Posts tagged “aids

Today Marks the 5th Anniversary of the Publication of My First Novel

Songs for the New DepressionIt’s hard to believe that my labor of love, my first novel, Songs for the New Depression, was published five years ago today. Over 12 years in the making, the main character in the book was inspired by the illness and subsequent death of my once-partner, Shane Sawick. While that character, Gabriel Travers, may have Shane’s biting wit, the darker traits the character exhibits are not really Shane’s at all, but mine. When I was younger, I was driven by my insecurities which, allowed to fester, could make me incredibly nasty. Happily, I’ve worked through much of that, but that memory–of treating others with disdain, keeping them at arms length through dripping sarcasm–still hangs over me today, helping to remind me of how to best treat those I love, and the consequences such narcissism can have on one’s soul.

To this day, “Songs” remains to the creative accomplishment of which I’m most proud. Not only did I keep a promise to myself over that long, 12-year stretch just to finish the damn thing, but as I’m not by training a “writer,” I still feel satisfaction in the final product. Of course, there are piddly things that I wish I could clean up, but I was able to tell the dark, redemptive story I wanted to tell, in all its messiness.

I never envisioned how much I would learn on that journey to publication, about book formatting, publishing, marketing, video production, website design, and so much more… To think, at my then-age of 46, I would be on an upward learning curve at that particular stage of my life was awesome–and rather remarkable.

Even more remarkable was to learn of the book’s reception and how it touched people. I received notes from folks sharing their stories of love and loss in the age of AIDS, and tributes to those they cherished. One reader read the novel four times, at last count, and found a continuity error both my editors and I had missed! (One of those ‘piddly things’ I wish I could go back and fix.)

I didn’t write the book for reviews or awards, yet was pleasantly surprised when both came freely. I’ve shared them below, but just as important for me in hearing the positive remarks was in learning the negative.

On one person’s website, they castigated me for being misogynistic and trans-phobic, which–if you’re remotely aware of me and my activism–you would know that I am not. Still, I had to take in that criticism and let it resonate. While the character of Gabe is both misogynistic and trans-phobic (truly, he is anti-anyone-but-himself), I had to really consider the possibility that the emotions he expressed were somehow, by osmosis, my own. Given this criticism, I tried to step back and consider the book as a whole. In doing so, I realized that almost all of the nurturing characters offering him a chance at redemption are women (save Jon.) Ultimately, women are the ones reaching out their hand to save Gabriel, most likely because, at my core, I wish my mother would do the same for me.

Five years is a long time. Since then, I’ve published a book of short stories (Gifts Not Yet Given), been through a brutal custody battle, and moved with my family to an entirely different state, where we live a much more peaceful mountain life. While I’m at work on a memoir, it’s been slow going, at best. Part of that is due to our emotional and financial recovery from that legal struggle, and part is a bigger issue: How do I tell a truthful account of my life, in an entertaining way for the reader, and yet in a way in which honors all involved?

Happily, I think I’ve finally found that key, and I look forward to sharing that book with you. Hopefully sooner than another five years!

Cheers,

Kergan

*****

SONGS FOR THE NEW DEPRESSION

indiebookawards2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award – LGBTQ
Independent Literary Awards – LGBTQ Shortlist
Best Books of 2012 – Out in Print Reviews
Best LGBTQ Literature of 2012 – Indie Reviews
Top 5 Books of 2012 – Alfred Lives Here
Top 10 Books of 2012 – Butterfly-O-Meter Books

Advocate.com raves that “Kergan Edwards-Stout has crafted a work of fiction reminiscent of some classic tales in Songs for the New Depression. Even better, Edwards-Stout’s debut boasts the kind of dark humor that made Augusten Burroughs (Running With Scissors, Dry) a household name.”

Kirkus Reviews (“The World’s Toughest Book Critics”) calls it an “engaging debut… Edwards-Stout infuses reality and hopefulness into a bittersweet story about compassion and personal growth.  A distinctively entertaining novel written with moxie and bolstered by pitch-perfect perspectives.”

Five-time Lambda Literary award-winning author Michael Nava says, “”Songs for the New Depression is an affecting novel, written with great literary flair.  I recommend it.”

Buy Now!
The critically acclaimed debut novel of Kergan Edwards-Stout, Songs for the New Depression, is available now in hardcover, paperback, and all e-Book formats, and can be purchased at BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, and other fine booksellers.

What’s It About?
Gabriel Travers knows he’s dying; he just can’t prove it. Despite his doctor’s proclamations to the contrary and rumors of a promising new HIV drug cocktail, all it takes is one glance into the mirror to tell Gabe everything he needs to know. His ass, once the talk of West Hollywood, now looks suspiciously like a Shar-Pei, prompting even more talk around town.  Now almost 40, and with the clock ticking, Gabe begins to finally peel back the layers and tackle his demons — with a little help from the music of the Divine Miss M and his mom’s new wife, a country music-loving priest.

Praise for Songs for the New Depression
“Edwards-Stout’s satiric wit belies a smoothly written, circumspect story.” Library Journal

“Simply stunning… This tale of love and life constantly brought me to both laughter and tears. To those of us who loved and lost this is an important read to assist your reconciliation. It has mine. To those who have heard the stories, this love letter should be required reading. The characters are nicely carved and as they come to terms with moral decisions, it ultimately to me was all about getting through ones life awake and alive.”  Dana Miller, Frontiers Magazine/Los Angeles

“Brilliantly conceived and masterfully written… You’ll read this once for its emotional impact and again to see how the author achieves it. But no matter how many times you dive in, you’ll be impressed.” Out in Print Reviews

Songs for the New Depression is a thoughtful read that should speak to many.” Midwest Book Review

“Compelling, beautifully written debut novel… The author’s darkly comic, brutally honest prose reads like poetry and has a melodic flow that is equally funny and heartbreaking. Gabe’s story is bittersweet, heartfelt and profound… A quintessential page-turner and the product of a truly gifted author.” Edge on the Net

“From LA to Palm Springs to Paris, over the course of 20 years, Kergan Edwards-Stout takes us on a beautiful journey. The characters are dynamic, interesting, and real, and the relationships are painful and funny and romantic and sexy and sad all at once.” Q Magazine

Songs for the New Depression is an affecting novel, written with great literary flair. I particularly enjoyed its portrait of Los Angeles in the 80’s and 90’s, as well as the author’s brave willingness to write about the AIDS epidemic at a time when so many of us seem to want to forget that terrifying era. At times laugh aloud funny, and at other times intensely moving, it is the first of what I hope will be many books to come from Kergan Edwards-Stout. I recommend it.” Michael Nava, author (Five Lambda Literary Awards, winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award for Gay and Lesbian literature)

“Many tout this book as an important piece of fiction that should be read by all because of it’s portrayal of AIDS. I’ll give them that. I would add that it’s not only an important piece of fiction because of the message, but it’s a great piece of fiction writing regardless of the message.” LGBT Book Review Blog

“The laughs make the book deceptively breezy. Songs shines with psychological truth and historical accuracy.” A&U magazine

“Edwards-Stout has written a wonderful book in which he takes on AIDS and depression from a personal point of view and he does so with great style and wit.”  Amos Lassen, Reviews by Amos

“This is a work that will make you both laugh and cry, and fair warning: it is difficult to get through certain portions of the text because Edwards-Stout is quite explicit in detail, which is testament to the fact that he is such a brilliant writer. This is not one to miss.” Liberty Press

“Five Stars.”  Bob Lind, ECHO Magazine/Our Bookshelf

“If a roller-coaster ride of sadness and humor sounds right up your alley, then look for Songs for the New Depression by Kergan Edwards-Stout. This is the story of a man who knows he’s dying, knows he’s made a lot of mistakes in his life, and knows that he needs to fix things before the end. I won’t tell you the end. Read the book.” Terri Schlichenmeyer, The Bookworm Sez syndicated column

“Involving, emotional read… Songs For The New Depression touched me and stayed with me.” Alfred Lives Here

Songs for the New Depression is an enjoyable and addictive read.  In fact, don’t be surprised if you find yourself not answering texts and neglecting your Facebook updates as you finish the book in one read.  I did.” Q Vegas Magazine

“The NY Times ought to be reviewing Songs for the New Depression, not the likes of me.  It is a beautiful book, and, I think, an important one.” Ulysses Grant Dietz, author

“One of the most emotional, touching, heart-wrenching, and intelligent stories I’ve read in a very long time. With a dark wit reminding me of David Sedaris, this story examines the life of a man who’s made many mistakes and, at the end, has managed to learn a few lessons… The language is sophisticated and elegant, each word precise, depicting clear images and evoking specific emotions. The description, whether of location, food, clothing, people, or emotions draws the reader into the moment as if it were actually happening. As a result, we experience Gabe’s highs and lows on a powerful level, truly understanding Gabe, his limitations, and his dreams.Wrapped up in a sad story, illustrated with disappointments and heart-break, is a story of hope and understanding.” Top2Bottom Reviews

“Kergan Edwards-Stout’s Songs for the New Depression is a bold reminder that life, especially in its most difficult moments, is worth living.  His characters are real and poignant, his writing is magical, and his message is timeless. Life is at its most precious when we are faced with our own mortality. It is an important book.”  Charles Perez, author of Confessions of a Gay Anchorman and founder of the No Shame Project.

“This is an incredibly important book.” Chapters and Chats

Songs for the New Depression is an impressive, innovative, and dynamic love story. Rich, witty, and vivid, this is a heart-wrenching, hilarious and sometimes shocking journey of an everyman-narcissist who finally finds redemption in embracing his humanity and ultimately reunites with the hero he was always looking for between the lines of Paris, Bette Midler, and all things fabulous. I found myself singing along until I was able to shout, ‘Amen!’” Steven Fales, Confessions of a Mormon Boy

“This book touched me at the core of my being!  It is a story of love and devotion, and a self examination of a dying man… I read this book in just a couple of days because I could not stop once I started reading.” Book Talk With Charla

“Kergan Edwards-Stout has written a masterpiece. A bravura debut novel, its heartfelt message is ultimately timeless.  It is easily one of the top ten books I’ve enjoyed in the past decade.  Once you start this one, you won’t be able to stop.” Carey Parrish, author of Marengo and Big Business

Songs for the New Depression carries you away on waves of humor and sadness as we follow the protagonist as he deals with his search for love, acceptance and his battle with AIDS. Far from being maudlin, it is extremely sensitive and ennobling. A fine work that will leave you wanting more.”  Robert Michael Morris, star of TV’s The Comeback and author of An American Scrapbook


Twenty Years Ago Today…

Shane - LouvreIt is astounding how our bodies hold and store memories, filing them away, only to open their drawer unexpectedly to remind us of their presence. I had planned on sleeping in late this morning, as I rarely do anymore given that we have kids, but our dog Toby was whining to be let out. Even so, I tried to remain half asleep as I did so, returned to bed, and placed an eye mask over my eyes. On my first deep inhale to restore sleep, though, I immediately woke fully: today marks Shane’s last full day of life, exactly twenty years ago.

