Tuesday, June 10, 2014



That's the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.”
                                                                    Gus, The Fault In Our Stars

I suppose my pain, seemingly an endless reservoir that deepens with age, was being its demanding self when it read the New York Times review of The Fault In Our Stars. If you asked, I would say that I need some good head more than I need a good cry but my pain receptors ordered me to get to the nearest movie house and purchase my ticket (at a painful senior discount) to the new cancer movie.

I chose to go alone rather than subject someone to indulge my histrionics which I knew would be as predictable as the filmmakers incorporating a gooey montage of the sweetest moments of the movie as the final moments unravel (along with the audience).

I find watching a film to be so subjective. I suppose any artistic experience is but—positioned in that darkened space with human emotions magnified beyond any sense of reality—my “material” (as they say) ineluctably merges with the material that those larger-than-life characters are manifesting.

I’m less emotionally rickety watching something on the small screen, residing in a less heightened state; that’s why I’ve avoided The Normal Heart like another colonoscopy. But The Fault In Our Stars is being compared to Love Story—good pain, not the torture chamber of AIDS in the Eighties.

Yes and no. Death is death—whether it’s in Venice, New York City or the emotional terrain occupied by two teenagers in love. Hazel and Gus share scrumptious faces—as likable as they are lickable—and cancer. The inevitable Who-Will-Kick-First? leitmotif is one of the art-mirroring-life subplots that hooked me before the opening credits rolled by.

While many friends and I played that game—replete with campy repartee (“If you go first, I promise to get rid of the dildos under your bed before your parents arrive from Iowa”)—it wasn’t until my relationship with Philip that the theme became deadly (sorry) serious.

Speaking of heart-rending movies, a startling realization struck when Philip and I were seeing Longtime Companion at the Vista Theater. About halfway through the routinely labeled “AIDS movie”, Philip went to the bathroom. Feeling the suddenness of his departure, like a throbbing jolt—in that very moment—I thought to myself, wanting to scream it outloud to the actors on the movie screen: “He’ll die first.”

One of the most defining aspects of my relationship with Philip had been travel. Like the star-crossed lovers in The Fault In Our Stars, we chose Amsterdam, not in search of a famous author (like the lovers in the film) but rather in honor of the one-hundredth anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh’s death. Nearly a quarter of a century prior, yet like our filmic counterparts, Philip and I assumed that we were both approaching a fated finish line.

Hazel & Gus
Perhaps the most jarring scene in The Fault In Our Stars, the one that most shockingly mirrored our peregrination to Denmark, was the unexpected visit that Hazel and Gus take to the Anne Frank House, complicated by the fact that our screen heroine is gasping for breath, lugging her oxygen tank, navigating the steep, narrow stairways to the attic as Anne Frank’s words are spoken in voiceover: “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

Philip and I trudged up those same stairs, both of us likely thinking something akin to what Gus and Hazel were thinking, something about the impermanence of life and the gift of having fallen in love before the fault of our stars would separate us.

At this point, during the movie, I was blowing my nose with my cardboard popcorn container. Philip would die less than two years after we visited Amsterdam. A gooey montage, capturing the sweetest moments of our short history together, blurred sequentially in my memory as he was carried away in a body bag.

The day after I saw the movie, Katherine—my daughter/the filmmaker—came home from her first year of studies abroad. Since her taste in film is infinitely more finessed than mine, I knew she would be appalled that I saw The Fault In Our Stars.

“Oh, dad,” she groaned. “You’re such a teenage girl.” I didn’t deny it—even though I did point out to her that I got a senior discount at the box office.

What I didn't tell her is that the tears that dampened my popcorn were also tears of ineffable ecstasy. A couple of years after Philip died, the award in my stars resulted in the adoption of a five month old baby girl.  

In a couple of months, Katherine will no longer be a teenage girl; to be alive for that? I cannot fault my stars, only thank them.

That’s the thing about joy. It also demands to be felt.

Katherine & Dad

Friday, May 9, 2014

Graduation at Idyllwild Arts Academy
Michael with his daughter Katherine

Nearly twenty years ago, I took my baby for a walk, pushing her stroller, breezily sauntering up and down the streets of our Los Feliz neighborhood, one of Los Angeles’ enclaves applauded for its progressiveness and hip pedigree. But to suggest that we turned heads —a white, forty-plus year old man and a six-month old African-American baby—is not hyperbolic. 

One woman simply had to stop and ask me, “Are you the nanny?”

There were several assumptions inherent in her insensitive query: daddies (without a mom in attendance) didn’t steer strollers, single men (especially those who appeared unaffectedly gay) didn’t have children and what’s a white dude doin’ with a black baby, anyway?

“I’m her father,” I said, employing restraint. She looked absolutely befuddled, as if she had just encountered two aliens.

