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.
Sunday, March 24th, 2013
I have some amazing friends for you to meet.
Beginning two years ago, TheBody.com asked me to produce a series of videos (“A Day in the Life: Keeping Up With Your HIV Meds”) that would profile a person living with HIV, what their day looks like, and how their medication regimen fits into their daily routine. It was a great opportunity to highlight the everyday lives of people living with HIV, but also to let their spirit and passions come through, and show we are whole people — not simply the virus.
The profile subjects came from all walks of life, in various cities around the United States, and their personalities and interests — their families, their hobbies, and even how they became HIV positive — were all I needed for inspiration.
Below are the eleven videos that have been produced to date for the series (an ongoing feature on TheBody.com and they also have an entire resource center about keeping up with your meds). You can watch the videos here, or follow the link in the title to view the post as it appeared on TheBody. They are each less than ten minutes long; just scroll through them below and find a story that sounds like yours — or better yet, hear what the journey of someone completely different from you is like! Are you ready?
Damaries is from South Florida and could not have been more lovely; we laughed a lot during our day together. Her strength is what impressed me most: she did not come to the decision to start HIV medications lightly. She really did her research before she began a regimen. Filming her story was also a great excuse to hit the beach, since she loves to find her peace and tranquility on that gorgeous sand.
Well, first of all, Tree is adorable. So there’s that. He also has an equally adorable dog, who tried mightily to extend his few minutes of fame by sneaking into the camera shots and barking woefully from the other room. For his part, Tree does a great job explaining how he kept his medication regimen despite multiple moves and even being homeless for a brief period. I really like the Brooklyn montage of Tree’s neighborhood at the beginning of the video.
What an elegant woman Eva is. She was so gracious during our day together and had an almost regal sense of self. She really impressed me. Not only did she make peace with the man who infected her many years ago, she became an advocate for all women living with HIV and devoted quite a lot of time to volunteer work. She’s also an avid traveler — I’ve never seen so many magnets from exotic places on one fridge in my life.
What a hoot! Robert (Bobby) Darrow and I were childhood friends, when we both performed in community theater together in Shreveport, Louisiana (we were both newsboys in Gypsy, for all you musical theater queens). As we grew, he always got the good parts and I ended up working the spotlight — shining it on him — but I’m not bitter, I swear! Producing this video was a great chance to honor my lifelong friend for the activism he has done since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. And it also allowed me to honor theater itself, and how Bobby is now back in the very place he and I so loved when we were kids. This one is special to me.
You’re going to be blown away by the strength of this woman’s convictions — and the strength of her marriage. Brooke learned she was HIV positive during her pregnancy, and not only was her husband completely supportive, he stood by proudly as Brooke became a visible advocate for woman’s health, the importance of HIV testing, and their personal struggle to afford HIV medications so that their baby would have a better chance of being born without HIV. And speaking of babies, guess who steals the show in this video?
Khafre was one of the most immediately spiritual people I met during this series. He has a very strong sense of faith and a commitment to his own spiritual principles. He was also in the midst of organizing a fund raising bike ride across the country to benefit HIV/AIDS services for people of color, and I admired his dedication and pure energy. The time he devoted each day to prayer and meditation was really lovely to observe and capture in the video.
Petra & Efrain could give the other couples in the series a real run for their money for the title of Most Romantic. You can’t help but grin, watching Efrain describe seeing his future wife for the first time at an AIDS conference, where both were community advocates and both were living with HIV. They not only lift up one another during the frustrations of HIV life, they know how to take time to love and enjoy one another, as their salsa demonstration clearly shows.
Tales of triumph over adversity don’t come more dramatic than the story of Fortunata. Not only is she the single, proud parent of a gorgeous daughter (the apple doesn’t fall far from the beauty tree), she had a devastating accident when she was hit by a car walking across the street — and then had to manage her HIV meds along with a host of others while she recuperated. The fact that she relates all this with such grace was amazing to me. I had so much footage of her simply looking ethereal and lovely, the video could have been twice as long.
Anyone who follows my blog — or HIV/AIDS advocacy — knows what a gift Nelson is to our community. He’s been our own Jack LaLanne of HIV, teaching the importance of health, exercise and nutrition since the beginning of the epidemic — the video blogs he did with me on nutrition (where he cleans out my fridge) and exercise (where we hit the gym together) are hilarious and very informative. And, of course, he has a hot body. It might come as some surprise, then, that he’s very modest when it comes to showing it. I had all sorts of shots and angles I wanted to do that would have shown of his physique, and he politely demurred. He also was always focused in our interview on what would apply to regular folks living with HIV, rather than the more privileged among us. In other words, the man is a class act, with a humility that speaks volumes about his integrity and commitment.
