I should have flown into Houston instead of Dallas, I thought, on a standard, big, enormous, dependable plane, and then driven the 90 miles to the small town of Beaumont. Or I should have considered walking. Anything to avoid this terrifying ride.
We landed without becoming statistics, for which I was grateful, and I was welcomed on the ground by a small but enthusiastic contingent from the 11th Annual AIDS Prevention Summit. Of Beaumont, Texas.
I believe I emitted some sort of patronizing sound when I first saw their invitation to appear at the event. You know, a small town in southeast Texas doing their part for HIV prevention. My big city arrogance found the whole idea of the event, well, almost cute.
After a quick stop at the hotel I was to be shuttled for a live appearance on the local news. What I didn't know was that the television station was broadcasting from the site of the Southeast Texas State Fair.
I strolled through the straw covered grounds as I waited for the broadcast to begin. There were baby chickens, 4-H winning sheep, and longhorn steers with horns fifteen feet wide. I got mud on my dress shoes but felt charmed by it all just the same, even if I felt distinctly queer in my surroundings.
The locals wore authentic denims -- and therefore brands with which I was not familiar -- and the men had the kind of lean bodies made possible through farm labor, not Soloflex. They looked positively alien. I couldn't have felt more out of place if I had had "Goofy Atlanta Fag" embroidered on my dress shirt.
I stepped into the makeshift studio and was greeted by the evening news anchor, his western shirt and boots in sharp contrast to my suit and tie.
"We'll go live to you right after our opening story," he told me. He was a friendly guy. "Just sit here at the desk with me until then."
The studio was so close to the animals outside that I swear I could hear the livestock braying during the opening news footage. Once begun, the telecast went quickly to a reporter strolling through the food vendors at the fair. He stood eyeing an award winning sausage, which a proud woman held up high, skewered on a stick. Over twelve inches of steaming sausage, curved at the most obscene angle possible, were presented to the reporter for his culinary pleasure.
"That's some sausage, Jim!" the anchor announced. "We'll come back to you later to tell us about Ladies' Night on the fairway!"
I swear I heard a "moo" somewhere.
"And now, let's talk about AIDS..." the anchor said matter-of-factly, turning to me. "I have here (moo) Mark S. King, who's in town (squawk, whinny) to tell us about a conference in town..."
The interview was brief but he asked good questions, and once done it was time for a dinner for the conference planners and visiting guests.
On the way to the dinner I wondered how many gay men there would be. What gay man would choose to live in such a small town? I had recently read Signorelli's book Life Outside -- which argues that gay men don't need big cities anymore to live without discrimination -- but I had just returned from doing a live shoot at Green Acres and was unconvinced.
To my surprise, the dinner was crawling with gay men and lesbians -- all residents, all seemingly content, and all refreshingly without attitude or pretense. They were a warm, genuine, delightful bunch who were not only out and adjusted, but completely unselfconscious about their choice of home.
Any remaining prejudice on my part was squashed when the conference began the next day. Over 600 attendees -- health providers, students and people with AIDS -- packed the conference center. Speakers were terrific in the morning, and the afternoon plenary featured none other than Dr. Abraham Verghese, country doctor and author of the moving book My Own Country, about his experiences helping people with AIDS in rural Tennessee. His thoughtful words on the dignity and enlightenment of people in small town America shamed me and my narrow thinking.
My own workshop went well, even if by then I was intimidated by the level of knowledge among participants. Conference attendees were perfectly in sync with the latest HIV information.
After my last workshop, a young woman approached me in the hall. She was a nursing student living there in Beaumont.
"I appreciated your workshop," she said, "but something about it bothered me."
Oh, here it comes, I thought. The fact I used to abuse drugs? That I mentioned my gay lover? Jeez. These people. I tell ya.
"You said you find it hard to make close friendships since you lost your best friends," she went on. "And, well, down here we think a lot of our friends. They're very important." She reached for my hands and took them in hers. "So I wanted to tell you not to give up. Just, you know, give it a try with more people. We all deserve to have good friends, don't you think so?"
It was this woman's thoughts that defined the whole trip, this town, these people. I remembered her face all the way to the airport, truly, and smiled from her words until the moment I approached the small twin engine plane that would fly me away. The plane seemed perfectly content in the friendly town of Beaumont and sat happily on the tarmac, its two tiny propellers whirling round and round.
Mark S. King is Director of Education for AID Atlanta, the largest AIDS service agency in the southeast United States, and also serves as Chair of the Mayor's AIDS Advisory Board. He is currently completing his first book, A Place Like This, about his experiences as an HIV positive gay man.