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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Sean Strub and the Legacy of AIDS

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Before my interview with activist Sean Strub, author of Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival, let me share a revealing story.

It was late 2011 and my life was in shambles. The breakup of a long term relationship had sent me into a spiral, followed closely by a devastating drug addiction relapse. I had weathered the fallout and taken refuge at my mother’s home in Louisiana.

Sean StrubAnd then came a phone call from Sean Strub, founder of POZ Magazine and lifelong advocate for those of us living with HIV. We were acquainted but not yet close friends and the request he made during the call surprised me. Would I be willing, he wondered, to come visit him for a few weeks and help get his new HIV anti-criminalization effort, The Sero Project, off the ground?

Sean had read a blog posting I had written about my breakup and relapse, and must have known I wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. I was a recovering addict with a trail of wreckage in my recent past, and yet he wanted me to come work with him. Like, in his home.

Within days I drove 1,400 miles to his Pennsylvania town. I managed to get some work done but mostly I piddled around his home office, getting my bearings again while we traded war stories and gossip from across our desks. Sean was passionate about every topic and a great teacher on contemporary HIV advocacy issues.

Before long, the real purpose of Sean’s long distance invitation became clear to me. He didn’t really need much help, but he knew that I did. He saw someone with potential who would benefit from a little mentorship, encouragement, and a friend. And God, he was right. Our time together strengthened and refocused me. Since then, I have heard many stories about Sean Strub taking people under his wing and helping to lift them up to a better place.

My admiration makes it nearly impossible to objectively review his remarkable memoir, Body Counts. I am an unapologetic fan and grateful friend. That being said, you must finish reading this article and go directly to Amazon and buy his book.

Body Counts is one of the most wide-ranging and well written remembrances to come out of the AIDS crisis. It seamlessly combines the social, political, and sexual landscape of Sean’s journey. It moved me to tears more than once, and taught me a lot about what happened behind the scenes during the dawn of the century’s greatest public health crisis.

All that, and there’s a ton of great celebrity stories about people like John and Yoko (Sean was there the night Lennon was shot), Andy Warhol, and a host of colorful others.

Sean agreed to a conversation to discuss everything from his memoir to body image, sexual abuse, the legacy of AIDS, and the state of the HIV community today.

Here is that conversation:

Body counts coverBody Counts is such a marvelous achievement, Sean. So much history here, personal and otherwise, and witnessed from such close proximity. Thanks for not holding back the juicy stuff about politicians and celebrities!

For better or worse, politicians and celebrities are intertwined with the history of the epidemic, in ways both bad and good. My perspective at times is unusual–like when I was running the “Senators Only” elevator in the U.S. Capitol–and I tried to present the humanity, good and bad, of those I write about.

Also, in terms of the epidemic, it was a conscious decision and key strategy to exploit celebrities to gain attention and action in response to the epidemic. Elizabeth Taylor knew this better than anyone and she was amazing at getting others to join her in spending their celebrity capital on behalf of something important.

And you’re our tour guide through those years. I think your criticism of President Bill Clinton’s AIDS response might be surprising to people. Aren’t we supposed to love him?

Others have suggested that Clinton’s post-presidency focus on the global epidemic is an effort to atone for his failing in this regard during his presidency. When salon.com published an excerpt from Body Counts that was about the Clinton Administration, it generated a lot of nasty comments. It was the epidemic driving a generation of gay men out of the closet and into activism that ultimately was critical to electing Bill Clinton, yet as soon as he was elected it seems like the air was let out of our activist balloon.

In some ways I think we–as a queer community–are more effective as outsiders, where we had to learn to survive, than we are as insiders, where we haven’t been as welcome or skilled. When Clinton was elected, many of our leaders became insiders and didn’t take everyone with them.

I’m glad you’re not letting people off the hook. Was it important for you to save our AIDS history from those who might revision it?

Initially the impetus for writing Body Counts came from the realization that, as time passed, there were fewer and fewer of us around from the early days who could tell what happened first-hand. It was also a way of validating my own life. I didn’t grow up wanting to be an AIDS activist; I had other plans, but in the early 80’s my life was hijacked by the epidemic. Writing Body Counts gave me some understanding of why I made the choices I made.

But the more I dug into the history I also saw how those years have been misrepresented or misunderstood, particularly the role of people with AIDS and HIV. Grassroots community efforts are often dismissed, minimized or ignored.

Historical truth is always more complex than the simplified–and sometimes manipulated–version of popular history we are led to believe. The epidemic’s history has been, to an extent, commodified, rewritten to serve some agenda.

I think it is important to have as many first-person accounts, especially from people with HIV who were on the frontlines, so our experiences get documented and preserved. And as time passes, there will be more archives available, with documents from those years that will tell an even fuller picture.

As we get more perspective, the epidemic and our response to it, is understood in new ways and that’s a good thing.

The ongoing theme to your AIDS work, in fact, has been a respect and focus on people living with the virus themselves. You carry that banner fiercely.

I don’t think the LGBT community, or people with HIV, have gotten the credit we deserve for what we did in those early years. How we came together to love and care for each other was something remarkable. We should the world our very best face and what we did then should be celebrated and recognized as a model, worthy of emulation in many kinds of situations. I also know that it was other people with HIV who comforted me, educated me and enabled me to survive.

The book is a reclamation on your body — from shame about it, from infection, from the sexual abuse you suffered. Do you think it’s a common challenge for gay men to love their physical selves?

The title, Body Counts, is an intentional double entendre, referring to the loss of life from the epidemic, of course, but also my personal lifelong struggle for control of my body. It has had many enemies: the Catholic church which taught me that they owned my body, sexual abusers who exploited me, a government that sought to control my sexual expression, HIV itself and even the drugs to treat HIV. It has gotten better over time, but shame-shedding doesn’t happen in an instant, it is incremental and I suspect, for me, will be a lifelong process.

I can’t imagine revisiting some of the trauma you describe in the book, such as childhood sexual abuse and a rape by a roommate. Was it brutal to write?

I wouldn’t call revisiting those memories brutal, but it was at times emotionally draining. Ultimately, it was healthy for me to process pain, hurt, guilt and shame that I had carried for years.

