something there that wasn’t there before

If I was that writer I would have called this post “Things Your Kids Love Because of AIDS.” If I was that writer, I’d probably also be selling my soul to some clickbaity site that would be good for my career but would also increase my chances of stepping in front of a bus. Alas, I am not that writer. I am, however, someone who loves fairy tales and really loves Disney versions of fairytales. I know, I know it’s not cool or woke or hipster to like Disney movies. The Disney machine, and not wrongly in most cases, is accused of turning entertainment into a machine and stripping away real character and depth from darker, childhood stories. They are also cited for snatching up beloved properties and sucking the life out of them. Likewise, Disney is notorious for problematic imagery for children and hideous employment practices. Yet the heart wants what it wants and my big gay heart loves a Disney fairytale.

I hesitate to own this statement in print because it feels so permanent and the movie in question has now become bland and basic due to a live-action remake that I refused to see. Seriously, do not get me started on this onslaught of live-action Disney remakes which by the way can hardly be called live action when 80% of them is done in CGI. I’m still annoyed/traumatized/baffled by that hideous Jungle Book everyone seemed to love but me. I digress but Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of the Disney fairytale canon. There. I said it. And I stand by it. Properly dark, great characters, beautiful animation and knockout songs, it swept Oscar nominations the year it was released and rightfully so. A smart heroine who happens to be a giant book nerd and who gets along with her family plus Angela Lansbury as a tea kettle? Sign me up. However here in 2017 in my forties this movie means something else to me today and mainly because of the film’s lyricist Howard Ashman.

Ashman, the openly gay songwriter and genius also behind Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid, was dying from AIDS as Beauty and the Beast was being completed. According to film lore, Ashman worked from his home in New York while his songwriting partner Alan Menken and the film’s directors Gary Torusdale and Kirk Wise flew back and forth from Los Angeles during the making of the movie. There’s no question that the movie wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for Ashman’s lyrics. It’s impossible to think of it without singing the title track which also allows you the bonus option of doing either an Angela Lansbury or Celine Dion impression. Rooted in musical theater, the songs seamlessly bridged the gap between Broadway and animation and I’d ventured to say we’ve never gone back. Specifically, however, it’s impossible to deny AIDS when it comes to Beauty and the Beast and its iconic songs. According to the live-action film’s director Bill Condon in Vanity Fair:

“It was his idea, not only to make it into a musical but also to make Beast one of the two central characters. Until then, it had mostly been Belle’s story that they had been telling. Specifically for him, it was a metaphor for AIDS. He was cursed, and this curse had brought sorrow on all those people who loved him, and maybe there was a chance for a miracle—and a way for the curse to be lifted. It was a very concrete thing that he was doing.”

Songs like “Kill the Beast” are more overt in reference to AIDS.  In a few bars, Ashman slyly nails the paranoia and prejudice of the AIDS era. “We don’t like what we don’t…understand and in fact it scares us, and this monster is mysterious at least.
Bring your guns, bring your knives, save children and your wives, we’ll save our village and our lives!,” the song warns. The metaphor is so clear now but at the time no one knew. The lyrics fall in line with Ashman’s other astute observations of the human condition. Songs like “Skid Row” from Little Shop of Horrors and “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid surely tap into the feelings of not belonging and wanting to escape that gay people have always felt. But given his skill as a songwriter, he tapped into emotions that anyone, especially children can identify with.

Beauty and the Beast really resonates with folks who feel like they don’t belong. The hideous and withdrawn Beast and the bookish and imaginative Belle are square pegs and outcasts. Fate brings them together and we are all the better for it. Ashman’s songs particularly, “Something There” really capture how unlikely people who don’t fit anywhere else sometimes find and fall in love with one another, despite their own misconceptions and prejudices. Talk to any queer person and they’ll relate a similar story when they tell you about finally finding their people. To think that Beauty and the Beast is his last completed project (he also wrote a few songs for Aladdin)is profound to say the least.

As a person living with HIV and in a very different era, it’s hard not to get chills and feel emotional when reading about Ashman and the horrors that artists like him faced at the time. I started thinking about him this week when it was announced that a new documentary about his legacy was coming out later this year. The film looks to shine a light on his artistry as well as last his days dying from AIDS. Despite extreme hatred and isolation, Ashman and other great artists were able to produce works that people are still enjoying to this day.

