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Posts Tagged ‘gay’

‘Small Town Rage’ Documents ACT UP in the Deep South

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

When Alana Oldham was only 17 years old, she found out the meaning of activism. A close friend had received an AIDS diagnosis and he wasn’t expected to live very long. Alana wanted to take action — to make a difference and vent her grief and frustration — but there were two major obstacles in her way.

It was 1989, and she lived in Shreveport, Louisiana.

NIH Protest Alana Oldham

“I had to do what I could to help my friend,” says Alana. “What was happening was cruel. People were discriminated against everywhere. Another friend of mine was fired from his job for having AIDS.”

And so, Alana Oldham did something in Shreveport that many people assume was only possible in much larger cities. She accepted an invitation from founding member Debbie Allen to attend an ACT UP meeting, one of the first to be held by the fledgling Shreveport group. And very soon thereafter, Alana took to the streets of her southern home town as part of angry protests. (Alana in 1990, above center.)

Robert Darrow, a founding member of ACT UP Shreveport, was right by her side. After years away from home, living in New York City and dealing with his own AIDS diagnosis, Robert had returned to Shreveport to die near his family. Instead, his health stabilized as he took part in a small town revolution.

“We were an angry bunch of young people,” Robert said. “We were angry at local doctors for turning us away. We were angry at judgmental families. Even at the only local clinic that would treat us, they installed an exhaust fan to get rid of the air we breathed.”

The group of activists were stunningly effective, showing up regularly on the front page of The Shreveport Times and on local television, and leading to the formation of an HIV clinic and a community-based AIDS service agency, The Philadelphia Center.

ACT UP New York activist Peter Staley (profiled in the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague) recalls taking notice. “I remember the thrill we got in New York when we heard about the launch of ACT UP Shreveport,” he said. “We had breached the Deep South!”

Group at taping

ACT UP Shreveport members today: (l-r) Alana Oldham, Gary Cathby, Buddy Williamson, Debbie Allen, Robert Darrrow, and Small Town Rage co-producer David Hylan.)

But not everyone in Shreveport was a fan.

“Even people in the gay community wanted us to go away,” said Robert. “They thought we were appalling.” Robert believes it was more difficult for ACT UP Shreveport to speak out than activists elsewhere, citing the hugely conservative majority in Louisiana. The disapproval of in-your-face activism also mirrored the self-hatred felt by so many gay men living in the Bible Belt.

David Hylan was one of those men. Married and closeted at the time, David watched ACT UP from the sidelines. “They were scary,” he said. “The radical nature of it was off-putting, especially since the south found all gay people immoral. And now there was this deadly disease.”

David realizes now that his discomfort had as much to do with his own masked sexuality as it did with the angry street activists he saw on the local news.

SMallTownRageLOGOSo it feels satisfyingly, poetic even, that David is now co-producer of Small Town Rage: Fighting Back in the Deep South, a documentary in the works about the history of ACT UP Shreveport. The film features interviews with many of the surviving activists and with family members of those who were lost to the epidemic.

A new Kickstarter campaign has already raised one-third of the project’s $15,000 budget. Dozens of hours of interviews have been filmed, and funds raised will cover remaining production costs and efforts to feature Small Town Rage at film festivals. Tom Viola, the influential head of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, has issued a personal appeal in support of the project on his Facebook page.

“This whole journey has been a learning experience,” said David Hylan. “I’ve come to appreciate the people who were just fighting for their dignity.” His personal evolution led to a second marriage earlier this year, when David married his boyfriend.

The Kickstarter promotional video for Small Town Rage.

The Philadelphia Center in Shreveport, forged by the efforts of ACT UP, remains the only HIV service provider in northern Louisiana.

Robert Darrow, the ACT UP member who had gone home to die and helped form ACT UP instead, served as The Philadelphia Center’s first executive director. Robert says that of all ACT UP Shreveport’s accomplishments, he is most proud that the agency serves thousands of clients. And there’s something else that gives him pride.

“I’m proud we did not remain silent,” he says.

Mark

(Visit the Small Town Rage site and consider even a modest token of support. I pledged $25 but any amount is welcome. Stay up to date on the film’s progress through their Facebook page or Twitter feed.)

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

The Wonderful, Stigma-Bashing ‘Wizards of Poz’

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Any campaign that blends living with HIV with a sense of empowerment and joy always grabs my attention. Stigma remains one of the most damaging forces in our struggle to both combat new infections and support those of us with the virus.

Australian Nic Holas 33, co-created the social and advocacy platform for people living with HIV, The Institute of Many (TIM) only weeks after he tested HIV positive in 2012, and it nurtures exactly the kind of peer support that so many advocates find the most effective.

Wizard main photo

And now, TIM has launched The Wizards of Poz, a social media campaign that celebrates people living with HIV who are taking charge of their lives.

