Madonna & The Plague

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“The light that you would never see.
It shines inside, you can’t take that from me.”
~ Madonna

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Prelude to a Dance.

As long as there’s been AIDS, there’s been Madonna.

madonna_aidsWhile the virus that causes AIDS predates Madonna’s fame, during the initial years of the outbreak the illness was referred to as G.R.I.D (Gay Related Immune Deficiency).  It wasn’t until August 1982 that the disease officially became known as AIDS, after the CDC offered “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” as a less discriminating alternative.

The summer of 1982 was also when a catchy new track began surfacing in New York City clubs. The pulsating groove was infectious, even Sire Records fell victim to the infused beats.  Later that October the record label signed a deal with the bohemian artist singing on the track, Madonna.

And so it came to be, like many gay men of my generation, my story came to be about a boy and two titans, each equally hellbent on world domination: Madonna and the Plague.

ACT I: “The Kid, the Stalker, and a Magic Poem”

I recall the day I first learned about AIDS.  My dad was reading the Chicago Tribune and tossed the completed front section on the floor.  On the back was a full page article about AIDS symptoms.  Among the many ailments listed: fevers, night sweats, wasting, soars in the mouth, and skin lesions.  And if the symptoms weren’t horrific enough, the article stressed that the disease had been especially devastating to the gay community.

It’s difficult to explain how I felt at that moment, but at best I’d describe it as seismic déjà vu. For a moment, time rippled like a tolling bell; I wasn’t reading an article in the newspaper, something menacing from my future was whispering “hello” in my ear.

screen-capture-37As an only child of working parents, I had a lot of time to obsess about my fears and confusion. Poetry, specifically, helped me write what was unbearable to speak.

With AIDS lurking about, by 1985 my poems centered around survival, my hopes of evading “the stalker”. It may seem irrational to be worried about AIDS at fourteen, but I was just coming to terms with my sexuality and had reservations about both lifestyles ahead. As I saw it, however, the decision wasn’t whether to be straight or gay. I knew what I was. Instead, I saw two very different alternatives:

  • In one life, I’d be a prisoner, locked away in a secret cell, peeping at my life regretfully through a keyhole.
  • In the other, I’d be a fugitive. Although I’d be stalked and likely captured, I’d be free to love who I choose.

Not getting AIDS was never a question.  Should I live life as a gay man, I was certain the disease would be my cross to bear.  Although I didn’t see it this way at the time, my decision ultimately came down a very American question – Was I willing to die young for freedom?

Being gay wasn’t the path I wanted to travel.  Yet despite AIDS, my upbringing, and the likely discrimination I’d encounter, being queer felt more honorable and brave. I had just enough foresight to realize that the alternative – lying, faking love and marriage – would be selfish and destructive for all involved.

13-03-13-madonna-secret-projectI said goodbye to a never-to-be wife, confident it was best for her and the kids. Then I closed my eyes and covered my ears, prayed my heart wouldn’t guide me off a cliff… too quickly.

Stumbling blindly into adulthood, I did my best to avoid AIDS, but it proved to be a futile task. By my late-twenties, AIDS was everywhere, and I was surrounded…

What happened in the mid 90’s is a separate post altogether, but suffice it to say – My pleasures depended on the permission of no one. Call it pent up frustration, but my twenties were reckless and carefree, a stark contrast to the introverted poet I was a teenager.

Unfortunately, because I was carefree in my twenties, I misplaced most of my poems from 1985.  Despite the loss of my journals, there was one poem – a simple rhyme that grew louder with each passing year – that haunted me throughout my adulthood.

In the end, that poem is the reason why I created the website, Guy Penn, and why I’m writing this specific post today…

ACT II: “A Fairy God-Diva named Madonna”

For 2 years, I’d done the impossible, I’d managed to ignore Madonna.

Up until 1985, what I knew about Madonna I didn’t like. I was annoyed with the song “Borderline”, because I thought the title was “Waterline”, and anyone comparing love to water pressure was just weird and not to be trusted. I also remember three girls singing “Holiday” during recess.  When I asked them what they were singing, they started squealing about seeing Madonna at “The Virgin Tour”, which was, by all accounts, totally gross.

But then came one fateful night. I was recording Friday Night Videos with my Betamax VCR, eager to capture my favorite song at the time, “We Are the World”.  The video that followed was “Material Girl”, featuring the one woman missing from the star-studded lineup, the one woman who would one day outshine them all – Madonna, wrapped in a big red bow.

screen-capture-38In the age of AIDS, Madonna became my bedazzled life coach. After so much dark introspection and fear, she had a way of drawing me back to the light.

