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Posts Tagged ‘aids’

The Sound of Stigma

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

Stigma is insidiously quiet. It is conjured in the mind, born of discomfort and fear, and then it is projected at “the other” among us. It judges them and isolates them. And it happens without a sound.

Sound of StigmaStigma lets us take comfort in seeing things in others about which, we believe, they must be ashamed. It is a lazy way to feel better about ourselves—and therefore a popular human activity—and gay men are remarkably good at it. So many of us survive childhood taunts that by the time we come of age we have developed fairly lethal claws of our own. We know how to hurt others before they can hurt us.

But when the AIDS pandemic began over 30 years ago, gay men learned that whatever cleverness we possessed was no match for a crisis that questioned nothing less than our existence on this earth. Churches said we were damned. Politicians wanted us quarantined.

Gay men prefer to remember the earliest days of AIDS as a heroic time, and there is no doubt that many of us behaved that way, but stigma also was a fearsome, daily aspect of our lives in the early 1980s. Heterosexual parents were not the only people disowning someone with an AIDS diagnosis. Gay men also were driven by ignorance and fear. We kicked out our sick roommates. We refused to give them manicures or cut their hair. We turned away from their sunken faces at the neighborhood bar, when they had the guts to show up at all.

Once the initial hysteria subsided and the virus and its routes of transmission were identified, stigma between gay men calmed somewhat, if only because there was so much work to be done to care for the dying. Our brothers with AIDS were not so much stigmatized as pitied for their loss of dignity and humiliating deaths. They were tragic victims, exalted as martyrs.

Until they weren’t. With the advent of breakthrough treatment in 1996, the dying nearly stopped in its tracks. Patients got up from their deathbeds and rejoined the living. There were cheers all around. Within a few years, even the word “AIDS” had nearly disappeared from the gay lexicon.

Those former patients, and the many gay men with HIV to come after them, had no interest in playing tragedy, or in being wizened and terminal and predictable. They wanted to take their rightful places in our social scene, to date and fall in love, to enjoy the bars and the clubs and the house parties. They wanted to laugh and dance and live.

And fuck.

And that is when, in the deviously quiet way in which stigma operates, all hell broke loose. We built social fortresses to separate Us from Them. We didn’t have to bother labeling one another because the disease did it for us, creating an HIV hierarchy that started with “positive” and “negative.”

The more HIV treatments improved, the wider the viral divide became. Our mutual resentments and jealousies worsened. As the physical scars of AIDS faded—the skin lesions, the wasted faces—our anxiety level rose as HIV status became less apparent. You can just imagine the frustration of the discerning gay man, no longer capable of telling the positive from the negative. Where’s the comfort of stigmatizing someone when you can’t tell who they are?

Today, our attitudes about HIV and other gay men range from self-righteousness to outright contempt. From whatever our vantage point, we have shamed and stigmatized everyone else into a corner, and the result is a community in revolt against itself. We are a snake eating its tail.

It might be easy to doubt this gloomy view of the gay community. None of us like to believe ourselves guilty of treating “the other” badly. The only thing we admit for sure is that we have been mistreated and misunderstood. Our self-interest is telling.

Maybe the problem is that, beyond the convenient anonymity of online hookup sites or mobile apps, you don’t usually see HIV stigma in all of its black-and-white ugliness. You don’t hear its voice.

Stigma GrabListen closely to the ugly words of stigma. A special version even exists for the newly diagnosed.

Gay men who get infected today are out of their minds. They are the failed ones, the grave disappointments, the apathetic, the careless, the irresponsible. They spit upon the memories of our courageous dead. They have no respect for our history, for our monumental tragedy.

We might make motions to comfort them, but it is the kind of patronizing back-patting that we reserve for the truly stupid. We tell them they will be fine, really, and we don’t look them in the eyes for very long. Our weary judgment shows.

Never mind that they are guilty of nothing more than being human, of being in love or getting drunk or trusting the wrong person or saying yes when they should have said no. Their weak excuses will be met with furrowed brows, and their dating life will wither. They will be marked and socially downgraded. They should be ashamed, and something inside us hopes that they are.

Do you hear it? Keep listening. There is so much more to say.

Before long, those newly diagnosed will join the promiscuous ranks of sexually active HIV-positive men. They are the unclean ones, the barebackers trolling the Internet, the murderers with tainted blood on their hands, the crystal meth addicts lounging in bathhouses with the door ajar. They are the unrepentant, the whores, the vile merchants of death.

Never mind that these men struggle to disclose their status, that they are routinely rejected socially and sexually, that their waning self-esteem is being strangled by our judgment, that sometimes their lives feel so forsaken they settle on whatever community will have them. The fact that stigma and depression often lead to escapist behavior is of no interest to us. We fear they could be having more sex than we are—hotter sex maybe—and the chance it might not be hurting anyone is infuriating. They should be ashamed, and we will make damn sure that they are.

The lowest rung of the gay HIV hierarchy is inhabited by older gay men who have lived with the virus for decades. They are the dependent ones, the sunken-faced humpbacks cashing their disability checks and wiling away their days sipping coffee in Café Disabilité. They are the aging invisibles and the sexually worthless.

They try to mask their feeble wasting with testosterone injections and protein shakes and facial fillers, but we know the truth. We see. They remind us of our darkest days, these unwelcome relics, and though we ignore them their haunting persists, in the daylight of the grocery store and the darkness of the bars. We avert our eyes and anticipate their extinction.

Never mind that they were among our earliest activists, our courageous long-term survivors, the men who scrawled words like “empowerment” and “advocacy” across the bureaucracies of their time. Forget that they have seen death in obscene quantity, that whatever joy they possess is a triumph of spirit. They should be ashamed, but we don’t regard them with enough interest to care.

Do the words sound familiar at all? Do you hear the voice? It isn’t nearly done.

Take a hard look at HIV-negative gay men. They are the superior ones, the corrupt morality police, the hypocrites, the gentlemen in waiting. Above all else they are the supremely lucky, because they can’t possibly live by the crushing code of conduct they impose on the rest of us.

They reject us as damaged goods. They promote how “drug and disease free” they are. They publicly advertise their outdated HIV results. They tell us we would make better friends than sex partners and then they don’t call again. They find clean, disease-free love with other, similarly superior men so they might have a life out of reach of the great unwashed.

Never mind that they have successfully avoided infection thus far, that they have buried friends and comforted lovers, that they withstand the unnerving ritual of HIV testing and worry about whether or not they will pass or fail. And please, pay no attention to the fact that they fear HIV stigma at least as much as positive men do, which is one compelling reason they hold tight to their negative status with such fervor.

None of their circumstances can excuse their indictment of the rest of us. We marvel at their lack of shame, and wonder bitterly if their attitudes might change if they became infected.

At least they don’t suffer the same wrath as do HIV-negative men taking Truvada, the HIV medication used as a pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. They are the traitorous ones, thumbing their noses at their elevated negative status by intentionally dipping themselves in the viral soup of casual sex. They are obviously barebacking infected guys or they wouldn’t be popping pills that blunt the consequences of being a poz-loving slut.

And God help those who don’t admit they are infected and have sex with a negative person, because they are the criminal ones, the terrorists, the dangerous liars who must pay dearly for what they’ve done. They belong in jail and off the streets, like drug dealers and rapists.

Never mind that, for reasons we all well know, they can’t always bring themselves to disclose, that they may use condoms, that they may be adherent to their meds and undetectable, and that no single case of an undetectable person transmitting the virus has ever been verified. Disregard the fact that conservative lawmakers and prosecutors are more than happy to exploit our thirst for vengeance and lock up some diseased fags who dare to have sex at all. Forget that during the first years of AIDS, when the virus reliably killed you, those who became infected took personal responsibility and called their doctors to start treatment and not the police to press charges.

POZ Stigma CoverThat is the sound of stigma. It is bitter and rageful and terribly afraid. I can hear my own tones in it, like a voice in a chorus, when it says the words I would never admit to thinking. Do you hear your own?

Gay men have known since the AIDS pandemic began that empowerment is the antidote to stigma, that the more proactively we approach our health care and build support networks, the less stigmatized we feel. The answer lies in our refusal to be marked and shamed. But our own community challenges us at every turn.

Stigma operates exactly like the deadly virus we claim to oppose: It infects pieces of us and then turns those factions against the rest, until the entire body is weakened and vulnerable. We all know how that process ends.

That is what the gay community has become. We are AIDS itself.

