“I’ve been writing in real time as a gay man living with HIV over the course of four decades now,” said Mark S. King, author, speaker and activist whose essay collection “My Fabulous Disease: Chronicles of a Gay Survivor,” released on Sept. 1, 2023.
King compiled his essays from his blog of the same name as well as columns and articles he wrote for magazines and newspapers over the years, including PGN. Some of his work is about living with HIV in the early years of the epidemic, and some of it is about his everyday life as a gay man. “My Fabulous Disease” earned King the 2020 GLAAD award for Outstanding Blog.
The book gives readers a sense of “how it felt to navigate this ever-changing sexual politics of HIV, how we were supposed to behave in the early days,” King said. “Then when medications happened, how that changed our behaviors or attitudes, and then PrEP, and then successful treatment that made us unable to transmit the virus. All of those stages have met this very complicated renegotiation — for all of us, positive and negative alike.”
King will celebrate the release of “My Fabulous Disease” with an Oct. 30 event at the William Way LGBT Community Center, where individuals in Philly’s LGBTQ+ and HIV-care communities will read essays from the book.
“Some of the essays are funny and very lighthearted, so people will definitely be laughing,” King said. “And there will be tears.”
Other than HIV, the book focuses on King’s family, his drug addiction and subsequent recovery, sex and his other life experiences.
“I’m always careful to say, ‘please do not reduce us to our great tragedy,’ those of us like me who are long-term survivors,” King said. “We have full and complete lives, and the book reflects that.”
King’s chapters on addiction cover his experiences struggling with crystal meth, though he also writes about his use of substances in the context of the gay party scene in his younger years.
“I kind of followed the trajectory of what my gay community was up to,” King said. “I drank in the ’70s; I did coke in the ’80s; I did the dance floor drugs in the ’90s. And then when the 2000s hit and I discovered crystal meth, that was my downfall. I’ve always been very transparent about all that. Certainly far and above even HIV, it’s been my life’s greatest challenge, and that which I’m most proud of in terms of finding recovery and sobriety again.”
According to a 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, sexual minority adults 26 and over were more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to use meth, cocaine and other recreational drugs.
“After the mid ’90s when we got successful [HIV] treatment and we could all breathe a sigh of relief, people like me who had struggled just to stay alive were able to say, ‘oh, my god, I’m gonna make it,’” King said. “So the irony and the riddle is: why then did I choose to engage in the worst of my drug behaviors that really threatened my life?”
King’s choice to have community members read excerpts of his book at the upcoming Philly event was born out of the conferences he’s spoken at, the HIV activism he has done and the connections he has made in the LGBTQ+ community over the course of 30 years. He has held similar events in other U.S. cities.
“I’ve been speaking and fairly visible as a long-term survivor, and I love what our community does,” King said. “I love the institutions that we’ve built; I love the organizations; I love the support groups; I love the meal delivery services. I feel such a sense of personal pride over all of those things, as we all should. We should all feel incredibly proud over the foundational things that we created when nobody cared.”
Essay readers at the Oct. 30 event include Tyrell Brown, executive director of the QTBIPOC organization galaei; Grace Rutha, HIV educator, activist, advocate, motivational speaker and community mobilizer; Rev. Jeff Haskins, former pastor at Unity Fellowship Church in Philadelphia; Chris Bartlett, executive director of William Way LGBT Community Center; Dr. Kathleen Brady, director of the Division of HIV Health at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health; and Heshie Zinman, LGBTQ+ and HIV advocate. King will read a couple of his own essays.
“You will experience something there between these readers as they read an essay that’s selected just for them,” King said. “Then they offer their own remarks about their own experience and whether or not this rings true, or how their experience might have been different.”
Haskins will read the essay “The Man who Buried Them Remembers,” about Tom Bonderenko, a priest who performed graveside funeral services in Baltimore in the 1980s for homeless people who passed away from AIDS. A gay man himself, Bonderenko dressed in his priestly vestments and delivered services by unmarked graves, even if no one else was with him, King said.
“He would speak these sacred words to the trees, to the grass, to the wind,” King said. “It was so important to him that this person be granted that.”
Zinman will read the essay “Once When We Were Heroes,” King’s favorite essay of the collection.
“It is a very poetic piece about then versus now for long-term survivors,” King said. “This is all to say, it’s going to be an evening [where] people are going to walk away and feel as if they’ve really experienced something special. It’s filled with community and a love for community, and of what we all collectively did.”
Additional sponsors of the event include AIDS Law Project, Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni’s Room, The Attic, Philadelphia FIGHT and other local organizations.
My Fabulous Disease: A Special Community Event will take place at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 30 at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. For more information on Mark S. King, visit marksking.com.