Friday, April 17, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in A&U Magazine
Waking Up

by Alina Oswald

Although gay characters populate American television-see Queer As Folk or Will & Grace-the black gay character is something of a rarity. Although a few gay characters of color appear in shows like Showtime's The L Word or HBO's The Wire, what makes Noah's Arc unique is that it raises two kinds of awareness-black gay awareness and AIDS awareness.

"Noah's Arc is a vehicle through which to break down the stigmas and phobias in our country around black sexuality while at the same time educating the community around the importance of HIV/AIDS," says Phill Wilson, director of the Black AIDS Institute, the only national policy and research organization in the United States focused exclusively on HIV/AIDS. The Black AIDS Institute sponsored Noah's Arc together with the Human Rights Campaign, America's largest gay and lesbian organization providing a national voice on gay and lesbian issues.

For those who are not yet familiar with it, Noah's Arc is "America's First Black Gay Series," as its press materials proclaim. Created and independently produced by Patrik-Ian Polk (with Jasmyne Cannick and Carol Ann Shine), the series will air this June on LOGO, a new cable television network targeted at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender viewers. LOGO will be launched by MTV Networks then, too, and will initially broadcast in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and San Francisco. 
Using humor, in-your-face yet not offensive sexuality, and hands-on advice about HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness, Noah's Arc is a daring, tell-it-like-it-is lesson in love, friendship, and commitment. The story introduces its audience to the lives of four black gay Angeleno friends-Noah (Darryl Stephens), a struggling twenty-eight-year-old screenwriter, who is convinced that his new and newly out boyfriend, Wade (Jensen Atwood), is the one for him; Alex (Rodney Chester), an HIV/AIDS counselor who "suffers from insane jealousy" because his boyfriend, Trey, is too good-looking; Ricky (Christian Vincent; pictured opposite page right), the owner of a trendy and hip clothing store on Melrose who's afraid of commitment and knows the rules of safer sex; and Chance (Doug Spearman), a college professor who has recently married Eddie (Jonathan Julian) and adopted his partner's three-year-old daughter, Kenya. In the first episode, newcomer and successful screenwriter, Wade, struggles for acceptance from Noah's friends who have yet to trust him because he is "a down low brother [they] don't want to mess with."

The Hope Principle. Bauhaus rendering by Alina Oswald.
The Hope Principle. Bauhaus rendering by Alina Oswald.
"If it takes a show like Noah's Arc to open people's minds that black gay people...are respectable people, that it is possible to be healthy and gay, I hope [people] see the show," Darryl Stephens comments, knowing that the entertainment industry can do much to change the misconceptions the general public has about AIDS and black gay realities. The actor, who has appeared on a season of MTV's Undressed, warns that with gay awareness also comes responsibility toward family, friends, and lovers. He emphasizes the importance of staying informed about AIDS by making it a part of a conversation that people are not afraid to have in public. His message? "Stop making [AIDS] a secret; start making it a fact of life and, no matter what, keep a condom on!"

To deliver the right message-be it regarding AIDS or any other topic for that matter-actors need to be informed first and foremost, in order to inform their audience. This is what Stephens calls "an actors' mission;" it is part of the important role that the arts, and entertainment in particular, play in raising AIDS awareness, and, thus, fighting the pandemic.

Darryl Stephens calls AIDS "the eighties' ugly disease," something the general public could dismiss because it was a primarily gay disease. "If [people] were not gay, they felt not at risk to be infected. That mindset sorta stuck." The general public did start to listen, he says, when well-known figures like Magic Johnson came out about being HIV-positive and started to give AIDS a voice.

Besides creating a real-life scenario in which friends and lovers share opinions about life and true love, writer and producer Patrik-Ian Polk sees Noah's Arc-its story and message of HIV/AIDS awareness, education, and prevention among African Americans-as a means to reach people, especially the young population, who may be at risk of getting infected with HIV. Polk, who made his feature film debut with Punks, says: "I think there's a whole new generation that didn't grow up fearing [HIV/AIDS] and watching people die, a whole new generation that's grown up hearing that AIDS is a manageable disease now. So, they are not getting the [same] safe-sex message and all these kids are having unprotected sex like it's no big deal [and] are getting the disease in record numbers now."

To emphasize the importance of this issue, he identifies with today's parents while talking about the ineffectiveness of abstinence programs imposed on kids: "If I had a kid and there's any possibility that the kid might be sexually active, I'd like them to know what to do; I'd like them to have condoms-I mean, it's not just pregnancy anymore." He is a true believer in the benefits of more innovative ways-versus many of the abstinence-based ones the federal government uses to reach communities where AIDS numbers are rising.

Polk also believes that the traditional methods the government uses typically exclude African-Americans and hopes that his work is a non-traditional way that can reach out to the community with safer-sex messages. I want to know why he talks about exclusion and I get an honest, straightforward answer, full of excitement: "We're the last on the totem pole; they don't think of us, really. We might have to employ other methods to reach these other groups." Patrik-Ian Polk explains that Big Business understood how to market products to specifically target African-Americans and others; yet, for some reason, when it comes to government and issues like health, "they don't seem to get it."