You write that it took 20 years to recognize the rape for what it was. Do we have a problem as gay men seeing ourselves as victims of this sort of abuse?

When it happened I didn’t even think of the word rape as having any applicability to men. I was still so ashamed of my sexual desire and also conflicted about the degree of responsibility I bore for what happened. For many years I blocked out the sexual abuse and sexual violence I had experienced; it made me uncomfortable to think about because I didn’t think there was anything constructive I could do with those memories except feel bad about them.

Now I can look back and see that while I may have been precocious in some ways, I was incredibly naive and vulnerable in other ways. In the process, I not only forgave those who hurt me but I ended up, quite unexpectedly, forgiving myself as well.

You were absolutely on death’s door for a few years, and squeaked through in time for new medications to save you. And you were outright defiant about showing the Karposi’s Sarcoma (KS) lesions that covered your body during that time.

I think if more of my identity and self-worth had been found in my body I might have been more likely to pursue cosmetic treatments for the KS. And the objectification of bodies is practically in the DNA of gay culture. Even as I began to accept my own body, it was within a context that clearly told me the body I had wasn’t a gay ideal. I’m skinny, have no chest and am not especially athletic.

On the other hand, not conforming to that ideal, not being as invested in it, made it perhaps a bit easier when my body become so obviously ravaged by AIDS and, especially, Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Less of my self-identity was in my body, so its decline didn’t degrade my self-worth as much as it might have for others.

I didn’t treat the visible KS lesions because I knew there were no treatments that would slow their growth and I already spent too much time in doctors offices. That was almost unimaginable to many people who were horrified that I had visible lesions and took no steps to even disguise them with makeup.

I make the mistake of assuming people know that AIDS advocacy changed the entire patient/physician dynamic, or that our response to what we endured will forever be remembered. Obviously that isn’t necessarily so, and why books like yours are important.

There is an understanding that AIDS has been different, in many ways, and has had a profound impact on the culture, society, the healthcare system, drug development and approval processes, even geopolitics. I don’t think it is widely understood how different the epidemic might have been had it not been for the self-empowerment movement, or how truly radical those early PWA pioneers were.

While ACT UP has been an important part of my life and advocacy, so too has the advocacy that precedes ACT UP, that set the stage for our movement. That earliest history hasn’t been as well studied or understood and I tried to give some attention to those years in Body Counts. Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On provide an important and detailed view of the early years from his vantage point in San Francisco; the story from those years in New York hasn’t been nearly as thoroughly explored. Also, And the Band Played On was written before ACT UP came on the scene.

When you first arrived at the offices of a coalition of people with AIDS, you write about having found a place you belonged, at last, even after having begun a business career and worked in politics. What about it struck you so deeply?

Total solidarity. I felt so welcome and safe that it enabled me to overcome the fear of stigma. That’s what I’ve tried to do for others ever since.

What are the greatest threats to people living with HIV today, or at least to the kind of empowerment groups for us that have been so important to you?

Lack of respect for the principle of patient autonomy. This is happening across the board, as public health becomes militarized, disease securitized and treatments more complex and costly. The concept of the physician as a healer, providing individualized treatment, has too often given way to the physician as an extension of and agent of the state and the pharmaceutical industry, treating populations instead of individuals.

You are known to be skeptical of pharma and caution that medication side effects are too often ignored. Some people might find that ironic, given that new medications saved your life. Is that fair?

I think skepticism about pharma, when it was pharmaceutical treatments that saved my life, isn’t ironic but common sense. Anti-retrovirals, like many medicines, are powerful treatments. Anything very powerful can be used in a negative or positive way; the more powerful the more important it is to be careful, cautious and skeptical.

Skepticism saved my life. Had I not been so skeptical, I would have taken more treatments that, in hindsight, we now know would have hurt me more than helped me. I am alive because I was lucky or smart or skeptical enough to refuse pharmaceutical treatments at one point, when they were strongly recommended to me by the medical establishment, as well as because they were available to me and I took them at another point, when I needed them.

The irony isn’t found in me. The irony is that a healthcare system that purports to heal and a scientific establishment that purports to be interested in discovery has so often refused to listen to or learn from those living with the disease. Had our voices been valued more highly, the epidemic would never have gotten as big as it has.

I’m a little surprised that your book is the first memoir by a major imprint about those early years in New York City and the early ACT UP era. What do you make of the recent interest on film about AIDS in the 1980’s, such as How to Survive a Plague and Dallas Buyers Club?

Enough time has past since the worst years that those who survived can reflect with greater objectivity. Many survivors feel compelled to remember the dead and bear witness to what we experienced. That has become a sense of obligation, even a compulsion, for many of us, particularly as we age and realize there are fewer and fewer of us around to speak first-hand about those years.

For many it is a delayed grieving; when friends were dying so fast and in such great numbers it wasn’t possible to fully grieve them. But we filed away that pain, to process later. Now it is later.

The explosion in cultural production in the last few years, the films you mention as well as books and exhibitions, is somewhat analogous to the cultural production following the Holocaust. Not so much in the 40’s and 50’s, but by the early 60’s it had started to grow dramatically. Yet 15 or 20 years past the worst of those days, the memories and words and testimonials start to come forth.

But even Dallas Buyers Club and other works of art haven’t done well with their bottom line. We might be taking a look back, but it isn’t exactly a highly commercial enterprise, is it?

No, it isn’t, to many people anything about AIDS is such a downer they aren’t interested. Many gay men have created lives that have protected them, emotionally, from the pain of the epidemic and they don’t want to be reminded of it.

But I’m not sure we would be in any better position in terms of addressing the epidemic if the books and films about its earlier years were enormously profitable. There is an historical record that, in time, will be vastly more important than how many copies or tickets are sold today.

Body Counts seemingly has everything, from Washington politics to brushes with celebrity to your own sex life, and the book had major endorsements. I will admit I thought it would be a bestseller, and rightfully so. Or at least it should have been.

I suspect every author wishes their book sold better and I’m no exception. But while I didn’t make the NY Times bestseller list, Body Counts has gotten excellent reviews — almost across the board — and hundreds of people who read it have contacted me with appreciative comments, which is cool.

