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The Nearly Naked AIDS Advocate

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Josh Green and cast, from Broadway Bares 2015 (credit: Benjamin Ryan)

Josh Green and cast, from Broadway Bares 2015 (credit: Benjamin Ryan)

When Benjamin “Ben” Ryan began taking dance classes ten years ago, the personal venture was a complete whim. After all, he was in his late twenties at the time – ancient for a beginning dancer – and by his own admission, was “just awful” for the first few years of classes. And nothing about his vocation as a writer specializing in the science of HIV suggested that Gene Kelly was trapped inside.

Cue the victorious final production number of your favorite musical. Not only did Ben get better – a whole lot better – he was cast in the spectacular HIV fundraiser Broadway Bares seven years ago and each year since, hoofing alongside actual Broadway dancers. Performers can also raise money through the event’s “Stripathon” page, through which Ben has raised more than $80,000 for beneficiary Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (you can visit Ben’s stripathon page here and add to that impressive tally).

Oh, and Ben Ryan has done all of this while wearing very, very little on stage.

When the curtain rises for “On Demand,” the newest Broadway Bares show to be performed in New York City on June 19th, Ben will be back, appearing for a third time in the opening number. With its generous blend of almost-and-sometimes-totally-naked men and women, celebrity cameos, and risqué burlesque, the show is sure to add significant funds to the $14 million the event has raised to date for people living with HIV and other health initiatives. For Ben, it’s all an unlikely dream come true.

“For the last 15 years,” Ben said, “I’ve written about the HIV epidemic as a reporter.” He currently covers science as editor-at-large for POZ Magazine, and getting his facts straight is incredibly important to him — especially when every detail of each new study is parsed and debated online. “The way I make sure my back is covered is I fact check like crazy,” he said. “Even one word can change the meaning of something. If I do get something wrong, I’m really upset. I’m a perfectionist.”

Those same qualities have served him well as a late-blooming dancer. When he started out, “I was at the rock bottom of my dance class with a bunch of kids,” Ben said. “Even my teacher made fun of me. Until she didn’t.” He still finds it hard to believe he now shares the stage every year with Broadway professionals.

But what must the scene be like backstage, with all that naked flesh running around? “Most of the guys in the show are really friendly,” Ben said coyly. (For more visual information on the scene backstage, check out Ben’s own photography page for images of all the action behind the curtain. You’re welcome.)

IMG_1385

Ben Ryan and Laverne Cox backstage during Broadway Bares 2015.

Ben has nothing but love for special guest performers like Laverne Cox and Judith Light. “The whole room exploded at rehearsal last year when they announced that Laverne would perform,” he said. “She was such a darling, always hanging out with everyone. And Judith will just wander around backstage with this amazing grin on her face. She gives a speech at the end of the show that always gives me goosebumps.”

Star power is great, but nothing beats a volunteer like Ben who knows how to raise money. “Ben is not content to take the stage in bare-bottomed pride,” said Tom Viola, the highly regarded director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “He raised $17,346 just last year and was named Mr. Stripathon.” Tom also credits Ben with helping to craft HIV prevention and treatment messages that are shared with the entire company each year, “so everyone associated with the production understands how to take care of themselves and each other.”

Ben Ryan is named Mr. Stripathon at Broadways Bares 2015

Ben Ryan is named Mr. Stripathon at Broadways Bares 2015

Amidst all the revealing fun, Ben knows Broadway Bares isn’t simply being titillating for its own sake. “Ultimately, the show is a celebration of the body,” he said. “We harken back to a time when we were afraid to touch each other, so to celebrate our sexuality is a profound thing. That, as opposed to HIV stigma and anxiety about sex and transmitting disease.”

Ben also admits that the show is a nice escape from his more cerebral work in HIV science. “It’s so much fun to be silly and outrageous,” he said. “I wanted to be involved in an event that I thought was the most exciting thing in New York City. And I am!”

Mark

(Ben’s fund raising page for Broadway Bares is here.)

