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Fighting Trump: HIV Advocates to Watch in 2017

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

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Donald J. Trump and the Republican-controlled congress are a threat to everything HIV advocates have been fighting for during the last thirty years, and that includes access to healthcare, HIV prevention programs like PrEP, and the dignity with which we treat those who are most vulnerable to HIV infection.

This new political reality is reflected in the 2017 list of HIV Advocates to Watch from My Fabulous Disease. These inspiring advocates are speaking out, organizing and even conducting events only weeks after the election. They bring to mind the HIV treatment strategy of “hit hard and hit early.” They grow in number every day.

You can be a part of this. In fact, you must be. Follow these advocates on social media, join their groups, take note of every link in their profile, and follow their advice. All it takes is for people like you to take one step toward change.

If you know a person or organization that is leading the resistance in your community, share their names and links to their work in the comments section. The more options we can provide to get involved, the better.

Here are the HIV Advocates to Watch in 2017.

 

TIM MURPHY
New York, NY

crop-tim-murphy-photo-by-gabelloWhen shoppers visited Rockefeller Center one day during this holiday season, Tim Murphy helped make sure that ice skaters weren’t the only photogenic moment available. A group of silent Santas, all wearing anonymous black masks, held signs with messages like “Trump’s USA is Already Terrifying” and “Voted for Trump? Feel Lied to Yet?” while a trumpeter played a jaunty version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The tableau was effectively haunting.

A longtime HIV journalist for POZ Magazine (and now the bestselling author of the must-read novel Christodora), Murphy is using the full force of his newly minted celebrity to come out swinging against Trump, employing an array of tactics ranging from street activism to community organizing. Most recently, Murphy helped mobilize dozens of people to show up in front of the home of Senator Chuck Schumer to demand “total obstruction of the Trump agenda.”

“Medicaid expansion and Obamacare have offered healthcare to so many Americans with HIV/AIDS and now they’re in jeopardy,” said Murphy. “All social programs are.” He also worries about the future of pro-LGBT prevention messages that have been created under Obama, particularly those addressing gay black men.

Murphy has simple advice for anyone looking to get involved in their community. “Follow or sign up to get alerts from two big national groups, such as Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, and two local groups, like your local #BlackLivesMatter or local immigration rights group,” he offers. “And then commit to acting on their action alerts, whether it’s making phone calls or showing up for big key demonstrations in your city. Massive protests send a broad message that Trump’s agenda will not be tolerated.”

It sounds like you just got your marching orders.

(Photo credit: Gabello)

 

ANNE-CHRISTINE D’ADESKY
Oakland, CA

crop-anne-christine-dadesky-credit-kawri-juno-photographyCommunity activist Anne-Christine d-Adesky is a veteran of ACT UP NYC and the co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers. For more than thirty years she has fought for social justice issues as varied as immigration rights, women’s health, and anti-nuclear causes. That’s right. She’s a badass.

And she has now turned her attention to the man she calls Drumpf. “On the day after the election I launched my blog, Alice in Drumpfland,” says d’Adesky, “and I put out a call to activist colleagues to join me in a collective response.”

That response became with the formation of the Bay Area Queer Anti-Fascist Network (BAQAFN). “Some of us just call it ‘Queer as Fuck,’” d’Adesky says. “It is meant to unite the local LGBTQ community and defend others under attack, “including communities who are targets of an emboldened American racism that Drumpf has invited.”

d’Adesky also has serious concerns about the continued adoption of “religious waiver” policies and legislation that GOP legislators have advanced in Florida and Texas. “Dozens are being drafted at local levels now,” d’Adesky warns, “that would allow businesses or individuals with federal contracts to ‘opt out’ of providing services to LGBTQ individuals on the premise of religious opposition to homosexuality. That means private and religious institutions, including hospitals and hospices, may refuse to treat HIV-positive individuals they assume may be gay or trans, or lesbians who need maternity care or trans women who just need a checkup. This we must fight.”

This battle is nothing new, d’Adesky asserts. “We can look to the successes of the AIDS movement in the 90s for models to fight the moralist and far right. When our bodies were criminalized, we framed our fight in the context of human rights, which is where it sits. We also need to hold elected officials accountable. We need to push them to create new services if they are needed.”

d’Adesky is busy organizing town hall forums for BAQAFN, writing her blog, planning vigils against Islamophobia, and even preparing for the release of her fourth book, an activist memoir. But she never lets her struggles get the best of her.

“I refuse to let Drumpf or any of these small-hearted individuals dictate my daily happiness,” she says. So she dances, however and whenever possible. “It’s fun… and keeps you in protest shape.”

(Photo credit: Kawri Juno Photography)

 

JOSE de MARCO
Philadelphia, PA

crop-jose-marco“Being a person of color, I am forced to see the world through a racial lens,” says Jose de Marco, a community organizer for ACT UP Philadelphia who works with Prevention Point, the city’s only syringe exchange program. “HIV impacts black and brown people, very hard. I fear what the Trump administration will do. His cabinet appointments say it all.”

de Marco’s advocacy focuses on the intersections of race, poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. These issues compound HIV infection rates among people of color and “mirror high incarceration rates as well,” he says.

“This administration could criminalize syringe exchange despite the fact it has dramatically lowered HIV infections in the United States,” de Marco warns, but changes to our national health programs could have an even more massive effect.

