Surviving childhood sexual abuse, Dr. Frank Spinelli propelled himself into science in order to comfort his peers in the early days of AIDS. Today, he continues his heartfelt mission and looks for better ways of preventing the spread of HIV rather than just simply treating it.
Text & Photos by Sean Black
I was looking forward to meeting Dr. Frank Spinelli. Not only to discuss his clenching memoir, Pee-Shy, but to also get his expert advice on what he feels is still critically lacking in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Serving on the Board of Directors of GMHC, the oldest HIV/AIDS service organization in the world, Frank Spinelli, MD, FACP, is a licensed and board certified internist working at Chelsea Village Medical in New York. He is an Associate Clinical Professor at New York Medical College and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. He is the author of The Advocate Guide to Gay Men’s Health and Wellness and is a contributor to The Huffington Post and The Advocate. He appears monthly on Sirius Radio’s Morning Jolt and has co-hosted Speak Out: Real Talk about AIDS. In 2012, he was featured in two documentaries, Positive Youth and the Emmy-nominated, 30 Years from Here. He has appeared on ABC News, NBC Nightly News, MTV, and Sesame Street and has hosted Dueling Doctors on Veria Living TV.
When you look at Frank Spinelli, you assume he’s got it all—and today he just might. To his credit, he’s worked hard and he’s earned it. He has a successful Manhattan-based medical practice and a handsome husband Chad (who’s a doctor, too—not fair!). Together they have a well-appointed home, a loyal canine Hoffman, brains, and, of course, good looks.
It’s his inner attractiveness, however, that gave him the strength to face his not-so-pretty past. In his memoir, Pee-Shy, he talks about confronting the man who sexually abused him as a boy and how he brought him to justice. Frank Spinelli is a survivor.
“In 2008, while on a tour for my first book, The Advocate Guide to Gay Men’s Health and Wellness,” explains Spinelli, “I had a very vivid dream about when I was eleven and was molested by my Scoutmaster, Bill Fox. I Googled him and discovered that, in 1982, just two years after I had told my parents that I was being molested, he talked a suicidal teenage boy off a ledge, adopted him, and then wrote a book called The Cop and the Kid. He was then made Father of the Year of 1983. I tracked him down. He told me he had adopted fifteen boys over the past twenty-five years and he still had three of them living with him and that they had various mental disabilities. I then proceeded to have [probably what could be described as] a nervous breakdown. I notified the police and a therapist and that began a three-year journey to bring him to justice.”
undergoes a traumatizing event, and how that family reacts. I truly believe that the developmental years, the years you spend as a child, are probably more informative to you as an adult than all of your educational years combined. I do believe that children, who have been abused are more likely (and it’s been proven) to engage in unsafe sex, use drugs, use alcohol, become pregnant as teenagers, so all of these things factored into why I felt the need to revisit my past and do what I thought should have been done thirty years earlier.”
Sean Black: How might your book help people who are living with HIV? I think you just briefly touched on how there seems to be a higher incidence rate of riskier behaviors among people suffering from traumas such as yours.
Frank Spinelli: A portion of my proceeds from the book goes to GMHC. Many people have asked me, “Why GMHC? They’re an AIDS service organization.” I’ve been an HIV provider my whole career and I am glad to be on their board of directors, but, if you really understand what happens to children and how trauma affects risk-taking behaviors, then you begin to understand. As a result of my research and all the years that I’ve been trying to deal with [the abuse], talking to other survivors like myself, the parallels are just astounding—the risk-taking behaviors, the alcohol, the drugs, HIV infections, especially among gay men.
That makes a lot of sense. How should we address the abuse of individuals during these formative years?
I think we still focus too much on the perpetrator. It’s very exciting for the media to vilify people who have been accused of child molestation like Jerry Sandusky, Kevin Clash, and Roman Polanski. We can make them into villains, and they intrigue us. So we focus more on these perpetrators than we do on the victims.
Look at me as the example. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I started dealing with this. And the first thing that everyone asked me is, “Why didn’t you come forward sooner?” Well, I did; I told my parents in 1980 and my parents were convinced [by others] to do something different. What was I, a child supposed to do? Take matters into my own hands? I think we’re missing the point that children, more likely, will not come forward. Most cases of child abuse go underreported and occur by someone the parents or child knows. It’s very hard for a child to come to grips with what has happened because they feel so much shame and guilt.
Sure. Do you think the trauma in your life helped propel you towards becoming a caregiver?
I definitely think being traumatized as a child propels you to want to do good, at least it was in my case. I’ve always wanted to help people. I found science fascinating. I think when I really came to grips with the fact that I was gay was when I was working in a hospital and the AIDS epidemic was still an in-patient disease. During my training we [still] had AIDS wards. I think it was a huge watershed moment for me—to see the community that I was a part of dying around me—that made me want to help.
