by Ruby Comer
James Duke Mason
I was just entering puberty at the age of ten when I saw the epic musical romp, The Sound of Music. Honey, this film changed my life! I was a student at an all-girls parochial school in the Midwest back then and after watching Julie Andrews frolic in the Austrian Alps, I knew my destiny was set——to enter the convent. What happened?! Well, even though I never become a nun, to this day, when I am depressed, I just slip in my Blu-Ray to feel sunny again. It’s one of “My Favorite Things.” Oh god, did I just use that pun?!
To be sure, movies can make for a dynamic foothold in our lives, sometimes taking us into a better state. Take my friend, James Duke Mason. The 2002 film The Trip made a huge impact on him, opening his eyes to the epidemic. The story takes place over a decade during the seventies and eighties that follow two gay opposing politicos who fall in love against the backdrop of gay liberation and the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. (SPOILER ALERT) One of the guys eventually becomes ill.
The film empowered Duke in several ways. It planted seeds of activism, and it inspired him
to come out to his parents. He’s the only son of pop singer Belinda Carlisle and film producer Morgan Mason, whose father was the legendary uber film star, James Mason (Lolita, North by Northwest, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea). Unfortunately, even though Duke is named after his grandpa, he never got to meet him. Mason died in 1984 and Duke was born in 1992. His favorite James Mason movie is A Star is Born, where his namesake stars with Judy Garland.
Incredibly close to his parents, he and Belinda have spoken at various gay organizations, including PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays). Duke has volunteered for HIV events and has established himself as a budding politician, having served on the board of the West Hollywood (WeHo) Community Housing Corporation, which provides affordable housing for individuals who are living with HIV. He currently serves as a city official on the WeHo Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board, where HIV and AIDS is a central issue.
At sixteen, he was a page on the House floor, and a couple of years ago Mason joined the Hillary for President campaign, speaking around the country. His father worked in Reagan’s administration. Politics is apparently in Duke’s DNA.
Thus far, Rocketman (biopic of Elton John) is Mason’s favorite film last year. Elton and (his husband) David are old friends of the Mason family, and through the years, Duke has been connected with the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Naturally, being raised in a home with two celebrity parents, Duke grew up encountering many deaths of family friends from AIDS-related causes. Grieving was a process he learned early on. Having close friends who are living with HIV, today, Duke lives in WeHo, is a writer, and a self-described “Political Dork.” He confessed to me that he cries at movies. Awww….
Duke is part of the last generation who came of age before PrEP. So in today’s column we have a millennial and a baby boomer. There could be some interesting banter! At noon I meet Duke in the front of WeHo City Hall, a hi-tech glass structure at Sweetzer and Santa Monica Boulevard. I show up with a couple of way over-priced sandwiches from Whole Foods. We toddle down the street, chomping away into our food.
Ruby Comer: It so nice to walk. I rarely get a chance to. [Duke nods.] Who do you look up to in the epidemic?
James Duke Mason: My heroes are Larry Kramer and Paul Monette, both who led our community through difficult times. [He unravels the sandwich’s cellophane.] After watching The Trip, I did further research into the epidemic and learned about [gay activists] like Harvey Milk and Cleve Jones who have also become heroes to me. Had it not been for that film though, I wouldn’t have even gotten an initial introduction. Just shows how one experience can totally alter the trajectory of your life.
It really is amazing. I remember watching that film. And yes, the inimitable Larry Kramer …
I remember reading his 2004 speech, “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” and being very moved by it. I became more familiar with a lot of his work, including The Normal Heart. I was just struck by his courage and his commitment to his principles. I want to try to emulate that.
So far it seems you do, which is admirable. It looks good on you! When was the first time you were aware of this disease?
I was young. It was an issue that was always on the table and my parents were never afraid to talk about it with me.
How healthy. [We pass by a neon crimson-colored bougainvillea in the Gelson Market parking lot.] Your family lost many close friends to AIDS. Can you share a story?
I really pass on this for the sake of privacy, Ruby. I will say that it had a very profound impact on my family——and me. It really humanized the cost of this disease and how critical it is that we finally find a cure.
[I stop a moment and peer into his steel grey-azure eyes.] What was it like for you coming of age, knowing sex could lead to acquiring HIV?
[He leans against a brick building.] I lived every single day with the thought of HIV and AIDS on my mind. Of course, I don’t think that’s the way it should be. I think all of us, including people younger than me, need to always be thoughtful and aware. I was the last group of guys who grew up right before the rise of PrEP. It definitely feels like there has been a sea change in a very short period of time.
You’re correct. It came quick and I am hesitant about it all. What are your thoughts on PrEP?
I have always been frustrated by the confusion regarding PrEP. People need to understand that the pill is not a substitute for using [other forms of] protection. They are meant to work in tandem. Thankfully I think we’re finally making some progress in getting this message out there, but there is still a ways to go.
Have you always played safe?
What I can say is that I think, like most of us, we’ve all made bad decisions that we would take back or change based on what we’ve learned. I think it’s incredibly important to be safe and to be smart about the choices you make when it comes to your health and your body. Being well informed and being careful is definitely critical! [He states this in an Anderson Cooper precision voice.]
At eighteen, you took an HIV test. [We cross La Cienega Boulevard.] What was that like for you?
I think it’s always a little bit scary when you’re a sexually active young person and you first go through this experience. Sometimes you’re not exactly fully informed, and after a while you learn about what you should or shouldn’t be doing. [He takes a beat.] It’s a learning curve.
Tell me , Duke, what you’ve learned from your friendships with people living with HIV?
I think this goes without saying, but you learn how complicated people’s stories are and how each person has had a different experience. You learn the very real, very personal struggles that they go through. That has educated me and brought the epidemic to a more personal level.
Changing gears, Duke. Name one good quality you picked up from your mother.
My mom is one of the strongest, most resilient people I’ve ever met. I’d like to think that I inherited a little bit of that from her.
I know you didn’t meet your grandfather, but from what you know about him, how are the two of you alike?
He was actually very political and very progressive. He was a conscientious objector during World War II and was very strident about his liberal beliefs. He was friends with a lot of people like James Baldwin and Christopher Isherwood, so I have no doubt be would’ve been very comfortable with having a gay grandson.
That’s sweet. I never knew he was political. Now where in this world do you see yourself in five years?
[He exposes a wide Colgate smile.] I definitely think I’ll be running for office again in the not-too-distant future. [He ran unsuccessfully for WeHo City Council in March of last year.] Politics is definitely still my passion. I for sure intend to continue with my activism.
That’s a promise I’ll hold ya to. Some parting words, Senator Mason? Well, it’s never too early to call you that… [I shoot him a shrewd heartfelt grin].
I think it’s incredibly sad that many of my generation seem to think that the fight against HIV and AIDS is somehow a relic of the past. The fight is not over. It’s still something that we deal with as a community every day. [He halts, inhales, and concludes his thought.] I definitely plan to use whatever visibility I have, Ruby, to send out that message.
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].