay Area Reporter did not have a single AIDS obituary submitted for publication. The promise of protease inhibitor medications had been realized, and it felt for many that our long community nightmare was coming to a close.
The milestone in the life of San Francisco’s LGBT newspaper was celebrated around the country and became a media story unto itself. “AIDS Deaths Take Holiday,” trumpeted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “For Once, No AIDS,” said the Wilmington Morning Star. The headline in the Spokesman Review assured us that “No News is Good News.” The Bay Area Reporter’s own front page carried two words in enormous type: “No Obits.”
That could be seen as the moment in which coverage of HIV in gay media began to fade.
Today, the LGBT community is celebrating other milestones with joyful regularity. The right to serve openly in the military. Marriage. Growing acceptance and political muscle.
HIV/AIDS has largely moved off the front page and out of public consciousness. Despite newsworthy data such as increased HIV transmission among gay men and the ongoing slaughter of gay black men in particular, those stories feel stale. It has all been said so many times before. Even new storylines, such as Pre- and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis, cure research advocacy, and tools on the horizon such as rectal microbicides, it’s become harder to capture the imagination or interest of the gay community. When new data was reported recently showing that half of the 20-year-old gay men today will have HIV by the time they’re 50 (and if they’re black, that figure rises to a whopping 70 percent), the news barely rated a tweet or newspaper item.
What, then, is the responsibility of LGBT media in this climate of rising infection rates and a bored readership? Are they simply reflecting the community’s waning interest, or do they have a responsibility to keep HIV in the headlines, to serve as advocates for better public awareness?
I was just in the perfect place to ask these questions: The 2013 LGBT Media Journalists Convening, held in Philadelphia and sponsored by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. About 100 media professionals, including a healthy dose of bloggers like myself, attended the event, which educates LGBT journalists on various issues so they we might report on them with more authority. Those issues this year were transgenders, immigration, aging, labor, and international rights.
The absence of HIV/AIDS wasn’t lost on me, I assure you (AIDS activists called them out about this in real time in the event’s Twitter feed at #LGBTmedia13) and it became the topic of my interviews with various people in attendance. Their very personal answers – and undeniable passion for the cause of HIV in many cases – sure made it a little easier to understand the tough choices they are making every day. I will be very interested in your reaction.
Aside from my griping over HIV coverage, it really was terrific to be in the company of a lot of dedicated journalists, and I appreciate very much the work done to mount the event, including the contributions of Bil Browning of The Bilerico Project (pictured with me above, at right).
Is sparse HIV coverage just a sign of the times? Is it progress? And what can we do to increase visibility again?
The journalists in my video provide some answers, but I especially liked the observation by gay political activist David Mixner, who reminded me that coming out, whether as gay men or as someone living with HIV, is the greatest tool in fighting stigma and helping people see the importance of the issue. I’m glad I have some company in the poz blogosphere, but we can always use more voices. Anyone who has the ability to share their story, online or across the dinner table, can make an awesome contribution.
Meanwhile, I’m going to keep nudging my LGBT media colleagues, and I encourage you to do the same.
Thanks for watching, and please be well.
Tags: aids, barebacking, criminalization, culture, gay, hiv, politics, research, serosorting, Sexuality, testing
Posted in Books and Writings, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 7 Comments »
Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013
“My most courageous self, the best man that I’ll ever be, lived more than two decades ago during the first years of a horrific plague… I miss the man I was forced to become.”
– “Once, When We Were Heroes,” 2007
AIDS did not kill Spencer Cox in the first, bloodiest battles of the 1980’s. It spared him that.
The reprieve allowed Spencer’s brilliance as co-founder of the Treatment Action Group (TAG) to forge new FDA guidelines for drug approval and help make effective HIV medications a reality, saving an untold number of lives.
Such triumph by a man still in his twenties might have signaled even greater achievements ahead. Instead, Spencer found himself adrift in the same personal crisis as many of his contemporaries, who struggled for a meaningful existence after years of combating the most frightening public health crisis of modern times.
