“We’re born naked… and the rest is drag.” — RuPaul
When I was nine years old, I took my parents’ album of the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees” and memorized every syllable of Gwen Verdon’s show stopper, “Who’s Got the Pain When They Do the Mambo?” Once I was satisfied with my lip-synching and choreography (I decided that a mambo was a dance in which young boys gyrated and flung themselves on and off the living room sofa), the number was ready for public display.
The premiere was a simple affair, exclusive and unannounced. Mrs. May from across the street had stopped in for afternoon coffee, and opportunity knocked when Mother busied herself in the kitchen for a few minutes.
Not a smart move, Mother, leaving Mark alone with the company.
“Mrs. May, would you like to see me do a song?” The unsuspecting woman gave a polite “yes, that sounds nice” and before Mother could run interference I had turned on the stereo and dropped the needle at the precise moment where Gwen breaks into song.
Mrs. May stared and stared, her hands folded neatly in her lap, as I brought out every sashay, twist and thrust in my dancing arsenal. My moves may have been imperfect but I vocalized brilliantly, thanks to Gwen. As I struck my final pose, arms reaching for the heavens, frozen and triumphant, I saw mother standing in the doorway, holding a plate of cookies and breathing heavily through her nostrils.
Future performances would be limited to my bedroom, where I could conjure an audience cheering with acclamation and mothers wouldn’t put you on restriction.
It is that boy, the cheerful but feminine performer, that I always feared would creep out of me as I navigated young adulthood as a gay man. I worked to shed his characteristics, to replace every soft gesture with a wooden one, to embrace the gym and tank tops and Levi jeans with the same fervor I once had for my beloved Broadway musicals, with mixed success.
And then, a lifetime later, as I worked for an AIDS agency in Atlanta in the 90’s, destiny called. An upcoming drag contest to benefit our agency was suffering from poor participation, and my boss asked if I would consider entering.
Being a drag queen, even for a night, terrified and delighted me. But the performer in me won out, wouldn’t you know, and Anita Mann was born. I created an interactive video rendition of Donna Summer’s “This Time I Know It’s for Real” (below) and won the contest.
Soon I was performing with “the camp drag queens of the south,” The Armorettes, who hosted a Sunday night show at Atlanta’s now-demolished Armory to raise funds for AIDS organizations (they are still performing, now at Burkhart’s). Over the years they vigrx info have raised over $2 million dollars, and their show was a sellout every week. But my own phobic notions lingered.
I didn’t want to be known as a drag queen (“It’s comedy! I’m a performance artist!” I would insist). I never appeared anywhere in drag but on that stage – I would always get dressed at the show, and was out of drag for the final curtain call, in a bid to display whatever masculine credentials I had to offer.
I would hear other gay men make disparaging remarks about drag and I withered, unable to admit I was playing to a packed room every Sunday.
The nexus of shame and shamelessness is a complicated one. Each week I put on full display the very things about myself that I had worked so hard to reject — my femininity, my silly pursuit of acceptance through laughter and applause. And just as I gained confidence in what I was doing and why, I would lose a potential boyfriend when he learned of my weekend talents.
As a growing meth addiction encroached on my free time, I abandoned Anita Mann to its demands. Anita’s dress and wig would be relegated to a duffel bag hidden in the back of the hallway closet. I had found a vocation in drugs that offered twice the shame and every bit of the need to keep quiet about it.
It took a few years before Anita would make her comeback. Armed with a TV set and a sense of the absurd, Anita performed at a sober fund raising event. Her rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (below) grows more insane by the moment (watch out for the swinging TV set!).
And yes, I am aware that I speak of her in the third person. Maybe it is because I view her as a character I have created, and perhaps it is the remnants of shame, and of my need to keep her at a distance.
It’s strange, how those things about which we have drawn the most shame are also able to liberate us, not to mention help others. My HIV status. My drug addiction and recovery process. My drag personality. As I have embraced each of these, I’ve found self-acceptance and a way to carry a message of hope, and even joy, to others.