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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News | 1 Comment »

Mr Gay World Entry Gets Personal on PrEP and Testing Poz

Monday, April 18th, 2016

When Sadiq Ali heard about a clinical trial for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) happening in the United Kingdom in 2013, the athletic 26-year old hesitated. He worried about what starting PrEP might say to people about his sexual behavior. The stigma he associated with being on the prevention pill was just too much for him.

Sadiq Ali photo“I was ashamed to even be offered this thing, even though I barely knew what it was,” the Londoner says now. “I thought that only highly promiscuous and risky sex practitioners would take this. I went through this process of ‘slut shaming’ myself. I was still very naïve at this point.”

So, Sadiq waited a few more months, had second thoughts, and decided to enroll in the PrEP study after all. Unfortunately, fate had dealt him a crushing blow.

Between the time Sadiq heard about the study and before he actually began taking PrEP, he was infected with HIV. It occurred literally days before he started taking the pill. His first HIV test during the study, in January of 2014, revealed the infection.

“I thought if I took PrEP it would make me all the things I didn’t think were me. Things that I didn’t want to be,” he says, pointing to the promiscuity about which many gay men taking PrEP are accused. “But instead, not taking it resulted in me contracting HIV.”

The irony of Sadiq’s tragic timing forged an advocate who is fighting both HIV stigma and for the adoption of PrEP in the United Kingdom (it is an advocacy issue that was further ignited when the UK National Health Services took action that has delayed the approval of Truvada as PrEP, perhaps for years).

This past year, Sadiq won the title of Mr. Gay Great Britain, and his advocacy platform is something he now understands all too well: HIV stigma among gay men, and why PrEP is such an important new prevention tool.

In his emotional and inspiring video as a contestant for Mr Gay World – the finals are happening this week on the island of Malta — Sadiq courageously shares his story of deciding to join the PrEP trial too late, and what the experience has taught him about internalized stigma.

“Something was lifted from my shoulders when I filmed the video,” Sadiq says. “I can now be in a position to educate.”

British PrEP advocate and gay internet personality Greg Owen understands just how frustrating the unfortunate timing of Sadiq’s HIV diagnosis was. Greg, too, was infected with HIV just as he was to begin participating in a PrEP trial. The two men – one a longtime advocate, the other a newly minted one – filmed an interview for #GregChats that is as good-natured as it is emotional.

As for Sadiq’s week ahead in Malta, he intends to showcase both his advocacy and his eye-popping skill as a gymnast and circus performer. Anyone in the world can vote for Sadiq right here.

“The community support I’m receiving behind me is swelling up” he says. “I am more motivated than I have ever been and I feel proud. I know that I am doing the right thing. I want to tell people that there is a way to protect yourself, and there is no need to judge yourself for that. To take your status into your own hands is something empowering.”

He also has no preconceived expectations about his chances to take home the title of Mr. Gay World. Winning is beside the point, Sadiq believes.

“Of course,” he says, “I have already won.”

Mark

(Photo credit: Josh Auke. Videos produced by Nuno Lopes.)

 

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

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 »

GLAAD Relents to Uproar, Will Honor Bloggers This Year

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

GLAAD Awards pic

Chalk one up for the little guy.

After community-based LGBT media and independent bloggers loudly and unanimously decried GLAAD’s decision to eliminate their “Outstanding Blog” award this year, the national media watchdog group released a statement last week apologizing for the omission and vowing to bring back the award in 2017.

That did not appease LGBT media advocates like myself, who appreciated GLAAD reinstating the award but strongly objected to the one year wait. In this digital landscape, we argued, why could there not be a fast nomination and selection process so that a blogger would be recognized at the 2016 awards?

GLAAD has now reconsidered their reconsideration.

Today, GLAAD communications director Seth Adam announced that this year, at the GLAAD Gala San Francisco, LGBT bloggers as a group will be honored for our contributions to the media landscape.  From his statement:

In addition to reinstating the Outstanding Blog category at the 28th Annual GLAAD Media Awards, to be held in 2017, GLAAD will also be recognizing the contributions of the LGBT blogging community at this year’s GLAAD Gala San Francisco, which honors innovators in the Bay Area who advance LGBT acceptance through tech and new media. GLAAD will bring at least one LGBT blogger to the event to represent the blogosphere and accept the recognition. Additional details to be announced this fall. We’re greatly looking forward to paying tribute to the critical work of LGBT bloggers in this on-stage moment.