This August, it will be 8 years since my own HIV diagnosis. While I’m grateful that times have changed and that I can have meds to help me stay alive with relative ease and low-cost, I’d be lying if I said that I still didn’t think we had a long way to go. Sure, we’re now acknowledging Ashman and his legacy. But look elsewhere, like the new movie about Freddie Mercury, and the story of AIDS is all about erased.  To ignore such a vital part of Mercury’s story and it’s impact seems like a mistake. I guess my point of writing is this to remind myself of artists like Ashman and Mercury and what they contributed as people with AIDS and to know they are not forgotten.

Maybe my clickbait idea at the top was correct. I mean, if you love The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, then you love Howard Ashman, a man who died from AIDS.  But also if your kids love the literary adventures of Frog and Toad,  they also love a story of AIDS. If you’ve watched Dreamgirls and sang along, you are enjoying a story that is not just a black story or a musical story but the story of AIDS.   So maybe your kids love something dearly like Beauty and the Beast and that’s partially because of AIDS, a monster whose horrors they’ll hopefully never know. Talk about a real life fairy tale ending.

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what we mean when we call you girl

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Girl.

It’s the four letter text message that says it all. Add a “u” or a few rrr’s but it still says everything. It says, “Oh my god.” It says, “Can you believe this shit?” It says, “I’m exhausted and I can’t get it into it.” It says, “I agree with you.” It says, “I’m sorry.” It says, “My mind is blown and I need to resort to one word that expresses everything.”  But to me the word girl when spoken among gay men means, “You belong and I get you.”

When I turned 21, I was dating an older guy (who was like 25 at the time but being the hateful little queens we were, we all acted like he was Grandma Moses) and I spent a lot of time with his friends. To each other, they were all “girl.” It was a term of endearment and while I don’t remember the precise moment, I do remember how I felt when I was called “girl.” When dishing and drinking cocktails or playfully making fun of each other, the word bounced around the room with each person catching it and tossing it back. My natural social nature mixed my extreme people pleaserism helps me acclimate fairly quickly to any situation so soon enough I was being called girl too. Getting the moniker “girl” and addressing others with it too meant that I had arrived as a young gay man and in that moment it felt important. After spending my teen years bullied and in the closet, I felt like myself finally and the being able to drink like a grown up didn’t hurt either. The girl had arrived and she wasn’t going back.

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Through nightclub life in Los Angeles and hanging out with drag queens, I had found my girls in the mid-nineties and me and the phrase were off to the races. It was said in rage, it was said in gossip, it was said in concern and it was said instead of getting into deeper uglier details. It could also be said in the realm of gay superficiality, one as a creature of the night I was exposed to a lot. You’d call someone girl instead of remembering their name or call them girl to feign a closeness that really didn’t exist. Regardless, girl cemented itself into my language which is interesting given the origin of the word. According to this fascinating piece, the word has a bizarre and storied history. In the 15th Century, both men and women were called girl. Women, believe it or not, were referred to as “gay girls” while young men were called, “knave girls.” In my mind this sort of makes sense. I mean what if 15th century homos were just walking by one another and saying, “Knave girl!” which would later become “Hey Girl!” Okay, I’m totally making up my own etymology myth here but it could have happened. What struck me about this little blip of a factoid is that at one point we were all girl. I know. “We are all girl” sounds like some horrible feminism lite campaign started by a lip gloss company. But still it’s cool to think that back in the day sexualizing the moniker wasn’t even a thing. That we were all called girl.

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At age 44, it’s now just part of my gay vernacular and something I say all of the time even when I talk to straight people. The women in their fifties and sixties who I used to work with loved when I’d exhaustedly call them girl.  But the word isn’t even so much about gender as it is the perfect every occasion word to perfectly nail a myriad of situations. Thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race the gay context of the word has gone mainstream and people now know how we use it. When I was thinking about this topic before I sat down to write, I wondered if for me the word had even further power. During my childhood, I was always called girly or sissy or gay (even though I was the least sexual child on the planet) or having everything I do from walking to talking described as “like a girl.” So it would be natural to shun the word. Some gay men work overtime with the masculinity to avoid the word and the negativity associated with it. Yet I think what we, as gay men get to do, is reclaim it. We take what was negatively labeled on us and turn it into a word of power, of humor and most importantly a word of belonging. My best gay friends and I call each other girl and when we do it’s like a verbal hug. It’s code for, “I love your big gay crazy ass.” When my bestie from the recovery texts me girl or bitch (a word we’ve also reclaimed and that I adore), I know that I’m loved even though he’s a few thousand miles away.