When HIV disease is over—and some day it surely will be—our jubilation will be beyond all imagining. We will have finally put an end to the health crisis that has plagued us for generations, a crisis that polarized nearly everyone, most particularly us as gay men. And once the celebrations fade, another equally important moment will come.

We will take a look around at our friends and lovers on both sides of the viral divide—at all of our brothers whom we stigmatized for one reason or another—and our old judgments will be transformed to a deep regret. Hopefully, in that moment, a certain kind of grace will emerge. We will clearly see the deep, private wounds of HIV stigma, and we will finally allow that we are all simply and imperfectly human. And then everyone will have some explaining to do.

It wouldn’t be too soon for that moment to happen now.

Mark

(This article originally appeared as a cover story in the June, 2013 issue of POZ Magazine but has never been posted on my blog until now. It remains one of my proudest moments as a writer. You can view my remarks about writing this piece, presented at the 2013 International Conference on Stigma, here. Photos: Jonathan Timmes Photography.)

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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, Prevention and Policy | 4 Comments »

AHF Offers Loans to Louisiana Agencies They Are Suing!

Friday, April 8th, 2016

In a bizarre press release issued by AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the $1 billion dollar agency has offered “no interest loans” to assist Baton Rouge HIV non-profits who are suffering financially as a result of being sued by AHF. Yes, their circular logic is exactly that absurd.

AHF is like a wife beater who offers the victim a few bucks for makeup to cover the bruises.

Kim Hood, COO of HAART in Baton Rouge, has some choice words for AHF.

Kim Hood, COO of HAART in Baton Rouge, has some choice words for AHF.

The fantastically weird offer comes in response to a thundering public outcry after it was revealed that AHF, dissatisfied with their Ryan White Care Act funding in Baton Rouge, filed suit against the city and parish of Baton Rouge as well as the local non-profits agencies who also received funding – even though those agencies play no role in the disbursement of funding and are without resources to defend themselves.

AHF is “dismayed,” according to their release, that as a direct result of their lawsuit, the City of Baton Rouge chose not to execute funding contracts that would have gone into effect on March 1st, while waiting for an initial hearing to be scheduled. Services provided by local agencies since March 1st have gone without reimbursement, placing a financial strain on the agencies and risking service provision to people with HIV.

Kim Hood, Chief Operations and Compliance Officer at the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two (HAART), one of the local agencies being sued, isn’t buying the loan offer for one second. “If AHF is in such a fantastic financial position to be so magnanimous as to offer loans to agencies that have been doing this work for more than 20 years,” she said, “then they don’t need Ryan White funding.”

“They have no intention of making any loans,” Hood continues. “I fail to see the purpose. If they loan me the entire amount I am supposed to get from Ryan White, how am I supposed to pay it back if they are successful in their lawsuit, which would take away funding from us?” Hood says that, rather than devoting time to managing care for HAART clients, “I have been spending my day drafting a response to a temporary restraining order filed by AHF. Their claims are laughable.”

Reached by phone for comment, AHF Director of Communications Ged Kenslea was not able to provide further information on the proposed loans, saying only that “we are in that process now.” When asked why, if AHF was concerned about the financial hardship of the local non-profits, they didn’t simply remove those agencies from their legal proceedings, Kenslea said it was a “legal question” and referred it to AHF’s legal counsel, who was unavailable for comment.

“We are attempting to hold the parish accountable for an inequitable process,” Kenslea managed to say before abruptly ending the call.

Hood vehemently disagrees with that assessment, or that the parish “abused its authority when awarding contracts,” as claimed by the AHF press release.

“We don’t always agree with the monies allocated,” Hood said. “But we trust the entities who are charged with making these decisions, because they have the most information about where the need is.  We don’t sue the city.”

Hood believes that AHF has far greedier motives for its actions. “This is not about patient care,” she said, “this is about the 340b drug pricing program. An AIDS organization that is providing medications that encourage viral suppression is eligible for this program. The program offers a substantial profit on these medications. AHF didn’t get funded in the category that would have benefited them most from this program. It’s very lucrative.”

Hood further believes that AHF has shown no regard for the local Ryan White process, which typically awards smaller amounts to first-time grant requests, and then increases those awards as the agencies demonstrate they are good stewards of the funding. “The service organizations in this market have been good stewards of those dollars for more than 20 years, working together and being good partners with one another. AHF has not been a good partner, either in this market or in any other market I am aware of.”

“Every local agency named in the AHF lawsuit works together and makes referrals to one another.  It creates a continuum of care. The city and parish know these things, and take them into consideration.”

“Just because AHF has come into this marketplace and bought up HIV practices to create a large patient population does not mean they are entitled to this funding, over those of us who have been doing this work for years” says Hood. “I find that offensive.”

Hood bemoans the fact that AHF dragged her agency and others into their legal wranglings. “They didn’t have to name all the other recipients.  They don’t want us spending any of the money they think they’re going to get their hands on.”

AHF presumably remains dismayed. Dismayed, I tell you.

Mark

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Posted in Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | No Comments »

Louisiana HIV Agencies Respond to ‘Shocking’ AHF Lawsuit

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

In a profoundly troubling lawsuit against the City of Baton Rouge and local HIV/AIDS non-profits, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) has forced federal funds to be withheld while AHF continues their litigious temper tantrum over not receiving a Ryan White Care Act grant award they requested. The vindictive action poses a real and present danger to services being provided to people with HIV in the area.

AHF CEO Michael Weinstein

AHF CEO Michael Weinstein

AHF, also known as The Walmart of AIDS, did not simply sue the city of Baton Rouge (the government entity responsible for the grant process). In an insanely destructive move, AHF also included in their litigation the local non-profit agencies that received funding — even though those agencies play no role in grant disbursement (read the nauseating lawsuit here).

As a result of this intimidating legal stunt, the city has voluntarily paused their contract process until a hearing can be held (contracts to agencies were due to be executed on March 1st).  That means local grantees are not able to seek reimbursement for services they are providing right now to people living with HIV.

AHF, with an estimated $1 billion annual budget and led by its universally reviled CEO Michael Weinstein, had requested $1 million in Ryan White funding. They were granted $66,000, with the remainder awarded to established local agencies that have been providing services for years. This was the first Ryan White grant request in Baton Rouge by AHF, which crept into the area two years ago after buying an HIV practice and setting up shop with HIV/STD testing services.

“This hurts our clients,” said Matthew Valliere, CEO of Capitol City Family Health Center, one of several local service providers named in the lawsuit. “For AHF to put us as party to their litigation, it is shocking. And it may put a financial strain on our organization.”

Capitol City Family Health Center

Capitol City Family Health Center

That may be exactly what AHF has in mind. The largest provider of HIV services in the world is known for a long and colorful history of suing anything that moves. In one city after another, AHF has entered the marketplace and then either gobbled up local agencies or sued for a bigger piece of the federal funding pie. Just ask the local services providers in Dallas or West Palm Beach, cities which have faced similar AHF action.

In Baton Rouge, funders have had no choice but to withhold the execution of contracts until a hearing can be held on a temporary restraining order request filed by AHF. The hearing may not happen until May and perhaps later. In the meantime, local agencies must hold their breath and hope they will eventually receive their original grant award – while providing services out of their own pocket for as long as they are able.

For Family Health Center head Valliere, that means an average of $40,000 worth of monthly services is not being reimbursed to them as expected. “This is a bullying tactic,” he said. “We will find a way to continue providing services, but I hope it doesn’t go on too long.”

The HIV service agency CrescentCare Health (formerly NO/AIDS Task Force) is based in New Orleans but has a small satellite office in Baton Rouge. Even though they only receive grant monies in Baton Rouge for providing legal services – a service for which AHF did not even apply for funding – the agency has been named in the AHF lawsuit.

“We don’t have funds devoted to defending ourselves against a lawsuit,” said CrescentCare director Noel Twilbeck. “We never expected that we would get sued. Legal fees will have to come from unrestricted funds that would otherwise go to programs like primary medical care.”

CrescentCare Health

CrescentCare Health

Twilbeck said that CrescentCare considered trying to remove itself from the suit, but “we are standing in solidarity with our Baton Rouge friends.” He also finds it “laughable” that the AHF lawsuit contends the behemoth agency is suffering “serious and irreparable damage” because they didn’t receive the funding they requested.

“This is a bully trying to get their way,” Twilbeck said, pointing out that AHF made a reported $15 million in profits in 2012 in the United States alone. “Fortunately, the Baton Rouge agencies are coming together on this, because they view AHF as a predator and a bully.”