Nic and I spoke about his Wizards of Poz campaign, the Aussie epidemic, “glamorizing” HIV, and a certain sexy monkey.

So, Nic, you’ve taken one of the most iconic films loved by the gays… and made it gayer. That’s no small feat.

Thanks! It was so much fun. The campaign all started from a joke that Jeff Lange (TIM’s American-based co-founder) and I had – namely that I was the Wicked Witch of TIM who stirred trouble, and he was the Good Witch who would just float down every once in a while, smile and leave! When we started to dream up what the campaign looked like, we wanted to extend that image to other members of TIM, and honor their contribution – as well as send a new message to the wider HIV community.

Dorothy

TIM: Our Dorothy is a wide-eyed hipster dream in gingham cut offs, just starting his journey to “follow the undetectable viral load.”

I also like the playful way in which you take subcultures such as queers, radical fairies, sissies, and leather queens and make them something to be exalted and enjoyed.

Those subcultures exist, and they’re all valid! With this campaign, we’re trying to celebrate all the diverse ways queer culture presents itself, in a way as a reaction to the pressure for us to “be normal” at the moment.

I love that a woman is the lioness.

It was so important to me that Abby Landy be our lioness. Positive women are very underrepresented in Australian media depictions of poz living, or when they are, it’s often a betrayal/victim narrative. Abby has been very brave to step into the spotlight to tell her story, and I thought turning her into the anything-but-cowardly lioness was a fitting tribute.

Lioness

TIM: Our Lioness is today’s young poz woman and is anything but cowardly, and in control of her sexuality and her choices.

How are racial demographics different down under? Here in the United States, including people of color in campaigns like this is important.

This is something that was a bit of a struggle. I could see when I was amassing our “cast” that it lacked diversity. I wanted to pay tribute to the TIM members who had put themselves out there in the media for TIM, but what that has helped me realize is what sort of narrative the media is looking for in Australia, or rather which narratives are being excluded. We have a burgeoning population of Sub-Saharan African migrants and refugees in Australia, plus Asian international students and migrants, and of course our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Australians. Those communities and their experiences with HIV need to be honored.

I laughed but wasn’t a bit surprised to see Theodore, my hottie Aussie cameraman from my video reports at AIDS2014 in Melbourne, half naked and on his hands and knees! Thank you for completing the Theo fantasy shared by most everyone who meets him.

Ha! It’s an honor and a privilege to find ways to bring Theo’s bare ass to the world.

Monkey-1024x1024

TIM: The Flying Monkey won’t let HIV stop him soaring high in the sky, no matter who tries to clip his wings.

In the materials for the campaign, you speak about “paying rent on our privilege to be HIV+ in Australia in 2015.” I like the throwback to those who came earlier, and the sense of gratitude for our lives today. Tell me more about that.

“Paying rent on our privilege” is one of TIM’s core beliefs. The movement started because Jeff (the Good Witch) and I weren’t that knocked about by our diagnoses. For me, that meant that I owed it to the ones who fought and worked to give us that freedom, and to those diagnosed alongside us who still consider HIV to be a life-limiting event (not to mention of course the millions of PLHIV around the world who cannot access treatment, who are criminalized, and discriminated).

And oh my dear, you have to paint me a picture of what the photo shoot was like. I imagine strange colors and fur and feathers and exposed skin all over the place. And a lot of laughs.

Oh God, the shoot was ridiculous! I’ve done my fair share of wild shoots in the past, and I knew how long things take and how mad it can get. This is the first time though I’ve had to art direct something while being painted Wicked Witch green! The incredible thing was that practically everyone on the shoot was HIV+, and if they weren’t poz they were dating someone that was and got roped in to help! It’s a testament to the creative power and community spirit of the poz universe.

TinMan-1024x1024

TIM: Tin Man is a flashback to the heydays of 90s raver queer culture, and knows his big heart can find love on the dance floor, online, or anywhere – and his status won’t stop him.

Have you had any negative reactions to the campaign?

Some people have criticized the campaign saying it glamorizes HIV.

Oh. That again.

It’s ridiculous. The campaign glamourizes HIV+ people. And why shouldn’t we feel glamorous and fuckable and hot? If you can’t tell the difference between making poz people feel good about themselves and making HIV seem “attractive,” then you can’t see us beyond our status. And that makes you a pozphobic fool.

Scarecrow-1024x1024

TIM: Scarecrow is a 100% organic radical faerie who turns toxicity into spirituality, and who knows HIV requires philosophy – and he’s got the brain for it.

What is the state of the HIV epidemic in Australia, by the way?

There are approximately 26,000 people diagnosed with HIV here. One of the leading responses has been needle exchange programs and sex worker empowerment, which means gay men are the main affected population (not the only one, of course).  There are virtually no AIDS deaths any more due to treatment uptake in the 90% because of universal healthcare. So, we have the luxury of focusing on stigma.

