Madonna & The Plague


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


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.


me_madonna1985-copy2 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.

For blog updates, follow along through Facebook or Twitter.


Note to Progressives: “Be More Like Madonna”

Be Like Madonna

If freedom and capitalism got drunk and had passionate sex, their love child would be Madonna.  And whether you admire or despise their spirited baby girl, let’s agree – Madonna is independence gone wild, liberty run amuck in a corset.

I have a suggestion for progressive liberals that they likely don’t want to hear.  When dealing with our opposition, it’s time to be less politically correct and more like Madonna.

You don’t have to wear a cone shaped bra or gyrate your hips.  I am not asking you to hump the dance floor or grab your crotch on national TV.  I’m simply saying, however you choose to do it, if you’ve got the guts and the urge – speak out, speak often, and speak loudly.  Your voice is needed now more than ever.

Our opposition needs to be challenged and provoked, so lets give Republicans in power something to actually be outraged about. The days of placating conservative hypocrisy and tantrums aren’t acceptable anymore.  The facts are in: the planet is on fire, the middle class has been evacuated, and the luxury yachts bobbing offshore have a maximum capacity of 1%.

Welcome to the apocalypse, the dramatic conclusion of trickle down economics and manufactured morality.  Given the dire circumstances, dancing may seem ill-fitted or inappropriate, but it’s time to fight crazy with crazy, so here’s my advice to my progressive sisters and brothers (and I’m looking at you, Harry Reid)…

Figuratively squeeze into a pair of pink leotards with a plunging neckline, grab your crotch with one hand, extend a middle finger with the other, and tell Republicans in Congress, “Filibuster this.”

However you choose, it’s time to be heard… Speak.

A recent paper found that both conservative and liberal politicians undervalue how liberal their constituents are.  Conservative politicians, specifically, underestimated local support for universal health care and same-sex marriage by as much as 20 percent.

While this disconnect is the result of multiple factors (special interests infiltrating government, the Orwellian mind grip of the conservative entertainment “news” industry, politicians beholden to the donor class, etc…), I place equal blame on progressives, the enablers of our existing political paradox.

Somewhere along the way, we progressives stopped “burning our bras”.  We became less outspoken, substituted our passion for good manners and prudence.  We allowed our opponents to define us, to make “liberalism” a dirty word.  We forgot an important lesson, one that history proves we’re destined to learn again and again…

The conservative moral majority is a myth.  Despite what we’ve been conditioned to think for the past 30 years, the United States is ultimately a progressive nation.  If we weren’t progressive: slavery would be legal, women would be unable to vote, being gay would still be outlawed throughout the land, and Barack Obama wouldn’t have been elected President… twice.

By definition progressive means, “making progress toward better conditions. Favoring or advocating change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are…”

Polls consistently show that Americans largely approve of liberal policies. On fiscal and social matters alike, majorities support:

  • Marriage equality
  • Cap and Trade
  • Tax increases to offset the national debt
  • Gun control regulation
  • A woman’s right to choose
  • Campaign finance reform
  • Immigration Reform
  • A Public Option to compete with Health Insurance providers
  • Heck, even legalizing marijuana recently tipped in the Progressives favor

Yet here we are, a nation of hippies (apparently) beholden to an intransigent Republican party that defiantly refuses to compromise with the progressive majority.

Conservatives in power would sooner self-inflict another recession than close a single corporate tax loophole or raise another dime in taxes for the rich. Despite their contributions to the debt (unpaid wars, tax cuts for the wealthiest, and a financial crisis caused largely by deregulation) the GOP insists that the poorest and sickest among us must foot the bill for the Republican fraternity’s binge spending and recklessness.

The only thing more offensive than Republican obstructionism is progressive America tolerating Republican obstructionism.  The recent study only highlights the greatest failure of the modern progressive, what was once our greatest strength – Our ability to be noticed and be heard, to matter… which brings me back to Madonna.

Madonna is the baby boomer that never stopped burning her bra, the hippie still singing about love and peace…. star of the 30-year musical, “The Progressive Activist”.

  • Madonna challenged George W. Bush on Iraq, when many liberals cowered from the fight and found it unpalatable to speak out against the war.
  • Madonna spoke out for gay rights and AIDS research, before it was chic… before even President Reagan had the courage to publicly acknowledge the epidemic.
  • And yes, perhaps most trying of all, Madonna has challenged her sex.

Personal taste aside, Madonna is by most measures “a liberated woman”, living proof that it’s okay to be powerful and girly. People can debate otherwise, but I nonetheless applaud Madonna for being unabashedly unashamed of being a woman. I, for one, take comfort in watching Madonna emasculate her conservative detractors, one poignant crotch grab at a time.

Liking Madonna is not a prerequisite for progressive liberals, but make no mistake – Madonna is emblematic of the progressives’ paradox. Liberals yearn to be a nation more inclusive and kind, yet we discount and hush progressives like Madonna, because let’s face it – Madonna doesn’t fit the conservative mold.

If progressives surrender to Republican hostage taking and conservatives ideals, it won’t be Barack Obama or Madonna’s fault.  “Failure” will be progressives’ to own.  Our generation will be known as “the generation that stopped fighting for the dream”, or perhaps most chilling of all, “the generation that succumbed to dreams and never woke up”.

Be more like Madonna.  Fight crazy with crazy.  Squeeze into a pair pink leotards with a plunging neckline, grab your crotch with one hand, and extend a middle finger with the other.

However you choose, join me in telling Republicans in congress, “Sequester this.”

It’s time to be heard… Speak.

“I can’t keep on waiting for you. I know that you’re still hesitating.

Don’t cry for me. I’ll find my way. You’ll wake up one day, but it’ll be too late.”

~ Madonna

gp(page_divider2)Progressive politics and the politics of Madonna are the subject of “Guy Penn & the Gospel According to Madonna” written by Damon Wallace. 

For updates, follow along through facebook or Twitter.

Guy Penn & the Gospel According to Madonna

“No matter who you are, no matter what you did, no matter where you’ve come from, you can always change, become a better version of yourself.”    ~ Madonna



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