As the single, gay dad of a black little girl, alien is how I often felt. Even in liberated Southern California, mommy and daddy gender identities were fairly inflexible at the end of the Twentieth Century. So were the vicissitudes of families whose skin color didn’t match. I felt like an intruder at Mommy and Me; I was often the only male in a group of female parents who thought I should be at work; asking for ethnically specific hair products for my little girl resulted in profound looks of consternation.

I was once the lone male in a room full of moms at a meeting about various school challenges that had to be met on a daily basis. “It’s the moms who pick up our kids. We’re the ones who have to keep them safe on the parking lot,” one of the females said, intimating the collective female gender. Not only was she suggesting that it was the moms who did the daily afternoon chauffeuring of their children; they were also the protectors.

“Uh,” I said, waving my hand, a tad histrionically. “Do you see me sitting here?” There was uproarious laughter, the laughter that emanates from a gay man’s brittle delivery. I was being heard for a quick second, but not necessarily being taken seriously.

I was taken seriously when fundraising drives came around (flagrantly so when decorating was involved) but I was inevitably the only man in the midst of a gaggle of over-achieving mommies.

Before adopting Katherine, I had soldiered through several trial runs as a foster parent (one four-month stint with two brothers, three and six years old), and decided that —in spite of the laundry list of things that didn’t appear to be in my favor—I had to become a full-time father. Being gay wasn’t even at the top of my (supposed) flaws: I was HIV-positive (this was before protease inhibitors), I was old (in my forties), most of my income came from being a solo performer (you can stop laughing), I was single, and I grew up in a family setting that would give Tennessee Williams pause.

I had to be a father.

I’d lived through the AIDS deaths of dozens of my male comrades including one man I’d loved more deeply than any of the others. It was his death in 1992 that forced me to admit the one desire that I’d determinedly buried for more than a decade.

I had to be a father.

While most of my gay male buddies said I was “crazy” or “selfish,” not one female friend or associate ever discouraged me. When I told people that my entire body ached with longing when I saw a dad with his kid(s), most gay men thought I was being theatrical; most women (no matter their sexual proclivities) shook their head “yes” in acknowledgement. This “biological urge” phenomenon I experienced is almost exclusively attributed to women and has been determined to be psychological rather than innate or instinctual. No matter, it consumed me.

Even though Katherine’s mother abandoned her at the hospital and no blood relative initially came to the rescue, the process to adopt my daughter was a daily nightmare for nearly three years, coinciding with the most joyous days of my life as I balanced becoming a father with the relentless threat of losing my little girl.

Why? The grandmother of one of Katherine’s half-brothers had decided to wage a battle as soon as the courts began moving our case from foster care to adoption. Spouting vehement suppositions, she questioned why a single, white man would want to adopt a black baby.

If her team could verify a birth father, she could stall the process further so several possibilities were suggested—ranging form a wealthy lawyer to a dude in prison. At the final court appearance, the judge laughed out loud when the family desperately tried to conjure the identity of yet another potential birth father.

It was decided by the Los Angeles Superior Court, shortly before my child’s third birthday, that I was her sole and legal parent.

The good news was that her health, after a tumultuous entry into the world—no prenatal care, born two months premature, weighing less than three pounds, addicted to crack—was virtually indefectible. And with the advent of “miracle” drugs for HIV, so was mine.

Our family history continued to reveal itself even though the vagaries of being a single male parent could be disconcerting.

“Where’s mommy?” insensitive strangers at the grocery store would ask. “Who does her hair?” was a popular question, especially asked by black women we’d never previously met. Often after establishing the irrefutable fact that I was her father, someone would invariably ask, “Who picks out her clothes?” (Trust me, honey, no one trumps a gay man in choosing toddler apparel.)

I was mommy, too, encompassing all that implies, primarily the emotional and physical attentiveness that femaleness seemed to suggest far more than maleness—even though parental roles were decidedly evolving.

In the fifties, fathers changed tires, not diapers. My dad never kissed me, never held me when I was sad, never spoke to me about things that were considered intimate.

Did the shift begin with feminism? When moms decided to join the work force and pursue a career outside of the home, were daddies compelled to put on their mommy hat and share parental responsibilities? Or, in spite of skewed media depictions, did the feminist movement, in reality, create more Supermoms than Mr. Mom’s?

According to the 2000 Census, there was a considerable increase in the number of single-parent families headed by fathers during the 1990s, escalating by more than 60 percent, to 2.2 million. While many of those dads are likely gay, most are likely not, and the statistics aren’t including gay men who are partnered. Those facts confirm that a considerable part of America’s population in 2014 includes men who are raising children.

As someone living this double life of mom/dad full time, my perception is that the mommyizing of dads has become even more prevalent in the Twenty-First Century. In my neighborhood, there are now men (of indeterminate sexual persuasion) pushing baby strollers than there are women. They are demonstratively affectionate, expressing love with intuitive gentleness.

