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Michael Loves Tyler: A Very Modern HIV Romance

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Tyler Helms won't stop teasing his boyfriend during our video chat interview. He fiddles with Michael's ear, or tickles his face, from his seat slightly behind him. No matter if Michael Lucas, adult film producer and PrEP user, is trying to make a point. The childish joy of a relatively new love is at play, and Tyler can't help himself. It's adorable and telling.

ML&TJHWe've been meaning to conduct the interview for months, but they wanted time to enjoy their budding relationship before discussing it publicly. That bud is now in full bloom, it would appear. They are both open and approachable, allowing me to get away with a lot of very personal questions.

Yes, there is the prurient intrigue of Michael being a famous gay porn star, and how that impacts their relationship. But what truly interests me is the fact they are engaged in the most modern of gay romances. It isn't simply because one of them is HIV positive and the other negative. It's about what they are doing about it. Between them, they are practicing both of the most exciting developments in HIV prevention of the last generation. They're an HIV prevention two-for-one.

"We're taking our time," Tyler says. But that's not keeping them from spending nearly every night together and constantly keeping in touch.

Their love affair elicits some interesting reactions among their friends. Some of them patronize Michael, as if being in a relationship with a man living with HIV was an act of charity. "People say, 'oh, good for you,' as if it's something special," says Michael. He shakes his head. "I'm not performing an heroic act."

"There's a whole lot more that needs to happen in our community," Tyler adds. He is a formidable advocate in his own right (he serves on the board of GMHC), but one whose visibility has risen further since his new relationship began. "We need to talk about the modern day face of HIV," he insists.

Tyler was infected in 2007, and it came as some surprise. "I was tested every three months and was in a committed relationship," he says. It is a common story, actually, because one of the leading risk factors of HIV infection is via a primary partner, such as a lover or fuck buddy.

Whatever the circumstances, Tyler is entirely at peace with it today. "I'm only on Atripla," he says, "and it made me crazy for a few months. But now I'm better than ever and have been undetectable for two years." Because Tyler is undetectable, research shows there is no real risk of transmitting HIV to his partner.

Treating people with HIV to reduce their virus to undetectable levels so they can't infect others is known as "Treatment as Prevention," or TasP, and it has become a majorpublic health strategy since studies proved its effectiveness.

On a personal level, "HIV is really a moot issue between us," Tyler says. The topic of HIV may be resolved between them, but that hasn't kept them both from discussing their sexual choices and risk strategies in very public forums.

Michael has been using PrEP for some time now, and has bartered his notoriety to voice his strong beliefs about it. For that matter, Michael has strong beliefs about a lot of things, including his unwavering support for Israel. He even produced the mainstream documentary, "Undressing Israel: Gay Men in the Promised Land."

"Oh yes," Tyler interjects slyly when that topic, and the views for which Michael has been both heralded and vilified, come up. "Do ask about Israel!" He grins at the more serious Michael, and pokes him again. It's hard to imagine anyone else who might get away with it, teasing Michael about his passions. But Michael takes it in affectionate stride and allows himself a grin of his own.

I turn to Michael's profession and ask about it gingerly, as if it's a careful secret or something. I really could use more experience speaking to porn stars.

Michael Lucas 5"I'm used to being defined as a porn star," Michael says easily. "I would not have the platform I have without that. My opinions would only be in the comments section. But I write under my own name, and I use my platform to discuss things I am passionate about. And I do my research."

That research is evident in a number of articles Michael has authored about his use ofPrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxisthrough the use of the medication Truvada on a daily basis. Research shows PrEP is effective in preventing transmission into the high 90% range, and there is an enormous pushamong community advocates for the adoption of PrEP for those at risk. It sits alongside TasP as the other most promising HIV prevention strategy -- one for those living with HIV and the other for those who are not -- and Michael appreciates the piece of mind it provides.

"People ask me all the time, 'are you nervous?' People of my generation saw the dying and I was always scared of becoming HIV positive," Michael says. "It was in the back of my mind all the time. So people ask that question, but it's only because they don't know the new data and research about PrEP."

His taking PrEP, though, actually has little to do with Michael's HIV positive boyfriend. "If I was only having sex with Tyler, I would not be taking PrEP," Michael says simply. "I know there is no way for a person who is undetectable to transmit to me. I believe in science."

Science aside, I have to ask Tyler how he feels about Michael occasionally stepping in front of the cameras for porn scenes. His response is without alarm or even a hint of jealousy. "I've never dated someone who does porn," he says, "but it's just not something I think about." It does come with plenty of assumptions from others, however.

"The most misunderstood thing about us," Tyler says, "is that people assume our relationship is purely sex-based. Some people don't understand it. They think Michael must have sex constantly, which is untrue."

"Most people I know have more sex than I do," Michael interjects. "With Grindr, people can have sex nonstop. I can't reach some of my friends anymore because they're on Grindr getting laid."

"Michael is rarely on set," adds Tyler. "His main job is the corporation." That company,Lucas Entertainment (NSFW), has become a leading adult film production outfit, and recently made the controversial change to produce gay porn without condoms, a reflection of Michael's belief in other prevention methods like PrEP and TasP.

