Rewriting His Own Script
Mark S. King, One of the HIV Community’s Most Relevant Voices, Discusses Sobriety, Activism & Why He Is Making the Most of a New Lease on Life
by John Francis Leonard
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Holly Clark
So many extraordinary people fall under the banner of HIV/AIDS advocacy and activism today. There are some, like the incredible Mark S. King, who have even made it their life’s work. As a long-term survivor, he is unparalleled in his dedication to the cause with a long history of work for a major AIDS organization that began in the mid-eighties with a decision to sell his business when he himself was diagnosed. As Mark puts it, “It was a karmic deal. I thought I should do something positive and help some people—make a contribution to this world and score some points with the man upstairs before I die.” It wasn’t all smooth sailing from then on, however; drug addiction reared its ugly influences in his life once again and he lost everything dear to him, most especially his place in the community. But that was hardly Mark’s last chapter, not by a long shot. He began his three-time GLAAD-nominated blog, “My Fabulous Disease,” going on to inspire his original generation of survivors as well as subsequent generations with his humor, his insight, his humanity, and his talent as both a writer and a visual artist.
Mark grew up as the baby in a large family of six siblings. His supportive parents, who often have starred in his video pieces, had two sets of three children ten years apart, with a gay son for each set. His father was in the military so they moved often, but by the time Mark was in junior high, they had settled near Shreveport, Louisiana. Moving around a lot made Mark more outgoing; it’s true of many kids who do. No one’s childhood is perfect, but Mark knows that he was very lucky and says, “I was raised in a household where my parents told us we could do anything and believed in us, whatever it was.” There was an early propensity for performing and Mark found an outlet in public speaking and his parents came to see his speeches as often as they went to his quarterback brother’s games. Some of the video pieces on “My Fabulous Disease” that I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones featuring his gregarious and warm family. I suspect that this unconditional support made Mark’s future successes as a performer, business person, advocate, and activist possible.
One of the more interesting chapters in Mark’s life is covered by his 2007 memoir, A Place Like This. He writes of his move to Los Angeles in the early eighties, his acting career, and then his memorable stint as a phone sex line purveyor. That business brought him early financial success and a taste for a life in West Hollywood’s gay party scene, cocaine and all. These years also coincided with the AIDS pandemic that devastated the gay community of the time. Mark writes touchingly of friends lost and even more evocatively of the loss of his older brother’s longtime partner to the disease early in the crisis. Mark walked away from all of that with his own diagnosis. Popular wisdom of the time among the gay community said one shouldn’t be tested because of the stigma and prejudice. As he recalls now, “You could be discriminated against, losing your job, getting kicked out of your apartment.” This kind of ignorance wasn’t exclusive to conservatives either, as he recalls. Gay men were turning out roommates; everyone was afraid. Mark, knowing he had been exposed, decided that he had to know and in 1985 took the test and received the life-changing news.
And it was a game changer. Mark sold his company and began his career in advocacy and activism by working his way up the ranks at the legendary California AIDS organization, Shanti. But, first things first. It was time to break the news to his family and especially, his parents. In 1985, testing positive meant a highly probable shortened life expectancy, but as Mark is quick to remind me, the test meant only an exposure to the virus at some point. He never developed any symptoms, he never would, but it was still a terrible burden to carry and convincing his parents that he would probably be fine a tough sell. His mother was the toughest. He recalls, “Recently I asked her in a video I shot, ‘Did you buy it?’ She said nope.” His mother was a reference librarian at the time and was reading all the latest articles coming in from the bigger city papers and medical journals. He continues, “She thought there was a high likelihood I would die; she admitted this to me many years later in that same video. But, she admired my tenacity. My whole family has never felt self-conscious or embarrassed by my activism. They’re proud and would rather have a living AIDS activist in the family than a death statistic.”
Mark has another story to tell, one familiar to many gay men who fought the good fight against AIDS up until ’96 when combination therapy was introduced and that’s one of addiction, particularly crystal meth addiction. As he tells it, “1996 was a big year. With combination therapy you had this Lazarus Syndrome happening with all these people getting off of their death beds and people with HIV, like me, who hadn’t been sick, but always under the threat of it deciding it was time to celebrate.” There was finally effective treatment and celebrate many did. They hit the clubs and the dance floors and, along with that, came drugs. Crystal meth hit the gay community en force and, while some could eventually put it and the other club drugs down, others, like Mark, had a propensity for addiction and it devastated their lives. Viagra entered the picture at this time and enabled a second kind of sexual revolution—this one with an even darker side than the earlier one. As Mark explains, “Unfortunately, for people like me, who had addictive tendencies, it spelled complete disaster and in a matter of a few years, I went from going to the gym and bulking up to 250 lbs of muscle and dancing on boxes at circuit parties to being this really heavy crystal meth user going from one meth house party to another having sex and shooting up.” He went from a well known AIDS advocate working for a prominent agency to having repeated unsafe sex and mainlining crystal. It took many things from him, his health, his relationships, and his career, but most of all it robbed him of what he most treasured, the respect of his community as someone with integrity. It’s a story and a time familiar to many of us and it would be nice to say that era was behind us, but drug addiction remains one of the most pernicious problems we grapple with as a community.
The turning point was ten years ago when I had lost another relationship and found myself back at my mother’s house in Louisiana, with all my belongings in the backseat of my car trying to figure out who I was and what had happened to me. And how a nice guy like me, once again, found himself in a place like this.