“Because of racism and greed to provide tax breaks to billionaires, the repeal or cuts to the Affordable Care Act could happen,” de Marco says, “but with enough pressure Congress can find ways not to choke off health care to the most vulnerable populations. People should pressure their Senators to vote against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and demand no privatizing of Medicare and Medicaid.”

“ACT UP will partner with other organizations fighting for health care and we will be using direct action, as we have for decades. We will not be turned back. Not one day.”

Find out more about the importance of needles exchange programs, and check out a new editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine from none other than President Obama that lays out the risks to health care if the ACA is repealed.

 

JD DAVIDS
New York, NY

crop-jd-davids-smile-louie-ortiz-fonseca“I am a trans person with race and class privilege who lives in relative safety,” says JD Davids, the enormously influential managing editor of TheBody.com and an activist voice to be reckoned with. “I’m also acutely aware of the backlash against trans people in the form of bathroom bills and unmitigated violence.”

Davids is by no means off-topic by focusing on the civil rights of transgender people. He sees a direct link between prejudice toward vulnerable communities and HIV risk. “An already-seen increase in bullying and hate and targeting of women, LGBTQ people and people of color contributes to accumulated trauma that, among other things, increases HIV risk or challenges in staying healthy if you have HIV.”

“I speak early and often about HIV issues to ensure that everyone gets clear information on the new HIV basics: HIV treatment is incredibly effective and much simpler than before; an undetectable HIV viral load means uninfectious; there’s a pill a day that can block HIV transmission; and bias, stigma and underlying marginalization of queers, trans people, people of color and drug users are the biggest barriers to ending the epidemic.”

Having a presidential administration that is “packed with leaders who either ignored HIV or put acutely harmful policies in place” is not going to be pretty, Davids believes. And he’s doing something about it.

“My fellow HIV activist Jennifer Johnson Avril and I have launched #ActivistBasics,” Davids explains, “which is providing practical tools and information for figuring out what to do and how to do it.” Their Facebook page is a treasure trove of helpful advice, Twitter chats, videos, and links to other resources. It is the perfect first stop for anyone who wants to resist the policies of the new administration.

It might be easy to feel intimidated by the sheer activism output of someone like Davids, but he wants you to know that there are easy ways to get started.

“Pull together an affinity group,” he advises as a first step, “a group of two to eight people who you know and trust, and start right where you are, as far as taking action together and supporting each other. It’s going to be a long haul. Don’t go it alone.”

(Photo credit: Louie Ortiz-Fonseca)

 

NAINA KHANNA
Oakland, CA

crop-naina-devi“Trump openly campaigned on a message of hatred and intolerance,” says Naina Khanna, director of the ferocious advocacy group known as the Positive Women’s Network USA (PWN), “something people living with HIV know all too well. The progress we’ve achieved in expanding the civil and human rights to reflect the diversity of our nation will be stifled. What is at stake? Literally everything.”

Fortunately for us, PWN has emerged as a forceful leader involved in everything from repealing HIV criminalization laws to local organizing to national political strategy like the annual day of congressional lobbying known as AIDS Watch. Those skills will come in handy in the years ahead.

“PWN will have a strong contingent at the Women’s March in DC,” says Khanna, “with members who can’t make it to DC participating in simultaneous Women’s Marches in cities around the nation. Our members have committed to making phone calls, sending emails and writing letters to the editor to put a face to many of these issues. Women have a legacy of innovation and resistance in the face of fear. We will build on that.”

Khanna is helpful and extremely specific when it comes to tips on how you can make a difference. “Put your U.S. Senators and your Congressperson on speed dial on your phone,” she offers, “that way it will only take a minute to call and voice your concerns or wishes. Find their contact information at Who Is My Representative? It’s never a waste of time to call your elected representatives in Congress.”

“If you are a woman living with HIV, including women of trans experience, join PWN-USA. If you are already a member but have been sitting on the sidelines, get more involved! Don’t be afraid to venture outside the HIV silo, either. Get involved with your local Black Lives Matter chapter. If you are a white person wanting to support racial justice, find your local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).  and get involved in our newly launching anti-racist curriculum.”

“There will be protests around the country the week of the inauguration,” Khanna adds. “We hope to see you there!”

 

ASHTON P. WOODS
Houston, TX

crop-ashtonpwoods-eric-edward-schellIn the summer of 2015, an incident at the progressive conference Netroots Nation galvanized activists across the country and arguably changed the focus of the presidential campaign. During a forum with candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, more than 100 Black Lives Matter protestors shut down the event and demanded the candidates address state violence against black Americans.

This blogger was there, and remembers the faces of attendees, who were surprised by the outburst and then confused and even intimidated by the chants and demands (perhaps they had never seen an ACT UP protest in the 80s). It was interesting and disheartening to me that, even among this liberal mix of people, Black Lives Matter was viewed as an uncomfortable irritant.

Ashton P. Woods was not only there at Netroots Nation, he helped to lead the protest. And he has absolutely no intention of softening the tactics that helped propel Black Lives Matter into the national consciousness. But there are differences, now that Trump has been elected.

“My work in racial justice just got a lot harder,” Woods says. The HIV positive activist knows how to meet a challenge, having co-founded the Houston chapter of Black Lives Matter and even now, as he creates Strength in Numbers, a project “to educate and lobby those in power about HIV.”

Woods has some experience protesting on the streets of Houston, and he encourages you to get involved on a local level as well. “Find out what the activists in your state need,” he says, “and then use your voice to speak up and fight back.”