The publisher early on told me she expected the book to have a long sale and she has been proven correct. It is getting assigned in college coursework and continues to sell, even though it has been a year since the original publication date.

College kids are studying your book? That has to be gratifying, and it sounds like the perfect use for your account of this history.

Yeah, that’s cool, isn’t it? I spoke at a dozen colleges and universities last year and found student audiences to be engaged, stimulating and helpful for keeping my own thinking fresh.

Strub_Body Counts_TP FINALThe cover artwork and even the subtitle of the book were changed for the paperback. Why?

The hardcover has a picture of me kissing Michael Misove, my partner who died in 1988 and the subtitle was “A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival.” For the paperback, the photograph was changed to one of a young and cute me looking directly at the camera. The thought was that the picture of Michael and me, while very sweet, may imply the book is about that one relationship between these two men and if someone wasn’t interested in that they may pass on the book. The picture of just me alone wouldn’t be so narrow.

The subtitle for the paperback was changed to “A Memoir of Politics, Activism and Survival” in the belief that the word “AIDS” may turn off some buyers. That was weird, but I think probably true. My point was and remains to get as many people to read the book as possible, so I was supportive of any change that would help achieve that goal.

So what next for you? I know you’ve been doing a book tour and events.

I want to continue working to help people with HIV find greater agency and empowerment, particularly through support of and strengthening of networks of people with HIV. In time, I think the self-empowerment advocacy will start to blur the lines of specific distinctions between diseases and conditions; it will be about a broader movement to take back healthcare and choices about our health and bodies from the corporate grip that has been so damaging to the lives and health of many.

I’m increasingly aware of the march of time. Is it too soon to ask how you want to be remembered?

There’s no question but that time becomes more precious as one ages and for those of us, like you and me, who have been lucky to survive when so many of our peers did not, it only makes that sense more intense.

It is peculiar to think about how one would like to be remembered because, first of all, no one wants to be remembered for spending much time thinking about how they would like to be remembered. What is important is what I am doing today and if I’m doing that well, it won’t matter how I’m remembered.

I think I’m going to start this piece by telling people about your kindness to me after my breakup. Would that embarrass you?

I’m beyond embarrassment, I think. And I could not be more proud of our friendship.

(Thanks for reading, my friends, and please be well. — Mark)

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

(VIDEO) The Juicy SILENCE=DEATH Stories You Never Knew

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

There was no way I could attend a recent conference with Avram Finkelstein, one of the artists behind the iconic SILENCE=DEATH image, and not make him sit down with me and spill all the juicy details about the creation of that image. He agreed, and boy howdy, he did not disappoint (video below).

Read my lips original imageSome of his best stories, in fact, weren’t even about the most famous poster for which he is known. As part of an artist collective that met privately during the earliest years of AIDS and then as an adjunct committee of ACT UP New York, Avram was in the middle of the action during an amazingly productive and creative time. You’re going to recognize most if not all of the striking social messages they created.

My favorite backstage detail is probably that of the gay pseudo porn star whose image they “acquired” (i.e. stole) from an old magazine. They used the photo for an incredibly successful campaign you will certainly recognize and everything was going swimmingly… until Avram received a startling phone call. What happened next, as the online meme goes, will surprise you and then break your heart.

These images rest in the history books now, but Avram has a fascinating way of keeping these stories exciting and immediate. I can’t wait for you to meet him.

Mark

p.s. <sigh> I have now upgraded to a super duper audio system for recording future interviews. Just sayin’.

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

VIDEO: The Powerful “HIV is Not a Crime” Conference

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

The most powerful speaker at the recent “HIV is Not a Crime” conference was a man named Kerry Thomas. He held the crowd of more than 150 advocates spellbound for a full twenty minutes. And he never even took the stage.

When one of the conference organizers, Reed Vreeland, stepped forward to introduce the next speaker during the opening night program, the energized audience had already heard a few stories of both injustice and inspiration. Everywhere in the United States, people living with HIV are being sent to jail for little more than their HIV status alone. But Reed had something else entirely to present.

“Kerry Thomas was prosecuted of not disclosing his HIV status to someone,” Reed began. Everyone knew that prosecutions for that crime are too often a matter of he/she said. How do you prove a private conversation? “Kerry also had an undetectable viral load,” Reed went on, “and he protected his partner by using a condom. No one was infected, and no one could have been. Kerry won’t get out of jail until the year 2038. Fortunately, we have him with us here this evening.”

And with that, Reed lifted his cell phone to the podium, and the strong, clear voice of Kerry Thomas, six years into his sentence at Idaho Correctional Facility, began to speak.

“Thank you, thank you for gathering to discuss this issue,” he said, and the stunned silence of the room was deafening. No one could begin to imagine what the man on the other end of the line must be going through.

HIVisNotACrimeARTKerry spoke of life behind bars, of his love for his family, of the prosecution led by people who didn’t believe he should be having sex at all. Then, he encouraged everyone in the room to work as hard as they could on reforming HIV criminalization laws, so that no one would have to go through the nightmare he was experiencing. He remained upbeat and gracious throughout.

The officials at the correctional facility who made it possible for Kerry to speak on the phone were thanked, and then Reed said some final words to Kerry. “Thank you for speaking to us,” Reed said.

The crowd swallowed the lump in their throats and came to life, beginning to applaud Kerry, and then to cheer, and it soon became an emotional outpouring of love and sadness and support that shook the auditorium.

“The room is applauding you,” Reed said into the phone. “Can you hear that?” How Reed kept his composure during the heartbreaking, inspiring moment was itself a considerable feat. Kerry’s response was drowned out by the thunderous ovation, so Reed continued relaying what he was witnessing from the stage.

“They are standing for you, Kerry,” he said calmly, as the ovation grew. “They are standing and applauding for you. They want you to know how much they support you.”

HIV cvanner crowdThe moment was singular, no doubt, but only one of a number of moving moments in three days of advocacy work. And the conference was definitely work, as advocates from around the country met to strategize how best to reform State laws that have little regard for the modern realities of HIV. In fact, there are people serving sentences right now for “exposing” others to HIV for actions that defy science as we know it, such as biting or spitting.