It seems impossible that so much time has gone by, as so much of him and that experience remains within me, prompting memories such as this. I think of him often and relate to our children each year, as we unpack Shane’s trove of nutcrackers, just who he was and what he meant to me. And yet I’ve also packed so much into those subsequent years (a commitment ceremony, the birth of Mason, the unexpected and dramatic breakup of that relationship, subsequent costly court battles with my ex, the years of trying to heal, eventually meeting Russ, adopting Marcus, getting married, writing books and embarking on countless other new adventures), that the length of time also seems substantial… As if another life, one so disconnected with the life I lead today.

Just a few weeks ago, on March 5, I turned 50. It was twenty years ago, on the day of my turning 30 in 1995 that we checked Shane into the hospital, where he would die two weeks later.

That year, we had planned for me a simple 30th… Given Shane’s months of decline, I could not bear any major celebrations, of attention being placed on me instead of Shane, and instead opted for my family to join us in L.A. for dinner and cake. When I called my mom to tell her that couldn’t happen, as Shane would be in the hospital, her words and tone communicated to me that she felt as if his health were a direct attempt to sabotage her plans.

For this year’s birthday, I opted for no celebration as well. For some reason, I just didn’t want the attention. I took my birthday off Facebook, blocked the ability of people to post to my wall, and decided instead to have a simple family dinner. Many thought that I was hesitant about turning 50, but I have no qualms about aging. I wear my years on earth and my varied experiences as a badge of honor. But this morning I realized that my reluctance for attention is also tied into Shane and what he was going through 20 years ago on this very day.

Shane and Kergan - Eiffel TowerIn the fall of the prior year, 1994, we’d gone to Europe. I’d never been and Shane wanted to return, both as a likely last-hurrah and to share it with me. While he’d had a few minor health incidents in the months leading up to our trip, as well as a decline in t-cells, he was still relatively healthy. But our 5 week journey to France and Italy took an increasing toll on him as each day progressed. By the time we got to Rome, from which we’d depart, it was physically apparent how taxing the trip had been–you could see the strain on his face. All of the walking and stairs had been too much, and those last few days he would journey out from our hotel only once each day, to quickly take in a sight, sometimes just from a taxi cab window, and then we’d return back to the hotel again. Too weak to go out for meals, I’d bring him takeout–he was craving McDonald’s–and I became inordinately familiar with their location near the Spanish Steps.

Upon our return to the states, his health began to quickly spiral downward. He began having mobility issues. Walking down a straight corridor, he would suddenly veer to the right or left, or stumble. Driving, he would either abruptly stop short, or too far into a crosswalk. It soon began to affect his speech, as his words became muddled.

His eventual diagnosis was Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy (PML), which essentially is a lesion which grows on the brain and increasingly affects the motor skills.

Shane Michael SawickIn just a few months, he went from a vibrant young man, filled with exuberance about life and excitement about our upcoming trip, to a bedridden, shrunken figure, rarely leaving our bed.

While we had hoped to keep Shane at home and comfortable, his body and organs began to fail him, leading to his hospital admittance. In just two short weeks, he lost the ability to speak, as well as the ability to blink to signify “yes” or “no,” and even to squeeze my finger. He was fully alert inside, with all of the knowledge and emotions he’d always had, but he was completely unable to communicate any of it. Each night, after his mother had returned to our apartment and all visitors were gone, I would crawl up alongside him in bed. I would talk to him about my love for him, share the news of the day, and remind him of all the wonderful things we’d experienced together. I talked often of Italy and France… Of the countless kitties of the Pitti Palace. Of the jasmine-like scented grapes we ate in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. And of our last night ever of sex, in Rome, when it became clear the end would soon come.

Shane and friends - Boothbay Harbor, MaineI hold Shane up today, as I have continually over the twenty years since. In that time since, his dear mother has died and his beloved sister, whom I think he loved most of all, has bravely battled cancer. Shane’s best friend Vivian still lives on, but Shane’s L.A. circle of friends has drifted apart. We lost David to AIDS not long after Shane’s death. Another of the group with AIDS came close to dying, but through the miracles of an experimental treatment is alive today. I know Shane would be disappointed to know that this dear group of guys, with whom years of memories were made, would not survive his passing. In many ways, he was the glue, and his absence led to consequences none of us would have imagined.

Shane Michael SawickAnd so today, on the 20th anniversary of his last full day on earth, I hold up Shane Michael Sawick. Without loving him, I don’t think I would have come to love myself. Without him, I would never have become a writer. And without him, I couldn’t have grown up enough, to have explored myself enough, to be the father and partner that I am today.

Shane died on March 22, at 12:22am. He was surrounded by his family and friends, and we played a tape cassette of his beloved Bette Midler singing his favorite song, “Shiver Me Timbers,” as they pumped morphine into his veins and he took his last breath.

He will not be forgotten.


Provincetown Magazine: Excerpt from “Gifts Not Yet Given”

For those in P-town this week, pick up the October 10, 2013, issue of Provincetown Magazine, which features an excerpt from one of the stories in Gifts Not Yet Given, “The Cape.” The tale takes place on Christmas in Provincetown, as a Boston native flees his city for solace in his seaside bungalow. It is one of my favorite stories in the book, and I’m appreciative to them for sharing it with their readers!

Provincetown Magazine Cover Cape Gifts Photo


AIDS @ 32: For Whom the Bell Tolls (32 Notables Share Their Stories)

Having lost friends, co-workers, and a lover, Shane Sawick, to AIDS, I am all too acutely aware of the personal impact the disease has had on my life. Coming of age during the height of the epidemic, my experiences in HIV education and activism fundamentally shaped me, forever altering my very core. However, in the years since, the media has largely ignored the disease, as have many in the LGBT community. This veil of silence is both odd and frightening, ignoring the impact the disease had on an entire generation and relegating gay and lesbian people, once again, to a place of shame.

As June 5, 2013, marks the 32nd year since the first report of the disease which would go on to be known as AIDS, I was curious as to the toll the disease has taken on others. I reached out to both those who directly faced the onslaught, as well as those younger who have never known a world without AIDS, to find out how 32 years of HIV/AIDS has impacted their lives. Here are 32 voices, on the 32nd year of AIDS.

Tuc Watkins“Becoming sexually active in the early ‘90s was a scary time. AIDS was widespread, but safe sex education was spreading too. I learned how to protect myself. And I did. I am concerned that today’s youth, especially gay youth, think that if they contract HIV/AIDS they can ‘just take some pills’ and everything will be okay. Safe sex education must continue and be more encompassing than billboards that oversimplify contracting HIV/AIDS by showing a bottle of pills as a ‘prescription’ to fighting the disease.“
Tuc Watkins, actor (Desperate Housewives, One Life to Live)

Greg Louganis“It has been almost 25 years since my diagnosis of being HIV positive. At the time, the only drug available was AZT, which was to be taken as 2 pills, every four hours, around the clock, which was not conducive to a good night’s rest when training for the Olympics! I survived another battle ten years later, when I thought I was saying good-bye to my friends and family. I was wasting away to almost nothing, boarding a plane to go thousands of miles from my home, checking into a hospital under an assumed name. I didn’t claim it on my insurance, as I was fearful of anyone knowing my diagnosis. Today, my life couldn’t be more exciting. HIV has given me perspective, pushing me to not put off my passions. Now, in my 50s, I’ve taken up trapeze, and look forward to both an incredible scuba diving trip next year and a sky dive this year. The fact is I live ‘with’ a virus called HIV; it is a part of me, at times challenging, but those questions of how or why are irrelevant. I have been incredibly blessed to have had such support after telling the world my status. Yes, I have my haters, but I give them as little energy as possible. No one truly knows how long we have, so I have chosen a joyous and happy life!”
Greg Louganis, author and four-time gold medal Olympian

Trebor Healey“Coming out into the AIDS epidemic made it all the harder to come to terms with one’s sexuality. To live in an embattled community facing oppression and discrimination as well as annihilation was overwhelming and often infuriating. I developed an enormous regard for my community through ACT UP, Queer Nation and the many service organizations that mushroomed up to deal heroically with the crisis. I worked at a hospice through many of those years and treasure the love, brotherhood, and community I saw there. We grew up politically, spiritually, socially, we found out who are friends were. AIDS was a teacher in many ways, and when I could stay in my heart, I’d find it could teach me. It was a hard teacher, a tough love thing, but it politicized me and woke me up in so many ways that I’ve done volunteer, community, and progressive political work ever since. Of course, oftentimes the loss was overwhelmingly sad, reminding us to live in the now, and love one another fiercely and fully. And to always remember those we lost, and to honor them by strengthening our community and keeping our hearts open and strong and just.”
Trebor Healey, two-time Ferro-Grumley award-winning author (A Horse Called Sorrow, Through It Came Bright Colors)

StevenFales“I never wanted to become positive and tried to avoid it. My father-in-law died of AIDS in 1984. I had a sister-in-law who was positive and who has since died. But a crystal meth binge got me one night. Thank goodness the meds today make it possible to one day see my grandchildren and to be undetectable for the right guy. We’re learning too slowly, but we are learning! One clean and sober day at a time.”
Steven Fales, actor and playwright (Confessions of a Mormon Boy)

Frank Bruni“I’m 48, have been ‘out’ since the age of 18, and had many acquaintances and friends who, in the mid-1980s and late 1980s and even early 1990s, got sick and died. Only a few were close friends, and it saddens and horrifies me that they’re no longer here. But what really saddens and horrifies me isn’t personal loss: it’s our country’s loss. Our world’s loss. So much talent, so much verve, so much humor, so much mischief, so much generosity: all gone. For me the legacy of AIDS—which, I hasten to point out, is still with us, not to be overlooked or belittled—is an awareness of how unpredictably and mercilessly the future can disappear, how randomly disease can strike, and also how dangerous and shortsighted it is for people themselves and for society in general not to confront public health threats immediately, vigorously, honestly and without denial or prejudice. The sadness that sticks with me is less about the friends gone than about the revelation of human and societal shortcomings.”
Frank Bruni, columnist, The New York Times

Jackie Beat“I cannot tell you how many tears I have cried with friends upon learning they had tested positive. Back then, we just assumed that HIV was a death sentence. For many it was, but for others, it was actually the start of a brand new—albeit challenging—life. I thank God for the progress we’ve made, but when I meet young people whose attitude is ‘I’ll just take a pill for the rest of my life,’ it scares me. It’s 2013 and I still have the same message I had 25 years ago: SAFE SEX.”
Jackie Beat, entertainer