(Photo credit: Eric Edward Schell Photography)

 

JEREMIAH JOHNSON
New York, NY

crop-jeremiah-johnson-photo-terri-wilderIn 2014, a devastating outbreak of 200 new HIV infections occurred in a small Indiana town among heroin users. It could have been easily avoided if the governor at the time had not dragged his feet on syringe access programs (SAPs). That governor, Mike Pence, is the new vice-president of the United States.

Anti-science positions like this are only the tip of the ignorance iceberg, says Jeremiah Johnson, a policy coordinator for Treatment Action Group that is one the most visible leaders of the Trump resistance in New York City.

“The pick for the director of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, is also a vocal opponent of LGBT equality,” says Johnson. “HIV thrives on hatred and oppression, particularly within LGBT communities and communities of color, so we can expect that a racist, transphobic, and homophobic administration will likely increase the spread of HIV in our most vulnerable communities.”

Johnson sprang into action soon after the election. Working with fellow activists James Krellenstein, Jamila Headley, Milo Ward, and Jason Walker, the group held a town hall meeting in Manhattan “in opposition of the many destructive policy positions and societal ills represented by Trump and his administration.” It now attracts hundreds of people every Tuesday night and has been named “Rise & Resist.”

“If you fear the oppressive, dangerous policies of the Trump administration as much as I do,” Johnson advises, “give yourself permission to rise and resist, to act up and fight back. Let go of whatever holds you back, your shame and apprehension, your denial or hopelessness. Get organized and move into action, move off of social media and build resistance in the real world.”

“I am heartened by the work we are accomplishing here,” he continues, “but we need allies all across our nation, particularly outside of liberal bastions like New York City, if we have any hope of fixing this mess.”

(Photo credit: Terri Wilder)

 

JIM PICKETT
Chicago, IL

crop-jim-pickettJim Pickett speaks for himself and not in any official capacity as Director of Prevention Advocacy and Gay Men’s Health at AIDS Foundation of Chicago. But when he does speak, he lets it rip.

“I plan to fight Trump every step of the way,” says Pickett. “I will never, ever, ever normalize this racist, misogynistic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT, anti-science, ignorant bully who lost the popular vote by close to three million and who colluded with Russia to help him get ‘elected.’”

“I will not sit on the sidelines and ‘give him a chance.’ There are no chances. We must mobilize and resist.”

Pickett points to the crucial importance of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as exhibit one. “Americans need the stability and security that quality, affordable health coverage provides to them and their families” he says. “No plan to repeal the ACA should strip away health coverage from the more than 22 million Americans who have accessed insurance because of this landmark legislation with an adequate plan to replace it.”

Pickett has one word of advice for anyone looking to jump into the fray. “Focus, focus, focus,” he advises. “There are so many outrages, so much to be angry about, so much to do. Trump and his minions would like nothing better than to see us running around all over the place, scrambled and uncoordinated. Don’t give them that advantage. So, choose an issue area and focus your energies there. I will focus on health care access and the ACA, as my organization will be doing.”

“Pick your issue and dig in deep. It will be easier said than done, but it is the only way.”

(Photo credit: Brian Solem)

 

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

Five Reasons ‘HIV Undetectable’ Must Equal ‘Untransmittable’

Thursday, December 15th, 2016

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Image detail from AIDES France Révélation campaign about being undetectable.

 

“We are not dirty, we are not a threat, and we are not disease vectors. In fact, we are the solution. People living with HIV who achieve viral suppression, who become undetectable, are the solution to the end of new HIV infections in the United States… When we look back 20 years from now we’re going to judge ourselves in terms of how well we responded to this opportunity.”

Dr. Rich Wolitski, person living with HIV and Acting Director for the Office for HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

 

When Dr. Wolitski delivered his speech at the closing plenary of the 2016 United States Conference on AIDS (USCA), he received a standing ovation. He was referring to this year’s newest findings of HPTN 052 and the PARTNER study, which showed that people living with HIV who are undetectable are not transmitting the virus to their negative partners.

How wonderful that something many of us have assumed for years has been proven to be true. So now we can spread the news and encourage people with HIV to seek treatment and stick with it. And hey, there’s nothing like a little intercourse a la natural with your partner to reward yourself for being undetectable, am I right?

Not so fast. There is some strong resistance to a message that equates undetectable to untransmittable, and it’s not coming from where you might think.

Here are five reasons why this breakthrough message matters.

1. The science is solid.

The PARTNER Study has recorded 58,000 acts of penetrative sex without condoms between 1,000 positive/negative couples, in which the HIV positive partner had an undetectable viral load. There were no infections between the couples. Not a single one. The same results were reported in the HPTN 052 study and the empirical evidence to date. As Dr. Wolitiski said in his USCA speech, “this is a game-changing moment in the history of the HIV epidemic.”

Resistance to the conclusion that undetectable people pose no risk of infection has been either a matter of scientific data scrutiny or a fear that people may not actually be undetectable when they think they are. Let’s break that down.

A review of the argument against saying “zero risk” is enough to make you cross-eyed. It is based on the premise that nothing, really, is without risk. Detractors of the non-infectious message will calmly explain the perils of placing any risk at zero and then hypnotize you with statistical origami. Suffice it to say that proving zero risk is statistically impossible. You risked electrocution by turning on your device to read this article.

There will always be somebody who claims a terminally unique HIV infection, even if the precise circumstances of their claim may be murky. Weird things happen. Some folks are convinced that people who drink alcohol sometimes spontaneously combust. But you don’t see warning labels about it slapped on every bottle of Wild Turkey by overzealous worrywarts.