As progressive as Australia is, many people will be surprised to learn that pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) isn’t available there.

PrEP isn’t an inevitability here. Truvada still needs to be approved for use as PrEP, then put on something called the PBS (Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme) so anyone can access it. It is still two years away, at least.

Glinda-1024x1024

TIM: The Good Witch is a sissy swagger jock. Along with the Wicked Witch, these witches are two sides of the same coin doing what needs to be done to keep The Land of Poz moving forward, in their own unique way – naughty or nice.

Is TIM limited to those in Australia?  There may be people elsewhere who see this campaign and want to join in the online social support you offer.

The TIM group is global! It’s all back to the “paying rent on our privilege” thing. The TIM digital space (a private group on Facebook) not only lets people find community, it can put our HIV into perspective. As I’ve had to say in the past, “TIM wasn’t set up to help you, it was set up so we could help each other.”

That’s great. If the FB group is private, how might people who read this story join the group if they are interested?

Anyone interested can check out this page on the website, or contact us through the public Facebook page.

WickedWitch-1024x1024

TIM: The Wicked Witch is a a dirty leather queen. Along with the Good Witch, these witches are two sides of the same coin doing what needs to be done to keep The Land of Poz moving forward, in their own unique way – naughty or nice.

Thanks for this work, Nic.

No worries!

Mark

(Campaign models are all members of The Institute of Many, and include Sebastian Robinson as Scarecrow, Dean Camilleri as Tin Man, Charlie Tredway as Dorothy, Jeff Lange as Glinda, Theodore Tsipiras as Winged Monkey, Abby Landy as the Lioness, and Nic Holas the the Wicked Witch.)

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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News | 4 Comments »

The Relentless Affections of Amy Ferris

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

“We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?” — Marianne Williamson

The first time I met Amy Ferris, several years ago, she cupped my jawline in her hands and gave me a kiss full on the lips. There were none of the usual pleasantries or the polite distance maintained by a new acquaintance. Instead, she kept my face in her grasp and she told me I was incredibly important. And a hero. Those are the words she used.

Amy Ferris Pic 2Her eyes – green, filled with wonder and a thousand miles wide – never released their grip on mine. There was no escape from her relentless affections. It was an entirely unnerving experience.

I responded to that first meeting as any reasonable person would. I doubted her enthusiasm and her strident belief that I am all that special. No one is worthy of so much fuss. And it did cross my mind that Amy Ferris might not be, well, for real.

It turns out that Amy is a perfectly functioning human being who believes that you, and I mean you, you there reading this, are amazing beyond belief and have the potential to change this world. Or, as she might write in one of her morning Facebook postings, “You. CAN. Change. This. Fucking. World.”

She has demonstrated her powerful talents many times over as a celebrated author and screenwriter. Her smashingly successful book, Marrying George Clooney, became a rallying cry for women everywhere who were facing down middle age and needed Amy’s funny, dirty, and emotionally raw chronicle of a “full term in menopause prison.” In her most recent book, Dancing at the Shame Prom, she curates stories from women who unburden themselves of secret, shameful events. Amy may be a loving earth mother, but she isn’t afraid to cut to the bone.

Shades of Blue CoverLast year, Amy asked me to contribute to a new book she was editing. By then she had become an intimate of mine – there is no choice, really, it is part of the social contract when you meet her. Amy believed, fervently of course, that I had something to offer Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue, an anthology that would tackle the subject through first-person accounts and help those suffering from depression.

I harbor epic self-doubt, so being included in a batch of well-known writers in a major fall release brought my uncertainty charging forward. Amy convinced me otherwise, of course, and her belief isn’t simply encouraging. Five minutes in her company is intoxicating. You wonder if you should shake it off and then hope you never do.

My essay for Shades of Blue, “Suicide: A Love Story,” is an intimate and explicit glimpse into the saddest, darkest days of AIDS. It recounts the night my brother, Richard, helped his terminally ill lover kill himself, and the destructive grief that haunted Richard for the next several years.

Amy responded to my piece with grateful emails and Facebook posts of high praise, writing that she couldn’t stop “ugly crying” and was as convinced as ever that the book will open hearts and change lives.

I have stopped questioning the sincerity or utter authority of Amy Ferris when it comes to these things. We define visionaries only in retrospect, as if we couldn’t possibly be watching someone extraordinary in real time. What if powerful people don’t all live somewhere beyond our reach but right here, in our circle of friends? What if that person might be you?

Knowing Amy, especially when I revisit our time together and her seductive certainty, helps me believe in myself more. It makes no sense to doubt that Amy Ferris might change the world when she has already changed mine.

At my wedding this year, Amy radiated her usual joy, kissing everyone in sight like a bee pollinating in the height of spring. When Amy kisses me now, I kiss her back, and I hold her embrace for as long as the woman wants.