RobertMichaelMorris“The disease began to touch those I knew and loved: a wonderful actor, a brilliant jack of all trades, a former student who was so handsome and full of life, a young dancer friend from A Chorus Line… Their commonality was not only the arts, it was youth. They were all too young with too much to live for and too much to share. Suddenly, because I knew these guys, every death after hammered my heart; hammered by complete strangers. I cursed God a little, but I became more open to everyone, not just my personal circle of friends. And I still think it is just so damned unfair.”
Robert Michael Morris, playwright, actor (Running Wilde, The Comeback)

Michael Musto“From the beginning, the community fielded the horror of AIDS with a mixture of shock, grief, denial, terror, and rage that not nearly enough was being done about it by the powers that be. As the community was devastated, many of the survivors became politicized and created a culture that by now has become legendary in its power and impact. Decades later, AIDS is still there and still devastating, and we’re going through all the same emotions about it, but we’ve learned through our battle scars and emerged with a lot of fight in us, which helps as we demand equal rights in marriage, the military, and everywhere else.”
Michael Musto, author, former columnist, Village Voice

MichaelVaccaro“In 2009, I lost my husband, Antonio Vaccaro. He was 38. He was the person I thought I’d be with for the rest of my life. I was shattered. It happened suddenly. It was unexpected. Nobody thought that anyone would die of AIDS in 2009. But he did. And people do. I thought I’d gotten used to loss, having lived through the ’80s and ’90s, and going to memorials and funerals every Saturday for years. Having seen my community destroyed and decimated. But you never get used to it. It’s never easy. Antonio was the hardest. He was my strength, and it was taken away, and I’ve had to learn how to survive and be strong on my own. I’ve been forced to find my strength again, but I will never again find my innocence, or ever really feel completely safe. And then there’s the underlying sadness continually shocking you, threatening the happiness.”
Michael Vaccaro, actor (Child of the ‘70s, Deleted Scenes, The Endless Possibility of Sky)

Greg Cason“I was listening to a portable radio as I strolled to my high school to pick up my diploma just two weeks after graduation in 1981. To me, the world was about to finally open up when I heard the announcement of a new disease that appeared to be affecting gay men. At that moment, I knew life ahead would be changed. I entered UCLA that fall and would soon find myself visiting friends between classes as they were hospitalized in the AIDS ward. Illness and funerals became commonplace. There seemed to be only three emotions: fear, compassion, and grief. And, it was like the majority of the outside world didn’t care. Those were my early adult years. I could say the toll was the loss of friends, devastation to my community, and the hopes for the future. But, this crisis didn’t defeat us; it made us (and me specifically) more determined. Those who suffered and passed experienced the biggest toll—as did the world that lost their talent and loving spirits.”
Dr. Greg Cason, psychologist, star of Bravo’s LA Shrinks

Del Shores“One of my greatest joys was rewriting the ‘Ty’ monologue when I adapted my stage play Sordid Lives to film. In the play, the character talked of a friend who died because of AIDS. In the movie, I added a line because of the new meds that gave hope to so many. As I’ve watched the evolution of the AIDS epidemic, I think of all the amazing plays, films and television shows which addressed and chronicled the evolution of this epidemic. I think of the groundbreaking television film An Early Frost and the education that art has given this epidemic. Later, we, the writers of Queer As Folk, were able to tell more stories that addressed those living with HIV and AIDS. I hope I live to see the film that chronicles the discovery of the cure—when the last chapter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is written in life and in our art.”
Del Shores, playwright (Sordid Lives, Southern Baptist Sissies)

LadyBunny“Of course I’m delighted that new drugs have largely stopped making AIDS a death sentence. But to see young people who apparently think of these drugs as a cure is horrifying. HIV transmission is treated casually—or even as inevitable—and I don’t understand my friends who are getting tested every few months. Doesn’t that prove that they aren’t practicing safe sex? We do know how to prevent HIV transmission, so why aren’t we doing it? Are we even talking about AIDS enough? One young friend of mine didn’t even know that the disease can have a decade-long incubation period during which symptoms don’t show. The younger generation didn’t watch their friends waste away as my generation did, so they don’t know the horrors first hand. Infections are up among youth as they actively seek out barebacking. And it saddens me that looks-obsessed gay men may have come to the conclusion that there isn’t much point in living until you’re old and no longer desirable. I hope we are more than that and, as the great Larry Kramer points out, we should value each others humanity more. We aren’t just pieces of meat with an expiration date after which we become trolls. We’re supposed to be a community.”
Lady Bunny, DJ, entertainer, founder of Wigstock

James Duke Mason“As a young gay man, the history of the gay movement and the AIDS epidemic helped to make me who I am and create the identity that I live by today. Hearing the stories of friends who are HIV-positive, as well as reading the works of Paul Monette and Larry Kramer, who were pioneers in spreading the word about the crisis, inspired me to become an activist. I am so thankful to them for informing me and making me a better human being as a result. We should do everything we can to ensure that other gay youth are aware of our community’s history; we can never forget our brothers we lost.”
James Duke Mason, activist, actor (Disappear Here)

Patricia Nell Warren“What’s the toll? On a personal level, it’s the dear friends and associates lost to AIDS. I still miss them—Philip Labhart, Mike Ward, and others. There’s also the toll of seeing a tragic reversal of direction that healthcare policy has taken in our society. U.S. healthcare puts us 37th on the list, behind EU countries with universal healthcare. Indeed, the U.S. is taking better care of poverty-stricken PWAs in Africa than we are taking of our own poverty-stricken citizens who live with HIV/AIDS. That could be the final toll of AIDS—the people who die not because of the virus itself, but because they couldn’t afford or access the current treatment.”
Patricia Nell Warren, author (The Front Runner, My West), columnist (Bilerico Project, Arts & Understanding)

TylerCurry“As a gay man in his late 20’s, the AIDS epidemic has always been a sort of looming dark shadow over my life and the lives of my friends. We are the generation once removed from the initial horror of the epidemic. So, instead of taking charge, we have begun to avoid the topic all together. Now, it’s time to recommit to the conversation and stop being afraid of the dark.”
Tyler Curry, writer, activist

Mel White“AIDS destroyed the body of Thomas Montgomery, my very first lover. His ashes are scattered over Mt. Hood in Oregon. I still cry when I think of his untimely death. The real horror and heartbreak of AIDS can only be grasped one death at a time. I’m grateful for the meds that keep other close friends alive. I’m just hoping that those ‘miraculous’ meds won’t deceive any more of our bright and beautiful young men into taking unnecessary chances. I am too old to watch another generation grow sick and die…one good friend at a time.”
Reverend Mel White, author of Stranger at the Gate: to be Gay and Christian in America and the co-founder of Soulforce

Peter Staley“To be honest, fighting AIDS is often depressing and exhausting. Many of us walked away, or have taken long breaks from the work. When we talk of the glory and beauty in this fight, it’s the communal response that we’re talking about, not AIDS itself. AIDS is horrible, and relentless. In the same way HIV will kill you if you ignore your infection, HIV will damage a community’s health if the community ignores it. With over 30,000 new infections in gay men each year in this country, mostly in young gay men, where’s our communal response now? I feel blessed to have witnessed ACT UP’s glory years. With today’s assimilationist politics, I doubt I’ll ever witness that same sense of community again. But I hate sounding like some grumpy old activist. I’m not. Truth be told, there’s much to admire in today’s LGBT youth. I have no doubt they’ll make their mark.”
Peter Staley, activist (featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague); founder & advisory editor, AIDSmeds

Richard Kramer“The challenge for me has been to try to find a way to grieve for things that had still to happen, that were yet to come. I have a friend who, after a vivid dinner or conversation, says ‘Well, we just made a memory.’ How many memories were not made because the friends I was planning to make them with never got the chance to make them? Can you make a new memory around an absence? I think I’ve tried to do that, with many friends who are gone. They know who they are.”
Richard Kramer, novelist (These Things Happen)

Darryl Stephens“Having moved to the Bay Area for college in the 90s, when ACT UP’s ‘SILENCE = DEATH’ campaign was ubiquitous, much of my gay identity was forged in the Castro. By then, the gay community had already organized to fight AIDS, people knew how the disease was transmitted, and the focus had shifted from panic and death-sentences to prevention, education and early detection. But that didn’t change the fact that AIDS was inescapable if you were a man who slept with men. I knew to get tested every six months and I knew that blood and semen were to be avoided at all costs. I knew that condoms were nonnegotiable. I lived through being young and gay in the Castro in the 90s because others had dedicated their lives to finding out and then teaching me how to protect myself.”
Darryl Stephens, actor (Noah’s Arc), author, vocalist

Dana Miller“I have resisted this question for almost 30 years; just run from it, never really looking it square in the face. I have indeed let AIDS alter my life without debate. Seeing hundreds perish from a plague, then dealing with the bureaucracy that came with organization, has been close to defeating—though not quite. AIDS impacted my life in almost every way possible. How to live and love, without a doubt. I truly hate all that it has done, yet would not change a moment of my participation in the war.”
Dana Miller, AIDS activist, former board member AIDS Project Los Angeles & Elton John AIDS Foundation

Michael Nava“My most vivid memory of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic is of the level of ignorance about it among both gay and straight people. Two examples: my friend Luis arguing with me about safe sex, which he claimed was a conspiracy by heterosexuals to stop gay men from fucking. Luis later died. And at an early demonstration against the Reagan Administration, I was approached by a straight woman who wanted to know what the protest was about. ‘AIDS,’ I replied. She looked puzzled and asked, ‘The diet candy?’ (Ayds was an appetite suppressant candy popular in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.) This was in 1984. And then the real nightmare began.”
Michael Nava, five-time Lambda Literary award-winning author

Dean Pitchford“I didn’t realize how closely I had brushed up against the plague until we were well into it. While Gaetan Dugas was often referred to as Patient Zero, my wonderful Yale roommate Enno Poersch was designated Patient One years after his death, and his boyfriend, Nick Rock, Patient Two. By then, I had sat by numerous hospital beds, held dozens of hands gone cold, and attended too many memorials to count. The most searing memory, however, is of the day my dear friend Vito Russo called to tell me of his diagnosis. The news wrecked me. ‘Now I have a terrible favor to ask,’ he said. He couldn’t bear to tell our mutual friend, Craig Zadan, with whom he was extremely close; would I? Of course, I did. And Craig and I wept together–not just for Vito, but for all the loved ones who had gone before and those we had yet to lose. At the time, I couldn’t imagine I would ever be called upon again to deliver as devastating and heartbreaking a message. But, of course, I was. And I did.”
Dean Pitchford, Oscar-winning songwriter, screenwriter (Footloose), author

