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15 HIV Advocates to Watch in 2015

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

They come from different cultures and regions of the world, but these fifteen HIV activists all share one important trait: a fierce devotion to HIV issues and a commitment to leave their mark on 2015.

Their advocacy has been noticed by some of the most prominent people in the HIV arena, so it seems fitting to allow some leading advocates to weigh in on each member of the list.

Load these advocates onto your Twitter feed or follow them on Facebook, and keep a close eye on what they have in store for the new year. If you are working in your community to make life better for those with HIV or to prevent new infections, please consider yourself an honorary member of this group. Thank you for your work!

 

MARAMA PALA

Marama Pala“Indigenous People are those directly descended from a land that they have no political power over,” says Marama Pala. “Asking for consideration as a vulnerable population reveals another layer of discrimination and racism that speaks to the overall injustice of being born indigenous.”

She could well be speaking of Native Americans, but Marama is talking about her experience as a New Zealand Maori, the first people of New Zealand.

Marama was the first Maori woman to publicly disclose her HIV status, and her bravery has resulted in her becoming a powerful advocate for Maori and marginalized people. She serves on a multitude of foundations and networks devoted to raising the voices of indigenous peoples around the world and has held key positions in the planning of the last several international AIDS conferences. Her influence in 2015 will be no different.

“For generations indigenous peoples have suffered a genocidal impact from diseases ranging from influenza to small pox,” she said. “HIV is a modern day scourge that is harder to fight because it involves sex – a culturally taboo subject.”

“Marama is the rare blend of spirit, passion, intelligence and outspokenness that is needed to advance the issues of women and indigenous cultures affected by HIV around the world,” said Brent Allan, Executive Officer of Living Positive Victoria, Australia’s largest organization for and by people with HIV. “She is an outstanding example of the heart and soul inherent in our sisters living with HIV.”

 

JOSH KRUGER

joshbeard1Writer and occasional bomb thrower Josh Kruger reveals himself through a fierce, revelatory prose that lays bare all that he is or has ever been. He began writing while in a homeless shelter in 2012, and has since shared his experiences with crystal meth addiction, living with HIV, and the perilous gay dating pool. His work has wit and intimacy, and he’s been known to infuriate readers. In other words, he is a writer that demands to be read.

His column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” appears in the Philadelphia Weekly and addresses any number of social ills, such as drug abuse, HIV stigma, and homophobia. He has also written for The Advocate and HIV Plus Magazine, and blogs regularly as a gay man with HIV for TheBody.com.

Too often, writers dealing with their own HIV infection temper their feelings or paper them over with political correctness, which is why Josh Kruger is someone to keep watching. This is not a writer who second guesses himself.

“Josh is a rare talent,” said Mathew Rodriguez, the community editor of TheBody.com who is making his own splash through his PrEP advocacy and his essays on race and gay community. “Josh’s writing seems almost contradictory — sharp yet breezy, challenging yet easy to read, hungry yet nourishing. He is unabashedly opinionated, and the best part is that we have only just seen him begin to stretch his skills writing about HIV. What will we see next? I’m not sure, but my attention is already rapt.”

 

TOMMY LUCKETT

Tommy 2“My role can best be described as an agitator,” Tommy Luckett says, and that’s quite a statement coming from an openly HIV positive transgender woman living in Little Rock, Arkansas. But Tommy’s passion and growing voice defy simple geography. She serves on the board of the Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition and the health department’s Quality Care Advisory Board, yet still has time to advocate against Arkansas’ HIV criminalization statutes.

Tommy gracefully rejects stereotypes about transgender women. “I was in a relationship when I contracted HIV from my partner,” she said. “A common misconception is that trans women place themselves at high risks of contracting HIV by doing sex work and that’s not always the case. In order to have shelter, some trans women are forced into sex work.” Tommy doesn’t judge women making desperate choices, and even advocates for their safety and well-being. “Being caught with a certain number of condoms is against the law in some states,” she said. “In essence, the laws are contributing to the spike of HIV cases in the transgender community.”

Cecilia Chung, a leading transgender activist who serves on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA), is a big fan of Tommy’s growing influence. “In the HIV sphere where voices of trans women living with HIV are most under represented, I am inspired by emerging leaders like Tommy. She brings a transwoman of color perspective from the southern states and a personal story that reflect the current landscape of the epidemic.”

 

JAMES KRELLENSTEIN

James 3Some consider him the best kept secret in HIV treatment activism. James Krellenstein has presented to the FDA and the CDC, mapped strategy alongside iconic activists, and become a respected voice within ACT UP New York City. What makes his growing influence all the more remarkable is the fact that James is 23 years old.

James recently spearheaded a successful campaign to convince the FDA to approve the Alere rapid HIV test (which can detect HIV sooner and more accurately than other tests) for use in non-laboratory settings like bars, clubs, or your local gay pride festival. The effort illustrates James’ dedication to improved HIV surveillance and greater funding and access to effective HIV prevention tools.

James co-founded ACT UP New York’s Prevention of HIV Action Group (PHAG) and regularly collaborates with Mark Harrington, the director of Treatment Action Group and no slouch in the brains department himself.

“James represents the future of AIDS treatment activism,” said prominent ACT UP member Peter Staley, who was profiled in the Oscar nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague. “This movement’s greatest legacy is a willingness to let science drive our health justice agenda. James reminds me of a young Mark Harrington or Spencer Cox – one of those rare wiz kids with a complete lack of intimidation about becoming the activist expert even the Anthony Fauci’s of the world admire.”

 

NIC HOLAS

Nic 2It can be disheartening to simply live as a sexually active gay man with HIV, and Australian Nic Holas doesn’t want to just counter that stigma. He wants to smash it. As a writer and activist, Nic co-founded The Institute of Many, a social support network of people living with HIV, and has spoken with fierce transparency about navigating the sexual landscape of the gay community.

Nic has made countless appearances on national television, documentaries, radio and online discussing HIV and is also a peer educator, an ENUF Ambassador, an ENDING HIV ambassador, and a facilitator for the Positive Leadership Development Institute Australia. And he’s just getting warmed up.

In 2015, Nic plans to continue to grow The Institute of Many, and deliver a challenge to its growing membership to take action on advocacy efforts.

“Nic represents a new generation of smart HIV activists who neither feel apologetic about their status nor want to use it to buy into a sex negativity which would deny the particular thrills and experiences of being a gay man,” said Dennis Altman, Professorial Fellow in Human Security at La Trobe University and author of more than a dozen books, most recently The End of the Homosexual?  “This year, Nic emerged as a formidable spokesperson for people who are positive, and, equally important, as someone who reminds us that social justice demands concerns for more than those in our immediate tribe.”

 

GRISSEL GRANADOS

Grissel GranadosOf all the various populations of people living with HIV, it’s ironic that none may be as misunderstood as those who have faced HIV stigma since the hospital delivery room: those born with HIV. Los Angeles children’s advocate Grissel Granados hopes to change that.

Grissel is looking forward to the completion of a documentary she has produced, We’re Still Here, that focuses on her journey trying to make sense of her experience as a young adult born with HIV. She believes the project can help other people find community where there wasn’t one before. “For the first time on screen,” says Grissel, “people who were born with HIV are telling our stories in our own words and on our own terms.” The trailer for the film was just released.

Her own life circumstance has clearly informed her work at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where she works in the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, and Grissel intends to use her new seat on the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS to take on health disparities among youth and young adults.

“Grissel is a fierce advocate who leads from the heart,” said Naina Khanna, the influential director of the Positive Women’s Network USA.  “She is a skillful bridge builder that finds connections between complex issues – ranging from immigration to sexual rights and HIV.  I am really excited to see where Grissel’s future will take her.”

 

KERRY THOMAS

Kerry ThomasWhen Kerry Thomas addressed the “HIV Is Not A Crime” conference in Grinnell, Iowa in 2014, he did so via a phone call from his prison cell in Idaho. And his remarks held the attendees spellbound for nearly an hour.

Kerry is presently serving 30 years for “HIV non-disclosure” (or not telling his sex partner he is living with HIV) even though he used condoms, had an undetectable viral load, and did not transmit HIV. His case has become a rallying cry for advocates around the world, and Kerry’s grace and humility under extraordinary circumstances have only increased his profile.

“Kerry has demonstrated courage, strength and leadership from behind the walls of prison,” said lifelong activist and author Sean Strub, founder of The SERO Project, a network of people living with HIV working to reform HIV criminalization statutes. “He is committed to justice for everyone unfairly prosecuted because of their HIV status, even as he struggles to find justice for himself.”

Kerry has a hearing in March on a motion for post-conviction relief. If he has been this inspiring from behind bars, just imagine his effectiveness as a free man.

 

KEN ALMANZA

Ken AlmanzaA year ago, Ken Almanza might never have believed he would find himself interviewed by a television station in the Netherlands or appearing on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. But the rising activist’s engaging and personal video blogs about beginning PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) has endeared him to advocates everywhere.

