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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 before i could return to it.

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 Book Review, 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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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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Dealing with Shame can be a Drag

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

AnitaB&W - Copy
“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,” (even then, long before this blog, I was toying with the possibilities of video) and won the contest.

Soon I was performing with “the camp drag queens of the south,” The Armorettes, who hosted a Sunday night show to raise funds for AIDS organizations. Over the years they have raised over $1 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 performer!” I would insist). I never appeared anywhere in drag but on that stage – I would always get dressed at the show, and was often 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 drug addiction encroached on my free time, I abandoned Anita Mann to its demands. For many years thereafter, 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 in recovery from my addiction before Anita would make her comeback. Armed with a TV set and a sense of the absurd, Anita performed at a benefit for those of us in recovery, in what may have been her finest hour. Her rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” grows more insane by the moment, and perfectly embodied my interest in multi-media performance.

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. 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.

Anita Mann limits her performances these days to recovery related engagements. It seems fitting that these two aspects of my life, both once secretive, have found their place together. Anita has a voice now as well, doing a sort of recovery stand-up and even singing live when the occasion permits.

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.
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PLUS…

The HIV Cruise Retreat is going to be sold out early this year, because the cruise ship, unlike previous years, is taking back unsold cabins from the cruise organizer that are not sold within the next week. In years past, cabins for our group could be sold much closer to departure. I love this event. Contact Paul Stalbuam at 888-640-7447 or visit www.HIVCruise.com.

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Posted in Anita Mann and Acting Gigs, Family and Friends, Gay Life, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease | 10 Comments »

Grave Hep C News… and oh yeah, the Oscars!

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

The image in my mind has never left me, even after many years of trying, of applying layers of wallpaper to that corner of my mind. I am in someone’s bedroom — it could have been anyone, really — and I am offered a syringe to inject crystal meth. The syringe has been used. I take it. I consider the consequences for a brief moment, but I am cavalier. And very, very high. I use the syringe.

syringeIt wasn’t the threat of HIV that gave me pause. It was hepatitis C, which I knew was serious… and that’s about it. But I can tell you this, now, my friends: More U.S. residents are now dying of hepatitis C complications than HIV-related illnesses, as reported recently by Tim Horn in Hepatitis News.

Within days of using that syringe, maybe two weeks, I become horrifically ill. The acute infection swept through me like a freight train, exhausting me, turning my urine brown, making it impossible to perform routine tasks. Doctors diagnosed it quickly, and then gave me the grave treatment plan: 11 months of interferon, coupled with ribavirin. The interferon, a ferocious chemotherapy, would cause mood swings, deep depression, and would be administered, ironically, by injecting myself with it each week.

Depression is so severe among interferon patients that they do not allow pilots to fly who are being treated with it, for fear they will deliberately crash the plane.

The months I endured with hepatitis C and the treatment protocol remains the worst period of health in my life. The mental side effects were as devastating as the illness. Everything hurt. Everything made me angry. Or want to cry. Or convinced me you were against me. Those eleven months crawled by without mercy.

The good news, thank God, is that the treatment plan worked, and I cleared hepatitis C from my body. There has been no recurrence.

I’ve said that the disease most likely to kill me is addiction, not HIV, and hepatitis C was a terrible by-product of my addiction.

While I am drug-free today and maintaining good health, the report that hepatitis C has overtaken HIV as a cause of death brought up some strong emotions. It reminded me of the insanity of the interferon treatment, and then, of course, the insanity of my drug addiction. And it made me wonder how many of those who are dying of hepatitis C acquired it the same way I did.

My life is filled with unlikely rescues. To have lived with HIV for thirty years and to be here typing on my laptop is amazing. To have thumbed my nose at that fact, and reward my good fortune by sticking needles in my arm, well, that is as alarming and sad to me as it must be to you. It’s tough to feel worthy of the grace that has saved me, again and again. So I’ll simply be grateful to be clean and alive today.

Get tested for hepatitis and get the vaccine for A and B if you have not already been exposed. And should you be an injection drug user, bring your own clean needles where ever you use. You and I both know that, when the choice is a used needle or getting high, all of our good fortune can disappear in a flash.

Mark

p.s. May I sneak back on my HIV criminalization soap box for a moment? (My face-off between a poz man and the sex partner accusing him of not revealing his status has garnered some interesting comments, and the attention of advocates worldwide.) If 26 U.S. States have laws criminalizing the potential exposure of HIV to another person, than why don’t they have laws against exposing someone to hepatitis C, which is now officially more deadly than HIV? Thank you. That will be all.
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On a ridiculously different note, may I say with some pleasure that I always win the Oscar pool. If you are headed to an Oscar party this weekend, by all means, listen up! Here are my predictions. I am including the “little” categories because that is how you rack up points! If you must vary from my experienced guesses, be forewarned: you never win the Oscar pool by going with your passions. This is a game of politics and timing.

artistBEST PICTURE: The Artist. The Descendants had great momentum earlier this year until this adorable gem appeared. The statue has already been engraved.