Sheryl Lee Ralph“I remember an ugly time in America when good people, kind people, people of all religions, faiths and beliefs turned their backs on their sick and dying children because they had ‘that’ disease. I remember going to the hospital to visit sick friends, but there was no hospital bed for them. You would often find them laid out on a gurney, pushed up against a wall out in some hallway, unattended and dying for help. But there was no help for them. Because I can never forget, I continue to do the divinely inspired victoriously aware DIVA work that I do. I founded the DIVA Foundation 23 years ago as a living breathing memorial to the many friends I lost to AIDS, and we have simply dared to care after all these years. Simply dared to raise our voices in song and commitment to fight the good fight against HIV/AIDS because I remember when the disease had no name.”
Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tony-nominated actress, founder of DIVAS Simply Singing and the DIVA Foundation

Ken Schneck“I exist at that weird nexus of being too young to have personally seen the devastation of the 1980s but too old to be ignorant how HIV/AIDS had decimated a huge part of the LGBT landscape. I remember being 15 years old and reading And the Band Played On, all the while thinking, ‘Why did this happen?!?’ Only after I came out did I realize that my real question was, ‘Why did this happen to my people?’ My personal goal is, as it has ever been, to remind people and myself that, in some ways, we’re still where we were and have an absurdly long way to go.”
Ken Schneck, producer/host, This Show Is So Gay

Charles Perez“I recently participated in AIDS Walk 2013. I first did the AIDS Walk in 1987. As I walked, I thought about all my friends, all my peers who didn’t get to be 30, or 40, or now 50. I felt the hole in my spirit that remains for each one of them even decades later. I thought about Scott, who built tree forts with me. I thought about the unspoken teenage attraction between us. I thought about our coming out to each other and his shortly-thereafter death. I thought about the life he might have had and the stories, dreams, disappointments and victories we may have shared. Instead, there’s a place-marker… and a deep gratitude for his having been here. In between – there is just space where our friendship may have been. That’s the biggest toll. Space, where there might have been more of what we were together.”
Charles Perez, speaker, writer, former ABC anchorman/reporter

Gregory G Allen“Moving to NYC in the late 80s, one of my first jobs was working for a cleaning service operated by a gay couple. I watched as the illness took over one of them until he was no longer able to perform his job. That was the start of attending funeral after funeral. Losing friends throughout the years was terrible in itself, but many gay men also spent those decades wondering ‘will it be me?’ or ‘why am I still here?’ Any survivor of a war, epidemic, or disaster has that guilt.”
Gregory G. Allen, author (Well With My Soul, Patchwork of Me, Cool Side of the Pillow)

Judith Light“It has made me even more passionate to educate our young and stand up for human rights.”
Judith Light, Emmy and Tony award-winning actress, activist

Tom Ammiano“It was the death of innocence in many ways. The toll it took was being stripped of your support system. I could look through my phone book and see 20, 30, 40 people dead within a year. My partner died after we had been together 17 years. He died just as I was elected to the Board of Supervisors. If losing people wasn’t bad enough, we were mistreated in death. EMTs would sometimes not pick up the body or treat it disrespectfully. It taught you to fight. It informs who you are for the rest of your life. Even now when someone dies, it brings it all back. You think of it all the time.”
California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano

Glenn Gaylord“It would be so easy to list out the devastating losses I’ve experienced since the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, including, to a certain extent, the loss of my own youth. I could talk about the endless memorial services, the hands held in hospital rooms, the many ways people near and dear to me were stopped cold in their tracks. To do so, however, would be to give too much power to a teensy weensy virus and to play the victim card. Instead, I prefer to think about the toll I’ve taken on AIDS. I’ve kinda kicked its ass. I’ve thrived and have sent the message, ‘You do that to my friends and my family, and you’re gonna have to deal with me!’ I may lose this battle, but not without a knockdown, drag-out, Dynasty-level throw-down-in-the-fountain catfight!”
Glenn Gaylord, director (I Do, Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat), screenwriter/producer/lyricist (Leave It On the Floor)

Tyler St Mark“To comprehend the impact AIDS has had on my life you need only make a list of all of your friends, lovers, acquaintances, and coworkers. List them randomly as they come to mind until you reach 100. Then circle every third name. Imagine each of those circled, within a year or two, withering into an ancient, decaying, stinking bone heap. Not all of them at once but overlapping, several at a time, over a decade. Imagine the light leaving their eyes, the joy leaving their hearts, the music leaving their soul. Imagine which of them you would embrace as they took their last desperate breath. Imagine at what point on the list you could no longer do so. Imagine looking back twenty years later and wondering what life would have been like otherwise. Imagine wondering each day why you were not one of those names circled on the list.”
Tyler St. Mark, writer, publisher, a creator of one of the first AIDS awareness campaigns (Mother Cares, featuring Zelda Rubinstein)

John D'Amico“AIDS took away any excuse I might have had to live dishonestly. AIDS took away my fear of being found out, my fear of the critical eye and my fear of taking control of who I might become. AIDS will never return the stolen friends. AIDS will never return the stolen lovers. And AIDS will never allow us to think of our bodies as our own. AIDS took too much from too many and what it left was a version of me, and a version of us, and a version of our world that is better prepared. And yet, I wish it never existed at all.” Mayor Pro Tempore John D’Amico, City of West Hollywood

ShaneSawickShane Michael Sawick was an actor and coordinator of the Southern California AIDS Hotline, and the partner of this article’s author, novelist Kergan Edwards-Stout. Learn more about the life of Shane Sawick here (August 18, 1956-March 22, 1995)

Kergan Edwards-Stout’s debut novel about one man’s battle with AIDS, Songs for the New Depression, was winner of the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ category, shortlisted for the Independent Literary Awards and named one of the Top Books of 2012 by Out in Print, among others.

Photo Credits: Tuc Watkins (Tuc Watkins), Greg Louganis (Bradford Rogne), Trebor Healey (Martin Cox), Steven Fales (Bryan Maynes), Frank Bruni (Soo-Jeong Kang), Jackie Beat (Austin Young), Robert Michael Morris (Robert Michael Morris), Michael Musto (Frankie C), Greg Cason (Bravo TV), Del Shores (Rosemary Alexander), Lady Bunny (Billy Erb), James Duke Mason (James Duke Mason), Patricia Nell Warren (John Selig), Tyler Curry (Tyler Curry), Mel White (Andrew Wilds), Peter Staley (Peter Staley), Richard Kramer (R. Avery), Darryl Stephens (Logan Alexander), Dana Miller (David Miller), Michael Nava (Michael Nava), Dean Pitchford (Peter Randolph), Sheryl Lee Ralph (Adam Bouska), Ken Schneck (This Show is So Gay), Charles Perez (Charles Perez), Gregory G. Allen (Tom Schopper), Judith Light (Walter McBride), Tom Ammiano (Tom Ammiano), Glenn Gaylord (David M. Gil), Tyler St. Mark (Greg Money), John D’Amico (City of West Hollywood), Shane Sawick (Ed Freeman)

Cross-posted on Huffington Post and LGBTQ Nation.


How I Survived a Plague

Kergan Edwards-StoutI survived a plague.

It once seemed unfathomable I’d ever write such words, let alone experience just such a cataclysmic event.  Growing up in a bland but largely protected Southern California suburb in the 60s and 70s, I had no clue what lie ahead.  Acquaintances, friends, co-workers, and lover, dead.  A myriad of others infected.  Who could have foreseen the years of public apathy, private sorrow?  Emerging decades later into a world where few seem to acknowledge the experience occurred, let alone the toll taken.  Somehow, though, I stand here today having survived the AIDS epidemic, and I still marvel at how.

In 1981, when what would eventually become known as AIDS peripherally entered our national consciousness, I was 16 years old.  I’d known I was attracted to other boys as far back as I could remember.  Hitting sixteen, I was able to put my driver’s license to good use, beginning weekly sojourns to a bookstore in neighboring Long Beach, CA, where I’d spend my allowance on LGBT fiction, The Advocate, and gay porn. This avid need to read and learn would serve me well, as I distinctly recall that moment when I first saw a headline about a gay cancer, attacking the New York community. KerganHawaiiIn July 1982, at virtually the same moment the disease was being renamed, from GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) to the more accurate AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), I was experiencing my first sexual encounter, on a family vacation to Maui. Lying on a hill overlooking a beautiful, deserted beach cove, I finally gave myself over to the stirrings I’d long felt. Even as this older stranger initiated me into the ways of gay sex, I was cognizant of the disease attacking gay men, fully aware of the wolf at the door. Moments after finishing, I pulled on my bathing suit, quickly hurrying around the corner of the cove, only to bump into my sister, on her way to find me. The realization that mere seconds separated me from discovery introduced a gnawing element of fear to the moment. But that factor of fear may very well be the reason I’m still here.

How to Survive a PlagueWith the release of David France’s Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, now on DVD, I was immediately reminded of those many years and how, for me, sex and fear became — for better or worse — inextricably intertwined. The film skillfully communicates the era’s panic and anger, as well as the resolute determination of the LGBT community to combat the virus. As I watched it, long-forgotten voices and faces materialized, transporting me to a time in which I often felt as if engaged in a secret war.

I was reminded of James, so closeted that even a meal in public was conducted in whispers. I remembered hushed conversations about who had “it;” the line between the “have” and “have not’s” never more apparent. I thought of those awkward dinners where my date would reveal his sero-status, and I would attempt to finish the meal pleasantly, as if that news hadn’t really mattered. And I remembered the first man I personally knew to die, always-smiling Jon, who went so quietly, few even registered that he was gone.

Today CondomsAs a youth, growing up, sex had been labeled both a sin and something to treasure, and these warring contradictions, added to the lessons learned from my dysfunctional family makeup, bore in me a sense of prudery. Mix that prudishness with a lurking transmittable disease, and my sexual awakening proved not the spree of abandon I’d long imagined, but instead a series of battles, each encounter fraught with the fear that HIV could enter my body at any time, at the slightest provocation. This led me to study everything I could about the virus, to fortify myself. This quest for knowledge, however, proved difficult, as each news account seemed to give varying and often conflicting instructions. It can be spread through saliva. No, it can’t. They’ve discovered a drug. But it doesn’t work. It can’t be spread through oral sex. No, wait–it can! No, it can’t! A cure is coming. No cure to be found.

Each sex act became a scientific experiment. If one condom was effective, would two be even better? Am I using the right lubricant? What is nonoxynol-9? Is microwavable plastic wrap the preferred barrier for rimming, or non-microwavable? Such questions made it difficult to lose myself in the moment, but they also allowed passion a momentary respite, providing a window in which to turn my hyper-vigilance into action.

Desperate at seeing my community under attack, I found myself at AIDS Project Los Angeles, first as volunteer and later as staff, where my efforts centered on HIV prevention. It was my goal to keep other gay men HIV negative, but even that was fraught with uncertainty. We acted as if shamans, sprinkling our mystical educational nuggets across the landscape, but we were more used car salesmen than anything, selling the masses education we didn’t really believe in, with few of us actually practicing what we preached. We advocated using dental dams or plastic wrap for rimming. Finger cots or latex gloves for ass play. We preached using condoms for oral sex, and pretended that the flavored lubricants we hawked actually enhanced the act, as if everyone wanted to taste synthetic strawberry instead of cock.

