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This Teenage Couple Will School You Now

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When Chanse, a 19-year-old gay man living in Shreveport, Louisiana, tested HIV positive a few months ago, his mother reacted with understandable emotion and concern. And then she did something both odd and beautiful: she threw Chanse a coming out party.

"We had a couple of dozen family members and friends there," Chanse told me during my recent visit to my hometown. "And halfway through the party we started pinning red ribbons on everyone. They didn't know what to make of it."

Josh ChanseHis mother then called the group to attention and said she had an important announcement to make. "She wanted everyone to know that something had happened and I would need their support," he said. "And then she told them that I had tested positive and that she loves me."

The response from the party attendees was immediate and moving. There were tears, yes, but they also congratulated Chanse for taking charge of his health and starting treatment. Since then, several family members have begun to volunteer for The Philadelphia Center, the local HIV services agency where Chanse was tested and participates in ongoing wellness programs.

HIV continues to devastate the South with alarming infection rates. One might assume that in the most stubborn of Red States, gay men have lives of rejection and misery, that they are apathetic about HIV, that they are ignorant about seeking treatment or accessing prevention strategies such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), or that living as a gay teenager brings so many challenges that HIV falls far down the ladder of priorities.

That is clearly not the case for Chanse or for his boyfriend Josh, also 19 years old, who both swept into action when Chanse tested positive and, in another room of the agency, Josh learned he was HIV negative.

"I told him right away that I wouldn't leave him," said Josh. "We cried in the hallways for a few minutes, and then we both wanted to know right away what to do about it. One of the men at the agency, Eric Evans, told me about PrEP. I did some research and knew I wanted to start taking it."

I am certainly guilty of making assumptions about the engagement of young gay men in the South. Having grown up in Shreveport, I assigned the same prejudices to the community that I endured when I came bursting out of the closet as a teenager in 1978. But Chanse and Josh were quick to correct my outdated notions.

"We have plenty of friends," Chanse told me. "And we walk down the street holding hands. I can't speak for everyone, but it just hasn't been a problem for us."

Josh has been on PrEP for a month now, and his own choices defy nearly every contention made by critics of the prevention strategy. He is compliant, takes his daily pill on schedule, and hasn't missed a dose yet. He takes the medication within the context of a committed relationship, not as a license for promiscuity. And taking the prevention measure hasn't meant abandoning condoms.

"Why would we stop using condoms?" Josh asked. "I know Chanse will be undetectable soon since he just started treatment, and I know PrEP is protecting me. But we're also in the habit of using condoms every time. If we don't have them, then we do something else. It's just what makes us both comfortable, and we're going to keep doing things the same way we always have."

As a middle-aged HIV activist, I thought I had an understanding of what it means to be gay in Louisiana and the level of commitment among young gay men.

But I was wrong. I just got schooled by two teenagers.

Mark

(I wish to thank the very good people of Allied Media Productions in Shreveport, Louisiana, for sharing this interview clip with me. They are real public servants, producing video content for agencies like The Philadelphia Center and The Deaf Action Center.)

The Woman Behind the Poetry of Poz Artist Mary Bowman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They are my mother," she adds.

Mark

Dandelions

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

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!)



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