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Posts Tagged ‘Recreation’

The Disguised Blessings of HIV+ Poet Mary Bowman

Monday, November 10th, 2014

When Mary E. Bowman stepped to the stage five years ago at SpitDat, an open mic night in Washington, DC, she was 20 years old and terrified. She was about to perform “Dandelions,” her first poem to reveal a secret that her own family had long kept quiet: that Mary had lived with HIV since birth, the result of a mother addicted to drugs who died when Mary was only three.

MaryBowmanGrab“I had not memorized the poem yet,” Mary told me, “and the paper I held was shaking. It is usually kind of a loud environment, but when I started to read, the room went silent. That made it even more nerve-wracking.”

Mary was nervous about the audience response, about what they would say, and if any of them would even be her friend once her poem was done. She needn’t have worried.

“It was such a loving environment,” she said. “It was so accepting, like a family. When I was done, everyone applauded. I walked to my seat and a young lady was crying, and all she said to me was ‘thank you.’ I realized the poem wasn’t just about me. It was about other people, too.”

“Dandelions” explored her feelings about the mother Mary hardly knew, a loss that Mary has felt deeply her entire life. “I was eventually raised by my biological father,” Mary explained. “He wasn’t married to my mother. He would come to see me when I was a baby and find me on the sofa alone… and my mother out of the house.”

Mary’s father witnessed the scene “far too many times” and took the child home to his wife, who fell in love immediately and raised Mary as her own.

Mary’s talent lies not only in her poetic words, but the sheer passionate force of the emotions behind them. It’s impossible to watch her and not to be moved. She grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go.

Today, Mary works in policy and advocacy at The Women’s Collective in Washington, DC, but only after spending her younger years without very much social support for her status. “My family was very quiet about HIV,” she said. “Even when I was at the hospital growing up, I didn’t have an outlet to talk about it.”

Things have changed. In addition to her advocacy work, Mary has performed at HIV conferences and for events such as AIDSWatch in Washington. Her work as a performance artist and poet is a unique niche among young advocates, but it is when working with other women that the loss of her own mother sweeps over her.

A lot of the women have drug addiction histories. They have had their children taken away. “They are my support system,” Mary says, “and it reminds me that my mother isn’t here. They tell me stories. I just wish someone had saved my Mom as well. She didn’t have the services available to her that they do now.”

Working with these women has been a melancholy gift to the young artist.

“I’ve been caught up in emotion several times, when performing for women,” she says, and their bond has become her only connection to a woman lost to time and sad circumstance. She pauses to consider the many faces of the women for whom she has recited “Dandelions.”

“They are my mother,” she adds.

Mark

Dandelions

A dandelion in the midst of rose bushes would stick out like a sore thumb to ignorant souls
But I know the road this dandelion endured
This weed that all gardeners want to destroy is more appreciated by God than any seemingly beautiful bush of roses
Though that misunderstood dandelion wont for long last
Let it be known that God gave it the role of the outcast for divine importance
My mother was a dandelion in the midst of roses
Ignorant of her purpose she uprooted her soul and unknowingly left herself for dead
It has been said that my mother when above the influence transmuted broken hearts into smiles
All the while dying on the inside
AIDS didn’t kill my mother
It put her at rest
Now this song bird whistles in the key of silence
And I the latter of five write poems documenting the struggle unknown to my family
The sickness she denied lies in my blood with a lesser value
People speak I don’t know how you can live with knowing nothing but owning the growing disease that your mother for so long fought
But see that’s the difference between a rose and a dandelion
Roses were created with thorns to warn hand approaching without caution
Dandelions were not given that option
But they were created by an all knowing God
And that all knowing God created dandelions with the strength to withstand ignorance and hatred
Dandelions live in this matrix of life understanding the price
Roses live like the world was handed
Dandelions take the world and won’t leave a rose stranded
But my mother died before she got the chance to realize that dandelions are blessings in disguise
She I dare say died before her time
That thought lingers in my mind conflicting my belief in the divine
My mama raised me in the faith that the day God sweeps you away is a day proclaimed way before the manifestation
But I can’t help but experience devastation knowing nothing about the woman who carried me toting guns in the defense of my father
It is even harder knowing nothing about her but knowing the reason the hospital has become my second home is because this dandelion
chose to roam with the buffalo
But I seek serenity in the fact that she just didn’t know
That she a dandelion was just as beautiful as a rose
And I will go forth knowing my purpose as a dandelion
This life is worth all the crying and all the dying I have to do just so someone in my shoes can live
I will gladly give myself as the sacrifice if it means that all the dandelions in the world become viewed as more than the consequence of sins behind closed doors
You can lay me on my back and present me life less to God if it means that dandelions with unseen scares will not be viewed as odd
But as gifts from God to show the world that beauty lies not in the pedals of flowers but in the power of unconditional love
And in the strength of the untouched, un-hugged, sometimes unloved but most important of all un-budged dandelions

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Carlton’s risky denial of hustlers, sex, and HIV.

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

My friend Carlton is a chain smoker, even if all his cigarettes are imaginary.