I caught her attention at the reception and invited her to sit with me so I could make an introduction. “Amy, this is my brother, Richard,” I said. “I wrote about him in my essay for your book.”

The realization of who Richard was, the tortured story from his past and his present day joy and resilience, washed over Amy in a transparent swell of emotion. Her eyes filled with tears.

And then, Amy Ferris reached forward and took my brother’s face in her hands. As she looked at Richard with poignant recognition, her fingers lovingly caressed him in a familiar, healing embrace.

Mark

p.s. Shades of Blue will be released by Seal Press this September. You can pre-order your copy here.

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Posted in Book Review, Family and Friends, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News | 1 Comment »

Five Reasons to Take the HIV Test Right Now

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Sometimes it’s helpful to get back to basics, and there is no more basic, effective tool to fight the HIV epidemic than to encourage testing. How long has it been for you, my friend? Here are five important facts about HIV testing that I hope will convince you to get busy and get tested — again.

1. You could be HIV positive and not even know it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in eight people with HIV in this country don’t know they have it. Some estimates are higher. With 50,000 brand new infections every year in the United States, it is absolutely crucial that you know your status.

 

2. Knowing your status is one of the very best ways to stop the epidemic from growing.

No matter your HIV test results, taking the test means you are already doing your part to protect yourself and others. If you test negative, you will know you haven’t put anyone at risk – and it will probably encourage you to keep making smart decisions. It might also be the wake-up call you need to re-assess your risks or to consider pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a medication proven to greatly lower your chances of becoming infected.

If you test positive, you can take advantage of a variety of medications (with fewer pills and side effects than ever) that can reduce the virus in your body to undetectable levels. Science has proven that people with HIV who have an undetectable viral load are not transmitting HIV to their partners. Getting people with HIV to undetectable levels is a huge factor in slowing the epidemic–not to mention keeping your own body healthy and ready for more action.

Yes, getting testing can be scary. But so is having HIV and not treating it. Ask any gay friend who survived the 1980’s, when there weren’t effective medications. It wasn’t pretty.

 

3. An old HIV test result is even worse than an outdated Grindr photo.

When was your last test, and how many risky things – unprotected sex, drug or alcohol use, wild nights out – have you done since then? Being confident of your status is about being consistent.

The CDC recommends an HIV test for everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 as part of routine health care. For those at higher risk – that would be gay men like me and those with drug addiction histories – a test at least twice a year is recommended, especially if your bedroom dance card has been full or you’ve been partying.

4. Getting tested is easier than ever, and you have plenty of choices.

Boys, do you have options. Choose one and get ‘er done:

  • Visit Get Tested and enter your ZIP code.
  • Text your ZIP code to KNOWIT (566948), and you will receive a text back with a testing site near you.
  • Call 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) to ask for free testing sites in your area.
  • Contact your local health department or HIV service agency.
  • Get a home testing kit (the Home Access HIV-1 Test System or the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test) from a drugstore.

5. Everyone can make a difference. We can stop HIV together.

Offer to go with a buddy to support him emotionally as he gets his results. Get tested alongside that sexy beast you’ve been seeing. Ask friends about the last time they took the test.

You could go the extra mile by sharing this article. Or visit the Act Against AIDS page for free materials, ads, videos, and banners you can share online.

Mark

(A version of this article appeared on Queerty for National HIV Testing Day. It is good advice all year long.)

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The Visual AIDS Web Gallery “Proud to be Positive”

Monday, June 1st, 2015

June is Pride Month in the LGBT community, and I was honored to be asked by Visual AIDS to curate a “web gallery” on the topic. Immediately, I considered a question that I had once posed to readers of my blog.

If living with HIV is nothing to be ashamed of, is it something to be proud of?

Proud to be Positive ImageIt was a really interesting exercise to explore this question, and I hope you will head over to Visual AIDS to check out the exhibit online. Visual AIDS has thousands of images of artwork that represent the artistic expression of hundreds of artists living with HIV.

Of course, including these artists in my exhibit meant that I was assigning meaning to their work in a way they may never have intended. That’s okay. Art is gloriously subjective. In the image Self-Enforced Disclosure (Greg Mitchell, 2007) above, I could help but believe that a man who would tattoo his HIV status on his body did not do it to shame himself. But is it an act of pride?

From my curator statement:

No one should be marked or shamed for living with HIV. But, should someone claim to be proud of being positive, there is a lingering, implicit threat to the statement, as if their pride is untrustworthy, or worse, that having the audacity to feel proud of living with the virus must mean they want to infect everyone else.

We must reject the stigma that labels people with HIV as predatory, irresponsible, and lacking in self-respect. Being proud of all that we are is hardly the same as wishing it on others.

I hope you will check this out and share your thoughts.