Gay activists like Spencer were consumed by AIDS for so many gruesome years that many of them were shocked, once the war abated, to see how little around them had changed. Climbing from the trenches, they saw a gay culture that must have seemed ludicrous, packed with the same drug addictions, sexual compulsions and soulless shenanigans that AIDS, in its singular act of goodwill, had arrested for a decade or so.
They found themselves in a world in which no one wants to see battle scars, where intimacy is manufactured on keyboards and web sites, where any sense of community had long since faded from the AIDS organizations and now only makes brief appearances in 12-step meetings, or as likely, in the fraternity of active crystal meth addicts chasing deliverance in a dangerous shell game of bliss and desolation.
The dark allure of meth, a drug so devoured and fetished by gay men today that it is now a leading indicator of new HIV infections, enticed Spencer at some point along the way. The drug is known to whisper empty promises about limitless power and sexual escape, while calming the addict’s ghosts and sorrows for miserably brief periods of time.
When Spencer Cox died on December 18, 2012, in New York City, the official cause of death was AIDS-related complications, which is understandable if post-traumatic stress, despair and drug addiction are complications related to AIDS.
Spencer believed that this connection exists. His own writings for the Medius Institute for Gay Men’s Health (an organization he co-founded after his work with TAG) focus on exactly the issues that were distressing him personally: Crystal meth abuse. Loneliness. Risk taking. Feelings of confusion after years of accomplishment and purpose.
In retrospect you can read his work and break the private code written between the lines. It spells out “HELP ME.”
Spencer’s life during this period and beyond was difficult, by many accounts. The Medius Institute failed due to a lack of funding, defeating Spencer’s effort to address mental health issues among gay men. His drug addiction spiraled and ebbed and raged again, until he finally retreated to Georgia to live with family for a few years.
When Spencer returned to New York City last September, many of his closest friends had lost track of him. There is uncertainty about his last months, and no evidence that his addiction was active, but what little medication compliance he managed had been abandoned completely, setting the stage for his final hospitalization.
Spencer Cox died without the benefit of the very drugs he had helped make available to the world. He perished from pneumonia, in an ironic clinical time warp that transported him back to 1985. It was as if, having survived the deadliest years of AIDS, having come so close to complete escape, Spencer was snatched up by the Fates in a vengeful piece of unfinished business.
AIDS has always been creative in its cruelty. And it has learned to reach through the decades with the second-hand tools of disillusionment and depression and heart-numbing traumas. Or, perhaps, using the simple weapon of crystal meth, with all of its seductions and deceits.
Yes. There are many complications related to AIDS.
To consider “survivor’s guilt” the culprit behind the death of Spencer Cox is a popular explanation but not necessarily an accurate one. That condition suggests surviving when other, presumably worthier people, did not. Sometimes guilt has nothing to do with it.
For many of our AIDS war veterans, the real challenge today is living with the horror of having survived at all.
(PHOTO CREDIT: Walter Kurtz)
Tags: aids, culture, hiv, meth, physician, politics, recovery, research, Sexuality
Posted in Books and Writings, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 50 Comments »
Monday, December 17th, 2012
There is so much distance in my mother’s eyes that I fear she may never come close to me again. Circling her stare are wrinkles of pain, betrayal even, and in her hand she holds the watch.
It was December of my senior year of high school, and things had calmed down considerably after my having burst forth from the closet that Fall, wearing go-go boots to school dances and openly flaunting my twenty-something boyfriend. But these were all healthy choices, I told myself.
If there was nothing wrong with being gay, then there should be nothing defiant about letting my family know about it. And my friends. And my teachers. And people at church. Never mind that we lived in Bossier City, Louisiana. Or that it was 1977.
But there was something about that look in my mother’s eyes, in that moment. It took all my arrogance to protect myself from it, to seek refuge from the shocked stare, the battle in her face between heartbreak and fury. She was squeezing tightly to the silver watchband, and her hand shook imperceptibly.