His standard pose consists of one hand resting on his hip — elbow jutting out as if in the midst of a runway strut — while the other arm is forever in motion, his hand swiveling constantly around his face and shoulders.

cigaretteAll that’s missing is the cigarette, which you would swear you witnessed him smoking after having met him. Carlton even punctuates wry remarks by tapping his index fingers soundly on some phantom, extended filter. If his remark is particularly withering or at least gets a laugh, he’ll bring two fingers to his lips and add “puff puff, darling!”

Carlton’s age lies somewhere on the distant side of sixty. He came of age after Stonewall but on a far more moneyed block of New York City, where discussion of queers was verboten. Even today, Carlton insists that coming out to his wealthy mother would be quite disastrous and a completely surprising bit of news to her.

“I lived in Dallas, dear, years ago” Carlton is saying during our lunch. We had just switched tables twice, trying to escape the draft that’s been stalking my friend since Reagan was ignoring AIDS. “And let me tell you something darling. The ranch hands one would meet out in the bars had terrible personal hygiene. And I had a few, trust me. Just wretched.”

I wasn’t sure what line of questioning to pursue. What might constitute an authentic ranch hand, I wondered, or why one of them might wander into the kind of bars Carlton favored. But I was in no hurry to expose his curious thinking. Multiple opportunities would typically present themselves.

“Really?” I asked politely.

“Oh let me tell you! That Brokeback movie? There was a real lack of cleanliness, didn’t you see that? Those straight boys… maybe they were adorable, but my God! I was holding my nose just watching that movie.”

“Carlton, the guys weren’t straight. They were gay and living a lie. That was the whole point of the film.”

“Oh they were straight,” he reiterated, despite all evidence, cinematic and otherwise, to the contrary, “believe you me.”

Carlton insists that his conquests be straight, or at least a reasonable facsimile. A simple claim of heterosexuality will do. As he funds drink orders from male strippers at his local club, slipping bills personalized with his cell number into their posing straps, he is most likely to pause for any utterance that includes the words “my girlfriend,” “kind of hard up,” or “bus station.”

He keeps attachments at a proper distance, which also helps avoid bothersome questions from Mother. Romance, alas, is simply a matter of commerce.

“I had a fabulous date this week,” Carlton is saying. “Square jawed. Handsome. And everything just where it should be, darling. Puff puff!”

“You can’t call them a date if you pay them, Carl.” I liked injecting the proceedings with jolts of sanity, like a random slice of sunlight piercing a forgotten attic.

“Don’t say that! You’re terrible,” he cries, waving me away, his fingers gripping his phantom Benson & Hedges Menthol 100.

“This is reality checking in, Carlton. They’re called prostitutes. Street hustlers, knowing you.”

“Stop!” He protested, and then feigned resignation. “He was straight, believe you me. And I think he really likes me.”

I was tempted to respond, knowing the remark would lead down an entertaining rabbit hole of delusion and denial, but it felt like poking an animal with a stick. I let it pass.

“Carlton,” I scolded, “you should watch yourself.” I was truly concerned for his safety. His friends have all made it clear that he isn’t allowed to live in a building without security cameras and a doorman. We want footage to broadcast on America’s Most Wanted when the time comes.

“Oh please. I know, I know!” he relented, in an apparent moment of self realization. “I couldn’t possibly take time for a longterm relationship right now, you are completely correct.” The moment had passed. “Besides, my phone is ringing off the hook this week.” He giggled and sipped his wine. “My dance card is filled, darling.”

“Oh Carlton…” I sighed. “It’s the first of the month.”

“And so?”

“Rent is due, sweetie.” My eyes met a blank stare. “And so… your friends are calling for dates.”

He wrinkled his nose, considering whether one fact had anything to do with the other. He was unconvinced.

“Be that as it may,” he said finally, returning to his wine. “But please, darling, don’t try to take away from my funsy-poo.”

“Funsy-poo?” I responded. He smiled sweetly. Whatever bottle of lube rests on Carlton’s nightstand, you can bet it sits on an embroidered doily. From Mother.

Further discussion of his dating risks was a fool’s errand, and that went double for anything related to HIV, about which he spoke in faraway terms, like a Daughter of the Confederacy discussing the recent unpleasantness.

“I’m speaking at an AIDS conference next week,” I said suddenly, to test my own theory. Carlton glanced from his wine glass with a pitiful smile and then wiped it away with his napkin.

“Good for you, my dear. I would do more charity work myself but with my travel schedule!” He managed to find something fascinating in the bottom of his wine glass and his voice trailed off.

I have made remarks about HIV testing to Carlton but he waves them away, often with a joke about his pitiful sex life, despite what he may say about his dance card. He knows I write a blog about living with HIV but he certainly has never visited it. He is a generous patron of other sites, however. Sites with secure transactions that help him populate date nights with young men who, if you believe them as fervently as Carlton does, are just a little hard up or without a girlfriend or need a bus ticket back home.

We strolled out of the restaurant and I madly craved a cigarette after all that Carlton had seemingly consumed. He lightly brushed me with a kiss and promised to call in a few days if he could possibly find the time. He slowly sauntered away, taking in window displays and the busboy at a sidewalk eatery with equal interest. He was without care.

Never have I known anyone who so charmingly operates only within acceptable truths. For Carlton, self preservation long ago vanquished self discovery.

It’s a delicate balance, believe you me.

