Approval Anonymous

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I don’t think I could ever be Kylie Minogue. This is, I can imagine, a relief to the actual Kylie Minogue as it means she won’t be out of a job nor will she have to partake in some weird body switching thing and then become a 45-year-old gay alcoholic. A little background information on where this thought comes from: On a recent sunny, Sunday afternoon, I was randomly thinking about Kylie, as one does. Mainly, I was thinking how fickle her widespread love and approval has been throughout her career, at least here in America anyway. It’s like every 15-20 years we as a country decide that we remember that Miss Minogue is, in fact, a legend. There were no shorter than 14 years in between when she charted on these shores with a cover of “The Loco-Motion” and her 2002 hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” This doesn’t mean Kylie wasn’t out there doing her thing and making delicious pop confections. It just means our dumb American asses were too stupid to notice. I obviously have a lot of strong feelings about this major pop culture travesty. Nevertheless, this neglect from an entire nation, this utter denial of approval is precisely the thing that would knock me out of the running for becoming Kylie’s replacement. The very idea of being ignored at the drop of a hat crushes me because at the end of the day I am an approval addict, through and through.

My first drug and my worst drug, approval is something I’ve chased long before I ever picked up a beer bottle or crammed a straw up my nose. Who knows where it started but in my mind I think I probably made somebody laugh when I was infant, saw how it made them happy and in turn made me happy and then we were off to the races. From applause garnered for impromptu lip sync performances to scratch and sniff “Grape Job!” stickers on spelling tests, I itched for validation. I ached for any sign that I was okay, that I wasn’t a misfit but I was as good as everyone else. All of this sounds pretty normal for  normal kids but when you have a brain like mine, the brain of an addict, there was never enough. There was never enough love, there was never enough approval and therefore I was never enough. This is some sad, sad business for a little kid but downright pathetic for a grown up person who should have gotten over that shit.

During active addiction, a phrase I love because it makes it sound like you snort cocaine while wearing track suits and terry cloth headbands, the hunt for approval worked in tandem with the hunt for booze or drugs quite nicely. People who I wanted to be my friends also did drugs and drank so I could relate with them on that level, take them hostage as friends and then ditch them when they wanted anything real, crazy shit like accountability or honesty, from me. We all spoke the language of more so that meant we all wanted more. More love, more drugs, more drinks, more cigarettes, more conflict. The approval I got from them was hollow and toxic. Each of us wanted to vampire hours and days off of one another and if you couldn’t meet the supply and demand, I’m sorry my dear, you’re up for elimination. We also gave each other approval for behavior and attitudes that the rest of the world wouldn’t put up with. Wanna have a three-way on a week night with people you met from Craigslist? We approve. Wanna verbally assassinate one of our other friends? We approve and we’ll you help you out with that. Wanna drink on a Wednesday afternoon? Not only do we approve but we’ll also meet you at the bar.

Outside of my drinking and using friends, I scored approval where I could, by telling jokes to customers at the restaurant where I used to work, by writing little articles that maybe people would read and pat me on the back for and by puffing up my meager accomplishments to family members or anybody who would listen. Obviously, we all sort of exist on this planet and hope that people will love and approve of us and I hear there are normal, healthy ways of seeking that out. It’s like Stonehenge. Like I know it exists but until I see it for myself, it’s just a thing people talk about. Without any real self-esteem, the never-ending quest for approval is fucking exhausting. Making people laugh, quick sexual encounters and-God it pains me to say this- likes and comments on social media posts all fill up that void inside of me. But without an internal approval supply, there won’t actually ever be enough.

This was abundantly clear when I got sober. More than a few times, I resorted to having quick hookups to make me feel better. I wasn’t looking for Mister Right. I was looking for Mister Make Me Not Feel My Life. Approval through sex is the fastest way for me to recognize that I do in fact treat this whole thing like I would any drug. The rush of having people, familiar, anonymous, in person or online, say we like you is one I’ve chased through sex clubs, bath houses, MySpace and Twitter alike. Once I got hip to the fact that I was using people and their approval just like I did substances even though I was physically sober, the jig was up. By the way, is the jig ever down? I guess we don’t talk about that because when it’s down it must mean everything is cool.

