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When Friendship Bridges the Viral Divide

| 1 Comment
Lynne Rhys and I were never supposed to become friends. It was just too unlikely.

She is a divorced woman raising a teenaged daughter, and was barely aware of a "gay community" until she stepped tentatively out of the closet in midlife. She has a quiet and soft-spoken grace. She readily burdens the blame if it means saving your feelings. She's one of those people who apologize when I miss a turn while driving us somewhere, as if it must have been her fault.

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When she walked into an audition for a play I was directing a few years ago, she was certain she wasn't good enough, but her insecurity was unacceptable to her - the struggle between her ferocious talent and her painful modesty has been waged her entire life - and she gave an audition of such humanity and pathos that I changed the script to showcase her gifts.

Today, I am the closest friend she has ever known to have HIV. Her personal knowledge of the crisis was largely limited to watching it unfold on television and thinking that people treated "that young boy Ryan White really badly." So our friendship has meant lessons for her on t-cells, viral loads and why my medication bag is the same size as my gym bag. She listens and learns, and no longer believes that she must keep her distance when she has a cold or else I could die.

She has now had conversations with her daughter about safer sex, and then for good measure had the same conversation with her daughter's boyfriend.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked me to participate in their new campaign, "Let's Stop HIV Together," I was impressed with their concept of pairing people living with HIV with an HIV negative member of their support system. The message is clear: we all share a responsibility for curbing HIV infections and supporting each other, positive and negative. And I knew right away who my "negative" would be.

Lynne was flattered and then questioned my selection, certain I must have better options. I knew that the woman who modeled humility to me every day was my only choice, and I insisted. The campaign involved visiting a production facility complete with wardrobe decisions, make-up artists, a photo shoot and an interview on video with both of us. She felt like the Queen of Sheba. Watching her being fussed over was the very best part of the day.

In the photo of us, my cocksure grin and her enveloping embrace are the very essence of a friendship that I treasure deeply today. Seeing it in print has also brought to mind the many friends that came before Lynne who are now lost. But Lynne is not a placeholder and she is not a substitute. She is a gift of my survival, and the right friend at the right time to help me conduct my advancing years with more maturity than I might muster alone.


Moments after the photo was taken, Lynne slipped from the box on which she was standing and fell hard. Several of us rushed to help her, but she didn't fret or make a sound. That is, except to say "I'm sorry."

After a few days of pain, Lynne visited the doctor and discovered her foot was broken. "Why didn't you say something?" I asked her, disbelieving, when she admitted it was hurting that day during our video interview. "Because I was afraid they might stop," she said, "and I was having so much fun being with you."

Much has been written by me about the "viral divide" between those who are HIV positive and those who are not. But not today. Today, the CDC has a new campaign with hopes of bridging this divide. On one of their posters, Lynne Rhys is beaming beside me, luxuriating in the joy of friendship, and confident that she is right where she belongs.

And she doesn't look the least bit sorry.

Mark

(Please visit the Let's Stop HIV Together site, where you can watch other videos, download posters or other materials, and watch the campaign's public service announcement. Or join their Facebook page!)

(Video) The Powerful 'HIV is Not a Crime' Conference

| 1 Comment
The most powerful speaker at the recent "HIV is Not a Crime" conference was a man named Kerry Thomas. He held the crowd of more than 150 advocates spellbound for a full twenty minutes. And he never even took the stage.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark

My Phone Sex Career During the Dawn of AIDS

| 1 Comment
May is National Masturbation Month - Hurry, folks! Only a few days left to celebrate! -- and I will admit to feeling smug, because I have more experience with gay men masturbating than anyone else I know.

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During my years in Los Angeles in the 1980′s, I owned and operated Telerotic, a gay men's "phone fantasy" company. This was long before Grindr or Manhunt, or even the automated phone lines of the 90′s.  Instead, men called an 800 number and used a credit card to spend $40 on the man of their dreams, who would call them back after the charge was approved.