I’ve been watching Robert grow as an HIV/AIDS advocate for several years now, since he began POZIAM social network and radio show while still in his twenties. I had fun doing the fast cuts that open his video because I thought it captured the sense of motion and vitality he has. When I become disheartened, wondering where are the next generation of activists on the scene, I remind myself there are people like Robert.
I’ve always been open on my blog about being in recovery from drug addiction, and George — who survived 27 years of street drugs — and I had an immediate connection. He devotes his life today to service for others, whether it is at an AIDS agency or through various addiction activities. In fact, something he said about his recovery during our interview really made sense to me, and I stopped the camera and shared some of my own story. For nearly thirty minutes he let me pour out some of my own fears and challenges, and listened with the attention of a man who has been there. I think his spirit is well-represented in this video.
To watch George’s video, just follow this link to TheBody. This video is so hot-off-the-presses that I’m not able to share it here yet. Follow the link and hear his story.
I learned a lot of each of these people, and I know they represent a tiny fraction of the courage and daily fortitude displayed by people living with HIV every single day. I really want to thank this group for taking me into their homes and lives and allowing me to share their stories with you.
Thanks for watching, and please be well.
Tags: aids, gay, help others, hiv, lipo, physician, recovery, research, Sexuality, testing
Posted in All Other Video Postings, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, Prevention and Policy | 1 Comment »
Monday, February 18th, 2013
In the course of a few short months, Lee Thompson (“Uncle Poodle” to reality TV watchers) has managed to personify a variety of hot button issues among gay men today. He has come out as gay and HIV positive. He has sent an ex-lover to jail and sent nude pictures via Grindr.
Or not. Depending on whom you believe. Let’s break down the strange case of Uncle Poodle.
In what we can all agree was a positive development, Thompson publicly came out as gay last year and evidently has the love and support of much of his family, the colorful clan of the TLC reality show “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” He instantly became an ally and friend of gays everywhere. So far, so good.
Then, in a recent interview with the Atlanta gay magazine Fenuxe, Thompson made the announcement that he tested HIV positive in May of 2012. What was startling, though, was his explanation of his infection. Thompson claimed that not only had an ex-lover knowingly infected him, but that the man is currently serving a five-year sentence for non-disclosure of his HIV status (an example of what is known as HIV Criminalization).
Almost immediately the details of the story were questioned (by everyone except Fenuxe magazine, which did not delve into the prosecution in their piece; the writer simply “applauded” Thompson’s bravery). Journalist Todd Heywood posed serious questions about the case, including the timeline between Thompson’s infection and the reported prosecution, which would have happened in mere months. Heywood also scoured court records from Georgia to Alabama and could find no evidence of any such case. Requests for more information from Thompson’s people have garnered no response. The defendant has never been identified.
Did Uncle Poodle lie about sending the ex-lover to jail? And why the hell would he do that?
It is my opinion that Thompson made up the prosecution story. And in doing so, he behaved in much the same way that most everyone does who tests HIV positive these days. He looked for someone else to blame. He played the innocent victim. He released himself from personal responsibility.
Because everybody knows that when you test HIV positive, you don’t call your doctor to start treatment. You call the police to press charges.
Stigma is driving these actions, of course. People who become positive today are judged for being “bad,” for not following the rules, for failing the community and becoming one of the great unwashed. It makes no difference that they were simply caught being human, that they let down their guard for a moment or got drunk or didn’t care or stupidly fell in love. Their friends will furrow their brows. Their dating life will wither.
And so, someone must pay for these indignities. That is one reason HIV criminalization laws have prospered – they appeal to our sense of vengeance. They are also vessels of homophobia, sexism and racism, considering how badly the laws are applied and how often prosecutions run counter to public health or even common sense (some convictions have imposed jail time for decades even when condoms were used and no one was infected, and advocates believe people forgo HIV testing in fear of being prosecuted). Conservative lawmakers and prosecutors — who don’t believe people with HIV should be having sex at all — are more than willing to exploit our feelings of revenge when testing positive so they can lock up some diseased fags.
I empathize with those who test positive today. They suddenly find themselves on my side of the viral divide, and for some, their hearts and minds may not have made the crossing yet. Perhaps they have unresolved issues about becoming infected. Whatever their circumstances, testing positive is a major life event and I can understand if some have an impulse to lash out.