Meanwhile, I still struggle with the need to project as much masculinity as I can muster. I swagger more than I sashay. I sport a beard when possible. And I work to maintain a strict gym regimen.
It’s important for me to stay in shape if I expect to fit in that dress.
(This is a revised version of a posting that appeared on this site on March 15, 2012. Good drag bears repeating. — Mark)
“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.”
You haven’t lived until you have hosted a game show in a cemetery. There I was, laughing and being silly while standing directly over the remains of more than 25,000 of the dearly departed. And I was doing it with the authorities.
When I asked the president of Congressional Cemetery, Paul Williams, if he would play a game with me on camera for this blog, he took it all in stride. I even suggested he use the top of a gravestone as a buzzer, so he could punch it whenever he knew the answer to a question. He hardly batted an eye.
“You have to have a sense of humor to be in this industry,” Paul told me after a lightening round of “Are you smarter than a Cemetery President?” (Are you? Watch my video blog and find out. Paul’s answers, when wrong, are hilarious.)
Because my blog has always been about living joyfully with HIV, perhaps this video brings that philosophy to its logical conclusion: accepting the passing of our lives with gratitude and happiness.
During our rollicking tour of the historic cemetery, you’re going to get a quick lesson on one of the pioneers of gay rights buried there, Leonard Matlovich, and his contributions to HIV/AIDS awareness before his death in 1988. If you haven’t heard his name before, or haven’t thought of him in some time, listen up. His legacy deserves our attention.
You’ll also learn about some mysterious happenings around the gravesite of a certain former FBI director, involving high heels and mysterious visitors keeping vigil. Yes, really.
At a recent White House event to announce their “HIV Care Continuum Initiative” (more on that later), I was pleased to join friends old and new, including three men involved in reducing HIV stigma, a huge issue to me as you know. Pictured (left to right) are the dapper Tyler Curry, founder of The Needle Prick Project, a campaign to create dialogue on what it means to be HIV positive today; Alex Garner of NMAC, who is the former editor of Positive Frontiers and a big part of the brain trust I’m constantly accessing for my writings; myself; and the witty Chris Richey, co-founder of The Stigma Project, which educates about HIV stigma through social media and advertising.
“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)
My first “AIDS job” in 1987 was at the first AIDS organization in Los Angeles, LA Shanti, and we provided emotional support to clients with AIDS who were usually in their last weeks of life. The intimacy our trained volunteers experienced with the dying, helping them find some inner peace as they left us, is worthy of its own blog posting sometime. Let’s just say it was intense.
We hoped for a cure early on, and then our hope faded. Before long, we didn’t dare hope any longer. We just wanted treatment to ease the suffering and slow the dying, and those prayers were answered in 1996 with the advent of protease inhibitors. It seemed greedy to tempt the fates and begin asking for a total cure again.
But greed isn’t what is driving the treatment advocates you are about to meet in my latest video blog. Far from it. They have faith, based on scientific research and some hopefulness of their own, that a cure for HIV disease can be found. And they care enough about our community to keep pressing the issue at HIV research conferences.
They are cautiously optimistic. But their faith is contagious, if you’ll pardon the choice of words. And they also know that that we got protease inhibitors because of the same kind of tireless community efforts that they are displaying now.
In fact, one can easily connect the dots from the activists shown in the Oscar nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague to this current crop of treatment advocates who are trying to take HIV research across the finish line.
I’d like to thank the always resourceful Nelson Vergel for gaining me access to a gathering of these community activists. For updates of current cure research, Nelson has excellent posts on TheBody.com like this one.
National HIV Testing Day is next Thursday, June 27, and there is no better time to praise the many HIV negative gay men who are making smart decisions to remain that way. Hooray, HIV negative gay men! Let’s show some love for our negative brothers, who’s with me?
