Books and Writings
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)
Thursday, December 13th, 2012
Our first meeting on-camera was six years ago. The memory of it pains me still, despite my enthusiasm for appearing on national television for any reason whatsoever.
“And how long have you been off drugs?” he asked. The look in his eyes carried a journalist’s skepticism. The intense lights of the CNN studio seemed to brighten at the question.
“Six months,” I answered. The idea of appearing at the anchor desk with Don Lemon was losing its allure. Granted, I wanted to help promote the documentary Meth, and discuss gay men, drug abuse, and my own crystal meth addiction. But the interview had become too real, too well lit, and far too direct for me to escape the truth with my usual manipulations.
“And where are you living now?” Don asked me. I felt flush, reddened by shame and by the pitiful answer I was now obligated to give.
“I live in a halfway house with other men recovering from addiction, Don.”
My mother is watching, I thought. My friends. And people who know me who will be far too polite to ever mention they saw this.
Don Lemon’s news story was insightful and illuminated a very real health threat to gay men. And it featured an actual gay drug addict on camera. A well-spoken one, but an addict just the same.
In the six years since those uncomfortable few minutes, I published a book about living in Los Angeles during the dawn of AIDS. I embraced my HIV status by launching my blog, My Fabulous Disease. And despite relapses and lessons along the way, I have faced my addiction and loosened its grip on my life and productivity.
And so, as fate would have it, I found myself back at Don Lemon’s desk recently, live on the air, to talk about living with HIV and how I was combating stigma with weapons of joy and good humor (pictured above, with video below).
I have no explanation why I should be so lucky as to appear twice on CNN, the second serving to wash away the discomfort of the first. There’s no reason except the unimaginable grace that has carried me through the last six years.
Don’s studio is much larger now, and both his command of the newscast and his popularity have grown accordingly. During the few minutes of commercial break before our segment, he welcomed me to the desk like an old friend.
The lighting was just as intense as my first visit, revealing my bright grin, lined with age and survival and experience. I didn’t complain. I even asked if it could be brighter in the studio. “Madonna lighting, please,” I joked to the crew as I took my seat.
There was no mention of crystal meth. No doubting glances or talk of halfway houses. Instead, Don smiled as he introduced me, assuring his viewers this story about AIDS was a little bit different, and then pronounced me “a trip.” I beamed with pride, more grateful to be there, discussing this topic, than anyone watching could ever know.
I wasn’t the only one who had a newfound lightness of being. Since our first meeting, Don had published Transparent, a book about his life and career that included coming out publicly as a gay man. He’s familiar with being an “other,” and with fighting shame in order to reveal who you are. We had both found a path to freedom paved with rigorous honesty.
We talked about HIV stigma and Madonna lighting. He shared a story of seeing an AIDS patient on a New York City street years ago. I interjected my new favorite topic, the injustice of HIV criminalization. We were two very different men comfortable in our own skin, who refused to allow shame a place at the table.
At the end of our interview I began to shake his hand and something remarkable happened. Don stood and reached out for a hug. It was surprising for an anchor, maybe even awkward for a brief second, and then the sweetness of the gesture won out as we embraced.
The humanity – and perhaps even bravery – of his simple act wasn’t lost on viewers, many of whom wrote to tell me how moving it was.
But for me, it was something more. Don Lemon, who remembered our first visit and never mentioned the circumstances, who knew this interview meant growth for me, a sort of redemption perhaps, and who even knew a little about overcoming shame himself, reached out in a gesture of support.
Monday, October 22nd, 2012
The story behind the title of Michael Kearns’ memoir The Truth is Bad Enough is as delicious as the title itself. As Kearns’ parents – themselves worthy of a Tennessee Williams subplot — battled each other at their divorce proceeding when Michael was a child, his father presented damning surveillance of his mother’s many infidelities. The evidence was unimpeachable, but then the father tried raising the stakes by charging that the woman also physically abused him.
Kearns’ mother couldn’t be contained and interrupted the proceedings. “Your honor,” she said. “Why is this man lying? The truth is bad enough!”