Sex EssentialsWe made every effort to keep our messages “sex positive,” to ensure we didn’t add to the years of shame gay men had suffered, being made to feel less-than. While fear had proven an effective deterrent for me, “scare tactics” were frowned upon. Marketing campaigns depicting those ill or dying was forbidden, so as not to offend those with HIV, or to imply that death was a foregone conclusion. Instead, we repeatedly insisted that not only was safer sex hot, but it could be even hotter than sex without condoms. As if anyone believed it.

To sell this vision, we created workshops around enhancing intimacy and building self-esteem, the theory being that by feeling better about oneself, more care would be taken around sexual health. If you care about yourself, you’ll use condoms. But that message was faulty, as the reverse would also be true: If you aren’t using condoms, you’re an unfeeling asshole who doesn’t about anyone, especially yourself.  Which led men to again feel shame. Guilt trips are rarely effective.

As months became years, what began as a quiet war eventually grew to a loud roar. Nights in West Hollywood were an endless cycle: handing out condoms at bars, engaging in street protests, attending meetings for QueerNation or ACT UP, and leading courses in safer sex. We screamed until hoarse and marched until we couldn’t stand, then went out dancing all night and had as much sex as possible. I recall seminars such as Marianne Williamson’s A Course in Miracles and Louise Hay’s Hay Rides; more than once wondering why I was there. Many of those attending were HIV-positive, searching for healing. I was there because… what? Was I seeking community? A sense of belonging? To cruise hot guys? Or was I searching for a cure for what ached in my soul?

Shane Michael SawickUltimately, however, why I was there wasn’t important. The important thing is that I was there.

Shane Sawick was HIV-positive when we met, with a t-cell count of less than 200, which technically meant that he had AIDS. As we began dating, technical became actual very quickly, and within two years, he was dead.

When I’d first heard through a friend that Shane was interested in me, I was flattered, but didn’t give it much thought. He was HIV-positive, after all, and while I acted like it didn’t matter, it did. There was little hope back then, and I knew what the road ahead held. I had no desire to go down that path; I was afraid. Not for my physical health, as by then I was as knowledgeable as most doctors, but I feared what such loss could do to my soul. How can one begin to indulge in loving fully, knowing there is an expiration date? Why experience what you know will be fleeting? And how can you ever move forward again, having loved and lost?

The idea of a relationship with Shane scared the shit out of me, but I knew I had to face that fear, however messy. I’d beaten my fear of infection through education, and thought I might beat my emotional fears by confronting them. I chose love, in all its complexity, and found myself rewarded. Connecting to another, giving fully, putting his needs ahead of my own — these molded me into the man I am today. Experiencing horrific pain and sadness through his death and that of my friends created shadings within, deep pockets of understanding, ultimately making me a better human being, partner, and father.

Russ, Kergan, Mason and MarcusThroughout the crisis, I met countless number doing everything possible to educate, empower, and eradicate a deadly disease, while a much larger number of people did nothing. Those of us engaged in the fight might not have done everything we should have, or could have, but the mere act of doing is what kept me sane, and maintaining a healthy respect for the disease kept me HIV-negative.

Love, mixed with more than a little bit of fear, is how I survived the plague.

Kergan Edwards-Stout’s debut novel about one man’s battle with AIDS, Songs for the New Depression, was winner of the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ category, shortlisted for the Independent Literary Awards and named one of the Top Books of 2012 by Out in Print and others.

Photography: Kergan Edwards-Stout  as a child and in Hawaii (provided by author); Paul Staley (How to Survive a Plague); Kergan Edwards-Stout in a condom ad (Today Condoms) and performing in an AIDS Project Los Angeles safer sex education campaign as Biff Boffum, to Lawrence Jurado’s LaToya Latex (Ed Freeman); Shane Sawick (Ed Freeman); the author today with his family, Russ Noe, Mason and Marcus Edwards-Stout (Sara+Ryan Photography)

Cross-posted on Huffington Post and LGBTQ Nation.


New Review says “Songs for the New Depression” Shines!

AU reviewVery grateful for a new review in Arts & Understanding, a magazine devoted to HIV/AIDS, on Songs for the New Depression. The review (found on page 48) notes “the laughs make the book deceptively breezy. SONGS shines with psychological truth and historical accuracy.”  Love it when folks “get it!”


A Golden Memory

Company

Posted the evening of the Golden Globes:

I had one of those weird “a-ha” moments just now, when, while cleaning, a wonderful memory returned. One of the best nights of my life, EVER, happened in February 1993. I have been a fan of Stephen Sondheim as long as I can remember, so when I heard they were doing a one-night only, 20th anniversary original cast reunion performance of COMPANY at the Long Beach Terrace Theater, I immediately bought two tickets. My good friend at the time, Cheryl Dolins, was also a Sondheim fan, and we couldn’t wait to go.

Another friend, Gary Kalkin, called just after we’d bought the tickets, and invited me to the Golden Globes after-party; I was crushed at the conflict. He said to stop by afterward, if we could, and at least say hello.

Dean JonesCheryl and I loved COMPANY, and I was amazed, watching Dean Jones perform “Being Alive”, at how pitch perfect and emotionally charged his performance was, 20 years later. The entire cast was phenomenal, and goes down in history as my favorite night ever in a theater, bar none.

Exhilarated, Cheryl and I rushed back to LA. Walking up the red carpet at the Beverly Hilton, there were a few photographers, trying to figure out if we were “someones” and, to us, we felt we were. When we got to the check in desk, the woman apologized, saying the party was just about over, but if we wanted to still go in for a quick drink, we could. Dejected to have gotten there so late, we still went it, looking for Gary. There were only about 12 people in the entire room. Aside from Gary, there was Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Al Pacino, and Rodney Dangerfield. Cheryl and I were completely beside ourselves, hovering with the others around the few platters of food left, but kept acting as if hanging out with this crowd was an everyday occurrence.

CompanyCheryl and I have sadly lost touch, and Gary died of AIDS just a year or so later.

I hadn’t thought of this in years, but just did. That was exactly 20 years ago. Thank you, brain cells, for reminding me…

Just a few of the brilliant lyrics…

ROBERT:
Phone rings,
Door chimes,
In comes
Company!
No strings,
Good times,
Room hums,
Company!
Late nights,
Quick bites,
Party games,
Deep talks,
Long walks,
Telephone calls.
Thoughts shared,
Souls bared,
Private names,
All those
Photos
Up on the walls–
“With love.”
“With love” filling the days,
“With love” seventy ways,
“To Bobby with love”
From all those good and crazy people, my friends!
Those good and crazy people, my married friends!
And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
That’s what it’s really about,
Really about!


The Rainbow Hour: An Interview with Kergan Edwards-Stout

I’m so thankful to GSHRadio’s Rainbow Hour for including me on yesterday’s show, in honor of World AIDS Day.  What fun, to follow the hysterical “America’s #1 Tupperware salesgal” Dixie Longate!  The hosts, Victor, Otto, Gregory, Steve, and I chat about HIV/AIDS, my novel, as well as my piece on Huffington Post, “Please Defriend Me,” which has had almost 130,000 facebook likes.

My section starts at 48:28! 🙂

Thank you all!


It’s World AIDS Day. Does Anyone Care?

On March 5, 1995, the day I turned 30, I admitted my then-partner Shane Sawick into the hospital.  He would not come out alive, dying just two weeks later, on March 22.  While AIDS was the war he battled, he was ultimately done in by a skirmish with PML (Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy), a rare but usually fatal disease, which quickly took away Shane’s ability to speak, move, or even blink at will, though his brain continued to think, and process, and feel.  It was devastating to watch a loved one undergo such a debilitating experience, and yet that act, of being both lover and caregiver, thoroughly transformed me as a human being.  Indeed, I would not be the husband, father, writer, or person that I am were it not for that period of crisis during which my partner and friends died.  As we head towards World AIDS Day, I find it perplexing that few seem willing to embrace, or even mention, the epidemic which so greatly impacted and altered the LGBT community.  What is it about that era that frightens us so?

The easy answer might be that disease and death make people uncomfortable, which, to some degree, is understandable.  Prior to Shane’s death, my best friend of eight years and I were inseparable (I’ll call him Pete.)  At the time, I couldn’t have imagined a better friend.  Pete made me laugh, kept me company, and ushered me through my West Hollywood “coming out.”  Once Shane got sick, however, Pete disappeared.  He never called, or came to visit us in the hospital, despite knowing that I was there 24/7.  Whenever queried by friends as to his absence, Pete would say, “Oh, you know–me and hospitals.  I just don’t like the idea of sickness.”

It wasn’t until the day of Shane’s memorial that I next saw Pete.  He came up, noting “Great service!,” before the next words came out of his mouth: “Wanna hit Happy Hour later?”  Needless to say, I chose to end that friendship, as well as others in which people could not grasp the emotional magnitude of what had happened to me, and others like me.  The depth of my experiences caused a change within, which required a new support system willing and able to tackle the “hard stuff,” no matter how unpleasant.

For some, the era of losing friends and loved ones has been difficult to revisit, due to the emotional toll taken.  Many have gone to great lengths to separate themselves from the pain, moving from the most-hit urban centers to smaller, more rural towns.  Others have gone into emotional hiding, losing themselves in drug or drink, or in simply shutting down, so as not to feel the ache of such loss.  And some have, by necessity, focused on rebuilding their broken circle of friends.

New causes, such as marriage equality, have replaced AIDS as our community’s priority, and it is hard to argue that rallying for wedding cake isn’t more fun that protesting for HIV drugs.  Still, we should not have to choose between the two.

These days, activism for many means little more than clicking “like” on a Facebook post.  While thousands stepped into the streets in the aftermath of Prop 8, we’ve not seen anything on that scale for HIV/AIDS in years.  At what point did we become complacent?  Is having a drug that makes the disease “manageable” really all we want?  What happened to a cure–or a vaccine?

Today, people still die from AIDS.  While drug advancements have substantially decreased that number, it has also created the false-belief that contracting the disease is essentially meaningless.  To some, taking one pill a day is an easy trade-off to having to wear condoms.

Most disturbing, however, is the sheer number to whom AIDS just doesn’t matter, having relegated it to a page in history.  When I mention having lost a partner or friends, I’m most often met with a blank stare or a cursory nod, with no real emotional acknowledgement of what that time meant, and continues to mean.

During the AIDS crisis, the LGBT community rose to the occasion, stepping in to take care of our own when the government, pharmaceutical companies, and other organizations couldn’t–or wouldn’t.  LGBT people exhibited incredible bravery, tackling huge monoliths with acts of daring creativity and passion.  Were it not for our take-no-prisoners approach, we would not have the HIV drugs we do today.