The Louisiana AIDS Advocacy Network (LAAN) has released a statement that is harshly critical of the AHF suit while spelling out its potentially chilling effect on people with HIV. “No state funds are available for HIV services,” the statement reads in part, “which make these federal funds vital to the lives of people living with HIV. Delaying these contracts could mean that people living with HIV, especially those without other resources, could miss doses of their medications, not be able to go to medical appointments and not see medical providers.  All of these can be potentially life threatening to individuals living with HIV.”

LAAN advocacy artwork

LAAN is urging people to contact Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden (email: mayor@brgov.com phone: 225-389-3100) to express concern that delaying Ryan White funds will negatively impact people living with HIV.

Baton Rouge has been the victim of an AHF hissy fit before: last year, AHF withdrew its funding support at the last minute for a state-wide HIV advocacy event because one of the committee members is involved in a whistleblower lawsuit against them. AHF reinstated its support after their actions were exposed by My Fabulous Disease. All this nonsense is in addition to AHF’s misleading and discredited opposition to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

In other news, AIDS Healthcare Foundation will be opening facilities in Baltimore, Maryland, by the end of this year. Now would be a good time for local agencies to find an attorney that has pro bono availability and a strong stomach.

Mark

 

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Posted in Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 1 Comment »

Packing Up The Man Who Wasn’t There

Monday, April 4th, 2016

When the health of my close friend Ron began to rapidly decline in 1987, he made the decision to leave Los Angeles to return home to rural New York to be near his family. “Just long enough to feel a little better,” he told me at the time. It was a common trajectory in those days, usually undertaken not long after delivering the news to your family that you were gay and oh, by the way, had AIDS.

Binder5-225x300I spent an afternoon helping Ron pack his things for the trip home. The chore was fraught with emotion, mortal dread, and the realization that my old friend was swiftly losing his mind.

“Mark?” Ron called from the bedroom. “Did you get a lot of boxes? We’re going to need a lot, I think.” I was in the living room, sealing the music and video carton.

“Yes, Ron. I told you. I’m going to take all this to the mailing place right down the street. They’ll mail it home for you, okay?” I walked into the bedroom.

He sat on the bed, staring at stacks of clothes on the floor around him. They would all be sent along, he had insisted. Clothes for every season. It felt sadly optimistic. His athletic body was shockingly diminished, deflated into near nothingness.

“We need a lot of boxes,” he repeated.  “You know what, Mark?”

I took a cardboard garment box that was leaning against a wall and began folding it into place.

“What, Ron?” I grabbed packing tape and sealed the flaps at one end. Ron sat staring at the floor, as if he were napping with his eyes open.

“Hey, Ron, what is it?” I called to him. He didn’t respond.

I knelt by his bed, collecting a stack of clothes, and looked into his face.  His features held no expression, except for his eyes, which darted back and forth in a sort of panic.

“Ron? Are you doing okay?” I squeezed his knee.  “Ron.”

Don’t you dare have some sort of seizure on me, I thought.  That I could not handle, buddy. I felt a flash of anger for agreeing to help him, for having to be the sole remaining companion, the one not driven away by the hospital visits and the disfiguring lesions, the one who had to carry out this depressing task for him.  And then, of course, I felt ashamed.

Who said you wouldn’t have to get your hands dirty, Mark?  There’s a consequence for inexplicably remaining alive while AIDS punctures your social circle. There’s a certain result from being able to function normally and pack boxes while your friends aren’t so fortunate. There’s a price for your continued good health. And you’re looking at it.

“Ron?” I tried again. “Ron, can you understand me?”

He turned his face to mine. “Of course I understand you, Mark. You think I’m nuts?”

I was startled. “Well no, Ron, but you were – “

“I know everything that’s going on here, Mark!” He stood up a little too quickly, caught his balance, and began to pace around the piles of shirts and underwear. “I know that I am packing things up here, and you are helping me because I can’t fucking bend over without having some kind of stroke. Thank you, by the way. I know that everyone thinks that this is it for me, and that my sister is going to freak out when she sees me.“ He turned to me. “I know that I don’t need my Jane Fonda workout tapes anymore, do I, Mark?”

I couldn’t find words. He shuffled to the sink in the open bathroom.  I lowered an armful of clothing into the box.

“There are more towels in here,” he said. “Give them to that old woman next door. Maybe give her this bathroom stuff too, this soap dish and all. She’s old. Maybe she can use this shit.”

His burst of exertion suddenly caught up with him and his body slumped. He held on to the counter top with both hands. I watched his face in the mirror above the sink.

“No, I’m not crazy yet,” he said in a tired voice. He bowed his head, catching his breath.

I couldn’t know what would await him when he made the move home.  I had no idea that his panicked parents would soon place my 26-year-old friend in a nursing home, the only available option in his small town, or that Ron’s fate would include losing what was left of his mental faculties in a recreation room filled with the elderly. There was no way for me to predict that the increasingly rare phone calls from his sister would include the fact that if his mother had to witness Ron laying in his own feces one more time the poor woman would go quite mad.

Ron lifted his head and caught my gaze in the mirror. I was wrestling with the muscles in my face to keep from crying. His look suggested that it was he who felt sympathy. For me.

“I have to leave for a while, Ron,” I said. “Lesley went into intensive care this morning and I promised I would get over there to see him.”

Lesley, another close friend of mine, one who Ron didn’t particularly like. And now, the two were competing for the time and affections of our social circle as they raced to their tragic finish.

I stood up and began to gather my things to leave.

“This is just like Lesley,” he said suddenly.

I stopped and looked back at him.

“It figures he’d wanna die now,” he said. “This is just like him.”

 

Artwork courtesy of Alexander Binder

(AIDS Dementia Complex [ARD] is associated with late-stage AIDS and was especially common in the United States during the early days of the crisis when there were no effective medications. It is believed to be the result of various factors that include a ruined immune system, medications, and infections such as toxoplasmosis.)

 

PLUS…

IMAG1680For the very first time on this blog, I am asking for a donation — but not for me, for Moveable Feast, the meal delivery HIV/AIDS agency in Baltimore for whom I am participating in Ride for the Feast, a 140-mile bike ride (!). Would you consider making a donation of any amount? It only takes two minutes, and you can make your tax-deductible contribution on my Ride for the Feast page here.  If you have ever found my writing or advocacy helpful, this would be a lovely way to show some love.  Thanks, my friends.

 

 

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Posted in Family and Friends, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease | 2 Comments »

Feeling the Love for L.A.’s Dearly Departed Circus Disco

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

In a forsaken block of Santa Monica Boulevard, off the street and through an imposing industrial alley, a Hollywood disco opened in the late 1970s that made promises the other gay clubs were loathe to keep.

The two-story face of a clown, with an enormous, yawning mouth serving as the front doorway, stood sentry. There were no rules for entrance, no discerning bouncers selecting the lucky ones, no outfits to be appraised. Anyone who scraped together the cover charge was welcome.

That club was Circus Disco.
circus_mark_kingx750

Across town in the shining gay mecca of West Hollywood, dance clubs and bars like Studio One and Mother Lode pulsated with the new, synthesized beat of Donna Summer. Her mind-blowing dancefloor smash, “I Feel Love,” played on a seemingly endless loop. But love was often conditional in those clubs, which were populated by gay men with impossibly muscled bodies and skin only as dark as a California tan would allow. Love had standards.

Circus Disco — along with the Los Angeles black gay club, Jewel’s Catch One — practiced a truer level of acceptance, filling its dance floor with a largely Latino and black clientele, but the crowd didn’t simply cross racial divides. Peppered among the partying throngs were transgender pioneers and leather men and drag queens, gyrating to the new music of the B-52s and sharing powdery glass vials from one clutch of dancers to another.

I was one of those misfits when I discovered Circus Disco in the late 1980s. I bore the inner mark of the new plague, having tested positive for HIV in 1985, and it felt like a secret that disqualified me from the male magazine perfection of West Hollywood. The murderous storm of AIDS struck without interest in outward appearances, of course, but with my feelings of woeful damage I needed desperately to believe that Circus Disco was the oasis it promised to be.

It did not disappoint. A buoyant cross section of humanity greeted me each weekend to a tempestuous party where you could fall urgently in love while in line for the bathroom and furtive sexual fumblings happened in plain sight. The citywide racial tensions that would eventually lead the city into riots were mercifully muted. The dance floor crowd was as multi-colored as the light show.

