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Posts Tagged ‘Recreation’

The Compassionate Truce of Tim Murphy’s Novel ‘Christodora’

Monday, November 28th, 2016

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In the towering new novel Christodora, author Tim Murphy harnesses decades of personal and professional experience as an HIV journalist into a story that sweeps back and forth between the last several decades and beyond. It has the scope of great literature, but Christodora is also a deeply personal chronicle from a man who knows his terrain.

The book’s namesake is a century-old apartment building in New York City’s East Village, silently weathering the indignities of time, economics, and social change that is mirrored in a host of characters connected to the building through the years. They include a privileged young couple, both of them artists, their adopted child, revelers of the gay dance clubs in the village, social activists and fledgling health department professionals. Since the story takes root in the 1980s, we know our characters are poised to confront something they can never imagine.

Yes, there are AIDS horrors here, of the multitudes who die around the edges of the book’s pages. But Murphy’s lens is more interested in close-ups, in the intimate impact of calamity, in various forms, on the lives of his characters. He also writes with the distance and maturity to know that AIDS wasn’t the only crisis in town for New Yorkers during this period, and even within it, AIDS greedily intersected with numerous other social ills and personal struggles.

Author Tim Murphy (Edwin Pabon)

Author Tim Murphy (Edwin Pabon)

With hardly a false move, Murphy glides effortlessly among the worlds of addiction and recovery, the academic art scene, AIDS activism, and the darkened corners of mental illness.

It is a gift for any writer to find the interior voice of a character – the cyclical doubts and fears, the ongoing internal debates in which we all engage that propel our lives and choices – and so it is with Murphy, who has multiplied the feat by populating the novel with an astounding number of flesh-and-blood people who behave with all the faults and courageousness that humanity allows.

Murphy is coy about providing too many historical names and places. The inner workings of ACT UP and its more establishment-friendly offspring, Treatment Action Group, are dramatized at great length but the groups are never mentioned by name. It releases Murphy from the job of shackling his story to actual people and organizations; this is not historical autobiography in the vein of Sean Strub’s Body Counts or Cleve Jones’ upcoming When We Rise. The emerging AIDS activism scene is portrayed, Murphy has us feel, because some of his characters happen to be there. They come first.

That said, anyone familiar with the gay New York City scene from this era will enjoy the parlor game of spotting the real people who inspired several major characters. Some are transparent, others not. Christodora had me Googling the names and affiliations of my guesses more than once.

christodora-jacketThe most searing passages in Christodora deal with the wreckage of drugs and those engulfed by them, calibrated for maximum heartbreak. For any of us who turned to substance abuse during or after the plague years, who live with the confusion and guilt of having survived a public health emergency only to surrender ourselves to small baggies of crystalized catastrophe, Murphy knows us, and he intimately (and sometimes explicitly) offers us front row seats to the destruction of major characters. The brutality of addiction cannot be divorced from the story of AIDS.

Christodora even has the audacity to look beyond the present, providing glimpses into years we have not yet seen. Audacious, because Murphy knows there is no AIDS survivor among us who hasn’t considered what lies ahead, as the crisis years continue to fade from view, and he delicately provides an answer that is rooted in the personal destinies of his characters.

Ultimately, Murphy glides the reader to a gentle landing spot. After all the fury of AIDS activism, broken families and lifelong resentments, the flawed and sometimes flailing characters of Christodora are provided with a lovely parting gift. To all of this rancor, Murphy calls a kind of merciful truce.

The final notes of charity in Christodora are all the more bittersweet given they were written by an HIV journalist who, one suspects, longs for moments of healing grace every bit as wistfully as we do.

Mark

(Christodora would make an ideal gift to yourself for this World AIDS Day, or a great Kindle stuffer for someone you love – or for someone who could use a better understanding of the impact of these last thirty years. Check it out on Amazon here.)

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Posted in Book Review, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News | No Comments »

Sleeping with President Donald Trump

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

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I am on my feet at the Thanksgiving table, and my fists are slamming into the linen napkins. Silverware is quaking, pottery is rattling. The force of a particularly hard blow to the tabletop sends a dinner roll catapulting from the bread basket.

My screams are borrowed from post-election protest marches. They are deafening and unending. Fight him. Reject hate. Protect ourselves.

Surrounding the table are members of my family, some red and some blue. They pay me no attention. They are chatting among themselves, unaware of my thunderous cries. Forks and spoons and now falling to the floor and cartwheeling away. A bowl of green bean casserole has rumbled to the edge of the table and any second now it will

I wake up. It is morning in America.