Now that AIDS is starting to affect people they can identify with (read: not gay), Polk says many are starting to pay attention. "Unfortunately this is what it takes for people to wake up." This has often been a rude awakening to today's AIDS reality in the United States, especially in black communities. Says Polk: "It is sad that it comes to this-to AIDS starting to affect our sisters and nieces, the middle-aged black woman who's going to church every Sunday and her husband is leading a secret life and sleeping with men on the side, bringing AIDS home-for people to finally wake up." 

Talking about AIDS issues in the black community, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Vice Presidential debate of last year's election campaign for both Polk and Stephens. "[Cheney] is just completely unaware and [doesn't] even know that the numbers, the infection rates, are so high among black women. This shows lack of interest," Polk comments. "[AIDS] is an issue not high on the list." Darryl Stephens adds his opinion about the lack of AIDS information prevalent in America: "It has to be fixed [and] entertainment is the best thing to send the message, so that Dick Cheney can see it also."

To get "it" fixed, Polk encourages everybody to get involved and confront the AIDS pandemic, mentioning the influence the church can have now, especially in the black communities. He also encourages people to educate themselves about how not to contract HIV. On a personal level, he went to work with the Black AIDS Institute and with AIDS patients because he believes this is the only responsible thing to do to fight the increasing AIDS numbers in the black community. "I do whatever I can do," Polk notes, whether that means participating in fundraising events or award shows recognizing people who've done good work in the field, "because the numbers speak for themselves." The infection rates are increasing: Based on 2002 figures, close to sixty percent of HIV-positive children are black; among women, more than seventy percent of those newly infected by HIV are black. "Obviously it is an issue," he concludes. "In the black community, the numbers continue to rise and continue to rise."

For more details about the series, check out the Web site, www.noahsarc.net, and subscribe to the newsletter for the latest updates. For more information about the Black AIDS Institute, log on to www.blackaids.org.

Friday, April 10, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in A&U Magazine
Blood Relations
by Alina Oswald
   

An interview with photographer Kathy Seward MacKay and writer Stacy Milbouer about hemophilia, HIV/AIDS, and their new book, Dying In Vein

Of all the HIV “high-risk” groups, hemophiliacs arguably received—and continue to receive—the least amount of media attention. Despite that, the hemophilia community and its experiences with surviving loss and grief, and finding hope, has inspired many artists. Photographer Kathy Seward MacKay, writer Stacy Milbouer, and art designer Kathy Bouchard are three of these artists. Their book, Dying In Vein, is a collection of candid moments, captured in pictures and words, of only a few of the thousands of hemophiliacs infected with HIV and hepatitis C virus through tainted blood products.

The base of a waterfall in red hues. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Bloody Falls. Photo by Alina Oswald.
As Stacy Milbouer explains, choosing the most representative subjects for the book was a difficult task because they all had interesting stories. It was important to show the reality of the situation, “not sugar coat [it], while showing that it’s not all bleak,” she explains.

The tainted blood crisis left an inerasable imprint on MacKay’s life, taking away her husband—David MacKay—who died of hepatitis C at the age of thirty-three. Early in her career as a photographer, MacKay started to work on several health projects with writer Stacy Milbouer. They’ve been friends and collaborators ever since.

While the two artists talk about their experience of making Dying In Vein happen and share their thoughts on tainted blood crisis and HIV/AIDS, MacKay also comments on the effect the two crises—tainted blood and AIDS—had on her personal life.

Alina Oswald: What is the idea behind Dying In Vein?
Kathy Seward MacKay: My husband died in June ’97. The idea for the book came late Fall ’98. I started to work on it in January ’99. It was an overwhelming task, especially as a single parent. Stacy joined the project two years ago and conceptualized the way the book will look like.

How did you find and choose your subjects?
Right after my husband died I was not connected to the hemophilia community at all. Ten thousand other hemophiliacs in the U.S. infected with HIV and I’d never met a single one of them.

Then there was some legislation that was introduced to compensate the families of the victims….I just started networking and meeting a lot of people by lobbying, visits to Washington, D.C., the organization called the Committee of Ten Thousand (COTT) [www.cott1.org]. When I went on my first trip, there were hundreds of people out there who were just like me. Through them, I made some really good friendships and got to know people. I would just meet people and then someone would say, ‘Oh, have you photographed Ken Baxter? He protests in front of Bayer Pharmaceutical every month.’ So I called Ken out of the blue.

I would look for people who might have interesting stories to tell and would want to open and share their stories. I probably did solid shooting for two to three years. About that time I was constantly meeting more people; it was kind of a snowball effect.

What was your experience working with your subjects?
[Hemophilia] is one of the stories of the AIDS epidemic stories that hasn’t really been told. People felt betrayed. Ninety percent of the people agreed to let me into their lives, eager to tell their stories. Some of them were in their closet. Lots of the interviews turned into friendships and allowed me to know the people and get certain candid moments that otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten from people who lost a loved one.

