Remember AIDS?

If I need to explain why this is another example of how gay men and the dominant culture do not respect or honor our own dignity, pain, and passion, then the cause of internalized self-worth in gay men is dead as well.

Today is World AIDS Day and it appears to be an afterthought for… well, for everybody. On facebook, on TV, and in my email inbox. AIDS and all the bravery, horror, and heroism of that time is not something anyone wants to acknowledge when we’ve got Black Friday sales and the Hollywood Christmas Parade.

I get it. AIDS is not sexy and it’s not even lethal anymore for those of us lucky enough to be on meds. But AIDS killed more American men than World War II and a combination of those war dead and the dead from every American war since.

We fought and won a victory of sorts from the plague. Guess it’s over. Move on.

That’s all I’ve got. What else is there to say?

I miss my best friend, Alvin Lorenzo. I miss my boyfriend, Tony Pruzzi. I miss my mentor, Gustav.

If I need to explain why this is another example of how gay men and the dominant culture do not respect or honor our own dignity, pain, and passion, then the cause of internalized self-worth in gay men is dead as well.


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Hero Culture is Killing Men

Hero culture has set an impossible and dangerous standard for men in this country.

The John Wayne type of independent, self-reliant, emotionless icon has been replicated, digitized, and repacked into countless new action actors and movies. Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Dwayne Johnson make up just the tip of the iceberg that is, unfortunately, acceptable American masculinity.

At best, men’s hero culture is simply causing us pain; it gives us the option to be 1 of 2 things, 1) on top (a winner) or 2) NOT on top (a loser).

Since there can only be a small number of people on top, that leaves the majority of men not on top who live in shame, trying desperately to keep their “loser” status hidden. 

At worst, and unfortunately the worst is happening at an alarming rate, it is filling the morgues of this country with dead bodies ravaged by self-inflicted gun shot wounds.

Something must change.

This is very personal, and although it affects men of all ages, I’m focusing on men like me in their mid fifties. While sorting out my own day-to-day malaise, a malaise I have not be able to shake for nearly a year, I’ve become aware that this feeling of discontent is common among men my age.

When our careers are winding down, we look to the future and find it surprisingly free of road signs. From my point of view, a 54 gay man living in Hollywood, California, the future appears to be completely void of any roads at all.

There is no clear path to walk either alone or with companions.

This is why so many men end up in isolation. We feel lonely, vulnerable, and disoriented.

All things hero culture abhors.

Hero culture ideals require us to show no vulnerability, to need no one, and to have all the answers. Our need for love, our desire for friendship, and ALL our fears around money, relationships, relevance, and death must be buried under a façade of muscle, fast cars, and sexual conquest. If not, the culture considers us weak.

And weakness is currently reviled in American.

So, alone with our fears, desires, and dreams it is.

This is more than just sad. It’s dangerous.

***

The hero model of masculinity that our society embraces causes a toxicity that is alarmingly fatal.

This is not the “toxic-masculinity” used to describe narcissistic, selfish, hostility from men. This is a toxicity that causes self-destructive life-threatening isolation inside of men.

It’s a toxicity that is causing men to kill themselves at an alarming rate!

Brené Brown, a shame researcher, and Psychology Today, point to studies that show loneliness is more fatal than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day or living with obesity.

According to the National Institute on Mental Health, who uses Center for Disease Control data, American men kill ourselves at 2 to 3 times the rate of women; we are more likely to die from suicide than homicide, and a gun is the most likely way we do it.

Suicide is one of the top leading causes of death for men.

I am not in a suicidal state, but I am experiencing a midlife malaise that I want to turn around before it flirts with the kind of loneliness that kills.

Notice, in my earlier statement about my malaise, that I didn’t used the word “normal” to explain my condition; I said, “common” because I refuse to believe that this many men quietly killing themselves in the shadows is normal. 

This is a clear and present danger that must be addressed.

***

The first step is for us to talk about feelings, listen to others when they express their feelings, and trust that the culture, deep down, wants strong, empathic, community-oriented collaborators more than it wants men who break things and can only express themselves with one emotion: anger.

The more open and honest I am with other men about my own desires for friendship, love, and relevance (usefulness), the more confident I am that our current state of hero worship will change. This past Sunday I met with a small group of Gay Men Over 50 (GMO50), a private group started by a man I’ve known for 34 years, and we talked about our living options as we age.

There was a palpable creative energy in the conversation.

After we got past the realization that there are no brick and mortar venues or “arenas” for gay men to gather that are not bars, sex clubs, or sex apps, we had an exciting conversation about communal living spaces, elder roles, and what “community” means.