Mark

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I wondered while writing this in Ft Lauderdale (it was first posted in 2011), if people like Carlton are specific to gay resort areas — all that gay retired money crossing paths with desperate youths (or sly hustlers) and other unfortunates. When do our fantasies — romantic, sexual and otherwise — trump our better judgment, our need for safety, or even reality? — Mark

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VIDEO: Methtacular! The Addictive Musical Comedy

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

It is no secret that I am a crystal meth addict in recovery. But writing about it, at least in the often humorous style for which my blog is known, escapes me. My process of recovery feels too precious, too personal, and yes, even too delicate.

steven meth 1So it was with some skepticism that I recently attended the Chicago premiere of Methtacular!, an autobiographical one-man show in which the star leads us through his descent into drug addiction through music, comedy, and even a game show segment using audience members as contestants.

I laughed with bittersweet recognition and sat amazed at the talents of writer and performer Steven Strafford. Even more, though, I was impressed by how much the audience as a whole enjoyed the show. I don’t mean to stereotype, but I don’t believe the young straight couples or the elderly subscription holders in attendance were intimately familiar with the bathhouse antics of meth users on a five day binge. But God bless ‘em, they were laughing heartily.

I should have known better than to question their ability to relate to someone overcoming painful adversity and combatting the shame that so often accompanies it with humor. It’s the very reason people without HIV read my blog, or watch films about the difficult lives of others. As much as we may fear revealing our secrets, it is that intimacy, that sharing of ourselves, that we all truly desire and that has such healing properties.

If you are anywhere near Chicago before the show closes September 28, please contact Theater Wit and make your reservations. If you are not in the area, enjoy my video blog about the production and then start bugging the producers to bring the show to your city. You’re going to love it.

Mark

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Speaking of my drug addiction (for someone so reticent on the topic, I won’t seem to shut up about it lately), I would like to share my two minute acceptance speech for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association award for “Excellence in Blogging” that I received last week. First, because I’m proud of it, but actually because it contains a very personal message about crystal meth, and if I’m going to encourage people to talk about it I might as well take my own advice.

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Posted in Gay Life, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News | 3 Comments »

AIDS2014: The Complete Video Blog Collection

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

The AIDS2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, proved to be as colorful and exhausting as I had anticipated. There was no lack of images in the gorgeous city to share in my daily video blogs, and that included the faces of countless advocates from around the world.

My deep thanks to my friends at TheBody.com, who sent me to the conference and for whom I created exclusive content of the event. My Fabulous Disease was born on their site and it is a real gift to continue a collaboration that spans nearly twenty years.

My gratitude, too, to my new Aussie mates at Living Positive Victoria, an impressively active and engaged organization of people living with HIV/AIDS. They welcomed me warmly and were indispensable in providing guidance and access to a multitude of events.

Follow the links below to view each video at its home on TheBodyPro. Here’s a breakdown of each video episode and a little background on each.

Video #1: At MSM Global Forum, the Shock of Tragedy and the Road Forward

MSM DayNo one could have foreseen that the conference would begin in tragedy, as news of the crash of Malaysia flight MH17 circulated among delegates just as we arrived in Melbourne. Initial reports that more than 100 delegates had perished proved to be untrue, but the sting of loss was deeply felt nonetheless. At the pre-conference event sponsored by The Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF), emotions were high as prepared remarks were tossed in order to deal with the unthinkable events.

My own preparations for the day were jostled as well, because I knew my usual lighthearted reporting had no place among the broken hearts in the hall. I focused instead on the impact of the tragedy and how MSMGF had dealt with the events in the previous hours. And then, as we have come to know so well in the last 30 years, we soldiered on in memory of those no longer with us. A difficult day, even with the inspiring work that was presented.

Video #2: Criminal and Mannequins, Both Fighting HIV Stigma

MannequinsThe next pre-conference event, Beyond Blame, focused on the international issue of HIV criminalization. I have covered this topic before as it relates to the United States but it was awesome to see the international community at least as engaged as we are. Expert Edwin Bernard weighed in on breaking news from the US, while the inspiring Laurel Sprague puts the issue in context of women and power struggles.

Strolling the streets of Melbourne revealed a city very engaged in the conference, with bus signs and art installations everywhere. Wait until you meet Madam Kim of Positively Fabulous, who has funneled her “obsessive behaviors” into a hot pink avalanche of awareness and art that shines a light on women and HIV. You’ll also see reminders that the plane tragedy was still very much on the minds of the conference and the still-mourning city.

Video #3: The Global March and Candlelight Vigil

MARCHAlways one of my favorite events of the international conference, this video drops you smack in the middle of the march and allows the passionate advocates to tell you exactly why they are there. It’s the first time in my video coverage you get to meet so many of the international delegates face-to-face, and they do not disappoint. You’ll be cheering for them!

The Candlelight Vigil following the march took place in one of the most gorgeous pavilions I have ever seen, in downtown Melbourne. Because of my own issues with grief and loss – I’m one of those people that is afraid that if I start crying I may never stop – I reached out to delegate and psychotherapist David Fawcett about the nature of grief and why it is important to express these feelings as a community. His insight provided the perfect context to my footage of hundreds of people who had come to mourn the loss of so many over the years – and those who perished in the plane tragedy only days earlier.