Where AIDS was scary and grim, Madonna was sparkly, high-octane optimism, a musical cornucopia overflowing with Lucky Stars, Holidays, and Shoo-be-doo’s, reminding me life was to be lived, not feared.

Sprinkling disco beats from her celestial powered mirrored ball, Madonna managed to do the impossible in the mid-80’s – She helped me envision a world more celebratory, inclusive, and kind, where even a queer punk like me could be loved and accepted.

Although I became a Madonna fan because of her music, I remained one because of her support.

  • Madonna fought for gay rights when I didn’t have the esteem or the courage.  She challenged social norms and hypocrisy when others wouldn’t, back when her voice was needed most – When men were dieing, the silence was deafening, and you could hear a pin drop on the disco floor.
  • Madonna songs typically gravitate around love, acceptance, pride, and enlightenment. It so happens, I’m a big fan of each.  As an added bonus, I also enjoy dancing and sex (although I’ve learned to avoid both at once).
  • Above all, I must confess – Madonna bridges me to my youth.  Now in my 40’s, where Madonna is concerned, I’m still young, a giddy uniformed schoolboy, flipping eagerly through the pages of Tigerbeat at a local newsstand.

With a catalog of music spanning 30 years, fans sometimes retrofit their lives to Madonna’s songs, and I am no exception.  The Gospel According to Madonna has always had an uncanny way of capturing pivotal acts of my life.  So much so, at times, I’ve enjoyed entertaining the question – Am I Madonna’s muse?

After one year of Madonna fandom, such a moment occurred. I received a special gift from my Fairy God-Diva, a ballad that poignantly echoed the sentiments of my poem, “Time To Play”.

Sappy, sentimental bloke that I am – writing this post now, looking back at the AIDS pandemic – I like to imagine the ballad contains the middle verses of my misplaced poem, “Time to Play”.

ACT III: “Time Traveling with Madonna”

This past April, I turned 42.  Sitting here now, overlapping my poem with Madonna’s song, I realize – Albeit a couple years late, this post is a promise being fulfilled.

Despite my expectations and adversities, I am a man who lived to tell.  As such, I’m feeling obligated to share a secret that I have learned…

AIDS is not the stalker I once feared.  AIDS is my liberator. It didn’t force gay men out of the closet, it demolished the walls that Adam built, left us naked and vulnerable to the masses.

Over 36 million people worldwide have died since the AIDS crisis began, so I don’t mean to typecast the disease or undermine the magnitude of its horror and devastation. But when I frame the pandemic as bookends, I am humbled by how much the United States, among a growing list of countries, has changed.

28 years ago, I didn’t think people cared if I lived or died, because many believed gays were deviants, sinners worthy of the plague.  Today, however, a majority of Americans support the right for me to marry my partner, believe our love is worthy of protection.

AIDS is not an exclusively homosexual disease. It has broken hearts both straight and gay. But in America we are haunted by its origins. Not acknowledging AIDS for the tectonic shift in popular opinion would be an injustice to all the gay men who fought and died, so that I could live to tell. It would be disrespectful to those who lost lovers, friends or family members to the pandemic, who demanded social change and medical research. And although rarely stated, yet perhaps most noteworthy of all, not acknowledging AIDS influence on our national character would discount the breadth of our collective humanity, our nation’s enduring battle to be a more perfect union.

AIDS is a different kind of love story, one that shines from within. In the end, Madonna and the plague are a matter of perspective. Our reaction to each says more about us than them. In the past 30 years, for better or worse, both AIDS and Madonna refused to be ignored.  Each invited our judgement and indignation, provoked us to reconsider the limitations of freedom and love.

The history of AIDS will prove to be a tragedy written in tears, but its final act is yet to be told.  With the help of outspoken artists like Madonna, however, the moral of this plague is becoming increasingly clear – I entered this fight wounded and alone, but I will leave it healed with a nation uniting behind me.

Whether you pray to a book, wrap yourself in a flag, or are enchanted by a pop star, what matters most are the lessons we learn, how we interpret words written and sung.

The Gospel According to Madonna is certainly open to interpretation. And I don’t presume to speak for all gay men of my generation, the first generation of teenage boys to sexually awaken to a world with AIDS in it.  But I hope a few of my Madonna-luvin’ brethren from the 80’s are comforted by the audacity of this closing sentiment…

Where my soul was concerned, Madonna was the cure for AIDS.

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Madonna and Me, 1985

Progressive politics and the politics of Madonna are the subject of “Guy Penn & the Gospel According to Madonna” by Damon Wallace.