Oh, Lord. Now I’ve done it. By showing support for negative guys, I am clearly demeaning HIV positive men. But wait! I’m HIV positive myself. So, that must mean I’m being sarcastic in my support of negative guys, because there’s so little room for sincerity and goodwill in the chasm between HIV positive and negative gay men. That space is already so crowded, what with all the stigma and simmering resentments.
Some days I just want to go back to bed.
When I produced the quick video above three years ago, my intent was to celebrate the accomplishment of any gay man who is sexually active and has managed to remain HIV negative. It was produced by myself and my gay, HIV negative older brother to spread a little love across the viral divide and encourage HIV testing. That was it. No other agenda.
While initial reactions to the posting were quite good from both HIV positive and negative people, the pendulum swung quickly. Comments began to label my overly theatrical style (ouch!) as sarcastic. Some found the message demeaning to positive people. Some found the message demeaning to negative people. My goodwill became shrouded in a fog of distrust and what-about-me?–ism.
You can watch and decide for yourself (now that I’ve tainted the thing, darn it). But I stand by my sincere intentions to offer a hearty pat on the back to HIV negative men and support for their personal set of challenges and anxieties. I hope you’ll share it with an HIV negative friend you care about (the direct YouTube link is here.)
I would do it differently today, however. At one point in the video, I suggest that negative guys might like to have unprotected sex, but that they shouldn’t “do that.” That’s an outdated and judgmental mandate. Today, with new tools such as pre-exposure prophylactic treatments, and new understandings about what it means to be HIV positive and undetectable, what constitutes “safer sex” is a much broader list than simply whether or not you engage in sex with a condom or not.
The annual HIV Cruise Retreat is in its last stages of booking, and it will be the largest group of HIV positive men and women the cruise has ever had aboard. Even though the cruise does not sail until early November, several cabin categories have sold out. If this is something you are considering I would urge you to contact Design Cruise Travel NOW for information. I have the pleasure of being the MC of this trip again this year, but I receive no compensation other than a cheaper rate on my cabin. I do it happily because I am in favor of anything that builds community among people living with HIV. Check out my video blog posting from last year!
That isn’t about a vague concept. It began at a very real meeting, which gave birth to a very real, tangible document. And it happened exactly thirty years ago this month.
It was 1983. Just a year prior, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) became the fearful nameplate for the murderer of gay friends and lovers. The virus that caused it, HIV, had only been identified a few weeks earlier. Amidst this atmosphere of unremitting grief and fear, a group of activists met in Denver as part of a gay and lesbian health conference. Among them, a dozen men with AIDS. And among their number, the inspirational Michael Callen of New York City, pictured at right, and safe sex architect Richard Berkowitz (Sex Positive), the only surviving member of the group today. They were about to do something that would change our response to AIDS — and health care in general — forever.
As the conference drew to a close, the activists asked to address the attendees. Rather than having a report presented about the state of the AIDS crisis, they wanted to speak for themselves. If the word “empowerment” hadn’t yet been a part of the health care lexicon, it was about to be.
The group took turns reading a document to the conference they had just created themselves, during hours sitting in a hospitality suite of the hotel. It was their Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence rolled into one. It would be known as The Denver Principles, and it began like this: “We condemn attempts to label us as ‘victims,’ which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally ‘patients,’ which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are ‘people with AIDS.’”
The seminal moment in AIDS activism was arguably those few minutes, when the principles were outlined by these brave “people with AIDS.” Identifying themselves as such, that alone, was startling at the time. How could they not be seen as anything but victims of an arbitrary and cruel killer? But they would have none of it. And they did not stop there.
They outlined 17 principles that covered everything from health care decisions to civil rights to sexual conduct. And their impact on all of us is so obvious today it can easily be taken for granted. Please honor their service and read on.
They demanded that physicians see their patients as “whole people,” and provide “accurate information.” They believed their opinion on their care should be awarded equal weight, and this was revolutionary. The next time your doctor consults you about a change of medications or whether a diagnostic test may be required, you can thank The Denver Principles.
They asked “all people” to fight against AIDS discrimination in the workplace and in housing, which was a provocative concept in the fearsome days of 1983 when people recoiled from those with HIV.