Joyous exuberance reverberated with the thundering dance floor beat as shirtless men celebrated a confident sexuality and the limitless possibilities of life ahead. The constant thump! thump! thump! of the music was our clarion call and it proclaimed, Here! Here! Your tribe is here!

We were so beautiful, in ways we were much too young to know.

Circus Disco partied on through the 1990s and beyond, impervious to fickle music trends and even resisting pressure to remove the word “disco” from its name. The crowds ebbed over the years but the club never faltered, right through its recent closure, in the genuineness of its welcome.

And now, in a story that might only happen in Los Angeles, historic preservationists have convinced new property developers that the Circus Disco building warrants respect for its place in LGBT history. Portions of the club, such as the dance floor and mirrored ball and even the clown face entrance, will be incorporated into the design of the apartment building the site will become.

Like many of my dance partners from those nights at Circus Disco, I am now many years and thousands of miles from the magic of the club’s brightly lighted floor. We are a scattered people.

There are those, too, who were swept away by the firestorm of AIDS. Remembering the lost, their lives extinguished in the very years they found the community they sought, makes me all the more grateful that Circus Disco will be memorialized. It was as much a force for good in our community, in its own way, as any LGBT organization of that perilous time.

Circus Disco is lost to the ages now, but residents of the new apartment building would be wise to listen carefully for sounds coming from another era. The DJ is spinning and the disco divas are cooing, inviting legions of spirits back to the dance. There are boisterous people, a glare of silhouettes in a laser show, stepping onto the floor. The crowd is swaying to the beat and laughing and holding one another. They are all beautiful, and they know it at last.

And they feel love.

Mark

(I was invited to write this piece for TheAdvocate.com. I will admit to borrowing memories and images from my loving tribute to Donna Summer a few years ago. — Mark)

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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News | No Comments »

I Watched Charlie Sheen on Dr. Oz So You Don’t Have To

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

Sheen Dr Oz pic

Dr. Oz has a very strange verbal compulsion. He can’t stop making lame metaphors.

When taking an early morning jog with Charlie Sheen, in the first of their two-part interview for The Dr. Oz Show, the doctor sees metaphors everywhere. “You have to look down so you don’t see how steep the hill is,” he says as they putter upwards. “It’s sort of like life, isn’t it?”

Descending the hill sparks another metaphoric burst from the talk show physician. “It’s always easier going downhill,” he says to Charlie. “What’s going downhill like now that you’re public about your HIV?”

It became tough not to participate. Oh look, doctor. A rock. It’s like the hard place Charlie has found himself. Or maybe it’s the blunt instrument I will use to bash my head in after watching this inane, dangerously misinformed interview.

I had such high hopes. Charlie’s coming out interview on The Today Show was as focused and informative as anyone could have expected from the troubled star. I was actually moved by Charlie’s discomfort, and related to his obvious apprehension about making such a public disclosure. Better yet, the interview had the entire world talking about the meaning of “undetectable viral load,” something I never saw coming and a great service to HIV education.

Well, it was great while it lasted. I am dismayed to report that Tiger Blood Charlie is back and he has gone rogue. And his Chasing the Cure! conversation with Dr. Oz might be the worst thing to ever happen to AIDS cure research, or at least the most irresponsible reporting about it.

But first, before the TV show bothers to get to the “provocative development in his search for a cure,” we must wade through the first hour and tour the home of the we’re-pretty-sure-he’s-not-batshit-crazy-anymore star. He makes healthy shakes! He loves movies! He throws a baseball! Hey, there’s the tastefully appointed bedroom where he banged and allegedly assaulted women!

Charlie does discuss his treatment and their side effects. “Poopy pants,” he reveals. His advice is to wear black underwear. I intend to contact Treatment Action Group immediately to share this revelation.

To his minimal credit, Dr. Oz shows concern for the various addictions of his guest, from gambling to cocaine, but his light touch suggests this circus can’t afford for the star to bolt. Never mind that Charlie claims he only stopped drinking once the Today Show interview was complete, and that he has tried to stop “hundreds of times” before. Appearing on national television is apparently much more therapeutic than finding the nearest rehab facility.

But on to the second hour, an in-studio interview with a live audience. This is where it gets really interesting — and gruesome and creepy and utterly insane.

Dr. Oz revisits Charlie’s hard-partying lifestyle and then asks him more questions about the horrendous, terrible news that he tested positive. The sum of the conversation was that Charlie Sheen’s diagnosis – and by extension, all of us living with HIV – is comeuppance for his crimes against nature.

But the best was yet to come. Finally, well into the second hour, Charlie reveals that his Chasing the Cure! led him not to actual experts in the field, but to Dr. Samir Chachoua, a doctor in Mexico about which little is known, except that he resembles Grizzly Adams after a hard night in Tijuana. Charlie had such faith in his quest that he stopped taking his medications in anticipation of seeing this nut.

And this Doctor of Quackery, in a phone interview with Dr. Oz, claims to have cured Charlie of HIV. “He’s the first person in history to go HIV negative,” says the Mexican madman, apparently unaware of the name Timothy Ray Brown. It’s like a crazytown online denialist come to life. But wait, there’s more.

Chachoua says, and Charlie concurs, that he drew blood from Charlie and then injected it into himself to prove his case, and that Charlie remained undetectable. Never mind that this was mere days after Charlie had discontinued his meds, which surely were still working in his bloodstream. The entire, bizarre scenario was like something out of American Horror Story: AIDS.

Back in the studio, Charlie’s own doctors reveal that his viral load has spiked again. His personal physician pleads with Charlie to go back on his meds. Charlie sunnily agrees. “What, am I crazy?” he jokes, to scattered, confused applause. Thus ends his first chapter of Chasing a Cure!

I prayed that Dr Oz would then introduce someone from the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) to preset real facts about the current state of cure studies. Wouldn’t treatment activism icon Peter Staley make an excellent guest? David Evans from Project Inform? Please God, anyone. My prayers went unanswered.

Instead, Dr Oz turns from the actual physicians in the studio to pursue a far more important line of questioning. At this critical juncture in the interview, it was important to discuss movies.

“You describe your journey, chasing a cure for HIV,” Dr. Oz says in his most empathetic voice, “in a way that is similar to your dad’s journey in Apocalypse Now.” I’m sure Martin Sheen watched with pride, knowing his film career had become relevant again. “Has your diagnosis with HIV brought you closer to him?” The camera moves in to Charlie greedily.

Somewhere Barbara Walters was rummaging through her penthouse for a rope to hang herself.

There were actually a group of HIV positive women in the studio that day, some representing Positive Women’s Network, and during the taping they were given the opportunity to offer what was undoubtedly some much-needed perspective. But evidently they had nothing to say about Apocalypse Now or they were really bad at metaphors, because the segment was cut from the broadcast.

Charlie Sheen isn’t going anywhere soon. There is always hope he may regain his senses and become the high-profile cure advocate we need. But what we are currently witnessing is the exploitation of a deeply troubled man with multiple addictions.

Whether Charlie Sheen follows the path of other distressed celebrities, be it recovering addict Robert Downey Jr. or the very dead Amy Winehouse, remains to be seen.

Mark

(This piece originally appeared as one of my blog postings for POZ.com — Mark)

 

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The Man Who Buried Them Remembers

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

grave 2

When he conducted the funerals, Tom Bonderenko tells me, he always wore his priestly garments and white stole. Even when no one showed up for the graveside service.

“It was important to show dignity and respect,” Tom says. He taps the coffee cup in his lap nervously. “I’m sorry,” he says. He clears his throat but it doesn’t keep his eyes from welling up. “No one has asked me about this in a really long time.”

We are sitting in his office at Moveable Feast, the Baltimore meal delivery agency for those with life-threatening illnesses, where Tom has served as director for the last eight years. His office is spacious and cheerful, but this conversation is a difficult one. He had discreetly closed his office door behind me when I arrived.

When Moveable Feast was founded in 1989 to deliver meals to home-bound AIDS patients, Tom was engaged in a different, more literal ministry to the disenfranchised. He was a priest staffing a homeless shelter for Catholic Charities of Baltimore. It was there he met someone with AIDS for the first time.

“A young man came to the door of the emergency shelter, sometime in 1987,” he says. “He was covered in black marks. Lesions, you know. Everywhere. He said he needed to clean up before his first doctor appointment the next day.”

Tom had grown up in New York City, and as a gay man he had known people who died very suddenly, as far back as the early 1980’s. But he had never stood face to face with someone so ill with the dreaded disease.

I couldn’t help but ask Tom how he felt, meeting that person.