"I recommend and talk to my actors about PrEP," he says. "I know a lot of people on it." While Michael has been quoted as saying that porn, bareback or not, is a fantasy intended only to help men get off, he certainly hasn't shied away from promoting options that make unprotected sex considerably safer.

So, somewhere along the road of their individual advocacy work, about a year ago, the two men and their respective prevention techniques ran across one another on Tinder, which seems almost quaint, and very of-the-moment. It wasn't a hookup.

"I liked his profile," says Michael, and he searches his phone and finds the wording of it. "It says he is 'a loyal and kind friend, passionate and selfless about a few things here and there.' There was maturity in that. No matter how much I'm attracted to someone, you have to be mature. That's Tyler."

They eye each other knowingly. "I believe it takes a lot of time to know a person," Michael says finally. "Don't confuse sexual attraction with real love."

Two men, engaged in their own intimacies while allowing their sexual choices to be laid bare for all to see. It can't always be comfortable for them.

It's usually a fool's errand to make assumptions about the private lives of public people, and the happy couple I have been watching in our video chat is no exception. You would probably get it wrong anyway, if you were to attempt to translate their public image -- the advocate living with HIV and the opinionated porn star provocateur -- into their authentic identities.

"I believe in love," Tyler says, and he stops tickling Michael's ear for a moment. He takes a look at the object of his new romance and smiles. "But I think Michael believes in love even more than me."

Mark

Why We Have to Share Our Pain

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I have twenty staples in my back holding an incision together. It hurts.

Just making that rather gruesome statement leaves me feeling conflicted. Yes, I want sympathy. Yes, this pain has been a constant companion for the last two months, from throwing out my back again to discovering from an MRI that a nerve was being crushed to a serious back surgery and then a slow recovery with more pain than I bargained for.

MRIMarkBut the self-indulgence bothers me. How can we possibly complain, about anything really, in relation to the trials of others?

It reminds me of the 1980's, when there were so many deaths from AIDS that we couldn't grieve properly for individuals losses. The problem with living during that time, and seeing such mortality, was that everyone was doing it. There was no room in our aching hearts to feel for them all. And how in the world was I supposed to feel sorry for myself, the one with HIV who was healthy and alive?

Soliciting sympathy is a perilous enterprise. I'm That Funny Guy with HIV. Revealing that I'm hurting and feeling miserable feels like I'm going off-script, that these words don't belong on this blog, that you'll see me as self-centered and a whiner.

The self-pity comes and goes, like the muscle spasms, like the ocean of pain that ebbs and flows, like my own attitude toward what has happened to me, or what is yet to come. It's a kaleidoscope of impatience and gratitude and hope and anger. So I don't talk about it much or I make light of it and try to keep things in perspective.

During my hospital stays these last weeks, I witnessed true medical emergencies, and saw other patients awaiting care who clearly were more frail, and more afraid, than I was. Meanwhile, I was cracking jokes with the nurses as I was being prepped for surgery and looking forward to the bliss of sedation, as any red-blooded addict in recovery would. I liked the attention, the drama of something serious underway, and how, at least for a few hours, it was all about me.

But then the surgery happened. And it isn't funny anymore. And I understand the legitimate use of oxycodone. And I can't put on my own socks.

So, for long periods of time during each day, I don't care about the suffering of others or the inhumanity of war or the latest HIV infection rates. Because what I am going through right now hurts. And it's really hard.

And I want a pain of my very own.

It is that very realization, of wanting to hold tight to something shared by no one else, that shatters my selfishness. Because if there's anything I believe in, it is that we heal and strengthen by sharing our common challenges. Whether it is living with HIV or a death in the family or a breakup, we get stronger when we talk about it.

I have a folder of special emails called my Rainy Day Folder, and in it are messages I have collected over the years. They are from people all over the world thanking me for a posting on my blog or sharing their own stories with me of stigma or fear or loneliness. And during this entire experience of mine, I have neglected to do the very thing for which that folder is intended: when I'm feeling low, read some of the emails and take heart that I'm making a difference by sharing my truth or offering advice.

So, this morning I opened the folder and began to read. And one piece of advice, something I offered repeatedly to others who were experiencing misfortune, stunned me with its precision and irony. "You are going to get through this," I said, more than once. "And one day you are going to be able to say to someone, 'I know what you're going through. I understand. And this is how I got to the other side.'"

Seeing the intersection of hurt and healing in those emails released something in me. The really good cry that followed was about me, and them, and all of us.

And I felt no pain at all.

Mark

----------------

Update: The staples have been removed, and the surgeon was practically gleeful during our appointment that I am walking nearly normally. He said that during surgery he was alarmed by the nerve damage and he feared for my mobility. So I dodged a bullet, thanks to taking fast action, getting good advice, and walking (or limping) through the experience. Thanks for all the kind messages of support. I'm on the mend.

Methtacular! The Musical Comedy... about Addiction?

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

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

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

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

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

Mark


When Friendship Bridges the Viral Divide

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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.

Lets Stop Lynne Mark.JPG
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

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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."

HIV cvanner crowd.jpg
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

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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.

Telerotic4-262x300.jpg
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.)



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