Stories of Fear

'We decided to keep Brad’s diagnosis secret so Brad could work as long as possible. It had been hard enough for him to resurrect his career ... He refused to get any medical care for fear of discovery.'
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Brad Davis, 1949–1991
Story & Recording by Susan Bluestein

Brad Davis shot to instant stardom one night in 1979 in the south of France at the Palais theater.  It was the night the movie Midnight Express premiered at Cannes International Film Festival.  Before that, Brad had worked as an actor in some prestigious TV shows like Sybill with Sally Field and the mini-series Roots.  But, that night before the premiere, no one knew who Brad Davis was.

I’m Susan Bluestein; I was Brad’s wife.  I realized then that the experience of a five-minute standing ovation and the commotion that followed would be forever etched in my memory.  It was shocking and thrilling to see this short, skinny kid from Tallahassee, Florida and this middle-class Jewish girl from New York frozen in time amongst the movie elite.  It was like a dream, not real or tangible, but wonderful.  Brad won a Golden Globe award for that performance.

However, around the same time, Brad’s life changed in a very different way, and it wasn’t like a wonderful dream.  Brad had just finished a movie, A Small Circle of Friends.  His IV drug use and alcohol addiction were at their height.  After that movie, he went to visit a friend on the set of the film Heaven’s Gate.  He came down with the worst case of shingles and swollen lymph nodes the doctor had ever seen.

Today, they probably would have tested him for HIV immediately, but no one knew this in 1979-1980.  Through a miracle and much hard work, Brad got sober in 1981 and tried very hard to repair his reputation in the industry.  We were overjoyed to have our baby, Alex, in 1983.

In 1985, Brad went to Cedars Sinai hospital to donate blood, as he always did after Alex was born.  He had gotten an acting job in Italy for a few months.  Cedars Sinai sent a letter to the house informing him that he was HIV positive.  Brad had just finished starring in Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart at the Public Theater in New York.  This, of course, turned out to be very prophetic.

At first we didn’t really believe it or know what to think. We had so many questions. Was I infected? Was Alex? What should we do and how should we live going forward?

Fortunately, Alex and I tested negative.  We decided to keep Brad’s diagnosis secret so Brad could work as long as possible.  It had been hard enough for him to resurrect his career.  We didn’t think much about it at the time.  Brad looked and felt good, but a light had gone out of him, carrying this burden of his past.  By then, he had been infected at least five years, maybe more.

He refused to get any medical care for fear of discovery.  But in 1989, he wasn’t feeling well and knew he needed help from a doctor. Luckily, he was able to reach out to his friends Larry Kramer and Rodger McFarlane.  By then they were major AIDS activists in New York.  They sent him to a wonderful doctor, who agreed to see him in secret along with many other actors we found out later.

After his last job, A Habitation of Dragons, he picked up a parasite and couldn’t recover.  It was 1991.  He didn’t want Alex, who was 8 years old, to see him die a horrible death.  He took his own life while he was still able, on September 8, 1991.

Brad’s death shocked Hollywood.  Brad had wanted to tell the truth of how he died and what he had been through hiding the truth that he had AIDS.  There were many differing opinions as to whether he would have been hired if producers and directors had known.

The truth is he did some of his best work during that time, a mini-series, Robert Kennedy and His Times, being his favorite.  He loved that show and felt it was his first really adult role.  Brad wrote a proposal exposing the fear and discrimination at the time in the Hollywood Industry about anything related to AIDS.  It later became a book.

We made the most of the years we had together with Brad.  There was always music, lots of laughter and wonderful friends.

Brad’s motto was always “Don’t postpone joy.”  He never did!

'His showmanship inspired other performers like Elton John, Lady Gaga and Cher to wow audiences with wild wardrobes, eye-popping glitz, and grandeur.'
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Liberace, 1919-1987
Recording by Jake Shears

When I first saw the video from Liberace’s 1978 concert at the Las Vegas Hilton, I was blown away and forever hooked.  His mirror-clad, silver Phantom V (Five) Rolls Royce limo is driven onto the stage and, after his chauffeur opens the rear door, Liberace emerges wrapped in a white fox fur coat with a 16-foot train, over a glimmering rhinestone and sequin-studded costume, and rings the size of June bugs.  Now that’s an entrance.

I’m Jake Shears, and when I was dreaming up costumes and stage designs for Scissor Sisters, the outrageous, over-the-top looks of Liberace paved the way on a glittery path.  His showmanship inspired other performers like Elton John, Lady Gaga and Cher to wow audiences with wild wardrobes, eye-popping glitz, and grandeur.  Would Gaga have entered the Grammy’s encased in an egg if decades earlier Liberace hadn’t started his Easter show at Radio City Music Hall by springing from a gigantic Easter egg?

