When Mark Ebenhoch consulted on and played himself in Platoon, director Oliver Stone’s 1986 blockbuster movie about the Vietnam War, he was surrounded by both heavyweights like Tom Berenger and Dustin Hoffman as well as a slew of actors whose careers would take off after the film: Tom Cruise, Willem Defoe, Ben Stiller, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp, and, unforgettably, a young, wild Charlie Sheen.
Today, both Sheen and Ebenhoch are HIV-positive activists, just on different coasts.
Mark Ebenhoch’s journey from Marine to military technical adviser in Hollywood, to gay rights and HIV activist in Florida is a fascinating one that began with him answering a questionnaire on America Online in the 1990s, “back when AOL was the only place gay people could go to meet” online.
After he filled out a survey, Ebenhoch was contacted by a reporter for an article that became a cover story for the New York Times magazine in 1996, entitled “Flirting with Suicide.” The piece was about whether or not gay men were having safe sex at what was near the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.
“I had over 20 partners,” Ebencoh recalls of this period. “A lot of the time I was drunk, though, so I can't say for sure. Sometimes you'd go home with somebody you might not really want because of loneliness, and in that position I sure wouldn't mention safe sex. I'd always wait for them to say something about it.''
He nods his head sharply, as if dismissing an underling, adding, “But no one did.”
By the time the piece ran in the Times, Ebenhoch would learn that he was HIV-positive.
Now 56 and living in the Florida Keys, Ebenhoch is no longer a Hollywood consultant. Even after working on acclaimed films like Born on the Fourth of July, The Beast of War, and Dead Presidents, the former consultant says that it’s easy to second guess the impact of being gay and HIV-positive on his life. But when it came to his Hollywood career, he says, “It destroyed it.”
After the New York Times cover story came out, Ebenhoch — who had been out to his commanders as an active duty and reserve Marine would essentially never work in Hollywood again.
An avid boat enthusiast, Ebenhoch relocated to Key West where he became involved in the Sacred Cloth Project, which consists of Key West’s 25-foot section of Gilbert Baker’s historical Rainbow 25 Sea to Sea Flag. The flag consists of 18,600 linear yards of fabric, weighing two tons, and was sewn together by Baker in Key West Florida in 2003 to create a 1.25 mile long rainbow flag in the original eight colors of the rainbow. He says over 2,000 volunteers were used in this huge project commemorating the 25th anniversary of the original Rainbow Flag, which Baker — a close friend of the late Harvey Milk —created in 1978 in San Francisco.
Ebenhoch has personally hand delivered the flag to many important national and international events over the years, including the Supreme court in April of 2015 for the United States Supreme Court oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges. A year later he took it to President Obama at the White House for his last LGBT Presidential Pride Reception this summer.
The activist, who has trained Navy personnel on LGBT equality issues, also served as a media conduit, according to the FL Keys News, for “Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, Key West bartenders who were among the Florida couples who sued to get Florida's same-sex-marriage ban overturned.”
The activist says his next goal is a big one: getting that giant flag in the permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Looking back, Ebenhoch sees his HIV status as a blessing more than anything else.
“For one, it forced my self-acceptance, it facilitated some poor choices early on when it was still considered a fatal disease —thankfully that phase ended on both counts,” he says. “It also gave me something to ‘protect’ others from therefore starting my activism, which is basically who I am but didn’t know it [at the time]. I get to use the leadership skills I learned in the Marines to fight a battle that I was meant to fight.”