As a struggling young actor, I had begun this odd vocation by working for an outfit as one of their "fantasy callers." The company called me at home with the name and number of the customer and his fantasy man description, and I would assume the desired character and call him back.

My job was to sound credible in roles ranging from cocky Venice Beach bodybuilder to volunteer firefighter to leather daddy, and manipulate the customer toward the prime objective within the typical call duration of thirteen minutes. It helped if I could convince him that our connection was mutually mind-blowing to help ensure he would call again.

As it turns out, I had a way with words. After a few months learning the ropes I struck out on my own, and Telerotic was born.

Over the years of my vocation I spoke to thousands of men. Some of them faithfully requested me every week, uttering secrets to me they had never spoken aloud before. It was amazing insight into the realm of fantasy, loneliness and desire. It was also, quite literally, a social anthropologist's wet dream.

My customers were usually trapped in a life without a gay outlet. Some of them were in a straight marriage, but most of them lived in small towns and were helpless to locate male companionship. (Remember, this was the early 1980′s, which compared to the LGBT advances of today might as well have been the Old West).

Their desires were not so bizarre that they they had to resort to phone sex to speak of them. Their requests were simple and almost touchingly mundane. Touch me there. Let me tell you what I think about. Watch me do this. 

I learned a lot about what makes gay men tick. Yes, we have a size fixation. My clients wanted everything supersized, from muscles to dick to sexual prowess. But I soon realized that these were surface interests. They asked for what they saw in porn flicks, but it wasn't what ultimately satisfied them.

They wanted something bigger, more masculine, and better hung than themselves because it was their way of asking to be taken care of, to be released of their own worries and responsibilities and turn over the driving to someone else. Any of us can recognize that need, and the loving act we perform when we provide it to someone else.

Our chats were a lifeline to many of my regular customers. For those who didn't abruptly hang up after the sex talk had reached its conclusion, our pillow talk afterwards sometimes featured their achingly honest hopes and dreams. They would recount their loves lost or found, the pain of isolation and their dreams of having a life with the right man someday.

Occasionally their patronage would end after news of a potential boyfriend -- or resume when it didn't work out. Sometimes our calls ran long, as I gently led a faceless, suffering voice away from unexpected grief or embarrassed tears.

Truly revealing myself, however, was an occupational hazard I never risked. I held tight to the gravelly voice I maintained for our calls. I only responded as my adopted character might. Every orgasm of mine with a phone customer was earth shuddering, passionate, and entirely faked. No matter what intimacies they had the courage to share about themselves, they got nothing of the kind in return, whether they knew it or not. I simply wouldn't compromise my fantasy persona to admit I was actually a skinny redhead trying to make a buck in Hollywood.

As the AIDS headlines during that time increased, so did business. And at long last, something jolted me from my shallow priorities of phone sex profits.

I'd had enough of the charade. It was wearing on me, being taken into the confidence of all of these men and giving them bullshit in return. What was the satisfaction, much less the pride, in representing a bogus sexual ideal for the sake of my continued prosperity, in being an incredibly convincing lie?

Soon enough, I could no longer reconcile the dream world my phone calls inhabited with the encroaching nightmare of the very real AIDS crisis.

Maybe the end came when a customer, in the midst of our graphic call, helpfully offered to get a condom from the drawer so I could put it on. AIDS had permeated his psyche so completely it had pierced his very fantasies. His presence of mind to protect himself -- and by extension me, the phone whore on the other end of the line -- was a bittersweet gesture so filled with grace, and so steeped in the realities of the new epidemic, that it stopped me in my tracks and broke my cynical heart.

It wasn't long before I sold the company and ended my stint as a sexual entrepreneur. For a while I entertained friends with the most unusual sexual idiosyncracies that had once been shared with me by voices on the phone. But that exercise didn't feel comfortable for very long. It felt like betrayal.

Today, what I remember most is the sound of men chasing a glancing, counterfeit intimacy because it was all life would afford them, and hearing their desire for something lasting in life and their doubts about finding it.

And I am haunted, deeply and forever, by the sound of profound longing in their voices.