The truth is sometimes difficult, to be sure, but in the case of this engaging and fast moving autobiography, it’s also hilarious. There’s nothing more formidable than a drama queen with legitimate drama on their hands, and the life of talented, alcoholic, HIV infected, highly theatrical and perpetually horny Michael Kearns has had more peril than an Aaron Spelling series.
Kearns began his career in the midst of the “gay lib” of the 1970’s even if Hollywood was tight lipped on the topic, and it is that disconnect that pushes the openly gay Kearns into an unintended activist role and confounds his career aspirations.
After a featured role playing the older brother of John-Boy on The Waltons, Kearns’ future seemed secure. But test audiences reacted poorly to their scenes together because they showed the characters away at college. Kearns’ character never appeared again. Rumors that he was fired because he was openly gay were untrue but persisted for years.
Meanwhile, Kearns had a boyfriend who had written a fictional book called The Happy Hustler, and for which Kearns had modeled for the cover image. In order to generate book sales, a plan was hatched to present Kearns as the actual Happy Hustler – the book’s author – and send him on a press tour. Having been banished from Walton Mountain and still hungry for stardom of some kind, any kind, Kearns agreed to take on the counterfeit persona as a sort of exercise in ongoing performance art.
Keans’ drunken appearance as The Happy Hustler (a role he began taking far too literally in his private life) during a 1976 Tom Snyder interview sets the stage for both career success and life on a runaway crazy train. Kearns revels in drug and alcohol abuse as tricks and acting jobs come and go. He sleeps with celebrities and strangers with equal apathy. His status as the first openly gay actor of note invites curiosity and derision. He agrees to reveal his HIV positive status for an NBC interview almost as a lark, leading to a period of portraying “the gay guy with AIDS” in a collection of acting gigs.
I was drawn to Kearns’ story for the Hollywood gossip –– but I kept reading because of something deeper and far more riveting. And it had everything to do with how our lives were fated to overlap.
My own memoir A Place Like This travels some of the same West Hollywood streets. I was a bottom-feeder on the Hollywood scene (an expression I should probably withdraw now for its literal inaccuracy) and I never knew Kearns, but we did have a liaison in common: our bedding of the detached and unhappy Rock Hudson. However, let the record show that while Kearns’ dalliance was what gay men refer to as “standup sex,” mine was brief but at least horizontal. So, um, I win.
Many other famous faces populate the book – gay, straight, porn stars of various stripes, and the hypocritically closeted that Kearns, God bless him, outs on his pages with regularity. His characterizations of personalities we thought we knew are enlightening, gentle when need be, and sometimes quite sad.
The funny but famously acerbic Paul Lynde was kind and helpful to Kearns. Stage legend Leonard Frey (birthday boy Harold from Boys in the Band) sat despondently during a sexy gay house party, where looks trumped celebrity. The “monstrous” Charles Nelson Reilly was so threatened by Kearns’ sexual identity that he cut short their visit in Florida to work on a project, throwing Kearns out of the guest house and squawking insults from the porch in his orange caftan as Kearns was driven away.
And then, Kearns’ story includes a bizarre intersection between us that I found so revelatory and disturbing that I had to actually put the book down for several days while I reexamined an entire section of my life.
During the 1980’s I owned a gay phone sex company, Telerotic. It predated party lines and the internet; customers called our office and “ordered” the type man they wished to speak with, and one of my employees (struggling actors, every one) would call back the customer and take on the persona of whatever the client had ordered. I had opened the company after working for a competitor and discovering I was a very popular choice among the clients and had, well, a way with words.
One day, playwright James Carroll Pickett contacted me. He wanted to interview me, observe me doing calls with clients, and get a feel for the business as research for a play he was writing. We spent a few evenings together, as I answered questions, smoked cigarettes, made funny faces while talking to clients, and snorted copious amounts of cocaine in my bathroom.
Months later I attended a performance of Dream Man, which would become the most heralded collaboration between the playwright and his theatrical partner, who performed the role of the phone sex caller in the searing one-man show.
The actor was Michael Kearns.