This video review of the conference will introduce you to the issue of HIV criminalization, the advocates fighting it, and some of those who have served jail time under the statutes.

Thanks for watching, please be well, and consider how precious your freedom is today. Many of us could be suffering the unjust fate of Kerry Thomas, the man who brought a national conference to a stunned, emotional halt.

Mark

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For more information, please check out The SERO Project, the Positive Justice Project, or the international efforts of the HIV Justice Network.

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

The Battle for the Soul of AIDS

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

While growing up gay in Bossier City, Lousiana, I would get saved at the drop of a hat. I loved the pageantry of church youth revivals, the thrill of coming forward to give my life to Christ, and that tingly feeling of being part of something greater than myself, of feeling truly blessed. Of being forgiven.

miguel_hospital_with_motherSIZEDThe church seemed like the cure for what ailed me. My shame over my sexuality was washed away with each baptism, and trust me, my brothers and sisters, there were many. For youth revivals and baptisms, Louisiana was a big circuit.  It was a rinse and repeat ritual that I sought out on a regular basis as a way to correct the vexing thoughts and deeds of my overactive teenage libido.

I remember telling my parents I was going to band practice just to slip away to my latest baptism obligation. I reveled in the full body dunking and then retreated to the dressing area and watched, transfixed, as the other male celebrants changed out of their soaked underwear. My yearning made me wonder if I should step back into the baptismal fount for another dip.

I don’t get baptized anymore. I abandoned the habit long before moving to Los Angeles in my early twenties, just as AIDS began its murderous march through my West Hollywood neighborhood. Not only had religion dismissed me personally, it was clearly unequipped to handle the throngs of dying  and disfigured gay men who suffered from the new plague.

In many respects the church became the enemy. Activists getting the word out about HIV transmission and safer sex clashed head-on with religious groups unwilling to discuss sexuality or condoms. The opposing views became a battle for the soul of AIDS.

In Body Counts, the personal chronicle by Sean Strub of AIDS politics and survival, Sean recounts in moving detail a 1985 ACT UP protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Raised in the faith, Sean struggles with memories of his upbringing while his fellow protesters shout, throw condoms and decry the Catholic resistance to the basics of HIV prevention. Sean emotionally receives communion before announcing to the priest offering the wafer, “May the Lord bless the man I love, who died a year ago this week.”

Cardinal John O’Connor, who led the mass, met the chaos with an opportunistic cynicism. “He sits with his head in his hands, melodramatically trying to convey spiritual pain,” Sean writes. “Photographs of the media-savvy cardinal looking tragically besieged will elicit overwhelming sympathy when they appear on the front page of Monday’s newspaper.”

“The church failed,” says Rev. Chris Glaser, a longtime Presbyterian gay activist and writer, about the AIDS response from organized religion. “There were exceptions, and eventually the church remembered how Jesus would have responded.” (One of those exceptions would have to be Mother Teresa, who opened her first AIDS hospice in New York City in 1985. Her reference to  the homeless, “This is Christ in distressing disguise,” has obvious applications to people living with AIDS.)

Gay men filled the spiritual vacuum with alternatives. Metaphysics became popular in the crisis years, as well as the teachings of spiritualists like popular author Louise Hay. At “Hayride” events throughout the mid-1980’s, the West Hollywood community auditorium was stuffed tighter than a Cher concert with gay men, most of them sick and all of them hungry for the grace of Hay’s simple message: “You are loved.”

The personal price of religion’s failed ministry can be measured in children cast out from families and lonely deaths and assurances of eternal damnation.

In an intriguing new documentary still in production, Memories of a Penitent Heart, filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo unwraps the mystery of her gay uncle, Miguel Dieppa, who died of AIDS in 1987. Miguel supposedly repented of his homosexuality on his deathbed, leaving behind a live-in partner who was kept from the funeral, a devout Catholic mother, and a lot of troubling rumors.

The film charts Cecilia’s investigation into this unresolved past, taking an abrupt turn when Miguel’s partner suddenly reappears after two years of dead ends — as a Franciscan monk living in Pasadena. He’s waited 25 years to tell his version of the story. Cecilia and the team behind the film have launched an Indiegogo campaign in order to complete the project (see the trailer below).

Memories of a Penitent Heart is “a cautionary tale about missed opportunities, the intricacies of religious belief, and the most quietly insidious forms of bigotry,” according to promotional materials.

“The religion aspect is underexplored in the narrative of AIDS,” Cecilia told me. “Although it has been a very strong current running through the crisis, and a lot more common than we have discussed in our culture. These issues are still with us today.”

“This is not a film that tries to demonize my grandmother,” she said, in reference to the religious sway Miguel’s mother may have held over her son during his dying process. “She was acting out of fear, not out of hatred. What I think is possible is that Miguel really loved his mother and (offered his repentance) to her as a gift. I also think he was a practicing Christian, and that it mattered to him.”

The film’s themes bring up a lot of unresolved anger and grief for me. So many people and institutions failed us when we needed them, most ironically the ones that purport to bring comfort and aid.

“I hope the film helps us have a different conversation with each other,” Celilia said. “Whether it’s about the past or the present.”

“There are a lot of wounds that have to heal,” she added thoughtfully, as someone who had weathered the damage in her own family. “Wounds on both sides.”

Mark

(Pictured above: Miguel Dieppa and his mother, 1985. The Indiegogo campaign for Memories of a Penitent Heart ends on June 18.)

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

When People with HIV Became Suicide Bombers

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Maybe we should blame the criminal prosecutions of people with HIV on the mythical legend of Gaetan Dugas, also known by his slanderous nickname, Patient Zero. Dugas was a gay flight attendant from Canada who, according to Randy Shilts’ 1987 book And the Band Played On, was among the first people with HIV in the United States.

Gaetan Dugas picAs the story goes, energetic Dugas (right) spent lots of time in the very early 1980’s getting laid in practically every city with an airport, even after learning he had the mysterious new “gay cancer.” He wanted to go out with a bang, the book claimed, and he didn’t particularly care who he might infect in the process. The book repeated rumors that after sex with bath house tricks Dugas would point out his skin lesions and then announce, “now you have it.”