And I believe that Lee Thompson did exactly that when he reported sending the man who infected him to jail. The man who no one can identify. The case that no one can locate.
Things have just gotten a little more complicated for our Uncle Poodle. Now, someone who claims to have communicated with Thompson on Grindr is trying to sell naked photos that Thompson supposedly sent him (isn’t humanity grand?). Thompson being linked to Grindr — the app about which controversy recently arose when a survey indicated half of its users were engaging in bareback sex — presents a delicate situation indeed.
People living with HIV have every right to “full and satisfying sexual and emotional lives,” as the Denver Principles stated thirty years ago. There is no evidence or details about Thompson’s sexual life or choices, so let’s simply hope he is conducting himself as someone with intimate knowledge of HIV non-disclosure laws, considering his contention that he sent someone to jail for withholding their status. The sword cuts both ways, and I worry for him.
Lee Thompson certainly has faced his share of scrutiny, living as an HIV positive gay man in the rural South, much less someone connected to a wildly popular reality series. But he should consider his moves, both public and private, very, very carefully. Because we don’t simply like to tear down celebrities, or save our judgment and revenge for those with the thickest skin.
As we prove time and again, we can do it to the very best of friends.
Thank you for your stunning readership in recent weeks, my friends. In particular, the recent post “Your Mother Liked It Bareback” broke all traffic records on this site. I will admit to being precociously provocative with that one, and especially appreciate the comments you left, which proved far more interesting than the post itself. I do believe, as Gus Cairns remarked, that much of this passionate debate is driven by the pure grief so many of us experienced — and that is nothing to be taken lightly. My point remains that our emotions have little to no effect on the fact that nearly half of gay men don’t use condoms at least some of the time; validating other prevention tools isn’t a threat to condom use; and finally, what are we doing for the 50% of gay men not using condoms — or are they expendable?
Monday, January 28th, 2013
Whenever a new study of gay men is released showing that we are having bareback sex, the arbiters of sexual conduct among us clutch their pearls and decry this shameful, shocking, murderous behavior. So you can just imagine runaway pearls showering the floor when a recent survey showed that nearly half the users of the gay phone app Grindr engage in unprotected sex.
I really wish that people would put down their smelling salts and try to understand the reasons why. Instead, every time some half-assed study demonstrates what we already know, they stand there in stunned outrage, frozen in their outdated indignation like they’ve been caught baking bread in Pompeii.
There’s nothing new here, except our seemingly endless fascination with gay men behaving in exactly the same way as nearly every other man on this planet.
Maybe those who find bareback sex distasteful believe they are being politically correct, that their strident judgments about the sex lives of others are in the service of HIV prevention, that criticizing other gay men for acting like human beings will somehow alter instincts that evolution built over millions of years.
Perhaps this is part of our new gay agenda, to demonstrate to straight society that we’re just as good at shaming gay men as they are, that we’ll gladly be neutered for equal rights and be denied the same pleasures they take for granted, that if they only give us gay marriage we won’t talk about the unprotected butt fucking that will happen on the wedding night.
Somehow, we have come to the homophobic conclusion that when gay men engage in the romantic, emotional, spiritual act of intercourse without a barrier we label it psychotic barebacking, but when straight people do it we call it sex.
This double standard is ludicrous. Your mother barebacked. It is a natural and precious act that has been going on, quite literally, since the beginning of mankind. Abraham (barebacked and) begat Isaac; and Isaac (barebacked and) begat Jacob; and Jacob (barebacked and) begat Judas and his brethren (Matthew 1:2).
Maybe you have the uncanny ability to enjoy sex while your penis is wrapped in latex. That is terrific, really. Please continue. You are using a classic prevention tool, a real golden oldie. Or maybe you and your boyfriend are HIV negative and have the good fortune to be in a committed, monogamous relationship in which you are having sex without condoms. Or perhaps, by whatever Olympian discipline you possess, you are capable of using a condom each and every time you have sex, no matter what. You are to be commended, and you are, regrettably, in the minority.
All of these scenarios are valid and worth replicating whenever possible. They do not, however, represent a superior high ground from which to make pronouncements about someone else’s choices.
There was an unspoken agreement that gay men made amongst ourselves during the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. We accepted that we would use condoms – at the time it was the only “safer sex” option that existed – until whatever time the crisis abated. Many of us believed this contract would be in effect for the rest of lives, if only because we thought we would be dead within a few short years. But none of us could have fathomed that, thirty years later, we would still be held to these strict and oppressive guidelines.
