Mark S. King / Photo via WikiCommons

The King of Kindness Has a Fabulous Disease

Mark S. King, well known as the Atlanta-based author of the “My Fabulous Disease” blog, has collected some of his best writing about life as a gay HIV-positive activist in a new book, “My Fabulous Disease: Chronicles of a Gay Survivor.” I’ve known Mark ever since he took my writing workshop over 20 years ago when he was working on his first book, a memoir about operating a phone-sex-fantasy service in Los Angeles, “A Place Like This,” published in 2007.

I spent nearly two hours interviewing Mark on the phone. My intention was to focus less on HIV itself and more on his observations about queer life, intergenerational conflict, drug addiction, sexual behavior, and media. When I told him about my intention, he said “Good!” and, after catching up, we headed pretty deep. 

Afterward, a funny thing happened. For the first time in more than 20 years, my computer froze and devoured my notes. I was alarmed. While I could easily just write a summary of his book, that’s not my style. I’m always most interested in the psychic reality behind the image. Mark’s new book, like his earlier memoir, opens with a column about exactly that. He recounts his experience as a 19-year-old contestant on The Price is Right in 1980 (episode available on YouTube), calling himself “impossibly cute” and optimistic. Weirdly, the camera limits most reaction shots of the audience to his boyfriend Charlie, who actually shouts instructions Mark follows to win a 1981 Pontiac Coupe. In his account, Mark notes how he would rewrite all of his optimistic, cheerful replies to Bob Barker’s personal questions with the wisdom and dark humor that grew out of the nightmare of being diagnosed HIV-positive five years later and falling into years of drug addiction. The thing is, though, everything that was to come was present in the episode.

Left with no notes and my fading short-term memory, I began thrashing around in his book again, and I felt myself heading down the path I intended not to walk: memory of the plague. In one chapter regarded by many as the book’s best, Mark, who tested positive in 1985, recalls a visit from his gay brother Richard, whose partner Emil had died a few years earlier. Mark had been there the evening Emil’s body was carted away but had no idea that his death was by assisted suicide, as Richard reveals. The story is finely crafted and evokes the weird horror of being young but drenched in the sight of death and the fear of one’s own death. I was present at maybe a dozen assisted suicides — some loving, some sacred, some perfunctory — in three different cities. Later, when I started my psychology practice, I saw many clients who had participated in these rituals, including one who railed constantly about his “survivor’s guilt.” When he left his third session, I noticed a faintly purple lesion on his back, near the strap of his tank top. I recognized it as likely kaposi sarcoma but decided to say nothing. Two weeks later, he announced that his survivor’s guilt had been cured by a positive HIV test. We laughed. Then of course we cried. 

Such memories are brutal. In some contexts, they are healing. Mark has been on a tour, promoting his book, and he found a genius way to achieve the latter. Rather than reading from his book, he asks people who come to events to read his words aloud rather than doing the usual author’s reading. He invites them to explain how they personally relate to his stories. It’s a cathartic experience for everyone because most people don’t like to recall the horror of that time. On the other hand, as Mark also points out in his book, too many old gay men seem to think it’s their duty to accuse the young of being woefully ignorant and unappreciative of what we endured and accomplished in ending what felt like a medieval plague that made vicious homophobia great again. 

It is true that AIDS forced gay men to bond empathetically, to pick up the slack created by an indifferent government and medical system. But we also split over tactics, with many gay men attacking ACT UP for its confrontational civil disobedience. 

But conflict within the gay community continues more generally too. Mark, like me, has been regularly attacked by mainly older white gay men — our peers — when he doesn’t toe the geriatric conservative line. I urge you to buy his book. The essays are all quick reads, full of queer bitchy wisdom, saintly depravity, intended and not-so-intended humor, and, above all, an earnest heart whose trials eventually brought great kindness to himself and our queer world. “That’s all that matters,” he told me. “Kindness. You don’t have to agree with anything, but kindness matters most.”

You can purchase Mark King’s book in the usual places in digital and paper format. Visit his blog site, myfabulousdisease.com, for more information and to read his ongoing blog.

Cliff Bostock, Ph.D., is a former psychotherapist who offers coaching to people who seek to expand their imagination and creativity (cliffbostock.com).