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36 Comments

  1. That was kind of said blogger! Live to Tell is a beautiful ballad and the most culturally relevant song to her Ciccone Kabbalah Name-it sings and cries for those sworn to silence but of course are never alone! Live to Tell changed my life! Thank you Madonna for your kindness and love!

    Reply
  2. ds

     /  January 27, 2016

    Your essay sounds like my youth. I grew up feeling different – and I knew it was because I was gay – but didn’t fully accept it until college – I never felt alone, because of Madonna. Isn’t that weird? Back then, all you had were songs and videos as your “internet.” And MTV (then) WAS pop culture. So we had time to digest artists; there was no immediate celebrity. We weren’t bombarded with American Idol-factory role models. Given that, with Madonna, I never felt alone. I ate up each single, each video, each album digesting its message and examining – and re-examining – every image, sound, beat and groove. She was THE someone who was telling me while going through not only puberty, but puberty as a gay person, that is was OKAY to be yourself, to dance, to feel good, to believe in something (and yourself), to stand for those beliefs. Lifelong fan since 1983, things came to a screeching halt in the mid-80s in the Midwest learning of this new thing called AIDS. I, too, thought, that’s my future, that’s my destiny. I’m gay, so I’ll get it. But STILL, I never felt alone. Madonna would be there, in my head, in my heart, in my soul. To me, she was beyond human. She was a concept, something that has shaped my ideals, my loves, and even my losses. What a gift she gave to me. Years later, now, the plague is in me, and in the many years I have to left to live, I know I’ll never be alone.

    Reply
  3. Reblogged this on CLUB MADONNA PHILIPPINES and commented:
    To commemorate the day as World AIDS Day, sharing this insightful article about MADONNA and her decades-long role as one of the pioneer celebrity AIDS activists and staunch supporter of gay rights and anti-discrimination.

    Reply
    • Trey

       /  November 30, 2015

      Absolute and truthfully written. We are the same age and although you took a tiny bit longer to warm up to Madonna, you take the words right out of my mouth/head. Just a gorgeous piece of writing.

      Reply
  4. Wow, cool! I appreciate your post.

    Reply
  5. Thank You for This Wonderful article!! You Speak for Many Gay men!

    Reply
  6. Thom Dohner

     /  May 12, 2013

    OMG awesome article. I have loved Madonna from Day one and she can do no wrong for me. I think I was listening to her before she even became popular.I will be 46 this year and I have not only seen her do so much for the gay community but has done so much for educating people on the AIDS crisis. Thanks so much for this.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the feedback, Thom. As time goes by, people forget how much Madonna has done (and continues to do) to support the gay community. Just wanted the record to show how much her support meant to me, and I’m happy it resonates with others like you.

      Reply
  7. Chris

     /  April 18, 2013

    Amazing article. I am 1 year older than you are, so I can relate to everything you said. Everything, except for not liking Madonna in the beginning! It was a very scary time for me as well. I also chose to not get married and have kids like so many other foolish gay men and women. It’s the most difficult thing I have ever been through. I’m so happy to have gone through it! I used to think that being gay was a curse, now I see it as a great gift! I love my life, and I would not change a thing! Thanks so much! I will share, share, share!

    Reply
  8. Reblogged this on moi-même threnody and commented:
    This is a beautiful and intelligent narrative on growing up in the culture of HIV/AIDS from its naming (as we all know it didn’t exist until they named it *sigh*) to today. This is not a third world problem. This is not yesterday’s problem. This is humanity’s problem today and tomorrow.

    Reply
  9. Your post is wonderful… and I find few people that have an ability to speak about HIV and AIDS intelligently.

    I do have a question… Having lived through the AIDS epidemic and the horror that was watching friends and loved ones die of such a dreadful disease, I know find myself torn. The medications available thanks to AIDS research have done amazing things at pushing back the onset from HIV to AIDS – but as a college professor, I find far too many young people who think that it is a third world problem and do nothing for prevention and it seems that both awareness and funding have dropped until one of the quickest growing populations is actually 18 – 25 heterosexuals in the US. Sometimes I wonder if we have put a bandage on a problem that is preventing us from finding a solution. What do you think?

    Reply
    • Thanks for the feedback. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments and actually wrestled with appearing too optimistic in the post. For this post in particular, I wanted to hone in on the good that came from the pandemic in America, but there is definitely much work to be done before “the final act”. AIDS is still very much a threat and not exclusive to 3rd world countries. Regardless of AIDS, safe sex should always remain a must (as the recent meningitis outbreak reminds us). Thanks again for your comments and sharing.

