Monday, November 30, 2015

A Personal Story for World AIDS Day

I wish I could have talked about it on TV, shared my experiences and heartbreaks to give information the way Katie Couric did after her husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998.  Following three years as a veejay and celebrity talk show host on VH1, I was approached to work on WNBC.  I'd round out the morning trio for a new program to make its debut in September 1992.  Insiders predicted that Weekend TODAY in New York would last only six months.  The live local weekend morning news program is still running.  Not only that, it was so successful that ABC and CBS followed suit with their own live local weekend morning news programs.  Not only was I new to WNBC, I was new to romance.  Our first date was on October 11th, a month after the Weekend TODAY in New York debut. I was on one of New York City's top stations, working with Matt Lauer, and I was half of a couple for the first and only time in my life so far.  A white Southern Baptist from a small town in Tennessee, a young gentlemen I met when he sold me a piece of luggage in Bloomingdale's, decided that I was the guy for him.  The feeling was mutual.  When he returned from Thanksgiving holidays with his family in Tennessee, he had a little cold that lingered.  In December 1992, I had to get him to a hospital.  The week going into New Year's Eve, he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.  He'd never been tested for HIV.  This was at a time when AIDS was still a plague that dominated national headlines and when activists demanded attention from our government.
We needed that activism.  I got to New York City in 1985.  From then through to the early 1990s, the environment for gay men was humiliating and bigoted because of the AIDS crisis.  Activists shouted down the intolerance.  ACT UP expressed our community's rage.
You didn't see an openly gay male on just about every TV show the way you do now.  Gay professional athletes stayed in the closet.  We didn't have openly gay network news anchors and contributors.  Gay men did not come out for fear of losing their jobs, not getting a job or being otherwise shunned.  Today, a straight actor playing a gay character could be a direct shot at an Oscar nomination.  Look at Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Colin Firth and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Before their Oscar nominations, the Tom Hanks Oscar victory for playing a gay man fighting for his civil rights after his AIDS diagnosis in 1993's Philadelphia was groundbreaking.  It was most significant to Richard and me to watch Hanks accept his first Best Actor Oscar for that brave performance.
I tend to make many references to movies when I describe situations. This piece will be no exception.  The AIDS crisis in the 1980s through the early 90s was like a sci-fi horror movie.  Like Alien.  Every time you turned around, another member of your crew was gone, killed by a monster.  Then there was the ignorance.  I remember the issue of New York Magazine that reported how AIDS affected the privileged in Manhattan.  They'd stopped eating at their posh restaurants because they assumed that every waiter was gay or bisexual and possibly had HIV.  The wealthy felt that they could catch the virus through a dinner plate that such a waiter had touched.  A healthy gay man could clear out a cocktail party by sneezing because people assumed that all gay men were HIV+ carriers.  Yes, there was stigma in images and in hiring.  This was long before openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris could star on a hit sitcom as a hetero ladies' man and go on to host the Oscars.  This was long before hetero ladies' man actor Charlie Sheen could go on the network Today show -- with Matt Lauer -- to announce that he's HIV+.

WNBC News had different management in the early 1990s when I was there.  I was hired to do entertainment reports and film reviews in the studio.  Once the show premiered, management reassigned me basically to be the comic element of the show in live remote segments from various locations like shopping malls and street fairs.  I'd do occasional celebrity interviews.  From the time I got Richard to the hospital for the first time, to the week he was diagnosed with AIDS, until the day he died in June 1994, his illness changed both our lives.  He moved into my studio apartment.  He was no longer employed.  He was technically disabled.  I was irritated that WNBC local news management was deflecting me from doing what I'd initially been hired to do, but that part-time paycheck for the weekend show helped take care of Richard and me while I sought other freelance on-camera employment during the week.  There were so many sudden and severe changes in Richard's condition that dealing with it was often like riding a rollercoaster at night while wearing blindfolds.  You couldn't seen the next turn or drop coming.

There were a few other gay men that I knew in the WNBC local newsroom.  I took them into my confidence and told them my partner had been diagnosed.  They all urged me not to tell management for fear I'd be dropped from my contract.  I told them that my health was good.  I was his caregiver.  They still urged me not to tell management because of the stigma of being with someone who had AIDS.  Because Weekend Today in New York was an early morning show, we'd have to be at work in the pre-dawn hours.  When I got to work about ten minutes late, it was always because I'd gone directly to the office from having slept sitting upright in a chair at Richard's hospital bedside.  I wrote down the names of all his medications.  I met with his doctor and his nurses.  I went to organizations that helped me become a good caregiver.  At that time, AIDS patients were quarantined. I did not want him to be alone and scared through the night.  I'd sleep at his bedside -- and then go to WNBC where I had to be funny on a live news program.  When he did not have to be in the hospital and when he had the energy, what did Richard do besides enrich my life?  He did volunteer work to help AIDS patients who were less fortunate.  He urged people to get tested and know their HIV status.  That's some of the quality of the man I loved.