While eating my breakfast cereal I luxuriate in thoughts of assassination. Oh my God that’s awful, my husband tells me, don’t even think such a thing. So I search for it online. I enter the letters “T-r-u-m-p A-s-s” and my browser helpfully fills in the rest. Nobody told my laptop it can’t think that way. My dreadful topic is the first suggestion Google offers.

Hello, NSA. You must be very busy. I’m just a depressed liberal. Move along, nothing to see here.

HIV activists have fought presidents before. We protested while carrying urns filled with ashes. We had motivation and grief and outrage. We believed we could change the world and we did. We actually did.

I was a young man then. I have been glancing at those years in the rearview mirror ever since. I write about them often. It hadn’t occurred to me that we could face that level of ignorance and danger again in my lifetime. And trust me on this, the policies and positions of our new administration, on everything from LGBT rights to HIV education, will have a direct impact on the number of urns to be filled in years to come.

The past may be prologue, but that analogy doesn’t satisfy me. Our past is a monster we had beaten down. But then it faded behind us, beyond reach, and somewhere back there it grew strong and fearsome and has now leapt over us to become our immediate future.

My horror imagery comes from my dreams. I work hard not to think of these things, at least during my waking hours. I’ve turned away from television news, angrily, like a lover who bitterly betrayed me. But at night it can’t be helped.

Our new president is smirking at his inauguration. He is waving to all of those he has so cynically duped, and surrounding him are white men sneering so broadly they look reptilian. Our outgoing president and his wife are enduring the event bravely, but their very presence among this grotesquerie is so out of time their image might as well be a weathered tintype.

I wake up. It is another morning in America, and I struggle to decide whether or not to surrender myself to sleep again. I honestly cannot decipher the better of the two.

Mark

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Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy, Trump | 5 Comments »

Video: Aboard the 2016 HIV Cruise Retreat

Friday, November 11th, 2016

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The spirit of the annual HIV Cruise Retreat (also known as “the Poz Cruise” but not associated with POZ Magazine) can be summed up in one enlightening story.

Matthew had some bad luck as he boarded the ship for our 8-day tour of the Caribbean. His luggage didn’t make it. He literally had his carry-on bag (which included his meds, thank goodness) and the clothes on his back.

At the opening reception for our 250 cruisers, we made an announcement about Matthew’s plight. Instantly, clothing was crowd-sourced for Matthew, including everything from formal attire to swimsuits. Each night at dinner Matthew appeared in some new outfit pieced together from various contributions.

“Matthew,” I would ask him each day, in my best Joan Rivers voice, “I love your outfit. Who are you wearing?”

“Everyone,” he would reply with a sunny smile.

The HIV Cruise Retreat brought together people living with HIV and our loved ones (four different men brought their mothers) for fellowship and joy. It includes both men and women, gay and straight, with men very much in the majority. (Although, as you will see in the cruise video, that by no means suggests the straight passengers are bashful wallflowers. Their costume party appearance produced so many gasps that I do believe the ship shuddered a little.)

I am fully aware that the cruise, with prices beginning in the $650 range, is out of reach for many people living with HIV. As a volunteer host, it is something that I must save for every year. But I support anything that builds important community among people with HIV, and that includes vacations that have real value beyond the perks and the destinations.

For more information on the 2017 cruise, visit the cruise website or contact our fearless leader, Paul Stalbaum, at 954-566-3377 or via email at paul@cruisedesignstravel.com.

Enjoy the video, and please be well.

Mark

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

My Gay Love for Monster Movies

Monday, October 24th, 2016

pinhead-hellraiser1

 

My first boyhood crush was on a dead man. He was a zombie named Quentin Collins, with eyes that pierced my pubescent gay soul and sideburns the size of the Florida peninsula. He stalked across my TV screen on weekday afternoons at precisely 3:30, when the series “Dark Shadows” introduced me to all manner of vampires, werewolves and ghouls in the early 1970’s.

Quentin was dreamy (literally, since he spent a lot of time staring into space in a zombie trance), and had a lonesome, lost quality I recognized but couldn’t yet identify. I saved allowance money for the soundtrack album and replaced the David Cassidy poster in my bedroom for one of Barnabas Collins, the series’ vampire star.

