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Survival Guide

Author Rich Merritt recounts a journey toward wellness that took him through fundamentalism, the military, and the adult film industry and taught him about fighting for a more healthful life in the age of AIDS

by B. Andrew Plant

Although the title of Rich Merritt’s book, Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star, is relatively salacious, readers who venture beyond the cover will find a story of one man’s journey. And, while that journey includes some incredible elements—like a brief stint in porn—Merritt drew from both the mundane and the more sensational aspects of his life when talking with me about the AIDS pandemic.

All told, the now-Atlanta-based attorney has emerged from an often self-destructive journey to a more healthful place, including a healthy perspective about safe sex, smart choices, and the rights and responsibilities of people affected by HIV/AIDS.

Merritt told me he learned of the AIDS crisis the way he learned about many things in his early life, “listening to the late Dr. Bob Jones, Jr., during one of his daily chapel sermons on the campus of Bob Jones University,” a conservative Christian institution (elementary through college) in Greenville, South Carolina.

“I was in the tenth grade at Bob Jones Academy, attending [required] chapel services when I first heard of AIDS,” Merritt says. “Dr. Bob Junior told us, ‘Young people, there’s apparently a new deadly cancer that only sodomites can get. This is proof that God does not suffer them lightly who sin against Him.’ I thought he was crazy, but soon I saw media reports about HIV and AIDS.”

Blessedly, AIDS did not touch Merritt’s life directly for several years to come. “I had just come out of the closet of self-denial and had transferred in the Marines to San Diego,” he says. “It was 1993 and I met a young gay Marine who was being discharged because he was HIV-positive….”

Later we talk of HIV in the military again, but now our conversation wandered into territory we would speak of again and again—religious fundamentalism. Naturally, I asked how that community, invested as it is in extreme religious dogma, dealt with the onset of HIV/AIDS. “Like they dealt with and talked about everything else—by interpreting the Bible stringently,” Merritt says. “So when they read the Bible as condemning sodomy and then a disease pops up that disproportionately affects homosexuals, in [fundamentalists’] minds, it’s obvious: AIDS is God’s judgment.”

We discussed whether or not the fundamentalist atmosphere helps people avoid this risk of HIV/AIDS or if it in some way contributes to unsafe choices.

“Fundamentalists are taught that man-on-man sex, or I suppose even oral or anal sex of any kind, and any sex outside of marriage, is a sin against God. [They say] it cannot happen. It should not happen. It does not happen. That simple,” Merritt says. “We were taught that people who violate this are ostracized, ridiculed, condemned, and forced to repent in order to re-enter the community.”

Unfortunately, he says, this means no one talks about what they desire, about what they want to do, about how they might avoid or postpone what they want to do. “Then, the unconscious, unspoken desire takes over…and they’re off, doing something they had only imagined, but had never spoken about and certainly aren’t prepared for. The things that are not supposed to happen happen all the time in fundamentalism—and elsewhere.”

With that realization in mind, Merritt says his own stand on HIV is more pro-active. “The only way to avoid the risk of HIV/AIDS is to talk about it a lot, openly, freely, and without fear of judgment,” he says. “When people have good conversations over and over about healthy behavior, then the idea of behaving safely seeps into the lower levels of consciousness and becomes habit. Healthy habit.”

But the man who once worked as a go-go dancer, turned one trick as an escort, and made eight adult films in the mid-nineties was not always so healthful in his choices. For instance, part of the story he reveals in Secrets is about his struggle with substance abuse. Merritt now talks openly about the unique double threat of HIV and substance abuse, focusing on the fact that substance abuse can lower inhibitions, leading to unsafe encounters, and jeopardize the body’s immune system for those who may already be infected.

“I’m one of the fortunate few in that when I started ‘experimenting’ with drugs, I was with a partner who was very nurturing and prevented me from really going off the deep end,” he says. “But long before I met him, I would get drunk and go home with anyone and engage in unsafe sex because of my impaired mental state. I dealt with it mentally and emotionally…by deciding not to deal with [it]. When I was ‘in the moment,’ I would promise myself to think about it anew ‘tomorrow,’ but then I wouldn’t. I got into that habit. That cycle.” Now in recovery, Merritt says he is focused on “engaging exclusively in healthy behavior.”