Astonishingly, they even advocated for “as full and satisfying sexual and emotional lives as anyone else” for people with AIDS. Imagine that, at a time when a new blood- and sexual contact-driven disease was in full bloom, a group of people suffering from it wanted sexual rights. Amazing. And yet today, if you are HIV positive and disclose your status to potential partners without feeling like a diseased pariah (or you have observed sexual evolution, like serosorting and sex clubs for positives), you can thank The Denver Principles. For that matter, if you’re HIV negative and negotiate sex with partners of any stripe, you can thank the Principles for believing that we all deserve a satisfying sexual life.
While gay men were the designers of the document, The Subversive Librarian notes that this was a situation in which lesbians and gay men worked together really effectively. As Walt Senterfitt wrote in 1998: “Part of the widespread acceptance of the notion of self-empowerment must be attributed to lessons learned from the feminist and civil rights struggles. Many of the earliest and most vocal supporters of the right to self-empowerment were the lesbians and feminists among the AIDS Network attendees.”
A clear line can be drawn between how all of us participate in our own health care decisions and The Denver Principles. It has influenced the doctor/patient relationship in every disease category, benefiting millions of patients.
Sean knows a thing or two about accountability. When I worked for various AIDS organizations through the 1980′s and 90′s, we were shaking in our boots each year when POZ Magazine produced their chart outlining which of the country’s AIDS organizations met certain criteria. The chart rated things like financial transparency, the cost of fund raising, and how many HIV positive people served on the Board (for which, by the way, you can thank The Denver Principles, which demanded people with AIDS “be included in all AIDS forums.”)
The Empowerment Index that Sean and others are creating (he’s open to input) would chart similar criteria for AIDS organizations and other health care providers, by measuring the degree to which their clients feel empowered and involved in their own decisions. It would tangibly rate things like fund raising, transparency, HIV+ representation and the delivery of services.
So the Denver Principles live on. A list of profound basic rights were outlined during the dawn of this epidemic that continue to have an impact on us today. Anyone facing a chronic illness should laud the amazing journey and profound importance of this document.
(This is an updated version of something I posted in both 2010 and 2011. But as a man who blogs about living with HIV — and for you, reading my content — The Denver Principles and what they represent are that important. Are they outdated, since most people living with HIV today have never heard of them? I don’t believe so. I wasn’t around for the creation of the Bill of Rights and might not be able to recite them all to you, but I sure do want my leaders and governance using them for guidance. — Mark)
As we enter June and all of the various Gay Pride festivities around the country, let me offer this gentle reminder that pride is about a lot more than drink tickets and cover charges and body image. Yes, that’s easy for me to say, since I’m as guilty as the next guy about my GYM OCD and aging fears — and Gay Pride only worsens my anxieties. I’m working on it. BUT. Back to you. I hope you will take three minutes and watch my “Gay Pride PSA” that I post each year around this time. If you haven’t seen it, it’s very funny. Well, until it isn’t. And it leaves you with a message I hope you will carry through this month and share with your friends. Check it out!
If, on the other hand, you prefer to leave the emoting to actual theatrical professionals (haters!), then you might really enjoy a five-minute highlights compilation from the one-night-only re-staging of David Drake’s important play on being gay and early AIDS activism, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. Only 600 very lucky people could be seated in the hottest ticket in town that night (my ticket, and my plane fare and hotel and entourage, were evidently lost in the mail, and I’m firing my assistant), but now you can get a glimpse of some of the magic witnessed that evening. The most moving moment? Seeing that angry lion himself, Larry Kramer, in a photograph with Drake after the performance. It reminds me of one of my favorite buttons from the 1980′s: “Annoy them… SURVIVE!”
