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My Fabulous Disease

Donna Summer, Coming Out, and How AIDS Changed It All

By Mark S. King

May 21, 2012

The music my friends liked when I was a teenager intimidated me. It was the head-banging rock of the early seventies, and it felt alien and unappetizing. Most of all, it just felt ... straight, in a way I knew I could never be. Alone in my room, I listened to my beloved Broadway musicals, and resigned myself to the fact that popular music would never really speak to me.

And then in 1977, when I was sixteen years old, I began sneaking into the only gay bar in Shreveport, Louisiana. Inside I found joy and liberty, fashioned with bell bottomed pants and handsome smiles and the dance floor -- oh my God the dance floor -- centering the nightclub was a glorious explosion of colored light and swinging hips and arms reaching up, up to the sky as if we could clutch it in our hands. The music was an entrancing bombardment of sound, and one song, one mesmerizing invitation to touch the heavens, was played again and again.

It was Donna Summer. And she was singing "I Feel Love."

The track was really the triumph of producer Georgio Moroder, who created the driving, synthesized beat that would define Donna Summer's music for years to come. But I knew I had to own this amazing song, and soon I stood proudly at the record store cashier to buy my very first popular album, Donna Summer's I Remember Yesterday.

I had found my music, my voice, and my lifelong muse.

The following year I had come out as a senior in high school, and Donna Summer was still in her "whisper period." It was never my favorite sound from her -- it felt like playing chopsticks on a grand piano -- and I knew from her other album tracks that she could let it rip. As I was graduating she did just that, with the release of her iconic "Last Dance." Her full-throttle pipes were on stunning display. Dance parties would never be the same.

By the time I left home for college in New Orleans, the music of Donna Summer had exploded into popular culture. I felt so proud of her, as if I had discovered her myself. My nights in the French Quarter were spent in the Parade disco on Bourbon Street, dancing to "Hot Stuff" and "Bad Girls."

The feeling of joyous exuberance that surrounded that disco is hard to describe. It was a sea of shirtless men, staking claim to our sexuality and the promise of infinite possibilities ahead. The incessant thump! thump! thump! of the beat was our clarion call, and it shouted Here! Here! Your tribe is here! We were so beautiful, in ways we were much too young to know.

And then soon, of course, the lights began to dim.

By 1982, I was struggling in Los Angeles as an aspiring actor, and Donna Summer was having a musical identity crisis. Record executives wanted a new sound for her to accompany the changing times, and her longtime producer Georgio Moroder had been replaced by a succession of others. The red-hot Quincy Jones produced her Donna Summer album that year and their studio clashes became legendary. The album floundered and produced no significant hits.

At the Los Angeles gay pride festival the next year, I was thrilled to hear Donna's voice again, sounding gorgeous and almighty, singing "She Works Hard for the Money." I took to the dance floor but was somehow unable to muster the joy I had known only a few years before. Life had intervened. And it had brutal plans for the men under the dance floor tent.

Donna Summer produced dance floor singles, if not hits, in the years that followed, but we weren't paying attention. The night club crowds dissipated, as a silent killer plucked men away one by one. AIDS had begun its murderous march through the gay community.

The villain wasn't simply the disease in those darkest of days. It was ignorance, and the judgment that rose up from social conservatives who saw Godly retribution in the horrific deaths of our friends. And so, when Donna Summer became a born-again Christian during this period and announced she would no longer perform her early, erotically charged hit "Love to Love You, Baby," her gay audience viewed her with immediate suspicion.

An ugly rumor began. Someone claimed to have heard her make a homophobic remark during a concert appearance. Depending on who was repeating the story, she had either said AIDS was God's judgment, or that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. The unsubstantiated rumor swirled and grew, in an environment in which gay men were particularly sensitive to ignorance and hatred. By the time Donna Summer took it all seriously enough to set the record straight, it was too late. What was left of her popularity fell victim to the social maelstrom of AIDS.

I never believed the story, and defiantly continued buying her albums, though they appeared with less regularity. Donna Summer would have only one more true hit, "This Time I Know It's for Real," which I chose to perform for my maiden appearance in drag at an AIDS benefit. The fact that during this time Donna Summer was raising money for AIDS research gained little traction among emotionally bruised and unforgiving gay men.

Today, disco may be dead, but Donna Summer's music laid the groundwork for everyone from Madonna to Lady GaGa, even if my body has found it harder to approximate the dance floor moves of my youth. But in my mind, as I blast "Dim All the Lights" in the privacy of my living room, I am young and powerful and life is making promises that are wonderful and possible.

Donna Summer is among the spirits now, joining the legions of ghosts haunting brightly colored discos from another era. She is still cooing to them, to these throngs of boisterous men, inviting them to the dance, where there is everything to celebrate and nothing to forgive.

The men are moving to the beat and laughing and holding one another. They are all beautiful, and they know it.

And they feel love.