Before long, I graduated to horror films. Slashers did the trick for a while because I delighted in those oversexed straight couples getting whacked with such regularity. If my burgeoning sexuality dared not speak its name, it was enormously satisfying, at least, that straight love was so damn hazardous.

But it was never the killing itself that attracted me. It was the mysterious, gruesome, self-loathing monster. Here I was, in the midst of full pubescent hormonal freak out, with a body revolting against me and a mind wracked with heretical carnal desires. I didn’t just sympathize with the Alien and Pinhead and Freddy, I wanted to take them to lunch and find out how they managed to make it through the day.

My taste for cinematic horror took a break in the 1980’s, during the worst of the AIDS crisis. Something about watching Re-Animator on VHS while my friend Lesley lay dying in the guest room severely reduced the fun factor. AIDS had become the monster, and my sympathies were spent. For at least ten dreary years I stuck to romantic comedies.

If the state of my personal AIDS crisis can be measured in movie genres, then my trauma must have subsided because horror movies are back in my Netflix queue with a vengeance. I’ve been popcorn-munching to zombies, toolbox killers and possessed toys and loving every minute. I can’t even manage to remove the fabulously dreadful Clash of the Titans remake from my watch list.

Ah, Greek mythology monster movies. It is impossible to resist the sight of Liam Neeson as Zeus, growling with magnificence as he commands, “Release the Kraken!” No three cinematic words since “you complete me” have so enraptured my senses, and they are worth the wait. That Kraken is bitchin’.

You should have seen the stir I created at the 1977 Junior Homecoming when I arrived, the school’s weird gay creature, wearing leather platform boots that reached to my knees. I relished in horrifying the crowd and seeing the jaws drop and the fingers pointing at the beast. No Kraken could have cleared the dance floor as fast as my solo disco moment, just before being chased to my car.

It’s hard running in platform boots. I could have used Pinhead for backup.

Mark

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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease | No Comments »

The CDC’s Gay Dance Video about HIV is Flat Out Fabulous

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

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The dance club depicted in the CDC music video for “Collect My Love” (full video below). Condoms, PrEP, and being HIV positive and undetectable all get screen time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has produced a music video that joyfully educates gay men about HIV prevention options. And it is foot-stomping fabulous.

The song, “Collect My Love,” was released by The Knocks and it features vocals by Alex Newell, the young gender-bending singer who rose to fame by stealing season three of the television series, Glee (his rendition of “Boogie Shoes” on that show is a one-way ticket to my happy place).

In the CDC music video released today, Newell performs the song in a crowded, gay-friendly dance club. The atmosphere is ebullient and cruisy, with gay men making connections left and right. That’s where HIV prevention comes in.

Gay couples meeting at the club are shown later, as their relationships develop. There is a condom negotiation, a man shown taking PrEP, and even a character who discloses he is HIV positive and undetectable. The CDC has filled the video with every prevention method available, and they do it in a sex-positive, non-judgmental atmosphere. The video was created as part of the “Start Talking. Stop HIV.” campaign that reaches out to men who have sex with men (MSM), particularly African-American and Latino gay men.

In an exclusive interview with Alberto Santana of the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Manny Rodriguez, part of the creative team at agency FHI360, both men made clear that solid research was their guide.

“This is an authentic campaign,” said Rodriguez, “with gay men involved in both the campaign staff and creative team. Our goal was to marry CDC research with something that is accessible and enjoyable to watch.”

“We know that having conversations about HIV can increase good health outcomes and strengthen relationships,” said Santana. “We also wanted to playfully connect to pop culture. We are putting out important information, and doing it outside the normal means.”

The CDC is exceedingly careful to provide scientifically accurate messages, but has certainly never delivered these messages in such an innovative and entertaining way. The video incorporates both PrEP and the fact people with HIV can become undetectable — two important and often misunderstood issues being heavily discussed among the gay community right this minute.

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In this behind-the-scenes shot, the crew films actors playing a new couple from the nightclub who take a home HIV test together.

The men featured in the video are youthful and attractive, but blessedly, they look like young men you might actually meet in a club, not unattainable icons from the pages of Men’s Fitness. In fact, there’s a plus-sized bear seen tearing up the dance floor who walks away with the video during his few seconds on camera. In my mind’s eye, that jubilant, self-possessed man is not going home alone.

Sure, the world conjured in the CDC video may not reflect all interactions among gay men as we know them to be. Stigma and judgment still exist and are practiced nightly in clubs throughout the country. But I wholeheartedly support this alternative, aspirational world, where gay men live joyfully and play responsibly. That’s the world I want to live in.