Even then, some of us didn’t follow them. One might assume that the cascade of death we experienced would have led to long term behavioral change. In fact, many of us responded to the crisis in a profoundly human way: we found comfort by making love with one another, often without a condom. It was a life affirming gesture, and an enormous “fuck you” to AIDS.
In fact, a 1988 study of gay men showed that almost half of them never used condoms, and most did not use them all of the time. These figures are strikingly similar to the recent Grindr results. Everything old is new again. Or it never went out of style in the first place.
The 1988 study is particularly interesting when you consider how many gay men consider that period a time of great sexual austerity — and some of them are wishing for a return to those times a bit too ardently. Gay men who witnessed the early AIDS carnage will sometimes say, “If only younger men knew what we went through. If they had seen it, they wouldn’t be behaving this way.”
That’s sick. I do not wish young gay men could witness the soul crushing things that I did. I worked in the trenches very, very hard so that they might have the option of being apathetic. I prefer their blissful ignorance to burying them.
And make no mistake about it, the number of gay men in the United States dying from AIDS is a small fraction of what it once was. Cigarettes are now killing more people with HIV than the virus itself. HIV/AIDS has become a dangerous but largely manageable disease, and fear tactics that suggest otherwise are being ignored because they simply are not true. Sex is sex, it is affirming and natural, and anyone who wishes to equate unprotected sex to death and disease really needs to get some therapy.
Condom usage will almost certainly continue to decrease in the future because of new tools that have joined the growing list of HIV prevention options. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – taking medication in advance of sex with an infected person – has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of transmission (and some insurance plans in the United States are covering the cost). Many people living with HIV are limiting sex partners to those who share their HIV status, known as serosorting. Positive gay men have largely dismissed scary fireside stories of the ultimate boogeyman, the reinfection SuperVirus, who has never materialized.
We also know that when those with HIV have an undetectable viral load the risk of transmission is negligible, so “treatment as prevention” efforts have increased (a new British study of straight couples showed that an undetectable viral load is more effective in preventing transmission than condoms, and those researchers believe the same will hold true for gay men).
Gleaming on the horizon are rectal microbicides. These products, currently in development, will come in the form of lubricants or douches that will prevent HIV infection, and they could make the endless debate and judgments about condoms moot, once and for all.
We don’t have to do this anymore. We don’t have to clobber each other with condom fascism, discredit the value of our sex lives, or promote a singular strategy that doesn’t work for everyone. We can accept that gay men are making educated choices to engage in a variety of risk reduction techniques. We can acknowledge that all of these techniques reduce the risk of HIV infection and all of them constitute “safer sex.”
And finally, we can stop pretending that those who remain fixated on condom usage have the moral upper hand.
The emperor has no clothes. And he isn’t wearing a rubber, either.
Thursday, January 17th, 2013
This is the story of how one AIDS activist sold his soul for sixty bucks.
Living with HIV can be expensive — you never know when you may need to dash to the pharmacy for some damn thing. Or renew your subscription to Vanity Fair. So I was happy to get on a list for a marketing company that would pay me to be interviewed about various subjects.
If there’s anything I like discussing, it’s my opinion.
Recently they called and asked if I drank scotch. Of course, I responded. Love the stuff. Okay, it doesn’t precisely jive with the fact I’m a recovering addict and alcoholic, but it was the right answer. I was invited to join a focus group on one of the vilest alcoholic beverages known to man. No actual drinking would be involved. And they paid cash.
A few days later I was escorted into the focus group room with seven other men. I looked closely at the group and it dawned on me — the Wrangler jeans, the scuffed work boots, the indifference to hair products — that I was dealing with decidedly straight men who lived outside my safe haven of Atlanta. As the saying goes, the only thing wrong with Atlanta is that it’s surrounded by Georgia.
The facilitator began by asking us to describe the sensations of drinking scotch. “It’s got a smooth feel to it, yep,” one man offered. I agreed. “Smooth” would become my default answer for most of the evening. What followed was a litany of the pleasures of drinking a dozen different brands.
“That J&B has a peaty taste,” said one, to several heads nodding in agreement. “Yup,” said another, “but ‘course, your single malts usually have that. I prefer the bite of Dewars, m’self.”
What the hell were these men talking about? Was “peaty” actually a word?
“And you, Mark?” asked the facilitator. “What about the Famous Grouse?”