The crisis temporarily brought together both genders, as women stepped into vacant leadership roles and helped those stricken by acting as caregivers.  Today, that gender divide has returned, with little reciprocity from gay men for the causes dear to lesbians, such as breast or cervical cancer.  In many ways, we’ve gone back to being strangers, with a debt left unpaid.

Other communities, devastated by tragedy, have managed to turn such markers into rallying cries, and the LGBT community must find a way to do the same with AIDS.  Just as the Jewish people dealt with the Holocaust, and the African American community responded to slavery and the civil rights struggle, so too must our community find a way to embrace that era, fully honoring both those we lost and what we gained.

For we did gain much.  We learned that, far from being the weak and passive individuals many of us had been stereotyped, we actually had strength, passion, and guts, and we fully demonstrated that to the world.  We took on “the powers that be” and created real, tangible change.  We literally bloodied ourselves for the cause, and yet today, speaking of AIDS feels almost taboo.

Does that have anything to do with the disease being sexually transmitted?  Having worked so hard to combat the myth that being gay is to be “sick,” did the emergence of a sexually transmitted disease take us back to a place of shame?  Does that shame still linger?

To be clear, I am not remotely nostalgic for the days of the AIDS crisis.  I lost too many, and it hurt too much.  But at the same time, I’m thankful that I was able to play a part in helping to educate others about HIV, through my work at AIDS Project Los Angeles.  I’m grateful to my dear friends who allowed me to be with them during their final days.  I’m profoundly changed, for the better, for having ushered my partner Shane to his death.  And I’m forever in awe of the efforts our community took to respond to the crisis in unimaginably creative and lasting, impactful ways.

I just wished others cared as well.

Kergan Edwards-Stout’s debut novel, Songs for the New Depression, was loosely inspired by his partner, Shane Sawick, and his experiences during the AIDS crisis.  It won the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ category, and was shortlisted for the Independent Literary Awards in the same category.

Cross-Posted on Huffington Post and LGBTQ Nation.


New Review Calls “Songs for the New Depression” a “Gem”

I’m so grateful for the wonderful review of Songs for the New Depression in the Examiner by noted author Alan H. Chin, calling it “a gem.”  Under any circumstances, that alone would  be high praise, but what most people don’t realize, though, as I normally don’t discuss it, is that–from beginning to end–I published the novel largely by myself, making the accolades even more meaningful.

In December 2010, after 12 long years of on-again, off-again writing, I finally finished the novel in order to be able to give it to my partner, Russ, as his 50th birthday gift.  After meeting my deadline, I then began trying to sell the book in the traditional manner.  I approached over 250 literary agents, and was rejected or did not receive a response (which is the same thing as a “no”–just less polite) by every single one.  I sent the manuscript to publishing houses, large and small, and was again rejected.  I took every route possible, and was told “no,” time and again.  It was incredibly demoralizing, to have written something which I felt so passionately about, only to have my baby repeatedly deemed ugly.

Finally, I received two rejections which sent me off on an entirely different path than anticipated.  One was from the agent who represents Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham (The Hours.)  She’d read the novel, enjoyed it, and had shared with other agents in her office, calling the writing “contemporary, fresh, funny,” only to then let me know that she couldn’t “sell it.”  There was a glut of literary fiction on the marketplace, she noted, and marketing a book such as this would be difficult, at best.  While that should have been disappointing, it really wasn’t.  Neither was the next rejection letter I got.

An esteemed editor and publisher, Don Weise, who used to run Alyson Books and now heads the LGBT press, Magnus Books, also read the novel.  Again, I got the same response, which essentially said,”I love your book, but literary fiction just ain’t selling!”

While no one likes rejection, to have been told by two well-respected sources such as these just how great they thought the book was proved a huge boost to me, launching my “make-it-happen” instincts into overdrive.  My feeling was, if these amazing folks love it, but there just isn’t a marketplace for it, why not create my own marketplace?

Thus began a huge leap into the world of indie publishing.  I had no money, so leaned on friends to help me edit the novel.  I learned how to make videos, in order to create my own promotional tools.  I learned code to be able to build my website.  I wrote my own press releases, contacted reviewers, acted as my own shipper, and more, in order to both publish and promote my book.

While the novel may never make me rich, that was never the intent.  I wrote a cautionary tale of love, loss, and redemption, and for those folks who’ve read and “gotten it,” my hope is that the novel will feed and nourish their souls.  Happily, most of the letters I’ve received tell me that it has.  Others won’t like it, and that’s okay, too.  I’d rather have written something which is polarizing than to have written something bland.

This particular reviewer, however, “got it,” and I feel so grateful.

Songs for the New Depression isn’t the story of my partner, Shane, though he inspired it.  This is really my emotional journey, entirely fictionalized, of going from self-serving to self-loving.  Of going from a person I hated into one in whom I now see value.  Going from someone scared of taking leaps into one for whom leaping has become mandatory.

Each and every person who reads and appreciates the journey means that my learning and efforts have not been in vain.

For those of us who choose the lonely road, it is a hard one, but the rewards at the end are also ours to savor…

Please check out the full review here, but following are a few lovely quotes:

“This is a sad story brushed onto the canvas with insightful, dark humor and touching flourishes…

Gabe is not a likable character, yet the author skillfully presents his protagonist in such a way that the reader understands why Gabe chooses to push people away, even people he loves. Also, the three snapshots are told in reverse-chronological order, so the reader builds up sympathy for the character while he struggles with AIDS, and then in the end, reveals the sexual incident that derailed Gabe’s life, to finally bring understanding. Reversing the order was a stroke of genius.

The author presents a story that is heartfelt and authentic, and told with great skill.

If you are looking for a gushing mm romance with a happy ending, keep looking. If you are looking, however, for a well-written, intelligent, bittersweet tale of love and overcoming a troubled past, then I can highly recommend this gem of a book.”


Author Spotlight: David G. Hallman

When I lost a partner to AIDS in 1995, I immediately found myself adrift in a sea of ever-changing emotions, which with I wasn’t yet equipped to deal. I didn’t have the tools needed to properly channel and process my chaotic state, until I tried writing about my experience. Author David G. Hallman suffered a similar loss when his partner of 30 years was diagnosed with cancer, only to die just two weeks later. He too used writing as a way to explore his emotional state, and that commonality helped us forge a friendship when we were fortunate enough to finally meet at the Rainbow Book Fair in New York. His memoir, August Farewell, details the death of his partner to cancer and was noted by The Advocate magazine as one of the 21 Biographies or Memoirs You Should Read Now, calling his novel Searching for Gileadan honest examination of questions about God, injustice, love, and death.” It was a pleasure to speak with him recently about his life and journey to author-hood.

Kergan Edwards-Stout: Hi David. Nice to talk to you again.

David G. Hallman: Good to connect with you too, Kergan. The last time was over martinis in New York after the Rainbow Book Fair! I remember getting fortified so I’d be in good shape for the Black Party that night.

KES: Yes, the rest of us were a bit in awe that you were heading out to dance all night after being at the book fair all day!

DGH: Well, I’m not a father of two kids like you and your partner, Russ. That takes an impressive amount of energy. I bow to you in the personal stamina department.

KES: As you mention stamina, you’ve been through quite an emotionally exhausting journey. While you’d written other books prior, you wrote your memoir, August Farewell, after the dramatic death of your partner, Bill, from cancer. When you began writing, was it as a cathartic outlet or were you intending it to be a book?

DGH: I never intended anyone else to see it. Bill was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in August 2009 and died two weeks later. After it was over, I started panicking that I would forget the details of those excruciating, intimate, heart-wrenching, spiritual, god-awful sixteen days that were, at times, punctured by Bill’s uproarious sense of humor. So I started writing the story of those days and spontaneously began integrating vignettes from our thirty-three years together. I wrote nonstop for six weeks. But I only did it so that I could have that record to go back to and relive our time together in the years to come. Just like how we treasure photo albums.

KES: Why did you decide to publish it? (more…)


Kergan Edwards-Stout and Gregory G. Allen in HIV Plus Magazine

Grateful for the inclusion in HIV Plus Magazine’s May/June issue, especially being mentioned alongside my writer pal, Gregory G. Allen!


Am I a Slut or a Prude?

Thongs

The other day, a friend who had just read my debut novel said, “Wow, Kergan, I didn’t think you were that sexual!”  His reference was to the amount of sex which occurs in the book, which admittedly is a lot, but his assumption about how that translated to my own sex life prompted, on my part, some self-examination.  And not with a dildo.

You see, to set this up properly, I am a 47-year-old gay man, with a few pounds of extra fat, and am rarely viewed these days as a sexual being.  I long ago entered the Invisible Era, which, for gay men who work out regularly, occurs at age 28.  (It is several years earlier for those who do not.)  In my daily life in suburban Orange County, CA, those I interact with see me primarily as partner to my not-legally-wed-hubby, Russ, and father to our two boys, Mason and Marcus.  As such, our days are filled with school, work, home, and sports, with me serving as glorified chauffer, cook, maid, tutor, nurse, and personal shopper.  That I have had, and continue to have, sexual thoughts and experiences never seems to cross most people’s minds–though they rarely leave mine.

Perhaps sexual longing, past a certain age, makes some uncomfortable.  Perhaps it brings up images of our parents.  Perhaps people assume I can no longer get it up.  Perhaps the visual of me tucked with my toes behind my ears, belly bulging even more than normal, isn’t appealing.  Or perhaps, more likely, people just don’t care one way or another about my sexual cravings.

But it wasn’t always this way.  In my twenties, I was a Professional Gay, living in the gayest of gay cities, West Hollywood, where the prospect of sex was all around me.  During the day, I worked at AIDS Project Los Angeles, running a safer sex program, where thousands at Pride witnessed me pulling strangers out from the crowd, strapping a dildo onto them, and rolling a condom down it with my mouth.  (Yes, I’m highly skilled.)  But, strangely enough, that prowess didn’t directly translate into getting dates.  Instead, each night my friends and I would perform our mandatory WeHo welcome wagon duties and circulate through the clubs, our route never varying.  My constant fear was that if I didn’t go out, that would be the one and only night Mr. Right would be there, and I’d have missed him. So I went out relentlessly, always hanging self-consciously on the periphery, fearing rejection, and invariably returning home alone.

Still, I did manage to have lots of sex.  In fact, if being a slut is determined solely by the number of people with which one has slept, I clearly win the crown, as my number is quite staggering.  But sex for me was always in the context of a relationship, or in a test-run of a potential mate.  There was always the expectation that the sex would or could lead to something more, which allowed me to separate myself from others.  In my mind, what I was doing was quite different than simply hooking up, and somehow “better.”  I looked down on those who fucked without introduction, as if the simple addition of a shared meal or movie substantially altered the meaning of the encounter. The irony, of course, is that while this self-serving world view allowed me to remain “pure” and above the common sluts, I may have had more sexual partners than they ever did.