The video will be shared on social media and through CDC’s community partners. But why wait? Check it out, and share it with your networks. Discuss it. Start a conversation about the ways we can protect ourselves and our community.

And put on your dancing shoes.

Mark

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

Pregnant Guest Kicked Out of ‘Charm Ball’ Over Protest Fears

Monday, September 19th, 2016

Itta Englander made the mistake of speaking to protesters at the Chase Brexton "Charm Ball." What happened next wasn't so charming.

Itta Englander, seen here stranded outside Chase Brexton’s “Charm Ball.” She was denied re-entry to the gala after spending a few minutes talking to protesters upset with the agency’s leadership.

When this blogger chose to join protesters at Chase Brexton’s annual “Charm Ball” to voice concern over the direction of Baltimore’s largest healthcare provider to the LGBT community, there was little doubt there would be some tension at the elegant affair.

Sure enough, urgent concerns were ignored and belongings were policed. There were stern warnings from security and more than one intimidating confrontation.

And that’s only what happened between Chase Brexton and their own guests. Really. The organization can’t seem to make a gracious move these days, even on their most elegant night of the year.

About thirty protesters, most of them patients of Chase Brexton, gathered outside Baltimore’s Railroad Museum on Saturday night, waving signs to cars as they entered a private parking area. As guests made their way toward the entrance, protesters called out “Rehire! Reform! Replace!” in reference to rehiring the five managers who were fired in an effort to intimidate remaining staff out of joining a union, and to replace CEO Richard Larison for creating an atmosphere of embarrassment and distrust at the health center.

Soon, event organizers installed a black paneled curtain to partially block the guests’ view of protesters. It was a terribly ironic sight, watching Chase Brexton’s attempt to literally blot out their own patients from view, but we’re dealing with an agency that has been tone deaf to community concerns for many months now.

"Charm Ball" security erects a curtain to block the protesting Chase Brexton patients from the view of the guests.

“Charm Ball” security erects a curtain to block the protesting Chase Brexton patients from the view of the gala guests.

Itta Englander, a Baltimore City resident who attended the event with her wife, had donned a lovely black gown for the Charm Ball, and even indulged in high heels, despite her pregnancy. She wanted to look great for her wife and for others at their table, all of whom were associated with a company that donates to Chase Brexton.

“I’ve been reading about what has been going on with the firings of managers there,” Englander said in an exclusive interview. “We saw the protesters when we were driving in, and I wanted to talk to them. I know the situation has been really, really tough.”

So, after being seated at her table and enjoying some of the program, Englander strolled out of the venue to have a chat with protesters. She listened to the concerns of several patients and met the wife of fired nurse practitioner Jill Crank, who spoke emotionally about the personal toll of the firings. Englander accepted a few printed flyers about the controversy and took some baked cookies to share with her table.

Those few minutes, and her sympathetic chat, would have harsh consequences.

When she attempted to re-enter the Charm Ball, Englander was stopped by organizers. “They wanted to know my name and my table number and see my ticket, all of which I produced. Then they said I was a ‘disruptive influence’ and they would not let me back in.”

Itta Englander was treated as if her time with protesters had exposed her to something terrible, a fast-spreading stomach virus perhaps, and nothing short of immediate quarantine would protect the other guests from heaving their soup course onto reams of black taffeta.

Without her phone or car keys, Englander asked that word be sent to her wife that she had been barred from coming back inside. That’s when event security decided to intimidate a second Charm Ball guest.

According to Englander’s wife, who asked not to be identified, security came to her table and removed her from her seat for a tense chat. She was told that Englander had attempted to re-enter the Charm Ball “with contraband,” and that she had “gone with the protesters.”

Englander’s wife could not have been more flabbergasted if she had been told that her partner had left the Charm Ball to join the traveling circus. But security wasn’t done with her. “They wanted to know if I was going to cause a scene,” Englander’s wife said, “and they wanted assurance I would not be disruptive before they would allow me to return to my seat. They never told me Itta was waiting for me outside.”

And yet she was. For more than thirty minutes, Englander uncomfortably stood in her heels on the sidewalk outside, waiting anxiously for her wife and finding nowhere to sit in her gown and rest. When she attempted to speak to Charm Ball organizers about her plight, they found her presence so noxious they literally turned their backs and walked away.

She eventually received help from the protesters, one of whom lent Englander a cell phone to contact her wife, who promptly came outside. The two of them left immediately.