Mark

POZ Surviving Life Itself Imagep.s. My writing is my artistic expression, and I really appreciate the response I have received to my essay in the new June issue of POZ Magazine, “Surviving Life Itself.” The piece reflects on my relevance, and lack thereof, as a 30-year survivor of HIV, and what kind of impact others like myself can have in the here and now. I hope you will grab a copy at your local clinic or pharmacy, or read it online here.

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The Odds of Love

Monday, May 25th, 2015

This post will never be as romantic as I would like it to be. And it could never be as romantic as the truth.

MarkMichaelAIDS2012On the evening of July 22, 2012, Michael Mitchell went to a mixer at Cobalt, a gay club in Washington, DC. The international AIDS conference was being held in town and Michael, a DC resident who had once served as director of an AIDS agency, decided on a whim to go check it out.

I had been shooting video all day for my conference coverage for TheBody.com, and thought the name of the mixer — Meet the Men of AIDS2012! – had an inviting ring to it.

During the reception Michael and I engaged in some mutual cruising from across the bar before Michael, God bless him, made his move. He walked up and introduced himself. Even with dance music thumping and a boisterous crowd surrounding us, he had an adorable humility about him that came through loud and clear.

So did the remnants of a southern twang, and we quickly established we were both southerners born in Alabama. We talked about his work implementing the Affordable Care Act and I was struck by how proud he was to help provide health insurance to millions of Americans.

“I’m a blogger, I write about HIV,” I said after a while.

“Oh, I know,” Michael answered, and he grinned. “I’ve been reading you for years.” He leaned in closer and flexed his dimples. “And you should get new pictures. You’re much better looking in person.”

I swallowed the line like a cold glass of sweet tea.

For the remaining nights of the conference, I sat at the foot of Michael’s bed and edited video footage into the wee hours while he slept. We toured the Global Village at the conference center and got our picture taken (above). We held hands, casually and almost immediately. When I left a few days later there were tears at the bus stop.

You would think that after many years writing about living joyfully with HIV that my own happiness would be a given. That’s hardly been the case. After several false starts and some complete misfires — primarily due to my own deficiencies — I had stopped believing I would ever get the whole relationship thing right. What are the odds of getting another chance, after so many wasted ones?

“I am not a very good boyfriend,” I told Michael in a frank conversation early on, the kind that is meant to drive the poor guy away before he is taken hostage. “I’ve either been terribly immature or in active drug addiction. I’ve never been faithful, or even very thoughtful.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t be,” he replied, as if it were the simplest response in the world, as if none of my past faults had any bearing on the here and now. Suddenly it clicked, a switch in my head I had been grappling with my whole adult life, and Michael’s statement made perfect sense. Why couldn’t I just behave differently, and do it because I love Michael and to hurt him would crush me?

I am going to marry that man.

On June 6, a small group of friends and family will gather in the lush woods of Pennsylvania a few feet away from where I proposed on Christmas Eve (below). During our ceremony I will make promises that I have every intention, at long, long last, of keeping. Our vows will be emotional but a mere formality, because for three years we have adored one another without a single cruel word between us.

Engagement Horizonatal crop

 

When I was growing up I could never find anything in the house; the right socks, my school assignment, my lunch money. I would call downstairs to mother and complain that I just couldn’t find it, whatever it was.

“You haven’t found it yet,” she would reply with the preternatural calm that had mercifully accompanied her through years of raising six children.

My search has continued, for those things misplaced or never claimed to begin with, and I have actually found a few of them. Feeling comfortable in my own skin. Self-esteem. Sobriety. An acceptance of life on its own terms. An unselfish love for another human being.

The search may have been maddening, but the guidance of a good mom usually holds true.

I just hadn’t found them yet.

Mark

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Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease | 6 Comments »

What It Feels Like for a Mom

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
— Norman Bates, Psycho

I was standing at the ticket counter of the movie theater and couldn’t believe my ears. They were telling me that Theater of Blood, with the great Vincent Price, was rated “R” and they were not letting me in without a parent. I was a horror-movie obsessed boy of 12, and was inconsolable. “I won’t look at any sexy stuff,” I remember pleading, “I just came for the gore!”

MomWith visions of decapitations fading like an old blood stain, I made the long walk back home and exposed my broken heart to Mother, who made one of the grandest gestures of my childhood: she took me back for the late show. On a school night.

It wouldn’t be the last time she had my back. Over the years she proved a trustworthy ally, and this was never more true than in the 1980’s, when gay men often lost their mothers — hell, their entire families – when an AIDS diagnosis was revealed.

Mom never abandoned me or my gay older brother, Dick (is there no gayer name than Dick King? Did my parents consult the Falcon Video Book of Baby Names?). I tested positive in 1985, and Mom immediately went to work educating herself on HIV.

My brother was spared HIV infection but suffered its cruelty nevertheless: his lover of 13 years, Emil, died of AIDS in the early, scorched-earth years of the epidemic.