The one shot that was particularly hard to take…a shot of Steve Savoy, near the end of the “Afflicted,” [taken] six days before he died. Stacy had written a paragraph on him, we had four pages on him. I didn’t know if [his wife] Kathy, who is one of my closest friends right now, was going to let me photograph him or not, but she thought it was important. It was the most difficult picture I took in my life.

One beautiful thing that I saw in the subjects: They saw AIDS as a whole picture and it shaped their lives. Others are doing a lot of outreach work with AIDS foundations.

Persecution, harassment, stigma, phobia—they all affect your subjects’ existence, sometimes even costing them their lives….
My husband was in the closet. He was a schoolteacher. He feared that people would find out and he would lose his job. The closet may have helped in a way, but it was a tough thing and he couldn’t be who he really was; he tried to live in denial.

I met a few people who asked if we [MacKay and her two sons] are okay. We are. I have a moral obligation to try to do something about it, not that that would change the world. I thought best thing to contribute was a book—it has been a positive experience.

Why mostly black-and-white photos?
Black-and-white conveys the mood of the story. When I met Ken [Baxter], I decided to use that photo in color for dramatic effect. Originally, I wanted Ken in color on the cover. It was a surprising effect, mimicking his techniques; red is significant. He’s been on a mission for a long time, inspired by the death of friends around him. The last pictures are in color because color gives a positive, uplifting attitude.

What about the tainted blood crisis?
The blood supply is fairly safe right now. Still, infections with HIV/hepatitis through tainted blood are still happening. It is important for people to have their personal responsibility. Stay vigilant.

The politics of health do concern us—mad cow disease, Vioxx. It should be a wake-up call. The problem is: What’s the next blood-borne disease?

For more information about Dying In Vein, visit the website
www.dyinginvein.com

Friday, April 3, 2015

April Is Poetry Month

April is Poetry Month
From the archives: Balance, a poem

Many, many years ago, I used to write poetry. And since April is Poetry Month, I'd like to share with you a poem I wrote (only) a few years ago, inspired by a fantastic photographer, mentor, and great friend. Here's a poem I ended up including in my book, Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS.


Balance
(For Kurt)

Cover for JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS: A BIOGRAPHY, by Alina Oswald w/ photography by Kurt Weston
JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS: A BIOGRAPHY, w/ photography by Kurt Weston




Angels and Demons,
Saints and Sinners,
Modern crucifixes,
Stigmatizing Life and what follows it,
Our Journey through Darkness and Light
And the shades of gray in between,
Matter and Antimatter
Make us whole and leave us empty
Creatures of a dual nature:
Surrenders and Survivors,
Warriors
Seeking a balance
In a world disturbed by shadows.

With one of my favorite angels. Dark Angel photograph by Kurt Weston
With one of my favorite angels. Dark Angel photograph by Kurt Weston
To learn more about one of the most amazing photographers (and one of my favorite photographers), Kurt Weston, visit his website, at www.kurtweston.com, or read Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography about his life and art.



As always, thanks for stopping by!

Happy Friday!



Alina Oswald

Friday, March 27, 2015

From the Archives: "Just Call Me Ron B." An interview with Entertainer, Actor and LGBT Activist Ron B.

From the Archives:

"Just Call Me Ron B." – A Candid Interview with Ron B, the Entertainer, Celebrity Impersonator, Actor and Activist
Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine


Many may know Ron B. from her appearances in Law & Order and Angels in America, or Broadway plays like She Got Away. Others may have seen her perform as Tina Turner at Oxygen in the Village or for children with HIV/AIDS in Staten Island. Many more may be familiar with Ron B.'s activism work. But who is, really, Ron B.?

Angel in Central Park. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Angel in Central Park. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

“I am a lot of times unsure, a lot of times creative, many times sensitive, but most of all, I think it’s the transition within that kinda makes me almost the mother figure for many who are underprivileged," Ron B. candidly answers, "because most of my life I had to fight for what I believe in. And I continue this [emotional and spiritual] fight to bring myself to the being the Great Creator [the power above all of us] wants me to be.” 

A New York native, Ron B. is also a Native American. As a child she could not identify with her heritage... maybe because there weren't many Native Americans at the catholic school she attended at the time. Ron B. rediscovered her heritage only later. “What changed my mind was my mother’s strength,” the entertainer explains, "she telling me that [I should be proud of who I am]." It was Ron B.'s Native American heritage that gave the performer strength in the chosen career.

Ron B. started acting while working as a booker, assisting in the casting department. Someone saw her and thought she'd be perfect for a role. Over the years, Ron B. took many roles as a male and also female, Native American and Sicilian. Maybe the most inspiring "role" though is that of Tina Turner impersonator.