The peaceful protesters included several Chase Brexton patients, upset over the loss of their healthcare provider during a failed union-busting attempt by management.

The peaceful protesters included several Chase Brexton patients, upset over the loss of their healthcare provider during a failed union-busting attempt by management.

“I know there are always two sides to an issue,” Englander said about her charmless evening, “but when one side is so guarded and paranoid, they just come off as unwilling to listen, and even uncivil — even to their own donors or people who are part of your core group. There were a number of ways the whole situation could have been handled better.”

There are few sights this blogger has witnessed in 30 years of HIV activism as outrageous as an organization literally constructing a curtain to hide their own, already marginalized patients from the view of donors. Or the smug smiles on their faces as they did it. I will not soon forget it, and neither should you.

It brings back memories of a generation ago, when HIV was new and ignorance was king, when fear and self-protection prevented the self-serving from hearing the facts of the matter, when the diseased unfortunates were hidden and ignored, when small-minded people simply turned their backs on needful voices.

But as has been clearly established, that kind of irony is lost on the leadership of Chase Brexton Health Services.

Mark

(Itta Englander and her wife have received no apology from Chase Brexton. No one from Chase Brexton responded to a request to comment for this story. Perhaps they will respond to your Tweet here.)

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

When AIDS Activists Hijacked the Olympic Rings

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

Rings and Flame before the Games.jog

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a very touchy organization, most especially when it comes to the Olympic rings. They guard their trademark jealously and litigiously, commonly suing anyone who dares to approximate the iconic rings for their own purposes. Even local street vendors during the Games have been shut down for violating copyright.

Anthony Braswell wasn’t thinking about that when he and a co-worker came up with a dangerous idea. It was 1995, and Atlanta was in the height of Olympic fever as the city prepared to host the 1996 Summer Games.

Braswell served as Director of the Grady Health System Infectious Disease Program (IDP), Atlanta’s new HIV clinic. One day he and his medical director, Dr. Jeff Lennox, were chatting about the enormous HIV education opportunity the Games presented. If only they could garner the attention of the worldwide media that would soon be streaming into the city for a two-week stay.

“A basket of condoms was sitting on the conference table,” Braswell said in an interview with My Fabulous Disease. “Jeff took five condoms out and starting arranging them on the table, and joked that we should make the Olympic rings out of them. I remember looking at him and saying, ‘yeah. Play safe.’ And that is how it started.”

PlaySafe Olympics

At the time, they didn’t burden themselves with whether or not creating such a campaign was legal, or what the response of the mighty IOC might be. Or exactly how it might be done. They just started working.

“We didn’t think about next steps,” said Braswell. “We were just enjoying the simplicity of the message. There was no budget, no money at all for this idea.” That problem solved itself when people began offering free services to design, photograph, print, and distribute a full-color poster of the fledgling idea.

A marketing company in Los Angeles stepped in with a photographer and studio time. “They took great care in matching the color of the condoms to the Olympic ring colors,” said Braswell. “They also learned that the lubricated condoms caused damage to their camera lens, so they had to scrap those and find unlubricated ones.”

When the drafts of the poster arrived from a volunteer marketing company, Braswell couldn’t believe that “our crazy idea came to life. But it was missing something.”

Meeting with others on his clinic staff, the group realized the “Play Safe” message simply would not translate to scores of international Olympic visitors. “To be effective we needed to communicate with many different nationalities, many different cultures,” Braswell recalled, “so we contacted all sorts of international groups to determine how the ‘play safe’ message would translate.”

They added a border to the central image that spells out the “play safe” message in eighteen languages. “The hardest one was Chinese,” said Braswell. “There were no symbols that delivered the message of safe sex, and we wound up saying ‘have good sex.’ But they did not have a symbol for ‘sex,’ either, so in the text we actually had to spell out the word in English.”

A final graphic detail was adding the phone number for the Georgia AIDS Information Line, a number that still operates today. “We didn’t ask their permission,” Braswell said, because he wanted to protect them.

By then, a growing array of Atlanta HIV advocates, from gay men to the staff of AIDS service agencies to health department employees, had heard of the campaign plans and stood ready to accomplish the most daunting task of all: distributing the 750,000 copies of the poster, which a Los Angeles movie studio had paid to print and shipped directly to Braswell’s home.