In this video, I sat Mom down to find out things I’ve never asked before. What did she really feel when she found out I was positive? Did she believe I would die? Do mothers have a right to know? What advice would she offer other families? We also talk about the loss of Emil and the repercussions from it we still feel today.

Mom is no expert. She isn’t an AIDS researcher and she doesn’t march on Washington. She just loves her kids and tries to understand what is happening in their lives and how she can help. If your mother is like mine, we have a lot to celebrate (or remember) this Mother’s Day weekend.

Enjoy the video, and please, stay well.

Mark

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Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease | No Comments »

IT’S NOT OVER: Signorile Rejects “Victory Blindness”

Monday, April 20th, 2015

On October 1, 1991, I joined furious LGBT protestors who took to the streets of West Hollywood, California. The newly elected Governor Pete Wilson, who had met with advocates during his campaign and assured them he would support AB101, a state-wide LGBT anti-discrimination statute, had just vetoed the bill.

Mark at Wilson ProtestThousands of us stalked the Governor at appearances he was making that day, burning him in effigy, chanting “LIAR!” and blasting the Governor to the media (right). We thought the State had elected an ally. What we got was a traitor.

But the controversy waned, as these things do. After a few days of raucous protests, I returned to my primary focus of AIDS advocacy. Pete Wilson weathered the storm, eventually signing a watered down version of the bill the following year, and was re-elected in 1994.

That was a lifetime ago, and the contrast between then and now would certainly suggest that things are a whole lot better for LGBT Americans. And yet, just when many gay men like me are making wedding plans and feeling encouraged by the winds of social change, a new book argues we must not settle for anything less than full civil rights and that we must reject the “covering” and “victory blindness” that has characterized our strategy in recent years.

Signorile picIn his book, It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, & Winning True Equality, award-winning journalist and radio host Michelangelo Signorile (left) makes a compelling argument for accelerating the fight for LGBT rights – and resisting the urge to grow complacent simply because nationwide marriage equality is within our grasp. In his first pages, Signorile offers a serious reality check:

We’re overcome by the heady whirl of a narrative of victory, a kind of bedtime story that tells us we’ve reached the promised land, that can make everything else seem like a blur. Even with the enormously positive developments (…) homophobia rages on in America, as sports stars are practically rewarded after spouting hate, as TV sitcoms still make gay and transgender people the insulting punch line, as the media respects and airs bigoted views of the “other side,” as businesses now flaunt a “no gays allowed” policy, as many workers fear coming out on the job more than ever, as federal civil rights protections seem further away than ever before, and as we are not often well served by a gay establishment that apologizes for and lauds political leaders rather than demanding action. Maybe it’s time to get rid of the bedtime story and wake up from the dream.

Signorile fears a backlash against LGBT people akin to what women experienced when a post-feminist belief that “the battle was over” led to setbacks on abortion rights and other gains women had made. This kind of “victory blindness,” Signorile writes, can crush our progress and debilitate our advocacy efforts.

Signorile is a shrewd social critic. His 1997 book, Life Outside, made quite an impression on me. It was an indictment of “the cult of masculinity” among gay men, examining the post-AIDS culture of circuit parties, steroids and dance floor drugs – in other words, everything I happened to be doing at the time. Recognizing myself on its pages made it more than a trenchant read; it was a shot to the heart.

ITS NOT OVER JACKETIt’s Not Over takes a broader and more political view, pulling back from gay culture to the basic human right of LGBT people to live and love freely in this country. Signorile believes we are complicit in the growing threats to our civil rights because we keep settling for scraps when we should demand the whole banquet. And he isn’t afraid to call out people and organizations (you might want to duck, HRC and GLAAD) who suck up to national leaders like star-struck teens, celebrating incremental change when, Signorile contends, it is time to be bold and uncompromising.

The book overflows with wrenching tales (culled from news reports and guests interviews from Signorile’s SiriusXM radio program) of teenage suicides, unfair workplace firings, the punishing effects of “religious freedom” bills, and violence against LGBT people. The sum of these stories paints an America quite unlike the one we may think marriage equality will create.

Signorile maintains that victory blindness is lowering our guard when strong advocacy is needed most. He applies the notion to nearly every scenario of half-hearted advocacy and it is a compelling argument – including its application to the HIV crisis. The rhetoric of “an end to AIDS,” while new infections mount each year among gay men and an estimated one-third of transgender women are HIV positive, is victory blindness.

Another recurring theme in the book is the concept of “covering,” a term Signorile credits to author Kenji Yoshino (Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights). Signorile writes:

Yoshino defines “covering” as an attempt to downplay difference, making it palatable or at least inoffensive. Prevalent among women, members of sexual and racial minorities, and disabled people, covering becomes particularly strong, Yoshino argues, when people believe they have achieved the rights and recognition they’ve sought, and begin to fear losing them (emphasis mine). It’s an attempt to fit in and be “team players” under the assumption that the playing field is now even (…) I would argue that, by pleading for more magnanimous treatment of our opponents, gay thought leaders were unconsciously applying the covering demand to the LGBT equality movement as a whole.