The social repercussions Ken experienced because of his blogs about PrEP haven’t slowed him down. He has taken on a new role at APLA Health and Wellness with their Crystal Meth Harm Reduction program – another focus of advocacy for Ken, who produced a film about his brother’s battle with addiction and the effect it had on his family. Now, APLA Health and Wellness has plans to incorporate PrEP education into their crystal meth program, which would combine two crucial issues that are important to Ken.

“Very few leaders can bridge the gap between intelligence, activism, and sheer magnetism,” said Damon L. Jacobs, a nationally recognized PrEP advocate and therapist in New York City, who believes that Ken has a “passion for breaking the glass ceiling against imposed limits on sexual education, personal freedom, and gay Latino expression.”

 

BENJAMIN T. Di’COSTA

Benjamin 3When Benjamin T. Di’Costa saw the treatment a transgender friend received while in the hospital last year, it changed him forever. Benjamin, 24, stayed by his friend’s side and witnessed a real lack of trans-competent care by medical providers. The experience only bolstered his commitment to the rights of transgender people.

Demonstrating empathy for others is nothing new to Benjamin, who is HIV negative and has worked as a Youth and Transgender Specialist for Latinos Salud, the largest minority HIV/AIDS organization in the state of Florida.

Along the way Benjamin has raised his voice as an HIV negative cisgender bisexual male by creating posts and videos for The Poz+ Life, a site devoted to sharing what it is like to be affected by HIV and other disparities. His social media (and selfie) skills are first rate, and Benjamin’s voice will doubtlessly grow stronger in 2015.

“Benjamin is one of the most promising young advocates on the scene,” said Jack Mackenroth, the reigning king of social media who just had another triumph with his #WeareALLclean HIV stigma campaign. “He has a real humility about him, and his willingness to reach out and understand other communities is exactly the kind of thoughtful engagement that brings people together. Too many of us focus on our differences, and Benjamin shows that there is a better way.”

 

YVETTE RAPHAEL

Yvette RaphaelIn the city of Midrand Gauteng in south Africa, Yvette Raphael stays busy running her catering company. “I do it because I love making people happy and every meal is prepared with love,” she says. Love is also something Yvette shares generously with her extended family, including three young girls living with HIV for whom she serves as guardian and mentor.

None of these responsibilities, though, have kept her from becoming an emerging voice for women living with the virus.

Diagnosed with HIV in 2000, Yvette contributes to a number of national and global efforts, including working in support of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Campaign to End AIDS, and serving as a 2014 AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition (AVAC) Fellow associated with Johns Hopkins University. Her influence is growing faster than a baking souffle.

“Yvette is a rare breath of fresh activism in a time in the AIDS movement that needs more advocacy and policy change, not less,” said Dazon Dixon Diallo, founder of Sisterlove and one of the preeminent global voices for HIV among women. “She comes to the movement with a fierce brilliance and a fearless voice for women, youth and the African LGBTQ community. Yvette is a young, single mother who works hard to defend and protect the human rights of all, especially young girls. She rocks on all fronts!”

 

ERIC PAUL LEUE

eric 4Few people can hold a conversation about their leather man titles and Tenofovir disoproxil fumarate drug levels at the same time. But that’s exactly what you get with Mr. Los Angeles Leather Eric Paul Leue, a self-motivated transplant from Berlin who has been able to generate great conversations (and often controversy) around kink, sex, PrEP, pleasure, and science.

Eric famously broke ties with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, for whom he had been featured in an HIV testing campaign last year, when the director of the agency stated his (widely maligned) objection to PrEP as a prevention tool. Since then, the current Los Angeles Mr. Leather has put his activism into overdrive, even creating a petition to have the director of AIDS Healthcare Foundation removed.

When discussing PrEP, its side effects and efficacy, the devil is the details and Eric knows nearly all of them. His easy going style during public events — including a discussion about PrEP with at least one skeptic at a 2014 World AIDS Day forum in Palm Springs – demonstrates that Eric can find common ground and show respect for those who don’t share his views entirely. For a topic rife with conflict and antagonism, that is no small feat.

“In his twin roles as Director of Sexual Health and Advocacy for Kink.com, Eric has expanded his HIV prevention efforts into the underserved communities of kink and leather,” said author and quintessential leather man Guy Baldwin, M.S., who was inducted into the Leather Hall of Fame in 2012. “The world of radical sexuality is lucky to have the force of nature that is Eric Leue.”

(Photo credit: Eric Schwabel)

 

TONY CHRISTON-WALKER

Tony Christon WalkerIf you did not vote in the last midterm election, don’t mention that to Tony Christon-Walker. You’ll get a passionate lecture on why local and state elections are actually more important than presidential ones. And make no mistake, the man knows what he is talking about.

Working as a Civic Engagement Coordinator for AIDS Alabama, Tony understands firsthand the damage state politics can do to those living with HIV. He has seen Alabama, one of our poorest states, refuse to expand Medicaid, effectively denying health insurance to those who need it most (of the estimated four million people who fall within this coverage gap, the vast majority are in the South). Tony devotes his energies to getting people registered, restoring the voting rights of ex-felons, and making sure you know that every election matters.

Advocacy has been a lifelong pursuit for Tony, who once learned Spanish just so he could communicate with his clients at AIDS Alabama more effectively. In 2015, the newly married advocate will be working to create coalitions among those who are engaged in political efforts – immigration, HIV, healthcare reform – that are closely aligned.

“I’ve watched Tony with a sense of admiration and awe for a number of years,” said Kathie Hiers, a fellow Alabamian who serves as president of the National AIDS Housing Coalition. “He exemplifies the very best of grass roots activism, and proves the adage that all politics are local. Thank goodness for Tony, because he is special.”

 

MARCO CASTRO-BOJORQUEZ

Marco2It is tempting to say that Marco Castro-Bojorquez is the hardest working advocate on the scene, but one thing is for sure: he is among the busiest.

Born and raised on the Mexican Pacific coast, Marco left his country for political reasons and has lived in California for the past 20 years. And he hasn’t exactly been wasting his time. Marco is a community educator at Lambda Legal, the oldest and largest national legal organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of LGBT people and people with HIV. He has taken particular interest in the plight of immigrants and migrants living with HIV and has begun plans to create a support network for them.

Marco is also engaged in new advocacy efforts to show the negative public health impact of HIV criminalization laws, and recently joined the U.S. People Living with HIV Caucus Steering Committee.

Somehow, Marco has managed to create several short documentaries in his spare time, including the upcoming El Canto del Colibri (“The Hummingbird Song”), a film about Latino fathers dealing with having an LGBT member in the family. It will premiere in 2015 and was inspired in part by a pilot family acceptance program he has led at Lambda for the last three years.

“Marco is such an amazing individual,” said Bamby Salcedo, President of Coalicion Translatina, a national advocacy organization serving trans Latina immigrants living in the United States. “He just helped me organize a protest about violence against trans women of color. What drives Marco is his passion for the betterment of everyone.”

 

GUY ANTHONY

Guy AnthonyGrowing up on the hard scrabble streets of Detroit, Guy Anthony had no role models around him as a “black, slightly effeminate gay man,” he says. And that’s what his growing advocacy voice has been all about. The young activist and author (Pos(+)itively Beautiful: A Book of Affirmations, Advice & Advocacy) wants to provide the kind of compassionate guidance to others that he never had.

Guy facilitates the only support group for young, HIV positive black men in Washington, DC. It’s one of his duties as a treatment adherence coordinator at Us Helping Us, an agency addressing the needs of gay men of color. The agency has become a hub for HIV treatment, prevention, and mental health services.

Mental health is something Guy intends to move to the forefront of his efforts in 2015, and he begins the year with a splash by speaking at the National AIDS Education and Services for Minorities conference in January. He is convinced that mental health services are critical to those who test positive or are at risk, and wants to make it synonymous with case management.

“It’s exciting to see Guy included on this list,” said Paul Kawata, director of the National Minority AIDS Council and the longest serving national HIV agency head in the country. “He’s a poised, charismatic young man who has accomplished a multitude of things, and he’s not even 30! Guy is surely one to watch in 2015.”

 

HENDRIK STREECK

Hendrick Streck 1This young, brilliant German researcher is obsessed with t-cells, and thank goodness for that. As Chief of the Cellular Immunology Section at U.S. Military HIV Research Program, Hendrik Streeck is working to figure out how these important cells – which serve as the gateway to HIV infection – react during initial infection, and how they might be manipulated by a potential vaccine.

In other words, Hendrik wants to end HIV as we know it, by getting to the bottom of how t-cells work – and how a vaccine can prevent them from ever getting infected with HIV. It is a segment of HIV research that requires tremendous creativity and technical wizardry, and Hendrik is just one of many researchers leading the charge.

