Embracing My Inner Annie to Combat HIV Stigma

Contributing Editor
Merce, Season 1, Episode 1: Merce with his Fairies -- Sean Griffin, Rob Laqui and Alexander Tomas (Credit Johnny Coughlin)

Holy crap. I think I'm Annie. This shocking thought came to me recently while totally gaying out, listening to show tunes and cleaning my tiny jewel-box apartment. The Original Broadway Cast recording of the 1977 Tony Award-winning hit musical came on Spotify, and I found myself scrubbing dishes and Swiffering the floor while joyously belting out "It's a Hard-Knock Life" like a pre-pubescent Andrea McArdle.

In case you've never heard of it, Annie is a beloved musical about a little orphan and her little orphan pals jazz squaring and cartwheeling around New York during the Depression. Despite being underfed, wearing tragic, literal rags and living in squalor under the thumb of the hilariously cruel Miss Hannigan, Annie is feisty and plucky and believes with Pollyanna optimism that, no matter what, "The sun'll come out tomorrow." I don't want to ruin it for you, but at the end of the musical, she gets adopted by the richest man in America, Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks. She winds up with new clothes and a perm, living it up in a Manhattan high-rise. It's really too freaking sunshiny to be true, and may be the most sickly sweet musical ever. It's enough to make you want to barf.

So, if Annie is all that vomit inducing, what makes me think I'm her? Certainly, I'm too cynical and grumpy to personify Annie's scrappy sunshiny-ness. But, my alter ego, the lead character in my web series, Merce, is definitely at least Annie-ish. Merce is not an orphan, but he sings, dances and even skips his way through the streets of New York. Although he isn't living during the Depression, he is living through something that people might think of as a depressing topic: HIV. And, he's doing it without a trace of self-stigma or shame. In fact, he's a pretty happy dude.

I didn't set out for Merce to be Annie. (Although, there is a photo from an early episode of the original concept where Merce is dressed like Richard Simmons but looks a lot like Annie -- well, Mexican Annie.) No, the original idea was simply to create something funny and fun, to do some comedy work with my friends. And there was another impetus: I wanted to see a character living with HIV who wasn't sad, sick or dying.

Merce with Craig Skelton, Alberto Uribe, Jeff Pierce and Donnell Smith
Mexican Annie? Merce with Craig Skelton, Alberto Uribe, Jeff Pierce and Donnell Smith
Tyne Firmin

I've seen every HIV-themed movie and TV show from An Early Frost to Angels in America, from the Lifetime production of Girl, Positive to very special episodes of Law and Order ("I got this guy's whole story, Lenny. I just found his stash of AZT."). Whether it's a history piece about the AIDS crisis of the '80s and '90s or a contemporary story, every single time I've seen a character or a storyline that involves HIV, it has always been tinged with tragedy and sadness, stigma and shame. No character I've seen who's living with HIV seems OK. "Boohoo! I have HIV!" every story seems to say.

Well, that's not how I feel at all. Although I don't think that living with HIV is a treat, I also don't think it's a tragedy. I've been living with HIV for almost 14 years and was seriously and dramatically diagnosed with AIDS in 2003. Yet, since I was put on treatment, I've been adherent to my medical regime and have been amazingly healthy. I've experienced some secondary HIV conditions, including peripheral neuropathy, and have had two hip replacements due to avascular necrosis, but newsflash: My life isn't sad. The fact that I have HIV does not make me a tragic figure. I am not a victim. In fact, I'm a pretty happy dude.

In direct defiance to the tragic HIV stories produced by mainstream media, I developed this independent web series with a lead HIV-positive character who's joyous, skips through his life, has friends and family and dates and a sex life, and lives his life to the fullest. I created Merce. And Merce is a musical! Why not? My producing partner, Tyne Firmin, and I decided to go 100% and make it the bawdiest, funniest, opposite-of-what-people-think-of-when-they-think-of-HIV show ever!

Tyne and I assembled an amazing cast and crew and tackled the humiliating and challenging task of fundraising, begging for every crumb of our less-than-a-shoestring budget. We shot the series across a month in 2014, and it was an exhausting process. Yet, it was one of the most magical, creative times of my life. The company was a dream, and there was not one diva moment in the cast. The eight short (less than 10 minutes each) episodes of this original web series are work that I'm truly proud of, sending out the revolutionary message that "life can be positive when you're positive."

The show came out two years ago and, despite many uphill battles, has had a nice reception. Merce has been in several festivals, won some awards (including a Best Actor in a Webisode Award for me at the Official Latino Short Film Festival -- holy cow! -- and Best HIV/AIDS Content in America's Rainbow Film Festival), and it was picked up for streaming on OUTtv's European media platforms and on REVRY, the LGBTQ app.

We're now in the pre-production and fundraising phase for Merce, Season 2. The second season is going to tackle more than just HIV stigma; we're going to take on issues such as serodiscordant relationships, U=U, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), slut shaming, secondary HIV conditions and gay marriage. And we're going to do it all with the same bawdy style and sunshiny song-and-dance optimism that Merce is known for. We're aiming to shoot in the fall and have a release in spring 2018.

I wasn't sure that we'd even do a second season, but the state of our world has gotten so crazy! I mean, arts funding is being cut, our national health care has been put in jeopardy, HIV funding is being threatened and the White House even recently referred to people living with HIV as "HIV carriers" -- on National HIV Testing Day, no less! This made me think that a web series like Merce, which shows someone living with HIV and thriving, surrounded by loving family and friends and living unapologetically, is more important than ever. One of the ways we as a community can fight and resist the negativity is with laughter and humor and joy.

So, I'm putting my own cynicism aside, taking a deep breath and donning the spunky rosiness of Merce. If I'm Annie-esque, that's not such a bad thing. I think I'm going to embrace it. Truth be told, I wouldn't mind ending up with Daddy Warbucks. Seriously, he's a hot bald guy with a lot of cash.