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The Life & Teachings of Paul

The Life & Teachings of Paul


Paul Lekakis probably is not one of the first people who jumps to mind when thinking of safer-sex advocates. In fact, the hunky singer, model, and actor may be best known for his overt sexuality'from the in-your-face risqu' lyrics of his hit 1987 dance single 'Boom, Boom (Let's Go Back to My Room)' to his gritty performance as Bobby, the crystal-addicted gay stripper in the 2002 independent film Circuit. But Lekakis knows firsthand the nuances of HIV disease and safer-sex issues. He discovered he was HIV-positive in 1988 and ever since has been working on coming to terms with his diagnosis and fighting his infection. He has also faced occasions where he grappled with deciding whether to reveal his positive serostatus to men with whom he had hoped to pursue a sexual or romantic relationship'simultaneously afraid of rejection and discrimination if he did disclose and the possible consequences if he did not. Lekakis says because he believes most sexually active gay men are not talking about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases with their partners'and that many HIV-positive people continue to struggle with disclosure, as he has'he decided to devote his first screenplay to those very topics. The resulting short movie, Don't Tell, Don't Ask, is set to hit film festivals early this year; it stars Lekakis and Dan Renzi of The Real World: Miami as two gay men who discuss that one of them is HIV-positive only after they have had unprotected oral sex. The film also includes short commentaries by gay and gay-friendly celebrities Bruce Vilanch, Harvey Fierstein, and Whoopi Goldberg, who talk about the importance of safer sex and keeping HIV issues in the limelight. Lekakis, who is launching a comeback as a recording artist with a new dance single, 'I Need a Vacation,' sat down with HIV Plus to talk about his personal experiences as a sexually active HIV-positive man, his work on Don't Tell, Don't Ask, and why he believes gay men must start talking openly about whether they are putting themselves and their sex partners at risk. 'Don't Tell, Don't Ask' is your first screenplay and your first work as a film director. Why did you decide to focus the film on HIV issues? It was something I was compelled to write about. I write all the time, but it was the first thing I felt strongly on, and when I started to write in screenplay format I was like, Let me write it, let me make a final draft, let me stick some things in there and see how that goes.The short film focuses on HIV disclosure issues. Why that particular topic? HIV disclosure is a big issue with everyone'whether you have it, whether you do not have it. Is disclosure a particular problem for sexually active HIV-positive gay men? I think it is a very big problem, an ongoing problem. I don't think it is something that you can decide I'm going to do this and then do it 100%, though. It has an evolution to it. It is also a bigger problem for people who have more sexual partners than others. It is easier for someone not to judge someone who is not disclosing if they are with only one partner or five partners as opposed to 50. The person disclosing to 50 partners has a lot more to deal with. In your movie two men have casual sex but do not discuss HIV or sexually transmitted diseases until after. Is this something still happening a lot among gay men? I think so. That is what happened in my experience, and a lot of people I spoke to say, 'Yeah, that happened to me once.' I think it is just part of the figuring out the whole disclosure issue as a gay man'whether you are negative or positive. You have to practice doing it'talking about HIV and STDs'and a lot of the time it is an afterthought, because you do not want to interrupt what you are doing [if you are in a sexual moment]. The title of the film''Don't Tell, Don't Ask''looks at the failure of both HIV-negative and HIV-positive gay men to talk about HIV'on any level'before they have sex. You are openly gay and you have known you are HIV-positive for nearly 16 years. From your perspective, why is it difficult for seropositive men to talk openly about their status? It is difficult mainly because there is this devaluation that goes on'because when you meet someone you are initially valued and wanted. Then all of a sudden you tell the person you are positive and everything changes'you no longer have that value. The fear of losing that value in someone's eyes is what keeps people from talking about HIV as much as they should. Also, you are forcing someone to deal with the issue of HIV. Whether you are OK with it or not, your partner might not be. On the flip side of the coin, some HIV-negative men will not ask their partners if they are HIV-positive, and if they do, it is often only after they have potentially exposed themselves to the virus. Why do you see so many seronegative men not wanting to talk about HIV? I think it is just education'being educated and practicing how to ask'and the personal choice of whether they do or do not want to know. I think a lot of gay men struggle with that. Maybe they want the experience to be more pleasurable than informative, and they just take chances. Everyone takes risks. The point of my writing this, though, was to show how to allow informed risk'to not allow someone to take a risk without educating him. You can