The boyfriend had been my downfall, of course. He was both too old and too immature for me, and Mom knew it. She also knew that spending so much time with him that previous summer wasn’t usual for a 16-year-old. So when she spotted a letter I’d written to him, she figured it would tell her what she wanted to know. She opened it.
It never occurred to me to place blame for that indiscretion. I was relieved when my parents found out, actually, and once that suspense was over I could get on with the business of scandalizing my high school.
There were brief exchanges between us following my big gay reveal, tense moments crowded with frustration and unfocused love. “What’s your problem with it?” I would ask, adorned with multiple pooka shell necklaces or sporting a man-made hickey without shame, “What’s your problem with me being gay?” I possessed more self-righteousness than an HRC dinner.
She would sigh with resignation, hand leaning on the kitchen counter. “Mark, it’s just that I know this won’t be easy. It’s your whole life, and this will just make it difficult.” There were no scripture readings or ignorant signs of homophobia. Just a mother’s perfectly legitimate concern that a child’s life could be tougher.
I didn’t appreciate her enlightenment. I would reply with a teenage shrug, just before some eye rolling and a saunter out of the room that must have made her want to strangle my pretty little gay neck.
But then, on my birthday two days before Christmas, I walked through the front door prancing like the Queen of Sheba — meaning, more prancing than usual — and on my wrist was a glimmering gold watch, a shiny new gift from my boyfriend. It was not a quality timepiece, not that I knew it, and the gold was destined to fade faster than the relationship. But it looked quite fabulous as I strutted and posed like I had just discovered that I could vogue.
Mother didn’t betray her emotions. She waited. And two days later, wearing a robe and a gold wrist, I opened a Christmas present from Mom and Dad that had been hidden behind the tree and saved for last.
It was a Timex, and it was beautiful. Silver.
There was more than the standard holiday tension as I slipped off my gold watch to try on the Timex. True to form, Mom kept her own counsel, but something told me that I wasn’t simply being presented with an additional watch, but with a choice. And I didn’t want to make it.
All that year I had been trying on a confident young gay identity for size — and that included a boyfriend who had given me what I wanted for Christmas. I valued him and I valued his gift. But family emotions were fairly clear: his gift was a bit much. After all, Mom and Dad could have had the man arrested for taking up with their 16-year-old. Seeing him shower me with jewelry had to push the limits of their patience.
But such concerns were beyond a self centered teen like me. I was convinced that flaunting his gift was about my new-found gay pride, and about respect for my sexuality and all sorts of other lofty, misdirected ideals.
Later that day, after the mountains of wrapping paper had been cleared, Mom and I sat near the tree. “So, this is a bit strange,” she began, as casually as she could muster, “having two watches… what will you do?” She had never had to compete with another gift giver for my gratitude. Someone outside the family. And a man.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked, knowing.
“Maybe you should talk to your friend, and…”
“And what, Mother?” I snapped back, propelled with a little too much righteous indignation. “Look Mom, I have an idea…” I slipped off the Timex and handed it to her. “I think you and Dad should return this. Silver isn’t really my color. You should know that.”
It is then, that moment, which continues to replay in my mental catalogue of regret. I wanted to collect the words from the air and gobble them up, but of course it was too late.
Her face was blank at first, and then a stunned, hurt expression flashed across it that was as heartbreaking to me as it was utterly foreign. She looked like she was the target of some cruel joke. And then suddenly her vulnerability was abolished for her usual calm. Her face made the whole journey in an instant.
I moved to say something more but thought better of it. Instead I reached for the watch in her hands and took it back, my face a silent promise never to give it up again. Mother withdrew without further words.
It was a milestone, a snap of the apron strings, a selfish or brave gesture of independence, depending on your point of view. I can consider whether it was an important step for a gay teen or simply the self-indulgent act of a child, but the debate doesn’t interest me. My minds eye only remembers her face.
Even now, more than thirty years later, I want to take it all back.
(This posting first apppeared on My Fabulous Disease on December 7, 2010. — Mark)