I knew I was not the only person in the New York TV viewing area who had a loved one battling AIDS.  I was not the only person thrust into a caregiver position.  Had management at that time embraced diversity, I would loved to have done segments on my personal journey as a caregiver to a person with AIDS.  I could've passed on what I'd learned.  I could've given useful information.  I'm sure it would've helped others.  I really wanted to do that.  But, what the gay men in the newsroom told me was probably true.  Management would not let me air a good interview I'd done of Harvey Fierstein when he was promoting his performance opposite Robin Williams in 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire.  The news exec who hired me refused to air my taped interview because, said he, "I have a problem with him being openly gay."  I told Harvey why it didn't air.  That same executive would not let me mention a SAGE fundraiser street fair in my community calendar segment.  SAGE is a non-profit organization of Services and Advocacy for Gay Elders.  I guess he felt threatened by 65-year old lesbians selling macrame plant holders and their old Joni Mitchell albums.  Denied the freedom to discuss my partner's health crisis the way straight people could freely discuss a spouse's health crisis made me feel like I was a muffled scream at work.  As I mentioned earlier, that disliked management team -- and that ignorance -- is long gone from WNBC.  On that same weekend morning show, WNBC viewers now get their weather from terrific Raphael Miranda.  Not only is he openly gay, he's got a husband.  We've seen photos of them on social media.  That's progress.

After Richard died, I stayed on the show long enough to help his sweet parents pay off his funeral expenses.  That took six months, and then I quit. Also, the news exec who hired me told me that, although my work was good and I was popular with viewers, I'd neither be promoted to full time status nor would I get network opportunities.  Richard's doctor and nurses at Manhattan's Mt. Sinai Hospital and the GMHC (Gay Men's Health Crisis) strengthened me with support and knowledge for which I'm still grateful. Today, HIV is neither an immediate death sentence nor a shame.  I wish Richard had been able to benefit from the medical advances.  Twice, after the Great Recession of 2008 left me flat broke and unemployed, HIV+ friends gave me a place to stay while I sought work.  There was a college friend in San Francisco in 2011.  I'm currently in the New Jersey home of a friend who's been HIV+ for over 20 years.  Thos Shipley is an African-American singer/actor who played a G.I. in the original Broadway cast of Miss Saigon.  He still sings.  His Italian-American husband is the former mayor of this small New Jersey town.  Thos is openly gay, openly HIV+ and openly black.  He ran for city council over the summer.  And won.  He'll be sworn in come January.  Now there's a story for WNBC local news.

AIDS is not in the national headlines the way it once was.  However, we still need a cure.  And education.  And compassion.  We've lost some extraordinary people to AIDS.  I know I did.  I lost one who made me a better man.  Taking care of him brought me closer to the true meaning of Christianity than any sacrament I've received so far as a Catholic.  Let's remember the loved ones we lost and support the vital message of World AIDS Day.
Here's a film for your December 1st viewing.  Before Tom Hanks played a gay man dealing with AIDS, another actor also got an Oscar nomination for the same thing in a fine indie movie that accurately reflected the tone of those days during the epidemic.  Bruce Davison had starred in films that were popular with baby boomers when we were young.  There was the critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated Last Summer (1969).   The Strawberry Statement (1970) looked at college student revolts during the politically turbulent 1960s.  Willard was a hit 1971 horror movie with rats as the horror. Then came Mame, the famous 1974 flop screen version of the hit Broadway musical.  He played the older Patrick Dennis opposite Lucille Ball as the singing Auntie Mame.
In 1990's Longtime Companion, Bruce Davison played a gay man in New York whose partner is dying of AIDS.  For his tender, heartfelt performance, he got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Dermot Mulroney, Campbell Scott, Mary-Louise Parker and Michael Schoeffling (Molly Ringwald's romantic interest in the 1984 teen comedy, Sixteen Candles) co-starred in this touching film.
Thank you so very much for taking the time to read this.

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