In the “Gratitude for Our Privileged Lives” department, how about the amazing David Phillips, a long time poz activist from Maryland who has been crisscrossing Kenya with a group of students and their professor from The George Washington University School of Media & Public Affairs. “On June 4 we visited with Mama Beatrice and several of the people living with HIV whom she has aided,” David said in a Facebook posting. “The stories of discrimination and stigma which they shared were jarring for the students to hear.” Most humbling to me, though, was this: “Some of these fellow HIVers were shocked to know that mzungus (white people) get HIV, too,” David said, “and all were excited to meet someone thriving in the face of HIV for over 10 years, amazed by 31.” Are you feeling blessed right now? You’re welcome.
Every month or so, a group of people in my area host “poz socials,” a house party for people living with HIV. I found myself at one recently, because I thought it was important to make an appearance since becoming a literary superstar.
I was settled into the living room sofa and liked the spot very much. Sharing a couch with regular folk has an air of humility about it, while its angle allowed me to be viewed by a large number of the guests milling about.
The man next to me leaned in closely to be heard over the hubbub of the party. “Are you on the cover of that magazine…?” he asked, of course.
I should proceed with caution, I thought. If he is a stalker and I engage him haphazardly, he’ll steal my social security number and soon claim we’re Minnesota’s latest newlyweds.
“Well now, what magazine do you mean…?” I said, and then I smiled demurely. It’s best to display warmth when you are recognized in public. But carry mace.
“The magazine you’re holding in your lap…” he said, “with the cover facing me? I saw some copies on a table at the front door, I think. That’s you, right?”
“Oh, this magazine!” I said, waving it in my hand as if I’d just discovered it, “yes, well, they’re sending me so many you know, boxes of them, I just thought people might appreciate me bringing a few of them to –“
“…and there’s a stack of them in the bathroom, too,” he continued, “which I thought was odd, and outside on the back lawn. Someone laid them across the grass to spell out OZ. Is this magazine about The Wizard of –“
“No! POZ.” I fingered the cover’s masthead like I was teaching the alphabet on Sesame Street. “P-O-Z? POZ. POZ Magazine.”
“Well, it just says ‘OZ’ in the back yard now. I think they had to make room for the lawn chairs.”
This man was irritating me. He hadn’t even begun to ask about my thoughts on fame or on balancing family with my public persona or about Having It All. I became concerned with his comprehension skills.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he went on, “it’s sprinkling now so I don’t think anybody is out there anyway.”
“It’s what?” I asked. I scrambled up and dashed outside to retrieve what were now slightly soggy copies of the magazine off the lawn.
I settled for a while on the back patio, carefully dabbing the magazine covers and giving the crowd inside some relief from the excitement of my presence. I wondered if the Kardashians ever had to dry their own magazines. I suddenly realized how very alike we are, those girls and I. Well, maybe not Kim. Unlike her, my sex video was a crystal meth-induced camera phone escapade that I have refused to commercialize. No, Khloe is my true soul mate. The sassy one.
The party’s host, Sebastian, stepped outside.
“Hello, Sebastian. You have a lovely home,” I offered. Graciousness. So important. “I wonder if I might trouble you for some ballpoint pens. The Sharpies I brought are going to bleed if I have to autograph these wet magazines…”
“I was just going to ask you about that,” he said. “The buffet table seems to have been set up for… some sort of signing?” I had arrived early to hang the poster-sized blowup of the cover in just the right spot, scotch taped over Sebastian’s original Keith Haring lithograph. The Haring seemed a tad pretentious anyway.
“Yes, that’s right,” I answered. He had an expression that I clearly mistook for annoyance.
“There are magazines stacked all over the buffet table,” he said.
I raised an eyebrow. “I brought plenty to accommodate the crowd so –“
“There are only fifteen people here…”
“…so they might be able to share with their friends and loved ones,” I finished.
Sebastian breathed a little too strongly through his nostrils for a moment. “If it’s all the same to you,” he said, rather slowly, “I really need the buffet table.”
“You need the buffet table?” This was the first I had heard of this. I bet Khloe has people for this sort of thing.
“Yes,” he said. “I need the buffet table. For the buffet.”
Jealousy is a common response to intense fame. You see it all the time. Well, maybe not you. But I do.