Watching the performance nearly thirty years ago was a surreal experience, but it was the playwrights inclusion of the mechanics of my nightly calls that were so striking to me: the rolodex box filled with client notes, the gimmicks I used to appear more engaged than I actually was, my tricks to get the client to call again by teasing him with an upcoming sexual adventure I wanted to be sure to share with him.
And I missed the point entirely. It wasn’t until I read Kearns’ book that the facts of the character he portrayed came into view: an isolated, frenzied and increasingly unhinged gay man with no prospects or esteem, playing to an audience of one – whatever desolate client he could hold hostage during their phone call.
The play was an aria of anguish, but all I could focus on during that performance so many years ago was the damn rolodex cards. I was incapable of facing the “dark density” of the character, because if I scratched its surface I would have clearly identified the drug addicted, desperate young man that the playwright had come to interview. And I may have revealed far more to him than I ever imagined.
Dream Man would be performed across the country, in Spain, Ireland, Germany. And through those years I continued my destructive path, having lost an opportunity for my own moment of clarity in the dim light of that West Hollywood playhouse. Reading about it now, in this book, rattled me to the core, and the book sat untouched on my nightstand for several days.
The last third of the book focuses on Kearns’ adoption of a baby girl born to a crack addicted mother, his selfless love for her, and how their bond throughout her upbringing conjures everything from his fears of AIDS mortality to his unresolved issues with his own troubled parents. These pages are filled with a grace and maturity that are miles away from the drug- and celebrity-induced selfishness of his life thus far, as Kearns gently guides the reader down to earth, into the bosom of family, after pages and years of breathless shenanigans.
“Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today” is a common refrain among those, like Kearns, dealing with recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. His book is imbued with that acceptance, just as reading it allowed me to accept whatever part of me was on display in the lonely, reckless stage creation Kearns most famously brought to shattering existence.
Friday, September 28th, 2012
There is a folder, tucked within a folder, buried deep in my computer files. I shouldn’t be looking at its contents, yet I can’t bring myself to delete it altogether. It is labeled MARCUS, and inside the folder is my disease.
During my years of crystal meth addiction I went by the name of Marcus, at least to dealers and tricks and fellow addicts. It helped me determine who was calling my cell phone — those calling for Mark or Marcus usually had very different agendas — and Marcus even became an alternate persona as my drug addiction progressed.
When partying as Marcus, I felt confident and aloof. I took awful chances. I never met a strobe light I didn’t like or a box on a dance floor I wouldn’t jump on. A steroid-crazed gym regimen and the dehydration of drug abuse transformed my body into the low fat, pumped up gay ideal.
Photographs of that body, in full, preening strut, are the contents of the MARCUS folder. The pictures were my calling card for online sex-and-drug pursuits. They suggest nudity but are cropped modestly — although God knows that much more damning images of me surely exist in the dark corners of cyberspace.
In one of the few pictures showing my face, I stand under a running shower — a pitiful Playgirl pose, spray nozzle in hand — with a blank face and shipwrecked eyes. The only emotion on display, just around the edges, is a dull fear.
My life was precisely as pictured. It wouldn’t be long before my drug use trumped my gym schedule, and my status in online chat rooms devolved from intriguing hottie to that crazy mess that doesn’t look like his pictures.
Since then, my recovery from drug addiction has helped me understand that the Gay Strut is key to my disease. It is a sly porthole back to raging insanity.
Explaining all this feels idiotic. What vanity I possess, asking you to gaze upon my former, overwrought beauty as I complain about the consequences. It feels like an invitation to tell me how much healthier I look now, or that recovery is “an inside job.” I know this. I’m just sharing the curious road that got me here.
My recovery depends on healing my mind, body and spirit. At the moment I’m two out of three.
My spirit is happy today. My smiles are joyful and plentiful. My mind is clear, although I don’t kid myself, there are remnants of a brain pickled in methamphetamine for many years. But healing is underway, and my mind and spirit are enjoying the process.
Only my body lags behind, injured, resentful, and suspicious of the path to well being. I’m sedentary and stubborn. I relate being physically fit with something traumatic that once hounded and eventually ruined me.