BEST DIRECTOR: Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist). Your first lesson: when in doubt, choose whatever nominee is attached to the clear Best Picture winner.

BEST ACTOR: George Clooney (The Descendants). George has a supporting statuette already, but the Academy loves the man, and so do I. He will edge out the leading actor from The Artist, who’s name I don’t feel like looking up and spelling out.

BEST ACTRESS: Viola Davis (The Help). Even Meryl wants her to win, for God’s sake.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christopher Plummer (The Beginners). Mr. Plummer, in a cozy role in a slight film, benefits from the George Burns rule: give it to the old guy with a long history. And he made a nice acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, which Academy voters see as auditions.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Octavia Spencer (The Help). This early favorite of a film will sweep the actress categories. Good for them.

BEST SCREENPLAY: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris). The more he demurs, the more they love him.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Alexander Payne (The Descendants). A terrific film and a deserving win.

BEST SOUND EDITING: War Horse

BEST SOUND MIXING: Hugo

BEST MAKEUP: The Iron Lady (closely followed by Albert Nobbs).

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Saving Face

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Pina

BEST ANIMATED SHORT: La Luna (Pixar gets its first short-form Oscar in over a decade).

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT: The Shore. I actually saw these nominees, and would strongly favor Raju from India, but The Shore has bigger names (and influence) attached.

ANIMATED FEATURE: Rango. Surely the most bizarre film to win an Oscar this year. Johnny Depp is smiling.

ART DIRECTION: Hugo

CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick, the mysterious and cultish director, started as a camera man and his shots still make the Academy swoon.

COSTUMES: Hugo (which will rack up some of these techy categories since it won’t win anything big).

EDITING: The Artist

FOREIGN FILM: A Separation. A brooding, surprising domestic thriller.

SCORE: The Artist

SONG: The Muppets

SPECIAL EFFECTS: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Enjoy the show! Good luck, Billy!

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

The Long Road Home from Relapse

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Florida highways have lovely rest stops. You would expect that from the Turnpike, where toll booths charge a premium every so often, but the manicured picnic areas continue even as you drive further north and onto I-75.

I’m on a cement bench in a concession area, chomping down corn chips and a Mountain Dew, away from the dog walkers and the families gathered at picnic tables, when I notice that my jeans are gathered sloppily around my waistline, cinched so much tighter than before. How much smaller has my waist become in such short a time? I wonder. One inch? Two?

rest area sign 2People sometimes stroll near me on their way to the restrooms, and I keep my eyes down, afraid I might look too disheveled for their comfort, or worse, that my shame might be clearly written across my face. That they might see what I’ve done, and return a glance of judgment or pull their children closer.

The self pitying tone of these words doesn’t suit me. Pity is such a useless emotion at a time like this. Let me start again.

The drug relapse came over me like a sickness, as if I was coming down with something, slowly, over weeks. The breakup with my former partner last month in Ft Lauderdale had been cordial, and he and I continued living together while I made plans to relocate back to Atlanta. First, though, Thanksgiving would be spent with his family, as a final goodbye and a chance to show our unity — and of what remained of our broken love — during this trying time.

But my disease of addiction had already begun rearranging my thoughts, shuffling my priorities in a bid for dominance over the vigilant recovery I had practiced, proudly and successfully, for nearly three years. Small changes crept into my behavior, not about drugs precisely, but other, vaguely related habits that had once accompanied my drug use.

rest area sign 1A return to the gym and a shallow fixation on my body. Smoking, a habit broken for two years, returned in secretive fits and starts. A feeling of entitlement — to do as I pleased, to eat junk or get laid — swept over me like a declaration of freedom that hid its true intentions in the fine print.

And then the clarion call became more explicit, as involuntary images of using drugs bombarded me, plaguing my sleep and my daydreams. But while my memories of life as an active addict had previously been reduced, finally, to dark and sinister snapshots of a pitiful existence, these new images were more seductive, promising euphoria, fast sex and most of all, a lurid escape from my own feelings.

When my former partner left town on business the week before Thanksgiving, the drug addict inside me made a break for it.

It’s startling, really, the speed at which a recovered crystal meth addict, filled with a sense of purpose and a devotion to helping others dealing with this disease, can be transformed into a selfish liar. About as long as it takes the first, transformative rush of the drug to enter your body.

But the images that promised everything delivered nothing. Or that is, they delivered the usual package of misery that I should have expected, from my own past experiences and the many, many stories of woe I have heard from other addicts.

Those images — the real ones I witnessed during my relapse rather than the counterfeit promises with which my disease had baited me — haunt me now. I don’t want to conjure them, the lesson has been received, but they roll on. Images of desperation, of blood and jeopardy and strangers with my fate in their hands.