TomTom stares out his office window, and his eyes are so beautiful, romantically blue, framed with creases of worry. The eyes of a priest. He turns back to me with an answer. “Here was a young man who was going to find out from a doctor the next day that he had AIDS,” he manages. He starts tapping his coffee cup again, and he bows his head reverently. “And he was about to be told that he was going to die.”

Tom never saw the young man again.

People with AIDS became more common at the shelter before long. Tom got to know the regulars, and they began to ask him to perform their funeral services.

“They just wanted to know they would be buried,” he says quietly. “They didn’t want or need anything religious. Most of them were estranged from their families, drug abuse, that sort of thing. I think they were embarrassed to reach out to relatives. Sometimes, when they died we would find a member of the family to come, but usually it was just me and the departed at the gravesite.”

The burials were performed at unmarked graves in a lonely section of Baltimore Cemetery. The caskets were as charity required, simple wooden boxes, and they always contained a body. The funeral home would not cremate someone who died from AIDS because they were afraid of poisoning the air.

“I would always conduct the service out loud,” says Tom, now sharing the sacred details. “I would speak about the departed, and say what I knew of them, about where they were from. And then I would ask if anyone present had been harmed by the departed…”

I imagined Tom, in his vestments and alone in a forgotten graveyard, asking intimate questions out loud to the grass and the trees and the disinterested silence. “I would say that if the departed had harmed anyone,” he goes on, “for that person to please forgive them.” Tom’s voice falters. “And then I would ask the departed to forgive, too. I would tell them, ‘you’re on the other side now. Let it go.’”

Tom B-2Tom’s office becomes very still. I feel as if I’m holding my breath.

“I think they just didn’t want to be alone,” Tom says, and now he looks at me without regard for his tears. “We don’t do this alone.”

Because of you, I think to myself. They weren’t alone because of you, Tom.

“I’m so sorry,” he says, again, wiping his face. “I haven’t talked about this in so long.” He considers the faraway scene he has conjured, his graveside questions to no one, and then adds, “It was the most important, meaningful thing I have ever done.”

I wonder aloud if the experience bolstered his religious faith or challenged it instead. He looks surprised by the question. “Well,” he answers after a moment, “I believe it strengthened my faith. Yes.” I want very much to believe him.

Tom left Catholic Charities, and the priesthood, not long after he conducted the last of his burials for the homeless. A decade later he joined Moveable Feast and embraced its mission to provide sustenance for people in need, people like those to whom he once ministered.

Tom’s fellow staff members know little about his life a generation ago. Most of them aren’t aware of the aching memories beneath the calm surface of their sensitive and capable boss. They may not fully understand why Tom leaves the office once a month to distribute food personally to homebound clients.

But they will tell you that when Tom Bonderenko returns from those deliveries, he always has tears in his eyes.

Mark

 

(I was struck when Tom said to me, “No one has asked me about this in a really long time,” because there are so many more stories out there for the asking. We only have to reach out. I hope you take any opportunity to have a conversation with someone “who was there.” This history must be chronicled and preserved. — Mark)

FRIENDS: I have become so impressed with Moveable Feast, so much so that I am riding 140 miles to raise money for them. If you enjoyed this profile on their director, or you just love me in general, I urge you to visit this link and make a donation of any amount. 100% of your gift directly benefits their clients!

 

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16 HIV Advocates to Watch in 2016

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

They come from nearly every corner of the world. They are engaged in local communities and on the international scene. They include mothers, artists, a fugitive, a performer, and a drug smuggler. They are speaking out, acting up, and in some cases risking their personal safety and liberty.

All advocates

(Photo illustration courtesy of PLUS Magazine.)

They are the 16 HIV advocates to watch in 2016, and they inspire and humble me. It is such a privilege to share their stories with you and highlight their important work. Their twitter handles and other social media links are included whenever available; I urge you to follow them so these advocates can inspire you all year long!

And now, it is my honor to present…

Joshua Middleton
Big Bear Lake, California

Joshua MiddletonStraight men living with HIV aren’t unicorns. They do exist. But being public about their status means facing an additional layer of ignorance. Joshua Middleton has every intention of changing that. “I’m putting a face on the heterosexual HIV positive male that is often silent in this fight against HIV,” says the 25-year-old Californian. “I want to show the world that there is always hope.”

Joshua has started his own blog, contributes to TheBody.com,  and has dived into the HIV advocacy arena with vigor and youthful enthusiasm. He has become an avid supporter of PrEP, uses his fluidity in multiple languages to share HIV messages, and wants to pursue a law degree for the express purpose of defending those being unfairly prosecuted by HIV criminalization laws.

“He is a loving soul,” says Maria Mejia, the popular social media personality and HIV positive advocate. “He represents a new generation of activist and I am always so proud to see a young heterosexual male stepping out of the HIV closet.”

“Sitting on the sidelines is not an option for me,” says Joshua. “I’m going to be a driving force until the day when HIV becomes yesterday’s news.”

 

Kenny Brandmuse
Lagos, Nigeria

Kenny Brandmuse credit olubode shawn brownIf and when Kenny Brandmuse returns to his home of Lagos, Nigeria, the reception might not be a welcome one. Shortly before he left two years ago (escaped might be a better word), he was receiving threatening phone messages from anonymous strangers. “They wanted me punished for my sexuality,” says Kenny. “I was already being investigated by the court, and I had to stop attending the hearings because the unfriendly crowds outside the court were becoming larger.”

The threat to his safety became too great, so Kenny managed to get to the United States by seeking an advanced degree at a Baltimore college. Then he found the ideal job – and a work visa – with the Baltimore Health department to design programs for gay black men that address HIV stigma. He loves the work but can’t help but feel anxious about the future, once the visa ends. “It’s like walking on needles,” Kenny says.

Part of his troubles in Nigeria were due to Kenny being an outspoken gay men living with HIV. Kenny founded Is Anyone In Africa?, an online community for African gay men and those living with HIV. It has helped over 500 men and women receive care without fear of being outed since being launched only one year ago.

For 2016, Kenny has a simply goal: to see a more empowered gay community living in homophobic Sub-Saharan Africa.

Pioneering African gay rights clergyman Jide Rowland Macaulay, founding pastor of House of Rainbows, has a unique understanding of Kenny’s journey. “Kenny coming out about his sexuality and HIV status has made many of us come to a place to be realistic and reconcile the odds against discrimination,” Jide says. “As a child of Nigeria, he has by default positioned himself carefully as heroic, it is my hope that the nation would find in her heart to celebrate him.”

Whether or not Nigeria is ready to celebrate the return of Kenny Brandmuse remains to be seen. His work visa expires in 2018.

(Photo credit: Olubode Shawn Brown)

 

Greg Owen
London, England

Greg OwenIf the photo of Greg Owen strikes you as sexually provocative, then he’s just doing his job. The London-based advocate likes starting conversations about sex. “It is incredibly important for us as gay men to remain not just sex-positive but to keep reaching and working towards a complete sense of well-being. Emotional, mental, sexual and social,” says Greg. “When we are looking after ourselves, we become more resilient in dealing with the curveballs that life sometimes throws.”

Greg faced a major curveball only months ago, when he decided to begin taking PrEP himself (because Truvada as PrEP isn’t yet available in the United Kingdom, Greg acquired the drug from a friend who had stopped taking it as an HIV treatment med). Everything was in place, until Greg got tested before beginning PrEP and discovered he had become HIV positive since his previous test. His own decision to start PrEP was just a few months too late. His idea to write and share his own “PrEP Diaries” instantly became his “Diagnosis Diaries.” His activism did not skip a single beat, culminating with his popular site, “I Want PrEP Now.”

Gus Cairns, the enormously influential editor of AIDSMap, is duly impressed. “What I particularly like about Greg is that although he knows what he’s doing, he is conspicuously not a saint,” he says. “He knows instinctively that the best way to sell HIV prevention is via sex, not by finger-wagging about it. He lives his life rather nakedly in public and is both an inspiration to others but also, now and then, a burden to himself because of it. I follow his activist career with a paternal eye.”

 

Joey Joleen Mataele
Nuku`alofa, Kingdom of Tonga

Joey Joleen MataeleIn Tonga, when a transgender person (known as “leiti”) is seen walking down the street, someone might use a cruel shorthand to refer to them. They simply call them “AIDS.” It is in that discriminatory environment that Joey Joleen Mataele founded the Tonga Leitis Association in 1992, and she hasn’t stopped fighting for her community ever since.