Mark, however, was able to find his way back. He says, “The turning point was ten years ago when I had lost another relationship and found myself back at my mother’s house in Louisiana, with all my belongings in the backseat of my car trying to figure out who I was and what had happened to me. And how a nice guy like me, once again, found himself in a place like this.” It’s not a second chance he’s taken lightly either professionally or personally. This time, this second act, is one that Mark has decided to really make count and he finds himself again a highly respected advocate and activist. His professional salvation has been as a writer and a storyteller. He started writing and hasn’t stopped gifting us with his humor, his compassion, and a keen eye as a journalist writing about the issues that matter to him as an HIV-positive man and in turn for his audience. His blog “My Fabulous Disease” has been the home of his writing for the past ten years starting out at the invitation of a respected editor at TheBody.com. His editor also sent him his first flip video camera with which to record his experiences and it’s become a powerful tool in his arsenal. He’s been writing pieces about being HIV-positive since he was first diagnosed but now, is proud to actually call himself a writer when people ask that all-American question, “What do you do?” He not only covers the issues and experiences of living with HIV himself. At any national or international AIDS conference you will find Mark and his camera bringing the sights and sounds of the world of advocacy to those not able to attend. He doesn’t consider his video work, or his writing, for that matter, as straight journalism. What Mark enjoys most, and excels in, goes back to his early years as a performer—he provokes emotion and enjoys making people laugh. Interviewing Mark, one of his best qualities stands out—that’s his gentle, never sardonic or biting, sense of humor.
When asked what achievement he’s most proud of, Mark doesn’t hesitate for a second, “I’m most proud of helping someone who’s tested HIV-positive realize that there’s love and laughter and life and engagement after this diagnosis.” Mark keeps a file on his desktop of the thank-you emails he receives from the people whose lives he’s touched through his blog. When he needs to remember why he does what he does, or just needs a good cry, he opens it up and reads a few. “It sounds indulgent,” he admits, “but as you know, writers work in a vacuum and it’s nice to know you’re having an impact on somebody. I don’t know of many people outside of this field who, in their work, get letters like that from people who feel you have affected their life like that.” When asked questions like this, Mark really shows himself to be the humble, self-effacing person that he really is and I think that’s why people from all walks of life, but especially those that are living with HIV, can relate to his work. It’s because what you get when you read his blogs and view his videos is someone you can relate to, not someone who’s telling you what you should do, but someone who is showing you what is possible if you’re open to it. I asked Mark what advice he had for the newly diagnosed, his answer is that he tells them it’s ok to freak out. “People are going to tell you you will be fine,” he says, “and while that’s true, it’s still a life-changing experience, a life-altering event and you need time to absorb that and if you need to freak out, go ahead, but not for long.” He’s also quick to point out, as he has in his writing, that after freaking out a bit, it’s time for some serious work. It’s time especially to become your own healthcare advocate, after a deep breath or two, he adds.
Mark’s blog is a go-to source for information and articles on HIV/AIDS. He writes stories of inspiration and hope, acknowledges our losses, and isn’t afraid to take people in the HIV/AIDS community, as well as the wider one, to task. Two recent posts stand out. He takes both columnist Dan Savage to task regarding recent comments concerning Undetectable=Untransmittable, and pens another about just who should replace Kenneth Cole as amfAR Chair. A recent interview he had with a Black activist about race relations was honest, hard-hitting, and nothing short of the exact dialogue we need to be having about racism in this current social and political climate. Along with these serious pieces of journalism are always his advice and counsel on issues ranging from addiction to advice for those newly diagnosed. And always there’s his trademark wry humor in his human interest stories. It even peeks through in some of the more serious pieces, but never in an inappropriate way. I would say for certain that more than anything, he goes for the easy smile rather than the easy laugh. It makes his work and his message so much more relatable to his audience and many fans.
U=U is the most significant development in the history of HIV treatment and prevention since combination therapy came out in ’96.
One thing that I make certain to ask Mark about is a subject that is near to his heart and a message he feels is important to convey. That is the groundbreaking recent research that finally proves, categorically, that Undetectable=Untransmittable. Mark feels, “It is the most significant development in the history of HIV treatment and prevention since combination therapy came out in ’96.” He, like many of us, has felt for so many years as if we are tainted, as if we are disease carriers. It has defined us for too long, but he cautions that while we can finally believe in the campaign’s message, that it might take those who are negative some time to catch up. This said, he conveys, “I’ve had a profound psychic shift in the way I feel about myself. I hold my head a little higher. I feel whole in a way I haven’t felt as a person living with HIV.” He, and all of us can now know that if we adhere to our meds, which the majority of us have, that we cannot infect someone else. For Mark, and all of us, it’s a game-changer.
The other half of Mark’s second act is a new lease on happiness and success in his personal life. His close ties with his family remain, they were never broken. But in addition, he says now, “I’m so crazy stupid in love with my husband, it’s annoying. I try not to write about it or talk about it too much because it’s just damn annoying.” Like many gay men, he spent his life looking over the shoulder of the man in front of him for something better. He was selfish and unfaithful but has reached a point where he’s ready for the real thing and has found it. There’s no greater satisfaction in life than when you can find success in something that you love to do and happiness with someone that you love to be with and after many misfires and missteps, common to us all, Mark has found both. And that’s what resonates with Mark’s many fans, the fact that he’s so relatable.
Check out Mark S. King’s blog, “My Fabulous Disease” at: www.marksking.com.
For more information about photographer Holly Clark, log on to: www.hollyclarkphotography.com.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he writes reviews for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.