Video #4: One World, One Place, Thousands of Voices: The Awesome Advocates of AIDS2014

PeopleWith countless global advocates convening in Melbourne, there is no shortage of impassioned voices. I realized soon enough that they needed little prompting from me, so I simply turned the camera on them and let them go for it. The result is a montage of voices, ringing out against all the ism’s of our modern world when it comes to HIV.

My new friend from Nigeria, who risks a decade in jail simply for providing services to gay men, sounded a truth that still rings in my ears. “We cannot let them die simply because of who they love,” he told me simply. Watching him celebrate at a dance party a few days later, in the safe company of his fellow delegates, told me everything about the resilience of our basic humanity, and how stubborn a thing like joy can be.

Video #5: Activist Theater, Condom Tryouts, and a Mystery Man Revealed

Theo-MarkThere’s no way I can produce these video blogs alone. It’s true that I operate on little sleep because after a full day of events I repair to my room to begin editing, a process that takes most of the night. But getting that footage in the first place means depending upon a camera man and assistant that shadows me day and night, maintains the schedule, and generally keeps me sane and laughs at my jokes.

Through Living Positive Victoria I found my professional dream date: Theodore, an Aussie from Sydney that had the perfect blend of patience, organization and good humor. He also happens to stop traffic with a towering physical presence and a smile that melts everyone, gay and straight, in his path. “Your camera man is so hot” became a running joke of the week.

Fortunately, I got to know the very heart of the man, and I’m much better for it. In this video, which takes you behind the scenes of theater being performed about HIV in Melbourne among other gems, I turned the tables on Theo and surprised him by getting him on camera for a change. You’re welcome.

Thank you, my friends, for the privilege of bringing the sights and sounds of AIDS2014 to you. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity, and hope the coverage provides just a glimpse of the spirit of the conference.

As always, thanks for watching, 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, News, Prevention and Policy | 2 Comments »

Sally Field, Rational Relating, and a Comedy of Life with HIV

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Charles Sanchez skips a lot. It is a natural, vivacious skip, an outpouring of unabashed joy that melds the cheerfulness of The Sound of Music with the bliss of the Pharrell Williams “Happy” video. Nothing stands in the way of his delight. Not even life with HIV.

Merce logoIt is that joyful vibrancy that makes Merce, the web series in development by Charles and his production partner Tyne Firmin, feel so refreshing. Considering that characters living with HIV on television are few and far between — or presented as tragic — the project feels, well, almost subversive. And that’s exactly why Charles is pursuing his dream of bringing Merce to life.

“There’s something brave in Merce as a character,” said Charles in an interview. “I think Merce is me, if I had not been so worried about what people thought of me. He’s honest and hopeful, and I think that’s something people don’t always expect in someone who is HIV positive.”

Indeed. In a YouTube video, Charles asked people on the streets of New York what their favorite HIV character on television was. The answers, when anything at all came to mind, was decades-old portrayals from cancelled series, or actual people, like Magic Johnson or Mondo Guerra from Project Runway. “The only ongoing television character living with HIV is a Muppet,” said Charles. The production team hopes to add another character to the HIV canon that isn’t dying or a criminal.

Charles Sanchez“Usually, you can practically hear the foreboding dum dum DUUUM in the soundtrack when someone discloses,” said Charles (left). “Or on Law & Order, they’ll find the bottle of AZT in the dead man’s medicine cabinet and say, ‘well, that explains that.’ I think it’s time for us to have a conversation about normal life and HIV.”

Merce grew from another series created by Charles and Tyne, Manhattan Man-Travels, that revolved around the lives of gay men in New York. Filmed guerilla style using a Flip cam, the series has the low-budget appeal of early John Waters. “Our only budget was for apple fritters,” said Charles. “We love apple fritters.”

For Merce, the producers are using an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $15,000 for costumes, better camera equipment, and higher production values overall (tax deductible donations for as little as ten dollars can be made to the campaign until July 4th, which is administered through the non-profit arts organization Fractured Atlas).

As with most comedy, Merce grew from something more serious. In a video explanation of his own life with HIV, Charles recalls one of his first jobs in New York as an actor in 1987 — playing the part of AIDS Related Complex (ARC) in Attack of the Killer Virus, a musical geared to educating youth about the new disease. Before long, it was Charles himself who would be discovered by his roommate, sick and unconscious, in their apartment. His AIDS diagnosis brought a new urgency to his art and how best to use it to educate and inform.

Having survived that, and the love Charles has for musical theater, might help explain the skipping. “I’m a pretty happy and optimistic person, and I wanted Merce to have that in abundance,” Charles said. “I’m creating a show with a main character who doesn’t let his HIV define him or keep him from all the joys of life. Merce makes a lot of mistakes, but he celebrates life. Why not grin and laugh at life? Life is hilarious.”

Sally FieldWhile television may still be grappling with how to portray HIV in contemporary life, literary fiction remains a few steps ahead. In his challenging, sometimes frustrating new novel, Sally Field Can Play the Transsexual, author Leslie L. Smith asks us to examine the nature of modern gay sexual behaviors. Do we engage in unprotected sex out of defiance, grief, pleasure, or pathology?