“Hendrik is unique among researchers in his ability to combine expertise in the basic biology of the virus with innovative HIV therapies,” said Nathalia Holt, a fellow HIV researcher and author of CURED: How the Berlin Patients Defeated HIV and Forever Changed Medical Science. “In 2015 Hendrik will leading a new institute at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany dedicated to finding a cure and vaccine for HIV. We can expect big things from him this year.”

 

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

The Top Ten ‘Fabulous’ Posts of 2013

Monday, December 30th, 2013

The year 2013 was a game changer for My Fabulous Disease, and I want to thank you for your clicks, comments, and shares.  I have more confidence as an advocate and a writer, thanks to you, and traffic for this blog more than doubled over last year!

I’m bad at predicting which posts might resonate with readers. My philosophy has always been, “if you build it they will come,” and the rest is up to you. Apparently you have very eclectic tastes, my friends.

In ascending order, the Top Ten Postings of 2013 are…

Mondo Grab10. The Inspiring Advocates of the 2013 United States Conference on AIDS. This is a rollicking video recap of the annual event, produced by the National Minority AIDS Council, that brings together the very best our HIV/AIDS service community has to offer. Public health and pharma are there, of course, but I’m always thrilled to meet those who are doing the work on the ground, for local community-based organization working with scant budgets but tons of heart.  This video includes a discussion about the generational divide among people with HIV, interviews with multiple movers and shakers, marching bands, and Mardi Gras pageantry.

DickEmilKilaRESIZED9. An AIDS Death in the Family.  Drawing from my book, A Place Like This, I have revisited the night my brothers’ longtime partner died from AIDS, and the surreal haze that surrounded the occasion.  It is about loss, yes, but also about how we cling to social habits during the darkest of times to attempt to normalize things that feel anything but normal.  A dying man offering a “parting gift” to me, conversing as if he won’t be gone in a few days, and the dreadful phone calls that a grieving lover must undertake. Yes, it’s rough.  But it’s life… and death.

MichaelPride2013SignSMALL8. Two Minutes of Advice on Testing HIV Positive. 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. There are now quite a few videos in this campaign with a variety of messages, and I encourage you to visit the Healthline site; you might find the message you or someone you know really needs to hear.

butt7. Probing My Anal Phobia.  I cannot believe I told you these things, which might be one reason this essay is a personal favorite of mine. Maybe this is about facing your fears, because I hate talking about… anal things. So what did I write about? Anal sex, cleanliness, colonoscopies, and the most outrageous douching disaster I have ever experienced. Yes, that’s right, I went there. And the results will either have you laughing or finding out how to unsubscribe. Sometimes, I just need to write things that are on my mind and try to block out the fact that my Mom follows my blog. Enjoy!

Poodle16. The Increasingly Strange Case of Uncle Poodle. Long before the Duck Dynasty controversy blew up, another popular reality show had an off-camera moment that caused quite a stir. Uncle Poodle, the gay uncle from the reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, came out in a printed interview as HIV positive, and further claimed that he had been infected by someone who did not disclose his status — and who went to jail as a result. The details, however, are murky, and say as much about shame and HIV stigma as they do about criminalization laws.

Mark and Bil5. HIV and Gay Media: The Vanishing Virus. I suppose I have a lot of nerve. After having the honor of being included in an invitation-only summit of LGBT media representatives, I spend much of my time at the event hounding them, on video, about why they don’t write about HIV more than they do. Fortunately, the participants were honest, thoughtful, and quite candid in their responses.  The event was co-sponsored by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and the video was featured on the main page of their site, so I suppose all is forgiven!

02262008 mugshot4. Surviving Two Epidemics: AIDS and Meth.  My history of crystal meth addiction and recovery isn’t something I am ashamed of, but I don’t write about it as much as I once did. The whole recovery process feels almost too precious to share. But when I was asked to share my story for an ongoing feature in Positive Frontiers about gay men in recovery, it just felt right. This essay is my truth, and maybe it will speak to someone at a time when they are ready to make a change. For information on crystal meth recovery, visit http://crystalmeth.org/.

Credit Anne Marie Fox Focus Features3. The Beautiful Sadness of Dallas Buyers Club. If anyone has a chance of stealing away an Oscar from Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave this year, it is Matthew McConaughey, who is transcendent in this illuminating look at one straight man’s response to the lack of FDA approved HIV medications. Some have criticized the film for not showing the impact of gay activists, but that’s part of the point of the film: this is the story of this terribly damaged straight man, and how his prejudices were (somewhat) overcome through his own advocacy, as self serving as it may have been. You can count on one thing: Jared Leto, who played a transgendered friend, will be taking home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

taregdy face grab 4 CROP BLOG SIZE2 (tie). Stop Bludgeoning Young Gay Men with Our AIDS Tragedy. I thought I could say these things that other folks — HIV negative or young gay men themselves — would be crucified for saying. I was wrong.  I got crucified, too. Fortunately for my sensitive ego (yes, angry comments still hurt my feelings), many others understood that our history is important and vital to preserve, but it’s not a prevention strategy for the landscape of today. This was more primal scream than writing for me.  Perhaps I should learn to count to ten?

Spencer Stairs crop2 (tie). The Private War That Killed Spencer Cox.  It’s kind of amazing to realize that Spencer, an early activist with ACT UP New York that went on to found Treatment Action Group, died only last December. So much has been written and done in his honor, including ongoing public forums on either coast that address PTSD among people with HIV/AIDS, and how we as a community can best address their (our) needs. This essay, posted soon after Spencer died, explores some of those issues, including trauma, loss, and addiction, all of which Spencer himself wrote about before his untimely death at the age of 44.

donna-reed11. Your Mother Liked It Bareback. I had the title before I wrote the piece, and that’s probably a terrible thing to admit, because the title alone incensed people (The Huffington Post, which carries my content regularly, refused to post it at all). Another primal scream put on paper, an outgrowth of complete frustration over our refusal to admit that there are other “protections” against HIV that do not include condoms. Despite applauding those who do use condoms more than once in the piece, I was accused of “promoting” barebacking and received my favorite name-calling moment of the year, as a “vile merchant of death.” Even when faced with the facts about undetectable viral loads, or PrEP, some who read this article fell back on 40-year-old worries: “you could get an STD!” Honey, if the worst we have to fear these days is the clap, then sign me up. That just makes me feel nostalgic.

POZ June 2013 Coverr blog sizeBut wait! The Real Winner of 2013: “The Sound of Stigma.” When POZ Magazine asked me to contribute a cover story on HIV stigma among gay men, I had no idea it would become my most widely read essay of the year, by far, without even appearing on my own site.  Even more surprising, to me, because the piece is such an indictment of how gay community turns against its own (“We are AIDS itself.”). The posting of the story on Poz.com has been shared 2,500 times and has more than 150 comments, ranging from emotional to angry to heartbreaking. I am proud and yes, humbled, that the article contributed to such an important conversation.

Have a bright, joyful, and healthy 2014, my friends.

Mark

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

Surviving Two Epidemics: AIDS and Meth

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

I don’t write about my drug addiction very often anymore. There’s no shame there; I’m really proud of my recovery process. It just seems too delicate, too precious to share as publicly as I do my journey with HIV. That’s interesting, considering of the two diseases, my addiction is far more likely to kill me. So, when a member of The Tweakers Project invited me to contribute to an ongoing column in Frontiers magazine that spotlights people recovering from meth addiction, I felt it was an appropriate venue to briefly share my experience. Here is my column as it appeared in Frontiers:

I thought I had a right to get high; that I deserved it for all my pain. I figured any gay man who suffered through the 1980s needed to medicate. Living in West Hollywood as a young man, I was dodging bullets in a war zone, busily planning memorials and attending town halls while hoping to God I wasn’t next. My prayer was answered but came with a price — watching scores of men die around me.

02262008 mugshotPop a pill. Snort a line. Check your nose and visit your friend in the ICU. Maybe others found healthier ways to cope, but I wasn’t equipped for the onslaught of mortality, the preachers on television proudly announcing the evidence of God’s wrath against people like me, the dire news that no medications could combat this plague and my own HIV-positive test results. I couldn’t comprehend my emotions, much less face them. So when treatments improved years later and the dying abated, I felt entitled to celebrate.

Pop a pill. Smoke a bowl. Stash the drugs and get back on the dance floor. That’s when I knew I was a drug addict. When any occasion qualified. Whether we were dying or living, I was high. Maintaining a functional existence slipped away, just slowly enough not to alarm me, as if the drugs were quietly sneaking out the door with my life. And along with it, all those broken promises it made about euphoric deliverance and endless nights of pleasure.

There wasn’t a single event that brought it to an end, because the truth is my recovery from drugs has been uneven and imperfect. Through the help of professionals and fellow addicts, I have slowly gathered the tools I need to remain clean and sober. Vigilance. Patience. And more honesty than is ever comfortable to me.