“The weekend before the Olympics, several large trucks pulled up in front of my house,” Braswell said. “Over one thousand boxes were on them. I was horrified. We filled every inch of my house, floor to ceiling with boxes, and there were still more to go. We took one truck to the clinic and hid about 400 boxes in the storeroom. Even my neighbor put a hundred boxes in her living room.”

Braswell, and the army of volunteers ready to unleash the campaign, knew full well how much the poster would infuriate the IOC. Any potential fallout very likely emboldened them, as much for the publicity as for the fact there was no love lost between the citizens of Atlanta and the IOC. The aloof and arrogant president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch, had actually asked locals to address him as “your excellency,” a request that went over like stale cornbread in a Southern city so unpretentious it featured a fleet of pickup trucks in its opening ceremonies.

On the opening weekend of the Atlanta Olympic Games, the plan was executed. “It was all very covert,” said Braswell. “Friends working in the Olympic Village helped us sneak the posters in.” Meanwhile, other volunteers had jobs at the hotels, including those where media was staying, so under every door they slipped press packets that included the poster and a statement about the need for AIDS awareness and safer sex materials. The poster was wall-papered on light posts, in store windows and in restaurants throughout the city.

Figures differ about the availability and number of condoms distributed in Olympic villages over the years. In a recent Slate article, Atlanta in 1996 shows a significant dip from the number of condoms distributed in previous Olympic villages – and even these figures are disputed.

160520_olympicCondomChart2

Braswell doesn’t believe many condoms were distributed in Atlanta’s Olympic village. “When we asked about making condoms available, the Atlanta Olympic Committee said no, telling us that there would be no sex in the village. Oh my God.” The attitude contrasts sharply with the 450,000 condoms that will be made available to athletes in Rio. “What a different world we live in now,” said Braswell.

The 1996 poster effort, once the Games began and the materials got out, yielded… not much. At first.

“For a couple of days we heard nothing,” said Braswell. “And then the press began. Officials from the IOC and the Atlanta committee were looking for the people ‘who had done this to the Olympic rings.’”

In a city containing more press than any place on earth during that time, the Olympic condom rings gained traction, leading to officials having to answer questions about whether or not there was an “official condom of the 1996 Olympic Games.” Reporters gleefully reported the answer that no, there was not.

The attention was glorious but short-lived. During the second weekend of the Games, a bomb was detonated in Centennial Olympic Park, an act of homegrown terrorism that stole the headlines and broke the hearts of the good people of Atlanta.

The tragedy took the heat off of the condom poster controversy and shifted attention to the very serious business of security and the bomb’s aftermath. The poster disappeared from media reports as quickly as it had appeared.

As with most acts of activism, whether a flash mob or a protest, the Olympic condom ring poster found an audience, made its point, and was gone.

“In the end, the campaign worked,” Braswell said. “I am so proud of the people who believed in this effort. And this was twenty years ago, before the power of social media!”

“No matter,” Braswell concludes. “It worked. And we pulled it off.”

Mark

(Condom distribution chart: Holly Allen, Slate.)

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Posted in My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 2 Comments »

AIDS2016: The Full Video Collection from My Fabulous Disease

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

Mark Theo AIDS2016

With my trusty videographer (right), Australian HIV advocate Theo Tsipiras.

The people, the parties, the protests! AIDS2016, the international AIDS conference held in Durban, South Africa from July 16-22, had it all. And it was my privilege to bring you the stunning sights and sounds of the gathering, sponsored by The Global Forum of MSM and HIV. My special thanks, too, to my amazing videographer, Australian HIV advocate Theo Tsipiras.

My coverage was featured on the most comprehensive HIV resource on the net, TheBody.com (you can also view my full set of videos there), as well as on MSMGF.org and even on Queerty.com, the world’s largest pop culture site for gay men.

So here they are, each of the five video blogs I produced at AIDS2016, below.

Allow me to let these videos, and the inspiring people from around the world who populate them, to speak for themselves. Enjoy!

 

The MSMGF Pre-Conference (Gay Day!)

Gay Day pic

Gay men from around the world gathered for sessions and selfies.

The MSMGF pre-conference is uniquely designed to address the issues and needs of men who have sex with men (MSM) around the world.

Included: openly gay International AIDS Society President Chris Beyrer; Truvada drug smuggling (sort of) with German advocate Nicholas Feustel; a chat about the prevalence of chem sex in London; and gay advocates from countries in which their sexuality – and even their services for gay men – are criminalized.