And yes, there is the possibility that someone might develop a viral load if they are not adherent to treatment and then transmit the virus. But the message here is that people who are undetectable cannot transmit HIV. If you stay on treatment and are undetectable you will not transmit HIV. Can we please celebrate this simple fact without remote qualifiers?

It is also important to note that a Canadian consensus statement concluded that any “viral blips” or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were “not significant” to HIV transmission when someone is undetectable.

2. Major health experts are on board (but not all community leaders).

Public health leaders, from the New York Department of Health to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have embraced these findings and its meaning to people with HIV, while community advocates and organizations have been reluctant to get on board, citing a theoretical risk of infection. Or maybe they consider changing their fact sheets and web sites an enormous bother.

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Bruce Richman of Prevention Access Campaign. (Sean Black / Courtesy A&U Magazine)

The Prevention Action Campaign and their seminal message “U=U” (undetectable equals untransmittable) was founded on the energetic efforts of a man named Bruce Richman. He entered the HIV advocacy scene a few years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, carrying aloft the banner of undetectability. Richman gathered signatures of health experts the world over for a consensus statement about the research, while cajoling every U.S. HIV organization in sight to adopt language that removes the stigma of infectiousness from people who are undetectable.

My review of the web sites and statements from major HIV organizations includes no strong language about undetectable people not transmitting HIV. Worse, some exaggerate the risk from those who are undetectable. How could such a new research breakthrough be met with such ignorance and apathy by our own leaders? I will defer shaming anyone by name while they take a little time to update their official language. (Notable exceptions to this sad rule include work going on in the United Kingdom and France that flatly states that undetectable means non-infectious.)

This skepticism from our own community reduces people with HIV, again, to a problem that must be managed. It suggests that those of us who have achieved undetectability don’t have the judgment to keep taking our medications or to see our physician regularly to be sure our treatment plan is still effective. It keeps us in the role of untrustworthy victims unable to make decisions that will keep the rest of you safe from us. What infuriating, stigmatizing nonsense.

 

3. This is about HIV. Only HIV.

Auxiliary issues often creep into this debate that may be well-meaning but only muddy the waters, such as the fear that promoting the message of non-infectiousness will lead to more sexually transmitted infections (STIs) because of the freedom it allows (see also: critics of PrEP, the birth control pill, and any other vehicle that might lead to unbridled sexual pleasure).

Rates of STIs — which were on the rise before the advent of PrEP or news from the PARTNER Study — are deeply concerning but ultimately tangential. We are in desperate need of comprehensive sexual health programs, to be sure, but in this instance I feel compelled to “kill the alligator closest to the boat.” This is about being HIV undetectable, not syphilis impermeable. Being undetectable will not prevent other infections or address promiscuity or remove stubborn stains.

Advocates are also sensitive to the continued compartmentalization of our community, between those who are positive or not, who is on PrEP or not, and now, between those with HIV who are able to achieve viral suppression and those who cannot, despite their best efforts. I sympathize with this new divide among HIV positive people but believe the greater good – removing shame and stigma from those who are not capable of transmitting – shouldn’t be downplayed. All HIV positive people of good will can and should celebrate this development, regardless of their own viral load.

4. This is a major victory for HIV criminalization reform.

Terribly important work is being done to repeal and reform HIV criminalization laws that prosecute people with HIV for not disclosing their status to a sexual partner. Our defense is often led by all of this growing science showing that the defendant never posed a risk to their partner in the first place, due to their use of protection or the fact the defendant was undetectable and therefore rendered harmless.

Continued assertions that undetectable people might pose a risk to others could be used in the courtroom against people with HIV.  Imagine the glee with which prosecutors might explain to a jury that “zero risk” is impossible and defendant Joe Positive posed a threat, however small, to his sexual partner and should be jailed for it. Put obscure doubts into the heads of a jury, and another person with HIV gets a 30-year sentence for daring to have sex at all.

5. This profoundly changes how people with HIV view themselves.

Internalizing the fact that I cannot transmit HIV to anyone has had an effect on me that is difficult to describe. I can only liken it to the day the Supreme Court voted for marriage equality. Intellectually, I knew I was a gay man and a worthy human being. But on the day of the court’s decision I walked through the streets of my neighborhood with my head held higher. Something had changed. I felt whole.

In my thirty-five years living with HIV, I have never felt exactly that way. I deserve to. And so do millions of other people with HIV.

Of all the arguments to adopt the message that undetectable people cannot transmit HIV, that enhanced feeling of self-worth may be the most important reason of them all.

Mark

(And now, only days after the posting of this piece, Housing Works has become the first HIV organization in the U.S. to come out explicitly with a #UequalsU message. It is just the kind of leadership I have come to expect from Housing Works.)

ALSO…

holiday-spectacularHave you seen the My Fabulous Disease Holiday Spectacular? I love to share it each year, just like the Grinch and Charlie Brown television specials. Not only does this video blog have Santa and cookies and even a touch of drag, it introduces you to most of my family, who discuss candidly what it has been like to love someone living with HIV. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’s like a warm visit home. Check it out on Youtube here.

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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 8 Comments »

New Short Film Unmasks Fear Behind HIV Criminalization

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

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The making of the new short documentary, HIV Criminalization: Masking Fear and Discrimination, began in exactly the right place: with people living with HIV themselves, and their personal stories of being prosecuted because of their HIV status.

