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#1 of Our 75 Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016: Kevin Sessums

Savas Abadsidis and  Jacob Anderson-Minshall

We got the New York Times bestselling author to open up about sex, drugs, mortality, and coming out —again.

Kevin Sessums virtuallycreated the personality-driven culture we live in. Beginning as executive editor at Andy Warhol’s Interview, and later as contributing editor under Tina Brown’s tenure at Vanity Fair, Sessums was famous for his one-on-one celebrity profiles that graced magazine covers. He went on to found FourTwoNine magazine, where he served as editor in chief, and today he is the editor at large for the San Francisco-based Curran. Sessums is a rarity: an HIV-positive journalist who has also written two New York Times bestselling memoirs: Mississippi Sissy and, more recently, I Left It on the Mountain. 


Tell us about finding out you are HIV-positive?

I was coming off a drug binge in South Beach, where I had a pied-a-terre, and came down with the textbook symptoms. I got tested and heard the dreaded words, “You are HIV positive” from a doctor who was a stranger to me. But I guess that made sense — since it was a stranger no doubt who infected me — because my drug sex was always with strangers. Oddly, the diagnosis didn’t make me get sober, but pushed me deeper into my addiction, because I thought I had nothing else to lose. It wasn’t until several years later — after I had indeed lost it all — that I began my journey toward sobriety. I think part of my addiction was the grieving process for my HIV-negative self. That was the death that occurred: my HIV-negative self was no more. But my HIV-positive self lives on — and is a much better and honorable and empathetic self because of it. I wish I could have gotten to this place of acceptance and living a more honorable and sober life without having to be HIV-positive. I won’t lie about that: I wish I were not positive. But that has not been my journey. It is a journey that continues. And I am grateful for it. 


You’ve written about being sexually abused, saying that, “Violation — not love, not intimacy — would be what I would come to seek sexually the rest of my life.” Do you still feel like you seek out violation? 

I don’t seek it out anymore, no. I barely seek out sex of any kind — especially recreational sex. What changed is that I got sober four years ago. Also, I turned 60. I have had lots, and lots, and lots of recreational sex in my life and it just doesn’t hold the same appeal to me that it once did. The kinkiest thing I can think of right now is intimacy and monogamy because what we consider kinky is often what is outside our experience and those are two things I’ve always had problems with. Now that I’ve turned 60, I find those two things enticing.


Do you see becoming HIV positive as a result of that attraction to debasement?

Not exactly, no. My drug addiction led me to some debasing experiences, and as a result of that I became HIV-positive. But I blame the addiction, not the need for debasement — but maybe that itself is what drug addition is. 


You lost both your parents before you were 9 years old. In I Left It On the Mountain you write about being “fatherless,” but you are also “motherless.” Did that missing father figure impact you more than your missing mother figure? 

Odd. I think of myself as parentless — not fatherless or motherless. My grandparents raised my brother and sister and me. I never thought of them as substitute parents though. I only thought of them as Mom and Pop — as we called them. It is only recently I realized the sacrifice that they made for us. Now that I have arrived in my 60s and yet still shy of the ages they were when they took in three small children who were in the midst of the kind of grief we didn’t understand even as my grandparents were certainly understanding theirs, having lost their daughter, our mother, when she was only 32 years old. I’ve always said that I was weaned on death having lost my parents; my father in an automobile accident when I was 7 and my mother to cancer when I was 8. My brother was 5 and 6 and my sister was 3 and 4. They weren’t old enough to quite understand it all. I was just old enough to get it. Yep, I was weaned on it. Death was the third tit of my childhood. I’ve certainly suckled at abandonment for most of my life. 


Does being a gay, HIV-positive man impact your experience of fatherlessness in any way?

No, unless you mean that point at which we all, no matter our sexuality or HIV status, must father ourselves as men. 


You’ve had a number of visions or hallucinations. You didn’t rush out to see a doctor; instead you began taking more drugs in the hope of experiencing more visions. Which was harder to give up? The drugs or the visions?

They were intertwined. I don’t really miss the drugs but I do, yes, miss the visions from time to time. I always felt myself a bit mystical. I prefer to see this part of my life experience as a mystic one. Sometimes I do consider myself a mystic. I’ve never admitted that out loud. I think I just came out of a closet! One thing I have discovered — nothing mystic about this — we never run out of closets from which to emerge.


And how has your HIV status fit into your sense of spirituality?

I pray each morning — after I daily surrender in a conscious way in order to stay sober — to accept anything that happens to me, whether it is the worst thing possible or the best thing possible, in exactly the same way: with grace and dignity and humility. I think my journey toward all three [started] the day I received my HIV diagnosis; although I had no idea then that was what was occurring.


You close the memoir with a note of self-forgiveness. Why do you think we need to forgive ourselves?

I think we are born from a free-floating kind of consciousness into the human experience so that consciousness can then experience what it is like to be human, which, let’s face it, is about pain and suffering much of the time. From the moment we enter crying into the world and our mothers are screaming in pain to the emotional and physical wear and tear of the human existence, we are in some mode of each. I think when we die we are finally born back into the consciousness from which we came and, with each of our human experiences, we add to consciousness’s knowledge and, with each of our tiny deaths, its infinitesimally greater omniscience. Let’s face it: our whole life is a journey toward healing. If there is a heaven, I think that is it. I think heaven is that moment we die and are born back into consciousness, for I think that is the moment we are finally healed of our humanness. I know this sounds like gobbledegook. I had to get sober to sound this high. 


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Savas Abadsidis