I sometimes wonder if the gay male baby boom (lesbians were way ahead of this curve) has anything to do with our straight brothers feeling more comfortable playing in both gender pools? With the blurring of sexual identity—for example, British diver Tom Daley who “fancies girls” while he’s in a relationship with a man—are men simply more at ease with expressing their female side, whether on the playground or in the bedroom? Just as straight men have copied gay male fashion—plaid shirts and cowboy boots in the Seventies, bald heads and muscles in the present—perhaps we have also inspired, as single dads and dads in partnerships (legal or not), an invitation to embrace a more connected, less rigid, fatherly stance?

Our friends on the right have politicized this softer version of maleness as part of the “feminization of America.” Their targets include homosexuals as well as millions upon millions of men who rebuke hypermasculinity in favor of something more completely human. Many of these “feminized” men are stay-at-home-dads who have switched gender stereotypes as the world turns. These guys take their kids to yoga classes, not shooting ranges. To insist that the feminization of men is unnatural is to imply being female is somehow less than. Only macho men need apply to the party of male white dominance.

Our indestructible father-daughter bond is characterized by deep understanding, mutual respect and inordinate amounts of fun. We've had the HIV talk, the period talk, the condom talk, the death talk—amidst laughter and tears.

We’ve traveled all over the world. In Madrid, while I was directing a play, she was in dire need of pads one morning. I’ll never forget my urgent trip to the Pharmacia. Unable to speak Spanish, I was forced, ala Lucy, to pantomime the meaning of “sanitary napkin.”

I recently spoke to my now nineteen-year old daughter, who is attending Bournemouth Arts College in England, on my cell phone while a friend hovered in close proximity. “My God,” he said, when the call ended. “You go from being mom to dad and back again with such agility.”

These dual roles have defined me—more than performer, writer, lover, friend. Sure, I’m admittedly a drama queen, but my life depended on being a mom/dad.

Thursday, March 27, 2014



Kearns in The Dirtiest Show In Town 

My body has always figured prominently in my work as an actor—from the hippie freedom of let’s-get-naked to express sexual liberation in The Dirtiest Show In Town (1972) to the darker regions of the diseased body’s emotionality in Jerker (throughout the Eighties and Nineties). After the turn of the century, nudity became organic in two new pieces, Comeback (2003) and Torch (2011). Over the decades, the canvas of my body has metamorphosed from boy’s white smoothness to man’s toughness to older man’s vulnerability while continuing to serve the craft of storytelling. I did love scenes in a few indies, without undies, having sex with either gender.

If there was initially a tinge of exhibitionism in the early work, it has become—as the decades unravel—increasingly less about me and more about the character I’m portraying. I just finished filming The Stonewall Nation, a short in which I play yet another character who’s defined by what his body (and voice) reveal and don’t reveal. As any actor knows, what the character verbally expresses provides only a partial blueprint in building the character’s fullness.

Don Jackson had a vision: to create a gay county, a utopia, in which homosexuals would live freely on a part of the land that they would govern. Part visionary and part missionary, Jackson is equally parts narcissistic and misogynistic. While his intentions are sincere, and some of his theories are revolutionary and seductively presented, he is also a wounded soul, a man who acknowledges “no relationships, only casual encounters.” (One of those encounters, not depicted in the film, involves his murder.)

Sille Storihle, a young Norwegian artist, emailed me several months ago to ascertain my interest in playing Don Jackson. The film would not, she said, be a straightforward narrative; rather, it would be molded with several artistic elements including a recreated interview of Don that had been shot “for archival purposes in 1986” when he was in his sixties, after his Stonewall Nation had floundered. My criteria for taking on an acting assignment  these days is based on one thing: Does the project allow me to access something I have yet to summon as an actor?

I auditioned, like everyone else. I was given access to the video of Jackson which I attempted to sponge into my consciousness (and subconsciousness) before I met with the filmmaker. There was a callback in which I went one step further and endeavored to capture Jackson in an improvised interview between Storihle and me. That was when my persona met Jackson’s and the melding of actor and character commenced its ineluctable marriage.

I got the part and was given more than twenty pages of script, extracted from the interview, which were to be learned, not precisely memorized, before our shooting dates. It was incumbent upon me to know Don’s interior mindset more than know my lines; to know how he would respond to questions regarding The Stonewall Nation that he championed.