An active figure on the HIV awareness scene, Joleen has witnessed firsthand the harassment and discrimination suffered by LGBTIQ people in Tonga and the South Pacific. But Joleen had a not-so-secret weapon: her own visibility as a singer and entertainer. “The culture of the pacific is open to humor, song and dance,” Joleen says. “So, I founded the Miss Galaxy Queen Pageant to raise awareness and to support our community.” The pageant event became an enormous phenomenon, raising crucial funding and even garnering the support of Her Royal Highness Princess Salote Lupepau’u Tuita.

Joleen, who is also raising five adopted children at home, is just as ambitious in her goals for 2016. “I want to strengthen the Tonga Leitis community advocacy to effectively address the health, rights and well-being of Tongans and Pacific Islanders of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities,” she says, “and to provide an inclusive environment that celebrates diversity in all forms.”

“Joleen has been a beacon of hope for those living with HIV and AIDS in the region,” says Resitara Apa, former secretariat of the Pacific Diversity Network.  “She works to ensure that the people of Tonga are educated about HIV so they stop discrimination and start caring and loving those living with HIV. Keep an eye out for her in 2016 and see her make changes for those who have no voice.”

 

Kamaria Laffrey
Winter Haven, Florida

Kamaria LaffreyThe Positive Women’s Network USA (PWN USA) could easily generate an activist list of their very own, considering how ferociously powerful the organization has become in recent years. One advocate who has benefited from their inspiring female power is Floridian Kamaria Laffrey.

“More and more women are coming out of the shadows,” Kamaria says, “and helping to break down misconceptions of HIV.” Her work with PWN USA, We Make the Change Florida, and as part of a strategy team with The SERO Project to repeal criminalization laws, is keeping her schedule brimming with advocacy activity. “I am continually fueled to find ways to share purpose beyond pain when issues of criminalization, reproductive injustice, and overall stigma prevent people from seeking treatment, staying in care and living the abundantly full life they deserve.”

Kamaria credits her religious faith for getting her through her diagnosis in 2003. “Being a woman of faith has often made me feel torn in what I view as a really sensitive culture. In the faith arena, I feel that many layers of HIV aren’t addressed, just those that feel less controversial,” she says. “And outside of the faith world, I sometimes feel as though I am not taken seriously because of my beliefs. But I have hope for change.”

In 2016, Kamaria will be focused on making her organization emPOWERed Legacies officially a non-profit, completing her book, Chasing Waterfalls, and making a mission trip to Haiti.

Tami Haught, the SERO Project Training Coordinator who led the fight that successfully updated Iowa’s HIV criminalization laws, believes Kamaria’s spirit may be her most valuable tool as an advocate. “Kamaria has so much energy, her smile lights up a room,” Tami says. “Her spirit and resolve are inspiring, and she is a power to be reckoned with in Florida.”

 

Nicholas Feustel
Hamburg, Germany

Nicholas FeustelGerman activist and filmmaker Nicholas Feustel is committed to his PrEP advocacy body and soul. In fact, with no other options available, he is using his body as a quality control measure.

Nicholas has already made an enormous contribution through his video production work, creating documentaries on HIV criminalization, prevention, and living with HIV. But it was the advent of PrEP that re-energized his efforts, leading to his documentary on the groundbreaking PROUD study on PrEP. Even so, he still saw roadblocks to bringing the drug to Germany.

“I realized there is a big language barrier,” Nicholas says. “All the latest and useful information comes out in English first. So I translated articles, wrote my own, and launched the first German website on PrEP. I’ve been trying to make people here in Germany understand what PrEP is all about, that it is so much more than just taking pills.” As a direct result of Nicholas’ efforts, Germany’s leading AIDS service organization, Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe, is pro-PrEP after a period of skepticism.

But a huge barrier remained: Truvada as PrEP is not approved in Germany. That’s when Nicholas got really creative.

Nicholas learned he could legally import, without a prescription, a generic version of Truvada from India if it was shipped to the United Kingdom. He retrieved it there, began the regimen himself, and then had his blood levels tested for Truvada’s active ingredients to be sure the generic version was legit. It was. Anyone familiar with early HIV treatment activists leaving the country in pursuit of effective medications will appreciate Nicholas’ ingenuity.

Edwin Bernard, the internationally renowned coordinator of the HIV Justice Network, holds Nicholas in a special kind of awe (in a match made in HIV advocacy heaven, the two are longtime partners). “Nick always goes the extra mile in his PrEP advocacy,” Edwin says, “including turning his own body into a political petri dish and posting his own drug blood levels online whilst on cheaper generic Truvada.”

 

Ian Bradley-Perrin
Montreal, Quebec

Ian Bradley-PerrinThe staggeringly intelligent Canadian Ian Bradley-Perrin likes to figure out how systems work – and why they allow access to certain people while others are left behind. Lucky for us, the PhD student in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University in New York is applying it to the healthcare of people living with HIV.

“I’m interested in how social movements shape who gets a seat at the table of policy making,” says Ian, “and how class, gender, race, and health intersect to produce particular understandings of the needs of HIV+ people.”

Ian is also fascinated with the history of the HIV epidemic, and the “historiography of AIDS” in particular. “It’s the study of how the history of HIV/AIDS and the artistic and symbolic products of activism around the issue get written,” he says. “What are the narrative trends, tropes, and what is missing. Essentially, instead of just the story of AIDS, it’s the history of the way we tell the story of AIDS.”

Ian will publish much of this in various papers in 2016. He will present on the topic of stigma and public health at Columbia this year, and is applying his knowledge to an initiative investigating community organizations in the Deep South and how the CDC funds them.

“Ian has an incisive ability to see the interconnections between the disparate social, cultural and policy implications of living with HIV in a post-HAART world,” says Avram Finkelstein, founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives. “He has already done significant work around HIV criminalization in Canada and spearheaded complex conversations about the recent attempts to construct an HIV/AIDS history in the midst the pandemic.”

 

Midnight Poonkasetwattana
Bangkok, Thailand

Midnight PoonkasetwattanaIf you talk to anyone who works with communities at HIV risk in the Asia Pacific, the conversation will quickly turn to the work of Midnight Poonkasetwattana, the extremely busy head of the Asia-Pacific Community of MSM Organizations (APCOM) in Bangkok, Thailand. In a region in which a huge portion of new infections are among gay men, he has his work cut out for him.

“At the heart of HIV response is the need to recognize the rights of people regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expressions,” says Midnight. “As a gay man this is important to me. In the Asia Pacific region, gay men and men who have sex with men (MSM) will account for 50% of new HIV infection in 2020 – we only have a small window to avert this.” APCOM has stepped up HIV testing and outreach to younger MSM and transgender youth.

“What keeps me going is the desire to see change,” Midnight says. “I want to see strong community organizations that are being recognized and treated as experts; not just as rhetoric that we normally hear. I want to bring in new and younger people to the movement to form new responses and ensures that we keep apace of the changing dynamics and that we are changing hearts and minds.”

Chris Beyrer, the current (and first openly gay) president of the International AIDS Society, has great confidence that Midnight will be a force for change in 2016. “Midnight is a dynamic emerging leader,” says Chris. “He is leading the community charge for sex positive PrEP programming in the region—where not a single Government is currently providing PrEP through national health systems. He’s out loud and proud, and a great voice for our global community.”

 

Lizzie Jordan
Gainsborough, Lincolnshire

Lizzie JordanNearly ten years ago, Lizzie Jordan became a mother, a widow and tested HIV positive all within an 18 month period. So, she left her London fashion career and returned to rural Lincolnshire to be near her family. She did not yet know that her personal tragedy was forging an activist with an important purpose.

As a single mother to a grieving child, Lizzie wanted to find resource and training for her child’s primary school. How could she help her child’s teachers, much less her classmates, learn to speak openly and compassionately about HIV?

Joining forces with friend Naomi Watkins, the pair sought to do something about the “uncomfortable silences” young people often felt when discussing sensitive subjects with the professionals involved in their lives. After months of planning, their agency Think2Speak was founded to provide age-appropriate guidance and support on issues such as mental health, bereavement, abuse, and yes, HIV and sexual health.

In the year ahead, Lizzie is “looking forward to working with schools, throughout the UK, encouraging young people, and those working with them, to learn and discuss responsible sexual health.”

Tom Hayes, the activist and editor of the online magazine Beyond Positive, is both a friend and a fan. “Lizzie is a great advocate because she has such passion for what she does” Tom says. “She’s such a kind, warm and generous person. She set up think2speak all whilst running her own marketing company. Impressive isn’t the word.”