F-LA-Web-Interior-logoFor the last 10 years I’ve been climbing back out of a hole I had finally stopped digging. I’ve managed to locate the man I had once hoped to be. I have found my joy again, which is truly the guiding emotion that helps me remain clean. I have come to terms with surviving AIDS and for living when so many worthy men did not. I have forgiven myself for having such good fortune and responding to it by sticking needles in my arm.

Today, my health and recovery are primary to my daily life. I have regained gifts and talents that had laid dormant for many years, and I use them in the service of others.

As a writer and HIV activist, I’m known for my sense of humor. But I’m dead serious about my addiction. I don’t want to go back there. I love this life too much.

Mark

Photo credit: Fulton County Sheriff Department, after my arrest for drug possession in February of 2008. If you have an issue with substance abuse, help is available. Consider programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or even Crystal Meth Anonymous (find out more about 12-step programs here and if one would be right for you), or check out reviews of treatment centers available at TheFix.com.
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Other Posts on Drug Addiction:
“The Crystal Meth Connection of the Gay Porn Killer.” If ever a posting had enough searchable Google words, this might be it. A look at the Canadian accused murderer and why his alleged meth use made sense to me.
“My Muscles, My Disease: A Snapshot of Drug Addiction.” How my body-conscious lifestyle only fueled (and still reminds me of) my drug addiction.
“The Long Road Home from Relapse.” Assessing the destruction of a harrowing relapse as I drive a thousand miles home to family.
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ALSO…

Gay Nerd ArtHe calls it an exhilarating “exercise in perversion,” but I call it fascinating. A prominent gay health advocate who blogs anonymously as Promiscuous Gay Nerd asked himself the question, “What makes sex good for me?” To find out, he created a spread sheet and then tracked every sexual detail of 50 encounters (43 of them unique, living up to his promiscuous name). Reading his analysis and viewing the spreadsheet in all its grinding glory is a lesson in gay sex, pursuit, and why we chase “the strange” rather than “the intimate.” More ironic is the fact that the blogger rates the more connected and intimate encounters as the best ones. Might there be a lesson there about hanging up his promiscuous lifestyle and finding an ongoing partner? “I had boring sex with boyfriends sometimes, just as I have boring sex with strangers sometimes,” he told me in an online comment. “Perhaps that’s why all my exes are exes! I look forward to finding a man who can change that.”

travels2“Travels With My Nephew” is a new book of fiction that covers the life of Dorothy DeMoore, a proper British woman with enough Auntie Mame in her bones to satisfy her gay nephew. Their adventures take them back and forth across the pond, as her horny nephew samples love and Dorothy learns lessons about cabarets and gay rights. The story is told by Dorothy to the writer of her memoirs, and the interplay between the two as she weaves her tale provides droll entertainment. Curiously, the occasional references to the dawn of AIDS seem out of step with an otherwise pleasant comedy of manners. But no matter — author Guy Wilson (of the Wilsons Arts Project, which has produced the book as a theatrical musical) keeps things moving at a fun clip. The cover photo of Dorothy (above), I might add, looks suspiciously like Guy’s husband, Nic Wilson. Just sayin’.

excelmale_1Our favorite poz fitness and nutrition expert Nelson Vergel (people still write me about the funny and informative video he and I did together, when Nelson raided my fridge to teach me a lesson) is involved in a new health site for men, ExcelMale.com, that provides nutrition and supplement information and forum chats with other people. It is not specific to HIV but does have great info. It offers a free membership to participate in postings (and they do hope you’ll purchase their products), but I was able to wander freely on the site and get good info without signing up.

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Posted in Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease | 5 Comments »

The Most Important Gay Porn Film Ever Made?

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Note: This essay has been shared more than 15,000 times from this site since it posted in July of 2012. Some readers responded angrily, and the barebacking aspect of the story brought both cheers and derision (one comment accused director Max Sohl of “crimes against humanity”). Frankly, I just thought the story of the film and its sociological impact was worth investigating; I appreciated the candidness of those connected to the film, as well as the social scientists and CDC officials who served as background.

The annual Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco is noted for its unbridled embrace of every star in our sexual constellation. Even the fearless leather community that founded the event can sometimes appear tame amidst the outlandish kinks and clothing – and lack thereof – on display along the city’s tilted streets.

In the middle of this rowdy bacchanalia in the fall of 2003, Paul Morris stood at the booth for Treasure Island Media (TIM), the gay porn outfit he founded that features unprotected sex (barebacking) between its actors. This particular specialty was the singular driving force behind his smashingly successful and relatively new company.

Then, like the legend of Lana Turner fortuitously cozying up to the counter at Schwab’s, a beautiful and achingly masculine young man approached the TIM booth. He liked the TIM videos, he liked them very much indeed, and he hoped to one day document a few fantasies of his own. TIM star Jesse O’Toole was on hand and someone snapped a photograph of the two of them together (right). In it, the grinning young man with a leather cap appears to have found his long lost tribe, and O’Toole looks as if he has found a seven-course meal.

The photo was sent to Max Sohl, a sometime porn actor with a theater background whom Morris had commissioned to conceive and direct what would be Sohl’s first porn film. Sohl met with the aspiring model and asked him to complete a form that included a simple question: What is one of your fantasy scenes? In response, the young man wrote simply, “me getting nailed and seeded by a gang of hot guys.”

“The Black Party was coming,” Sohl explained in a recent interview, referring to the annual New York City weekend of leather men, parties and sexual adventures, “and I thought, ‘Okay. Let’s see how many men he can take.’”

And that is how Dawson’s 20 Load Weekend was born.

Prior to the onset of AIDS, condom usage in gay pornography was nonexistent – but that was before bodily fluids became synonymous with death and disease. For well over a decade after the crisis began, gay porn videos featured not only tightly wrapped penises, but their storylines – indeed, the actors themselves – suffered from a sort of dramatic malaise, as if sleepwalking through their sexual routine while trying to pay no attention to the man with KS lesions behind the curtain. The videos mirrored our own lack of interest in gallivanting about with the pizza man or diving into an orgy with strangers, with or without condoms. Many viewers simply returned to their stash of pre-AIDS pornography, which was condom-less but “justified.”

As AIDS deaths subsided with the advent of new medications in 1996, gay male culture responded with a vengeance. Circuit parties were born of celebration (before succumbing to their own excesses), safer sex behaviors relaxed, and there was a palpable longing to escape the horrors of the previous years. Reclaiming a bold sexuality – something many gay men believed had been lost forever – was a tonic for the post-traumatic stress they suffered. Younger gay men, who had listened to stories of an earlier, sexually liberated time as if it were a lost era of paleontology, were more than willing to explore whatever modern version might await them.

Unprotected sex since the arrival of HIV is nothing new – it is, after all, the primary reason for new infections that have continued fairly steadily since AIDS began – but in the late 1990’s the gay community proved again how comically adept it is at applying a little branding to any phenomenon, and “barebacking” entered the public lexicon. The irony may be that a new word was developed for the oldest sexual activity imaginable: having sex without a barrier. It wasn’t the sex that had changed, but the meaning and judgment associated with it towards, most specifically, gay men. Or, as AIDS advocate Jim Pickett said at a recent conference for people living with HIV, “When a friend announces they are expecting a child, I feel like screaming ‘You barebacked!‘”

But while intelligent minds and passionate advocates argued about the reasons and the proper response to barebacking, no one had dared document it on videotape for the erotic pleasure of others. Yet.

In 1998, two renegade companies formed to make bareback videos exclusively: Hot Desert Knights and Treasure Island Media (links definitely NSFW). None of the leading gay pornographers would consider producing them (although they were eager to market their highly-profitable backlists of videos produced “pre-AIDS” that featured bareback sex). The cheaply made videos by the upstart porn producers brought the sexual choices of an increasing number of men out of the closet and onto DVD players and computer screens.

The videos were uniform in their low production values, the older ages of the actors, and the fact that several of them appeared to have the physical manifestations of HIV. It was as if a group of men who had literally lived through AIDS said, “oh, what the hell,” and demonstrated the kind of sex they had been having amongst themselves for some time. Their exploits were perceived as an underground fetish that would never break the surface of more mainstream gay pornography.

But then Max Sohl met that ferociously attractive man from the Folsom Street Fair who was so eager to “get seeded” by a string of strangers, and with the sexual zeitgeist now primed for their arrival, they made a film that would forever change the porn industry and quite arguably influence the sexual behavior of countless gay men.

Re-christened “Dawson,” the budding porn star was served up in a hotel room over the course of New York City’s 2004 Black Party weekend to an ongoing parade of bareback tops. Their sex was filmed in a documentary fashion, without music, scripted dialogue, or any effort to hide the many cables and cameras crowding the room. Dawson’s fantasy had been fulfilled, and Sohl had the footage to prove it.