Throughout his book Signorile calls out the practice of covering and his strong case becomes easy to apply to our own lives. When we try not to rock the boat by not insisting on legislation that might actually protect us once and for all, when Mitchell & Cam engage in a relationship indistinguishable from the other characters on Modern Family, when we describe ourselves as “straight acting,” or when we choose what t-shirt slogan to wear based on where we’re headed, we are covering.

Beyond the litany of personal injustices outlined in the book, I was most angered by Signorile’s painfully accurate depiction of contemporary media, where homophobic crackpots are trotted out during any discussion of LGBT issues and allowed to make ignorant, scientifically disproven statements by virtue of their representing “the other side.” Nowhere in media – with the possible exception of FOX News – would so-called experts be allowed to spout discriminatory and hateful speech about racial minorities, but the same respect isn’t granted to LGBT people. Signorile is fed up with it and his takedown of this media practice is epic.

In his proposed plan of action to address all of this, Signorile aims very high. His path forward includes teaching self-defense (a practical and self-esteem tool that has served women well but has been largely ignored by LGBT people), providing LGBT history courses in public schools to de-stigmatize LGBT people and highlight our accomplishments, and settling for nothing less than full civil rights on the federal level. “Incrementalism is dead,” he writes.

It’s Not Over will get your blood pumping, which is exactly Signorile’s point. We haven’t been mad enough or demanded enough, not in a long time.

Mark

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Posted in Book Review, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 3 Comments »

Spilling My Guts at the ACT UP NYC Long-Term Survivors Forum

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

ACT UP has always intimidated me. In the 1980’s, while working at LA Shanti to provide emotional support to those dying of AIDS, I doubted my activist cred while watching the dramatic, inspiring actions of ACT UP. Everyone has a role to play, of course, but I so admired the courage and laser-focused anger of ACT UP, as evidenced in the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague.

ACT UP NYCSo it was with excitement, yes, but also a great deal of trepidation that I accepted an invitation to speak at ACT UP NYC’s first town hall forum on AIDS long term survivors last November. I certainly qualified, having tested in 1985. But what could I possibly offer a room filled with activists who had literally defined the word empowerment and had stomped their way across New York City during the most ravaging days of AIDS and beyond?

The forum was held at the NYC LGBT Community Center, in the very room where Larry Kramer had founded ACT UP decades earlier. I bought an ACT UP button at a side table, with tears in my eyes. The sense of history was palpable.

Any doubts about the relevance of addressing long term survivors were answered by a packed room. The program included presentations by Graham Harriman, Director of the HIV/AIDS Bureau, Mark Brennan-Ing of the ACRIA Center on HIV & Aging, and popular local gay therapist Scott A. Kramer.

When it came my time to speak, to offer my personal perspective on a lifetime with HIV, I abandoned my note cards and the story came pouring out of me. My voice quivered the entire time. I cried and told my secrets and my shame and my grief in ways I have never revealed on my blog.

Ed Barron Mark ACT UP NYCThe room responded with warmth and acceptance. Afterwards, iconic ACT UP members whose names I recognized greeted me and thanked me (like Ed Barron, at left). It was one of the most nerve-wracking and proudest days of my life.

OUT FM featured my remarks recently on their weekly radio show on WBAI/NY, and it is through their courtesy that I am able to share this recording of my presentation. It includes a little adult language here and there (sorry, Mom!).

Our most effective tool as people living with HIV, and as long term survivors in particular, is simply telling our story. There is such power in the personal.

My deepest gratitude goes to ACT UP NYC for everything, both then and now. Thanks for listening, and please be well.

Mark

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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News | 8 Comments »

The Night Miss America Met the Biggest Star in the World

Friday, March 20th, 2015

It wasn’t easy keeping my composure when I interviewed for my first job for an AIDS agency in 1987. Sitting across from me was Daniel P. Warner, the founder of the first AIDS organization in Los Angeles, LA Shanti. Daniel was achingly beautiful. He had brown eyes as big as serving platters and muscles that fought the confines of the safe sex t-shirt he was wearing.

Daniel Warner hotAt 26 years old, with my red hair and freckles that had not yet faded, I wasn’t used to having conversations with the kind of gorgeous man you might spy across a gay bar and wonder plaintively what it might be like to have him as a friend. But Daniel, one of legions of people who had abandoned whatever career they had planned and went to work building support programs for the sick and dying, did his best to put me at ease. He hired me as his assistant on the spot, and then spent the next few years teaching me the true meaning of community service.

My new mentor and friend quite literally embodied Shanti’s mission to provide a non-judgmental, compassionate presence to our clients, many of whom were in the final stages of life.