Mark

(This period of my life is covered in more detail in my book, A Place Like This.)

VIDEO: What Negative Men Really Think of POZ Guys

| 11 Comments

"Talk to me like you talk to your friends when no one is around."

 

That was my only request when I sat down with each of four HIV negative gay men to create a short film about their lives and attitudes (video below).

 

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They held back nothing, sharing details of their sex lives, their fears of becoming infected, and, perhaps most surprising, what they really think of HIV positive guys. I couldn't believe their candor, and have worked to distill two days of explicit conversations into ten minutes of brutal honesty (the language is sometimes NSFW).

 

They don't speak for every gay man, only for themselves, and the differences of opinion between them is really striking. It really is a snapshot of what it means to be a negative and sexually active gay man these days. No matter which of these men you might relate to the most, there's no doubt they are all just trying to carve out a satisfying sexual existence during a pretty confusing time.

 

I couldn't help thinking of The Golden Girls when I was editing, because all the archetypes are here: the reserved one, the sensible one, the endearing one, the man-eater. Just saying this makes me guilty of the very thing the video is meant to address: how easily we label ourselves and others, and how we try to assign the same perspective to entire groups of people.

 

I deliberately produced this without any particular context. No one is presented as right or wrong. It is meant to provide a forum for these men to speak their truth without interruption -- and perhaps help us see them as men stumbling through life as we all are, trying to make the best decisions they can with the information they have. I refuse to judge them for that.


 

If there is anything to be learned from this video, it is that there is no monolithic "HIV negative perspective." Gay men are far too diverse for that. That's a lesson our community seems to have to learn over and over again.

 

 

When People with HIV Became Suicide Bombers

| 5 Comments
Maybe we should blame the criminal prosecutions of people with HIV on the mythical legend of Gaetan Dugas, also known by his slanderous nickname, Patient Zero. Dugas was a gay flight attendant from Canada who, according to Randy Shilts' 1987 book And the Band Played On, was among the first people with HIV in the United States.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Mark

Will HIV Ever Be Safe Enough for You?

| 13 Comments
There is a classic episode of Oprah from 1987 that can still raise my blood pressure. That year, the tiny town of Williamson, West Virginia, became part of a national discussion about AIDS when Mike Sisco, who had returned to his home town to die of the disease, dared to step into a public pool.

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The community freakout was immediate. Sisco was quickly labeled a psychopath (rumors emerged accusing him of spitting into food at the grocery store), and the town pool was closed the next day to begin a Silkwood-style pressurized cleaning.

Soon thereafter, Oprah Winfrey arrived with cameras for a town hall forum about the incident.  Fear was the order of the day. "If there's just one chance in a million that somebody could catch that virus from a swimming pool," the town's mayor told Winfrey's worldwide audience, "I think I did the right thing."

Sure. Why not react in the most extreme way possible, if there is a chance in a million?

Williamson citizens were not swayed by health officials who calmly explained the established routes of HIV transmission and the impossibility of infection from a pool. "The doctors can say you can't get it this way," a woman countered, "but what if they come back someday and say, 'We were wrong?'"

Indeed. What if? If there's a chance in a million...?

That broadcast might have remained a sad footnote in HIV/AIDS history, an instructive example of people ignoring scientific fact to protect a satisfying fear, if history didn't enjoy repeating itself so much. Today, though, the willful ignorance isn't coming from uneducated residents of a southern town you can barely find on a map.

It's coming from gay men. And they are just as threatened, frightened, and dismissive of science as the townsfolk of Williamson were thirty years ago.

Recently, research known as The PARTNER Study was presented at the prestigious Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI). PARTNER proved something HIV advocates have long suspected: people with HIV with an undetectable viral load are not transmitting the virus to their partners. The study included nearly 800 couples, all involved in an HIV positive/negative relationship, gay and straight, with the positive partner maintaining an undetectable viral load. Over the course of two years, more than 30,000 sex acts were reported and documented (couples were chosen based on their tendency to have sex without condoms).