The street crack dealer, with whom I am pleading to please return the keys he has taken from my pocket, who tells me he is going to “rent” my car for errands, who threatens me through a manic grin and all the while I am trying to convince him to please, please just give back the

You don’t need to hear this. This is mine to endure and overcome. Let me start again.

econolodgeThere are many motels sprinkled along the exits in Orlando, and I scouted out several before choosing one that allowed me to park directly in front of my room. With the car piled high with my belongings, I had to be sure no one would steal it. Despite the exhaustion of the previous week I slept fitfully, waking to peer out the window and survey any disturbance, fearful that my despair could multiply. The rolling stone of misfortune can gather plenty.

This long drive was unplanned, of course, the consequence of my relapse, when after days of not being where I was supposed to be and phone calls piled high with deceit, my former partner pegged my insanity and sent me a text from his business trip, asking me to leave before he returned. My disregard for our home, the dogs, and my personal safety was simply too much. A mutual friend arrived to care for the house. I would pack and leave within a day, to sit out the holidays with family in Shreveport, Louisiana, a thousand miles from Ft Lauderdale.

Even before his discovery, the awful realization of what I had done, how I had taken our gracious final days together and twisted them into something horrific, had actually spurred my relapse further, as I sought escape from my own wreckage. By the time his text appeared on my phone, the smoke was clearing, the fever had broken, but it was far too late.

The comfortable highways of Florida eventually gave way to the ruined roads of Alabama and Mississippi, badly spackled with tar, and my car rumbled with the thumpa-THUMPA-thumpa of their scarred surfaces. I wondered if the framed pictures in the trunk might break, if the towels I had wrapped them in might not be enough to

The towels. The guest room towels. They didn’t really belong to me. It set off another round of worry, and I wondered if a new label might be added to my sadly recycled identity.

Drug addict. Liar. Thief.

I had turned back once already, when I had first driven onto the freeway before realizing I had his watch on my wrist, a watch I had always worn but wasn’t mine. I drove back to return it, and in the hour or so I had been gone, the quiet house had abandoned any welcome for me. I placed the watch on a table and locked up again. It felt like trespassing.

waffle houseIn Mobile, Alabama, I stopped again for the night and this time managed a full twelve hours of dreamless sleep. In the morning at the Waffle House, I ordered steak, eggs and hash browns, smothered and covered, and dismissed thoughts of what my trainer might think about my diet on the road.

Explaining my relapse is beyond me, beyond logic, and yet here I sit, trying to understand and explain. It maddens me, the choices I have made, and reminds me that the disease most capable of killing me isn’t HIV, it is drug addiction.

But this chronicle reeks of defeat, and I am not feeling defeated today. Let me start again.

Louisiana Welcome signThe miles upon miles of endless highway give way to Louisiana, and Shreveport finally appears on a freeway sign. I relax into the anticipated embrace of family.

My tired car pulls into Mom’s driveway, and my brother — also gay and also an addict in recovery for more than a decade — greets me with an extended hug, and we begin the business of unloading the car immediately, as if to shoo away the evidence of my drive and the depressing reason for it. A guest room has been prepared, a closet cleared. For the next month, as I deal honestly with my tender wounds, this will be home.

Mother arrives from the hair salon, and her cheerful And how is my favorite redhead doing..? tells me that everything is going to be fine. She knows why I’ve come home, and she doesn’t require a single detail.

I’ve already begun the business of rededicating myself to my program of recovery, and there is pride in that. There is joy, in fact, once the truth has been told and the work to rebuild can begin. Not regretting the past, even the recent past, is a difficult job, but too much time spent looking in the rear view mirror hardly bolsters me for the road ahead.

I am grateful, to have regained my footing after a few terrible days, to have survived it, to have my freedom to make better choices. And I am filled with gratitude for the friends and family who have given me a precious gift.

They let me start again.

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(My best wishes and deepest gratitude go out to you, my friends. Thank you for your encouragement and your many kind comments. If you know someone who might benefit from this posting, who might think there isn’t a solution, then please share it. Love, Mark)

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PLUS…

LoveLightRomaniaI always have strange emotions about World AIDS Day, the annual commemoration on December 1st. It makes me feel a little like a professional drag queen having to contend with Halloween. Such a torrent of voices and contributors on “my” turf! But of course, that may be the point: to be re-energized and inspired by the many voices and news stories of others who might not be speaking up otherwise, and for me to realize that HIV isn’t mine alone, not by a long shot. The challenges it presents affects all of us, and calls out for the best in science, the best in our sense of community, the best of humanity itself. You’ll surely find many things online that resonate with you this World AIDS Day, so let me show you something you might miss. Love Light Romania provides support to people with HIV/AIDS in one of the toughest places on earth, but they have somehow found something beautiful in the tragic story of Alex, one of their clients who shares his life in a four minutes video filled with gorgeous photography of his journey. The simplicity of this video and his matter-of-fact telling of his story captures a beautiful sadness, and I hope you’ll take a look.

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Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease | 57 Comments »