There is much to consider in Smith’s story of David Matthews, an entitled gay escort engaged primarily in his own self-interest. When a benefactor wills David riches and asks him to pay it forward, the immature hooker begins a quest to reconcile his small-town upbringing with the numbed pleasure-seeking of his vocation.

Anyone who escaped home to pursue gay life elsewhere will relate to that journey, but the central device of the novel — the ghost of the rich man appears to David and sticks around to provide vague counsel or witty bon mots — reads like a uneasy grafting of gay sexual politics and the movie Ghost. The infusion of farce into an otherwise thoughtful reflection on what it means to be a responsible gay man today is jarring.

That’s a shame, because there are scenes in this book that go straight to the heart of our common experience navigating sex in the age of HIV. During a visit to his Arkansas home town set a few years ago, David hooks up with a local hottie and they fall into bed together. The reaction of his conquest when David attempts to forgo a condom is heartbreaking. “I’ve heard of people doing this,” the hottie says plaintively as he ends their encounter, “but I didn’t think it was true.” Even today, in a time of PrEP and undetectable viral loads, the simplicity of the statement will have gay men everywhere reflecting on their choices.

Bringing important discussions to life is why Leslie L. Smith should keep writing. His ear for the here and now is acute and authentic. He just doesn’t need spectral accoutrements.

rationalNavigating relationships is also on the mind of Damon L. Jacobs, a New York based gay therapist who provides clear, helpful advice to couples in his book, Rational Relating. Although the guide is meant for couples of every stripe, Damon thoughtfully includes plenty of tips for gay men in particular.

His advice is deceptively simple and easy to apply to our lives. His “five pillars” of integrity, communication, compassion, responsibility, and compromise are all examined through his work with various couples and the challenges they face in building a life together. The book is meant as a resource that couples might draw upon, and the result is a helpful tool that can benefit anyone.

Damon is widely known for his advocacy around Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), but that’s not his purpose in Rational Relating. It is nice to see, though, that what makes him a strong advocate is grounded in his professional experience helping people find integrity and meaning in their personal relationships.

Mark

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Lessons Learned from Kissing a Straight Boy

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Last night I kissed a straight guy full on the lips. Then he tenderly put his arms around me and kissed me back. Tonight I’m going to do it again.

It sounds like conquest. Or breaking a taboo. At the very least it fulfills the fantasies of many a gay man.

And it makes me wonder why.

GayKissCartoonThe object of my affections is a man named Travis, and he plays my lover in a play we’re performing about a gay couple doomed by drug abuse.

Travis is most certainly straight, judging by the dorm room condition of his dressing area, his raunchy jokes and the effortless masculinity he possesses and that I can only approximate.

At an early rehearsal, long before any kissing would ensue, the director motioned me aside to share some surprising words.

“Let’s take our time working up to the kisses,” said the director. He lowered his voice a little. “Travis has never kissed a man. He’s straight.” It sounded like a condition.

And in a way, it was. It immediately colored how I acted around him, on stage and off. The play covers our courtship and as we rehearsed I felt another type of courtship happening. Was he watching me, thinking “that’s the guy I have to kiss?” Was I masculine enough? Did he think I was cute? Did he even care if I was attractive or not? Was he disgusted at the thought of touching me?

Obviously he was comfortable enough to take the role. But to be honest, he was nervous and it showed. I finally got the nerve to say something about it during a break.

“So Travis,” I began. “You’re straight and you’ve never kissed a guy I hear.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Sorry about that.” He was actually apologizing for being straight, and I felt like doing the same thing for being gay. “I guess it’s an issue for me but I’ll get more comfortable. I did a nude scene with a gay guy before, but I wasn’t playing gay and we didn’t kiss or anything.”

This man was on stage naked and found it easier than kissing a guy? I would French kiss the entire cast and crew of “Ugly Betty” before you would find me dangling uncovered on stage.

Bringing it up helped immensely. We not only joked about his “condition,” but we also discussed mine: HIV. It allowed me to engage in some basic HIV prevention education with someone who might not otherwise get candid answers to his concerns. Yes, he knew you couldn’t get it from kissing, but hearing it definitively made him more at ease.

We made a deal that we would start kissing when we no longer needed to hold scripts, and when that time came, I didn’t hesitate. And bless him, neither did he.

It was a brief, perfectly ordinary kiss. And it was done.

Once the occasion had passed I think we both realized it was much ado about nothing. But it got me thinking about why the fact he is straight made the idea of kissing him somehow more exciting. Why? It may be as simple as wanting what you can not have. And that’s a common desire.

It’s the other implications that bother me. Do I see a straight man as innately more appealing than myself? As “better,” as a more authentic specimen of Man? That would suggest I think of myself as less than ideal because of my sexuality.

Whatever the reasons, it’s not the only preconceived ideas I had about my straight co-star. I questioned if he could pull off the gay thing. Or would something, like his macho pride or his clueless heterosexuality, prevent his performance from being “authentic?”

But something happens every performance that surprises me and shames my prejudices. This lumbering straight dude who bristles when I call him “sweetheart” offstage becomes a giving, affectionate lover onstage. His eyes smile at me. He pulls me closer in our bedroom scene. He shows a sensitive, willing and playful vulnerability.