“She has been [the] inspiration in my life,” Ron B. comments talking about Tina Turner. Ron B.'s connection to the singer is multi-layered--Turner's physical resemblance to Ron B.'s mother, the abuse both  women Turner and Ron B. (Ron B. has always felt like a woman, trapped in the male body) have experienced in their lives and their determination not allow anybody to break their spirits. "I think that it's the most important thing in a trans-person's life because so many people try to break your spirit, to make fun of you, degrade you, and you always feel you're alone," Ron B. confesses.

The Ron B. people know today is really "a catalyst" of everything that defines her as an entertainer, actor, celebrity impersonator, activist for the rights of people who have been discriminated against, and trans-individual. The transition has started early on in Ron B.'s life and it's ongoing. “I think many transgender people feel that way very early in life,” Ron B. comments. “I think at the age of three I felt I was different. Didn’t understand it [at the time], but [it] always was different.” Ron B.'s "culture shock" happened when she was 12, when her mother found a diary in which Ron B. was writing about her crush on a boy sitting in the same class, as any girl would have a crush on a boy. "I was so shocked, I didn't know what to say," the entertainer recalls. Yet the weigh lifted off her shoulders when her mother, always "the driving force" in her life, accepted her child regardless of how Ron B. felt and encouraged the future entertainer to follow her dreams, to become all that she could become. Ron B.'s father was a different story.

“Gender-wise really should be between the ears and not between the legs,” Ron B. comments. That is important because many transgender individuals tragically take their own lives because they’re not accepted within their family circles. Only recently people have started to come to terms with the trans communty, though many still consider trans-individuals "freaks" or "street-walkers." And Ron B. is determined to prove these theories wrong and show the truth about the trans-individuals, that they are productive citizens of the community who ask to be respected.

Transgender individuals have to deal with the fact that they are trapped, uncomfortable with their own bodies. Many, like Ron B., try to deny this feeling yet, by denial doesn't make it go away, but rather turns it into a shadow, always following them. Denying one’s true identity can also lead to depression. It took Ron B. many years of therapy to get to accept the real person within. The entertainer suggests professional help to any young person who may think is transgender. 

Ron B. is thankful to all the medical professionals who are willing to help the trans-individuals. She's also thankful to the many she'd worked with over the years. One of the many ways of giving back to the community is through her new show to start shooting at the end of May. "No Boundaries is my baby," Ron B. explains, "that was conceived in Staten Island, in 2005." No Boundaries served as a vehicle for Ron B. to deal with her assault from the previous year. It was put to rest after 12 episodes. Fortunately, now it's coming back to life, having Ron B. not only co-producing and hosting, but also as a technical producer. No Boundaries also offers accomplished and also emerging artists a platform to showcase their work, ready for shooting at the end of May, on location in Staten Island and at Manhattan Neighborhood Networks studios.

Another way Ron B. gives back is through her work with Heritage of Pride and, most recently, Stonewall Veterans. "They've been instrumental," the activist says, talking about those she's met through Stonewall Veterans. "They were the ones who were here in 1969. We all owe gratitude to them [because] without them we wouldn't be here as we are today."

Friday, March 13, 2015

From the Archives: The Secret of Picking Well - An Interview with NYC Author, Arthur Wooten

From the Archives: The Secret of Picking Well - An Interview with NYC Author, Arthur Wooten

The Secret of Picking Well: An Interview with Arthur Wooten, the Author of On Picking Fruit and Fruit Cocktail

[Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]

Today’s gay fiction is almost overwhelmed by stories of the twenty year olds questioning their sexuality or the thirty-year-old successfully managing their careers, families, relationships and fun times. What we don’t usually hear is the voice of the middle age gay man who’s really trying to keep his career going and who, in Arthur Wooten’s books, also happens to be HIV positive, thus adding to the stigma. “It’s true and it’s sad. It’s really hard growing old and being gay. I wanted the middle age man to be heard,” the author explains the purpose of writing his books.

Author Arthur Wooten. Image courtesy of the author
Author Arthur Wooten. Image courtesy of the author



Wooten’s debut novel, On Picking Fruit and its sequel, Fruit Cocktail (both published by Alyson Books), tell the story of middle age Curtis Jenkins and his quest to find true love. Curtis’ story resonates with many of us. After all, like the protagonist, we’ve also experienced dates from hell or promising relationships that ended too soon and unexpectedly. And, just like Curtis, we’ve all dreamt to reach our ideals of love, career or life, in general. 

Birthday Pie, a novel by Arthur Wooten. Image courtesy of the author
Birthday Pie, a novel by Arthur Wooten. Image courtesy of the author
The story of Curtis Jenkins is “auto-biofictional,” as Wooten calls it. “Look, he’s a writer, he’s gay. And although I’m much different from Curtis, when you write, every character in the book is part of you because it’s coming from your soul, your brains [and] your heart.” Wooten is as much Curtis as he is the delightful Mrs. J[enkins], Curtis’ mother, or his best friend, Quinn, or his quirky therapist, Doctor Tunick.  