I couldn’t remember if Famous Grouse was a bird or a Dr. Seuss character. I was sinking fast.
“It’s smooth,” I replied a little nervously. Thankfully, a head or two nodded, and they returned to their debate over double malts and peatiosity.
The facilitator then produced magazines and asked us to cut out pictures that reminded us of scotch. Well, you can just imagine my relief. I had no idea there was a talent portion to the evening. I snatched up Rolling Stone, pulled myself away from the movie reviews, and artistically cut out pictures of pouting women and buff men. Whereas the others in the group carelessly ripped out whole pages with no sense of composition whatsoever, I requested glue and produced a dramatic collage entitled “Shake Me, Stir Me: My Scotch Experience.”
When asked at what times we enjoyed the drink, I listened to accounts of fly-fishing trips with the boys, drinking scotch fireside, and imbibing with “the little lady” after a grilled sirloin. I might as well have unearthed some lost army of terra cotta rednecks in the Georgia mountains.
Uncomfortable emotions began to stir inside me. I resented the authenticity they took for granted – and the effortless masculinity I had always viewed as a threat to my own. But truth be told, they were simply sharing stories of their friends and their wives, while I had offered nothing real about myself.
They were guilty only of being themselves, and my selfish defenses were ridiculing them for it. But I was too threatened to see it at the time. My bombast remained securely hidden.
“I enjoy it best when I lick it off my gay lover’s balls,” I wanted to say. How could I march in a gay pride parade with “No One Knows I’m HIV positive” emblazoned on my t-shirt, I begrudgingly wondered, but I couldn’t come out in a room of eight men?
“Let’s say a bottle of scotch came to life as a man,” the facilitator queried — a bit too conceptually for the room, in my opinion. “What would he be like?”
“Oh, he’d be a friendly, boisterous man!” one said. “Yeah,” said another, “with mud on his boots. A real outdoors man. Definitely not a dandy man.” It was hard to know if you were being insulted when they used good ‘ol boy euphemisms.
“Interesting,” said the facilitator. “What’s a ‘dandy man?’”
“Well,” he replied, “he definitely wouldn’t kiss boys, if ya know what I mean!” This piece of striking wit was greeted with guffaws all around. Pot bellies and hair pieces wiggled with laughter.
I now have a moral obligation to start yelling, I thought. I must climb on top of this table, begin stomping my Cole Haans, and scream “You know what I like about scotch? It keeps my AIDS in check!” I wanted to rip my shirt wide open and wiggle my nipple rings at them. If only I had a tattoo the size of a Cutty Sark bottle that read “FISTING DADDY.”
“And what would this scotch man, come to life, look like to you, Mark?” the facilitator asked. All eyes turned to me. The time was now.
“Well…” I began. “He’d be, ah… smooth.” Everyone nodded with approval.
I left after the two hour interview with sixty dollars in cash and a nagging sense of an opportunity missed.
My God, what would Larry Kramer think?
When I initially wrote this more than ten years ago, I was comfortable with my stereotyping of straight men — and Georgians in particular — for comic effect. There was zero self-awareness in the essay. Re-reading it this week, I realized it had a mean spiritedness that bothered me. I revised it in an attempt to reflect my own insecurities during the focus group, which clearly colored my attitude toward the other men in the room. Alas, the piece may be beyond repair.
And what an artifact this is, considering that anyone watching the redneck television vehicle Here Comes Honey Boo Boo knows that her “Uncle Poodle” (Lee Thompson) has come out publicly as a gay man. What’s more, Lee also disclosed recently he is HIV positive. You should definitely check out Sean Strub’s article about this, because Thompson claims to have pressed charges against his former partner for not disclosing his status, and that the partner is now serving a five year jail sentence. HIV criminalization meets trash TV!
Wednesday, January 9th, 2013
My fear of all things anal began when I was an early teen. My older brother David took great delight in bursting into our bathroom to startle me, especially if I was on the john. And, since I was a pubescent redhead, his sudden visits included a lot of laughing and pointing.
I was mortified beyond belief. To this day, I must be sure no one is in the house, and then close and lock the bedroom and bathroom doors before I can properly relax. And I live alone.
But you can’t avoid everything anal if you’re growing up gay. Not if you want to do the really fun stuff.
I discovered soon enough that if someone had serious intentions in regard to my backside, I couldn’t simply rely upon a bran muffin and a Hail Mary to be properly prepared. God forbid I would, you know, not be… well, you know. This ongoing fear had a habit of wrecking the mood and the evening.