In June of 2004, Dawson’s 20 Load Weekend was released and was precisely as advertised.

It might first strike the viewer that the video was created in an unsettling world in which HIV is utterly absent; that is, until a revamped sexual choreography is pointedly repeated again and again. While orgasms in gay porn before AIDS typically showed the top withdrawing from his partner and spilling his semen across his partner’s backside, the tops servicing Dawson had a different and very deliberate mission: to withdraw only long enough to prove their orgasm, and then re-enter Dawson immediately to show the injection of semen.

This was not a film that was made in the absence of HIV, but was created because of HIV. You can practically hear a disembodied voice whispering, “Watch closely. This is how gay men have sex now. That is where semen belongs. Fuck AIDS.”

Depending on your point of view, it is either a transgressive act of eroticism or an incredibly irresponsible act that demonstrates how to become infected with HIV. Or perhaps both.

In the center of all of this was Dawson himself, and never has bareback porn had such a virile and athletic leading man, much less one that bottomed with such disarming delight. “He was a higher quality male model that hadn’t been seen in that kind of extreme scene,” said Sohl. “The movie changed things because of Dawson. He was adorable, and actually smiles and laughs. He is Cialis joyful in that movie.”

“Bareback porn companies have blood on their hands,” became a common refrain among gay men and health advocates. Gay sex advice columnist Dan Savage equated the videos to child porn, believing they take advantage of the naïve and the vulnerable. Some accused TIM of making snuff films.

The video was wildly successful, ubiquitous wherever porn was shown. Even Sohl was surprised. “Our staff and even my friends would say ‘I go into a porn booth, a sex party, a hookup, and its playing,’” he said. “It was everywhere.”

Adult bookstores which had previously shunned TIM videos responded to customer demand and began stocking them, even creating bareback sections on their shelves. Gay porn sites that once refused to feature bareback clips began including them. Dawson and the film became the definitive symbol of a bare, wanton sexuality that eschewed condoms and refused to be denied or intimidated by the virus.

Soon, more companies produced bareback porn, and they were able to attract “collegiate jock” types who were younger, more muscular and the very picture of health and vitality. The faces and bodies in bareback videos had been transformed, erasing all evidence of HIV, much like the invisibility of HIV/AIDS in our broader culture.

When considering the legacy of his film, Sohl is more pragmatic than proud. “The concept of taking twenty loads in 2004 was beyond taboo, but to say it in 2012… it doesn’t seem as extreme today,” he said. “I’m sure someone else would have done it. It just so happened to be us.”

Neither does Sohl admit to any trepidation about the safety of his actors, then or now. “I’ve been doing this since 2004, with thousands of men, and have had only one guy claim to get an STD (on my set),” he explained. “Probably 50 percent of my casting job is being an HIV counselor,” he adds, without a hint of irony. “I spend a lot of time talking about HIV. My feeling is that people need to be responsible for their own actions and make informed decisions.”

One of the people making decisions while living with HIV is none other than the actor known as Dawson, who disclosed his HIV positive status to The Windy City Times in 2005. While his HIV status may surprise no one, something else he said in the interview was sadly revealing. “It was after turning positive that I made the decision to look into doing a movie for Treasure Island Media,” he said at the time. “I had seroconverted a few months before…”

After an HIV diagnosis, many people use it as an opportunity to re-examine their lives, make different choices, or otherwise take steps to enjoy their life in whatever ways are important to them. For the man who would be Dawson, his seroconversion was followed by the choice to be an unapologetic cum whore in front of video cameras. This may have been his fantasy, but it certainly fuels the stigmatizing belief that people with HIV are irresponsible vectors of disease, spreading infection and abandoning whatever sexual values they may have previously held.

Perhaps, then, the film was a treatise on the kind of sexual liberation available to HIV positive gay men today, demonstrating the “new normal” for those who take their meds, eliminate the viral activity in their blood, and “fuck freely and without fear,” as TIM founder Paul Morris once put it. Or did it simply portray poz men as sluts, a charge leveled by disgusted (and possibly jealous) HIV negative men?

“What a person is seeing has more to do with them than with us,” said Sohl. “The best mode of action is not to confirm or deny anything. I will see a scene online that I directed,” he says, referring to the many porn sites that pirate pieces of his work and give them new titles, “and it will be renamed ‘negative bottom takes poz loads,’ as if it were a conversion scene. We never said that. Or people think the bottom is using crystal meth. That says more about the guy watching it than what actually happened.”

That relationship, between porn and viewer, is something of particular concern to some HIV prevention advocates who believe bareback porn encourages unsafe sex in real life. This resulted in AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s recent campaign to mandate condom use on pornography sets, a move that was popular on a simplistic level but did nothing to address the myriad of factors associated with actual HIV risk and relative safety, such as an undetectable viral load, serosorting, or the precise sexual behaviors involved.

While social cognitive theory states that we make behavioral decisions based on watching others, very little research has been conducted on the causal relationship between bareback porn and real behavior. In what little has been studied, researchers can’t decide if barebackers watch a lot of bareback porn, or bareback porn makes people barebackers.

It is a riddle that Max Sohl is surprisingly happy to solve. “Absolutely” he said. “Of course it is going to influence what people do.” When asked, then, what is the responsibility of porn, Sohl would have none of it. “The responsibility of porn,” he says impishly, “is to make the guy watching it shoot a load.”

Dawson is, now and forever, committed to videotape and featured on dozens of online porn sites, happily receiving the prize he so ardently desires. He and his progeny of newer, younger porn actors have crossed a line and they’re never coming back. Their video escapades are available online everywhere and for everyone, including young gay men who are just coming out and surfing the internet for validation of their sexuality.

What those young men will almost certainly see online are depictions of unprotected sex, because bareback videos now outperform scenes of condom usage on every site that carries them – and most of them now do. It is unquestionable that bareback sex will be viewed as typical to the uninitiated, and anyone crafting safer sex messages to those young men is going to have a difficult time trumping those images. The “use a condom every time” message is officially dead, drowned in buckets of bodily fluids by Dawson and his barebacking brethren.

Dawson’s 20 Load Weekend redefined bareback porn and the men who appear in them. It influenced subsequent videos and expanded the availability of bareback films. It depicted a prevailing truth about gay sexual behavior “post AIDS,” and arguably encouraged risky sexual adventure-seeking. It led to the saturation of bareback porn online, making unprotected sex normative to whomever might be watching. To dismiss this film, to minimize its social and cultural impact, would be to demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of gay sexuality today.

“Barebacking is a right,” gay anthropologist Eric Rofes once wrote. “After all, practically every straight guy in the world gets to do it without being told they are irresponsible, foolish, or suicidal… Barebacking is liberation. Barebacking is defiance.”

How foolish, prescient, liberating, enlightening or destructive barebacking may ultimately become is something that may only be revealed in the next chapter of our gay community’s troubled history.

(Photo of Dawson and Jesse O’Toole courtesy of Max Sohl and edited for content. Other images courtesy of Treasure Island Media [NSFW].)

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TWO MORE POSTS ON BAREBACKING and/or GAY SEX:

“Your Mother Liked it Bareback” loses all patience with the finger pointing and judgments being hurled around between gay men when it comes to choices about unprotected sex. In short, it asks us to broaden what it means to have “safer sex,” and to acknowledge there are now many prevention techniques that do not involve condoms. Check it out.

Why I Stopped Going to the Baths” is a riot, explaining my decision to stop, well, going to the baths. Any posting that begins with “The last time I went to the baths I stepped in poop,” can’t be all bad, right?

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

The Real Poz Guys of Atlanta III

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Why Andy Cohen isn’t badgering me with phone calls to bring this series to Bravo, I’ll never know.

Nearly four years ago, I invited four friends living with HIV over to my place for a night of devouring brownies and sharing secrets, while my friend Charles captured it on video. The result was “You Gotta Have Friends,” the first episode of what would be renamed “The Real Poz Guys of Atlanta.” The second episode was posted more than a year later (you can see a recap and both previous episodes here). And now, episode three.

These guys must be getting the hang of this, because we discussed and revealed things like never before. From crystal meth addiction to our mothers, nothing was off limits. There’s even a (NSFW-ish) chat about tops and bottoms and modern gay sexual politics. And dealing with loss. And reaching out for help when you really need it.

Real Poz Guys PIC 2013I’m not going to lie, I’m proud of this video. It’s clear that my editing skills have improved since our first episode along with the group’s ability to keep it real. More importantly, the video series represents a lot of issues I feel passionately about – combating HIV stigma with honesty about our status, the crucial importance of social support, and living joyfully. That, and I love hearing my friends talk dirty for a good reason.

I really hope you share this one with your friends and networks (select one of the share features below). I think it represents what this site does best. And judging from the emails I receive, there’s a real need for people with HIV, particularly the newly diagnosed, to know that life, and friendship, doesn’t end with a positive test result.

