For today’s installment of The Totally Frightful Issue, we’re handing the reins over to performative character and all-around nice guy, Jack E. Jett.
While those of you in Australia and Canada may know him from his talk show, Queer Edge, soon everyone can enjoy his eccentric, yet socially conscious humor when he launches his new Internet television channel, FU-TV, on Monday, October 30th on World of Wonder, ManiaTV! and The Akimbo Service.
Before that, however, read his ruminations on the rise of AIDS, how fear helps forge new directions, and how the hell he came up with Jack E. Jett in the first place.
In case you’re too scared to figure it out together, you can find his piece after the jump.
25 Years and Counting
By Jack E. Jett
People always ask me from which demented recess the character Jack E. Jett arose. I rarely tell them, because the story sounds so ultra-drama queen-esque. Regardless, it’s the truth and, like so many truths, requires a bit of reflection, a bit of sorrow, and a whole lot of fear. Consequently, there’s also growth. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselvesâ€¦
It was the summer of 1981 and I had just returned to America after an eight-month stint in Japan. Two of my closest friends, Perry and John, drove to the airport to welcome me back. And, like good friends, they met be with a doobie rolled and ready to imbibe.
Joint aside, I was so glad to be back in Los Angeles; I’d missed the smog, the boys, my buddies and – as I stand at 6’1” – not having to look down at people to speak with them. We sped away from the airport and toward my old life in LA. Prince’s “Controversy” played from the radio as John turned to me and asked, “Have you heard about gay cancer?”
“No,” I waited for a punch line, but guessed it had something to do with those queens who smoke Virginia Slims.
“No, honey, I’m as serious as heart attack, it’s called GRIDS and guys are getting pneumonia, getting skinny and dying. They’re all bottoms.” I breathed a sigh of relief – when it came to anal, I clearly had an exit strategy.
By 1982, GRIDS became AIDS. It had a nicer ring to it – a vowel is so much better for acronyms. Vanity Six was asking, “Do you think I’m a nasty girl?” and I was asking myself if I had been a nasty boy.
The rumors had already begun: everyone who got it had eaten at a certain coffee shop, or it came from 8709, the popular bathhouse. Others claimed Poppers were the reason, or it came from a flight attendant who was having sexual relations with a monkey in Africa.
I became super paranoid. I stopped eating at gay restaurants, gave up my precious 8709 membership, and I began to question flight attendants about their affinity for hairy men.
By June, I had watched four of my friends die of the disease. This was real now. When I walked outside my West Hollywood apartment, I could see the fear and chaos on everyone’s faces. I would see neighbors becoming thinner and thinner. Then, I wouldn’t see them again, as if they just disappeared into thin air. I became an emotional mess, and denial seemed like a viable option, so I went back to Japan.
Believe it or not, I was once young and attractive, which afforded me the opportunity to work as a model in Japan. During my previous excursions, the Japanese twins loved me, and I loved being loved. However, on my return in 1986, I became the pariah. Many gay clubs in the Shinjuku area to Tokyo no longer welcomed this gaijin (foreigner). Instead of being cruised, I was being shunned. Gay plus American equaled AIDS.
In the 80’s, while Huey Lewis was singing about looking for a new drug, the gay community was looking for any drug to save the lives of our friends and our own. In 1987, when AZT came out, and our hopes were high, one could hear the timed beepers going off in a restaurant or supermarket. However, it was too late for Perry, my best friend and roommate of 15 years. Together, we helped care for, and watch 22 of our friends as they slowly and painfully withered away. Then I watched him wither away. I watched him go blind. I watched him die. I watched him be put in a body bag. I watched him get carried out of the apartment we once called home.
The party was over and I was pissed off. Big time.
I joined every group with an A in its acronym, from Aid For Aids to ACT UP. I wrote a list of reasons why I shouldn’t get tested and reasons that I didn’t need to.
When rationalization turned to realization, I got tested. When the results came back positive, the first person I told responded with a piercing, “What did you expect?”
I wanted to either get really drunk or just run. I went to the gym, got on the Stairmaster and just kept going and going. I remember thinking maybe I would have a heart attack and it would all be over.
It was then I remembered that when you die like that, you lose control of your bowels. My ego would not allow me to be carried out of The Sports Connection with shit oozing out of my spandex. This simply was not acceptable.
From that point forward, my life became about numbers, T Cells, T8 Cells, lymphocytes, viral loads, and percentages. Most folks had their blood tested quarterly. I had mine tested monthly. My mood reflected my current labs. I charted everything. If the numbers were good, I was in a great mood. If they were bad, I would be selecting songs for my “celebration of life”. I read everything I could about alternative treatments, medical trials, and the immune system. No matter how much I read, I’m still confounded by this parasite, this virus that lives in my body without paying rent. Somehow, I’ve been forced to incur the cost. To this day, I still cannot wrap my mind around or comprehend HIV and how it manifests itself in my body.
By time I had reached 40, I had lost one friend for every year of my life: Perry, John, Greg, Rock, Michael, Mike, Mark, Chris, three different Ricks, the list goes on… Only I remained.
Coincidentally, my life counted on 40 pills-a-day. With long, funny names, they could have been drag queens or, maybe, a punk band: Lexiva, Invirase, Saquinavir, Agenerase, and, of course, who could forget The Zolofts? Sure, I can personally thank a few selections from this pharmaceutical cornucopia for two artificial hips and acute pancreatitis, but hey, who can complain when they have so many drag queens and punk rockers in your daily life? Of course, we know about the side effects. Just look at the ads. Since taking my first protease, I began rock climbing, snowboarding, and running marathons, while also developing a six pack and perfectly white teeth. Incredible!
Ahâ€¦but I am here. I am alive. I am 50 and have a wonderful husband of 14 years, two amazing dogs, and new fantastic friends. Sure, bitterness and anger comes and goes. Still, from all that pain, loss, and fear, I’ve gained some character and, of course, one particular character: Jack E. Jett.
A bit of Perry’s zaniness, Greg’s quick wit, John’s insatiable curiosity, and Rick’s anxiety, Jack E. Jett acts as a mÃ©lange and memorial to the friends I’ve lost. I’ve stolen bits of their personality. Not only do I mourn their loss, I am sad that we are missing all that they would have contributed. I feel the same for all those 20 million who have been taken away far too early.
We’re all smart enough to know that a cure could have been found if the right political situation existed. If George W. Bush spent half as much on HIV as he did on WMDs, scientists would have the necessary tools to solve the final pieces of the HIV/AIDS puzzle. Who is going to save us? Not Marianne Williamson, not the red ribbon, not the Dalai Lama or even Oprah Winfrey. We need to start kicking some ass again. Where is our new Larry Kramer?
Perhaps fear holds our new leaders in their respective places. The key is to take that fear and shape it into something wonderful.