      Reply
  10. John

     /  April 13, 2013

    I, too, remember the first time I read about AIDS (GRID) in the Chicago Tribune in the early 80s. I was living in Wheaton, IL. I remember one morning walking the halls of Wheaton North High School and all the cool wearing the Virgin Tour t-shirts. Wondering who Madonna was. I lived and loved most my life in fear. Madonna inspired me to fear-less. Amazing essay. Thank you.

    Reply
  11. MikeinSJ

     /  April 12, 2013

    Wonderful article. As someone who lived through the AIDS epidemic as you did, you captured a lot of the same feelings/truths that I had/have. I only wish these 20-somethings would realize that AIDS is still a very real threat and act more responsibly. They all seem to want to bareback, with no thought about what ramifications it could possibly have (even besides HIV). If they had seen as many friends/acquaintances die, as we have, perhaps they would understand. I’m also flabbergasted at how little these youngsters (this would be you, Gaga fans) know how instrumental Madonna was (and still is) in the fight against AIDS and HIV prevention. It just amazes me when they state that Madonna hasn’t done anything to support the gay community. Oh well, one battle at a time, right?? 🙂 Thanks again for such a thoughtful and accurate article.

    Reply
  12. Yeah, Madge is something, ain’t she? ….Can’t think of ANY other celebrity that would risk their career and / or reputation to stick up for a Gay person. She is TRULY awe-inspiring and so was your story….THANKS!! – Rob

    Reply
  13. Great read. Its nice to know that there are other people who have gone through the same experiences in life as myself. Even though I am a bit younger, born in 76′, I can relate to much of your story. I remember the exact moment when I heard “Lucky Star” on the radio in my older sisters bedroom. I asked her who it was and that was the beginning of a life long obsession with Madonna. Ever since I can remember, I have known I was different and felt an attraction to guys that wasn’t the same with girls. Madonna has been one of the strongest inspirations throughout my life. I would listen to all her music daily. Watch her controversial videos and I was always so excited when she had an appearance on TV. Even though I was raised in a conservative Christian family my parents never seemed to mind my extra liking to Madonna and her controversial ways. Maybe they were hoping since she was a sexual woman that I was just attracted to the physical aspect. Little did they know that was the last thought in my mind. Yes I loved the erotic sexuality and all the buttons she pushed. While grabbing her crotch or simulating sex in many different ways. I was never sexually attracted to her. I was intrigued by the way she continuously re-invented herself and pushed the sex, religion and advocacy for people of diversity. Madonna has inspired my life in more ways than I can even comprehend. She is the main pioneer of sexual expression in the world as well as the number one highest selling woman of music in history. She forced the world to accept and evolve sexually as a woman. She reduced the stigma of homosexuality in a time where it was considered to be perverted and stood up politically for what she thought was right. She has made my life a better life today by provoking society to evolve and accept those people who are different from the so called norm. Madonna has made a permanent mark in our society allowing other pioneers to keep the evolution of humanity and acceptance of others to continue without taking the brunt of the controversy as she did. She deserves much credit for the life she has lived and the lives she has saved.

    Reply
  14. Trey

     /  April 10, 2013

    I felt and still do the same way! Madonna was more than pop music to me and always will be.

    Reply
  15. Guy Penn. Loved this! I feel the same way. I wrote an article for a local magazine that speaks the same sentiment. Read the 2nd paragraph.

    http://blogs.phillymag.com/gphilly/2012/04/02/love-mdna/

    Thank you for this. I cried.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed the article. We were definitely on the same wavelength. Maybe it’s a “Pennsyltucky” thing (I am originally from Reading).

      Reply
  16. I wrote a letter to Madonna’s Myspace profile one day asking her to continue her activism for the HIV/AIDS cause, because I felt she has the power to inspire those damn scientists at AMFAR to finally find a cure. I love how you ended it with Madonna is the cure for AIDS. I feel today that the Universe has finally heard my prayers. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Such a great compliment. Thank you, Jared. I suspect we will be seeing more of political Madonna in the future. #justsayin 😉

      Reply
  17. On World AIDS Day, I usually change my facebook profile photo to the one of Madonna with Keith Haring… Two of my favorite pop artists.
    Not sure if links work here, but this is what the photo looks like:

    Reply
  18. Simply Amazing…We were never alone! Living to tell…. Thanks!

    Reply
  19. Wonderful. You are a very powerful writer. I immensely enjoy all your posts.

    Reply
  20. MA

     /  April 8, 2013

    Gorgeous writing, and very moving. Thank you.

    Reply

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