Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer
History has always been a favorite subject of mine. A noteworthy dig that I recently discovered, which is now on my “Top Ten” sites to visit, is Sunnylands, the former Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage, California. These sumptuous two hundred acres, complete with golf course, was known as the West Coast Camp David, owned and built by the distinguished philanthropists, Leonore (Lee) and Walter Annenberg.
Steeped in history, Sunnylands has been a retreat for hundreds of dignitaries, politicians, U.S. Presidents, movie stars, world leaders, celebrities, and even Britain’s royal family. The compound has twenty-two sleeping rooms, three guest cottages, and eleven man-made lakes. The place is simply exquisite! The living quarters are finely splashed in brilliant vivid colors, peppered with iconic art pieces, and lavished with mid-century modernist furniture designed by William Haines, former silent movie star and BFF to Joan Crawford. All this is framed by the majestic panoramic views of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Lucky for us, Sunnylands has just been opened to the public. The intimate, personal tour (seven people to a tour) is informative and impressive. My tour guide, Bryan Garcia, actually worked for Lee Annenberg for several years, until her death in 2009. (Walter Annenberg, founder of TV Guide, died in 2002.) The Annenbergs were very involved in healthcare issues and were the single largest donor to Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage.
Unite historical Sunnylands with someone who is making his own mark on history—a bright, young, motivated man—and you have a yummy treat. Michael Beck is the man with all the right ingredients. Michael rode in the AIDS/LifeCycle three times, was a Recruitment Coordinator for AIDS/LifeCycle, worked for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, and is presently the Northeast AIDS Ride manager for Cycle for the Cause. He’s worked with AIDS Project Los Angeles, the Stigma Project, and AIDS Support Network. Already a trailblazer at the age of twenty-five, think what Michael will do in the next ten years! The history books await….
Michael and I begin chatting in the café while we both lunch at separate tables. He looked vaguely familiar but it didn’t dawn on me until later that this was half of “Frankel!” That was the nickname they gave Michael’s and Frank’s relationship on MTV’s The Real World San Diego (2011). I find out that Michael has a wonderfully wicked sense of humor and a refreshing perky personality.
Ruby Comer: Landsakes alive, how lovely are these desert gardens?! [Both of us are awestruck by the view looking out the wall-to-ceiling glass windows. Michael grins, his bluish-green eyes filled with wonder.] Such…history in this place….And speaking of history…AIDS.
Michael Beck: Interesting, because before you said AIDS, I was thinking it. Actually, two things pop into my head: history and apathy. History, because this disease has really played such a huge part in the lives of gay men in particular for the last few decades. As I travel and speak more and more with gay men of older generations, I really start to understand the magnitude HIV/AIDS had on our community.
And how about apathy?
I think apathy because it scares, saddens and worries me that my generation—the twenty-somethings and younger—don’t understand the disease or really care for that matter. With infection rates in young people on the rise again it makes me wonder how apathetic we are as young gay men. We don’t have people dying around us, and what seems so easy as a once-a-day pill to keep us healthy, it’s no wonder that young people don’t use condoms or get tested. What’s crazy is that we don’t know what long-term effects the “cocktail” is going to have on the last generation. Yes, people with HIV are living longer lives, but how will that affect their health overall?
Absolutely, Michael. When did the disease come into your awareness?
I’m sure I learned about HIV/AIDS at some point in school, hopefully, but the first time I actually remember understanding the disease and having a firsthand experience was when I joined the Board of Directors of GALA [the Gay And Lesbian Alliance of the Central Coast] when I was seventeen. Now as a twenty-five-year-old adult I have known many people who are HIV-positive and even a few friends that have passed away from AIDS, some within this last year.
Such a waste. What myth about AIDS would you like to squash?
The myth that nobody is dying anymore! I can show you many pictures of dear friends to prove that wrong….
You tell me that from an early age you were active in helping others, especially gay youth and the HIV/AIDS community. Where does that drive come from?
Honestly, I wish I could tell you what drives me to do the work that I do. If I had to guess I would say it is because of my family. I come from a large, diverse family and was always instilled with the ideals of heritage, community, diversity, and acceptance.
When I was in high school I saw other kids that were gay that didn’t have it as easy as me [he came out at fourteen] and it blew my mind. I knew I had to do something to help and it’s really all snowballed from there.
Bloody hell! I applaud you. Now, you rode in the AIDS/LifeCycle three times. Forevermore child!, what compels you to do so?
Participating in an AIDS Ride is an experience like no other. I honestly can’t put into words how life-changing it is. Obviously I’m hooked. I would have to say there’s no safer place than on the ride. The sense of community, the love you feel, and power you get from it is what keeps you coming back. Sure, you have to ride the bike but that’s honestly not what it’s about. It’s about the people. It’s about sweating and crying as you’re climbing what you think is an impossible hill when a participant passes you up with a flag that reads “I’m HIV-positive.” I’m motivated by the fact that people come here to make a difference and it’s bigger than me or than those next hundred yards up the hill.
You’re so invigorating, Michael. How were you educated about STDs?
Funny enough, for having such an accepting and open family, sex was taboo. I don’t really ever remember anyone talking to me about safe sex or having the “birds and the bees” talk. It’s crazy but the first time I can remember someone talking to me about sex was in my youth group at church. I remember they separated the boys and the girls into two different rooms, and then they had us close our eyes and raise our hands if we had ever thought about girls in an impure way. I luckily got to keep my hand down for that one. [He smirks with a light shrug.]
Have you always played safe?
Well, nobody is perfect. I think we always have the best of intentions, but every now and then there’s a slip up and I would guess that there is some mind-altering substance to blame. I’m pretty good, though. Condoms are like gum to me. I have some in every bag and you can probably find them in most pants pockets. [He looks on and reconsiders what he is saying.] That makes me sound like a slut but that’s really not the case! Believe me, I have a stockpile of condoms only because there’s not much reason to use them.
Now, when did you first take the HIV test?
I took my first test when I was seventeen. My first serious boyfriend and I were going to have sex and he was older and wiser and made us test beforehand. I had never had big boy sex before so I wasn’t too concerned, but I’m thankful that he did that because it taught me how important it is to be tested.
Do you currently practice that routine?
Thanks to that first boyfriend it has become kind of a right-of-passage if you want to date me. As soon as things start to look serious I make sure to communicate how I feel about being safe and getting tested. Most of the time guys really appreciate it.
Okay, boy…MTV! Looking back, what did you learn from having a relationship on camera?
[He instantly replies] Wow, well I learned a lot! A lot about myself, a lot about the world, and I’ve gotten to learn a lot about people because of the show. I wasn’t a cast member and didn’t sign on to do the The Real World. I just happened to fall for someone who was a part of it and spent a few months in the fantasy. But I wouldn’t take the experience back at all. I met a great guy and had a lot of fun but most of all it has given me the opportunity to talk to so many people across the country and around the world.
And what’s happening with you over the next six months?
I’ve got a lot on my plate right now, especially just having recently moved from L.A. to New York City to manage Cycle for the Cause. I have my own film production company and there are a few projects I’m working on. However, I’m still traveling and speaking as an advocate for LGBT people. That’s the part I will do…forever.
As we went to press, Michael had ended his employment with Cycle for the Cause and returned to TV/film production. In June, he will once again ride in the AIDS/LifeCycle.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]