 

The Thrilling Treatment Access March on the Streets of Durban

Treatment March pic PHOTO BOB LEAHY

Interviewing activists during the #Treatment4All March. Photo by Bob Leahy, PositiveLite.com.

The may be no way to adequately describe the intensity of the #Treatment4All march that wound its way through the streets of Durban. Fortunately, my videographer Theo and I dropped ourselves into the middle of the action. The results are amazing.

Included: the thousands of advocates calling out the disparities in the world when it comes to HIV treatment access; the individual activists explaining why they are taking to the streets (including some of the women of the Positive Women’s Network).

BONUS Video: An Interview with PrEP Advocate Jim Pickett

Here is a man who does not mince words. Jim Pickett of AIDS Foundation Chicago explains why AIDS2016 should be known as “the PrEP conference,” and then has some very candid thoughts about the efforts of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) to block a California bill that would provide PrEP education to those at risk. Included: information on how you can support the bill.

 

An HIV+ Gay Man is Erased by the Military and a Plenary Protest

Anti-criminalization activists took the main stage at an AIDS2016 plenary.

Anti-criminalization activists took the main stage at an AIDS2016 plenary.

The advocacy around HIV criminalization has grown enormously is just the last two years. I take you to the Beyond Blame pre-conference, and then jump into a demonstration by criminalization activists at an AIDS2016 plenary – which included the newly minted activists and grandchildren of icon Elizabeth Taylor, working on behalf of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

Also: a very candid gay activist from New Zealand confides with me about just how cruisy the conference is for he and his fellow advocates. Hint: activists ready to hook up are less than 20 feet away.

Included: Interviews with LTC Ken Pinkela, who lost his appeals to the military over trumped-up non-disclosure charges; Edwin Bernard of the HIV Justice Network; Joel Goldman of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (and her HIV activist grandchildren), and our first visit to the amazing Global Village.

 

The Eye-Popping Global Village and a Party Without Pants

Tribal Crop MFD

There were glorious sights to behold in the Global Village, like this South African transgender activist. And then: the “No Pants, No Problem” dance party!

In my final report from AIDS2016, we immerse ourselves in the sights and awesome advocates of the Global Village – and then let off some steam at “No Pants, No Problem,” a dance party like nothing else on the planet.

Included: African grandmothers fighting for support, the “Disclosure Sofa,” interviews with international HIV advocates Gus Cairns and Julian Hows, gay teenage HIV advocates from South Africa, Jessica Whitbread, organizer of the pantless dance party, and my final thoughts about this wondrous experience.

 

Mark End Note

Thanks for watching, and for your lovely messages of support throughout this conference. It means the world to me. And now, let the anticipation begin for AIDS2018 in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam, y’all. Can you imagine?

Mark

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Gay Collective: “The Virus Divides. It Doesn’t Have To.”

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

Gay Men Collective Group Photo crop

The Viral Divide Flash Collective: Mark S. King, Bryson Rose, Damon L. Jacobs, Charles Sanchez, Frederick Weston, Bruce Ward, James Krellenstein, Alex Wilson, Durell Knights, Jordan Eagles, Leo Herrera, Avram Finkelstein, and Jawanza James Williams.

In a cramped meeting room in New York City on May 27, 2016, a dozen gay men, HIV positive and negative alike, came together to answer a vexing question: How do gay men bridge a divide that has been forged through decades of HIV stigma, distrust, and mutual blame? Or, at the very least, what might be done to start a conversation about the divide and begin to heal the wounds?

Convened by Avram Finkelstein, the HIV-negative artist and HIV activist who was part of the collective that created the iconic SILENCE=DEATH artwork in the 1980s, and Mark S. King, the HIV-positive blogger and advocate, the Viral Divide Flash Collective sought to begin a difficult conversation and find a graphic way to present it. The collective was sponsored by Visual AIDS and made possible through funding from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and GMHC.

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A “flash collective” is an exercise in artistic advocacy involving group facilitation and the common pursuit of a graphic message to communicate a concept for the public sphere. In other words, the gathering of gay men had mere hours to discuss the HIV viral divide, vent their frustrations about their lives and each other, and then find common ground. It was, in a word, intense.

Before the group even finished consuming their breakfast bagels, the walls of the room were covered in reams of butcher paper scrawled with the frustrations and issues viewed as crucial to members of the collective.

Important topics were raised, such as race, privilege, and the science driving the new HIV landscape. Again and again, the group talked through these concerns and then returned to their primary purpose of crafting a message about the viral divide among gay men.

