[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s I walked along Wilshire Boulevard to meet Spencer Collins IV at a coffee shop, I was running late and awash in grievances. The traffic and street-sweeping parking restrictions had made me late, the pollen and heat that were enervating, and I was probably going to start our interview with complaining about all of those things. Because who doesn’t love a cranky reporter who injects his problems into an interview?
Spencer was waiting, smiling, and before I could launch a mini-rant, he told me about his recent diagnosis of congestive heart failure at the age of forty-six, which meant he might need a defibrillator or a heart transplant, and that he’s living with HIV. He said the medical issues were challenging, but he wasn’t worried. He had a lot to do. And “the more you knock me down, the more I get back up.”
Okay then. Forget about me.
Collins’ heart diagnosis came a few months earlier when he passed out at church. He had been misdiagnosed for months, and doctors thought the fact that his shortness of breath and dizziness and blackouts and sleeplessness could be anything from depression to asthma (he does have asthma too, something we have in common).
With knowledge of what’s been ailing him, though not why it’s ailing him—doctors believe his congestive heart failure may be hereditary since he has few markers of the disease—Collins has been back to work. He finished directing and starring in a short film and has been hitting up potential investors to help him turn it into a feature and he’s set up a Gofundme page. When we spoke his production company, BLACMail Productions (BLAC stands for Black Leaders in Art and Cinema), was preparing for its annual educational variety show to coincide with World AIDS Day.
The show, he says, is a night full of singing, dancing, acting, educating, prizes, rebuilding of communities, red-carpet, recognition, open dialogue, “the dismantling of displaced stigma about HIV and lots of love.”
“Every year for the past five years I’ve had the privilege of working with and recognizing my very talented friends who do the real work like outreach, testing, counseling, research, and everything else including preventive care. The World AIDS Day show is my time to celebrate and appreciate them and include the community that we all serve with. This night and this cause is one of the reasons BLACMail Productions was started, to tell stories of black men through film or on stage.”
Collins’ doctor told him to take a year off and not do anything. “I didn’t tell him ‘no,’ but I’m pretty much a ‘no’ on that,” Collins says.
Earlier this year Collins did take some time off, if you can call it that, to do a tour of the U.S. In less than thirty days, he flew into Savannah, drove to Atlanta and through South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., New York City, and Newark. Then it was on to Boston, Detroit, Las Vegas, San Francisco, San Diego, and back to Los Angeles. This was after learning that his heart was only functioning at twenty percent.
Collins says the trip was a reminder of his life purpose, to be his brothers’ keeper.
Being a brothers’ keeper for Collins means educating young black men on HIV and to help break down the homophobia and sexual misconceptions that weigh on black MSMs like an anvil. It’s an uphill climb, but despite his health issues, or maybe even because of them, Collins is doing what it takes, without complaining.
“I am not my diagnosis,” he says.
These days Collins is many things. When he came to Los Angeles after graduating from SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design), with two bachelor’s degrees in 1995, he planned to be an actor but found the walls even higher than most actors face.
Collins says that being an out gay or bisexual man of color is a doubly difficult for an actor in Hollywood, where there are still relatively few good roles for blacks and where homophobia still rules. That’s why, he says, many gay or bisexual actors of color tend to make one of two choices: stay in the closet or leave the business.
But life intervened while Collins was making other plans. He heard about the Minority AIDS Project and was hired by Charles McWells to do HIV outreach and safer sex advocacy.
“I started seeing statistics of the African-American community and how we’re disproportionately affected by HIV and I decided I had to do something.”
The artist as educator
Collins hasn’t put away his desire to be an actor, though he’s not actively pursuing auditions as much. He’s just using his other talents as director, producer, and production manager in a different way, starting with the message and the purpose. For Collins it’s about educating people, especially young black men about HIV/AIDS.
Collins says there is a great need to correct some misinformation prevalent in the African-American community. “Some is basic information about HIV even in high school. What we need is preventative measures and we should be starting in middle school.”
He also was appalled to find that many black MSMs believe that if someone doesn’t look positive, then they’re safe, and that if you aren’t fully penetrated, even without a condom, you’ll be fine.
He says the biggest misconception is that ‘I’m not gay and therefore I can’t get HIV.’ Collins himself identifies as SGL or same-gender loving, not gay, because he believes it’s more accurate, but he notes that the G-word phobia drives black men to unsafe practices.
“If you’re not using a condom, you’re exposing yourself to not just HIV but all STDs,” Collins says. “That’s why many of these diseases are starting to come back to the black community.”
The genesis for BLACMail Productions came from Collins’ work with a group of same-gender-loving black men. In 2010 the group saw several plays together, and one man asked why there wasn’t a better representation of people like him on stage (in the play a gay guy was a villain and used as comic relief). “I told him, you write something and we will see it.” In two weeks that man, Roger Howell came to me with a script, co-written by Roger Washington.
Collins loved the story and went all over Los Angeles to find a producer. Many didn’t want the subject matter, a young man dealing with his sexuality in a Christian household. Can God’s Love Reach You in the Dark even had a title that would-be producers told him was too earnest, too Christian, and too risqué.
Collins realized he didn’t have to wait for others to punch his proverbial ticket, and that’s when Black Leaders in Art and Cinema was formed. In the first weekend Can God’s Love played at a small theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, and was sold out. They have put on the play twenty times over the past five years.
But even then, he experienced homophobia. When casting for Can God’s Love Reach You in the Dark, “even gay men didn’t want to play the role of a gay man.”
A question of faith
Collins also wants to correct some misconceptions in black churches about gay people and MSMs in their community. It’s not a secret that the church, often the center of cultural life in black communities, has been hostile to gay or questioning men, and sometimes is in denial that those men are in their congregations.
[quote_center]”I am living out loud with no regrets, no secrets, and no apologies.”[/quote_center]For Collins, the church has been a source of salvation, and of pain. After hearing a barrage of homophobic messages left the church he grew up with and was determined to not go back. But the non-denominational faith groups and gay churches, while affirming of all sexualities, weren’t a good fit for him either.
“I only believe in the gospel, in the Bible, and I don’t want or need it to be altered to affirm my sexuality or condemn my sexuality or use gay theology.” He got lucky and found the Renew Church of Los Angeles, which uses the Bible, and has a large contingent of gay parishioners.
But he’s seen a shift recently. “Now we are talking about [sexuality] in churches. That’s where we need to talk about it. So often a pastor or guest speaker would talk about homosexuality in a negative light. But in some cases we can make up a significant part of the church. We are definitely in the choir, in the band, we are on the board of deacons. Churches are beginning to recognize that.”
His conflict of sexuality and church doctrine was one of the things that nearly drove Collins to suicide. But he tells me that after coming out to family and friends he no longer feels the need to apologize for being who God created him to be.
“I am living out loud with no regrets, no secrets, and no apologies.”
Despite his health issues, Collins was as animated and impassioned at the end of our long meeting as when we first met. I was thinking about having a nap. Collins was planning to make calls to potential donors. I was about to ask him where he got his energy, but I realized it came from his faith and his sense of purpose. He explained when talking about the nexus of activism, gospel and art that, “this is where God is calling me to be.”
Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. His podcast on employment issues, “Labor Pains,” can be found at www.laborpainspodcast.com.