I look forward to your comments! Thanks for watching, and please be well.

Mark

(The Poz Guys pictured above are (left to right) James, myself, Antron, Eric, and Craig. I’m the only one who isn’t single; I know they would appreciate me mentioning that.)
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PLUS…

day with HIVOur friend Jeff Berry from Positively Aware has announced the fourth annual “A Day with HIV” photo campaign, and this project is so cool – and so damn easy to participate in – that I tramadol dosage for dogs want to challenge you to just do it. It works like this: they collect photographs and captions from hundreds of people from a single day, Saturday, September 21, to help the world better understand the trials and triumphs of living with HIV. Some are artsy, some are simple photos (like the 2012 submission from Jason Zupke at right). Select photos will appear in the November/December issue of Positively Aware, and all of the photos submitted will appear on the campaign’s website. Give it a click to find out more.

atlanta pride picIf you are anywhere near Atlanta this October 13, would you like to join me in my role as a Grand Marshal for the Atlanta Pride Parade? When I learned of this honor recently, I knew I needed to share it with friends like you or else my ego might blow my head open halfway down the parade route. I’m asking people living with HIV and our allies to walk beside my car (I’m hoping for a red convertible!). I would love a message of solidarity and support for people with HV, and anti-stigma messages like “I love my Poz boyfriend!” and “HIV Educated – UB2.” The first 20 people to show up will get a free HIV POSITIVE t-shirt provided by AIDS Foundation Chicago. I’m excited to already have the support of The Stigma Project and the CDC’s Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign. To get the latest details, go to Facebook and join the My Fabulous Disease page. See you then!

uscaThe United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) is in New Orleans this weekend. I love this conference, because it provides skills building for people working on the front lines in community based organizations and public health — exactly where I spent a lot of the early years of HIV/AIDS. Anyway, I’ll be video blogging from the event and providing you the sights, sounds and people who are making a difference. If you happen to be there, please join me for a panel presentation this Sunday morning at 10:30am, when those of us participating in the CDC’s “Let’s Stop HIV Together” campaign discuss living with HIV and our commitment to HIV prevention.

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Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News | 3 Comments »

Dealing with Shame can be a Drag

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

“We’re born naked… and the rest is drag.” — RuPaul

When I was nine years old, I took my parents’ album of the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees” and memorized every syllable of Gwen Verdon’s show stopper, “Who’s Got the Pain When They Do the Mambo?” Once I was satisfied with my lip-synching and choreography (I decided that a mambo was a dance in which young boys gyrated and flung themselves on and off the living room sofa), the number was ready for public display.

damn yankeesThe premiere was a simple affair, exclusive and unannounced. Mrs. May from across the street had stopped in for afternoon coffee, and opportunity knocked when Mother busied herself in the kitchen for a few minutes.

Not a smart move, Mother, leaving Mark alone with the company.

“Mrs. May, would you like to see me do a song?” The unsuspecting woman gave a polite “yes, that sounds nice” and before Mother could run interference I had turned on the stereo and dropped the needle at the precise moment where Gwen breaks into song.

Mrs. May stared and stared, her hands folded neatly in her lap, as I brought out every sashay, twist and thrust in my dancing arsenal. My moves may have been imperfect but I vocalized brilliantly, thanks to Gwen. As I struck my final pose, arms reaching for the heavens, frozen and triumphant, I saw mother standing in the doorway, holding a plate of cookies and breathing heavily through her nostrils.

Future performances would be limited to my bedroom, where I could conjure an audience cheering with acclamation and mothers wouldn’t put you on restriction.

It is that boy, the cheerful but feminine performer, that I always feared would creep out of me as I navigated young adulthood as a gay man. I worked to shed his characteristics, to replace every soft gesture with a wooden one, to embrace the gym and tank tops and Levi jeans with the same fervor I once had for my beloved Broadway musicals, with mixed success.

And then, a lifetime later, as I worked for an AIDS agency in Atlanta in the 90’s, destiny called. An upcoming drag contest to benefit our agency was suffering from poor participation, and my boss asked if I would consider entering.

Being a drag queen, even for a night, terrified and delighted me. But the performer in me won out, wouldn’t you know, and Anita Mann was born. I created an interactive video rendition of Donna Summer’s “This Time I Know It’s for Real” (below) and won the contest.

Soon I was performing with “the camp drag queens of the south,” The Armorettes, who hosted a Sunday night show at Atlanta’s now-demolished Armory to raise funds for AIDS organizations (they are still performing, now at Burkhart’s). Over the years they vigrx info have raised over $2 million dollars, and their show was a sellout every week. But my own phobic notions lingered.

I didn’t want to be known as a drag queen (“It’s comedy! I’m a performance artist!” I would insist). I never appeared anywhere in drag but on that stage – I would always get dressed at the show, and was out of drag for the final curtain call, in a bid to display whatever masculine credentials I had to offer.

Anita Smoking smallI would hear other gay men make disparaging remarks about drag and I withered, unable to admit I was playing to a packed room every Sunday.

The nexus of shame and shamelessness is a complicated one. Each week I put on full display the very things about myself that I had worked so hard to reject — my femininity, my silly pursuit of acceptance through laughter and applause. And just as I gained confidence in what I was doing and why, I would lose a potential boyfriend when he learned of my weekend talents.

As a growing meth addiction encroached on my free time, I abandoned Anita Mann to its demands. Anita’s dress and wig would be relegated to a duffel bag hidden in the back of the hallway closet. I had found a vocation in drugs that offered twice the shame and every bit of the need to keep quiet about it.

It took a few years before Anita would make her comeback. Armed with a TV set and a sense of the absurd, Anita performed at a sober fund raising event. Her rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (below) grows more insane by the moment (watch out for the swinging TV set!).

And yes, I am aware that I speak of her in the third person. Maybe it is because I view her as a character I have created, and perhaps it is the remnants of shame, and of my need to keep her at a distance.

It’s strange, how those things about which we have drawn the most shame are also able to liberate us, not to mention help others. My HIV status. My drug addiction and recovery process. My drag personality. As I have embraced each of these, I’ve found self-acceptance and a way to carry a message of hope, and even joy, to others.

Meanwhile, I still struggle with the need to project as much masculinity as I can muster. I swagger more than I sashay. I sport a beard when possible. And I work to maintain a strict gym regimen.

It’s important for me to stay in shape if I expect to fit in that dress.

Mark

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(This is a revised version of a posting that appeared on this site on March 15, 2012. Good drag bears repeating. — Mark)

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

The Private War That Killed Spencer Cox

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

“My most courageous self, the best man that I’ll ever be, lived more than two decades ago during the first years of a horrific plague… I miss the man I was forced to become.”
— “Once, When We Were Heroes,” 2007

AIDS did not kill Spencer Cox in the first, bloodiest battles of the 1980’s. It spared him that.

The reprieve allowed Spencer’s brilliance as co-founder of the Treatment Action Group (TAG) to forge new FDA guidelines for drug approval and help make effective HIV medications a reality, saving an untold number of lives.

Such triumph by a man still in his twenties might have signaled even greater achievements ahead. Instead, Spencer found himself adrift in the same personal crisis as many of his contemporaries, who struggled for a meaningful existence after years of combating the most frightening public health crisis of modern times.

Gay activists like Spencer were consumed by AIDS for so many gruesome years that many of them were shocked, once the war abated, to see how little around them had changed. Climbing from the trenches, they saw a gay culture that must have seemed ludicrous, packed with the same drug addictions, sexual compulsions and soulless shenanigans that AIDS, in its singular act of goodwill, had arrested for a decade or so.

They found themselves in a world in which no one wants to see battle scars, where intimacy is manufactured on keyboards and web sites, where any sense of community had long since faded from the AIDS organizations and now only makes brief appearances in 12-step meetings, or as likely, in the fraternity of active crystal meth addicts chasing deliverance in a dangerous shell game of bliss and desolation.

The dark allure of meth, a drug so devoured and fetished by gay men today that it is now a leading indicator of new HIV infections, enticed Spencer at some point along the way. The drug is known to whisper empty promises about limitless power and sexual escape, while calming the addict’s ghosts and sorrows for miserably brief periods of time.

When Spencer Cox died on December 18, 2012, in New York City, the official cause of death was AIDS-related complications, which is understandable if post-traumatic stress, despair and drug addiction are complications related to AIDS.

Spencer believed that this connection exists. His own writings for the Medius Institute for Gay Men’s Health (an organization he co-founded after his work with TAG) focus on exactly the issues that were distressing him personally: Crystal meth abuse. Loneliness. Risk taking. Feelings of confusion after years of accomplishment and purpose.

In retrospect you can read his work and break the private code written between the lines. It spells out “HELP ME.”