It has been an enlightening experience. I now realize how little faith I had in his talent, much less his humanity. I’m not alone. Half the cast is gay, and almost all of us play multiple roles in various sexual combinations. Between our sincere desire to understand our characters and getting to know each other, the backstage chatter runs somewhere between Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer.

We’ve all learned a lot. I learned that if something got in the way of portraying a gay couple on stage, it wasn’t the straight man’s phobias.

It was mine.

Mark

This piece originally appeared on my blog in October of 2011, but now I am ready to unmask my straight co-star! He is none other than the talented Travis Young, who has gone on to an exciting career as a television actor (he’s a regular on the new Resurrection). You can check out his Facebook page here. As for me, well, I’m still gay. — Mark

PLUS…

HIVisNotACrimeARTIt remains the defining HIV issue of our time: HIV criminalization, or people with HIV being arrested and prosecuted for not disclosing their status to sex partners, for instance. This is a very real thing, folks. Rather than an actual public health service, prosecutions seemed to be based on a belief that people with HIV shouldn’t be having sex at all, and they usually ignore the actual risks involved (judges and juries don’t seem to care if condoms were used, or even if anyone was infected or not). Some of the most exciting advocacy around this issue is being led by advocates in Iowa (yes, Iowa), so it’s fitting that the first national “HIV is Not a Crime” conference on criminalization will take place there. I urge you to look into this issue, and the best place to start would be the web site for The Sero Project.

Grindr picMy occasional health-related items for the pop culture site Queerty (possibly the most trafficked site for younger gay men) have been fun and challenging. Mostly, I’m intimidated writing in a “young, snappy” style that might appeal to their audience, especially since I’d rather just go lie down. So far my pieces have included explaining the new “undetectable” study; the role of meth and the health of people with HIV; and how at least one health department is joining the cruisers on Grindr. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to reach this audience and will keep on trying not to let my age show.

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Posted in Anita Mann and Acting Gigs, Gay Life, My Fabulous Disease, News | 1 Comment »

What Donna Summer Still Means to Gay Men

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

The music my friends liked when I was a teenager intimidated me. It was the head-banging rock of the early seventies, and it felt alien and unappetizing. Most of all, it just felt… straight, in a way I knew I could never be. Alone in my room, I listened to my beloved Broadway musicals, and resigned myself to the fact that popular music would never really speak to me.

And then in 1977, when I was sixteen years old, I began sneaking into the only gay bar in Shreveport, Louisiana. Inside I found joy and liberty, fashioned with bell bottomed pants and handsome smiles and the dance floor – oh my God the dance floor – centering the nightclub was a glorious explosion of colored light and swinging hips and arms reaching up, up to the sky as if we could clutch it in our hands. The music was an entrancing bombardment of sound, and one song, one mesmerizing invitation to touch the heavens, was played again and again.

It was Donna Summer. And she was singing “I Feel Love.”

The track was really the triumph of producer Giorgio Moroder, who created the driving, synthesized beat that would define Donna Summer’s music for years to come. But I knew I had to own this amazing song, and soon I stood proudly at the record store cashier to buy my very first popular album, Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday.

I had found my music, my voice, and my lifelong muse.

The following year I had come out as a senior in high school, and Donna Summer was still in her “whisper period.” It was never my favorite sound from her – it felt like playing chopsticks on a grand piano – and I knew from her other album tracks that she could let it rip. As I was graduating she did just that, with the release of her iconic “Last Dance.” Her full-throttle pipes were on stunning display. Dance parties would never be the same.

By the time I left home for college in New Orleans, the music of Donna Summer had exploded into popular culture. I felt so proud of her, as if I had discovered her myself. My nights in the French Quarter were spent in the Parade disco on Bourbon Street, dancing to “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.”

The feeling of joyous exuberance that surrounded that disco is hard to describe. It was a sea of shirtless men, staking claim to our sexuality and the promise of infinite possibilities ahead. The incessant thump! thump! thump! of the beat was our clarion call, and it shouted Here! Here! Your tribe is here! We were so beautiful, in ways we were much too young to know.

And then soon, of course, the lights began to dim.

By 1982, I was struggling in Los Angeles as an aspiring actor, and Donna Summer was having a musical identity crisis. Record executives wanted a new sound for her to accompany the changing times, and her longtime producer Giorgio Moroder had been replaced by a succession of others. The red-hot Quincy Jones produced her Donna Summer album that year and their studio clashes became legendary. The album floundered and produced no significant hits.

At the Los Angeles gay pride festival the next year, I was thrilled to hear Donna’s voice again, sounding gorgeous and almighty, singing “She Works Hard for the Money.” I took to the dance floor but was somehow unable to muster the joy I had known only a few years before. Life had intervened. And it had brutal plans for the men under the dance floor tent.

Donna Summer produced dance floor singles, if not hits, in the years that followed, but we weren’t paying attention. The night club crowds dissipated, as a silent killer plucked men away one by one. AIDS had begun its murderous march through the gay community.

The villain wasn’t simply the disease in those darkest of days. It was ignorance, and the judgment that rose up from social conservatives who saw Godly retribution in the horrific deaths of our friends. And so, when Donna Summer became a born-again Christian during this period and announced she would no longer perform her early, erotically charged hit “Love to Love You, Baby,” her gay audience viewed her with immediate suspicion.