Trona Pinnacles

Our first day of shooting took place in the Trona Pinnacles, an evocative part of California’s desert landscape that sprouts penis-like mountains with high testosterone levels. This aspect of the film was entirely generated by the filmmaker’s sensibility: Storihle’s way of finding the archetypical American cowboy that resided in Jackson’s body. In the interview footage, he is so still that he appears to be virtually imploded. But we know that his body, no matter how inanimate on screen, carries his history, his gay history of “casual sex” and desire and fear and longing and pain. Amidst the earth’s faux cocks, we “collaborated” (at Storihle’s insistence) on excavating Don in Michael’s body. Or maybe Michael in Don’s body.

After several grueling hours of mountain climbing, my emotions began to unwind in all directions, lifted by the gusting wind and my affinity with Don’s dreamy visions. We partnered with the light (it’s all about the light when you’re shooting a movie outdoors as the sun begins its descent); sunlight and sundown that created dramatic splashes of pink and streaks of orange amidst roller coaster clouds of fifty shades of blue.

A day of rest (for me, not the rest of the film’s stalwarts) was followed by a change of location for my second day of shooting (the director’s prerogative). Instead of shooting the mock interview footage in front of a silken backdrop as initially envisioned, Storihle decided to place Don in a questionable motel on Hollywood Boulevard. The film is clearly intended to manifest our version of Don, not striving for verisimilitude but rather for the emotional truths of this forgotten man who is decidedly part of our history. We felt responsible to Don yet we also awarded ourselves artistic leniency.

“I always have to fall in love with the DP [Director of Photography],” I told the producer; in this case, the DP was a straight guy, presumably in his thirties, from a Hollywood family. Overhearing me, he said, “And vice versa.” He (or she) is the one who ultimately bores into your psyche with the camera’s technological powers.

As we shot the footage of Don’s interview—seated on the edge of one of the two double beds in the room, identically covered with a bland pastel flowery pattern—Michael left the room and Don made an eerie appearance. The camera did not stop for more than fifty minutes.

Not taking time to break the spell we’d created, Storihle gave me a few intimate directions to simply “be Don in the motel room, immediately after the interview, starting with looking out the window onto Hollywood Boulevard, then sitting down and taking off your boots.” She conferred with the DP and the sound man while I tried to remain living in Don’s body.


On a conscious level, I don’t “know” what happened because I had taken up residence in a different stratosphere—a different body, if you will. But I do know that I tried to get comfortable in the bed; as Michael would, and I turned one of the pillows into someone I could hug tightly in an attempt to fall asleep. When that didn’t work, I removed my socks. Then my pants. My long-sleeved shirt and my t-shirt.

I was unaware of anyone else in the room. I found comfort in pulling on my dick, thinking of the boys I’d seen on the Boulevard with their shaved heads, flashy tattoos and muscles for sale. It was making Don hard; so hard that his cock inevitably grew beyond the confines of his jockey shorts.

I felt the DP’s knee next to me on the bed as his camera surveyed every inch of my body closeup. I entrusted my body to him, knowing he was also looking for Don’s imprint. I think that’s art.

I am indebted to this body in its current state, still able to serve me in creating a character of such depth and complexity.

I sing the body electric
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves;
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
Walt Whitman

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Hollywood’s self-reverential collective social consciousness obviously left the room at the annual Golden Globe Awards. Three of this year’s awardees might have taken a moment to reflect on the content of their triumphant film work in order to enlighten the 19.7 million viewers of the ceremony. Oh, I forgot, this is entertainment, not politics.

When will I ever learn? Never—hear me?—never.

In accepting his Oscar for Philadelphia in 1993 (virtually the only mainstream “AIDS movie” ever made at that juncture), Best Actor Tom Hanks first acknowledged the issue of gayness by naming two gay men in his life “because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age. I wish my babies could have the same sort of teacher, the same sort of friends.”

Mr. Hanks then went on to eloquently tackle the subject of AIDS: “I know that my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names. They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all. A healing embrace that cools their fevers, that clears their skin, and allows their eyes to see the simple, self-evident, common sense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all and was written down on paper by wise men, tolerant men, in the city of Philadelphia two hundred years ago.”

Twenty years later, Hollywood honors Matthew McConaughey for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club, portraying Ron Woodroof, an HIV-positive infected heterosexual who smuggles anti-viral medications into America and makes a business of his procurements. Might McConaughey have mentioned the “A” word? (And I don’t mean “acting.”) Oh, sorry, I keep forgetting that AIDS is over; AIDS is so yesterday; AIDS is so gay.

What AIDS continues to be is a disease that kills millions of people worldwide, many of whom—even in America, honey, even in Hollywood, darling—have no access to antiretroviral meds. Nearly one-third of those infected with HIV in America are unable to get life-saving drugs (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/social-issues/endgame-aids-in-black-america/why-some-with-hiv-still-cant-get-treatment/).
The numbers is Sub-Saharan Africa stagger: well into Twenty-First Century, more than half of the millions of individuals infected with AIDS live in Africa with far less access to antiretrovirals than Americans, as the number of AIDS orphans continues to mount. But why should McConaughey mention any of that when he can reference one of his former films, Dazed and Confused?