Not a single HIV transmission occurred during the study from someone with an undetectable viral load. If PARTNER had been researching a new medication, they would have stopped the trial and dispensed the drug immediately.

The PARTNER results bolster the prevention strategy known as "Treatment as Prevention" (TasP), meaning, a positive person on successful treatment prevents new infections. To date, there is not a single confirmed report of someone with an undetectable viral load infecting someone else, in studies or in real life.

Just don't tell that to a sizable contingent of skeptical gay men, many of whom took to their keyboards to dismiss the PARTNER findings. Phrases like "false sense of security," "positive guys lie," "junk science," and "if there's even a small risk" appeared on Facebook postings and in web site comment sections. The people of Williamson must be slowly nodding their heads.

Resistance to the PARTNER study corresponds with stubborn doubts about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, or HIV negative people taking the drug Truvada to prevent infection). Although virtually every nervous argument against PrEP has been overruled by the facts, naysayers continue to either reject the evidence outright or make moral judgments about the sex lives of HIV negative gay men on PrEP.

Yes, there are unknowns. There always are when scientific studies meet the real world. And every strategy will not work for every person. But the vehement rejection of such profound breakthroughs suggests there is something more, something deeper, going on in the minds of gay men. What is it?

Our collective memories of AIDS horror are hard to shake, and that's a good place to start. On a gut level, any study suggesting that HIV could be neutralized is met with a weary doubt. Good news is no match for the enduring grief that has shadowed us for 30 years.

The PARTNER study also threatens the view that positive men are nothing more than risks that must be managed. The study kills the HIV positive boogeyman. It means positive gay men who know their status might actually care enough about their health to seek out care, get on treatment, and become undetectable. And, once the positive partner is no longer a particular danger, both partners would bear responsibility for their actions. What an enormous psychic change that would require in our community.

It's tough to do that when fear creeps in and "what if?" fantasy scenarios take hold. What if my partner missed a dose yesterday and, even though HIV meds stay in the bloodstream for extended periods, his viral load has inexplicably shot up? What if he isn't being truthful about his viral load? What if he doesn't know?

The greater threat, folks, isn't positive guys who think they are undetectable but are not. It's men who think they are HIV negative but are not. But we'd rather stay focused on the positive person being at fault, because, well, people with HIV lie a lot. We miss doses constantly because we have a death wish or we're too busy finding our next victim.

I have some "what if?" questions of my own. What if these unrealistic fears were meant to stigmatize and isolate HIV positive people? What if I am undetectable and feel no responsibility to discuss my status with a sex partner because I don't care to engage in a science lesson? What if everyone availed themselves to prevention options that worked best for them? What if my HIV status were none of your damn business?

These risks could be alleviated, of course, if everyone simply protected their own bodies when having sex with people they don't know or trust. But that would place an equal burden on negative men, and what a bother that is.  Better to leave that discomfort to those with HIV, vectors of disease that we are. Just consider us criminals, lying to you about our viral loads and spitting in the food in Williamson, just waiting to infect you when we get the chance.
 
As long as we're giving undue attention to fantasy scenarios we're not focused on the real threats. The rates of STD's are up. Young gay black men in the United States don't have proper access to healthcare and have infection rates worse than any developed country. Our community is plagued by  alcoholism, addiction, and mental illness. Do we want to debate established science or should we devote that energy to other challenges to gay men's health?

If you still have the arrogance to believe you could win the HIV Powerball Lottery and be the one person who gets infected in ways science has disproven, you're perfectly entitled to that point of view.

Here are some helpful instructions, however. Carefully step away from your computer and don't touch the cords because 50 people die of product related electrocutions each year. Walk slowly to your bedroom, being mindful of debris in your path because slip-and-falls kill 55 people every single day. Once there, refuse food or water because, well, you never know. Now slip into your bed of willful ignorance and try to make yourself comfortable.

The good people of Williamson are keeping a spot warm just for you.

Mark

p.s. In the time it took you to read this article, the number of people who were infected by someone with HIV who had no viral load was zero.


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