educate people about your HIV status, and they can take whatever risk they want to take, which is their prerogative. If you do not disclose to someone, though, you are cutting out their ability to make a choice, and I do not think that is the best way to go. Are there some autobiographical elements in the film? Anything you have dealt with personally? Anything I write about cannot not be autobiographical. It is just what I am about, whether when writing music or when I, as an actor, choose my parts or cosign my name to something. Yeah, it is definitely autobiographical. It is loosely based on something that has happened. So, in general, you think gay men'seropositive and -negative'just are not talking enough about HIV and STDs? Yeah. I do not think we want to know about them, especially while we are doing it. This is what is going on: There are STDs out there. There is HIV out there. And some people do not want to have to think about those things. If it is important to you and you want to know someone's serostatus, you have to learn how to ask. Especially HIV-negative people! We cannot put all the emphasis on positive people disclosing because that would be a bad bet. Everyone needs to take care of himself. Have gay men just gotten too casual about hooking up and stopped worrying about HIV? Guys want to have sex. Sex is supposed to be fun. People will take risks, and some people are more risky than others. That is what I have found. Some people are paranoid about risky sex, but many are like, 'Oh, well, I can get this, this, or this. I'll take my chances.' In the movie the men have oral sex, which most experts say has a much lower risk of HIV transmission than anal sex. But the HIV-negative character in the film cannot quite seem to decide if he had been risky. Do you think one of the reasons HIV is not talked about enough is because men will readily engage in oral sex and are not really sure if what they are doing is safe or not? I think they are not sure. I do not think anyone is sure. I think a lot of people do have oral sex and do not worry about it and think it is very low-risk behavior. Then it gets into percentages of what one's viral load is. If someone does not have a detectable viral load, it could be a one in a million chance of transmitting the virus depending on whether you do or do not ejaculate in someone's mouth. There is confusion. But I have met a couple of guys who said that is how they became infected'because they did not do anything else. I do not think anything is foolproof. It is like the HIV-negative person in the film who was not sure. He has to come to terms with himself on whether it was safe, how safe it was if it was safe, his willingness to take risks, and how he is going to deal with it. Each person has to deal with it on a personal level. Each man has to come to terms with his own behavior. Both characters refer to the HIV-negative character as having been 'stupid' for not asking about his partner's status before having sex. Do you think it is stupid to not ask? I think it is stupid not to ask if it is an issue for a person. I think it is stupid if a person meets someone, has anonymous sex with him, and does not stop beforehand to ask'even though it is an issue that might worry him. If it is not an issue, he can do whatever he wants to do. In the film this was an issue for the person, and he was taken aback when he asked about the STDs because he was like, 'Wait a minute!' If it is really important for the negative person, he has to ask, and like this character found out, he has to ask before, because he could have adjusted his behavior. Since you have a point of view on this as someone who is HIV-positive, do you think HIV-positive people have a moral responsibility to tell their partners they are positive? Whenever I hear 'moral obligation,' I think of religion and the right wing. When you assign moral obligation to a gay sexual act, I get a little disjointed. Do they have a responsibility? Yes. Do they actually practice that responsibility? A lot of time, no, because of all the fear and other emotional factors involved. If someone is positive, he is not going to tell you a lot of the time because he is scared. I have been dealing with HIV for so long that, of course, my behavior today is different from what it was 16 years ago. But I cannot expect someone who just found out he is positive to immediately start telling people. It is a process. It might take three or four or five or six years to process it and start telling people. Everyone is different. Are there any sexual situations where you think it might be OK to not disclose? I think it is OK if you have safe sex and use a condom and you are careful'extremely careful. I personally feel better when I tell people if I am going to have sex with them, and then I do not have to worry about it. If you have safe sex, there is no reason why I think you have to tell or have to ask. If you are risky, then it gets questionable. It is not a smart move for negative people to rely on positive people to tell them. That is a huge burden to put on your brother. People need to be more aware of that fact, and I think some people are. When I disclose, people are like, 'Thanks a lot. I love a man who is confident about it. Thanks for telling me.' And they end up doing stuff with me. For some people, when you do disclose, their behavior changes; [some will trust your integrity more]. Any profits