And count me in as number 3.  And I actually jumped out of an egg myself at an early Scissor Sisters TV performance many years ago, so eggs all around!  I’ll never forget when I went into the Liberace museum in Las Vegas when it was still up and they had the largest rhinestone in the entire world in a glass case, and I’ve never been the same since.

But Liberace was far more than a showman with crazy costumes and gimmicks.  He was a very accomplished piano player as comfortable with classical compositions as he was with the popular music of his era.  Although critics often scoffed at his playing, he responded, in his words by “laughing all the way to the bank.”

He commanded the stage in Las Vegas for two decades, toured internationally, and starred in his own television variety show, which lasted four years and had 35 million viewers at the height of its popularity.  It has been reported that during his hey-day in the 1950s to the 1970s, Liberace was the highest paid entertainer in the entire world.  He won two Emmy Awards and six of his albums went gold.

Although he never came out publicly as gay, “his closet had walls of glass,” as the head of his foundation is fond of saying.  Anyone who didn’t know this man was gay had willful blindness. Yet he sued a British magazine for libel in 1956 when it clearly implied he was gay.  He managed to win that lawsuit and later settled another one with a US magazine that suggested his theme song should be “Mad About the Boy.”

In 1982, Liberace’s 22-year old former bodyguard and chauffeur, Scott Thorson, sued him for support, claiming they had been lovers and lived together for five years.  The case settled out of court and Thorson wrote a tell-all book about their life together in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

When Liberace died in 1987, his doctor reported the cause of death as a heart attack, but a coroner’s report showed that he died from AIDS-related pneumonia.  Two of Liberace’s alleged former lovers also died of AIDS.

'We came to the gyms to gain, lose, socialize or lurk. For some, it was a competition to look fabulous and get whatever there was to be gotten -- especially if it meant themselves.'
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Norm and Louis and the Chelsea Gym
Story & Recording by Ken Gault

On August 9, 1987, Norman Rathweg died of AIDS.

Somewhere in the 1980s, gay bars — especially in the Village — were going out of business. Perhaps it was the dying clientele, perhaps it was part of the global growth of health-culture, but the bar was being replaced by the gym as the place to meet, to hook up, or both.

Norm and his partner, Louis, were catching this wave of change. They opened the Chelsea Gym at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 17th Street, the middle of the new gayborhood. The entrance was on 17th Street, lockers on the ground floor, showers and steam room downstairs, weights, machines and mirrors upstairs overlooking Eighth Avenue.

We came to the gyms to gain, lose, socialize or lurk. For some, it was a competition to look fabulous and ‘get’ whatever there was to be ‘gotten,’ especially if it meant themselves. The buff-bodies paid little attention to me. Or if they did I was oblivious. Like everyone else, with or without the virus, I battled my own feelings of inadequacy.

There was something else going on with these men and their bodies. Those pounds of muscle said to the world that this bad-ass body does not, cannot, will not have AIDS. That might happen to someone else, but not to me, not to this body.

And there was something deeper and even more subtle. These walls of muscle were built for protection, to keep others out and most painfully, to keep feelings from getting in. The intimacy that was nearly impossible in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, became deadly in the ’80s. Perhaps the paths are clearer now, but even so, but still its difficult to navigate physical and emotional intimacy.

For some, they are one in the same. Physical intimacy equals emotional intimacy. For others, sex cannot and should not coexist with emotion. Sex is, well, just sex. For most, the grey area remains unambiguously grey. What is true for one is not necessarily true for the other. What is true in one moment, may not be true in the next.

Maybe its easier now, and men are more successful at it. Writing on intimacy will take time and will likely make me very unpopular. Stay tuned.

In the end, having a great body is its own reward, the by-product of a healthy life-style, feeling alive, working out the frustrations of the day with iron plates or a stair-master and modulating those endorphins.

In any event, Norm and Louis were there, on the second floor overlooking the iron plates, the cables, machines and sweating bodies. Aside from the leather jackets and Harleys, they looked to me like any other men running a successful business. Had they been straight, they might have been in the Lions Club.

I found out much later that Norm was more than a successful businessman. Earlier in his career, he designed two of the most iconic holy grails of sex, drugs and Rock ’n Roll that brought gay men to New York in the first place.

In City Boy, Edmund White says this:

“Norm … ‘a part-time beau’ … designed the St. Mark’s Baths and ‘the Hindenburg of discos,’ The Saint. Seemingly a prototype of the muscular gay males who would come to rule Chelsea, he grew up a bookish nerd in Florida, where his invalid father ‘would lie in bed drinking and insulting his big, fearful, skulking son, calling him a creep and a faggot.’”