I was both slut and prude, at the same time.

There is a part of me that regrets such prudishness.  I would’ve loved to have more fully explored all the sexual pleasures available to me.  There was so much I didn’t do, but I wonder now if that prudish hesitation is what kept me alive.  So many others from those days, including my partner Shane, weren’t so lucky.  But the combination of my own judgmental nature and my stellar HIV education kept me firmly in check, with condom in hand.

Today, in the Grindr Generation, there are so many issues with which men grapple, I’m not sure I could navigate love and sex.  Putting all of my physical stats out there?  No, thank you.  Photos of my cock?  Not until MiracleGro expands their product offerings.  Figuring out what “type” I am? Well, I could be a bear, given my extra weight–or do my 6 straggly chest hairs and full head of hair immediately disqualify me?  And let’s not even get into whether I am a top or a bottom.  I’ve always hated having to categorize myself, but the lead character, Gabriel, in my novel expresses my feelings better than I ever could:

Although far from butch, I really like to fuck.  And, though not incredibly femme, I also enjoy a hard dick shoved up my ass.  That these acts should somehow become confused with personal characteristics was both unfair and misleading.  In my not-so-distant past, I have been fucked silly by a rather overweight bald man, who favored lavender and pearls and, the very next day, served my saucisson to a ravenous French marine.  Both proved thoroughly enjoyable, but what label did these experiences warrant?  (Please don’t say “whore.”)

To say that I am simply “versatile” is also misleading, as it implies that I am capable of performing stupendous circus tricks at will (“And, folks, you should see what he can do with a cantaloupe!”)  Basically, “versatile” means you have no morals and will open your ass for anyone.  Although I am not always incredibly picky about my choice of partners, I do like to think that I have guidelines, however mutable.

As a younger man, my head was filled with such guidelines, but as I age, the lines between what I view as proper and improper have blurred, more than just a little.

Our eldest son, Mason, recently had the sixth grade “health talk” at school.  While the school nurse, understandably, focused on anatomy, conception, and health risks, we took this as an opportunity to speak with him further about all that sex is and can be.  We talked about love, and lust, and urges.  We talked about knowing when the time is right, and the importance of expressing feelings not only through actions, but through words.  And, most importantly, we talked about respect, for both our partners and ourselves.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if you think me a slut or a prude, for it is how I view myself that matters most.  The number of sexual partners we have isn’t as important as how respectfully we treat them–and how we feel about our actions later.  After all, one can have sex with a thousand people and still be a prude.  And, if you’re doing it right, you can have sex with only one, and still be a slut.

Cross-Posted on Huffington Post and Bilerico Project.


Indie Reviewer: “Songs for the New Depression”

I so appreciate the wonderful review of my novel by Indie Reviewer.  There are times, even now, when I wonder if what I’ve written is as intended, and it is only through reviews such as this and the lovely notes and emails I’ve received that I can see that it is indeed having the desired effect.  Thanks, Indie Reviewer, for your understanding and appreciation.  I’m very grateful…

Songs for the New Depression by Kergan Edwards-Stout

“I’m leavin’ my fam’ly
Leavin’ all my friends
My body’s at home
But my heart’s in the wind
Where the clouds are like headlines
On a new front page sky
My tears are salt water
And the moon’s full and high”
(Shiver Me Timber by Tom Waits, 1974)

Kergan Edwards-Stout’s debut novel, Songs for the New Depression, is the poignant and darkly humorous story of Gabriel Travers who is HIV positive and convinced that he’s dying despite his doctor’s proclamations to the contrary. His viral load is undetectable, his T-cell count is up, but according to Gabe one glance in the mirror tells him everything he needs to know. “His ass, once the talk of West Hollywood, now looks suspiciously like a Shar-Pei…” Faced with his own mortality, Gabriel’s first person narrative takes the reader on an emotional journey as he recounts his life experiences and relationships, reflecting on the choices that he’s made along the way and questioning his treatment of the people in his life.

“It seems impossible that my choices have led me here, to this spot, drained of every ounce of life. Despite my long-held belief that one’s journey – or ride, if you will – holds more importance than one’s destination, I am no longer cocksure. For if I, at age 17, had been handed a snapshot of myself as I am right here and now, providing the gift of foresight, isn’t there a chance I might have chosen a different path?

…Perhaps I would have ended up here, regardless of choice. Perhaps it was destiny. Fate. An unlucky draw of the straw. Whichever, it is much too late to ponder, for no amount of wishing can change who I am or what I have done.”

The title of the novel is taken from the Divine Miss M’s 1976 album of the same name. The story spans some two decades, from 1976 to 1995, and unfolds in retrospective but begins and ends in the present with the Prologue and Epilogue. Divided into three parts, each section of the story delineates a specific period in Gabe’s life, and each is thematically linked to a particular song from the album. Part I of the novel (Shiver Me Timber by Tom Waits) takes place in the near present (1995) as Gabe ponders his life and mortality. The reader is then taken back in time to 1986, Gabe’s 20s and a time of love, money and sex (Samedi et Vendredi by Bette Midler and Moogy Klingman) and finally to 1976 during Gabe’s adolescence and the determining events that occurred during this period time in his life (Let Me Just Follow Behind by Moogy Klingman).

Songs for the New Depression is beautifully written with a rich narrative and resonant characterization. Gabriel is written with honesty and depth. While he is self-absorbed and can be insensitive in his treatment of others, at the same time, he is both generous and sympathetic. There is an authenticity to this character that makes him altogether accessible to the reader. I loved Gabriel’s sarcasm and manner of viewing the world and there were many laugh-out-loud moments throughout the story, including his description of his somewhat zany mother, her new wife Pastor Sue and their wedding. Most heartfelt, however, is Gabe’s narrative in respect of his relationship with his partner Jon, and his first love Keith.

The author peels the proverbial onion one layer at a time when it comes to Gabriel as he looks back on his life. From the beginning we are aware of Gabe’s often-difficult relationship with his parents but are unsure as to the reasons. There are also hints early in the story as to a life-altering experience in high school that still affects him as an adult and of course the pivotal importance of Keith in his life. All is slowly revealed as the story progresses and the present-to-past narrative is extremely effective in not only emotionally enveloping, but also deeply investing the reader in Gabriel’s journey.

This story touched me on such a personal level that it was difficult for me to immediately put my thoughts out there via review without feeling exposed. While I finished reading this novel a number of weeks ago, I needed a level of emotional distance from the story before putting my thoughts on paper. In many respects I believe that I was blind-sided by Gabriel. Lulled into a false sense of emotional safety by his sarcasm and acerbic wit behind which he hides. But Gabriel wasn’t going to let me off the hook that easily. Even with an extremely engaging character and his humorous descriptions of some of the events in his life, this story remains one of a 36 year-old man facing the sheer horror and trajedy that he’s dying of AIDS. As the story progressed to its fruition and the many mysteries of Gabriel’s life are revealed, including the heartbreaking circumstances surrounding his HIV infection, so did the blurriness of the pages increase.

“Voices call to me. Soft whispers, beckoning, offering tales of the sea. Suddenly I am in the sails of a pirate ship, adjusting my cap, a gull perched at my side. The wind cools my sunburned face.

Below, the men, my brothers, count towering stacks of gold coins while eating gigantic turkey legs. It is odd, though, that the turkey heads and bodies are still attached.

Even odder still is one pirate in a wheelchair, dressed as a mermaid. He looks to me, knowingly.

Though I cannot place his face or the long ringlets of hair, I am certain we once shared a meal or conversation.

The bell clangs as I glance to the stern, my father at the wheel. He winks at me, playfully, before turning the boat toward open sea. As he does, a purr, sad and resigned, plays through my head.

Shiver me timbers, it whispers, and before I can fully grasp what is happening, I find myself sailing away…”

Songs for the New Depression is both heartrending and bittersweet without melodrama, or attempts by the author to manipulate the reader’s heartstrings with cliché. This, coupled with the sincere and textured depiction of Gabriel, who is altogether human, demonstrates respect for the character and his story, but also for the reader. It is a deeply soulful account of a man coming to terms with having AIDS and his eventual death from the disease, of redemption, and ultimately of both human fragility and enduring spirit.

“What I wouldn’t give to once again experience such brazen, all-embracing delight. To hold Jon in my arms, heart racing, and say nothing. Just to feel a flicker of sunshine, a spark, some reminder, of our love. A love that lingers, now only as memory. The weight, the truth of it, I am no longer capable of feeling.

And if all feeling is gone, I ask myself, what, then, remains?

With a jolt, the elevator completes its descent, doors opening. The influx of wind sends the sounds and regrets of Paris coursing through me and, pulling my jacket tighter against my throat, I step into the waiting city to begin my life anew.”

Songs for the New Depression by Kergan Edwards-Stout received the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ category and was also short-listed for the 2011 Independent Literary Award in the same category. The novel is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and through Indie Bound in print and ebook formats.


Memories and Memorial Day

On Monday, here in the United States, folks near and wide will be gathering to celebrate Memorial Day, although many may not know what, exactly, it is that they are celebrating.  Originally intended to honor the Civil War fallen, the concept of Memorial Day has since expanded, becoming different things to different people.  For some, it is now a day to honor all U.S. veterans, fallen in combat.  For others, it has morphed into a celebration of family, long weekends, and the return of warmer weather.  For me, however, Memorial Day is about honoring not only those who died fighting for our freedom, but also those closer, lost to far different battles, particularly AIDS.

This Monday, as others unpack their picnic or place flowers on a veteran’s grave, I’ll be thinking of Edward, cracking jokes in his room at Cedars Sinai, bullwhip at his side, so pale and thin, with a smile that belied his true condition.  I’ll think of David and our cherished time at his cabin, out on his deck in the dappled sunlight, singing along with Bette Midler’s Bette of Roses CD amidst the fresh scent of pine. I’ll remember Jon, a guy I’d dated, who simply disappeared one day. I later learned that he too had died of AIDS, but kept it hidden beneath a cloak of silence, from all of those who loved him.  I’ll acknowledge, too, cynical Howard, who wasn’t always easy to like, but whose presence is still missed.  I’ll think of these, and many more, but most of all, I’ll think of Shane.

Prior to his entrance into my life, I was a vastly different person than I am today.  Back in the early 1990’s, I was living a stereotypical, self-obsessed L.A.-lifestyle, where I pursued my entertainment dreams by day and the men of my dreams at night.  All of life was about pleasure and its pursuit, as if the obtainment of such esoteric things could actually fill the ache I felt inside.