Anyway, I was gifted with a buttload of self-awareness in sobriety and that sucked. All of my addict ways of looking to, ahem, fill holes, as it were, became crystal clear. This meant I knew EXACTLY what my motivation was every time I obsessively checked Twitter to see if someone liked my tweets. This also meant I TOTALLY knew what I was doing when I flirted with random people. But mainly it meant the other places in my life where I acted like an addict were exposed and sooner or later would have to be looked at.I say “looked at” and not “dealt with” because the real deal here is that I have a lot of addictive behaviors still that don’t involve substances but are ones that quite frankly I don’t want to give up. They’re crutches to be sure. But if this need for approval and the rush get from it go away, then what?

Back in 2008, I was sober for a hot minute of five months. It was a real delight too. I was dry and not getting any help and still trying to blend in with my old drunk life. Gee, I wonder why that didn’t take? I kept trying to do things for myself and talk myself into feeling better but without any real self-esteem or support it was all sort of a lost cause. One day, I treated myself and went to a taping of the Craig Ferguson show. Since the universe has no chill when it comes to irony, it’s now hilarious to me that Ferguson is a longtime openly sober person. But I wasn’t headed there to hear him crack jokes about getting sober. I was there to see Kylie Minogue. In a super-rare stateside appearance, Kylie was performing a song from the criminally underrated effort X. The track “All I See” is an R&B tinged should’ve-been banger and one that lended itself to a great live performance.  In a packed studio audience filled with gays and girls, I felt one of the few moments of joy in that excruciatingly, uncomfortable five months. I relapsed not long after seeing Kylie, not that I blame her or anything. I hated myself and didn’t think I was worth getting better. No amount of imported Aussie glamour could change that.

While history will be the judge if Kylie pursuing a country tinted disco record was a good idea, I know for a fact that looking at my own addiction to approval is. With years sober under my belt at this point, I know that cracking open other parts of my life won’t kill me and I might even make me feel better. Sure, the mere idea of seeing how I’ve sought out approval like I used to drugs isn’t pretty.  People who know how to work on these, primarily my therapist have pointed out that if I’m validating my damn self and taking care of me, I might not obsessively seek out approval from everyone else. It’s an odd thing to ween myself of off though. Something in my mind tells me that this is one addiction I can keep. After all, nobody ever died or wound up in jail seeking out approval. Yet it’s something I’m looking at and hoping to let go because that’s what Kylie would do. I mean Kylie doesn’t give a crap if America likes her all the time. She’s a worldwide icon. She moves thru this world in her diminutive, sparkle-covered body with confidence and a badass survival spirit. She doesn’t need to troll for the approval of randoms. She’s Kylie Muthafucking Minogue. And at the end of the day, neither do I.

 

 

 

 

‘Strike a Pose’ Strikes a Chord

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“Look, around. Everywhere you turn is heartache. It’s everywhere that you go.” Madonna,Vogue, 1990

It wasn’t the scene of Madonna simulating oral sex on a bottle. Nor was it the many scenes of her openly discussing her love life. It wasn’t even the scene where she turned “Like a Virgin” into a masturbating with a crucifix blasphemy filled ballad that people were talking about when they talked about 1991’s Truth or Dare. It was the scene where two of her male dancers kissed each other while playing the game in the title of the film. The sight of two men making out on the big screen was so nonexistent in 1991 that jaws dropped around the world when the film was released. Now over 25 years later, the story behind that kiss as well as the all the dirt on the tour, the film and the diva herself can be seen in the new documentary Strike a Pose, now on Netflix.

As a Madonna fan, I’ve been dying to see Strike a Pose since I read about it last year. The main reason being that Truth or Dare was seminal in my life as a gay teen trying to find the courage to come out. What that seemingly simple scene did for me and others like me was show that who we were was okay. Madonna and her dancers were presenting a life where you could be yourself and not give a fuck about what people thought. Sure sounded good to me, the terminally effeminate and unique soul that I was. Yet according to the film, that scene and the glamorous carefree life that came with it also came at a price.