In On Picking Fruit the protagonist has an unrealistic, fairy-tale idea of the perfect date, which may actually stay in the way of his finding the ideal relationship. In Fruit Cocktail, Curtis grows a lot, gaining a clear sense of himself. He realizes that, while playing the dating game, the question is not if he is good enough for his date, but the other way around. While there is no real resolution to the story, Fruit Cocktail allows the possibility for Curtis Jenkins to continue evolving and entertaining. And it does it not only on the page but also on the screen.

Wooten’s novels are being developed into a TV series. “I think that allows a lot of growth and potential for the development of Quinn and Curtis,” the author comments, “and not only their relationship, but the kinetics that they’re getting into.”

The show is titled after Wooten’s second novel, Fruit Cocktail, and produced by Charlie Sheen. The production company is part of Estevez-Sheen Productions, created by Martin Sheen (The West Wing actor) and Ramon Estevez (Charlie Sheen’s brother). The show is set to debut on cable TV. Rumor has it that, while he won’t be playing the role of Curtis Jenkins, Charlie Sheen would like to play one of Curtis’ crazy dates, in one of the episodes.

Fruit Cocktail is already structured for television and as it always happens in such situations, a few things had to be changed. So, because writing in television is a passive thing to watch, the on-screen Curtis Jenkins is a sought-after photographer. He is on the cover of Vogue and his pictures are in Vanity Fair and all the gay magazines, from Out to Instinct. But his successful professional life surrounds him with all kinds of wild and crazy people. The only remaining pillars in his life remain his mother, Mrs. J., and his best friend, Quinn. Curtis, the photographer, also makes new friends and meets new people, even dates with the potential of becoming soul mates. Yet, he is not devastated anymore that he cannot find the right person. Also, while in the books the character is in his late forties (and approximately Wooten’s age), in the show the protagonist is just approaching forty, “which is, in gay years, like over the hill,” Wooten comments.

The author has always believed in the synchronicity and serendipity of his novels. That’s how he explains On Picking Fruit and Fruit Cocktail being developed for TV. “Everything is a thought first,” Wooten explains this transformation. Same as in the book, Dr. Tunick advises Curtis “if you want something bad enough you must visualize it first.”

And as for the rest of us, maybe the best advice comes from Arthur Wooten’s own words. “Pick Well!” he writes, as he autographs his books.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

From the Archives: HIV's Achilles Heel

HIV/AIDS Updates: Achilles Heel

[Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]

AIDS is not an immediate death sentence anymore, but rather a manageable disease. In the same time, while the number of AIDS-related deaths is decreasing, HIV infections are on the rise—the most recent CDC statistics show that over 50,000 Americans become infected every year. While today’s HIV/AIDS patients and their physicians can choose from a variety of powerful medications to keep the disease in check, some AIDS experts believe that treatments do not pave the way to a world without AIDS; a cure does.

Horseback riding in Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawaii. Photo by Alina Oswald.
The Road Ahead. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

While some may believe that an AIDS cure is still out of sight, a group of AIDS experts led by Doctor Sudhur Paul of the University of Texas Medical School of Houston announced that the possibility of discovering an AIDS cure might come sooner than envisioned. The statement is based on the discovery of the HIV’s weak spot, otherwise referred to as “HIV’s Achilles heel.” This discovery would lead to destroy, entirely, the virus in the human body.

From the early AZT mono-therapies to today’s HAART regimens, the medications have had the ability to keep the virus in check, but not to entirely destroy it. That is because HIV has the ability to constantly mutate and adapt to medications by changing its coating. HIV infects the human body by attaching itself to an immune system cell called the T-cell (or CD4 helper cell). Doctor Sudhir Paul and his colleague, Doctor Miguel Escobar, have discovered a section of HIV—a key protein the virus uses to attach itself to the T-cell—that does not mutate. HIV has to keep this key protein constant in order to attach itself to the immune system cells. 

Doctor Paul and his team discovered a way to attack this protein, using a catalytic antibody (antibody with enzymatic activity) called abzyme, which is created naturally by the body and found in people with lupus. When scientists applied abzyme to HIV, the virus was permanently destroyed. This makes the new way of fighting HIV drastically different from the ones known so far. Eventually, this novel procedure could destroy all the HIV in the human body and, in time, lead to an AIDS cure.

Until then there is much work still to be done. Doctor’s Paul procedure has worked so far in lab tests and animal trials. Next phase is human trials for which HIV patients may have to wait for five years. Usually, in creating a new medication or vaccine, problems start with the clinical trials, partly because clinical trials are very costly and partly because that’s where most vaccine trials have had problems in the past. 

Recently, several vaccine trials have failed while India has reported a successful completion of phase two of a potential AIDS vaccine. While Doctor Paul believes that an AIDS vaccine may be available some ten years from now, let’s not forget that it took scientists 42 years to develop a vaccine for whooping cough, 47 years for a polio vaccine and 105 years for a typhoid fever vaccine. How long would it really take to an AIDS cure?