Spencer’s life during this period and beyond was difficult, by many accounts. The Medius Institute failed due to a lack of funding, defeating Spencer’s effort to address mental health issues among gay men. His drug addiction spiraled and ebbed and raged again, until he finally retreated to Georgia to live with family for a few years.

When Spencer returned to New York City last September, many of his closest friends had lost track of him. There is uncertainty about his last months, and no evidence that his addiction was active, but what little medication compliance he managed had been abandoned completely, setting the stage for his final hospitalization.

Spencer Cox died without the benefit of the very drugs he had helped make available to the world. He perished from pneumonia, in an ironic clinical time warp that transported him back to 1985. It was as if, having survived the deadliest years of AIDS, having come so close to complete escape, Spencer was snatched up by the Fates in a vengeful piece of unfinished business.

AIDS has always been creative in its cruelty. And it has learned to reach through the decades with the second-hand tools of disillusionment and depression and heart-numbing traumas. Or, perhaps, using the simple weapon of crystal meth, with all of its seductions and deceits.

Yes. There are many complications related to AIDS.

To consider “survivor’s guilt” the culprit behind the death of Spencer Cox is a popular explanation but not necessarily an accurate one. That condition suggests surviving when other, presumably worthier people, did not. Sometimes guilt has nothing to do with it.

For many of our AIDS war veterans, the real challenge today is living with the horror of having survived at all.

Mark

(PHOTO CREDIT: Walter Kurtz)

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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 50 Comments »

The Truth is Bad Enough: What Became of the Happy Hustler?

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

The story behind the title of Michael Kearns’ memoir The Truth is Bad Enough is as delicious as the title itself. As Kearns’ parents – themselves worthy of a Tennessee Williams subplot — battled each other at their divorce proceeding when Michael was a child, his father presented damning surveillance of his mother’s many infidelities. The evidence was unimpeachable, but then the father tried raising the stakes by charging that the woman also physically abused him.

Kearns’ mother couldn’t be contained and interrupted the proceedings. “Your honor,” she said. “Why is this man lying? The truth is bad enough!”

The truth is sometimes difficult, to be sure, but in the case of this engaging and fast moving autobiography, it’s also hilarious. There’s nothing more formidable than a drama queen with legitimate drama on their hands, and the life of talented, alcoholic, HIV infected, highly theatrical and perpetually horny Michael Kearns has had more peril than an Aaron Spelling series.

Kearns began his career in the midst of the “gay lib” of the 1970’s even if Hollywood was tight lipped on the topic, and it is that disconnect that pushes the openly gay Kearns into an unintended activist role and confounds his career aspirations.

After a featured role playing the older brother of John-Boy on The Waltons, Kearns’ future seemed secure. But test audiences reacted poorly to their scenes together because they showed the characters away at college. Kearns’ character never appeared again. Rumors that he was fired because he was openly gay were untrue but persisted for years.

Meanwhile, Kearns had a boyfriend who had written a fictional book called The Happy Hustler, and for which Kearns had modeled for the cover image. In order to generate book sales, a plan was hatched to present Kearns as the actual Happy Hustler – the book’s author – and send him on a press tour. Having been banished from Walton Mountain and still hungry for stardom of some kind, any kind, Kearns agreed to take on the counterfeit persona as a sort of exercise in ongoing performance art.

Keans’ drunken appearance as The Happy Hustler (a role he began taking far too literally in his private life) during a 1976 Tom Snyder interview sets the stage for both career success and life on a runaway crazy train. Kearns revels in drug and alcohol abuse as tricks and acting jobs come and go. He sleeps with celebrities and strangers with equal apathy. His status as the first openly gay actor of note invites curiosity and derision. He agrees to reveal his HIV positive status for an NBC interview almost as a lark, leading to a period of portraying “the gay guy with AIDS” in a collection of acting gigs.

I was drawn to Kearns’ story for the Hollywood gossip –– but I kept reading because of something deeper and far more riveting. And it had everything to do with how our lives were fated to overlap.

My own memoir A Place Like This travels some of the same West Hollywood streets. I was a bottom-feeder on the Hollywood scene (an expression I should probably withdraw now for its literal inaccuracy) and I never knew Kearns, but we did have a liaison in common: our bedding of the detached and unhappy Rock Hudson. However, let the record show that while Kearns’ dalliance was what gay men refer to as “standup sex,” mine was brief but at least horizontal. So, um, I win.

Many other famous faces populate the book – gay, straight, porn stars of various stripes, and the hypocritically closeted that Kearns, God bless him, outs on his pages with regularity. His characterizations of personalities we thought we knew are enlightening, gentle when need be, and sometimes quite sad.

The funny but famously acerbic Paul Lynde was kind and helpful to Kearns. Stage legend Leonard Frey (birthday boy Harold from Boys in the Band) sat despondently during a sexy gay house party, where looks trumped celebrity. The “monstrous” Charles Nelson Reilly was so threatened by Kearns’ sexual identity that he cut short their visit in Florida to work on a project, throwing Kearns out of the guest house and squawking insults from the porch in his orange caftan as Kearns was driven away.

And then, Kearns’ story includes a bizarre intersection between us that I found so revelatory and disturbing that I had to actually put the book down for several days while I reexamined an entire section of my life.

During the 1980’s I owned a gay phone sex company, Telerotic. It predated party lines and the internet; customers called our office and “ordered” the type man they wished to speak with, and one of my employees (struggling actors, every one) would call back the customer and take on the persona of whatever the client had ordered. I had opened the company after working for a competitor and discovering I was a very popular choice among the clients and had, well, a way with words.

One day, playwright James Carroll Pickett contacted me. He wanted to interview me, observe me doing calls with clients, and get a feel for the business as research for a play he was writing. We spent a few evenings together, as I answered questions, smoked cigarettes, made funny faces while talking to clients, and snorted copious amounts of cocaine in my bathroom.

Months later I attended a performance of Dream Man, which would become the most heralded collaboration between the playwright and his theatrical partner, who performed the role of the phone sex caller in the searing one-man show.

The actor was Michael Kearns.

Watching the performance nearly thirty years ago was a surreal experience, but it was the playwrights inclusion of the mechanics of my nightly calls that were so striking to me: the rolodex box filled with client notes, the gimmicks I used to appear more engaged than I actually was, my tricks to get the client to call again by teasing him with an upcoming sexual adventure I wanted to be sure to share with him.

And I missed the point entirely. It wasn’t until I read Kearns’ book that the facts of the character he portrayed came into view: an isolated, frenzied and increasingly unhinged gay man with no prospects or esteem, playing to an audience of one – whatever desolate client he could hold hostage during their phone call.

The play was an aria of anguish, but all I could focus on during that performance so many years ago was the damn rolodex cards. I was incapable of facing the “dark density” of the character, because if I scratched its surface I would have clearly identified the drug addicted, desperate young man that the playwright had come to interview. And I may have revealed far more to him than I ever imagined.

Dream Man would be performed across the country, in Spain, Ireland, Germany. And through those years I continued my destructive path, having lost an opportunity for my own moment of clarity in the dim light of that West Hollywood playhouse. Reading about it now, in this book, rattled me to the core, and the book sat untouched on my nightstand for several days.

The last third of the book focuses on Kearns’ adoption of a baby girl born to a crack addicted mother, his selfless love for her, and how their bond throughout her upbringing conjures everything from his fears of AIDS mortality to his unresolved issues with his own troubled parents. These pages are filled with a grace and maturity that are miles away from the drug- and celebrity-induced selfishness of his life thus far, as Kearns gently guides the reader down to earth, into the bosom of family, after pages and years of breathless shenanigans.

“Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today” is a common refrain among those, like Kearns, dealing with recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. His book is imbued with that acceptance, just as reading it allowed me to accept whatever part of me was on display in the lonely, reckless stage creation Kearns most famously brought to shattering existence.

Mark

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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease | 5 Comments »

My Muscles, My Disease: A Snapshot of Drug Addiction

Friday, September 28th, 2012

There is a folder, tucked within a folder, buried deep in my computer files. I shouldn’t be looking at its contents, yet I can’t bring myself to delete it altogether. It is labeled MARCUS, and inside the folder is my disease.

Pool ColoredDuring my years of crystal meth addiction I went by the name of Marcus, at least to dealers and tricks and fellow addicts. It helped me determine who was calling my cell phone — those calling for Mark or Marcus usually had very different agendas — and Marcus even became an alternate persona as my drug addiction progressed.

When partying as Marcus, I felt confident and aloof. I took awful chances. I never met a strobe light I didn’t like or a box on a dance floor I wouldn’t jump on. A steroid-crazed gym regimen and the dehydration of drug abuse transformed my body into the low fat, pumped up gay ideal.

Photographs of that body, in full, preening strut, are the contents of the MARCUS folder. The pictures were my calling card for online sex-and-drug pursuits. They suggest nudity but are cropped modestly — although God knows that much more damning images of me surely exist in the dark corners of cyberspace.