And Jared Leto, also a Golden Globe winner—for his role as a meth-addicted transsexual with HIV in Dallas Buyers Club—used his acceptance speech to reference his butt rather than give a nod to the valiant community of transsexuals who are routinely bullied, and sometimes even murdered, for simply being who they are. Thanking transsexuals for “inspiration” is not enough, Mr. Leto.

Oh, and did I mention that both Mr. McConaughey and Mr. Leto lost tons of weight to play their roles? Lucky for them, they can gain the weight back. Oh, I should stop being so snarky—actors aren’t spokespeople for causes, for Chrissake. Actors talk about their asses.

Oh, and then there’s Michael Douglas’ win for playing Liberace, a tragic victim of both Hollywood homophobia and AIDS, in Behind the Candelabra. Mr.Douglas chose to keep any mention of AIDS behind the candelabra in his acceptance speech; he did, refreshingly, mention “sequins” and “mincing.” Silence, Mr. Douglas, still equals death.

Oh, yah, Liberace was from another era, and everyone “knew” he was gay, so what’s the big deal? Hmmm. Well, last time I checked, there is a Liberace type who also makes frequent glittering appearances in Las Vegas and is emphatically in the closet.

And if we’re to believe that AIDS has finished targeting celebrities, think again. Besides, Mr. Douglas is speaking to an international audience where any mention of AIDS would be potentially constructive. But the Golden Globes are all about getting drunk; not getting serious.

Referring to Mr. Leto and Mr. Douglas, J Bryan Lowder of Slate writes: “Moreover, it cannot be lost on them that some significant percentage of the recognition these films—and by extension, they—are enjoying is due to the accrual of liberal cred, queer people being the current favored minority of the left. It’s jarring, then, to witness people who are in no small part on stage because they were, in a professional sense, lucky enough to play a femme gay man or transgender woman—real figures whose existences in this world remain very precarious—treat those roles like a little light-hearted drag, easily accomplished with a day at the spa or a bit of studied lightness in one’s loafers.”

That Mr. Lowder must be a real party pooper.

I can’t go without mentioning that it was my nineteen-year old African-American daughter who alerted me to the insensitivities from those particular Golden Globes awardees. She also pointed to the exigencies to make the black experience manifest in film. Undoubtedly, those winners will use their precious speeches to reference their offscreen trials and tribulations.

Steve McQueen, the brilliant director of 12 Years A Slave, which won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, referenced “Roll Jordan Roll” in his acceptance speech. The John Legend song, written for the movie, is inspired by Eugene D.Genovese’s book of the same title: a testament to the human spirit that shows how slaves forced their owners to acknowledge their humanity through culture, music, and religion.

My nineteen-year old sees the connective tissue that binds all persecuted minorities. But she is a teenager and should be unconsciously partying—like those actors at the Golden Globes.