Except the story isn’t true. Two years ago, Shilts’ former editor admitted the book needed a “literary device” and had encouraged Shilts to create the epidemic’s first “AIDS monster.” The scandalous sex life of Gaetan Dugas fit the bill nicely. Dugas died in 1984, never having the opportunity to answer his accusers regarding his alleged behaviors.

Instead of placing responsibility with everyone having sex, the book painted people with HIV as suicide bombers. The damage, to the truth and to the public image of people with AIDS, still reverberates today.

Laws exist in more than 30 States that criminalize people with HIV for not disclosing their status to sexual partners. Even where there are no HIV-specific laws, charges range from assault to attempted murder to bioterrorism. It should be noted that the vast majority of prosecutions do not involve the transmission of HIV. Often, the person charged used a condom, had an undetectable viral load, or engaged in sexual behavior that could not have infected their partner.

Anyone with HIV and a pissed off ex-lover should feel worried, since these cases often become a matter of whom you believe. Prosecutors and unfriendly juries are often shocked that people with HIV are having sex at all. They couldn’t care less about condoms or undetectable viral loads. They just want people who don’t disclose their status to face serious charges.

A lot of people see this as righteous and are taking the bait. Many of us know someone infected by a sex partner who lied about their status, and we want that jerk to pay for it. This sense of vengeance plays into the hands of a conservative legal system that is more than happy to send some diseased fags to jail. For a really long time. Regardless of the actual harm inflicted.

This issue is a real mine field of emotion, justice, science, and payback. Fortunately, an upcoming event will bring together advocates, legal experts and people living with HIV to discuss criminalization and map out a strategy to address it.

HIVisNotACrimeART“HIV is Not a Crime” is the first national conference on HIV criminalization.  It will be held on June 2-5, 2014, in Grinnell, Iowa.  Yes, Iowa. Some of the most effective activism around this issue is happening there, where State legislators are actually re-thinking their own laws and health policies as a result of smart advocacy and education. I urge you to alert your local HIV advocates about this important event.

Regardless of your views on criminalization, we can all agree that anyone who intentionally seeks to harm another person should be held accountable for it. That’s why we have laws against hurting other people.

But why are there laws on the books specific to HIV non-disclosure? HIV has its very own laws ordering people to disclose if they have it. The same cannot be said for other infectious viruses such as Human Papillomavirus (HPV) or Hepatitis C, which actually kill more people each year. The reason, in the mind of many advocates, is because those viral conditions are not as closely associated with gay sexuality. Or race. Or the disenfranchised. I hope you’re getting the picture.

Criminalization is not limited to whether or not someone discloses, even if those scenarios capture our imagination the most. Laws have other ways to punish those with HIV. 

Charges for an unrelated crime can be elevated if the defendant is HIV positive. Prostitution, or spitting at a cop, or punching somebody in the face in a bar, can carry more severe sentences based on the fact the accused is HIV positive.

In other words, defendants are guilty of living with HIV. That should give you real pause.

Surveys conducted by The SERO Project indicate that knowing about the risk of being charged with non-disclosure is an impediment to HIV testing. After witnessing how people with HIV are being treated by the judicial system, getting tested might feel like exposing yourself to potential prosecution.

These prosecutions do not rely upon the context of HIV disclosure, either. “The moral obligation to disclose increases with the degree of risk present,” said Sean Strub, founder of The SERO Project and one of the organizers of the Iowa conference, “but the context of the sexual encounter is also a factor.  In the context of a committed relationships, the disclosure obligation is much greater than in a sex club, for example.”

The key point here is morality. Disclosing your status is a moral issue, not a criminal one. Even in the worst years of AIDS, when the virus reliably killed you, we called our doctors to start treatment when we got infected. We didn’t call the cops. Blaming someone for our own risk behaviors seemed ludicrous. It still does.

You wouldn’t know it from news reports, which often feature race-driven cases of predatory men lurking around the countryside infecting the populous. Suicide bombers continue to titillate the media.

Look closely at the stories and you will find that “not disclosing” is usually equated with “intentionally infecting.” It’s as if sex of any kind on the part of someone with HIV is malicious. One side effect of HIV infection, it would seem, is a pathological bloodlust.

Never forget that these juicy legal stories represent the lives of real people. Sentences amounting to decades are being wielded. The convicted are having to register as sex offenders. In the often confusing landscape of sexual risk and negotiation, the person with HIV is facing grave consequences for decisions often made in the heat of the moment, or simply because they chose to protect their privacy when no risk to their partner existed.

HIV criminalization does nothing to reduce the impact of a new HIV infection.  It doubles it.

Mark

ALSO…

bars hands 2There’s a lot of great reporting and blogging about this issue right now, and here’s some of the best: Jake Sobo, the always intriguingly transparent blogger behind Promiscuous Gay Nerd, shares the frightening encounter a poz friend had when he visited his local health department and ended up accused of maliciously spreading HIV. HealthlineNews has posted an update on cases in Iowa that involve the very advocates doing such inspiring work there. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has made the gutsy choice to post an essay on the media’s role in perpetuating ignorance about criminalization (even though many of their usual media outlets refused to run it).  The most comprehensive piece on criminalization, though, could be “Sex, Lies, and HIV,” a ProPublica piece recently re-posted by HIVPlus Magazine that examines several of the most high-profile cases.

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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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Once, When We Were Heroes

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

My brother Richard smiles a lot. He has an easy laugh. But there was a time, years ago, when he held a poisonous drink in his hands and begged his dying lover not to swallow it. A time when Richard held the concoction they had prepared together and wept.

DickEmilEmil couldn’t wait. He took the drink from Richard quickly, because the release it offered was something more rapturous than the appeals of his lover of thirteen years.

It was Emil’s wish to die on his own terms if living became unbearable, a promise made one to the other. When that time arrived, however, Richard wanted another moment, just a little more time to say, “I love you, Emil,” over and over again, before the drink would close Emil’s eyes and quietly kill him.