Shipwrecked EyesIn one of the few pictures showing my face, I stand under a running shower — a pitiful Playgirl pose, spray nozzle in hand — with a blank face and shipwrecked eyes. The only emotion on display, just around the edges, is a dull fear.

My life was precisely as pictured. It wouldn’t be long before my drug use trumped my gym schedule, and my status in online chat rooms devolved from intriguing hottie to that crazy mess that doesn’t look like his pictures.

Since then, my recovery from drug addiction has helped me understand that the Gay Strut is key to my disease. It is a sly porthole back to raging insanity.

MarkTorso2008 - Copy - CopyExplaining all this feels idiotic. What vanity I possess, asking you to gaze upon my former, overwrought beauty as I complain about the consequences. It feels like an invitation to tell me how much healthier I look now, or that recovery is “an inside job.” I know this. I’m just sharing the curious road that got me here.

My recovery depends on healing my mind, body and spirit. At the moment I’m two out of three.

My spirit is happy today. My smiles are joyful and plentiful. My mind is clear, although I don’t kid myself, there are remnants of a brain pickled in methamphetamine for many years. But healing is underway, and my mind and spirit are enjoying the process.

Only my body lags behind, injured, resentful, and suspicious of the path to well being. I’m sedentary and stubborn. I relate being physically fit with something traumatic that once hounded and eventually ruined me.

I want to be healthier, and to control my weight and rising cholesterol. I need to fix this, I tell myself, but I’m afraid to fix this. There’s the potential that I’ll go back to a lifestyle more horrible than my expanding waistline.

Torso2008Crop - CopyIt’s good to get in shape again, I tell myself with sincere intentions. The treadmill is really taking off the pounds and I should start weight lifting again and hot damn, that muscle recall really works just look at my arms and I should buy new tank tops and work out even harder and get steroids prescribed again and what’s wrong with hanging out at a bar shirtless and shooting pool and sure I’ll do one hit of that, thanks, and man this body of mine would look damn hot at a sex party right now and who’s your dealer and do you have needles…?

Getting back in shape is an easy call. Except my mind puts physical fitness on the same crazy train as my drug addiction.

There is a solution. There always is. And I’m working on it. The fact I acknowledge my insanity is a good start. Now I can begin the process of teaching my body new tricks.

There are traps on the road to recovery, as anyone getting clean and sober will tell you. I’m much better at seeing them clearly than I used to be. But the vigilance it requires is a full time job.

I get afraid that a dangerous choice might look perfectly innocent. Or be a reasonable part of life. It could be a healthy choice, even, at least for you.

But sometimes, my very reckoning can look as pretty as a picture.

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This piece originally appeared on my blog last year, and is featured in Trevor Hoppe’s upcoming book, Beyond Masculinity. I felt obliged to show some of the Marcus photos, but have cropped and altered them into something less decadent. Any similarity to pictures you may have seen in online chat rooms is purely coincidental. This topic is also something I’ve done my best to separate from my series of fitness videos with expert Nelson Vergel. Why burden the guy with my insanity? — Mark

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Posted in Gay Life, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease | 9 Comments »

The Crystal Meth Connection of the Gay Porn Killer

Friday, June 8th, 2012

I knew it. I felt it. It was as clear as the incessant call of crystal meth itself, on those nights when a seductive phantom of the drug cozies up to me in bed and brings its knitting.

In a Huffington Post news article on accused killer Luka Rocco Magnotta, buried in the story pages deep, a former lover says that the alleged murderer used methamphetamine, the drug popular among gay men that has claimed years of my life and left countless men in utter wreckage.

The story of the Canadian “low budget porn actor” has horrified the public with its harrowing details of torture, cannibalism, and necrophilia. The young man has been accused of killing a student, cutting him to pieces, and then mailing body parts to various locations. He allegedly consumed some of his victim and performed sexual acts with the body. He is also accused of uploading a video recording of the crime onto the internet.

Horrific, yes. But the sheer madness of the crimes, and the killer’s insane determination to make it as shocking as possible, was sickeningly familiar to a recovering methamphetamine addict like me. There is no evidence yet that crystal meth played a role in these crimes, but allow me to explain why the mix of porn, insanity and meth use struck a disturbing chord with me.

Among gay men who use recreational drugs, crystal meth abuse remains epidemic, sought for its fabled power to heighten sexual desire. In the last ten years, “crystal” has emptied nightclubs and sentenced friends to the isolation of online porn or to the emotional wasteland of “party and play” orgies frequented by fellow addicts, where syringes are common and condoms are not, and which feature exhausted, drug-driven sexual compulsives. The events have all the charm of dead bodies having sex.

Just as the drug demands more in its pursuit of the thrill of that first transformative rush, so does the sexual psyche. Before long, typical sexual behavior isn’t enough in the life of a crystal addict, and more extreme components are brought into play, such as risk and location, props and posturing, all as users experience a darkening of the sexual landscape that would cause your very soul to shudder.

In my experience, finding sexual fantasies to stimulate the weathered sexuality of meth abuse means exploring alien territory, where nothing is off-limits and the darker, the better. It becomes a perverse game of one-upmanship between addicts on the depths each will plummet for the sexual shock needed. You think about violence, one might ask the other. Fine, but have you ever thought about this? That’s hot, says the other, but what I really think about doing… is this.

Never mind that the images they are conjuring have never occurred to either of them prior to their addiction. They are mining something much darker than their authentic sexuality has ever known, all in the service of an insatiable sexual craving poisoned by a drug made with ingredients like ether, Drano and brake fluid. And so their perverse tales build and accelerate, tossed back and forth like playing volleyball with a severed head.

This is why the exploits of Mr. Magnotta set off my meth addict radar. The very outrageousness of his vile acts felt, to me, like an addict who had explored the depths of his imagination and come up short, for whom the depravity couldn’t be satisfied any longer without being made flesh. Whether his pre-existing insanity carried him across a mortal line or crystal meth pushed him over it, we don’t yet know. But meth addicts like me were shaking their heads at the accounts of Magnotta’s heinous acts and wondering why the rest of the world hadn’t suspected the connection, and why news reports hardly mentioned his crystal use as if it weren’t particularly relevant.

There are horrors that don’t arise from childhood abuse, or sociopathology or even garden variety insanity. They come from a white crystallized substance that promises everything and delivers nothing, that rewires your brain and twists your most human instincts into something that repulses even you.

Do meth addicts regularly commit murder? Of course not. But I have spent a few sleepless nights since the Magnotta story surfaced, haunted by fantasies I shared with other addicts that I had hoped to never face again.

I received a gift that too many addicts do not, the gift of finding help and taking it. Without my personal fortitude, without the trip to rehab or hitting bottom or the grace of God himself, my meth-soaked daydreams might have eventually hungered for something more intense, and beyond the safety of simple fantasy.

Instead, I have been saved, today, from what lies behind the darkest curtain. But make no mistake, I carry the burden of regrets, and they include those with a very human toll.

During the bleary days and nights of my last crystal meth relapse, I happened across a friend with whom I had been acquainted in a mutual program of drug addiction recovery. We didn’t speak of it during our few hours together, satisfied to smoke and inject meth without the intrusion of cleaner days. But being in his company vexed me. I had always ignored and denied my relapses to others in recovery and this occasion would be no different. If you didn’t see me do it, it didn’t happen. But this friend had seen, had known, and could later finger me as a liar.

If he came back into recovery, that is. And so, when considering this chance meeting of two meth users adrift, I had only one thought. One selfish, depraved and evil thought.

Maybe he won’t come back. Then no one will know about my lies.

For this addict in recovery, those who don’t come back from an extended relapse usually have met one of several possible fates, most of them dire. They may have been arrested and now face time in our horrendous penal system, or they are strapped to a gurney somewhere with serious bodily injury or a broken mind, or maybe they’re dead. To secretly hope anyone doesn’t come back from a relapse feels downright sociopathic.

What is the difference, I might ask, between taking a life outright and hoping another suffering addict continues sticking toxic needles in his arm, sentencing him to serious if not mortal consequences?

That man with whom I shared part of my relapse deserves to be in recovery – and I actually wished he wouldn’t find it. To call him my friend is a disgrace.

I might as well have cut him up into little pieces.

Mark
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PLUS…
AIDS2012, the international AIDS conference held every two years, is next month in Washington, DC, and I’m going to make sure you don’t miss all the most colorful and inspiring parts! As I did at AIDS2010 in Vienna, I will be posting videos every day from the event. I keep the scientific reporting to the experts and instead focus on the stories of the people who make up this remarkable and massive conference. If you haven’t signed up for my email updates (above right), NOW is the time to get on board so you don’t miss the sights, sounds and personal stories that make this a truly unique event.

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Posted in Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News | 15 Comments »