Friday, February 13, 2015

From the Archives: Interview with SAG Artist and Activist, Lovari

From the Archives: Interview with SAG Artist and LGBT Activist, Lovari

Artistic Advocacy—An Interview with Anthony Lovari on His Music, Films, LGBT Youth Advocacy and His Dreams

[Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]

A singer and songwriter, an actor, a screenwriter and director, an advocate for LGBTQ youth, Lovari is a man of many talents. As an actor, the artist has appeared in movies like The New York Strangler (about a NYC Halloween party terrorized by a supernatural force) and, with a small role, in Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter (2005). Recently, Lovari has begun screenwriting, producing, directing and acting in his own movie, which is inspired by true events of a series of shark attacks in NY waters and scheduled to be released in early summer, 2008. Shore Thing brings together a diverse and talented cast, including actors like Jade Estevan Estrada (or how NBC News calls him, “America’s Prince of Pride), among other well-recognized names.

Lovari. Photo ©Alina Oswald, 2008.
Lovari. Photo ©Alina Oswald, 2008.
Although he loves acting and directing, Lovari is maybe best known for his music. “I’ve always loved music,” he confesses. “I started singing at [the age of] five.” Being introduced to music at such a young age and being inspired and encouraged by both his parents to pursue his talent, it’s no surprise that Lovari decided to study music therapy at Queensborough College in Queens, NY, where he was born. Music therapy, the artist explains, is a medical (psychology) field that uses music to sooth or to create a sense of stability, particularly in the elderly and in people with mental disorders.

And soothing is exactly what Lovari’s music and voice do for his audience. When it comes to music, Lovari’s influences are as many as they are diverse and include artists like Annie Lennox, Tony Braxton, The Eagles, to mention only a few. Like many other songs, Lovari’s are mostly about love. Yet what makes them unique is the reality of love they evoke—from lost love and betrayal to un-returned love and the idea of finding true love. “It’s instinctual to write about love,” the artist says, explaining that his music is inspired by Freud and even more by Jung who believed that the mind thinks of love.

Lovari at the Gay Expo 2014, NYC. ©Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Lovari at the Gay Expo 2014, NYC. ©Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
But Lovari’s music conveys not only the reality of love, also the reality of life in all its aspects. An avid reader, the artist has always enjoyed reading books by authors writing about reality. In time, the topic started to reflect in his songs. Therefore, his music speaks to all of us, bringing out in the open our own realities and allowing us to reconsider our life choices and goals. 

These Tears also represents the artist’s stand on love and its non-idyllically reality, thus reflecting the side of him that makes his advocacy work possible. “When it comes to love,” the artist-advocate says, “people have to have respect for themselves. It is not cool to have sex just because everybody else has [sex].” He encourages everybody, especially the youth, to practice safer sex, have monogamous relationships or be single rather than have unprotected sex. Too many people, especially young people, today don’t follow the model of playing it safe and thus they put themselves at a greater risk of getting HIV or any other STD. Lovari talks about HIV/AIDS as being part of the larger STDs content, mentioning that among the male especially gay population ages 18 to 24, the number of STD infections has increased by 150 percent!

What is Lovari doing about it? He does youth advocacy work through Jersey’s LGBTQ youth organization, Our Youth, founded by Rob De Anthony. Lovari was part of A Night of Awards ceremony in May as a presenter and performer. 

When it comes to his fans that are also his friends, Lovari considers himself blessed to have so many of them. “I’m very grateful for everybody who’s listening to my music,” the artist says. “This is my dream. I hope to accomplish a lot in my life.”

Friday, February 6, 2015

From the Archives: The Optimist Within - An Interview with Lady Clover Honey

From the Archives: The Optimist Within - An Interview with Lady Clover Honey

The Optimist Within: An Interview with Lady Clover Honey
[Originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]

She is the first openly transgender correspondent to appear on a national TV show—Under the Pink Carpet, an LGBT news and entertainment show. She has performed on stage and on screen, in large and small production films. She has her own gossip column—Gossip Girl—and curated art shows like Strike A Pose - Gender Id in 2008, hosted by SoHo’s Leslie-Lohman gallery. She is Lady Clover Honey, a fixture in New York City social and entertainment life and in the city’s annual Gay Pride Parade.

“I think I was born with a feminine spirit,” Lady Clover Honey (a.k.a. Clover Welsh) describes herself. “I have a man’s body, which is fine with me, and I have a female spirit, so that I can express myself sometimes as a man and sometimes as a woman.”

Lady Clover Honey. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Lady Clover Honey. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.


Born in Totowa, New Jersey, Lady Clover Honey recalls always being different growing up. “I don’t know what it’s like to be normal,” she comments. As a kid, she never fit in. Other kids used to call her names, but she didn’t care because she was mature enough not to care. She has always been out, never in the closet. She’s also been lucky to have parents who accepted her the way she was.