I want to be healthier, and to control my weight and rising cholesterol. I need to fix this, I tell myself, but I’m afraid to fix this. There’s the potential that I’ll go back to a lifestyle more horrible than my expanding waistline.
It’s good to get in shape again, I tell myself with sincere intentions. The treadmill is really taking off the pounds and I should start weight lifting again and hot damn, that muscle recall really works just look at my arms and I should buy new tank tops and work out even harder and get steroids prescribed again and what’s wrong with hanging out at a bar shirtless and shooting pool and sure I’ll do one hit of that, thanks, and man this body of mine would look damn hot at a sex party right now and who’s your dealer and do you have needles…?
Getting back in shape is an easy call. Except my mind puts physical fitness on the same crazy train as my drug addiction.
There is a solution. There always is. And I’m working on it. The fact I acknowledge my insanity is a good start. Now I can begin the process of teaching my body new tricks.
There are traps on the road to recovery, as anyone getting clean and sober will tell you. I’m much better at seeing them clearly than I used to be. But the vigilance it requires is a full time job.
I get afraid that a dangerous choice might look perfectly innocent. Or be a reasonable part of life. It could be a healthy choice, even, at least for you.
But sometimes, my very reckoning can look as pretty as a picture.
This piece originally appeared on my blog last year, and is featured in Trevor Hoppe’s upcoming book, Beyond Masculinity. I felt obliged to show some of the Marcus photos, but have cropped and altered them into something less decadent. Any similarity to pictures you may have seen in online chat rooms is purely coincidental. This topic is also something I’ve done my best to separate from my series of fitness videos with expert Nelson Vergel. Why burden the guy with my insanity? — Mark
Tuesday, July 31st, 2012
AIDS2012 was exactly as I had hoped: an enormous “summer camp” for advocates from around the globe, and I had a blast bringing their stories to you. Let others cover the medical updates and the big name speakers. I wanted to give you a sense of the people who are doing the work on the front lines – with a few bigwig interviews along the way.
Every day I sought out stories I thought would interest you and took a ton of footage (with the help of my talented camera person and schlepper Tina Robles). After a bite of free food from whatever reception was happening, I tried to make it to at least one evening event. And then back to my hotel, where I reviewed the footage, did my best to conceive a theme for the day, and then started editing. I’m quick at the editing part, but it still took 4-5 hours, into the wee hours of the morning. Then I’d sleep for a couple hours and start again. I’ll need the two years between now and AIDS2014 just to catch up!
Here are links and a review of each of the six video blogs I produced during the week. Simply click the title to see the posting and watch the video.
Since less than 5% of the programming for AIDS 2012 is targeting to MSMs (Men who have Sex with Men), a special one-day pre-conference is held the day AIDS 2012 convenes to address the needs and issues of this population.
My report includes a chat with United States Rep. Barbara Lee (right), who has just introduced comprehensive HIV prevention and anti-stigma legislation; the advocates fighting laws that criminalize people with HIV (like Sean Strub and Edwin Bernard), a little social research on Grindr (the gay man’s cruise phone app), a chat with Positive Frontiers editor Alex Garner about getting rejected (and rejected others) during the dating process, and a visit to an AIDS2012 Reunion poz social event.
In this brief video episode from the first official day of AIDS2012 the party is rolling, with an outdoor concert (steps away from the AIDS quilt) featuring Weyclef Sean and Cornel West (!), dancing dignitaries, and a somewhat surprise ending!
The fact is, Day One was a light day, the calm before the storm, as people poured into DC and braced themselves for the busy week ahead. And it was my last chance to get a decent night’s sleep.
I spent some time in the exhibit hall critiquing the fashions (and the issues) of various attendees with fashion maven Jack Mackenroth (poz and proud veteran of “Project Runway”), started a YouTube rivalry with inspirational singer Jamar Rogers (“The Voice,” right), and learned about HIV and aging from an expert with the Terrence Higgins Trust. I also had the chance to speak with the head of the CDC’s HIV/AIDS Division about their new “Let’s Stop HIV Together” campaign, in which Jamar and myself both participate.
