For decades, HIV survivor and GLAAD Award-winning writer Mark S. King has penned the blog "My Fabulous Disease"a warts-and-all look at his life covering everything from an encounter with an armed crystal-meth addict to a major douching disaster to a night with actor Rock Hudson.
King has taken some of the most moving, funny and personal reflections and compiled them into a book, My Fabulous Disease: Chronicles of a Gay Survivor.
Ahead of an Oct. 25 event in Chicago that will feature book readings from King and guests such as Rosa Martinez and Dr. Keith Green, King talked with Windy City Times about the book, writer/activist Larry Kramer and more.
Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: I haven't read every "My Fabulous Disease" blog entry but it's obvious that your approach is very in-your-face. What compelled you to start this blog in the first place?
Mark S. King: Because I am a writer and storyteller, and it's in my bones. I've been writing in real time since very shortly after being diagnosed in 1985. I was 24 years old and, back in the day, we had things called newspapers and people called columnists. [Interviewer laughs.] I was a columnist and I remember being instructed to keep [articles] to about 800 words, and that just became the template.
I always say that I like to get in, tell you a story, make my point and get out. Later, I became a bloggeralthough some people call me a journalist and I consider myself an essayist. Nevertheless, I keep my entries to about 800 words.
So, to answer your question, I did because I come from a family of storytellers; in the book's introduction, I tell you what it's like to be around my family. And on top of that is the fact that I have privilege and I am fortunate in that I can speak all that I am without much consequence. I say that I'm shamelessand I think what I mean by that is that I refuse to be shamed about something that I shouldn't feel shame about.
You say that I seem kinda "out there." I am; I came this way. I don't think I realized during those early years of storytelling that I was actually chronicling a generation. I was writing little slices of gay life for Frontiers magazine in LA, and for Windy City Times and The Washington Blade. What I had was a timeline. A lot of the things I wrote about were universal: trauma, the plague years and the sexual politics that have rippled out since then.
So rather than writing a straight memoir or even writing something chronological, I thought I would collect what I thought were the really good articlesthe ones that have impact or my favorites.
WCT: There are some zingers in your book, for sureand one, which I believed until the end, involves you supposedly shopping with [activist] Larry Kramer.
MSK: You thought it might be true?
WCT: From some of the things I have heard and read about him, yes, I thought some of those items could be true.
MSK: Oh, yesright. And I had so much fun with that. It's one of the few pieces in the book that's completely fictional. I was having fun with his public persona and I was examining a generational thing in terms of what he represented and why he was the way he was. He was 20 years older and we entered AIDS at the same time; however, he entered as an older person who had lived a little more and who had more to say. I had nothing to say and was just as terrified as everyone else.
WCT: But you did get to know him eventually. What was he like?
MSK: He was a fussy, completely romantic Jewish mother who wanted everyone to find the right boy and settle down. When you realized that about him, then you understood what drove what was perceived as his sex-negative, judgmental nature. He was a little behind on the uptick of PrEP, for instance; he was worried it would make men promiscuous again.
It's funny because Larry was publicly volcanic; it was a very intentional posture. He probably told every major figure in the fightfriend and foe alike"You're a murderer." It was an effective means of navigating life for him.
And you know what? He was on to something. If you look at his novel Faggots, which was written pre-AIDS, it was a phantasmagorical look at gay sexual culture. It was about how we were incapable of making real connections with one another because he were so into the bacchanalia and sexual freedom. The book is about him trying to have this connection with this one particular guy but they live in this culture in which everyone's fucking their brains out. By the person, the person he wrote about was Davidwho Larry would reconcile with 20 years later and become his partner.
WCT: Maybe that's why he was such a romantic.
MSK: Yeah! The first time I met Larry, we spent all day in his apartment and David was there. I finally pulled out my original first-edition copy of Faggots that I had since I was 17 and asked him, "Would you sign this for me?" He asked, "What did you think of it?" I said, "When I read it when I was 17I was horrified by it. I looked at these people and said, 'I don't understand. This isn't me.' Then, within a few years, it was me." Then he nodded and said, "Yes."