Shane Sawick was an entirely different type of man from others I’d dated, which both intrigued and unsettled me.  While he was tall, handsome, and charming, he also loved denim overalls, which didn’t remotely fit into my West Hollywood aesthetic.  Witty and urbane, Shane was a New Yorker through and through, and his fiery, sophisticated sarcasm was an odd counterpart to my laidback, Southern California calm. He was HIV-positive as well, which was also at odds with my own serostatus.

In those days, we didn’t have the HIV medications we now have.  Being HIV-positive was still considered a death sentence, and I was warned by well-meaning friends against getting involved with Shane.  They were concerned about not only my becoming infected, as “you never know” how transmission occurs, but they were also concerned about the potential toll it could take on me; a self-absorbed actor-type, suddenly thrust into the role of caregiver to the dying.  Neither they, nor I, had any idea that being a caregiver would ultimately be the best thing that ever happened to me.

With Shane, not only did I find myself plunged into my first real adult relationship, but I discovered that someone could value me for my authentic self, not the façade I’d built up for years.  Shane taught me what it meant to be a true partner, how to communicate, and, indeed, how to love selflessly.  He introduced me to foreign lands, to artists of all varied stripe, and to countless experiences far removed from my previously-sheltered life.

And when, after only two years together, Shane began his decline, I learned more about myself than ever before.  I learned that I could face my fears, experience my darker emotions, and walk through the tumult to the other side.  What had seemed insurmountable became conquerable, giving me a better appreciation of my own strengths and abilities.  In loving and caring for Shane, I learned how to love others, and myself as well.

Today, I find myself worlds removed from that time of illness and fear, where death seemed to be around every corner.  My partner Russ and I have two amazing boys, and our lives now are focused almost purely on living.

I’m often asked how Russ handles the ghost of Shane, given how much I refer to him.  But Russ understands fully that, without Shane and his influence, I wouldn’t have become the partner, father, or writer I am, were it not for that transformational experience of loving him.

And so, this Memorial Day, I’ll pause and honor the many of my own troops who have fallen in battle.  They may not have had the uniform or the recognition of our armed forces, but the wars they fought were just as valiant, and I, for one, am richer for their many, varied gifts and sacrifices.  In honor of this Memorial Day, I salute Shane, David, Jon, Edward, and even Howard, among countless others, lost far too young.

The debut novel of Kergan Edwards-Stout, Songs for the New Depression, was loosely inspired by his partner, Shane Sawick.  It recently won the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ category and was shortlisted in the same category for the Independent Literary Awards.   

Cross-posted on Bilerico Project, Huffington Post, and LGBTQ Nation.

 


AIDS. Remember Me?

On the morning of my thirtieth birthday, I checked my then-partner, Shane Sawick, into the hospital.  He would not come out.  Shane died just two weeks later, suffering from Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy (PML); one disease, among many, battled in his long war against AIDS.  Once in the hospital, the illness quickly progressed, and in just a matter of days, he could no longer speak, blink, nor respond in any way.  Through it all, though, his mind still raced, and processed, and thought.

Long before that ill-fated sojourn, I remember lying next to Shane one night, reading, when he suddenly grasped my hand.  “Will you remember me?” he asked.  I smiled and nodded benignly, “Of course,” as if this were a given.  He more firmly squeezed, focusing his eyes on mine.  “No,” he insisted, “I want to be remembered.”

At the time, the notion that knowledge of him would remain when so many others before had died, largely forgotten, seemed almost lofty.  And yet I instinctively knew that I needed to find some way to pay tribute, for I too had felt that same desire:  to have walked the earth and for it to have mattered.

Since then, my life has changed dramatically.  My partner of nine years and I are the proud fathers of two amazing boys.  My days have gone from being filled with parsing out pills and leading safer sex workshops, to ones focused almost exclusively on the kids’ schooling and sports, where the most traumatic of incidents can often be cured with a simple kiss.  And yet I am also fully aware that my ability to be both parent and partner is directly formed through my experience as caregiver for Shane and my friends.  Were it not for them and that tumultuous time, I would not be the writer, father, lover, or person I am, and I owe a debt of gratitude to those lost during those tragic years.

More often than not, that period is often spoken of as if it were a purely historical event, a footnote in our collective history.  There seems to be an unwillingness to delve more fully into that experience, to examine it, and discover its inherent value.  Indeed, something about the reticence of the LGBT community to fully explore the AIDS epidemic reminds me of Shane’s catatonic state.  Just like him, there are emotions and thoughts coursing throughout, just under the surface, even if unacknowledged.

(more…)


Reviews by Jessewave: “Songs for the New Depression”

I so appreciate the wonderful reviews Songs for the New Depression has received, including the 5 star one today by Sirius at Reviews by Jessewave:

A Poignant and Heartbreaking Redemption Story.

This is another book which I purchased based on Amazon’s recommendations and the fact that the reviews seemed stellar. I knew that the story would not be a walk in the park and would be a painful read, but for once I decided to endure.

Some of the reviews were right; once I started reading I could not stop, it was so engrossing, captivating, painful and at times funny. I finished the story crying, but I also felt that the author make me sympathize with Gabe, relate to him and his pain, believe in his desire to make amends to people he may have hurt with his judgmental, sarcastic attitude, but most importantly the author sold me on why Gabe became the person he was and why he protected himself with such thick walls around his heart. You know how sometimes you feel that a character is just making excuses for himself and he should have done better no matter what he endured in the past? Well, let’s just say that I did not feel that way; I understood how Gabriel’s past shaped his present, and my heart was breaking for him. And by the end of the book I actually respected him. This just felt so realistic and believable, and I felt that I was reading about a very real person — a real person who wanted to change, but was too set in his ways and couldn’t do it, but who still tried. And while he may not have done humongous things to become a better person, those things he did still counted — and counted a lot.

And note: while it has a couple of love stories weaved in, this story is NOT a romance and it does not have a traditional romance ending. That being said, love plays very important part in this book. Gabriel and Keith’s story was so beautiful, so hopeful and so very heartbreaking in many ways. But heartbreaking or not, I was still glad that Gabriel had Keith in his life. Additionally, I thought that the second love story was no less beautiful and just as important, signifying such important changes in Gabriel’s character. I don’t want to talk more about it for fear of giving it away, but I will just say that I was very pleased that it actually took place, no matter how short it was.

“But I’ve realised, slowly, through loving Jon, how gentle our hearts can be. How even a slight ache can persist, follow us, when the resolution is not at hand. And so my messages continued.”

Obviously the fight against AIDS is one of the main themes in the novel, but it is not written as a “Public Service Announcement.” We get to meet “real” people, who live and breathe and die from the terrible disease that nobody deserves. I guess while I am stating the obvious, I always felt that great fiction can transform any important issue and just make the reader emphasize with it stronger than if one was just reading a PSA.

I highly recommend this very well-written work, but have the box of tissues handy with you.


Kergan Edwards-Stout and Gregory G. Allen in The Advocate!

A special thank you to the staff of The Advocate Magazine for featuring Gregory G. Allen (author of Well With My Soul) and I in an interview on our commonalities and differences. It was a lot of fun to do, and I appreciate the opportunity!

Read the full interview here!


30 Years of AIDS

As we note the 30-year mark in the ongoing battle against HIV/AIDS, it seemed an appropriate time to publish this short story.  I dedicate this to all of my friends, gone, but not forgotten, as well as those still fighting.

HOLES
A short story by Kergan Edwards-Stout

Jeffrey gazed up at the ceiling and, again, he began to count.  It didn’t matter that he’d counted them before, or that he knew the number of holes by heart — 3,016.  It also didn’t matter that he always counted the same square, never changing.  The number of holes was constant; as constant as his mother sitting numbly in her chair, stumbling through her crossword.  What mattered most to Jeffrey was that he knew it.  And since he knew it, it could never be taken away.

He sighed, though no one heard it, and thought of Kevin.  Blond, handsome, studly Kevin.  How had everything gone so wrong?  Jeffrey’s mind raced over the details of their relationship, sifting through the rubble for clues.  The beginning, middle, end.

No one thing stood out as wrong or imminent or foreboding.  When Jeffrey’s suspicions were confirmed and it did end, there were the expected rows, and tearful apologies, and scenes in restaurants.  But no one could have foreseen the agonizing pain that would come to Jeffrey.  He’d gotten through it, eventually, and now Jeffrey was alone.  Sadly alone.

He filled his time well, though.  Going through his Rolodex and renewing friendships.  Making dinner plans, and festive theatre outings, and endless gym workouts–anything to stay away from that apartment.  The reminders.  The memories. (more…)


In Memorium: Shane Michael Sawick

Without a doubt, the most pivotal moment of my life was meeting and the time I spent loving Shane Michael Sawick.  Quite simply, without having been lover, partner, and caregiver to him, I wouldn’t be the human, writer, partner, and father that I am today.  I am forever grateful to all that he opened me up to, both in terms of new lessons learned, and to the more fully authentic emotional connection I have with myself and with others.

Today, Memorial Day, as we celebrate those we have loved and lost, I hold up Shane.

To help honor and keep his memory alive, today I launched a special Tribute section to him on this site.  It includes a biography, photo gallery, Shane in his own words, as well as essays I wrote around the time of his illness and death which were inspired by him (Different?, Who Am I Now?, and A Year of Goodbyes).  Most importantly, there is also a page designated for you — whether you knew Shane or not — where you can share your memories, stories, or thoughts.

I envision this to be a living memorial, which we can all add to, to more fully complete a picture of Shane, for all who visit here.

As fully as I knew him, I was only with him for two years.  Many of you knew him far longer.  I’m looking for your stories, your memories, your photos…

Let’s add to this, celebrate, and share with others, the extraordinary life of Shane Michael Sawick.  Taken from us all, far too soon…


Boopsie Givenchy: This I Believe…

(This was originally written in 1994, for the magazine SexVibe.  Revisiting it today, I am happy to find that I wouldn’t change a word.)

I believe that “gay” still means “happy”.
I believe that good will always triumph–Unless, of course, we’re talking “Melrose Place”.
I believe that Latoya Latex could benefit from a nice full-length mirror.
I believe that one day Richard Simmons will rise up and lead us.
I believe in fairies.
I believe that Stephen Sondheim should be deified.
I believe that the Rev. Fred Phellps should not.
I believe in the Golden Rule (and anything else made of gold.)
I believe that rimming is next to Godliness.
I believe that Pamela Sue Martin is due for a comeback.
I believe that O.J. needs a better acting coach.
I believe that Susan Sarandon is the only woman I’d ever sleep with.
I believe that in Newt Gingrich’s next life, he’ll come back as Connie Norman.
I believe that in Mel Gibson’s next life, he’ll come back as a blow-up orifice Ken doll.
I believe that the seven deadly sins should’ve included bad hair.
I believe that no one will ever hand you anything–except a supeona.
I believe that “Saturday Night Live” should have been canceled long ago.
I believe that Calgon can take you away.
I believe that one day there will be a cure for AIDS.
And I believe that I will be here to see it.