Sean Strub, founder of The Sero Project, had taped interviews with nearly a dozen people from across the country who had been accused of violating State statutes about HIV disclosure. Some had served time. One of them is in jail, serving a sentence of thirty years.

It was my privilege to assist documentary filmmaker Christopher King (no relation) in creating this short film, with the interviews with people with HIV as a starting point. Masking Fear and Discrimination is an excellent primer on the issue. Please watch it.

 

HIV criminalization feels very much like unfinished business for me as an HIV advocate. How in the world can we turn our backs on those who face jail time because they live in a society in which they are so feared and stigmatized that they find it difficult to disclose their status to their partner? And if they pose no risk to their sexual partners – because they are not having risky sex, or are using protection, or are undetectable and therefore non-infectious – why are there laws commanding them to disclose their status anyway?

People often have a visceral reaction to this issue, and I get that. But the more people know about the way in which these laws are being applied – as a tool of racism and homophobia, and to prevent people with HIV from daring to have sex at all – then the more likely they are to support the repeal of these laws.

Watch the film. Decide for yourself. And please share your views.

Thanks for watching, and please be well.

Mark

Masking Fear and Discrimination was made possible through the support of the H. van Ameringen Foundation, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and the Gill Foundation.
The short film features Cecilia Chung, SERO’s board chair and senior strategist at the Transgender Law Center (San Francisco, CA), Venita Ray, attorney and advocate at Legacy Community Health Services (Houston, TX), Anthony Mills, MD (Los Angeles, CA), and Justin Rush, director of public policy at the True Colors Fund and formerly a manager of policy and legislative affairs at the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (Washington, DC).

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

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 »

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.

home-testing-cdc-still

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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My Attitude Adjustment About Sex, Gonorrhea, and Advocacy

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

Concentrated young man with his head melting in tangled lines

Amidst the happy haze of good news about the efficacy of PrEP in preventing new HIV infections and the growing consensus that people living with HIV who are undetectable are not infectious, there is troubling news from the CDC in two new reports about the golden oldies of sexually transmitted infections (STI’s): rates of syphilis are on the rise and antibiotics to treat gonorrhea may be nearing the end of their usefulness.

The news underscores a simmering tension between those of us who celebrate the lowered risk of HIV infection – and the diminishing role condoms might play in HIV prevention during this new era of PrEP and being undetectable – and the rise in reported cases of syphilis and gonorrhea. And I don’t mind being the first to call myself out.

RETHINKING MY GONORRHEA NOSTALGIA

In my cheeky post from last year, “My Gonorrhea Nostalgia,” I argued that what was once a simple rite of passage for many gay men – finding yourself at a clinic with the clap – has been judged and scorned so harshly these days that it has “raised the bar” on what we consider to be acceptable gay sexual behavior. From that piece:

When did avoiding every possible STI become the new goal for gay sexual behavior? Syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea are all easily treated and cured. Scary campfire tales of a spreading superbug impervious to all treatment have failed to materialize. The very idea of getting The Clap again just makes me feel nostalgic.

No longer is avoiding HIV the prime objective; we must also now use a condom every time so that we are never exposed to, well, whatever. How many hoops must we jump through in order to fuck in a pleasurable way? We can’t win for losing.

While I stand by the basic tenants of my rant – gay men are held to a higher standard because we are viewed as sexual outlaws – new data runs counter to my assertion that STI’s are “easily treated and cured.”

HAZARDS AHEAD?

“If current trends continue, strains of gonorrhea could become resistant to all available antibiotics, putting the 800,000 Americans who contract the sexually transmitted infection (STI) annually at risk of an untreatable case,” writes Ben Ryan for POZ, citing a new CDC report. He goes on to explain that at least one cluster of gonorrhea cases has begun to evade our current treatment arsenal and that’s why the CDC is sounding the alarm about it.

While gonorrhea remains universally treatable, there is evidence of a weakening of current treatments, and there are no other approved medications in the wings. Should untreatable strains begin to circulate, we may soon find ourselves without an effective solution, although a new drug in clinical trials is showing some promise.

Meanwhile, yet another new CDC report, this one charting syphilis cases by State, reinforces data that syphilis cases have spiked 15%. In the State-by-State comparison, a CDC graph shows the largest increases are mostly located – you guessed it – in the South (congrats on your win, North Carolina, although your victory is a hollow one since Georgia, the perennial favorite State for syphilis, is not included for lack of reporting data). The data also indicates an increase in syphilis diagnosis among gay men that has persisted since the year 2000.

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It isn’t clear from the CDC report whether an increase in syphilis screening might account for the increase in reported syphilis cases. But still. “Although we have been treating syphilis effectively with penicillin for decades,” said CDC epidemiologist Cyprian Wejnert, the presenter of the screening data, “the risks of not being treated include visual impairment, damage to the nervous system, and stroke.”

TWO HIV ADVOCACY CAMPS OFTEN AT ODDS

And herein lies the tension. There are two distinct schools of thought on modern gay sexual politics and HIV, and too often they are loathe to overlap.

First, there are those, like me, who are thrilled that after a generation of mortal fear there are now ways for us to have pleasurable sex without condoms that does not pose a risk of HIV infection. It is just that sense of liberation that has propelled much of my writing, such as “Your Mother Liked It Bareback,” and it has led to a welcome increase in conversations about the value of sexual pleasure.