Who knew? I guess everyone knew, except me.

The last time I saw them, I was in line to board the ferry to Fire Island. They were resting from the 20-foot walk from the boat. I went to say hello.

Norm looked up. His face was blank and poorly shaven. He tried to speak but all that came out was a raspy groan. Louis smiled and did the talking.

In a moment, I was back in line to the ferry. Louis was helping Norm into a medical transport van.

'As I moved from fear into love, I visualized darkness turning into something full of light, sparkly and golden, pumping life through my once polluted tunnels, now made into a magical network of veins transmitting healing forgiveness inside of me.'
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Spirituality, Medicine, and Art
Story & Recording by Vasilios Papapitsios

 

My name is Vasilios Papapitsios.  I became HIV-positive when I was 19, in North Carolina, through barebacking.  The first five years I lived with HIV, it’s like I was stuck in a vacuum. I couldn’t breathe.

In 2011, three months after my diagnosis, I was expelled from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under homophobic claims that I was the center of the local HIV outbreak. This was simply not true.

The school told me I was a threat to campus and banned me from stepping foot on the grounds.  This caused me serious mental health issues which forced me into a dark place for many years.  I even went to the ACLU for assistance, but decided not to put up a fight, because that meant disclosing to the public and to my family.

I didn’t get on antiretroviral treatment  because I had little accessibility to care and stigma made me fear taking my next steps.  I got really sick.  At one point, I was reduced to 104 pounds and 6 CD4 or immune cells.  I should have had thousands of those little warriors.  My doctors told me I had one to three months left to live, if left untreated.

There I was. staring death in the face.  But I made a new start, through spirituality, medicine, and art.

I did an exercise in transmutation with my mentor, Sharon Jeffers.  She’s the grandmother I never had growing up and a true mystic. On pieces of paper, she laid down the words “fear” and “love” in front of me.  She had me stand on fear and feel with every particle of my being what that felt like.  I saw HIV — the virus, as well as the stigma associated with it — as lead in my body: dense, dark, and heavy.

She then asked me to step forward onto love, and to begin visualizing what loving my HIV would look like.  Love was only two feet in front of me, but getting there felt like pushing through a wall of cement.

I thought to myself, “I can love HIV.”

As I moved from fear into love, I visualized darkness turning into something full of light, sparkly and golden, pumping life through my once ‘polluted’ tunnels, now made into a magical network of veins transmitting healing forgiveness inside of me.  I made the intention to let go, to breathe, and to finally begin to heal and feel pleasure, to experience joy, and be more fully me, by embracing HIV.

Finally I was ready to start my journey towards a more holistic health. It felt like I was taking a deep breath for the first time in a while.

You might wonder why I avoided treatment for five years, especially when doctors tell us how important it is to start treatment as soon as we test positive. I don’t have an easy answer for you, except to say that lots of bad things happened to me during those five years, and I couldn’t cope.

For starters, I was so poorly educated that I didn’t think things would get as bad as they did.  Then there was my struggle to get good medical care in North Carolina after they had defunded the AIDS Drug Assistance Program in 2012, not to mention the ugly layers of stigma and self-stigma.

The important thing is that, shortly after I accepted the virus and stepped out of fear, I was ready to take my meds.  Within three months, I had gained 30 pounds and my CD4 cells returned to near normal. My body felt better than it had in years. And I was breathing again.

Which brings me around to the role of art in transforming my life.  I am an artist.  I make digital art and soft sculptures. Disclosure is one of the most important aspects of fighting HIV stigma, preventing the spread of the virus, and gaining a healthy sense of self.

One day I had this idea.  I thought, what if I could use art to disclose my status and help others to disclose theirs?  And what if it was light-hearted and cute, not heavy and scary?

I began to embroider weathered jocks and underwear I’d lived in since I contracted HIV. I call this series of artworks “Intimacy Issues.”  They are like my magical protective garments and have titles like Love AIDS, I’m Poz, and my personal fave, Poz4pleasure.

I began embroidering my underwear as art therapy, and with each stitch, I felt empowered.  Through this work, my fear started to dissipate and I could see myself having an intimate relationship again.

I believe there are blessings and hidden blessings in everything, including HIV.  As the great Sufi poet Rumi said, “The wound is where the light enters you.”  HIV is but one of many wounds I have, but for me it is where the most light pours through.