And, with all the talk at the conference about the devastating effects of HIV stigma, I found validation of my own HIV status in the unlikeliest of places: the Gallery Place subway station.
Several contingents marched and protested separately throughout the city – marching for housing, and civil rights, and in protest of the pharmaceutical industry’s “intellectual property” policies – and then convened in front of the White House. Whereas the march and rally at AIDS2010 in Vienna was a peaceful affair, our proximity to the White House, the aggressive crowd and the police on horseback all lent an air of old time activism circa 1987.
The people included in the video can speak for themselves, and quite eloquently. Maybe it was the emotions of the event — anger, nervousness, pride — but it was an exhausting day. I felt the residue of grief for lost friends in a way I haven’t experienced in years.
This is my favorite, no doubt, and I’m proud of the visual and audio techniques I employed to give some historical context to the event.
It was time for a tour of the heart and soul of AIDS2012: The Global Village. This massive hall is the only part of the conference open to the public, and it has a grass-roots feel, crafted from the love and devotion of hundreds of community groups who are doing “the work on the ground” in cities and small towns throughout the world.
Thank God I’m a video blogger, because words escape me when trying to describe the colors and displays and most importantly, the committed people behind it all. You’re about to meet drag queens who make their living handing out condoms, sex workers demanding an end to criminalization, young prevention workers from far-flung corners of the planet, a stunning photo exhibit from the Ukraine… the list goes on.
Our little summer camp for global AIDS advocates (and physicians, and commercial interests) had come to a close, and there are images that will be knocking around in my head for weeks to come (and some, forever).
I begin this video with the astonishingly talented performance poet Mary Bowman, a young woman with HIV showing us her heart and soul on stage. It’s a jumping off point for this final, brief video, in which I pay tribute to the people on the front lines who are the very essence of this conference. They are the ones with the “star power.”
This opportunity to share my experiences at AIDS2012 was a distinct honor and privilege, my friends. My deepest thanks to you all for the many cross-postings and shares and tweets. This was a week I will never forget.
Enjoy the videos, and please be well.
Tags: Aging, aids, barebacking, criminalization, culture, drag, gay, gratitude, help others, hiv, physician, politics, recovery, Recreation, research, Sexuality, testing
Posted in All Other Video Postings, Books and Writings, Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 5 Comments »
Monday, July 9th, 2012
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 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].)
Thursday, June 14th, 2012
“Now, people have their bat kites and their regular shaped kites,” Dad said to me when I was ten years old, “but the box kite, Mark, now there is the most aerodynamically sound of them all.”
He demonstrated by making a box kite out of balsa wood and brown paper. We took it to the park on the Air Force base where Dad was stationed, just behind the theater where I saw horror movies whenever I could get Mom to provide the parental guidance suggested.
“But it looks so weird,” I told him about the kite. “It’s just a box, Dad.”
“That’s the beauty of it!” he exclaimed, and he let out one of his big laughs, a roaring Santa Clause laugh that shook his whole body. He held the box high above his head, I at the other end of the string, and I ran across the grass, looking behind to see it climb high above the movie theater. The box soared for an hour as Dad stood behind me, explaining the principles of flight through the eyes of a B-52 bomber pilot.
Box kites became his obsession, and he engaged Mom and the family in his quest to build bigger kites capable of higher altitudes. Our next one stood six feet tall, made with wooden dowels and light fabric. Mom and my sister Nancy sewed to Dad’s specifications while the boys stayed in the garage, piecing together the frame with hot glue. The glue gun seemed invented especially for Dad, who used it liberally for every project. “Lots glue!” he commanded to me and my brother David, hard at work to bring the box kite to life. “You can never have enough glue, boys. Lotsa glue!”
We took the kite – placed atop a Volkswagon convertible – to the spring kite flying contest held in the fields behind Louisiana State University in Shreveport. They had a category for largest kite, and Dad intended for us to win it. One of the entries was an enormous bat shaped contraption made with layers of newspaper and a wing span of at least twenty feet. “Not aerodynamically sound,” Dad said, eyeing the competition. “Won’t fly. Can’t fly. Shoulda tried a box kite.”
