Yes, 2020 has been a nightmare, but for HIV longtime survivor and online celeb Mark S. King, author of the My Fabulous Disease blog, it was also a really good year. He was not only named the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association’s Journalist of the Year, he also won the 2020 GLAAD Award for Outstanding Blog and was named one of 2020’s “Out 100” by Out magazine.
And guess what? On Dec. 23, King—who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 at age 24 and never thought he’d live this long—turns 60! But when COVID quashed plans for a big IRL birthday blowout, King decided to turn to the internet for a party celebrating not just his own survival but that of all HIV long-term survivors everywhere. The evening of Dec. 16, he—along with beloved TheBody contributors Charles Sanchez and Olivia Ford—will be hosting Mark S. King’s 60th Birthday Bash, a virtual fundraiser for the HIV longtime survivors’ network The Reunion Project (you don’t have to donate to watch along—but do register at this link.) It’ll be studded with prerecorded appearances from megacelebs including Elton John and fellow HIV longtimer and Olympic swimmer Greg Louganis, as well as more grassroots icons living with HIV, such as Los Angeles–based singer Sherri Lewis and Philly activist Waheedah Shabazz-El. And after the highly produced “party,” which will livestream on Facebook, all are welcome at the Zoom “afterparty.”
TheBody chatted with King, currently in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, about what it means for someone diagnosed with a death sentence 35 years ago to make it to 60, what inspired his bash (which he says has already raised $17,000 for The Reunion Project), and what he hopes the HIV community will get out of the event.
Tim Murphy: Hi, Mark! Your virtual 60th bash is shaping up to be the HIV community’s equivalent of the Met Gala. It’s Dec. 16, but your actual birthday is two days before Christmas, correct?
Mark S. King: Yes. These “zero” (at the end) birthdays are a bitch, but the problematic birthdays are really the 9s, because that’s the end of the line for a decade. All year, I’ve been telling people I’m 60 so I can get used to the idea. It’s a good strategy—until they don’t express surprise, they just nod and continue with the conversation.
Murphy: There is nothing worse than not getting a “No, you’re not!” when you’re fishing for one, eh?
King: But I think that this birthday, more than any other, illustrates that not only have I gone on to live a normal lifespan, but that I’m plowing through the latter stages of it.
Murphy: True, but 60 is also, like, the toddler years of being a senior. Summarize each of your life decades up to this point from the 1980s.
King: My 20s were terrifying. They reconstructed everything I believed about what life held. All my expectations were obliterated. I was a 24-year-old frivolous consumer of all that was gay culture and values, which meant fabulous hair and a convertible and sashaying into the disco. But then it went from tea dances to town halls, from the pursuit of money to addressing something that was killing us all. It was all about growth and maturity. How many people at age 24 have to consider why they are here? Why is this happening? Is there a God?
My 30s was defiance in the face of the unknown. I left LA and took a job to lead an AIDS agency in Atlanta before there was combo therapy. My 40s were the whiplash of actually being alive when I didn’t think I would be. Survivor guilt kicked in in a delayed way. I was a little lost, and my drug addiction happened. A lot of those years, I was M.I.A. I think it was a delayed reaction to trauma. And my 50s was coming into my own, having the confidence based on science that I was in fact going to be OK, and having the maturity to make good decisions and forgive myself for surviving and going for it. Anyone who’s met me knows that there’s an adolescent bursting out of me still—a hopeful, happy, silly guy. I’m so glad I haven’t lost that.
Murphy: What has the past year specifically been like for you?
King: As someone who loves a trophy as much as the next guy, all the awards have been ridiculous—almost embarrassing! But I’m also disappointed that I didn’t get to walk one goddamn red carpet for all those awards! Was this to teach me humility? But more importantly, I’ve learned that it’s not all about me. I’ve taken my platform and spotlighted the voices of others, writing about Charles Sanchez’s online show Merce, or about the Positive Women’s Network, which is hands-down the best advocacy organization in the country. I get to be a fan of other people’s work and lift them up.
Murphy: So cool. How did the idea for an online 60th birthday bash come about?
King: Pre-COVID, my husband had planned some big thing for my 60th involving family members flying in. But then with COVID, he had to tell me that he’d had something planned but canceled it. So I thought, “Hey, let’s do a virtual event and make it all about long-term survivors.” I actually called Sean [Strub, founder of POZ magazine] and Oriol [Gutierrez, current editor of POZ] and asked, “Can I get away with this? Am I a big enough name to throw myself a birthday party and try to get celebs to come?” Even for a media whore like me, that was still a step beyond. And Sean and Oriol both basically said, “If anyone can get away with this, you can, because self-aggrandizement is really part of your brand.” And then everyone I asked to be involved, such as the producer and the video editor, all said yes.
Murphy: Everyone got on board. So what should we expect from the event?
King: No PowerPoint, no lectures, and no crying. This is truly something joyful. It’s about all of us hitting major life milestones that we once thought were impossible, which is something to celebrate. So it’s going to include [prerecorded] appearances by Broadway star Javier Muñoz, singing “The Story of Tonight” from Hamilton. We’ll have Greg Louganis, Elton John. Charles Sanchez and I will be live, in this very fabulous birthday environment, and there will literally be a doorbell ringing and then, “Oh my God, it’s Greg Louganis!” Or, “Oh my God, Waheedah!” And Sherri will be singing “Being Alive.”
We’ll have a three-minute montage of videos of 38 people wishing me happy birthday: Paul Kawata [from NMAC], Jesse Milan, Jr. [from AIDS United], Pennsylvania congressman Brian Sims—but also regular folks, frontline longtime survivors who are doing the work on the ground.
I’d also add that we know that this joy and celebration exists in a world filled with inequities, and that not everyone has been privileged enough to enjoy the kind of longevity that I and others have, and that that job remains to be done. This party would be absurd if it did not recognize that these outcomes have not been evenly distributed across our community. It’ll be an hour long.
Murphy: And there is even a Zoom afterparty?
King: Yes, where everyone can crowd in and get to be seen. It’ll be a wonderful train wreck and one of the few times this awful year where we’re not all in little boxes for another webinar on HIV and COVID, but instead laughing and waving at each other.
Murphy: Mark, what do you hope folks will take away from the event?
King: That we still have the ability as human beings to find joy. That we can still eke out a storyline even in a year like this, because that’s the kind of creatures we are. But that there’s still stuff left to do.
Murphy: What are your goals for 2021?
King: It’s going to be such a year of repair. We know that the populations most vulnerable to HIV are similar to those for COVID, and we know why—and we have to repair that. Otherwise, I’m exhausted from the suspense of the political season, so I’m going to self-isolate around my Christmas tree then nap until about April. And when I get up, it’ll be to start the repair we need in this country.
Murphy: And for the next decade?
King: To enjoy my husband and feel as if I’m doing what I was meant to do. And to see you all in 10 years for my 70th birthday, and we’ll trot out Elton one more time!
Murphy: I love that. Who’s your 60-something spirit animal?
King: Greg Louganis. He turned 60 this year, and you can still bounce a quarter off of his abs.