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September 20th, 2011

The Twilight of the Redhead

According to family lore, my arrival at birth with a full head of orange hair was met with shock and awe. My five older siblings ran the gamut from blond to dark brown, but they otherwise lacked my peculiar genetic mutation. Although the hospital nursery staff was abuzz with delight, my own family debated whether the color would last while they double checked the identification tags.

Redhead 1It lasted. In fact, the color bloomed like a Van Gogh painting. Before long I would learn the price of being different — and how intense childhood ridicule can be.

Look, it’s Freckle Face Strawberry! Howdy Doody. Bozo. Opie. I didn’t know whether to chop off my hair or hide underneath it. Only little old ladies and a few teachers seemed to appreciate it, but their cooing and stroking — they always needed to touch it, like a lucky charm — never endeared me to the bullies at school.

Redhead 2When puberty hit and the startling orange hue crept further down my torso I was beyond mortified. How could my body play such a cruel joke? Did this adolescent sissy really need another reason to be kicked and taunted? I actually made it through two years of junior high gym class without once taking a shower, usually by fiddling around at my locker — folding and arranging my clothes, feigning trouble with my combination lock — until it was safe to get dressed.

When I came bursting from the closet while in high school, I managed to finally celebrate my red hair along with my sexuality, and reveled in both. I mastered every hair product known to man, blow drying and spraying my head into a Farrah Fawcett extravaganza before a night out at the local gay bar. I discovered the men who loved redheads, and at last, I’d found the ideal purpose for the trait that once humiliated me.

Redhead actingIt even became crucial to my vocation, during a brief stint in my twenties in television commercials. Casting directors saw dollar signs on my head, and I became the freckled pitchman for everything from McDonalds to Popeye’s to Barq’s root beer. I treated my hair as a gay Samson might, with the latest gels and shampoos and conditioners, and in return it made me money and got me laid.

Whatever I became through the years, this single aspect of my identity pre-dated everything. Before the writer, before the AIDS activist and the drug addict and the actor and the childhood sissy, I was a redhead. From the very womb.

And then, not quite. Sometime in my thirties, the color began to slowly drain from my scalp. The orange and reds eventually surrendered to a strawberry blond, and even those tones became weaker, like watering down a pitcher of Kool-Aid, as my fiftieth year approached.

Redhead 4It must sound ridiculous, but I felt the loss deeply. We had been through so much together, my red hair and I.

I tried to take heart in having, whatever the color, a full, thick head of healthy hair, guaranteed for life by the family gene pool. That is, until a few months ago, when I stood in the shower and felt strands of hair sliding down my face, in a massive march from my head to the drain. After decades taking HIV medications, I had begun a new treatment regimen and its woeful side effects were ruthless and immediate. Within weeks my hair was thinner, dulled and brittle to the touch.

One of my private, most selfish fears has been realized. I have AIDS Hair.

But while removing clumps from the shower drain is a jolt to my vanity, it isn’t the trauma it might have been. After living with HIV for nearly thirty years, I’ve witnessed how creative it can be in its cruelty, down to the slightest of indignities. The sudden damage to my hair has been worrisome, I’ll admit, but part of me knows that it had long since served its purpose. There is something correct, even poetic, in this twilight of the redhead.

Years ago, as I began rebuilding my life after years of drug addiction, my therapist made a withering observation. “You’ve got no second act, Mark,” he said after one of my self-absorbed ramblings. “You make a nice first impression. But then what? Not much.”

The work that I’ve done in the years since his pronouncement have taught me the value of more important traits, of lending a hand or paying attention to friends or standing up for our community. And this evolution appears to have swept away one of my most stubborn sources of willful pride.

The last decade has given me the gift of other, more meaningful assets. They lie beneath, away from the gaze of strangers and first impressions.

My best features are now visible only to those who really know me. And they are just beautiful.

Mark

(Since writing this five years ago, a change of medications has restored the health of my hair. Alas, age has taken away its earlier, neon hues. My beard today is the only feature that proves my redheadedness.)

 

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12 Responses to “The Twilight of the Redhead”

  1. Steve Scarborough Says:

    September 20th, 2011 at 8:28 am

    Re: redheads, my very first love — and OH! was I smitten — was Billy Mumy from Lost in Space. Just sayin’.

  2. James Millner Says:

    September 20th, 2011 at 8:40 am

    Mark, I’ve always thought you were handsome, regardless of the color of your hair. No matter what benefits it may have brought you, your most attractive traits have always been your personality and spirit.