Roll Hollywood Roll.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

My Son Trayvon

Trayvon Martin is my son.
            As a queer, Trayvon Martin is my son. As a father, Trayvon Martin is my son. As a human being, Trayvon Martin is my son.
            I am complicit, however tenuously, in his murder.
            A bigot is a bigot is a bigot. In what I perceive to be a racially motivated hate crime, George Zimmerman gunned down an innocent teenager because he was black, period. Any of us who falls into that vulnerable category of being different—whether based on skin color or sexual orientation or [fill in the blank]—is a walking target in this country. And if you’ve read the paper lately, you can add women, the disabled, and the elderly to the list of those routinely discriminated against—from our city streets to the halls of “justice.”
            My identification with the entanglements of the Martin-Zimmerman case doesn’t end with my connection to Trayvon. No, I must admit that some part of me understands Zimmerman. Because—even though I have consciously worked to avoid being one my entire life—I, too, am a racist.
            The crosscurrents of being a victim and being a perpetrator are blurry, as I experienced what could ostensibly be considered a comedic Saturday morning romp but contained a dark undertow that haunts me.
            For my friends Zo and Stephanie, having a garage sale is a bit like throwing an impromptu cocktail party (without the booze): lots of giddiness and frivolity naturally occurs while we try to get rid of those pesky Christmas gifts we gave each other in years past; not to mention that photo of Meryl Streep that has hung in my apartment even during the times I wasn’t a fan.
            Things were going swimmingly on this bright sunny day in Los Feliz where there are more male couples than straight couples with baby strollers and the mixed races appear to coexist with a certain kumbaya kinship. Think again.
            In an effort to purge some of the emotion I attach to things, I was determined to release my attachment to Meryl plus a few other goodies I snatched off the walls, including a fab poster created for the 1992 Sydney Gay Mardi Gras and a hand-painted Egyptian wall hanging. Both pieces were precious to me: the Sydney event (where I performed) was a highlight of my career and the tapestry represented the trip I took to the land of the Nile, the zenith of my love affair with Philip. But it was time to let go.
            I was happy to sell both pieces to a man and his companion who wandered into our place of commerce. The taller, silver-haired gentleman projected an understated elegance and spoke with what I guessed to be an Armenian accent. He paid ten dollars for both framed pieces that his mute friend--also Armenian? maybe not--chose with some enthusiasm. I thought they might be fans of La Streep but no cigar. They left with only my two mementos.
            The garage sale ebbed and flowed, attracting a hodgepodge of humanity including gay/straight, young/old, rich/poor, hipsters/nerds, and probably a dozen subtly different ethnicities, as the day wore on.
            Suddenly, a Mercedes stops within feet of our display table that contains an oversized goose that lights up and a collapsible ballet barre. It’s the silver-haired dude, holding up the colorful Sydney Mardi Gras poster, with the affect of a bad actor trying to appear jovial. “I’m sorry,” he says, indicating the poster, “This is just not my thing.” He is indicating, without verbalizing, the words “gay and lesbian” that appear on the poster. As he approaches us, we eye each other with expressions of disbelief. “I want my ten dollars back.”
            “First of all, you paid ten dollars for two pieces,” I say. “And what’s not your ‘thing?’ Posters depicting blue clouds?”
            You can imagine what ensued. Zo, Stephanie and I adamantly refused to give him his money back (incidentally, the frame was worth much more than five bucks) but he was vociferous. His silent friend hovered near the car, immobilized, as the aggressor railed on. “You people are cheap,” he brayed.
            I (no surprise) did my “I am gay man, hear me roar: monologue while in the back of my mind, I was stereotyping this man as a “fucking entitled Armenian.” I admit it: if he was culpable of a sense of superiority (coupled with a perceived undercurrent of
Homophobia), I was just as culpable of some manifestation of racism—in that particular moment.
For the record, I live in a building where half of the population is Armenian and we have coexisted lovingly for more than a decade. That does not make me less blameworthy if you consider my inner thoughts on the day of the garage sale.
            What eventually happened was indeed an act of violence. The angry man, after several minutes of demanding his money back and concluding he wasn’t going to get it, he took the poster and smashed it over a small pole, situated by the driveway. Shattered glass endangered anyone who was within several feet of the explosion. No one was hurt.
            Not true. Even though we reveled in the gossipy aspect of the outlandish occurrence, I was hurt, engulfed by an underlying sense of anger, fear and shame—perhaps the qualities that have possessed any of us, Armenians and queers alike, who have been misunderstood, maligned, marginalized. An Armenian woman at the garage sale attempted to expound on “the cultural differences” that were at play in the showdown.
            Are those the same cultural differences that played out in the shooting of Trayvon Martin? In this respect, we are all related. Perhaps not by blood but by our humanness.
Trayvon Martin is my son.
And we are all participants in the story of this horrific shooting because it offers us an uncomfortable opportunity to look within.
            We are both victim and perpetrator.
            The three proprietors of the garage sale later wondered aloud if the distraught man and his silent partner were lovers. We all know that gay men are not immune to homophobia any more than they, including myself, are immune to the disquieting power of racism.
            I teach in a number of different venues, including a high school with young people who carry variegated ethnic stripes. Recently, one of my former students—a young black man, Trayvon’s age—opened his arms to hug me and, in spite of the fact he had a handful of candy, I instinctively reciprocated by embracing him, ignoring the forbidden student-teacher territory issue.
            “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, referring to the sugary mess in his hand. “Don’t be sorry,” I said. “You didn’t do anything.”
            “That’s what you always taught me,” the young man said. He laughed, sweetly imitating me, “’Don’t be sorry. You didn’t do anything to be sorry for.’”

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Fernando Remembers

Fernando, recently the object of scorn, was first performed at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in the late 80s as part of more intimacies. I have performed the character for more than 20 years, in venues all over the world; most recently for Hollywood Remembers at a Lutheran church. I will let the piece speak for itself.

