Family and Friends
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 8th, 2013
“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
– Norman Bates, Psycho
I was standing at the ticket counter of the movie theater and couldn’t believe my ears. They were telling me that “Theater of Blood,” with the great Vincent Price, was rated “R” and they were not letting me in without a parent. I was a horror-movie obsessed boy of 12, and was inconsolable. “I won’t look at any sexy stuff,” I remember pleading, “I just came for the gore!”
With visions of decapitations fading like an old blood stain, I made the long walk back home and exposed my broken heart to Mother, who made one of the grandest gestures of my childhood: she took me back for the late show. On a school night.
It wouldn’t be the last time she had my back. Over the years she proved a trustworthy ally, and this was never more true than in the 1980′s, when gay men often lost their mothers — hell, their entire families – when an AIDS diagnosis was revealed.
Mom never abandoned me or my gay older brother, Dick (is there no gayer name than Dick King? Did my parents consult the Falcon Video Book of Baby Names?). I tested positive in 1985, and Mom immediately went to work educating herself on HIV.
My brother was spared HIV infection but suffered its cruelty nevertheless: his lover of 13 years, Emil, died of AIDS in the early, scorched-earth years of the epidemic.
In this special Mother’s Day episode of my ongoing video series “My Fabulous Disease,” I sat Mom down to find out things I’ve never asked before. What did she really feel when she found out I was positive? Did she believe I would die? Do mothers have a right to know? What advice would she offer other families? We also talk about the loss of Emil and the repercussions from it we still feel today.
Mom is no expert. She isn’t an AIDS researcher and she doesn’t march on Washington. She just loves her kids and tries to understand what is happening in their lives and how she can help. If your mother is like mine, we have a lot to celebrate (or remember) this Mother’s Day weekend.
Enjoy the video, and please, stay well.
(This post originally appeared on Mothers Day, 2010, and I’m happy to report that Mom is doing just great. I wanted to share this with you again. — Mark)
While Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart has been getting the Broadway love the last few years, another, equally stunning AIDS play from that era is getting a deserved remounting. The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, a one man show about being gay and AIDS activism by the engaging David Drake, is being performed for one night only in New York City on Monday, May 20, at Gerard W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. It’s a benefit for Broadway CARES and The SERO Project. Even more exciting, Broadway stars have joined the effort and have made David’s one man show into a ensemble piece. If you are anywhere in the area, follow this link and get your tickets now! For a terrific interview with David about the transformation of his historic show, read his interview in POZ Magazine.
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.
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, November 15th, 2012
Richard is handsome and adorably shy. His sister began emailing me a few months ago, wondering if her brother might enjoy the HIV Cruise Retreat, because he isn’t able to disclose his status comfortably in his fairly small town.
On the last night of the cruise I gave him an award for “Sweetest Backstory,” explaining to the crowd that his cruise ticket was a Christmas gift from his sister, who clearly loves him very much (the awards are really just a silly way to acknowledge various people on the ship). He accepted the award with tears streaming down his face, while dozens upon dozens of new friends applauded heartily.
It is that fellowship, that embrace of our lives and all that we are, that best describes the week-long event on the high seas.
For seven days, I lived in a state of enhanced gratitude. For my life, my health, and for the people who organize the retreat.
Sailing from Ft Lauderdale to various islands of the Caribbean, the Cruise Retreat included more than 200 gay men, women and our supporters. We feasted on non-stop food and the loving embrace of friends old and new.
Along the way, there were games, shore excursions and even budding romances. The protective walls that often surround those of us living with HIV came crumbling down, replaced with new relationships, email addresses and phone numbers. By the time we docked back in Ft Lauderdale, hugs were long and new confidants had been established.
I don’t expect that everyone has the ability to afford the trip, but the message of the event – reach out for support and friendships where ever you might find them – echoes in my mind and heart today.
Thanks for watching, and please be well.
The amazingly prolific HIV advocate and criminalization expert Edwin Bernard has announced the launch of the new web site for the HIV Justice Network, and it is the most comprehensive internet site devoted to the global issue of criminalization. Please join their site for updates or “like” their Facebook page. If you have any doubt that criminalization is the defining HIV issue of our time, then please read (and share!) the recent Huffington Post article by Sean Strub (founder of The SERO Project, which also has a Facebook page). Sean succinctly lays out the insanity of non-disclosure laws and why they should make us all nervous (and how we can participate in advocacy efforts).
Thursday, November 8th, 2012
Recently I got a pop-up message on Facebook from a name I didn’t recognize. “Hi Mark,” it said. “We went to high school together in Bossier City, Louisiana, and I remember you very distinctly.”
“Uh oh,” I replied. Statements like that always make me nervous. Whatever popularity I had in high school evaporated when I revealed in my senior year that I had a boyfriend. Only my defiantly gay posturing kept the bullies at bay; they didn’t know what the hell to do with me.
“It was apparent you were gay,” the messenger went on, instantly winning Facebook’s Biggest Understatement of 2012, “and that helped me deal with my own sexuality. So I wanted to thank you. You helped me and you didn’t even know it.”
I melted. More than thirty years later, someone I couldn’t pick out of a lineup thanked me for making his life’s journey a little easier. Because I chose to reveal, without shame, a basic fact about myself.
There are rewards for revealing our truths, my friends. They come in the form of instant messages decades after the fact, or can be seen in the face of someone to whom you have just revealed something intimate and real about yourself.
And sometimes, as ridiculous as it feels for me to mention, Instinct Magazine names you as one of their “Leading Men of 2012.” The acknowledgement has floored me, and did something else that’s rare for a self-obsessed, anxiety-ridden man such as myself: it humbled me. Because this recognition is really about all of us who are living with HIV and doing it openly.