My road to sizzling celebrity began a few months ago, when I was invited to appear on the cover of POZ Magazine because of an essay I had contributed about HIV stigma among gay men. I give full credit to the staff of the publication, for instinctively knowing exactly what the world needs right now.
And if you’re thinking the answer is me, well, that’s lovely and understandable but not really true. What the world needs now is a message of tolerance toward people living with HIV.
Delivered by me.
Negotiations between myself and the publication were heated, I will admit. First they claimed Leibovitz was busy and Scavullo was dead, and then they rejected my request for body painting at the studio to sculpt my abs. Oh, and I had to wear a shirt.
I don’t mean to embarrass anyone, but allow me to share with you portions of the email I received from the POZ editorial team. They responded together, they said, to put a stop to my “playing staff members against one another and telling us each that you liked us best or that a fellow staff person wanted us fired.” Like I would be caught doing that.
They then went on to say that “while we appreciate your enthusiasm for this cover shoot, we don’t believe that having you pictured in the throes of actual stigmata would serve the story or our readership.” My concept was meant to be ironic, although I can’t really explain why and it’s my response to most situations in which I don’t get my way.
“And although we do acknowledge that Carrie is an iconic film about stigma,” the irksome memo continued, “our readers might respond unfavorably to a cover model with a bucket of pig’s blood dumped on their head. People with HIV are sensitive about blood. Even pig’s blood. Your being outfitted in a prom dress does little to minimize the impact.”
They said nothing about the remake of Carrie to be released this fall, and the obvious promotional tie-ins I had outlined in my proposal. Which is all to say that we must stand tall against those who wish to blunt our artistic vision.
Now that the June issue has been released, available everywhere fine periodicals about HIV are available, I’m mulling over the idea of a multi-city tour or better yet, an AIDS benefit in which famous artists recreate my POZ Magazine cover, people like Peter Max or Warhol, and then auction them off. The powers that be at POZ, as you might guess, say this idea is quite impossible for reasons they refuse to enumerate.
I considered all this as the poz social was drawing to a close and I was slipping copies of the issue under the windshield wipers of the cars on the street. Face down, of course, so my face might greet the driver as he settles in his seat. I continued up the neighboring blocks, because good literature appeals to everyone and Sebastian was giving me attitude about the boxes of magazines he claimed were blocking his driveway.
Should you care for a personal appearance at your next gala, by all means contact me. I require the usual fees, plus Perrier water, Intelence, Norvir, Isentress, and Flomax. And please find me a sizable entourage, to do entouragey things with me.
If it’s good enough for Khloe, it’s good enough for me.
The forum, sponsored by the Federal AIDS Policy Partnership, a coalition of AIDS-related organizations and interests, didn’t bear much fruit in terms of hearing the feedback of people living with the disease. The event was lightly attended in person, with most of those living with HIV present representing some organization or another, and the online viewers had technical problems and, presumably as a result, contributed very little.
The most compelling minutes of the event, to me at least, were courtesy of the sheer audacity of former administrators from NAPWA (like Frank Oldham, pictured above), who made a pitch for their new HIV advocacy venture. After bankrupting a multi-million dollar agency and charges of financial malfeasance, you’d think they would opt for a lower profile. In this video episode of My Fabulous Disease, I take them to task and even provide a dramatic reenactment of some of their organizational negotiations. I can’t wait for you to see it.
The day following the forum I attended a scheduled meeting of the the Federal AIDS Policy Partnership (FAPP), and heard excellent presentations on the state of Ryan White during healthcare reform (iffy but hopeful), and how we as people with HIV can best navigate Obamacare (tip: go directly to www.HIVHealthReform.org and get educated).
In light of the town forum they hosted, I also strongly encouraged FAPP to add seats on their body specifically for people with HIV — or for representatives from coalitions for people with HIV — so there would be voices of people with HIV that wore no other hats or were tied to other agencies or agendas. I look forward to giving you an update on whatever steps they might take in this regard.
“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.
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.