An ugly rumor began. Someone claimed to have heard her make a homophobic remark during a concert appearance. Depending on who was repeating the story, she had either said AIDS was God’s judgment, or that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. The unsubstantiated rumor swirled and grew, in an environment in which gay men were particularly sensitive to ignorance and hatred. By the time Donna Summer took it all seriously enough to set the record straight, it was too late. What was left of her popularity fell victim to the social maelstrom of AIDS.

I never believed the story, and defiantly continued buying her albums, though they appeared with less regularity. Donna Summer would have only one more true hit, “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” which I chose to perform for my maiden appearance in drag at an AIDS benefit. The fact that during this time Donna Summer was raising money for AIDS research gained little traction among emotionally bruised and unforgiving gay men.

Today, disco may be dead, but Donna Summer’s music laid the groundwork for everyone from Madonna to Lady GaGa, even if my body has found it harder to approximate the dance floor moves of my youth. But in my mind, as I blast “Dim All the Lights” in the privacy of my living room, I am young and powerful and life is making promises that are wonderful and possible.

Donna Summer is among the spirits now, joining the legions of ghosts haunting brightly colored discos from another era. She is still cooing to them, to these throngs of boisterous men, inviting them to the dance, where there is everything to celebrate and nothing to forgive.

The men are moving to the beat and laughing and holding one another. They are all beautiful, and they know it.

And they feel love.

Mark

(This originally appeared on this blog in May of 2012, shortly after her death. I continue to play Donna’s music, or at least hear it playing in my memories, every single day.)

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Designing and Disclosing on Project Runway

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

If you’re considering how to best disclose your HIV positive status to everyone you know, here’s one suggestion: learn to sew. Television’s long-running reality hit Project Runway could be holding a spot just for you.

Jack MackenrothOver the course of a dozen seasons, the fashion competition series has tackled everything from drug addiction to racism to gender reassignment among contestants, and it has hosted more HIV disclosures than any other reality show. The latest addition to the trend is designer Viktor Luna, the contestant who sported the fluttering handheld fan on this year’s Project Runway: All Stars.

Exactly how these disclosures have come about over the years is a study in contrasts, as different as the three HIV positive contestants themselves – and the whims of show producers.

In 1998, season four of Project Runway introduced the world to designer Jack Mackenroth (pictured right), the competitive swimmer, model, and all-around sex symbol who had already been living openly with HIV for 17 years. His casual disclosure during an early direct camera interview during his season showed a man comfortable with himself and his status.

“The producers knew I was positive because we fill out a stack of background information,” Mackenroth told HIV Plus. “They had my entire medical history, like every other contestant on the show.”

Already an HIV advocate at the time, Mackenroth knew the producers would eventually use his HIV as a dramatic device, but “that was fine with me,” he said, “because I saw it as an important tool as well, for HIV visibility and as a chance to fight stigma.”

That opportunity was lost when fate intervened. Before he could disclose to his fellow contestants on camera, Mackenroth developed a serious infection unrelated to HIV that forced him to withdraw from the show five episodes into the season.

“Tim Gunn sat me down and reassured me,” said Mackenroth. “He told me that everything happens for a reason, and in that moment I was like, Yeah, right. I was exhausted and emotional. But the truth is, that show gave me my platform. It worked out great.”

It would be years later until an HIV positive contestant would actually disclose their status to the cast on camera, but when it finally happened it brought all the drama and emotion the famously controlling Project Runway producers could ever imagine.

MondoIn 2010, season eight of the series included Mondo Guerra (pictured left), an insanely talented young designer who was as guarded as he was endearing. Although one should be mindful that footage is carefully edited to create characters and increase drama, Guerra certainly seemed like an artist with a painful secret or two.

During a challenge to create an original textile, Guerra designed a graphic print with a conspicuous “plus” sign throughout it. In direct camera segments, he revealed that the design reflected his HIV-positive status but otherwise kept his inspiration to himself, having not disclosed to even his own family at that point.

When pressed on the runway later to explain his design, Guerra demurred again. The judges stared in wonder. The music swelled. Filled with nervous emotion, Mondo haltingly revealed his HIV status as the inspiration for his textile. Viewers saw not only his tears but something more: a humble sort of triumph.

“I feel free,” Guerra said plainly.

Guerra’s disclosure was given generous air time during the episode and was the dramatic centerpiece of the entire season. The moment has been replayed endlessly on YouTube and was shown to a packed ballroom at the 2013 United States Conference on AIDS. It was undeniably inspiring, seemingly spontaneous, and brilliant television.

“Knowing Mondo, I think that happened organically,” said Mackenroth. “Of course, everyone is working nonstop, producing a full season in 35 days. When these vulnerable situations come up, we hardly have time to think it through.”

“When the judges genuinely wanted to know the story behind my print and design, that felt like the right moment,” Guerra told HIV Plus. “So I told them what it really represented and that moment was a turning point in my life.”

If Mondo provided the pinnacle of televised disclosures, the current season of Project Runway: All Stars has given us the most curious presentation of The Big Reveal.