And then, there are those who have been more cautious, pointing out the risk of STI’s in general and among those using PrEP in particular. This has led to some acrimony. POZ science writer Ben Ryan, who has written quite a lot about PrEP, was blocked from the highly influential “PrEP Facts” Facebook page earlier this year for not adhering to group guidelines. Ryan had previously posted numerous articles that have taken a more circumspect view of PrEP or have reported on the prevalence of STI’s, and his work continues to be posted and discussed in the group.

The new CDC articles on gonorrhea and syphilis do not correlate the increase in STI’s to those using PrEP or to those who may have eschewed condoms because they are HIV undetectable. But that doesn’t mean that people on both sides of a widening chasm between the cautious and the sex-positive won’t try to score points from the CDC report or attempt to dissect its accuracy. Advocates trying to adhere to a singular message can be touchy. Been there, wrote that.

As for me, I’ll switch to the combination platter, thanks. While I will continue to celebrate the breakthroughs that have given us more options to “fuck without fear,” as the notable and quotable PrEP advocate Damon Jacobs likes to say, I’m going to dial back my cavalier posture about the risk of being infected with an STI. In light of mounting data on STI’s, some of my own past writing makes me cringe.

The only constant in the world of HIV is change. I remember when taking an HIV test was politically incorrect, when I took AZT every four hours and, more recently, when I believed a simple case of gonorrhea was worthy of clever mirth. I’ve had an attitude adjustment.

While catching the clap might have once been an amusing rite of passage to me, it can have real and very serious consequences for someone else.

Mark

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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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Follow My Blogs from AIDS2016 in Durban South Africa!

Monday, July 18th, 2016

Mark Theo AIDS2016 crop

Me and my camera man Theo Tsipiras, an HIV advocate living in Melbourne.

(UPDATE: See all of my video blogs from AIDS2016 right here.)

Conference coverage might just be the most enjoyable aspect of blogging for me. There’s nothing like capturing a protest breaking out, or the emotions of advocates from struggling countries, or a drag queen on stilts handing out condoms. I’ve never met an eye-boggling sight that I didn’t love – and put on camera.

My coverage of the international AIDS conference (AIDS2016) in Durban, South Africa is happening right now. I am in Durban, scurrying about the conference with other advocates from around the globe, and my primary purpose is to give you the feeling that you are right there at my side.

MSMGF logo

My AIDS2016 coverage is sponsored by MSMGF.org.

This year I am proud to be sponsored by The Global Forum of MSM and HIV (MSMGF). My coverage can be viewed on the site that birthed my own blog, TheBody.com, and at MSMGF.org. Queerty will step also step in and feature at least one of my video reports.

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My coverage can also be viewed right here on TheBody.com.

My Australian camera man Theo Tsipiras and I will capture the human stories that make the conference so compelling. That isn’t to say we won’t include breaking stories about research. I have no problem rushing a scientist and getting him to explain the latest news to me. I just want to be sure he does it in a way that makes sense to everyone back home.

I will admit to it being exhausting. We’re filming morning to evening every day, and then I’m editing footage all night to produce the video for the day. It’s a diet of pure adrenaline. But how can I not do this? What a joy and a privilege it is for me to be active and engaged, after so many years, and bringing these people and their stories to life.

Thanks for checking out my video coverage at the links above, and please be well.

Mark

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

Surviving Life Itself: Reflections of a Longtime Survivor

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

surviving life artwork

The young woman sitting across from me on the bus is in her mid-20s. She turns to her companion and her voice grows serious.

“I know someone who died,” she says in the hushed tone reserved for tales of mortality. Her friend looks up from his phone. “He was a good friend of my brother,” she goes on. “He was killed in a motorcycle accident a few months ago. It was just awful.” As her friend offers words of comfort, my own thoughts produce a rueful smile and a nagging question.

Just one? You know just one person who died?

By the time I was her age, death in my social circle was so commonplace the body count approached the toll of a commercial airline tragedy.

I listen as the woman reverently shares the details of the accident, of the shock waves that surged through the family, of what the dead friend was like and who freaked out at his funeral. And then a bittersweet realization strikes me.

The friend she lost has a story of his very own. It is the chronicle of one tragic death, with all of its intimate details and reverberations. His story will be repeated by the young woman for years, and by her brother and by the remaining loved ones of the absent friend. And they will grieve and remember this individual death and grant it the weight of a rare tragedy.

***
I didn’t get many chances to do that, living as a young gay man in Los Angeles in the 1980s. There were very few singular deaths. It seemed like everyone was doing it. And among them, a dozen friends close to me, struck down within months of one another, with whom I shared a history of youthful secrets, joys and indiscretions, never to be spoken between us again.

Already I have indulged in a regrettable pastime that aggravates me when others pander to it. I am counting my lost friends like selfishly guarded chips in a morbid poker game, claiming my grief as if the high tally amplifies the legitimacy of my loss. There is no hierarchy of misery. The death of one person close to you is quite enough.

And yet there are harrowing, undeniable moments from my past, drawn from 30 years living with HIV, that have shaped my attitudes and the senseless tragedies that befall us. I can conjure them but I must do it deliberately, for they are held captive in secluded corners of my mind and I release them with great caution. Perhaps now is the right time to unlock a few of those images.