'Ed had a secret that he kept from his friends: He was in the United States illegally ... This explained why he never sought medical attention after being diagnosed with AIDS.'
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Ed Junior, 1982-2015
Story & Recording by Dave Coleman

Ed Junior had the voice of an angel, but only those of us involved in the karaoke scene of southern California got to hear it.  Affectionately known by his friends as Rihanna, he could match the best singers of our time like @WhitneyHouston, @CelineDion, @Siamusic and Freddie Mercury.

But Ed had a secret that he kept from his friends: He was in the United States illegally.  This explained why he never had a good job that lasted for long and why he never had a bank account.  It also explained why he never sought medical attention after being diagnosed with AIDS.  He didn’t have medical insurance, and thought he’d be deported back to Mexico and outed to his family.

Ed was too afraid to enter a hospital until the disease deteriorated his body so badly that he was collapsing and couldn’t hide it any longer.  Friends admitted him into the hospital.  He wasn’t deported.  He never left the hospital.  A few weeks later, he was dead.

As Ed laid on the hospital bed dying from AIDS, I would play his favorite songs for him, like Rihanna, “Shine bright like a diamond / Find light in the beautiful sea / I choose to be happy.”

Ed’s family came to the United States to claim his body.  A celebration of Ed was held at his favorite gay bar to raise money for funeral expenses, where we all tried to sing in his memory.  His family came and met all of Ed’s friends.  They shed tears for the loss of their child, but also happy tears for the amount of love this tight knit community had for this angelic human being.

Ed’s voice and kindness touched all of our lives.  He will be remembered always.  He shone bright like a diamond in our sky.

'Each moment I spent in the creative space with Howard Ashman remains with me every day of my life.'
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Howard Ashman, 1950-1991
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport and Alan Menken
Recording by Alan Menken

Howard Ashman was a masterful writer, lyricist and director, in my opinion the greatest of our generation, who died of AIDS on March 14, 1991, at the age of 40.  My name is Alan Menken.  In a collaboration that lasted 12 years, Howard and I wrote the stage and movie musical Little Shop of Horrors and won two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards and three Golden Globe Awards for Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.

We forged a collaboration that was intense, creative and supremely effective. Each moment I spent in the creative space with Howard Ashman remains with me every day of my life.

With our first project at Disney, Little Mermaid, some studio executives resisted using the song “Part of Your World,” for fear we would lose some of the younger audience members. But Howard insisted that our audience had to know what our little  mermaid Ariel wanted. She needed to have what he called an “I want” song.

I think that as a gay man, Howard grew up knowing what it felt like to be on the outside, wanting to be a part of the world that he saw around him but somehow not able to fully take part.

For two years, while Little Mermaid was being made, Howard knew he had HIV but he hid his illness from everyone on the movie, including me. We found out later that, during the press junket for Little Mermaid at Disney World in Orlando, Howard wore a catheter in his chest so that he could get medicine intravenously at night. When he saw the parade of Little Mermaid characters at the park, he burst into tears.

Later, those of us who worked with Howard realized why he cried: It was the idea that those characters would live on long after he was gone.

The night we both won our Oscars for Little Mermaid, Howard said he and I needed to have a serious talk, and after we got back to New York, Howard revealed to me that he was sick with AIDS. We had just reached the pinnacle of our careers in both theater and the movie business, and we had worked side-by-side for 11 years, yet my dear friend kept it a secret from everyone he worked with that he had an incurable fatal disease. That’s the kind of fear people lived with back then: fear of rejection, of death, of a fatal illness with no cure, and there was so much stigma and discrimination.

But Howard wouldn’t let AIDS keep him down. He was so determined to keep working, to keep creating magical song moments and unforgettable characters. I think AIDS spurred him on to work even harder because he knew he was living on borrowed time.

Howard and I were brought in to fix Beauty and the Beast while it was being developed. But Howard was too sick to commute back and forth to LA, so he finally had to tell Jeffrey Katzenberg that he had AIDS.  Katzenberg agreed that the production would travel from LA to meet with Howard and me in upstate New York.

At the same time, we were also working on Aladdin, which Howard had initially developed. Because of AIDS, Howard was suffering neuropathies, began losing feeling in his fingers, losing his voice and much of his eyesight, all the while we were collaborating on joyous, incredible songs. Howard was determined to keep working as long as he could.

Towards the end of his life, Howard and I wrote “Prince Ali” from his hospital bed. He was down to 80 pounds. He couldn’t see and could barely speak.

Howard and I won an Oscar for Best Song for Beauty and the Beast. And the movie was the first animated picture ever nominated for Best Picture. Howard had passed before ever experiencing the movie’s success.  The award was accepted by his companion of seven years, Bill Lauch.