It is a gracious and satisfying solution to a month of frustration, and GLAAD is to be commended for listening to community feedback and responding in a positive manner.

The initial elimination of the Outstanding Blog award, which has been bestowed by GLAAD for the last five years, caused an uproar because, as I wrote in a blog post for POZ.com,  it was the only truly grassroots category at the GLAAD Awards. It celebrated bloggers, lone first-person voices that speak to our experience as people with HIV, or lesbians or as gay parents or transgender people or most everything else the LGBT spectrum has to offer.

Moreover, bloggers often break news and highlight hidden stories that are then used as a resource for larger media outlets. At any rate, Outstanding Blog was the only category that honored independent LGBT writers and advocates among a star-studded roster of nominees from film and television.

In defending their earlier decision to cut the category, GLAAD explained that bloggers were welcome to compete in other categories such as digital journalism, pitting them against outlets such as MSNBC and The New York Times for a spot among nominees. That did not sit well with LGBT media advocates.

Blogger Alvin McEwen (Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters) and I drafted an open letter to GLAAD expressing our dismay over the situation. With the immediate support of writers like Will Kohler (Back2Stonewall) and Bil Browning (The Bilerico Report), the list of co-signers quickly grew to include people from across the entire LGBT media landscape. Within two days, GLAAD announced the Outstanding Blog award would return in 2017.

With this latest decision by GLAAD to honor bloggers in 2016, I am satisfied and grateful that they have acknowledged community concern and made a change to address it. It has been a gratifying bit of media activism that involved a lot of “little guys” standing up for ourselves.

While it is tempting to point out the irony of having to advocate against a national LGBT media organization with a mission to lift up our community, the fact is, all we can ask as advocates is that people take a second (or third) look at their decisions and remain teachable. GLAAD has done that. Lesson learned.

Thanks, GLAAD.

Mark

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Posted in Gay Life, My Fabulous Disease, News | No Comments »

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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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News | 7 Comments »

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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Posted in Anita Mann and Acting Gigs, Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease | No Comments »

Two Minutes of Advice for Those Testing HIV Positive

Saturday, October 10th, 2015

This is a clever social media campaign: Healthline, an online health community, has asked people who have been living with HIV to create videos for those who have recently tested positive, known as “You’ve Got This.” Think of it as “It Gets Better” for those with HIV.

Of course, I had to create a video in my own peculiar way — something that demonstrates the sense of humor that has served me well over the course of 30 years living with HIV. Maybe my video will help someone you know.

To be honest, I barely remember testing positive in 1985, when the test became publicly available (my doctor and I estimated my infection may have occurred as far back as 1981). I was already self-medicating with a growing drug addiction — it was Los Angeles, I was young and stupid, and people started dying; cocaine seemed like a reasonable response at the time — and the test result felt like my license to continue using.

GotThisTitleGrabToday, it’s hard for me to recall a time in which I was afraid of becoming infected. I only know a life living with the virus, and my fears of HIV itself are long past. So I should probably approach any advice for the newly infected with care. They are experiencing a profound event that happened to me a lifetime ago. I hope my light touch will give them a needed lift or bring them a smile.

It’s easy to make the mistake of assuming new infections only happen to younger people, and I even make an apologetic joke in the video about my being “old.” The fact is, most new infections in the United States happen to people over 30, not under. We might want to check ourselves when we bemoan infections among “these kids today” (although of the various age groups with new infections, those under 30 remains the largest).

To participate in “You’ve Got This” with a video of your own, visit the Healthline site for details. Or leave your own words of advice in the comments section below!

Meanwhile, please be well.

Mark

(This post originally appeared in September of 2013, but my advice hasn’t changed a bit — please do consider drag — so I thought I would post this again.)

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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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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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