Strike a Pose profiles the lives of six of Madonna’s dancers from the Blonde Ambition tour who were also featured in the “Vogue” music video. Luis, Jose, Salim, Carlton, Kevin and Oliver became instant stars during the tour and their fame exploded when moviegoers met them a year later in Truth or Dare. The movie takes an unflinching look at the past and pulls no punches especially when talking about the AIDS crisis. Two of the dancers, Carlton and Luis, tell heart-wrenching stories about how they were terrified to tell Madonna and other members of the company that they were HIV positive. Carlton found out in Japan while Blonde Ambition was getting ready to take over the world and Salim was diagnosed in 1987 but kept it hidden. Their stories are incredibly sad and ironic given that Madonna was vocal advocate for HIV and AIDS, having just lost her friend artist Keith Haring to the disease. These dancers were very young and I can’t imagine how terrifying that world was back then. Thus the story of Strike a Pose, after it gets done dishing the showbiz details, quickly becomes to a story I can really relate to: a story of survival.

How do you deal with the fall outs of instant fame? If we are to believe Strike a Pose, the answer is, not very well. These kids thrust into the spotlight were given all the drugs, booze and VIP access that they could handle and they rightfully took advantage of it. Naturally, things got ugly pretty quickly. Jose and Luis, who became minor club sensations with a record of their own, both got hooked on heroin and parted ways with Madonna after their addictions got out of control. For Carlton and Salim, the battle to stay well in a society where everyone with your condition is dying is a very real one, not helped by collective shaming and ignorance. In one of the films, more devastating segments, we’re introduced to Gabriel, the dancer featured, along with Salim, in that famous kiss. Gabriel died from complications of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 26. According to his mother, Gabriel wanted Madonna to cut the kiss from the film and after she told him to “Get over it”, he  went on to sue her for forcing him to come out. It’s an unsavory moment but not the only one. Kevin and Oliver also sued Madonna for compensation from the film. Yet the movie goes surprisingly lite on the Madonna bashing which is surprising given that her reputation as a difficult  boss and coworker is legendary.

It’s because of this however that Strike a Pose is effective and moving. By avoiding being a victim, bitchfest, Strike Pose turns into a portrait of growth. It isn’t about Madonna anymore. It’s about the six dancers and what happened since their worlds were turned upside down. Against the odds, these men have somehow stayed well, gotten sober and survived. Salim’s story, for me, is the center of the films’ heart and message of resilience. Still dancing and living in New York, Salim speaks  publicly for the first time about being positive and the result is a raw, tear-jerking emotional moment.

As a fan of Madonna and Truth or Dare, the movie delivers on the serving the desired nostalgia of the time. With clips of the film and access to the songs, the movie gives a fan what they want. But as somebody sober with HIV, the movie goes a lot deeper and soon becomes relatable and courageous. Gay men like myself have always been attracted to women who survive. Cher, Elizabeth Taylor and Tina Turner all had been through the ringer and counted out but somehow came back. It’s a glamour and toughness that we as gay men latch onto and find aspirational. Yet what Strike a Pose does beautifully is finally give gay men the fierce, empowered, truthful comeback story of their own.

I will survive…but not alone

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On dancefloors. Under discoballs. Next to thumping speakers and kids in furry backpacks. Thru fog machines, cigarette smoke, and puffs of glitter. In empty, burned out warehouses suddenly transformed by day-glo foam sculptures of mushrooms and hearts, evoking a modern Alice in Wonderland. This is where I felt like I showed up. Like this was my moment. It was 1992 and I was 19 years-old and rave culture had caught fire across the United States. By this time, I had already cycled through teen goth clubs, shady underage gay bars and high school parties and all of the drugs that accompany those events. I always had my eye on the next cool thing to walk around the corner. Not because I had my finger on the pulse but more out of an insatiable desire to make the party never stop. So thank god when rave culture showed up. Here were hundreds of other kids who all felt the same way. The music was the draw. I could link videos to rave classic songs for days but really 20 plus years later the truth is revealed: that music? It was pure and simple dance music. A road forged by disco culture nearly 30 years earlier was now being paved by house music, techno and everything else with a drum machine. Back then, it was rave music, now it’s EDM, tomorrow we’ll call it something else. But the appeal, whatever generational version of it, remains consistent. It paired well with drugs, with escape, with sex and with dancing with others who wanted the same things. I took so much ecstasy and danced so many hours it stopped working but I’m persistent, dammit. I rode the rave thing until the wheels fell off. When that party ended thanks to an unwelcome appearance by crystal meth, I moved on to the next which I burned out from and then moved on once again to another party, this time in Los Angeles at age 23 and one that would have incredibly high highs and crash with the worst of lows. And that so-called party lasted until I was 36.