But what drives such a bright young man—he was always an excellent student and, later, a decorated Marine officer who achieved the rank of captain—to unsafe encounters?

“I allowed myself to be lured into [unsafe encounters]. The first few times I had sex, it was unsafe, but I was ‘straight’ and the guys were either ‘straight’ or in the military, so I reasoned they could not possibly have HIV/AIDS. Pretty stupid. In my young and repressed mind, a condom prohibited the ‘bonding’ I was seeking. I wanted to share everything with this guy, even if it was bad.”

He also reveals that he has long had a self-destructive side. “Many times I just wouldn’t care what would happen. I would think that if I had AIDS, I could just take my own life if it came to that,” he says with remarkable candor. “Well, after my failed suicide attempt three years ago, I realized I was living for some reason and I might just as well quit fighting against life and be healthy.”

Merritt says that shift in thinking has meant he has had to retrain himself away from a lifetime of bad habits. But the more he lives a healthy life, he says, the easier it is for those healthy habits, including safe sex, to become rote.

Naturally, our conversation progresses to the former Marine’s adult film career, and whether HIV/AIDS was a concern in that industry. “The films I made were over a period of four months in 1995,” he says, noting this was a time prior to protease inhibitors. “So HIV still meant AIDS, and AIDS still meant a relatively rapid decline. The feeling I got was that the producers realized safe sex was a requirement since a lot of guys get their sexual ideas from porn….In the scenes I was in, unprotected sex was never really an option.”

We backtrack now, picking up on a reference Merritt made early in our interview—about HIV seroconversion resulting in dismissal from the military.

“I knew a few [service members] who were discharged in the early nineties for being HIV-positive,” he says, “[but] by the time I resigned from the Marines in 1998, service members were not automatically discharged for being HIV….I don’t know what the rule is now.” While HIV-positive individuals cannot enlist, personnel who test positive can remain on active duty as long as they are “medically fit.”

Since the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy seems to force people to live in the closet, I ask Merritt if the policy might have a direct impact in terms of unsafe sex or other behaviors that put people at risk.

“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ forces people to live lives of denial, shame, and deceit. When you wear the uniform, you’re supposed to have honor, courage, and commitment,” he says. “This conflict is going to manifest itself somehow, sooner or later.”

By way of example, he tells me that he believes most of the young men who join the military are not capable of dealing with latent sexual urges. So the policy just prolongs the pattern he talked about earlier—living in denial and making unsafe choices.

“The only way to have safe sex is to plan for it,” Merritt says, “And with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ people are not allowed to plan for the occurrence of homosexual acts because the denial is institutionalized. Homosexual acts happen a lot in the military, but they are almost always spontaneous, sudden, and the participants are not prepared for protection.”

What message does he have for people who may be experiencing some of the same challenges and questions and frustrations he faced? Overall, he says, don’t let fear keep you from talking about safe sex—or about anything else.

“Don’t let fear keep you from demanding that your partner either wear a condom or not have sex with you. If fear stymies that conversation, you may very well become infected,” Merritt says. “We are fear-based creatures. Evolution/God designed us that way for survival. We fear and avoid what might be dangerous. But in the case of sex, that backfires. Fear prevents us from communicating and then we become lost souls driven by our unconscious desires.”

For all the tough talk, Merritt says that, when it comes to HIV/AIDS, he is an optimist. Even so, he’s a cautious optimist. “I see a lot of attitudes about HIV that are irrational and frightening,” he says. “For example, some people are defeatist or resigned to it. Like they think we’re all going to get it anyway, so let’s all just go ahead and get infected and party like it’s 1979 again.”

“There’s no excuse to be ill-informed anymore,” he says. “Get educated! It’s a virus. Nothing more, nothing less. It does what it’s programmed to do. It’s 2005, and we know too much for people to still be dying from this.” And, as the author says, the first steps toward resolution may be as simple as talking and being honest. He’s doing his part by telling his tale.

Visit www.richmerritt.com to find out more about the author and advocate. More photographic work of Robin Henson may be found at www.robinhenson.com.

B. Andrew Plant is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and is Editor at Large of A&U. He interviewed Patti LaBelle for the June issue.

July 2005