 

Robert Garofalo
Chicago, Illinois

Robert Garofalo credit Jesse FreidinWhen you visit the Twitter page for Robert Garofalo, it isn’t really a page about him. It’s all about his dog, Fred. And that is the first thing you need to know about Robert’s activism.

The Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University has devoted his career to the care of HIV+ adolescents and has done a fair amount of HIV prevention interventions for young men who have sex with men and young transgender women. But let’s get back to the dog.

Robert founded Fred Says to raise money for agencies across the country that care for HIV+ young people. “I wanted to do something that was personal and creative,” says Robert, “and that tapped into the gratitude I had for my dog, Fred, who quite literally saved my life after my own HIV diagnosis in 2010.”

The photo essay project When Dogs Heal, launched in 2015, was the result. “Our hope was to change the narrative about HIV to be about love, hope, survival and thriving while living with HIV — all while giving credit to the healing powers of our pets,” says Robert. “Our hope in 2016 is to turn When Dogs Heal into a traveling art exhibit and to turn the project into a book.”

Charles Sanchez, the writer and star of the web series Merce, which features a lead character living with HIV, knows a little something about employing creative talents as an advocacy tool. “Sometimes a dog is more than just a man’s best friend, but also his best medicine,” says Charles. “Rob’s project has the potential to change people’s minds about what someone with HIV looks like. His work inspires me.”

(Photo credit: Jesse Freidin)

 

Charlie Tredway
Auckland, New Zealand

Charlie TredwayCharlie Tredway has experienced his share of HIV stigma. “I’ve had people using my positive status as a weapon against me and been abused online and felt undateable,” says the activist and staffer at the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. His response, though, has been to only increase his visibility as a person living with HIV. As far as Charlie is concerned, the strategy has worked. “Since going public it has weeded out the ignorant,” says Charlie. “The only way to combat that stigma is through honesty and making HIV personal and visible.”

Charlie has personally backed up his theory, working with the Aussie organization The Institute of Many as a senior moderator and appearing in their cheeky “Wizards of Poz” social media campaign (as Dorothy, no less).

Coming to this place of transparency hasn’t been an easy yellow brick road for Charlie. “I didn’t have proper follow up after my diagnosis and wasn’t engaged in any services or support or linked into adequate care. I just completely dropped the ball because I felt healthy.” Only after several years did Charlie turn things around. And it was then that he realized that no one could make him feel badly about himself without his consent.

Looking back, Charlie turns a critical eye to New Zealand’s policy of not treating HIV patients until their t-cell count falls below 500, something he feels may have kept him from care for too long. “It is stupidity of the highest order,” says Charlie. “Not only does it going against WHO recommendations, it also takes away the HIV positive person’s right to take ownership of their health and start treatment.”

That kind of candor has been characteristic of his advocacy. “I am someone who consistently puts my foot in my mouth,” he says, “and yet I have a platform to speak publicly on important issues so there is always a small fear that I will cock it up somehow. Luckily, I have amazing mentors and peers who encourage me to focus on my own truth.”

Those mentors include Australian activist Nic Holas, the founder of The Institute of Many.  “What I admire most about Charlie is his tenacity,” Nic says. “He is a fiery little SOB who stands up for the little guy, but also challenges the victim mentality so easily adopted by many in our community.”

 

Diego Callisto
São Paulo, Brazil

Diego CallistoSince testing positive at the age of 18, Brazilian activist Diego Callisto hasn’t wasted any time making an impression. The driven young man with the piercing green eyes has focused them squarely on tracking and treating the HIV epidemic, quite literally around the world.

Diego is a member of the Youth Task Force of UNAIDS and the Y+ Leadership Initiative. Although Diego is still polishing his English language skills, his passion is crystal clear. “I promised myself following my diagnosis that I would devote to the fight against AIDS,” he says. “Even losing boyfriend and dear friends, I follow through, willing to find more strength and determination to have a world free of stigma and discrimination against AIDS.”

Diego sees HIV as a “human development problem” that must be addressed through programs like the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations global agenda. “HIV requires mobilization of all sectors of society and advocacy for human rights and to combat stigma and discrimination directly,” says Diego. “We must also strengthen discussions involving the implementation of PrEP as a measure of primary prevention in the context of combination prevention. PrEP is key to reducing new infections and is a great strategy.” Strengthening this agenda is his goal for 2016.

“Diego Callisto represents the new generation of AIDS activists,” says Mariângela Simão, Director of Rights, Gender, Prevention and Community Mobilization for UNAIDS. “As a young person living with HIV, he brings a very much needed message of hope to other young people living with HIV in Brazil. At the same time, he has brought the Brazilian voice to a different forum. We need more leaders like him.”

 

Cassie Warren
Chicago, Illinois

Cassie WarrenAll Cassie Warren wants for 2016 is a cute mobile van.

The Youth Health Benefits Counselor at Howard Brown Health Center is happy to explain, and with great persuasion, that a mobile van represents many of the issues relating to providing health care to young people. “I think if we want to make PrEP, hormones, and birth control more accessible to young people we have to reduce the number of things you have to do to get it,” Cassie says, “and we have to do it in a youth-centered environment. We have to bring it to them.”

But wait. Cassie isn’t done making her case. And she even broadens it. “There are a lot of folks out there who think young people can’t be adherent or don’t care about their health,” she says, “and those folks have absolutely no business providing care to young people. We need to look at the structural barriers and find ways to reduce and eliminate those.”

Cassie take her job helping young people navigate healthcare systems personally. “My work is rooted in a deep love for community and uplifting that love against systems that aren’t,” Cassie says. “Many young people experience trauma by the U.S. medical system. So, until we get real healthcare reform, you do what you can to create a safer space for folks to get what they need, and to feel celebrated and autonomous in their bodies.”

Jim Pickett, the HIV prevention advocate at AIDS Foundation Chicago who has a global reputation for innovation, is deeply impressed with his home town colleague. “Smart and tenacious, Cassie Warren is an advocate we all should be watching if we aren’t already,” Jim says. “Everything she does is rooted in a strong sense of community, social justice, and human rights. She’s equal parts thoughtful and fierce, and Chicago is so lucky she is here moving mountains!”

 

Bogdan Globa
Kiev, Ukraine

Bogdan GlobaIf you think it might be perilous living as an openly gay man promoting HIV awareness and treatment in Ukraine, you would be exactly right.

“I have felt unsafe for the last two years,” says Bogdan Globa, director of the Ukrainian charitable organization FULCRUM. “We have more radical people and political party. I’m regularly getting threats through the mail and on social media. Sometimes it feels hopeless, but I try to power through to my goals.”

Bogdan has put himself on the line before. In 1993, he became the first openly gay man to make a speech from the parliamentary rostrum of the Verkhovna Rada (imagine a gay men testifying to the Unite States congress). His remarks were candid and deeply personal. “Being an open gay at the age of 16, I went through all kinds of discrimination,” he said in his remarks. “I was bullied and abused in school, I got driven from my own family… I found the strength and courage to go through it, and today I use every opportunity to openly and honestly say to you about it. Unfortunately, a lot of young guys and girls do not find the strength to fight in the Ukrainian reality, and these stories may end with tragedies.”

Bogdan doesn’t want one of those tragedies to be further AIDS deaths, but there are enormous barriers in a country where being publicly gay can lead to humiliation, discrimination, or worse. “We are trying to change the legislation to have HIV testing at home which may attract more gays to know their HIV status,” he says. In 2016, Bogdan is behind plans to launch a home oral HIV testing kit, which he considers a “formidable breakthrough” in getting a handle on the epidemic in Ukraine.

“Bogdan has steadily and fearlessly campaigned for the rights of LGBT community in Ukraine,” says David Furnish, Director of the globally influential Elton John AIDS Foundation. “Most, if not all, improvements in LGBT rights in the last four years can be linked to his involvement.”

 

Masonia Traylor
Atlanta, Georgia

Masonia TraylorWhen Masonia Traylor tested HIV positive during a routine medical visit in 2010, she was simply shocked. She didn’t feel she was facing her own morality, though, as much as a “spiritual death.” She lived in such a state of anger, at having become infected, at every person she ever trusted, and even at herself as she second-guessed every choice she had made. It was a dark time that produced a surprisingly sunny advocate.