  3. Matthew P Says:

    September 20th, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Mark, you’ve done it again! You keep telling my story time after time. As a fellow redhead, I too had the little old ladies and teachers needing to pet my follicles. I remember being in 4th grade and my school librarian showed up dressed as a witch for Halloween to our classroom and fondled my hair saying, “Ahhhhh, red hair helps make the best poisoned brew,” followed by a cackle that nearly made said hair stand on end. I also remember my first introduction to the idea that some gay men believed “red on the head? Hot in bed!”

  4. Micheal Sapp Says:

    September 20th, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Mark,

    Good piece, but I tend to doubt that your evolution into a helper, a friend, a writer, or an activist “swept away” your red hair. This would imply that emotional maturation caused the changes in your hair.

    I suspect that they both occurred as a result of aging and personal growth, but either could have occurred without the other.

    Don’t try to claim your hair loss as a “sign” of your emotional maturation.

  5. Janice urbsaitis Says:

    September 20th, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Dear Mark,

    This is my first (but not last) visit to your blog. When I was a blonde senior in high school, I wanted red hair so I dyed my hair an hour before my graduation. My hair turned bright orange. I stood out like a beacon on a lighthouse. Since that illustrious hope died quickly (pun intended), I would liken you to the Velveteen Rabbit. Your best self is shining through. Thank you for a thoughtful jumping off point on life’s challenges. You are a survivor.

  6. Sam Says:

    September 20th, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I loved your piece about sending shritless pics. I’m one of the last people not on facebook or twitter, it seems. Everyone tells me I have to join, which kind of keeps me from joining; I hate being told what to do. Maybe I should sign up for facebook just to see more man titties. Anyway, I like your humor. The self-deprecating style you sometimes employ makes me laugh.

  7. Garry Singletary Says:

    September 21st, 2011 at 5:14 am

    The one thing AIDS can not take away from us is our spirit! You are proof of that. As to the shirtless, with a P.I. tummy I guess I’ll never be one of those!

  8. James Allen Says:

    September 21st, 2011 at 5:26 am

    In one swoop you have conquered multiple taboos and once again have done it with style. Your conclusion is accurate and the sentiment is shared. It is a privilege to know you.

  9. Donna Gore Says:

    September 21st, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    I used to dye my hair red to cover the gray. The dye started to irritate my scalp something awful. My boyfriend said, “Stop putting that crap on your head!”

    I was curious to see what my real hair looked like, considering I hadn’t seen it in YEARS. So I just quit putting the color on. Imagine my surprise, OH SHIT IT’S ALL WHITE! Mind you this is at the age of around 46. (It started turning gray in my 20s).

    And you know what?? I get compliments all the time now, on my white hair. Total strangers stop me in the train station and say, “You have the most beautiful white hair!”

  10. Chris Glaser Says:

    September 26th, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    As a fellow redhead whose hair got darker rather than lighter (and now grayer, a kind of lighter!), I appreciate your age-related and AIDS-related dilemmas!

    You were the first redhead I ever fell in love with, and now I think redheads are hot! Maybe it even demonstrates some kind of self-appreciation after all my adolescent California years wanting surfer blond hair.

    So I didn’t fall in love with you because of your red hair. What was inside of you made me love red hair!

    Btw, I think you have MULTIPLE acts–a good thing!

    Your lovin’ ex–Chris

  11. Mommie Dammit Says:

    November 6th, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Mark, I love you… which should really make you nervous… and I hate to bust your bubble… but turning strawberry blonde is a natural progression for a large number of red-heads. I was a cosmetologist for 25 years, and hair color, color correction, and reconstruction were my specialty. That takes a lot of research and learning about all the little bits and pieces that make up this dead protein fiber we all love and torture daily. Reds and blondes are difficult to maintain over time, as the color molecules that make them are the smallest and least numerous. It is maturation of your cells, my dear, not your cerebrum that gives you your new “lighter” look. But, frankly, you could have a green mohawk and I’d still love ya.

    Second – I remember the Bilerico piece. I laughed myself sick reading it, and kept thinking throughout “AMEN, SISTAH! PREACH!” And don’t worry about the snarky 20 y.o. I’m 49 and I can’t find a 20 y.o. who can keep up with me… come to think of it, I haven’t found many I can PUT UP with, so what’s the point? With very rare exceptions, men – gay, straight, or purple – don’t really evolve past the knuckle-dragger stage until somewhere between 35 and 50. Then they start to become interesting. Before that?… meh! Mommie Dammit’s got better things to do than re-raise other people’s children.

    Love, Light & Lipstick
    M.D.

  12. Jose Says:

    August 11th, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    You inspire in so many ways. Soon I will write you a letter to thank you how you mean to me and the rest of us. Much love to you Mark.
    José

    (Thanks, Jose. That means a lot. — Mark)

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