Richard has a charming store in my hometown today, where he sells collectibles and does theater in his free time. The drink was consumed over twenty years ago.

Richard TodayThere were people who displayed remarkable courage then. People who lived and died by their promises and shared the intimacy of death, and then the world moved forward and grief subsided and lives moved on. But make no mistake, there are heroes among us right now.

There is a shy, friendly man at my gym. There was a time when his sick roommate deliberately overdosed after his father told him that people with unspeakable diseases will suffer in hell. My gym friend performed CPR for an hour before help arrived, but the body never heard a loving word again.

There is courage among us, astonishing courage, and we summoned it and survived. And then years passed. We got new jobs and changed gyms.

There was a time when old friends called to say goodbye, and by “goodbye” they meant forever. When all of us had a file folder marked “Memorial” that outlined how we wanted our service to be conducted. When people shot themselves and jumped off bridges after getting their test results.

There is profound, shocking sadness here, right here among us, but years went by and medicine got better and we found other lives to lead. Our sadness is a distant, dark dream.

hospital-wardMy best friend Stephen just bought a new condo. He’s having a ball picking out furniture. But there was a time when he knew all the intensive care nurses by name. When a phone call late at night always meant someone had died. And just who, exactly, was anyone’s guess.

Stephen tested positive in the 1980s, shortly after I did. A few months after the devastating news, he agreed to facilitate a support group with me. We regularly saw men join the group, get sick and die, often within weeks.

Watching them disintegrate felt like a preview of coming attractions. But Stephen was remarkable, a reassuring presence to everyone, and worked with the group for more than a year despite the emotional toll and the high body count.

There is bravery here, still, living all around us. But the bravest time was many years ago, and times change and the yard needs landscaping and there’s a brunch tomorrow.

There was a time when I sat beside friends in their very last minutes of life, and I helped them relax, perhaps surrender, and told them comforting stories. And lied to them.

Binder5 - CopyJeremy lost his mind weeks before he died. Sometimes he had moments of sanity, when we could have a coherent conversation before his dementia engulfed him again. It was a time when you were given masks and gloves to visit friends in the hospital.

He was agitated with the business of dying, and told me he couldn’t bear to miss what might happen after he’d gone. I had an idea.

“I tell you what,” I offered, “I’m from the future, and I can tell you anything you would like to know.”

“OK then, what happens to my parents?” he asked. I thought it might be a distracting game, but Jeremy’s confused mind took it very seriously.

“They went to Hollywood and won big on a game show, so they never did need your support in their old age,” I answered. He barely took the time to enjoy this thought before his hand grabbed my wrist, tightly, almost frantically. He pulled me closer.

“When…” he began, and a mournful sob swelled inside him in an instant, his eyes begging for relief. “When does this end?” There was an awful, helpless silence. His eyes beckoned for a truth he could die believing.

“It does end,” I finally managed, although nothing suggested it would. “It ends, Jeremy, but not for a really long time.” He digested each word like a revelation, and slowly relaxed into sleep.

There is compassion here, enough for all the world’s deities and saints acting in concert. Infinite compassion for men who lived in fear and checked every spot when they showered for Kaposi sarcoma, and for disowned sons wasting away in the guest room of whoever had the space. But we get older, and friends don’t ask us to hold their hand when they stop breathing, and the fear fades and I bought new leather loafers and the White Party is coming.

Grab Mark InterviewThe truth is simply this, and no one will convince me otherwise: 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.

He worked relentlessly alongside a million others who had no choice but to act. He secretly prayed to survive, even above the lives of others, and his horrible prayer was answered with the death of nearly everyone close to him.

To say I miss that brutal decade would only be partially true. I miss the man I was forced to become, when an entire community abandoned tea dances for town hall meetings, when I learned to offer help to those facing what terrified me most.

Today, the lives of those of us who witnessed the horror have become relatively normal again, perhaps mundane. We prefer it. We have new lives in a world that isn’t choking on disease.

But once, there was a time when we were heroes.

(I was honored to receive an award from the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association for this piece in 2007, written to commemorate World AIDS Day. It has since become my annual post to commemorate the day. Here’s to a joyous and healthy holiday season for us all. — Mark)

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PLUS…

knowpozguys“Know Stigma” (I hereby pronounce “stigma” the Word of the Year) is a terrific site devotes to photos and video that challenge our attitudes towards one another as gay, straight, femme, old, poz guys, etc. There are some really intimate, honest videos with people discussing the impact of stigma on all aspects of their lives. “We want to create a conversation around how we treat each other as gay, queer, bi, trans, and straight men,” says their site. “Like everyone, we have our biases and prejudices. Many of us are made to feel invisible because of age, body type or skin color. How can we say what we want without hurting others? How do we imagine our actions and words might make someone else feel?” Check it out.

stigmagrabAfter a lot of talk about HIV stigma, there is now a project in the United States that wants to actually quantify it and address it through leadership by people with HIV. “The People Living with HIV Stigma Index” has been launched in dozens of countries but only now has received funding to implement it in the U.S. It measures HIV stigma in the lives of people with the virus, and does so by training and employing people with HIV themselves to conduct the surveys. Watch a video of Laurel Sprague of the Global Network of People Living with HIV discussing stigma and this project with Eric Sawyer of UNAIDS.

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

Why aren’t you open about your HIV+ status?

Friday, October 18th, 2013

We have learned through the last decades of the LGBT movement that the most effective way to change perceptions is to come out. It forces people to face their prejudices and it is almost always a positive experience, even in the face of potential discrimination.

MichaelPride2013SignSMALLSo why, then, don’t more people come out about being HIV positive? No one is more familiar than I am about the perils of living with HIV in terms of everything from social stigma to draconian criminalization laws. This kind of repression makes it all the more important that the rest of us make ourselves visible to help change those attitudes.

Who knew that 30 years into the HIV epidemic, it would still be viewed as courageous, even radical, to be public about your HIV status? And at a gay pride parade?