"A man needs to be fucked."  Those were his exact words.  This white boy with yellow hair, the color of corn. From Ohio. Or Iowa. I do not know the difference. "A man needs to be fucked."  Jim. I call him Jim-Boy because he looks like he could have been on The Waltons. That's my children's favorite show; they watch all the reruns. Jim showed up at the club where I have been dancing for the past twenty-three years--since before he was born. He'd seen my picture in a newspaper advertisement. "I like manly men," he said to me. "Macho men, dark men, older men. Men with sturdy legs and strong stares."  "I guess I fit the bill," I said to this boy with much guts, "but I am not gay." He did not blink. Those clear blue eyes starred right through me, penetrating me. "A man needs to be fucked," he whispered. Everyone assumes male dancers are queer. Not true!  I grew up with kids taunting me. "Here comes the dancer," they'd say. As if dancer meant fairy, pansy, fruit. "Here comes the dancer." I learned to outrun them. Most of those guys are dead by now. Gang fights. I outran them and I outlived them. Dancing was not what my father had in mind for his only son. "Dancing is for sissies," he'd hiss. In order to go to dancing school, I had to prove I was no sissy. I became a ladies man at a very early age. My father was impressed--if not with my dancing ability, with my ability to attract beautiful girls. I got married to please my Dad. I was seventeen. Marrying Gabriella made it easier for my father to accept the idea of me becoming a dancer. There was never any question about what kind of dancer I'd be; from the time I was a little boy and saw a picture of a flamenco dancer, I knew. While other boys wanted to be Superman, I longed for the power and the passion I saw in that dancer's strong stare. His impenetrability. I tore that picture out of the book and carried it in my pocket. For inspiration. Thank God I was good enough to get a steady job, flamenco dancing, about the same time Gabriella got pregnant. After I moved away from  home, I remember only two serious discussions with my father and both of them were about ass-fucking. One of these "man-to-man talks," as he called them, was when Gabriella ballooned up from the pregnancy. "You must not commit adultery," he said, being a strict Catholic. "Yet, being a man, you'll have urges and your wife will be too sick or too fat or too something," he said, looking me in the eye. "Find a boy, a puto, to fuck in the ass," he said, as if this was the Eleventh Commandment. "Find a puto to fuck in the ass. Feels great," he said. "You won't know the difference." Like Ohio and Iowa, I thought. So I did. And it did. Our second man-to-man talk came when Gabriella was pregnant with our third child, less than three years later. "You obviously haven't figured out how to practice birth control," he said. I knew he wasn't talking about rubbers, forbidden by the Church. "You must learn to fuck her like you fuck those pretty boy putos. Then no more babies." Suddenly I knew why I was an only child. Gabriella wouldn't go for it--"hurt too bad," she said--so we had two more kids in as many years. Five hungry kids to feed on the salary of a flamenco dancer was not easy. Many women at the club had offered me gifts. And I accepted. I knew they wanted to feel what was between the flamenco dancer's sturdy legs. When a lady presented me with a hundred dollar bill, I knew she wanted more than a feel. I blamed Gabriella. If she'd let me do what my father suggested, I wouldn't need to fuck this old bag for a hundred bucks. But I did; the kids needed to eat. It became a weekly ritual with this rich old broad. Then I started servicing her girlfriends. I was exhausted but I was making an extra thousand dollars a month. That was fifteen years ago. I still--even at my age--get offers. As long as they don't see my feet, I can make a few extra bucks. As long as it doesn't spread up my legs. Onto my face. Into my mouth. There's one conversation my father and I did not have about butt-fucking. A conversation that might have saved my life. "A man needs to be fucked," Jim-Boy said. He's rubbing my feet. We're in his hotel room, which he's rented for the weekend. The picture of me in the newspaper advertisement is on the dresser. "You have so much attitude when you're onstage," he says. I don't understand "attitude." "Charisma," he says. "Oh! Garbo is what you're meaning." "Garbo? Like in Greta Garbo?" he asks. We laugh. He begins licking my feet, putting each toe in his mouth, like they are cherry popsicles. Sucking my toes. I am feeling things I have never felt before. He tickles my feet with his silky yellow hair; I feel his finger slide into my ass as he works his way up from my feet, kissing my ankles, my calves, my knees, my thighs, my balls. I am completely wet. His tongue is inside me. I will never be the same. He fucks me with his tongue and then he's on top of me, kissing my face, whispering in my ear. "Tell me how much you need it," he says. "Tell me how much you need it." "I need to be fucked," I hear myself say, under the spell of this boy from Iowa. Or Ohio. It does not hurt but I feel tears on my face. Or could it be the juices from his mouth? I am coming. I am gay! I am not gay! I am a husband and a father. A good Catholic. I am a Spanish flamenco dancer. I am not Mexican. I am a ladies man. Those are not lesions on my feet. They are badges of passion, purple tattoos oozing from places on my skin where his lips touched, feet first, then moving up my legs, inside my ass, up my chest, inside my mouth, until I am covered with his lovely kisses, his deadly marks. A violet shroud of love and death. I will not die. He gave me his youth. Injected me with immortality. Into my brain. I do not have AIDS. I am not gay. I am not a grandfather. I am impenetrable. Superman. Immortal. Spanish, not Mexican. A ladies man. A man needs to be fucked. I am a ladies man who needs to be fucked. Now I know the difference. Before Jim-Boy I did not know the difference. Between straight and gay. life and death, Ohio and Iowa. Now I know. The truth.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Letting Go

Letting Go

Fuck letting go.