 

I’m willing to accept that I’ve spent some 1,000 words gaysplaining the word girl and its personal meaning to me. See, in the brewing intolerant times we live in, being as gay as humanly possible has become something of a personal mission. Like, I’m inches away from performing a non-stop Judy Garland lip synch routine in a park while covered in rainbow body glitter. Owning my big girl self isn’t just good esteem-wise but it’s a pink neon middle finger to the world at large. As gay men are currently being put in concentration camps and trans people are being murdered, I can’t hide. As LGBT suicide and addiction rates explode, I can’t look the other way. In fact, as a person who is out and healthy and expressive I have a responsibility to keep the lights on for those who are still in hiding and in pain.

So girl, when we call you girl, it means something. It means we get you. It means we have your back. It means we love you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sorry Bitches, But We Still Exist

e87284f3bfb531e450930710bf8c8043This morning, I got up like a boring ass normal person and drank my boring ass coffee and ate my boring ass banana and read the boring ass headlines on the internet. I’m sharing these boring ass details because a stream of mundane activities such as this happen all day long to me and therefore make up my existence. This sounds like a crazy thing to even be talking about but I swear when I look at some of those boring ass headlines I question if I as a gay man even exist.

Listen, I’m 44-years-old and have done the appropriate amount of therapy, self-help and 12 step groups to survive on this fucked up planet. I am lucky that my family has embraced me and my husband and that I love myself for exactly who I am. So when I read this morning about Chechen authorities rounding up and killing gay men, my head shook. Like shook in that involuntary sheer disgust kind of way.

Per the New York Times:

On Saturday, a leading Russian opposition newspaper confirmed a story already circulating among human rights activists: The Chechen authorities were arresting and killing gay men.

While abuses by security services in the region, where Russia fought a two-decade war against Islamic insurgents, have long been a stain on President Vladimir V. Putin’s human rights record, gay people had not previously been targeted on a wide scale.

The men were detained “in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such,” the newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, reported, citing Russian federal law enforcement officials, who blamed the local authorities.

There’s no doubt that those details alone are horrible enough. But when I read the authorities response to the story, my head didn’t just shake, it damn near exploded. “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” spokesman and clearly delusional asshole Alvi Karimov, told the news agency. “If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return,” Mr. Karimov said. What in the absolute fuck. This isn’t minotaurs or mermaids that we’re talking about here. It’s human beings, specifically it’s gay men. And where the hell do they send them? On second thought, let’s not go there. We can assume from Russia’s long abysmal track record with LGBT rights that they aren’t sent to Palm Springs or Ibiza. What messed with me as I did my boring morning stuff is this idea that a government can simply say that groups of people do not exist. We can certainly chalk this headline up to #RussianBullshit, which it is, by the way. No amount of arguing that Chechnya is filled with Muslims can divorce the region from Russia especially since this kind of horrific stuff is sort of a national homophobic tradition. So fine that’s Russia’s shit but it doesn’t help that or existence is being questioned back home in the USA too.

Flashback to just a few days ago when a casual headline was slipped into a current news cycle shitstorm that the Trump administration has decided to leave LGBT questions off the 2020 survey. Why this matters to folks like the Human Rights Campaign and should matter for people like me and you is that without accurate numbers of LGBT communities the federal government won’t have a clue on how to allocate resources to them. While the Census Bureau has never asked sexual orientation questions, it did take a huge leap forward in 2010 by allowing participants the opportunity to identify themselves as part of a same-sex relationship. What’s more is the Bureau previously collaborated on gender identity and orientation with outside agencies. Again, fine. We know we’re still here and don’t need a damn census to tell us that. But still how many messages that shout, “You are not valid and you don’t exist” do we have to hear until we believe them?

For me the answer is zero. As a gay man who is also an addict and alcoholic in recovery and who is living with HIV, it would be easy for me to feel like I don’t exist. My existence is inconvenient. My existence is unexpected. My existence isn’t neat and tidy. And honestly, IDGAF, as the kids on Twitter say. I have been earned my right to exist and quiet frankly didn’t die when I probably should have. So I fucking exist. And so do the millions of other gay, lesbian, trans and queer folks around the globe. We can’t be erased out just because our existence is problematic or messy or doesn’t gel with what you want. Take us off surveys, leave us out of conversations, lie and say we don’t live places. But we are actually here. I am here. The reality is I am here and I’m having a quiet, peaceful and boring ass Sunday like everybody else.