Robert Levithan

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Ruby’s Rap
by Ruby Comer

Photo by KarenFuchs.com
Photo by KarenFuchs.com

Robert Levithan is a man after my own heart—smart, funny, uplifting, and dynamic.

This adventurer has had quite a life! Though a die-hard New Yorker, he’s been a performance artist in Italy, a Shakespearean actor in Venezuela, theater and concert producer, screen actor and dancer, waiter in Caracas, sound engineer in Montreal—and even a New York cabbie. Today he lives in New York’s Soho district and is now a psychotherapist in private practice, and an author. His book, The New 60: Outliving Yourself and Reinventing a Future was released last year. It is not just for Old Farts! Trust me, you young’uns will benefit from this guy’s wit and wisdom. His words may save you from a lot of unnecessary pain.

HIV-positive for over thirty years, Robert has lost friends, lovers, clients, acquaintances, and a family member to the epidemic. He’s long been an activist and currently facilitates groups at Friends In Deed. He’s been affiliated with the organization for eighteen years and was co-chair of its board for seven years. He writes frequently for The Huffington Post and pens a regular sex advice column, “Bad Behavior: The Sexual Ethicist with Bobby Levithan.” The New 60 is a compilation of these columns. He travels around the country leading AIDS Mastery Workshops and speaks publicly as a man living with HIV/AIDS. Robert is presently writing his memoirs.

These quotes leapt out at me while reading The New 60:

• “I am convinced that at least 80% of our sexual attractiveness comes from how we feel about ourselves.”

• “To age gracefully, we need to balance health and vanity.”

• “Ignorance is bred by fear and reinforced by internalized shame.”

• “Fake strength is mired in machismo and a façade of toughness, which is overcompensation for fear.”

Bobby and I met years ago through a mutual friend when we were both performing at different venues in Venice, Italy. (Yes, I was a Broadway gypsy in my former life!) We instantly ignited. Today we’re in Manhattan grabbing a bonhomie Sunday brunch at Hundred Acres on MacDougal Street.

Illustration by Davidd Batalon
Illustration by Davidd Batalon

Ruby Comer: Boy, where do you get your endless enthusiasm, optimism, and motivation?! It’s so infectious but sometimes hard to keep up….
Robert Levithan:
I was brought up to see the glass as neither empty nor full, but overflowing. I have learned that life is meant to be full of difficulty and grace, and how I deal with it is my opportunity. As Sally Fisher, AIDS advocate and founder of Intersect, said in The AIDS Mastery Workshop, “The quality of life is not determined by the circumstances, but by how we respond to them….” I became an activist to survive and it has given my life meaning. [He looks off for a moment.] It was my father who showed me that enthusiasm, hard work, and generosity are gifts to all. He’s a hero of mine.

Sounds like a super dad. In your book you say, “Being alive is the magic.” Can you elaborate?
Being alive provides the time and space to grow, to work, and to have a life. As someone who never saw a life after fifty, being in my sixties is magical!

I know some therapists believe that self-disclosure is inappropriate. How do you address that, especially since you’ve written a book that certainly reveals a lot about yourself?
I believe self-disclosure with a clear purpose is often useful. Newly HIV-positive clients respond to my having lived with HIV for thirty years, while other therapists only tell them about HIV-positive people who are thriving. I am proof. As a writer, I seek to uncover and share my truth. I believe in the power of our story. I do not share unresolved issues with clients, however.

What drug therapy are you on?
I’ve been on meds since October 1995. I won a lottery for early access to Crixivan. I’m on three meds which I take twice a day. I also takePastedGraphic-4 vitamins and herbs, do yoga, get acupuncture, and live a reasonably healthy lifestyle. My health is excellent. When I went on meds my T-cell count was twenty-two. Last check-up it was 879. I am truly fortunate.

Glorious! When you encounter a client who is newly diagnosed, what do you say to them?
“Take some time to find your balance. Allow for your feelings, get support, and see a great doctor. Being diagnosed in 2013 is not what it was before 1995. There is no reason to let HIV stop you from realizing your dreams. Use it as an opportunity to live more fully.”

Well said. How can we combat AIDS-phobia?
Much of AIDS-phobia is based on outmoded twentieth-century thinking. It’s a condition that can be avoided and if one gets it, it can be managed. Eventually there will be a cure. Hopefully in my lifetime! [He strikes an animated smile, as his sky-blue eyes beam.]

In your talks around the USA, what do you tell the younger people about HIV?
I let them know that HIV is not a horror, but a serious inconvenience that can and should be avoided. They can learn from other challenges…they can skip this one!

Who do you consider heroes in the epidemic?
Larry Kramer, all of the ACT UP founders, Paul Monette, and countless men and women who have given and acted and cared for PWAs over the decades. The international pandemic continues, Ruby. We still need to be activists and educators. A cure is necessary and possible. Silence still equals Death.

Yes, Sir! How does one confront aging in a society where youth is glorified?
As a survivor of AIDS, I have come to see aging as a privilege. I embrace becoming an elder, however, an elder with vitality. I want to live full-out and be “used up” when I die, as George Bernard Shaw said. He lived to be 101.

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]