The 27-year-old mother of two has tremendous enthusiasm for her advocacy today, focused on population she relates to: youth at risk. It is widely known that in the United States, an estimated 1 in 5 people living with HIV do not know they are infected. What is less known is that among those living with HIV who are between 13 and 24, more than half do not know they are infected. It’s no wonder Masonia is so passionate about reaching them.

“Equipping youth with knowledge and awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is what it will take to stop new infections,” Masonia says, who devotes her time volunteering for a variety of HIV agencies and maintaining an active presence on social media. “HIV is manageable, treatable, but most of all preventable.”

None other than the formidable Luvvie Ajayi, the social media sensation and founder of the Red Pump Project, believes Masonia has what it takes to deliver a message to young people. “Masonia has turned her pain into power by telling her story so others can know the faces behind the numbers,” says Luvvie. “She is one to watch in 2016 because her work is going to touch more lives and make more impact. I am so inspired by Masonia.”

 

Rick Rose
Shreveport, Louisiana

Rick RoseLongtime HIV activists don’t always slip gently into the background after having made their contribution a generation ago. Sometimes advocates like Rick Rose get a second (or third) wind and re-dedicate themselves to HIV advocacy.

On World AIDS Day in December of 2015, Rick was so inspired by the work of the Philadelphia Center in Shreveport, Louisiana that “I officially recommitted myself to the battle,” he says. Rick has lived in Louisiana for eight years, but his own HIV advocacy goes back thirty years. As director of the AIDS Mastery Foundation in Los Angeles in 1993, he worked hand in hand with the first Miss America to have AIDS as a platform, Leanza Cornett.

“Like many of us living in the throes of the pandemic, I needed a break,” Rick says. “That break lasted 19 years too long.”

Rick is focusing his efforts on the health disparities common in the South, and the impact HIV is having on communities of color. And that means frank conversations. “The South can no longer hide behind congenial traditions and mock religious beliefs,” Rick says. He’s also looking forward to documenting the stories of people at risk in the South through podcasts and other new media.

Miss America 1993, Leanza Cornett, remains a fan and a friend more than twenty years after her reign. “Rick is absolutely one to watch in 2016,” says Leanza. “Even now, he is spearheading round table workshops focused on women of color and HIV. I am so proud of Rick and his work, then and now.”

 

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Five Things I Learned Aboard the Poz Cruise

Monday, December 21st, 2015

2016 Group crop

Each year, several hundred people living with HIV – primarily gay men, with a happy sprinkling of straight women and our supporters – embark on the HIV Cruise Retreat (“The Poz Cruise”) for a week of fun and frolic on the high seas. The event started with a group of HIV positive friends and has grown enormously over more than a dozen years. The week is organized by one travel agent and a team of dedicated volunteers (and that includes me as one of the hosts and MC).

The days and nights are packed with exclusive shore excursions, private parties and all the perks of being aboard a large passenger ship — but nothing can compete with the freedom of making new friends without fearing HIV disclosure or stigma.

Here are five things I have learned aboard the HIV Cruise Retreat.

12241319_10207095287733599_1258243416563954974_n1. We’ll take a party over another medical seminar, thank you.

Poz guys are as educated about our condition as ever before, and we’re no longer clamoring for the very latest bits of information. Gone are the medical update lectures that were once a staple of the week-long Poz Cruise, replaced with more socials (like the infamous Red Party, right) and events like the Dating Game.

2. When searching for friendship, cast a wide net.

Years ago, the Poz Cruise provided separate events for the gay men and the (mostly female) heterosexuals. It just didn’t feel right to be kept apart. The gays actually loved the sense of family the women brought onboard, and the women loved our joy and uncanny ability to nail loungewear. The groups joined forces, and today some of the deepest bonding has nothing to do with sexual orientation or any of the other ways in which we often separate ourselves from potential friendships. It’s an important lesson for us all.

 

3. A zip line is the great equalizer.

It does not matter if that hunk you have been cruising by the pool puts the mucho in macho. When you have been pushed off a wooden platform a million feet above the ground and are whizzing across a thin steel cable, everyone screams like a girl. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (There’s some rather acrobatic zip lining happening in the cruise video, above.)

Mud Masks4. Long term survivors are particularly hungry for community.

Growing older is never a picnic – and that goes double for a gay man – but long-term HIV survivors have additional challenges ranging from survivor’s guilt to post-traumatic stress disorder. “Long time survivors really love the idea of getting away from it all with friends who really get it,” said Paul Stalbaum, the travel agent who has organized the Poz Cruise for the last 12 years and is a longtime survivor himself. “That may be why so many ‘men of a certain age’ join the Poz Cruise each year,” Stalbaum added. “The older survivors bond over shared histories while the younger cruisers have a ready-made group of mature friends and mentors.” If everyone rallies together for an afternoon of mud masks on the beach (above), all the better.

5. Sharing our greatest challenge is the very thing that can help someone else.

Before I said a word to other cruisers, I already knew them. Or at least, I knew a large and significant part of their lives. Being in each other’s company, whether or not the topic of HIV came up in conversation, brought a kind of immediate intimacy that is difficult to describe. It reminded me that the meaning of life is to take that about which we have the most shame or difficulty and use it as a tool to help someone else.

The 2016 HIV Cruise Retreat is a Caribbean voyage from Ft. Lauderdale, October 29 – November 6th. Find out more here or contact agent Paul Stalbaum at 888-640-7447.

 

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The My Fabulous Disease Holiday Spectacular!

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

(I can’t resist posting this each Holiday Season. The video below is my very favorite, of the more than 70 I have produced over the years. Enjoy!)

My mother’s home here in Shreveport, Louisiana, was fraught with excitement last week. Christmas decorations littered the living room, the almond scent of cookies filled the air, and last minute phone calls and arrangements made it all feel like a major production was underway.

And there was. The event that had everyone scrambling was held on a Sunday afternoon, when siblings and extended family arrived for the taping of The ‘My Fabulous Disease’ Holiday Spectacular.

Now just take that in for a moment. My family was enthusiastically participating in a video about my life with HIV. And they were much more concerned with choosing a fun holiday outfit than being publicly associated with their HIV positive relative. For them, sitting down for an interview about my HIV status, well, that was the easy part. They had no problem being candid about my HIV, as you will see.

I am an extremely blessed and fortunate man.

King Family CarWhen I was young, I remember watching “The King Family” on television (right), a big happy bunch that sang really well and wore lots of matching outfits. I was starstruck, and always wondered if that King family might bear some relation to mine. And if they didn’t, would they let me come be on their show anyway?

Well, today, I’m proud of my own family for displaying our dubious talents, and by going a big step further by discussing the importance of supporting those of us living with HIV/AIDS. For far too many, the difficulty in disclosing our status — or the result of doing so — has distanced them from the people they need most during times of challenge.

SantaMarkSmallThe Holiday Spectacular includes some family greetings, a cooking segment with Mom (you’ll want that divine almond scent wafting through your home, too), some holiday drag, a surprise here and there, and even an appearance by the big man himself, Santa Claus.

You may remember my mother from “What it Feels Like for a Mom,” a bracingly honest video created for Mother’s Day. You might also remember my gay brother Dick, who made an It Gets Better video with me. He was also one of the main subjects of the award winning “Once, When We Were Heroes” posting I made for World AIDS Day several years ago. But today, you’re also going to meet sisters, nieces and in-laws who have special holiday greetings just for you.

Enjoy the holiday special, my friends. I hope you’ll share it with anyone that could use some holiday cheer, or needs a reminder that they are loved. And as always, please be well.

Mark

p.s. As promised in the video, here is the recipe for Mom’s Christmas Cookies. I’m certain they’re fantastic for your t-cells.

MOM’S CHRISTMAS TREE COOKIES

(Note: Mother uses a MIRRO Food Press, a device that must have been manufactured during the Eisenhower era, judging from the faded instruction manual she still keeps handy. I found one on E-Bay for you for less than four bucks, or you can use a more modern appliance, if you must. I don’t guarantee the cookies will taste the same!)

Time: 10-12 minutes… Temp: 375F… Yield: 7 dozen

1 cup shortening
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/8 tspn salt
1/4 tspn baking soda
1 tspn almond extract
2 1/4 cups sifted flour
Green food coloring

1. Cream shortening, adding sugar gradually
2. Add unbeaten egg, dry ingredients, flavoring, and a few drops of food coloring. Mix well.
3. Fill the cookie press and form cookies on ungreased sheet. Sprinkle with sugar and bake.
4. Frost and sprinkle something fabulous on top of them (this is Mom’s provocative departure from the original recipe. That’s just how she rolls.).

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