Daniel was also our secret weapon when it came to fund raising. Whether shirtless in a dunking booth, dressed in full leather regalia, or spruced up to meet a major donor, it was tough to resist his charms. He knew his gifts, organizationally and otherwise, and offered them liberally for the benefit of our fledgling agency.

As time went on, Shanti grew enormously but Daniel’s health faltered. He eventually made the decision to move to San Francisco to retire, but we all knew what that really meant. I was resigned to never see him again.

LilyTomlin Lipsynca Credit Ron GalellaIn 1993, Shanti hosted our biggest, most star-studded fundraiser we had ever produced. It was a tribute to the recently departed entertainer Peter Allen, lost to AIDS, and the magnitude of celebrities who came to perform or pay their respects was like nothing I have ever seen. By that time I had become our director of public relations, and it was my job to corral the stars into the media room for interviews.

Celebrities like Lily Tomlin, Barry Manilow, Lypsinka, Ann-Margret, Bruce Vilanch, and AIDS icon Michael Callen were making their way through the gauntlet of cameras in the crowded media room. I had tried to no avail to convince our headliner Bette Midler to make herself available to the expectant press, but as I stood in her dressing room pleading my case, she firmly declined, explaining that she had an early morning call for the filming of the television remake of Gypsy. I had tried to insist until she waved me away and started removing her panty hose right in front of me. I nearly tripped through the doorway during my frantic retreat.

Back up in the media room, one of my volunteers approached me with a look of shock and excitement on his face. He pulled me from the doorway. “I didn’t know he was going to be here,” he said with wide eyes. “I mean –“

“Who?” I asked. On my God. Tom Hanks? Richard Gere?

“He’s with Miss America, Mark,” he said. “They’re right behind me.” We both turned as the couple rounded the corner of the hallway. They entered the light of the media room and I barely kept a gasp from escaping.

Beautiful Leanza Cornett, who had been crowned Miss America, in part, by being the first winner to have HIV prevention as her platform, had a very small man at her side. His head bore the inflated effects of chemotherapy, which had apparently done little to stem the lesions that were horribly visible across his face, his neck, his hands. His eyes were swollen nearly shut. In defiance of all this, his lips were parted in a pearly, shining smile that matched the one worn by his gorgeous escort.

I stepped into the media room, wanting to collect myself, to wipe the look of pity off my face. I swallowed hard and stepped into the doorway to announce them to the press.

Daniel Warner Leanza Cornett 93 Karen Ocamb“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “Miss America 1993 Leanza Cornett, escorted by Mr. Daniel Warner, co-founder of the Los Angeles Shanti Foundation.”

The couple walked into the bright light and several flashes went off at once. And then the condition of Miss America’s companion dawned on the camera crews. A few flashes continued, slowly, like a strobe light, and across the room a few of the photographers lifted their eyes from their equipment to be sure their lenses had not deceived them.

Daniel looked to me with a graceful smile, and it became a full, sunny grin as he looked to the beauty queen beside him and put his arm around her. She pulled him closer to her. Their faces sparkled and beamed – glorious, joyful, defiant – in the blazing light of the room.

That man, I thought to myself, that brave, incredible man is the biggest star I have ever seen.

And then the pace of the flashes began to grow as the photographers realized they were witnessing something profound. The couple walked the path through the room and toward the other door. “Just one more, Mr. Warner?” one suddenly called out. “Miss America! Just another?” The room became a cacophony of fluttering lenses and calls to look this way and that, all of it powered by two incandescent smiles.

Daniel and Leanza held tight to each other, their delight lifted another notch as they basked in their final call. Every moment of grace, every example of bravery and resilience I have known from people living with HIV, can be summed up in that glorious instant of joy and empowerment.

“Boss!” I said to him as they exited the room. “I didn’t know you would be here. It’s just… so great.”

He winked at me. “I’ll be around,” he said. “I brought my whole family with me tonight. I need to get to the party and show off my new girlfriend!” The three of us laughed, and then I watched Daniel and Miss America, arm in arm, disappear down the hall and into the reception.

Only months later, I was at my desk in Atlanta in my new position as director of a coalition of people living with HIV when I received a phone call.

“Mark, this is Daniel,” said a weakened voice. “Monday is my birthday, and I thought that might be a good day to leave.” Daniel had always been fiercely supportive of the right of the terminally ill to die with dignity and on their own terms. We shared some of our favorite memories of our days at Shanti and I was able to thank him for his faith in me and setting into motion a lifetime of work devoted to those of us living with HIV.

Daniel P. Warner, as promised, died on his birthday on Monday, June 14, 1993. He was 38 years old.

Mark

(This story is adapted from my book, A Place Like This. Photo credits: Daniel Warner by Jim Blevins; Lily Tomlin and Lypsinka by Ron Galella; and Leanza Cornett and Daniel Warner by Karen Ocamb.)

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Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease | 8 Comments »