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Spot me in this crowd! Hint? I’m the raver in flannel!

The thing I loved about raves or trashy glam clubs in LA or gay bars, in addition to the music, was the feeling of belonging. With considerable effort and dedication to the craft of going out several nights a week, I became enough of a club presence to usually get on the guest list, maybe score free drinks and a bump or two in the bathroom. I was a minor celebrity among club friends and known in a tiny microcosm which was good enough for me. I slid naturally from clubs and guest lists to dive bars to drinking nightly at home. Formerly sparkling and social became sad and the part I loved, feeling like I belonged, vanished along with the smoke and glitter. So then what? What happens to a disco diva when the lights come up, the free drinks stop and the club friends vanish in thin air upon hearing a whisper of the word, “sober”?

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For this disco diva, life got real/real depressing. Things like health, debt and broken relationships were waiting in line outside the club like I used to and just like me they were gonna get in, even if they weren’t on the guest list. In addition to waking up to the shit storm that was my existence, I also had to remove a huge chunk of my social drinking circle if I wanted any semblance of success at staying sober. It had never occurred to me in the 600 other times I tried to stop drinking that by hanging out with daily drinkers I wasn’t exactly giving myself a fighting chance. Well, it sounds obvious when I put it like that but as I’ve mentioned before I’m a slow learner. So fine. I did that. I lovingly detached from the old crew but now what? Turns out the recovery world was filled with people just like me. I didn’t take too long to find my people. They certainly didn’t look like me but honestly the world only needs a handful of valley girl voiced Moby look-alike alcoholics. What was important was they knew how I felt and knew what I was going through. They even nodded their heads when I shared horrible, crazy, unspeakable things. yea-uh-huh.gif

2816 days later, I’m still finding my people and in delightful and unexpected places. Mainly online. There are a lot of debates about sobriety, recovery and anonymity online and as you know I detest digital bickering of any flavor so we will not go there. What I will say is this: just like I did in meetings all over the country and just like I used on dancefloors, I have found other people who were like.My #RecoveryPosse is always available on Twitter or if I’m really desperate on Facebook. Many of them have blogs. Others have podcasts. Others are normal, hilarious folks who make me laugh on a regular basis. Others I’ve even been lucky to meet in real life. The point is thanks to that cursed blessing known as technology, my people are always here and easy to find on my phone. A couple of days ago, I tweeted the opening line to the song referenced in the title. What transpired was the kind of loopy, brilliant, back and forth I’ve come to know and love from my online tribe.

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But it doesn’t begin and end there. When I blogged on UrTheInspiration, I was lucky enough to meet my people like Heather Kopp or my now real-life pal Jen and my friend Paul, who even though he’s in Canada and straight, is someone who always for some reason gets what I’m going through. A few years ago, we started an Artists in Recovery meeting in Denver and every week I run into my people there. By being on Facebook, I randomly will have someone reach out from the past who tells me they are now sober or maybe they are struggling so I meet my people there too. The thing is by speaking my truth, whether in person or online, the world becomes less scary and I’m less isolated. You don’t have to search too hard to find hundreds of studies that say people who have support have a better chance of staying sane and sober than those who don’t. I’ve found it to be true. When I tried to get by all by my lonesome, I never stood a chance. I end every Sloshed Cinema by saying, “You are never alone.” Partly to pass that onto others but mainly to remind myself that no matter how bad I feel, there’s always help. There’s somebody willing to nod their head to what I’m sharing if I just open my mouth.  And there’s always someone dancing to the same song I am, somewhere.