the film makes from being broadcast on TV or shown at gay and lesbian film festivals are going to be donated to Project Angel Food, which prepares and distributes meals in the Los Angeles area to HIV-positive people and others with serious illnesses. Why did you want the film to serve as a fund-raiser for the group? The producers thought it was a good idea'and I agreed with them'to have an AIDS organization involved. That way we could get the project done, because it takes work and money to get a project from creation to being finished. We went with Project Angel Food because of its name and reputation'people know what Project Angel Food is. It is a really good charity. Where do you hope the film will be shown? At gay and lesbian film festivals'and hopefully on cable, hopefully places like MTV, just everywhere it can be. How long is the film? About eight minutes. Maybe a bit longer'about 12 minutes. I am sure there will be a shortened version for television. We will probably make three edits. It is short, but it is pretty intense. Any plans to air it on TV as a public-service announcement or to make it available to AIDS organizations? That would be great. If we can get some sort of donation for printing of DVDs or VHS copies, yeah, I would like to be able to offer it to all AIDS service organizations in the country'if not the world, for that matter. I would like to massively get it out there for educational purposes. This is the second HIV-positive character you have played on-screen, the first being the HIV-positive stripper and circuit boy Bobby in 'Circuit.' Do you think you were able to bring something extra to those roles simply because you know what it is like to be positive? Absolutely. That is why I am drawn by the roles'because you know what they are. When I first started acting I was taught that it is a lot easier if you have something in common with characters you play. The homework is already done. As a writer and director, I think I could play the other character in Don't Tell, Don't Ask, but there was no question in my mind that I should play the positive character. I definitely think I bring more knowledge to the role. Is it ever hard to play a character that is HIV-positive? Does it ever bring any issues a little too close to home? It absolutely does. But again, I really learned in acting class and throughout my time studying and writing that every good writer has to write about the truth. I found out in acting class'and from working on Angels in America for a year and a half three years ago'that I wanted to flesh out what I knew as an actor to what is close to me. You have to go there. You have to really be there in the experience. You have to bare your soul. If you do not, the performance is not good. You have to be willing to go on that ledge. The journey is to go there and go back. I am also seven years sober, but I shot Circuit when I was just three years sober, and I had to go back to someplace I never thought I would go back to. But part of the acting craft is you have to go back there, then put it back on the shelf. I think everything I do is close to home. 'Circuit' pretty much looks at the pluses and the major downsides of the circuit-party scene. Were you involved with the circuit scene? I was, but I do not think it was as popular back when I was part of it. I call myself pre'circuit party. I used to hang out at the Saint in New York City. The party was there, at places like the Saint and at other large clubs in New York and San Francisco that everyone would go to. But those kinds of big parties were few and far between back then. The massive clubs had huge events that everyone went around to. It was the birth of circuit parties. I was around at the later circuit events. I went to some of them, but I had already done all that. Why did you decide to leave that behind? I chose sobriety because I was not really dealing with the whole HIV thing and everything that comes with it. I started using drugs more and hanging around with people who were using drugs. I wanted to stop but was in a world where everyone else did it, and I didn't know any other world. I started doing too much. There was a time when I did not do drugs, when I was younger in the party scene, but after a while I found myself in a world I had created and there was nowhere else to go except to the baggies people were handing me. What was it about HIV that you were not dealing with then? I think back then it was the secrecy, the miscommunication people were having with each other about it. It was having HIV but not looking like I had it. It was being a good-looking man and a sexual being, which did not go with being 'poisonous'! Just all that stuff. I suppressed a lot of it. And for a lot of people'which is what I did'once you know you are positive, you take the low road, the more decadent road. You allow yourself to be decadent, to go out to sex clubs and feel like you belong there. People today do not really have to do that, but I still see people letting loose and taking a bad turn, and it is just a road you do not have to take. It leads nowhere fast. But eventually you have to deal with it. Even gay men have to deal with their shit'whether it is in your 30s or 40s, it is up to you. I was not doing that earlier, and it caught up with me. Someone asked me recently about my HIV, and I said, 'Well, there is nothing I can do about it.' I did not invent it or want to run and get