We need places to connect.

Not chat rooms or conference calls. We need to breath the same air, hear the same laughter, and lean in when the quite moments present themselves for heart-to-heart connections.

This is a new frontier. We will need to find the answers and build the future together.

For my part, I intend to keep talking about these issues, listening to ALL the feelings my brothers are able to express, and follow all leads that guide us to a physical community space (or spaces) where gay men thrive.

Dad no longer on death’s door

At least we know he’s out of immediate danger. Dad is looking and sounding much better. 


Or have I just gotten too immersed in the sterile and ill environment of the hospital fugue? Has my objectivity been compromised by sitting in his hospital room with my mom for three days?

No. It’s true. He’s better and no longer flirting with the keeper of death’s door. He’s with us and will likely be leaving the hospital soon. 


How did this happen? What caused my father’s lung to collapse and thoracic cavity to fill with so much fluid that it needed to be drained with tubes inserted into his chest and his back for more than a week? The four doctors working on his case don’t know. They only know that he’s getting better and doesn’t need emergency surgery. That he will most likely be home soon. 

I board the airplane home to West Hollywood in the morning twilight with guarded optimism. I’m grateful for this time with my dad and the wonderful demeanor of my mom and my sister and her wonderful family. The Gerle and Grider tribe is one I’m resolutely proud to be a member of. 

Hello LA. Hello home. I know you’ll understand when I tell you that a big part of my heart is anchored here in the green rain drenched floor of the fly over states. 

Head of the table

Half unpacked. 

Woke up at my parent’s with only my mom occupying the large property, she on one side of the respectable house she and my father literally built with their own hands, while I was on the other. We came together in the kitchen. She cooked us eggs and bacon as I made small talk about music. 
Then she asked me to sit down and eat. 

“Why don’t you sit in dad’s seat,” she said. I moved into the seat I’d never sat in before, fell silent and swallowed the emotions that came up. “Do you mind if we say grace,” my Mormon mother asked me. We’d never eaten a meal at home without praying first. 

I reached over and gave her forearm a squeeze. “Please do. Really, mom, I’d really love that.” 



Our Father

Dad’s been in the hospital for a week now, and even though he wants me to wait, something inside me yesterday said, just go now. As the plane descends into the plains of my native region (Nebraska born, but KC, MO is close enough culturally juxtaposed to WeHo) I’m feeling more happy to go “home” than I have in decades. 

This serious illness has brought into vivid clarity how much I love and appreciate the man who raised me. For two years I was one of his two boys as he did the work of a devoted and loving single dad. Not once during my 51 years of life has he ever cited his efforts and sacrifice. Not even when I was railing him with lists of reasons I’d judged him a failure as a parent.   

We were both lucky to live long enough to grow and let go of what separates and focus on what brings us together. Love.   

Now my sister will pick me up at the gate (almost nearly, it is the KC airport) and we will revel in our father’s goodness and scheme on how to keep him healthy so that he’s here with for as long as possible. 

29 Gay Men Murdered in Fire – “The Lord had something to do with this.”

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the largest gay massacre in America. I did not know that until I saw this post on Facebook today. In June of 1973 I was enjoying the summer break between my 2nd and 3rd grade years in grammar school. Forty years have gone by and not one of my educators mentioned this massacre. I have worked and lived in a gay city my entire adult life and I have not heard about his until today. How is that possible?

Tomorrow the SCOTUS is going to announce their decisions on marriage. If it goes our way, do we just say “thank you” and blend neatly into hetro-normative society forgetting all the hate? Do we continue to bury this type of history because it makes the middle class assimilationists uncomfortable?

I’m just asking here, because the burial of this story for forty years – the story of my people being hideously murdered in mass – is outrageous.

Again, how is this possible?

Where are our mentors?

I’ve often heard people talk about so many of our mentors being dead. I have to admit that sometimes I’ve dismissed those assertions as hyperbole – people just exaggerating reality to match the pain in our hearts.

I did some Googling and found out that our feelings are – at least in this case – are supported by actual facts. Our mentors and my contemporaries are just gone – wiped out by an incomprehensible plague.

The CDC says that there have been 636,000 US deaths from AIDS – a great majority of them happening over a ten year period.
Factor into that – that nearly all of those deaths were gay men – and you start to get a sense of exactly how devastating this loss is to our sliver of the rainbow.

But really, how many people is that? I looked up the populations of West Hollywood, the Hollywood District, the Silverlake District, Beverly Hills, Culver City, North Hollywood, and Malibu.