My exclamations during sex were usually panicked calls to turn the lights up, so I could carefully inspect the situation. Or a plea to stop altogether. “Okay, that’s fine, no wait!” I would cry out. “Am I okay down there? I mean, is it… okay go ahead… no hold on! Are you sure I’m…?” I was usually so involved with my protestations that I would hardly notice my date gathering his things to leave.
There are cleansing products meant to address this situation, but they require a certain comfort level with your own body and a little patience, meaning, they were incomprehensible to me. But I tried my best.
Drugstore enemas always felt too clinical, like something a nurse should be administering so you could “move your bowels,” a phrase I hope I never have to hear again, much less type.
But never fear. Leave it to gay men to popularize the “shower shot,” a long hose which screws into your shower head and ends in a narrow nozzle, just right for sliding up your bum for a thorough internal rinse.
The modulation of this instrument, however — and I cannot stress this enough — is of utmost importance. Too little water pressure and you’ve got a dribble with little cleansing effect. Too much, and you’ve just inserted a pressure washer into your ass that could peel the paint off a building.
I was first introduced to this contraption in my early twenties, when my first-time date invited me to visit the bathroom to “rinse out” while he relaxed in bed and waited. I stepped in the shower and surveyed the dangling metal hose. I turned on the water. I considered how it all might operate, and I made my best guess, standing there for God knows how long, hose inserted and whistling a happy tune.
I must say in my defense that no one had ever explained the device to me, much less how to gauge the input versus the output.
That poor, unfortunate man. He had really pretty designer sheets, covered with a gorgeous blue and white pinstripe blanket that I can still see clear as day. Such a lovely bedroom. That is, until a few passionate moments later, when all of it was soaked with a solid gallon of spoiled water that had been percolating in my poopchute, exploding from me in a streaming rush that looked like the wake of an outboard motor hurtling across Lake Erie. The word “apocalyptic” comes to mind.
Only as I matured did I realize I had options (and I will now introduce cute baseball analogies to illustrate my point). I discovered I did not, in fact, always have to play catcher, and I stepped onto the pitcher’s mound with great enthusiasm. But as much as I enjoyed the view from above, I worried still, that maybe I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. It was only after pitching a near-perfect game one day that my partner in the dugout helped me make a simple decision.
“Mark,” he said. “Why don’t you just stick to what you do well?” And it was this generous assessment that gave me the confidence to hang up the hiney hose forever.
Yes, that’s right. I’m now a dedicated top. I’ll allow you a few moments of incredulous wonderment.
What’s even more amazing is my having a boyfriend who is not only loving and adorable, but absolutely expert at the exotic mysteries of booty sex preparation. It really is an impressive talent, if you ask me. Like walking on your hands, or spinning plates on sticks.
This is all to tell you, dear reader, that sometimes you must find solutions to your fears in order to take care of yourself. And sometimes you have to face your damn fears head-on. I was reminded of this recently when, at fifty-two years old, I had my first colonoscopy. I don’t think I have to explain my anxiety level going in to this procedure.
Everything checked out fine, thanks. I had heard the anesthesia they give you can produce some odd behavior, but other than proposing to the physician and asking the recovery nurse if they located my pet hamster, I behaved myself quite admirably.
The only side effect of my colonoscopy was a bloated feeling and a case of the gurgles. Well, and a few hours later I had the longest, most continuous release of gas I have ever experienced in all my days. I’m talking a minute plus, people.
I really wish my older brother David had been here. He loves that kind of thing.
If I can face my deepest fears, so can you. Did you know that studies show people living with HIV have a higher incidence of “colonic neoplasms” (the polyps they are looking for during a colonoscopy), which should be checked out for cancerous cell growth? Anyone aged 50 should get a colonoscopy, and some protocols suggest that people with HIV start this screening at age 45. Please don’t delay. Call your doctor! (At right, a picture of my happy procedure team just prior to my colonoscopy.)
And speaking of rectal douching (and why not? We really should discuss this topic more, considering it is such a common practice among gay men), I cannot say enough about LifeLube, the blog created by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago to help gay men address sexuality and their bodies. They have an entire section devoted to rectal douching (did you know there are new douches that limit the amount of healthy bacteria removed?) and another feature, Andrew’s Anus, that provides engaging answers to the questions you’re afraid to ask. The blog is no longer active – meaning, no new postings – but there is a wealth of information here and you should definitely check it out.
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, 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!