“Eastside, Westside, all around the town,” so goes the oldies tune, “Sidewalks of New York.” Well, I’m not in New York but on the sidewalks of West Hollywood, or WeHo, for short. I’m with my friend, Kit Williamson. We met at an AIDS Walk a couple of years ago.
On Santa Monica Boulevard, the main drag, we just had a bite of lunch at iHOP. We now parade down the festive street, drinking in the sights and sounds of a bustling boulevard.
Kit, enormously gifted, created the award-winning web series, EastSiders, now in its third season. It’s a dark comedy about the adventures of a gay couple from Silver Lake, a funky old neighborhood on the eastside of Los Angeles. Premiering on YouTube six years ago, the series can now be seen on Netflix and is on DVD, distributed by Wolfe Video. Season three was released last year. Get ready for an exhilarating road trip across America in a cute teeny retro camper, with the two self-sabotaging and horny boyfriends, Cal (Kit Williamson) and Thom, played by Van Hansis.
The show features not only Kit, who played Ed Gifford on Mad Men, but also his husband of
eleven years, John Haibach. Last year they married in Joshua Tree, a National Park near Palm Springs (you know this broad is a desert rat!), which sports rugged rock formations and barren desert terrain. EastSiders is written and directed by Kit, and he and John handle the marketing and raising funds, as well. Yeesh. These dudes are hard workers.
Walking along, we spot some cutie-pie kitty cats for sale at TLC Animal Hospital. We sit on their lobby bench, stroking a friendly pumpkin-colored Tabby. (At home, Kit has a cat named “Albee,” named after playwright Edward Albee, and of course I have three.) Kit, his grandpa’s nickname, mentions growing up gay in Mississippi…
Ruby Comer: I can’t even imagine growing up in the Deep South . . .No offense my Southern Belles!
Kit Williamson: [He smiles.] Well, there were no openly gay people in my world. The only exception was a family friend. Though he didn’t make reference to his partner until I was a teenager, he wore his flamboyance, wit, and love of life on his sleeve in a way that was distinctly, delightfully gay. I never got the chance to come out to him, because by the time I was comfortable enough with myself to talk to him about it, he had already died of AIDS-related causes.
Although I never shared my sexual orientation with him, we forged an intergenerational friendship and I could sense, intrinsically, that we were alike. I am grateful to have had him as an example in my life, and to know that his relationship with my parents helped them on the path towards accepting me. [Kit smooches the cat’s soft head.]
Very pleased that you shared that story, Kit. Did you experience any bullying and did you witness any HIV stigma there?
I experienced relentless bullying growing up, but the primary enforcers of HIV stigma I’ve witnessed have been other gay men. So many guys are fearful, misinformed, and lacking in compassion. I understand where they were coming from—like I said, I grew up terrified of HIV, but I’ve done my research and they have a responsibility to do so, as well.
Sometimes our worst enemies are our own brethren. Unfortunate. [Strolling again, we stop and peruse the elaborate cakes at the Cake and Art storefront. Incredible what they can do with flour and milk!] Didn’t you weave HIV through your storyline on EastSiders?
We haven’t dealt with HIV in a storyline, but the characters have frank conversations about PrEP and sexual health, when the guys take a trip to the STD clinic. [The former UCLA acting coach clears his throat.] We are sponsored this season, in part, by AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) and Impulse Group.
Good to note! The show has expanded to other locales around America. What challenges do you face shooting away from home?
[He chuckles.] We got snowed out of Yellowstone. We lost locations in Idaho when the campgrounds found out we were a gay series. And we even had a straight crewmember freak out after sharing toothpaste with a gay cast member, assuming he had been exposed to HIV.
Oh geez. Give me a break. In 2018?! Lordy Mary. [I halt and turn toward him.] How have you been affected by the epidemic, Kit?
The first word that comes to mind is respect. I have so much admiration and gratitude for the generation that weathered the AIDS crisis, and it’s amazing to see how much progress has been made towards making sure people with HIV can not only survive but thrive.
[We walk across the bright enormous neon rainbow crosswalk that’s painted on the street. I feel magical, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Kit carries on.]
Coming of age in the nineties, Ruby, the AIDS epidemic was at the forefront of my mind. I actually convinced myself that I had contracted HIV after my first kiss, which probably proves I’m a neurotic more than anything. I’m now thirty-two, and I have noticed that many people my age feel a tension between the vigilance of older generations and the abandon of this new generation that grew up as HIV became a manageable—and therefore abstract—disease rather than a death sentence.
Yes, there is a definitive generation gap.
I think it’s important that we remember our history and pass on the lessons of the AIDS epidemic to future generations as we continue forward into uncharted waters.
That’s the truth, Kit. Say, when did you first get tested?
My husband John and I first got tested together shortly after we started dating. It was my first time getting an HIV test, and it was a little nervewracking. Thankfully, the folks at Callen-Lorde [Community Health Center in New York] were very patient and put me at ease. It’s not a scary process at all these days.
You and John met in New York, huh?
Yes, back in 2007 and we immediately became an item. He was bartending a party for a show that I was in, and a mutual friend from the cast introduced us. I stayed after the party, we talked….and we’ve been together ever since!
Precious. I have to ask about your quixotic wedding—a touch of inspiration!
We put our families on a bus from Palm Springs out to the center of the park to have the ceremony. It’s this stunning spot where you can look out at the San Jacinto Mountains and the Salton Sea. We make a point of visiting it on every anniversary!
How wonderful. As a teen, what were you taught about HIV?
I was only taught about abstinence. This is dangerous because this approach spreads stigma and fear. Knowledge is the key.
[We head into Coffee Bean, and order. Seated at an outside table, we gawk at a drag queen dressed as Queen Elizabeth traipses by.] Isn’t she delightful? [We both beam, as Kit takes a sip of his Joe.] Okay, indulge me. What was the name of that first boy you kissed; who do you look up to; and what celebrity did you have a teenage crush on?
Whew. [He shakes his head, squints, and purses his lips.] In that order: Christian, Barack Obama, and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Affirmative. Jake is a certified cutie! Name off some events you’ve done.
Well, let’s see. In 2015, I was event chair for Solstice 4 (amfAR’s generationCURE). I don’t want to oversell my involvement—I just gave a speech and helped promote the event. I attended ACT UP NY meetings for a few months before moving back to L.A., to learn more about activism. (He sips his cappuccino with honey.)
I spoke at AIDSWalk NY twice. The cast of EastSiders raised money as a team, too.
Thanks for your continuing efforts. Several months ago you mentioned a script you were working on….
I’ve been writing a script based on the life of a doctor who worked for years in the free clinic system, treating patients with HIV and AIDS. We’re currently trying to get it produced. Financing hasn’t come together yet, but I want to do it.
Yes, yes! I’ll call my friend David Geffen and ask him. [Kit’s Royal Copenhagen-blue peepers widen, as I mock a smile.] I wish! Your project sounds most rare.
The AIDS epidemic is our shared history, and unless we all do our part it will be our future, too. [I nod ferociously.] The fight is far from over, Ruby, but it’s incredible to see how people in the community rally around these events. I hope people know it’s easier to get involved than they may think.
Strut the boulevard with Kit Williamson at www.EastSidersTheSeries.com.
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].