ViktorIn one episode, designer Viktor Luna (pictured right) and the cast were scampering about, hard at work, and suddenly Luna begins speaking of his great anxiety in voice-over. Something is weighing heavily on him. He takes two designer pals aside and quickly shares his HIV-positive status. His friends say supportive things, they hug, and then they all dash back to their sewing machines as if they’d just had a quick smoke break. Luna’s status is never mentioned again.

Luna’s disclosure, as edited, felt like an afterthought, as if the producers noticed a lull in the excitement and cued Luna to bring on the drama. Producers might have hoped for something touching, but the hurried editing actually minimized the complicated nature of HIV disclosure. Everything about it felt false.

You know we are living in a more fortunate time when the merits of one televised HIV disclosure over another are being argued.

“Regardless of how it’s produced, it’s all a win,” says Mackenroth. “Whenever this or any show combats stigma, the HIV community benefits from it.”

Guerra sees a personal benefit too.

“Personally, it wasn’t until I was open about my status that I started to take better care of myself,” Mondo told us. “For that reason, I applaud Jack’s openness about his status.”

Today, Mackenroth continues his advocacy as one of the creators of the HIV=Equal campaign. Guerra has entered the fashion design stratosphere and is a key player in the Project iDesign Campaign, which encourages doctor/patient partnership. Luna wrote about his HIV disclosure on Huffington Post, sharing the details of his HIV journey that were not included in his Project Runway: All Stars episode.

Nothing is assured, in fame or fashion. Project Runway contestants are often struggling designers who leave whatever jobs they have to compete on the show. For any of them to put their personal lives on the line, to take the sometimes frightening step of revealing their HIV status to the world, takes a special kind of courage.

Many people with HIV may not be fashion designers, but they can certainly relate to that.

Mark

(This is a slightly edited version of my essay that originally appeared on the site of HIV Plus Magazine. Jack Mackenroth photo by Stan Madden. Viktor Luna photographed at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week by Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images.)

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The My Fabulous Disease Holiday Spectacular!

Friday, December 20th, 2013

(I can’t resist posting this each Holiday Season. The video below is my very favorite, of the more than 60 I have produced over the years. Enjoy!)

My mother’s home here in Shreveport, Louisiana, was fraught with excitement last week. Christmas decorations littered the living room, the almond scent of cookies filled the air, and last minute phone calls and arrangements made it all feel like a major production was underway.

And there was. The event that had everyone scrambling was held on a Sunday afternoon, when siblings and extended family arrived for the taping of The ‘My Fabulous Disease’ Holiday Spectacular.

Now just take that in for a moment. My family was enthusiastically participating in a video about my life with HIV. And they were much more concerned with choosing a fun holiday outfit than being publicly associated with their HIV positive relative. For them, sitting down for an interview about my HIV status, well, that was the easy part. They had no problem being candid about my HIV, as you will see.

I am an extremely blessed and fortunate man.

King Family CarWhen I was young, I remember watching “The King Family” on television (right), a big happy bunch that sang really well and wore lots of matching outfits. I was starstruck, and always wondered if that King family might bear some relation to mine. And if they didn’t, would they let me come be on their show anyway?

Well, today, I’m proud of my own family for displaying our dubious talents, and by going a big step further by discussing the importance of supporting those of us living with HIV/AIDS. For far too many, the difficulty in disclosing our status — or the result of doing so — has distanced them from the people they need most during times of challenge.

SantaMarkSmallThe Holiday Spectacular includes some family greetings, a cooking segment with Mom (you’ll want that divine almond scent wafting through your home, too), some holiday drag, a surprise here and there, and even an appearance by the big man himself, Santa Claus.

You may remember my mother from “What it Feels Like for a Mom,” a bracingly honest video created for Mother’s Day. You might also remember my gay brother Dick, who made an It Gets Better video with me. He was also one of the main subjects of the award winning “Once, When We Were Heroes” posting I made for World AIDS Day several years ago. But today, you’re also going to meet sisters, nieces and in-laws who have special holiday greetings just for you.

Enjoy the holiday special, my friends. I hope you’ll share it with anyone that could use some holiday cheer, or needs a reminder that they are loved. And as always, please be well.

Mark

p.s. As promised in the video, here is the recipe for Mom’s Christmas Cookies. I’m certain they’re fantastic for your t-cells.

MOM’S CHRISTMAS TREE COOKIES

(Note: Mother uses a MIRRO Food Press, a device that must have been manufactured during the Eisenhower era, judging from the faded instruction manual she still keeps handy. I found one on E-Bay for you for less than four bucks, or you can use a more modern appliance, if you must. I don’t guarantee the cookies will taste the same!)

Time: 10-12 minutes… Temp: 375F… Yield: 7 dozen

1 cup shortening
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/8 tspn salt
1/4 tspn baking soda
1 tspn almond extract
2 1/4 cups sifted flour
Green food coloring

1. Cream shortening, adding sugar gradually
2. Add unbeaten egg, dry ingredients, flavoring, and a few drops of food coloring. Mix well.
3. Fill the cookie press and form cookies on ungreased sheet. Sprinkle with sugar and bake.
4. Frost and sprinkle something fabulous on top of them (this is Mom’s provocative departure from the original recipe. That’s just how she rolls.).

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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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