“This message is the first sentence in a conversation,” Avram Finkelstein reminded the collective throughout the day. “It does not have to tell the entire story. It is meant as the starting point for important conversations.”

The result, HIV ÷, features the tagline, “The virus divides. It doesn’t have to. No walls between gay men.” The graphic image includes an animation that outlines the various ways in which the divide affects gay men: age, joy, relationships, sex, race, and love.

Avram Finkelstein facilitates

Avram Finkelstein facilitated the collective with assistance from Mark S. King.

And the graphic image has an impressive coming out party on the way. It will be projected onto the façade of the Bronx Museum on July 13, 2016, as part of the opening of ART AIDS AMERICA, a retrospective of AIDS-related art through the years. The Illuminators, most widely known for their work projecting graphic messages on the New York City skyscape on behalf of Occupy Wall Street, will coordinate the projection. The work of the Viral Divide Flash Collective is viewed by the museum as the very latest in a history of AIDS artwork that dates back more than thirty years.

The Viral Divide Flash Collective has set up a Tumblr page featuring the final artwork and of the collective’s day together. Photos of the projection onto the Bronx Museum will be added after the event on July 13. Anyone is welcome to post their thoughts on the Tumblr page or to share the images on social media.

The HIV ÷ message comes just as gay men are grappling with a host of new scientific realities that are altering the social landscape.

The increased adoption of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) has re-energized activists and provided a way for HIV negative gay men to participate fully in their own HIV prevention.

Meanwhile, research has definitively shown that people living with HIV who are on treatment and maintain an undetectable viral load are uninfectious. A new group, Prevention Access Campaign, is aggressively promoting the scientific evidence that undetectable people living with HIV cannot pass on the virus.

Online dating apps, where divisions between HIV positive and negative gay men have been most prominently on display, have now incorporated profile choices that include being on PrEP or being HIV positive and undetectable. So there is movement afoot, even as HIV stigma remains a stubborn roadblock to bridging the viral divide.

James Krellenstein, Alex Wilson, Bryson Rose and Charles Sanchez crop

Group members James Krellenstein, Alex Wilson, Bryson Rose and Charles Sanchez.

It would appear that now, more than ever, gay men can relieve themselves of the social walls that have divided them along the lines of their sero status. The HIV ÷ graphic message is only a small part of multiple efforts to repair relationships among two factions of gay men that have often been at odds with one another.

After so many years of mortal fear, irrational and otherwise, bridging the viral divide will surely be easier said than done. The members of the Viral Divide Flash Collective have started an important conversation. It will be up to countless others to continue it.

Mark

PLUS…

MarkTheoI could not be more excited about returning to the international AIDS conference next week. AIDS2016 in Durban, South Africa, is sure to offer exactly the kinds of sights, sounds, and people that I love capturing in my video blog coverage. I am proud to have the sponsorship of MSMGF, the global organization working for the health and rights of gay men (men who have sex with men) around the world. Beginning with pre-conferences that begin on July 16, you will be able to follow my coverage on the MSMGF site or by checking in with TheBody.com, the most comprehensive HIV site anywhere. As with my past conference coverage, I leave the research and panels to others, while my trusty camera man Theodore and I train our sights on the colorful people who make this conference like none other. See my teaser video here, and wish me luck!

 

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My Muscles, My Disease: The Pitfalls of a Meth Addict

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My recovery depends on healing my mind, body and spirit. At the moment I’m two out of three, even after several years of clean living.

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

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

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

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

Getting back in shape is an easy call. Except my mind puts physical fitness on the same crazy train as my drug addiction. The fact I acknowledge my insanity is a good start. Now I can begin the process of teaching my body new tricks. When I’m working out, I try to remain in a state of gratitude for my life, for my physical self, and for the fact I no longer have to live as I once did, using my body as currency.

There are traps on the road to recovery, as anyone getting clean and sober will tell you. The vigilance it requires is a full time job. A dangerous choice might look perfectly innocent. It might be a reasonable part of life. It could even be a healthy choice, at least for you.

That’s the cunning nature of drug addiction. My very reckoning can look as pretty as a picture.

Mark

(The photos above are the only Marcus images that remain, gratefully. This re-post is inspired by my friend Will Armstrong, whom I recently profiled about his addiction and body image. Please note: I always speak generically about my recovery from addiction, and do not publicly promote one model or another. The point is, help is available for the asking.)

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