And yet there we were recently, a dozen brave souls marching the length of the Atlanta Gay Pride parade with HIV POSITIVE emblazoned on our t-shirts (I got the fab shirts from AIDS Foundation Chicago). I was participating as one of the Grand Marshals for the event, an honor I was prepared to make jokes about but can’t really bring myself to do it. It was humbling in a very sincere way, and since those moments are rare for me, I’m going to leave it at that.

Well, except I’m going to ask you to watch this short video blog of the event, below. There’s something special in it for those of you who are also making a difference when it comes to HIV. Enjoy and share!

I consider it a privilege to be open about my HIV status. I know that I am fortunate not to have consequences as a result — not from my family, not from my job, and not even from the treacherous dating scene, since I’m partnered to a wonderful guy (although I was out about my status even when I was single). I know that for some people, staying private about their HIV status is a matter of personal safety.

MarchersSMALLBut I believe a lot more people could be open about it, and their only reason for not doing so is fear. That’s a powerful emotion. But fear alone doesn’t excuse us from watching others being stigmatized and not letting our community know that there are more of us than they imagine. Why make those of us who are open about our status look radical, or as exceptions to some social rule that paints a distorted picture of who we are? I’m afraid there are too many people living with HIV that are letting too few of us do the heavy lifting in that regard.

I hope you will give this some thought. What are the consequences of your sharing your status with others, when HIV enters the conversation? Are they really that dire? Is the risk of some social embarrassment really enough to deny your identity as part of a large group of people battling an indiscriminate virus?

I don’t want to be a radical. I just want to live a truthful life and know who my friends are.

Mark
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PLUS…

Vaccine KidACTION ALERT: This is an easy task and I urge you to do it right now. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is meeting this week to decide whether to add the bacterial meningitis vaccine to its list of recommended vaccines for infants and children. I strongly believe they should (kids under 1 are at greatest risk of contracting the disease!), and it’s important for the LGBT community to be engaged on this issue. Thousands of same-sex couples are raising children, and a stronger herd immunity protects those in our community with compromised immune systems, including people with HIV. TO ACT, sign this petition started by John Becker of The Bilerico Project. For more information, read John’s posting about the issue. Have you clicked the petition link yet?

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE THESE POSTS: “The Stupid Question: Are You Clean?” confronts the kind of social stigma I discuss above. And “Is There Pride in Being HIV Positive?” is a video blog from last year’s Pride celebration that poses the question: if HIV is nothing to be ashamed of, it is something to be proud of?

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Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease | 7 Comments »

The Trouble with Praising HIV Negative Gay Men

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

National HIV Testing Day is next Thursday, June 27, and there is no better time to praise the many HIV negative gay men who are making smart decisions to remain that way. Hooray, HIV negative gay men! Let’s show some love for our negative brothers, who’s with me?

Oh, Lord. Now I’ve done it. By showing support for negative guys, I am clearly demeaning HIV positive men. But wait! I’m HIV positive myself. So, that must mean I’m being sarcastic in my support of negative guys, because there’s so little room for sincerity and goodwill in the chasm between HIV positive and negative gay men. That space is already so crowded, what with all the stigma and simmering resentments.

Some days I just want to go back to bed.

When I produced the quick video above three years ago, my intent was to celebrate the accomplishment of any gay man who is sexually active and has managed to remain HIV negative. It was produced by myself and my gay, HIV negative older brother to spread a little love across the viral divide and encourage HIV testing. That was it. No other agenda.

While initial reactions to the posting were quite good from both HIV positive and negative people, the pendulum swung quickly. Comments began to label my overly theatrical style (ouch!) as sarcastic. Some found the message demeaning to positive people. Some found the message demeaning to negative people. My goodwill became shrouded in a fog of distrust and what-about-me?–ism.

You can watch and decide for yourself (now that I’ve tainted the thing, darn it). But I stand by my sincere intentions to offer a hearty pat on the back to HIV negative men and support for their personal set of challenges and anxieties. I hope you’ll share it with an HIV negative friend you care about (the direct YouTube link is here.)

I would do it differently today, however. At one point in the video, I suggest that negative guys might like to have unprotected sex, but that they shouldn’t “do that.” That’s an outdated and judgmental mandate. Today, with new tools such as pre-exposure prophylactic treatments, and new understandings about what it means to be HIV positive and undetectable, what constitutes “safer sex” is a much broader list than simply whether or not you engage in sex with a condom or not.

Or, as I like to say, your mother liked it bareback.

Oops. I stepped in it again. Release the Kracken!

Mark

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PLUS…

The annual HIV Cruise Retreat is in its last stages of booking, and it will be the largest group of HIV positive men and women the cruise has ever had aboard. Even though the cruise does not sail until early November, several cabin categories have sold out. If this is something you are considering I would urge you to contact Design Cruise Travel NOW for information. I have the pleasure of being the MC of this trip again this year, but I receive no compensation other than a cheaper rate on my cabin. I do it happily because I am in favor of anything that builds community among people living with HIV. Check out my video blog posting from last year!

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

How ‘The Denver Principles’ Changed HIV/AIDS — and Healthcare — Forever

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

You must know this, because it matters. Because it has already changed your life, no matter who you are, and you may not even realize it. Because as we search for a new national voice for people living with HIV (since the ugly demise of The National Association of People with AIDS), and as LGBT community leaders pledge to re-commit themselves to HIV issues, the voice of people with HIV matters more than ever.

That isn’t about a vague concept. It began at a very real meeting, which gave birth to a very real, tangible document. And it happened exactly thirty years ago this month.

Michael_CallenIt was 1983. Just a year prior, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) became the fearful nameplate for the murderer of gay friends and lovers. The virus that caused it, HIV, had only been identified a few weeks earlier. Amidst this atmosphere of unremitting grief and fear, a group of activists met in Denver as part of a gay and lesbian health conference. Among them, a dozen men with AIDS. And among their number, the inspirational Michael Callen of New York City, pictured at right, and safe sex architect Richard Berkowitz (Sex Positive), the only surviving member of the group today. They were about to do something that would change our response to AIDS — and health care in general — forever.

As the conference drew to a close, the activists asked to address the attendees. Rather than having a report presented about the state of the AIDS crisis, they wanted to speak for themselves. If the word “empowerment” hadn’t yet been a part of the health care lexicon, it was about to be.