it. It's just something that happened. This is the world we live in today. It has nothing to do with me, in a sense. If I weren't here, everyone would still have to deal with HIV. You have known you were HIV-positive since 1988. How did you find out? I found out with my boyfriend. He died four years later. I went to get tested a lot back then'every six months. He was pissed at me because when I went to get tested it was inconclusive the first time. Then I got tested again, and it said I was positive. My boyfriend knew then that he was positive too because we had been having unprotected sex. Were you afraid at the time that you had pretty much been given a death sentence? That is what they basically told me. The doctor said he could not do anything. It was devastating to a 23-year-old. It was the biggest turn of my life. At that time you were working as a model for some major companies and clothing lines and working to build a career as a pop singer. [Lekakis's 1987 single 'Boom, Boom (Let's Go Back to My Room)' was a top 10 hit on U.S. dance charts and hit number 1 in Australia and Japan.] How did your diagnosis affect your work? It affected a lot of my work because the people I was working with were all gay. [Two of the record company executives were gay], and a DJ friend of ours had just died. We were all like, What's going on? It was tough, and I had to be secretive about it. It was really tough to maneuver because people wanted to sleep with me, and I was scared I was going to kill them. That was just a horrible place to be in. How did it affect your dating and sex life? There were times I didn't have sex at all, and there were times I had sex a lot. I think it's why I got more drunk and did more drugs'because I was just trying to deal with all that stuff going on in my head. It was easier to just not deal with that. I traveled so much, and people all across the country had such different viewpoints on it'anywhere from total ignorance to totally being educated on safer sex and how you can get HIV. A lot of drug addicts I hung out with just did not care, and that is probably why I went that route as well. Do you have a partner now? I have a boyfriend now. He is HIV-negative. How do you go about deciding on what you do sexually so that he remains negative? It depends on both of us. Basically, it is up to what we are comfortable with riskwise. Some people are willing to take certain risks, and some people are not. It is about educating the person you are with. I do try to keep the risks down. I try to do my part as best as I can. I think risky behavior separates people sexually, but it also can bring them together. As I said, though, I'd rather take an educated risk than a fly-by-night chance. Are you on an antiretroviral regimen? Yes. And I'm undetectable now. I started taking antiretrovirals probably about seven years ago. I mostly attribute my downfall'when my T-cell count was getting low'to my drug use. I think it took my health to the point where I had to take antiretrovirals. If I had not been such a wild guy, I do not know if I would have started antiretrovirals as soon as I did. What else do you do to remain healthy? I work out. I try to eat right. I try to not get stressed. I try to balance my life, because the more I've been working, the more it's become stressful. I try to take days off. If I have a really full day one day, I'll take another off. A lot of people say HIV is as much an emotional and psychological disease as a physical one. What do you do to keep in a positive place emotionally? Mental health therapy is essential. I definitely do that. That is a crucial part of sobriety and who I am today. I go to 12-step meetings; I'm very active in recovery. Sobriety is a big part of my health'just not drinking, just not putting drugs in my body that would prevent me from sleeping and eating. For a number of years that had a huge impact on my health. HIV is totally emotional and psychological. I have my art. I write about it. I am writing a book that I started last year. Sometimes it pours out of me; sometimes I have to leave it alone. I have to reassure myself and come to terms with being HIV-positive all the time'to accept that it is just the way I am, that there is nothing I can do about it. But then I'll talk about it with people I meet along way, and it will trigger it all in me again. OK, so I'm OK with it, but maybe everyone else is not. It is like constantly coming out and everyone reacting to it. According to your Web site, you are working on releasing a new pop album. How is that going? I have a single that came out at the end of the year called 'I Need a Vacation.' It's a fun pop song. I also have a gay workout video coming out this month called Partners, which will have a nationwide release. Basically, I've got the workout video, the film, and the record. Are there any tips or lessons you have learned in fighting HIV for 16 years that you would like to pass on to our readers? I think I learned that just because someone else has a problem with my HIV, it does not mean I have to have a problem with it. And it's evolving, so the promise of tomorrow and how far we've come in the past 20 years and how far I'm going to go in the next 20 years is a very strong reality. There is a lot more hope, so I rely on that. Confidence feels good. I think a lot of HIV-positive people forget those things.

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