Their total populations are 321, 933 – only half the number of people killed by AIDS.

I kept Googling.

According to Wikipedia:World War II = 418,500 US deaths.Vietnam = 58,000 US deaths.Iraq & Afghanistan = 6,717 US deaths.
That’s 483,217 total US deaths from war – still significantly less than the loss we’ve suffered from AIDS.

A paralyzing fact that we as gay men must grapple with, is that many of our gay mentors are dead. It’s not a theory. It’s a reality – a reality that is just one more challenge for us as a people.

Add to that reality another fact we don’t seem to want to talk about – those of us that are still alive are walking wounded. We’re veterans of a plague that killed more people than Vietnam, World War II, and the Gulf wars combined.

And yet we have no VA to tend to our psychological wounds.

Rick, it is heartening to hear your desire for mentorship. We want to do it. And being of use to you will undoubtedly help us heal some very serious wounds we are carrying.
In addition to mentoring the youth, we need to heal the veterans.

We are missing our mentors too. We are missing our contemporaries. We are jealous watching you grow into adulthood with ALL of your friends by your side who will be there twenty years from now. Friends you will be able to talk to over brunch and reminisce about all the crazy times you had together when you were young, divinely stupid, and more beautiful than you knew.
I believe that mentoring the young adults and healing the elders can happen simultaneously.

We already love you. You’ll learn to love us.

You remind us of ourselves and those men we have lost that we wish we could introduce you to. Even though you will never be able to understand what it was like to an AIDS Vets any more than we can understand what it was to be a Gulf War Vet, you can help us help you.

You can help us by listening to our long stories and letting us give you more advice than you want to hear. You’ll help your elders heal our horrifying past. In in that exchange, you’ll learn from your tribal elders how to build on our stellar successes so that you can surpass all our monumental achievements.

Pilgrimage: healing the horror of AIDS

In 1987 I found out I was HIV positive. In 1988 AIDS took my best friend Alvin. Less than two years later my boyfriend Tony’s body was flown in a coffin from LA to his mother in New York. That same year the LA Gay & Lesbian Center began treating my HIV even though I had no money and no insurance. My mentor, Gustav died from AIDS only weeks before the protease inhibitors came out that began literally saving lives of people like me and those newly infected.

Tomorrow I begin, for the fifth time, a 7 day bike ride from SF to LA to raise money to help people like the kid I was way back then. We also raise the money to prevent new infections. 
But many of us do this because there is little else we can do with the pain of the horror we’ve lived through. 
Every donation, every bit of applause, every hug, smile, and show of support, bring hope to the future. 
But this event also works as a communal salve for those of us on this annual pilgrimage who are exorcising our demons from an unimaginable past that still stalks us each day. 
#alc2013 

Experience

My tennis shoes edge towards the lip of the granite precipice and my heart races. I feel the sun on my face and a surge of adrenalin in my arms, legs, and chest. My older brother and I have made it to the precipice of the crazy rock formations that create a centerpiece for Vedauwoo National State Park. We smile broadly, without words, into the summer breeze. At 13 and 16 the view before us is something we can only experience. Appreciation will only come decades later. After becoming numb to the beauty of city living, and the long absence of a deceased sibling. But for now, the view is spectacular and the sheer drop, breathtaking.

Quality over quantity

Contemporary culture would have us believe that all endings are bad – that a perfect world is one where no one dies, no one ends a relationship, and no club or institution ever closes its doors.

This fantasy places our intentions in the wrong place. Instead of investing in the quality of our own lives, our relationships, and our institutions, we shoot for something far less important – longevity.

Tragic deaths are not the ones that leave grieving friends and family to ponder the rich full life of the deceased. Tragic deaths are the ones of individuals who never had a chance to touch their individual greatness.

Relationships that build up the dignity and joy of the individuals involved do not suddenly become failures when the couple grows in different directions. If both members of the couple have invested in honesty and integrity, their six month relationship may serve its purpose – preparing each for an even better (maybe even longer) relationship with someone else or perhaps living a happy single life.

Clubs and institutions may need to close their doors to allow the energy they have created to be released into the world where it can be transformed into something even better.

Focusing our intentions on quality requires more emotional risk, more introspection, and more creative thought than the mindless trudge towards uninspired longevity.

Quality requires all of that effort for sure, but the returns are high. Focusing our expectations on excellence rather than survival creates lives we actually want to live, relationships we will miss when they are gone, and institutions that are relevant to those that they serve.

MikelGerle.com