There are examples of us everywhere. People like Nick Rhoades and Robert Suttle, who recently testified before the Presidential AIDS Advisory Council and shared their stories of being sent to jail for not disclosing their HIV status (check out the links of their moving testimony). They exhibit a courage that I doubt I could muster. Robert Breining has devoted his time and modest livelihood to creating and maintaining POZIAM, an online poz community. And then there are scores of people with HIV, perhaps like you, that speak out in their communities, write blogs, give interviews, and otherwise speak their truth in ways that affect more people than they can ever know.
If you have the privilege and ability to share your story of life with HIV – or as a gay or lesbian person, or as someone living with disability or hardship – I urge you to do it. The rewards may not be immediate but are nevertheless held in life’s cache.
Until the day, when you least expect it, that an instant message on Facebook appears.
If you are living with HIV and in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, I’d like to plug an amazing weekend retreat, Pozitively Fabulous, coming this Spring from April 4-7, 2013 (don’t be fooled by the dates; it’s closer than you realize and they are already nearing capacity) at Cloudland Canyon, a gorgeous retreat center in the majestic Blue Ridge mountains. The retreat is designed for anyone who is HIV+ and dealing with recovery, and is 12-step based. I know and deeply respect the dedicated people organizing this event and plan to be there myself. Check it out!
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 »
Wednesday, July 18th, 2012
Lynne Rhys and I were never supposed to become friends. It was just too unlikely.
She is a divorced woman raising a teenaged daughter, and was barely aware of a “gay community” until she stepped tentatively out of the closet in midlife. She has a quiet and soft-spoken grace. She has manners. She readily burdens the blame if it means saving your feelings. She’s one of those people who apologize when I miss a turn while driving us somewhere, as if it must have been her fault.
When she walked into an audition for a play I was directing a few years ago, she was certain she wasn’t good enough, but her insecurity was unacceptable to her – the struggle between her ferocious talent and her painful modesty has been waged her entire life – and she gave an audition of such humanity and pathos that I changed the script I had written to showcase her gifts.
“Stand slightly more to your left,” I would ask as we rehearsed. “I’m sorry,” would be the reply, to that or to any request or observation, including the weather. How could a creature of such obvious worth have such an absence of ego? I often wondered, before immediately returning to other, more important thoughts. About myself.
Two months later her performance was the kind that required the audience to listen closely, and they leaned in, drawn to her in the same way I was throughout the rehearsal process. She broke their hearts with such deliberate precision that people still speak of it.
Lynne doesn’t like talking about herself. But oh, how she loves to hear stories from Mark, and that’s when our budding friendship began to make sense to me. For hours I blather on, towering over her small frame, fluffing the curls on her head below me as she indulges my excesses and wonders when I will take my hands out of her hair. Please. I’m sorry.
I am the closest friend she has ever known to have HIV. Her personal knowledge of the crisis was largely limited to watching it unfold on television and thinking that people treated “that young boy Ryan White really badly.” So our friendship has meant lessons for her on t-cells, viral loads and why my medication bag is the same size as my gym bag. She listens and learns, and no longer believes that she must keep her distance when she has a cold or else I could die.
She has now had conversations with her daughter about safer sex, and then for good measure had the same conversation with her daughter’s boyfriend.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked me to participate in their new campaign, “Let’s Stop HIV Together,” I was impressed with their concept of pairing people living with HIV with an HIV negative member of their support system. The message is clear: we all share a responsibility for curbing HIV infections and supporting each other, positive and negative. And I knew right away who my “negative” would be.
Lynne was flattered and then questioned my selection, certain I must have better options. I knew that the woman who modeled humility to me every day was my only choice, and I insisted. The campaign involved visiting a production facility complete with wardrobe decisions, make-up artists, a photo shoot and an interview on video with both of us. She felt like the Queen of Sheba. Watching her was the very best part of the day, and the memory of it has brightened many days since.
In the photo of us, my cocksure grin and her enveloping embrace are the very essence of a friendship that I treasure deeply today. Seeing it in print has also brought to mind the many friends that came before Lynne who are now lost. But Lynne is not a placeholder and she is not a substitute. She is a gift of my survival, and the right friend at the right time to help me conduct my advancing years with more maturity than I might muster alone.
Moments after the photo was taken, Lynne slipped from the box on which she was standing and fell hard. Several of us rushed to help her, but she didn’t fret or make a sound. That is, except to say “I’m sorry.”
After a few days of pain, Lynne visited the doctor and discovered her foot was broken. “Why didn’t you say something?” I asked her, disbelieving, when she admitted it was hurting that day during our video interview. “Because I was afraid they might stop,” she said, “and I was having so much fun being with you.”
Much has been written by me about the “viral divide” between those who are HIV positive and those who are not. But not today. Today, the CDC has a new campaign with hopes of bridging this divide. On one of their posters, Lynne Rhys is beaming beside me, luxuriating in the joy of friendship, and confident that she is right where she belongs.
And she doesn’t look the least bit sorry.
(My thanks to the good people at the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS for their work on this campaign. Please visit the Let’s Stop HIV Together site, where you can watch videos from other pairings, download posters and other materials, watch the public service announcement, or “like” the Facebook page.)
Brace yourself, my friends. Beginning on Monday, July 23rd, I will be posting new video blogs daily, for the week of AIDS2012, the international AIDS conference in Washington, DC. I can promise you some lively, inspiring and colorful reports from the proceedings! This would be a good week to join us email list for alerts (at the top right of this page) or just keep a close eye on this space. I can’t wait!
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.)