Right after graduating from college, Clover moved to New York City where she started writing poetry and became involved in a neo-pagan movement that accepted those living on the fringes of normal, and also accepted women as divinity. That’s how Clover discovered the Radical Faeries, a spiritual movement started by Harry Hay in 1979. While most of the members of this spiritual movement are usually gay and feminine, they vary from one region of the country to another. Clover joined the Radical Faeries community in Brooklyn, where she lived at the time. She describes them as wearing beautiful blouses and broaches, not necessarily dressing as women, but starting to create the image of a woman, reaching for God (or Goddess) and the spirit.

Lady Clover Honey at the Gay Expo 2014, in New York City. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Lady Clover Honey at the Gay Expo 2014, in New York City. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

“It’s always been my fantasy to be a beautiful woman, like Marilyn Monroe,” Lady Clover Honey confesses. A decade ago, when she started being a drag queen, she got her first wig on sale on 14th street. “I thought anybody can be a blonde or a brunette, but I’d rather be a purple, actually more of a maroon.” When three photographers for the Radical Faeries wanted to take her picture, she was happy to model—the photo appeared in Time Out NY. Today Clover is on the Board of Directors for Fresh Fruit Festival. She believes that drag queens are interesting, and that gender expression makes such a visual art that she decided to put together a show for them in Strike A Pose, celebrating gender identification in our contemporary society.

Recently, Clover had a small, yet poignant role in Lovari’s directorial debut, Shore Thing, a film taking a fresh look at possible shark attacks in the New York waters. In Shore Thing, Clover plays a librarian—a woman usually not perceived as good looking. And, with the fine artistry we are used to, by now, Lady Clover Honey shows that all women, even librarians, can be glamorous. As with everything else she does, Lady Clover Honey uses her Shore Thing character to continue breaking taboos.

Today, drag queens are still on the fringe of what society considers “normal.” Drag queens are also different images of God. “I think God is a force,” Clover explains. “It’s important to have a spiritual connection to the universe. It helps us to be strong. [I] hope that the universe, God (or Goddess), loves me as well.”

Lady Clover Honey cherishes her connection with the universe, and also wants to do her part and help others here, on earth. Therefore, she reaches out to the person who is afraid to go out dressed as a woman because people would throw stuff at him. She reaches out to all individuals and encourages them to be who they truly are, to come out of the closets of their lives. While she is very aware that coming out is not always easy or safe, she hopes that “We all have to respect one another, because we’re all children of God, with different ways to express ourselves.”

She’s always been an optimist, especially when it comes to gay rights, when she believes that we make progress every year. “I do have hope,” Lady Clover Honey concludes. “We’ve come a long way in 40 years. We have a long way more to go.”



Thanks for stopping by!

Feel free to check out my new website(s) I'm still working on:

Art, AIDS & Others

Alina Oswald

Author of JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS: A BIOGRAPHY of AIDS with Photographs by award-winning photographer Kurt Weston 



From the Archives: Learning the ABCs of Civil Rights

From the Archives: Learning the ABCs of Civil Rights

Learning the ABCs of Civil Rights
An Interview with Frank Musumici, Investigator with the Office of Civil Rights of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

[Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]


Do you know your civil rights?

Do you understand these rights?

Do you know where to ask for help if your civil rights are violated? 

The Hope Principle. Bauhaus Rendering. Image by Alina Oswald.
The Hope Principle. Image by Alina Oswald.

A safe place to start, especially for those living with HIV/AIDS, is to call Frank Musumici, Investigator with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A Hoboken native, Musumici has worked with the local HIV community for many years. Before joining the OCR team in 2004, he was a regional health administrator. His job enabled him to get to know the local HIV community while giving presentations to help provide funding for several small HIV organizations. It was during one of these presentations that the enthusiasm and passion with which he talked to the audience caught the attention of Michael Carter, OCR Regional Manager for Region 2 (representing New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands). Soon afterwards, Musumici became part of the OCR team.

The OCR enforces the laws that prohibit discrimination against race, disability, color, age, religion, national origin and sex. It protects individuals from discrimination in health and social services programs (from hospitals and Medicaid/Medicare to nursing homes and nutrition programs) that receive money or assistance from the DHHS. Although the OCR deals with denied or delayed services because of disability (HIV is considered disability) many people call in with various types of complaints. In this case, the calls are redirected to investigators who can best be of help. The OCR investigators work with complaints that are less than 180 days old. Musumici focuses on HIV-related issues, but the department deals with a variety of issues, from quality of services (which are redirected to the Department of Health) and immigration, to translations. Most OCR investigators are attorneys. Many of them are bi- or multi-lingual, which comes in handy when dealing with individuals who know little or no English. Investigators call these cases LEP, or Limited English Prevalence, cases.

Musumici encourages people to call if they need help, regardless of the type of their complaint. To make sure of that, he provides his phone number-a direct line-because he wants people to know that if they have questions they have someone on their side, an agent whose job is to assist them and protect their rights. That's why, upon his becoming an OCR investigator, Musumici helped start an outreach plan that enables investigators to go out and inform the community about the services HHS/OCR provides. "I'd like to put a physical face to our agency," he explains, "so that [individuals who need OCR's help] will know that they can come to us."