How about as an activist?
I think the activism part for me comes specifically from being abused as a child as well. Because I see so many of the clients at GMHC, who are [previously] underserved, underprivileged, underinsured or not insured, and they need help. That’s why I feel so strongly about working with GMHC. It’s also because there’s a part of me that gets it; I get what they’re going through. I’m very fortunate; I became a doctor, I got to go to school and I had a lot of things afforded to me that most children who have been molested don’t. And I’ve spoken to many of those people who have lost their ways because of the abuse and now they’re struggling. So I feel very fortunate and that’s part of the reason why I wanted to tell my story.
In your OraQuick PSA, you mentioned re-engaging the gay community in order for them to realize the “big deal” of HIV. How can the gay community band together?
I think for the most part we still have to talk about HIV. I think it’s important for all gay men to remember that there was a period in our lives where we were dying and HIV disproportionately affected us as a community. I think we still need movies like How to Survive a Plague and The Normal Heart to remind us, and those born after us, of what it was like. That’s our history. That’s our culture. And it’s important for us to keep that message alive…[and it needs to be] updated in order for us to engage the younger generation of gay men and women.
How can we update the messaging?
We have to ask: where do they go for information? When I was young we didn’t have the Internet! We didn’t have Google. So I read all of my material in magazines. I don’t think younger gay men and women in their twenties read magazines and journal articles. They read everything on-line. So what’s the messaging outlet we’re looking for?
Also, I think social media plays a huge part. More than likely people are engaging on Facebook, or even Grindr. I think it’s important to have messaging in those areas. I think it’s our job to go and find them and really speak to them. Teach them how to interpret the information.
I also do a morning radio show where I answer questions. We ask young men and women about topics they are interested in. It’s really amazing to me that we have PrEP and yet patients are still like, What is this I heard about PrEP? And I’m thinking, wow, it’s still not out there. So I wonder what the disconnect is between doctors and marketers of healthcare information that we’re not reaching this community?
How can we integrate messaging about HIV prevention and safer sex into apps like Grindr?
I’ll be honest with you. I’m not on Grindr. I don’t think my husband would really like that very much. I’ve seen it. Patients and friends have shown it to me. I get it, you know, I was single once and on social sites. I had a profile. There are banner ads with links that we can utilize.There are many ways to get messages out. It may not be a message everyone likes to read or even understand, but I think we should just focus on getting targeted messages out there and educating people with the appropriate information. All too often I’ll be on Facebook and someone will post something to the effect, “AIDS Cure on the Horizon,” and you have all these people who are clicking on it and then it’s some bullshit somewhere. I think to myself, ‘Okay, so that got a lot of people’s attention.’ I wonder how we can utilize that kind of tactic and get people to talk about what HIV prevention really is.
objective in the next year is working very closely with GMHC and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, who is on GMHC’s Board as well. He does a lot of work in sex clubs and bathhouses to test and talk about HIV prevention. I really would like to see GMHC do a forum on HIV prevention without an agenda and invite clients, activists, doctors and officials from the Department of Health to come have an open discussion. I would really like to see us engage as a community because when you think about how GMHC started it was Larry Kramer and a group of his friends talking in his living room about what they could do about the AIDS epidemic. Why aren’t we doing that now about HIV prevention?
You’re a great interview, by the way.
I talk too much.
No, I think the topics you bring up are important and talking about them might help motivate us further to re-engage the younger gay community. I’m in my forties as well.
So we’re close in age. You remember the tail end of what it was like and I’m sure you know someone who has died but I can tell you that when I started treating twenty-year-olds they have no clue. They’ve never even heard of Longtime Companion, Angels in America, and And the Band Played On. It’s just startling to me because those were movies that haunted me. I remember going to see Angels in America on Broadway when I had just turned twenty. I was leaving [the theater] with a girlfriend and remember saying to her, “Wow, I’m probably going to get AIDS.” That was what I thought. That this is probably going to happen to me. I don’t think we realize how much of an impact the AIDS epidemic had [on us] because of all of those people we lost. We lost so many. It’s very few and far between where you see AIDS activists getting up and talking where a twenty-year-old can completely identify. I really, really admire those younger people who come out and say I’m HIV-positive. I think RuPaul’s Drag Race has been amazing—you see these queens also sharing their stories about HIV. Even Project Runway; to see that, with them looking great, competing. You think, “Oh, that’s what AIDS is today. It’s about living and being a working, creative person who is contributing to the community. It’s changed a lot.
Sean Black interviewed Allen Sowelle and Josh Feinman of Front Seat Chronicles for the May 2014 issue.