AIDS TIMEThe group took turns reading a document to the conference they had just created themselves, during hours sitting in a hospitality suite of the hotel. It was their Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence rolled into one. It would be known as The Denver Principles, and it began like this: “We condemn attempts to label us as ‘victims,’ which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally ‘patients,’ which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are ‘people with AIDS.'”

The seminal moment in AIDS activism was arguably those few minutes, when the principles were outlined by these brave “people with AIDS.” Identifying themselves as such, that alone, was startling at the time. How could they not be seen as anything but victims of an arbitrary and cruel killer? But they would have none of it. And they did not stop there.

They outlined 17 principles that covered everything from health care decisions to civil rights to sexual conduct. And their impact on all of us is so obvious today it can easily be taken for granted. Please honor their service and read on.

MarkDrMorrisThey demanded that physicians see their patients as “whole people,” and provide “accurate information.” They believed their opinion on their care should be awarded equal weight, and this was revolutionary. The next time your doctor consults you about a change of medications or whether a diagnostic test may be required, you can thank The Denver Principles.

They asked “all people” to fight against AIDS discrimination in the workplace and in housing, which was a provocative concept in the fearsome days of 1983 when people recoiled from those with HIV.

Astonishingly, they even advocated for “as full and satisfying sexual and emotional lives as anyone else” for people with AIDS. Imagine that, at a time when a new blood- and sexual contact-driven disease was in full bloom, a group of people suffering from it wanted sexual rights. Amazing. And yet today, if you are HIV positive and disclose your status to potential partners without feeling like a diseased pariah (or you have observed sexual evolution, like serosorting and sex clubs for positives), you can thank The Denver Principles. For that matter, if you’re HIV negative and negotiate sex with partners of any stripe, you can thank the Principles for believing that we all deserve a satisfying sexual life.

While gay men were the designers of the document, The Subversive Librarian notes that this was a situation in which lesbians and gay men worked together really effectively. As Walt Senterfitt wrote in 1998: “Part of the widespread acceptance of the notion of self-empowerment must be attributed to lessons learned from the feminist and civil rights struggles. Many of the earliest and most vocal supporters of the right to self-empowerment were the lesbians and feminists among the AIDS Network attendees.”

A clear line can be drawn between how all of us participate in our own health care decisions and The Denver Principles. It has influenced the doctor/patient relationship in every disease category, benefiting millions of patients.

sean_strubWhen longtime activist and POZ Magazine founder Sean Strub delivered the keynote speech at the Campaign to End AIDS’ 5th Anniversary event a few years ago, he devoted his powerful remarks to the historic importance of The Denver Principles and announced a plan to create a Denver Principles Empowerment Index that will hold AIDS groups accountable to the people they serve. That sort of work continues today, with plans underway to conduct a “Stigma Index” survey in the United States, measuring levels of HIV stigma and employing people with HIV in the process.

Sean knows a thing or two about accountability. When I worked for various AIDS organizations through the 1980’s and 90’s, we were shaking in our boots each year when POZ Magazine produced their chart outlining which of the country’s AIDS organizations met certain criteria. The chart rated things like financial transparency, the cost of fund raising, and how many HIV positive people served on the Board (for which, by the way, you can thank The Denver Principles, which demanded people with AIDS “be included in all AIDS forums.”)

The Empowerment Index that Sean and others are creating (he’s open to input) would chart similar criteria for AIDS organizations and other health care providers, by measuring the degree to which their clients feel empowered and involved in their own decisions. It would tangibly rate things like fund raising, transparency, HIV+ representation and the delivery of services.

So the Denver Principles live on. A list of profound basic rights were outlined during the dawn of this epidemic that continue to have an impact on us today. Anyone facing a chronic illness should laud the amazing journey and profound importance of this document.

Mark

(This is an updated version of something I posted in both 2010 and 2011. But as a man who blogs about living with HIV — and for you, reading my content — The Denver Principles and what they represent are that important. Are they outdated, since most people living with HIV today have never heard of them? I don’t believe so. I wasn’t around for the creation of the Bill of Rights and might not be able to recite them all to you, but I sure do want my leaders and governance using them for guidance. — Mark)

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ALSO…

As we enter June and all of the various Gay Pride festivities around the country, let me offer this gentle reminder that pride is about a lot more than drink tickets and cover charges and body image. Yes, that’s easy for me to say, since I’m as guilty as the next guy about my GYM OCD and aging fears — and Gay Pride only worsens my anxieties. I’m working on it. BUT. Back to you. I hope you will take three minutes and watch my “Gay Pride PSA” that I post each year around this time. If you haven’t seen it, it’s very funny. Well, until it isn’t. And it leaves you with a message I hope you will carry through this month and share with your friends. Check it out!

If, on the other hand, you prefer to leave the emoting to actual theatrical professionals (haters!), then you might really enjoy a five-minute highlights compilation from the one-night-only re-staging of David Drake’s important play on being gay and early AIDS activism, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. Only 600 very lucky people could be seated in the hottest ticket in town that night (my ticket, and my plane fare and hotel and entourage, were evidently lost in the mail, and I’m firing my assistant), but now you can get a glimpse of some of the magic witnessed that evening. The most moving moment? Seeing that angry lion himself, Larry Kramer, in a photograph with Drake after the performance. It reminds me of one of my favorite buttons from the 1980’s: “Annoy them… SURVIVE!”

In the “Gratitude for Our Privileged Lives” department, how about the amazing David Phillips, a long time poz activist from Maryland who has been crisscrossing Kenya with a group of students and their professor from The George Washington University School of Media & Public Affairs. “On June 4 we visited with Mama Beatrice and several of the people living with HIV whom she has aided,” David said in a Facebook posting. “The stories of discrimination and stigma which they shared were jarring for the students to hear.” Most humbling to me, though, was this: “Some of these fellow HIVers were shocked to know that mzungus (white people) get HIV, too,” David said, “and all were excited to meet someone thriving in the face of HIV for over 10 years, amazed by 31.” Are you feeling blessed right now? You’re welcome.

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