He said, "That book was a love letter to David" while pointing at him. Then David said, "He's crazy. Do you know that he burned all my leather?"
WCT: For our readers, could you take me back to the day you found out you were HIV-positive?
MSK: It was March of 1985. The test had just been made publicly available. You weren't supposed to take it because nothing good can come from it, advocates said; they also said, "You'll be fired from your job and kicked out by your family." The way I looked at it wasAndrew, if there was an envelope in front of you right now that would tell you if you would be dead or alive in two years, would you open it? I wanted to know.
I had a friend who worked in a doctor's office. I went there after hours and was tested secretly. And he called me a couple of weeks later and said, "I am so sorry. You are HIV-positive. Good luck." That was it. AIDS had already been creeping into my social circle in West Hollywood, California. I was a strawberry blonde in his early 20s living in West Hollywoodand I was horrible. Thank God for branding; now I'm a ginger daddy. [Interviewer laughs.]
But I went numb [after getting the news] and I stayed numb for a year or two. I continued living the life I hadand that included getting laid and doing coke. I see this reaction even today. One thing that hasn't changed is that testing HIV-positive is a major life event. For people who are positive, their friends want to say, "It's going to be okay. There are all of these drugs." You just walked through a door you can't walk out of.
I decided that I couldn't do nothing. I had to get involved. A lot of people couldn't do that; they were stunned into inaction, and I get that. So I quit the work I was doing and went to work for the first AIDS organization in Los Angeles [AIDS Project Los Angeles]. We helped people die with dignity. There was nothing else to be done. I thought it would be the last job I would ever have.
I have never gotten sick, and it's wonderful to be able to say that. But I lived with existential dread for years until there were effective medications in the mid-'90s. And that was a long, extended period of trauma for all of us. I do write about those years and I write very specific scenes into what that was like, like my brother helping his lover die through assisted suicidethings like that.
I'm also careful that we're not reduced to our great tragedies, which sometimes happens with long-term survivors. I want to share more, like sex and my douching disasters.
WCT: I laughedbut when I wondered if I should be laughing at this.
MSK: Yes! Nothing is off the table. The mechanics of the kind of sex we have take some practice. Although that's an outrageous storyand it's true, and I still remember the pinstriped sheetsit says something about our shame. But at the end of the day, it's still anal sex. I guess I wanted to demystify it. Butt sex is tricky, and I was a terrible bottom.
WCT: I want to ask you something I've asked a lot of people recently: For you, what is it like to be part of the queer community in today's America?
MSK: In TODAY's Americathat's the rub.
I think that I bring a certain weight of having been forged in an incredibly trying time when we were called up to respond. For me, today, I have the sense of being an elder who has earned his stripes and I take a great amount of pride in how I responded and how we communally responded.
You get to the part where you say "today's America" and I add that I've never felt this threatened, as a queer person in this country, than I do right now. And people say, "Reallyeven with AIDS?" Here's the difference: AIDS requires all to learn a lot very fast about the disease; there was a lot of ignorance, but it was sincere ignorance. The people who wanted to send us to an islandall of that was based on a legitimate fear. We were all scared shitless.
The difference between then and now is that we know betterthe [current] hatred and stigmatization are insidious political tools used to scare people into hating, dismissing or marginalizing huge sections of our communities. Today, it's quite calculated; it's not based on fear but instead on a calculation of hatred. That's why I feel more endangered now than I did then.
WCT: It's misdirection. It's, like, "Look over there. There's a drag queen."
MSK: That's right. And it's the same thing with book-burning and queer people, in general.
TPAN and The Reunion Project will present "My Fabulous Disease: A Reading with Mark S. King," with guest readers, on Wed., Oct. 25, 6-8 p.m., at Colvin House, 5940 N. Sheridan Rd. Tickets can be purchased at do312.com/events/2023/10/25/my-fabulous-disease-book-reading-with-mark-s-king-tickets.