Sure enough, the massive bat kite took one fast swoop upwards and then veered down again, demolishing itself. The contest rules stated that kites had to stay aloft for a full three minutes, and our box kite soared perfectly, winning the King family a sparkling trophy presented on the windy lawn of the college.
It made Dad hungry for more.
“Never worry about making a fool of yourself,” he would say, “if it means taking a risk, Mark.” He would recognize my adolescent need to simply fit in with everyone else and he would deny me of it, locking his eyes onto mine. “You gotta take the risk.”
Over the summer the six foot kite became ten feet, built with heavier fabric and stronger wood. We tried it out on a field on the edge of the Air Force base, and I remember Dad forgetting the gloves that protected him from the slick nylon string, and the kite fighting for higher altitude and the nylon going whizzzzz! across his hands, cutting deep into his palm. He looked at his hands with a shrug and then, predictably, laughed. He had lost his grip in the process, though, and the kite escaped to sights unseen.
We jumped in the car and chased it across the base, both of us with our heads craning out of the car and shouting visual sightings to one another, only to find its taught nylon cord snagged on a nursery school swing set. The box kite had dragged the set twenty feet from where, until recently, it had been embedded into the ground.
The air force police would soon arrive to inform us that our “craft” had been picked up on base radar and was a “menace to aviation.” Dad (or “Colonel King” as the uniformed men called him) sheepishly explained and then laughed with the cops as we carefully pulled our menacing craft, foot by foot, back down to earth.
The following year the Kings would risk it all, creating what would become the mother of all box kites. We built it in the driveway for a couple of weeks, using yards of nylon material and cord strong enough for a box kite approximately the size of a Winnebago. We transported it to the annual contest by securing it to a chartered flat bed truck, and the driver – after taking the monstrosity across the Jimmy Davis Bridge to the university – swore he could actually feel the truck lift a little as the kite fought to respond to invitations from mighty spring breezes.
The fabled hush fell over the crowd as the kite was driven onto the contest grounds. Three eight foot box kites – all larger than our original entry – were brought along, and the crowd stood incredulously as each of the three were launched into the air. Then we secured the cords of the three airborne kites to the top of the Mother Kite, and the crowd watched aghast as the King family coordinated their efforts, releasing thick rolls of nylon cord, until the massive kite lurched off the ground and up to stronger winds that would carry it back and forth above the riveted, gasping spectators.
For two minutes and twenty seconds.
Later, on the evening news, Dad would stand amid the wreckage of a violent descent, knee deep in plastic, wood, nylon cord and innumerable remnants of hot glue. It looked like the aftermath of a commuter plane tragedy.
“And how do you feel, Mr. King,” the reporter would ask my Dad, “about your creation not flying for very long. Are you disappointed?”
“Of course not!” Dad replied in the midst of a belly laugh already begun. “Didn’t you see it? It was a spectacular crash!”
Those days, and that glorious moment, are lost to time now, and so is my father. Not long after our kite flying adventures, our personas traded places. I embraced my sexuality and my misfit charms, while Dad struggled to understand a son who was turning out to be more different than he could have imagined. Worst of all, he was made to contend with a teenager who saw him as something abhorrent: typical.
We had many years, later, when our outlooks merged again and we reveled in his various projects and my work as an outspoken gay man. Ultimately, Dad raised exactly what he valued, a man who steps up and asks stupid questions and knows that to soar you must risk the occasional, spectacular crash.
On my best days I live happily as the man my father built, writing and living as an HIV positive queer for all to see and never afraid to take a risk. And on the worst of days, my mind’s eye conjures up a hearty laugh coming from nearby, maybe the garage, where something is being cobbled together that will solve absolutely everything.
Usually it’s a box kite, crafted from unlikely supplies and fatherly magic, that carries me far, far away.
(This story has been adapted from my book A Place Like This, which chronicles my life in Los Angeles during the dawn of the AIDS epidemic and which includes childhood flashbacks like this one. My late father is very much on my mind during Father’s Day weekend. I love you, Dad, and I miss you so much.)