I attended a rehearsal for the 25th anniversary production of Robert Chesley’s Jerker, marking the first time that I haven’t been involved in a local presentation since the night of the world premiere a quarter of a century ago.. Certainly this band of ribald queers, led by impresario Glenn Kessler, doesn't need my help but I can’t let go of the play. So I’m engaged as a “consultant” which means I get to watch scattered rehearsals and—like flashbacks stored in every crevice of my consciousness—relive my intense relationship to the play’s soul: its humor, its politics, and its inescapable bed of pain.

I happened (?) to walk in during a moment in the play that Chesley and I had wrangled over. In what was a very bold choice, I wanted the two characters—who never meet in person, only over telephone lines—to break the imaginary wall between them and actually kiss, lips on lips. The brilliant playwright finally agreed to see if I could make it work. I did—so much so that the move is now a permanent part of the script. And, passing the torch, Kessler is making it work, too—stunningly.

Kessler’s approach encompasses a company of seven sexy performers; in addition to the two leads, he is incorporating a team of players who will essentially recreate—live—some of the play’s erotically-charged memory passages. What I have seen promises to illuminate the play in ways we haven’t experienced it before. This is why I had to let go.

Producer Jason Moyer and I trade publicity postcards at the rehearsal I attend (you show me yours and I’ll show you mine). His card depicts a telephone (not a cellphone, an actual eighties telephone) and spells out the full title of the play: Jerker Or The Helping Hand, A Pornographic Elegy With Redeeming Social Value And A Hymn to the Queer Men Of San Francisco In Twenty Phone Calls Many of Them Dirty. It provides the details: opening on Friday, November 4 at Space 916; get tickets at www.brownpapertickets.com.

My postcard shows the partial face of a weathered man, with his eyes closed and his silver gray bushy moustache unkempt. My new solo piece, which plays  one night only on November 30, is called Torch. This is the story a man, over sixty, who can’t seem to let go of his youth, his memories, his heat, his sexuality, his past lovers (dead and alive). But he must let go or face the last act(s) of his life as a prisoner to The Past.

The juxtaposition of these two postcards encompasses decades of theatre that speak to  the cultural phenomenon of HIV/AIDS in ways both similar and wildly divergent.

In certain respects, Torch is an emotional sequel to Jerker. The man reconnects with a lover on Facebook and they resume a convoluted romance that they had not finished four decades ago: on the Internet, instead of the telephone, they share emotional and sexual intimacies that never result in a face-to-face meeting. There’s no death in Torch other than the demise attached to letting go of inflamed memories and stumbling into old age as a gay man with HIV.

Directed by Tony Abatemarco, Torch will be presented by the Katselas Theatre Company’s INKubator along with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Tickets: 702 582 8587 or online at KTCTICKETS.COM.

More reality based and less theatrically rendered, here’s the swelling heartache: I cannot let go of my daughter. Can. Not. Let. Go. Of. My. Daughter. She has left our apartment, where we have lived since she was a baby, and is spending her junior year of high school at the Idyllwild Arts Academy, studying filmmaking. My feelings of pride are only equaled by my pangs of agony. If the “love of your life” is the person you have the deepest feelings for, the person you would die for, the person you are entangled with—emotionally and spiritually—more than anyone else, Katherine (Tia) is the love of my life.

I imagine that I hear her in her bedroom. I feel her brush up against me in the kitchen. I hear her coming home, opening the front door; my phantom daughter, haunting my dance with loneliness.  I have not lived alone for seventeen years so here I am, earlier than expected, fluttering about apprehensively in an empty nest. Not Yet. I will not let go of my daughter. But. Not Yet.

I feel like I’m on a tightrope, with the stabbing pain of neuropathy ever present, walking on tiptoe from the past into the present and terrified of the fall that’s ineluctably in my future. But I suppose it’s that fear I must let go of ultimately, right? Yah, I’ve read all those books, too.

I love the work Glenn Kessler is doing and I know Robert Chesley might have initially winced but would ultimately wallow in this newborn adaptation. Chesley worshipped sex. And the politics of sex which Kessler certainly knows how to portray with a wink and a nod—and perhaps a hard-on?—in Chesley’s direction.

I love my new piece, Torch, and all of its stingers and zingers. I love that Tony is directing me—a man who is unique but also shares so many of the qualities that my fallen brethren possessed. I am nurtured as an artist.

And, finally, I love my daughter with a passion that is unparalleled. And who can be sorry about that, even if there are periods of longing that are torturous.

That’s what life dwindles down to: what we have, what we had, what we remember, and how to let go gracefully: knowing that everything is stored in our hearts, hearts that promise to beat immortally, taking up residence in the hearts of others.