The fluids in Lesley’s dying body percolating like a coffee maker as we stood at his bedside awaiting his last breath. The anguished admission by my brother, Richard, that he helped his critically ill lover swallow a deadly, Seconal-laced cocktail in order for him to die on his own terms and avoid the final indignities of AIDS. My visit to Pablo in intensive care during his pitiful throes of dementia, nodding my head reassuringly as I tried to decipher his final, incoherent pleas.

They are a litany of despair, these heartrending tales, but I feel compelled to reveal them as part of another common exercise: to authenticate my history as a “long-term survivor.” I have misgivings about that unsettling designation because it doesn’t speak to my other, parallel life experiences and it suggests a dismissal of my relevance in the here and now.

***
In the decades since those sorrowful days, I have faced a host of perilous circumstances apart from AIDS, including a car crash, drug addiction, serious medical procedures and weapons pointed in my direction. Like everyone else, positive and negative alike, I am a survivor of life itself.

That life has included falling in love, changing careers, teasing my friends, watching my cats wrestle one another, and looking forward to whatever lies ahead with a deep sense of gratitude and joyful anticipation.

And it is this prism—one that includes AIDS as only a segment of my life—through which I view the world today. My status as a long-term HIV survivor does not make me a champion or a museum piece to be examined and admired. I am a man in the prime of his life. My age and maturity guide me, not the virus that has failed miserably to kill me.

The grief-stricken young man I once was held no clue about the mystifying speed with which time passes. The swift interval between the early days of AIDS and merciful treatment breakthroughs confounds me even now. Suddenly I blinked, and when I opened my eyes I was 40 years old and the world was a far different place.

***
Many of us remember that new world, when people with AIDS were saved by a miraculous “cocktail” of new medications. Living with HIV before the mid-1990s, when these medications were introduced, has become the popular line of demarcation for entry into the fellowship of long-term survivors.

My work in HIV advocacy continued during this time while others retreated to lives away from daily reminders of the epidemic. I did not fault them for that, in fact I envied them, but the army of our earliest activists, forged in the first years of the plague, had diminished.

By then, women and people of color had gained more traction and acknowledgment in the HIV arena, though without the national fervor or the generous support enjoyed by the original, largely gay agencies.

It was a time of such hope and encouraging progress, but if you scratched the surface of these victories you found they were dependent on privilege, money and access. Deaths continued unabated behind a dark curtain of racism and poverty.

The gay community began to avert its eyes from the continued infections of people unlike ourselves, and I joined many other exhausted activists who abandoned town hall forums devoted to HIV for the celebratory relief of the dance floor. Massive circuit party events became a vibrant diversion, summoning revelers by promoting their dubious contributions to AIDS service organizations. After a generation of relentless mortality I felt entitled to the party, to the steroids and the gym membership and the body-thumping beats of house music.

That is, until the festivities morphed into drug-fueled bacchanalias that required ambulances with the same regularity that had once been needed at AIDS hospices. I fell victim to their excesses, and my drug addiction and recovery process removed me from HIV advocacy for the next several years.

***
I blinked again and now find myself here, sitting in my home office as a man in his 50s. My workspace is populated with relics of the epidemic, the walls filled with posters from AIDS Walks and photos of protests and triumphant arrests. A vast collection of name badges from AIDS conferences are strung from a single hook in an enormous, colorful bouquet. And everywhere around me are reminders of the missing. Pictures of friends whose faces will not age. Borrowed sweaters in the closet that need never be returned.

They comfort me, these tangible reminders of strife, victory, love and loss. They help me embrace and appreciate my life history. Perhaps I don’t find the title of “long-term survivor” so unsettling after all. There are worse things.

Most of all, the trauma that had once consumed me is now shrouded in the fog of a fading dream.

What remains are the wondrous developments of the present, like treatments that have also rendered people with HIV non-infectious and the amazing potential of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a pill to prevent someone from contracting the virus. The advent of PrEP is the most significant prevention advancement in a generation. It is just the kind of miracle we once prayed for as we sat silently in pews at memorial services.

But astoundingly, these developments have been nearly as controversial as they have been celebrated.

There are thoughtful conversations about the cultural and medical effects of PrEP. What a shame they are being drowned out by clanging arguments about who is using condoms and who is not. The ludicrous chatter about who is a whore, a role model or a rebel foolishly reduces human sexual behavior to a problem that must be solved. Much of it seeks to impose sexual sterility in the way homophobic conservatives once denounced all gay bedroom antics, whether they were risky or not.

I remember what sex was like before gay men started using condoms. It was glorious. It still is. I always thought that finding our way back to enjoying sex without a barrier was kind of the point. Even the popular slang for sex without condoms, “barebacking,” evokes some kind of deviant sexual pathology. The entire history of human sexuality would suggest otherwise.

I watch the absurd finger-pointing today, the naïve segregation of positive and negative, the lack of empathy granted to human failings, the tendency of the newly infected to call the police before they call a doctor, the fracturing of the advocacy efforts built over decades, and I weep for the community we once were.

***
Our hand-wringing over how to engage young people bemuses me, particularly our morbid fascination with aggressively foisting upon them the horrors we once endured, as if clubbing them with fear will somehow make them rethink their youthful transgressions. Our heartbreaking past is important history that should be preserved. It is not a prevention strategy.

Trying to imprint our life lessons on the young is a fool’s errand practiced without effect for millennia. I have never walked up to anyone who served in Vietnam and asked him to sit down and tell me all about it. I may respect the elderly soldiers in Veterans Day parades, but whatever post-traumatic disorders or multiple losses we may share fail to unite us. I watch them roll by in wheelchairs, festooned with medals and shriveled into nothingness, and then I have the audacity to wonder why younger gay men don’t consider my life experiences relevant.