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See Also
More Viewpoints Related to HIV/AIDS Among Gay Men

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Jeff M. (Los Angeles, mostly) Thu., Jun. 7, 2012 at 11:43 am UTC
I so relate to all you've written here, Mark, and I, for one, never really believed the negative stuff about Donna. For me, MacArthur Park is the transporting song, though Enough is Enough in duet with Barbra moves me so. But now that I've written this, I think This Time I Know It's for Real also plays a big part, as it was a favorite of my late friend Acel, whose presence in my life changed it forever and for the better. Thank you for capturing some of that time so well here.
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Comment by: Mel (New York) Tue., Jun. 5, 2012 at 12:10 pm UTC
Great article! I enjoyed reading it!
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Comment by: Ricardo (Spain) Sun., Jun. 3, 2012 at 10:08 am UTC
I was born in 1969, too early for ear Donna's music on dance floors, but "I feel love" embedded in my brain and at my six I knew in some manner the music style I'd love the rest of my life, techno music.
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Comment by: KEN (Chicago) Thu., May. 31, 2012 at 8:48 pm UTC
Donna Summer took many many memories with her....
check out "the perry twins" mix of her music...I cant stop dancin'
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Comment by: DJ JIMMY P (FT LAUDERDALE, FL) Tue., May. 29, 2012 at 5:34 pm UTC
Thanks for a brilliant article. I remember when she appeared in a press conference in tears and on a late night talk show denying the rumored remarks...she did say that her religion was anti-gay..and Aids....and that she had many gay friends and someone mis-construed the remark reportedly for the Village Voice. Amazingly it appears no where in print, recordings or where is the proof?

Sexual promescuity was rampant in the early days of Gay Freedom, where we dared march in Parades..only in LA, San Fran and NYC, at first.

As a DJ, I was immediately asked by others, what made her an icon or diva or so great? I reply: While others sung about dancing, get up and boogie, etc, Donna Summers music was about LOVE: needing it, finding it, holding onto it, losing it, melody of love, whenever there is love, I feel love, etc.

She indeed was our generation's voice in mesmerizing sound and lyrical thought. The generation before had Barbara Streisand and after, Madonna and now Lady GAGA...but none compare to the tonal quality and reachable notes of Donna Summer, which soared, with the exception of Barbara Streisand. She broke all records as a female recording star.

In later years, she still produced songs heard mostly in Europe: LOVE ON AND ON, THE POWER OF ONE, I WILL GO WITH YOU, STAMP YOUR FEET, I'M AFIRE, to name a few.

We associate certain songs with events in our lives. May God Bless her and I am thankful for her music that set the mile posts of many gay men's lifetimes.
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Comment by: Shadonna Shingle (sans San Francisco ) Sat., May. 26, 2012 at 4:34 pm UTC
I loved Ms. Summer, too, until I saw her bash Gays on stage. This happened so long ago, when I lived in SF, but I remember seeing her say pretty much what the "rumor" has her saying. Yes, after she lost a lot of her Gay Crowd, she relented. Like so many "Stars", when it hits them in their pocketbook, they change their tune. I lost all my respect for the woman. However, she did gain a little back when she did do some things for the Aids Cause.
I'm sorry for your loss of an icon, but I lost her long ago.
I hope she is at rest. Many Gay people have done worse to our world. However, I saw her on television, on stage saying almost exactly what she's been accused of saying. Thanks.
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Comment by: Leo (London) Thu., May. 24, 2012 at 6:08 pm UTC
Beautiful word's Mark. So vivid and touching.

My room mate was actually playing MacArthur Park by a very strange co-incidence when I read your post.

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Comment by: Mickey (LA, CA) Thu., May. 24, 2012 at 5:07 pm UTC
Great story Mark! I remember that rumor in the early 80s and I remember many saying that they hated her. "They made her, and they can break her!" It was a tragic time in the 80s in LA. Donna was a true artist, talent, and lady. God Bless her, her family, and her wonderful music!

PS: Ya, I remember the dance tent at Christopher Street West! LOL
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Comment by: Dianne (Sydney Australia) Thu., May. 24, 2012 at 4:40 pm UTC
Mark, keep the disco have a amazing way to tell a story and I was drawn back to the days we danced to Donna...Thankyou for your beautiful portrail of her effect on your life, as on many of our lives.
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Comment by: Jim H. (Fort Lauderdale) Thu., May. 24, 2012 at 4:21 pm UTC
Thank you. That's exactly how hopeful and wonderful those pre-AIDS years felt although I could never have put it as eloquently as you did. Took me back to that optimism.
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Comment by: Maria Mejia (Miami) Thu., May. 24, 2012 at 1:35 pm UTC
powerful! Ty for this Mark!

Love and Light to you
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Comment by: Juan (Spain) Wed., May. 23, 2012 at 3:20 pm UTC
Could that be more inspiring? It just couldn't. Love.
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Comment by: Philip D. (San Francisco, CA) Wed., May. 23, 2012 at 1:40 pm UTC
You've written some thought provoking posts here at TheBody but this might be my favorite so far. Although I came out post-disco, I often wondered what it was really like in those days. This post was so sensory-rich, I felt like I could almost smell the poppers and feel the bass.

We can only imagine, if AIDS hadn't decimated our growing tribe in the infancy of its liberation.

I'm going to download "Dim All The Lights" right now......Thanks for the flashback, Mark.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Mark S. King (Atlanta, GA) Fri., May. 25, 2012 at 9:14 am UTC
I'm dancing right along with you, Philip. Thanks for the kind words, and don't let the poppers give you a headache.

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My Fabulous Disease

Mark S. King has been an active AIDS activist, writer and community organization leader since the early 1980s in Los Angeles. He has been an outspoken advocate for prevention education and for issues important to those living with HIV.

Diagnosed in 1985, Mark has held positions with the Los Angeles Shanti Foundation, AID Atlanta and AIDS Survival Project, and is an award-winning writer. He continues his volunteer work as an AIDS educator and speaker for conferences and events.

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