Surviving with Style

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

Maya Angelou

I remember as a young child wanting to be “popular.” Being popular meant you were part of the “in” crowd, had lots of friends, and were the life of the party. Everyone wanted to be with you; near you…they even wanted to be you.

I recall at one point fantasizing that if I were on crutches, then I would be popular. I guess I thought that everyone would want to sign my cast, provide comfort and consolation, and hold doors open for me. I must have pushed to the back of my mind the unsettling fact that I would have to break a bone to get there, and all that came along with it—the pain, the rehabilitation, the scar.

I tried my hardest to fit in, but I was always a bit different from an early age—soft-spoken, shy, and let’s just say, not the athletic type. When all the other boys were playing football or tag at recess, I would be playing wall ball with the girls.

Eventually I would be bullied at school on a regular basis. They called me Fairy Berry (I hated that); would snap their towels at me in the gym locker room; add to that the onset of puberty and the raging hormones that came with it, having sex regularly by sixth grade with the boy who lived down the road, and then the sexual abuse by my father, and it’s a wonder I even survived.

I attempted various ways of coping over the years, but nothing seemed to completely wipe away the internalized feelings of shame and unworthiness that lie deep inside. That feeling that was inevitably still there when I came down from the high, the feeling I was never quite able to drown out no matter how much sex I had…and I had a lot.

I’ve come to realize that each of us is on our own path to survival and resilience; we just may be at different time points on the journey.

In 1989 just a few weeks before my 31st birthday, I received the devastating news, “you’re HIV-positive.” I had finally found my crutch, and the scars that came with it, but somehow it didn’t make me popular.

Fast-forward almost 30 years later, and time has given me, at least I hope, some perspective. I find that I’m much more empathetic and forgiving (at least part of the time!), because I’ve been there. I see my own life reflected back to me when I hear other peoples’ stories of pain and trauma. I’ve come to realize that each of us is on our own path to survival and resilience; we just may be at different time points on the journey. Just as those who have led the way in front of me have picked me up and helped me along, I too try to offer a hand to those on the path behind me.

Recently I was able to indulge myself in an old passion of mine—deejaying. I was honored to be able to spin at Club Metro here in Chicago in late August for Chuck Renslow’s memorial and the last White Party. I worked for Chuck (who was an early champion of gay rights in Chicago starting in the 1950s and the founder of International Mr. Leather) for about five or six years as a DJ in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Going back to my first love—music—after all these years later was scary, but ultimately fulfilling. When I was initially asked back in July I immediately jumped at the opportunity and said yes. But then doubt started to creep in when I realized I would not be using any of my old vinyl or turntables, and would have to do everything digitally using a computer. I practiced, practiced, practiced, had a blast, and people seemed to have fun and were dancing (the ultimate litmus test for a DJ). The point is, if you have a chance to follow your passion, go for it. You only go around once (and I’m not talking records on a turntable!).

I think one key to my survival has been the love of family and friends. I was lucky; I realize not everyone gets that (but you can choose your own family if you need to). My mom made me believe I could do anything. And Dad, in his own way that somehow got twisted up along the way, loved me too.

So I’m not just surviving, but thriving, as Ms. Angelou so eloquently put it. Passion? Check. Compassion? I’d like to think so. Humor? A must. And style? I leave that up to you to decide.

Take care of yourself, and each other.