Individuals can contact HHS/OCR by phone, in writing or online. The website provides a complaint form which can be completed and mailed in. The complaint form requires basic information about the complaint: what, when, where and how it happened and why does the applicant think it happened. Once the OCR department receives it, the complaint goes to the department managers from where it is assigned to one of the investigators. Within 30 days from receiving the complaint form, OCR investigators follow-up for more information regarding the incident. In the same time, the facilities where the incident took place are directly interested in solving the problem because they receive funds from the DHHS. "In my experience," Musumici says, "ten out of ten times when we call, [the facilities] are very responsive. They do everything possible to make sure that [the incident] doesn't happen again."

Through his outreach program, Musumici emphasizes the importance of knowing the "ABCs" of civil rights. "If [individuals] know that they have somewhere to go in terms of discussing an act of discrimination against them, I think it empowers them to be strong and go on. We need people to know that [the information they provide] helps investigators help others." When someone contacts an OCR investigator with a complaint, that individual enables the investigator to follow through. As a result, the hospital where the complaint originates takes all possible measures to sustain and solve the problem so that it will never happen again. The process empowers that someone to assist many others who will be going into that hospital. "I want people to know," Musumici concludes, "that this is a great opportunity to empower themselves to do good."


Thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald
Writer/Photographer
Author of JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS: A BIOGRAPHY of AIDS

Friday, January 30, 2015

From the Archives: MRSA

MRSA: The Myth and Truth Behind the So-Called “Newest Gay Plague” 

Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine

In June 1981 Los Angeles doctors found a strange type of pneumonia, called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, in five young gay men. PCP is a type of pneumonia caused by a microorganism that occurs naturally in the lungs of people and animals. Although the medical professionals knew that PCP was associated with a weakened immune system, the cause of this impaired immunity was a mystery. The patients died within days. That same summer, a New York Times article announced the appearance of a rapidly fatal form of a rare cancer that doctors had found in 41homosexual men. A CBS newscaster also reported that this mysterious cancer seemed to be spreading only in the gay community. In 1985, the Center of Disease Control announced that it wasn’t a “gay cancer” after all causing all the disease and death, but rather a virus called Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. The CDC also called the multitude of strange diseases the virus caused Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. It wasn’t until the disease claimed the life of a Hollywood celebrity that the threat of the virus was brought home to many Americans.  
Ripples. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Ripples. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

Fast forward to 2008. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, called attention to a multi-drug resistant staph infection, called MRSA, prevalent among men who have sex with men (MSM). The epicenter of this infection seemed to be San Francisco’s Castro district, and also Boston. Not long afterwards, reports started to surface, alarming individuals that the multi-drug infection, also referred to as  “the newest gay plague,” could take over the general population.

Reaction to the super-infection news is two-fold. Those who’ve lived through the early years of AIDS consider some media treatment of “the newest gay plague” news a “deja-vue” of the eighties. Those who’ve always considered AIDS a plague sent by God to punish sinners, use the “newest gay plague” news the same way they used the “gay cancer” and AIDS news to fuel homophobia and anti-gay hate crimes, to alarm and misinform individuals, thus, potentially, to put them at risk of getting infected with MRSA.

So, is MRSA a deadly threat? And why should we be aware of it, if at all? 

MRSA (pronounced MER-SUH), or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (staph for short) is an infection caused by bacteria present on the human body, for example, on the skin and in the nose also armpit, groin or genital area. Initially present only in hospitals and nursing homes, a strain of MRSA has extended to the general population. This new strain, called CA-MRSA, or Community-Associated MRSA, appears mainly in gyms. Depending on the type of sport they practice, athletes can get infected from rubbing against the gym equipment that, in turn, can cause broken skin on the hands, knees, elbows, buttocks or sides of their legs.

MRSA is easily spread through skin-to-skin contact, be that skin contact with people who are infected (including sexual contact) or touching contaminated surfaces. MRSA can appear as sores, blisters filled with fluid (called impetigo when they appear on the face), red painful bumps under the skin called boils or abscesses, or as cuts that become swollen and filled with pus. Some 25-50 percent Americans have staph in their nose, but they are unaware of it. In healthy individuals, MRSA infection may cause pimples. In individuals with a compromised or weakened immune system (such as those with HIV/AIDS) staph can cause deep skin infections, pneumonia, blood or joint infections.

Although MRSA is resistant to most of the antibiotics usually used to treat this kind of infection, doctors have not run out of options to treat this kind of staph infection. Experts make it clear that MRSA is not an “AIDS all over again” plague, it’s not a gay plague, but rather it can happen to anybody who comes in contact with the bacteria.

Practicing common sense when coming in contact with infected surfaces makes a huge difference in preventing infection. Experts advise taking a shower with soap and water. Unscented soaps like Ivory and Dove are less likely to cause skin allergies. Fact is—soap and water can kill 99.9 percent of the staph.