Our influence as long-term survivors may be limited, but we can find meaning and engagement as cultural elders and mentors. To whatever degree younger people are receptive, we have so much to offer about the nuances of treatment, the various side effects and the failings of the pharmaceutical complex that we have rallied against so effectively through the years.

Regardless, nothing should deter us from being of service to one another. We must support the emerging networks of other survivors and work to find solace in our shared history. We are a displaced segment of a community that once ministered to us. Our bond is vital to finding solutions to the issues we face as an aging population.

As wearying as our battles have been, as unwelcome as we may sometimes feel in the modern advocacy movement, we have plenty to contribute. We had better do it while we still can.

I am sensitive to the passage of time because I have seen lives with great promise left unfulfilled. I may no longer fear dying, but I am sorely afraid of not taking full advantage of these precious additional years that were once unimaginable. Regrets, the things unsaid and undone, are what frighten me and urge me onward.

The mysteries of life and time will be revealed in due course: to the woman on the bus grieving her singular loss, to those who would howl at the moon over behaviors they do not understand, to survivors grappling with the meaning of tragedy, to young people negotiating the sexual terrain, to you and to me and to all the rest.

Enlightenment awaits. All we have to do is blink.

Mark

(This essay appeared in the June, 2015 issue of POZ Magazine and is shared with their permission. Today is HIV Long-Term Survivor Awareness Day.)

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The Nearly Naked AIDS Advocate

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Josh Green and cast, from Broadway Bares 2015 (credit: Benjamin Ryan)

Josh Green and cast, from Broadway Bares 2015 (credit: Benjamin Ryan)

When Benjamin “Ben” Ryan began taking dance classes ten years ago, the personal venture was a complete whim. After all, he was in his late twenties at the time – ancient for a beginning dancer – and by his own admission, was “just awful” for the first few years of classes. And nothing about his vocation as a writer specializing in the science of HIV suggested that Gene Kelly was trapped inside.

Cue the victorious final production number of your favorite musical. Not only did Ben get better – a whole lot better – he was cast in the spectacular HIV fundraiser Broadway Bares seven years ago and each year since, hoofing alongside actual Broadway dancers. Performers can also raise money through the event’s “Stripathon” page, through which Ben has raised more than $80,000 for beneficiary Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (you can visit Ben’s stripathon page here and add to that impressive tally).

Oh, and Ben Ryan has done all of this while wearing very, very little on stage.

When the curtain rises for “On Demand,” the newest Broadway Bares show to be performed in New York City on June 19th, Ben will be back, appearing for a third time in the opening number. With its generous blend of almost-and-sometimes-totally-naked men and women, celebrity cameos, and risqué burlesque, the show is sure to add significant funds to the $14 million the event has raised to date for people living with HIV and other health initiatives. For Ben, it’s all an unlikely dream come true.

“For the last 15 years,” Ben said, “I’ve written about the HIV epidemic as a reporter.” He currently covers science as editor-at-large for POZ Magazine, and getting his facts straight is incredibly important to him — especially when every detail of each new study is parsed and debated online. “The way I make sure my back is covered is I fact check like crazy,” he said. “Even one word can change the meaning of something. If I do get something wrong, I’m really upset. I’m a perfectionist.”

Those same qualities have served him well as a late-blooming dancer. When he started out, “I was at the rock bottom of my dance class with a bunch of kids,” Ben said. “Even my teacher made fun of me. Until she didn’t.” He still finds it hard to believe he now shares the stage every year with Broadway professionals.

But what must the scene be like backstage, with all that naked flesh running around? “Most of the guys in the show are really friendly,” Ben said coyly. (For more visual information on the scene backstage, check out Ben’s own photography page for images of all the action behind the curtain. You’re welcome.)

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Ben Ryan and Laverne Cox backstage during Broadway Bares 2015.

Ben has nothing but love for special guest performers like Laverne Cox and Judith Light. “The whole room exploded at rehearsal last year when they announced that Laverne would perform,” he said. “She was such a darling, always hanging out with everyone. And Judith will just wander around backstage with this amazing grin on her face. She gives a speech at the end of the show that always gives me goosebumps.”

Star power is great, but nothing beats a volunteer like Ben who knows how to raise money. “Ben is not content to take the stage in bare-bottomed pride,” said Tom Viola, the highly regarded director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “He raised $17,346 just last year and was named Mr. Stripathon.” Tom also credits Ben with helping to craft HIV prevention and treatment messages that are shared with the entire company each year, “so everyone associated with the production understands how to take care of themselves and each other.”

Ben Ryan is named Mr. Stripathon at Broadways Bares 2015

Ben Ryan is named Mr. Stripathon at Broadways Bares 2015

Amidst all the revealing fun, Ben knows Broadway Bares isn’t simply being titillating for its own sake. “Ultimately, the show is a celebration of the body,” he said. “We harken back to a time when we were afraid to touch each other, so to celebrate our sexuality is a profound thing. That, as opposed to HIV stigma and anxiety about sex and transmitting disease.”

Ben also admits that the show is a nice escape from his more cerebral work in HIV science. “It’s so much fun to be silly and outrageous,” he said. “I wanted to be involved in an event that I thought was the most exciting thing in New York City. And I am!”

Mark

(Ben’s fund raising page for Broadway Bares is here.)

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