Episode 95: Charles Sanchez Is An AIDS Activist Who is Not Sad, Sick, or Dying

Episode 95: Charles Sanchez Is An AIDS Activist Who is Not Sad, Sick, or Dying

Overview

Charles Sanchez is a Mexican-American, gay, HIV+ writer, performer, director and advocate living in New York City. He is one of the co-founders of Skipping Boyz Productions, and conceived, writes and stars in the award-winning musical comedy web series Merce. In 2003, he was diagnosed with AIDS and began his journey to becoming an activist and advocate. He has attended the national AIDSWatch conference in Washington D.C. four times and has been featured in public service videos for the CDC’s “Start Talking. Stop HIV.” campaign, as well as for Remedy Health Media and EverydayHealth.com. He was included in Healthline.com's list of HIV Honors: The Most Influential Voices of 2017, and was honored in POZ Magazine's 2018 POZ 100, celebrating people over 50 making a difference in the fight against HIV and the stigma surrounding it. Sanchez has been a Contributing Editor for TheBody.com since 2017, and has had essays published on PositivelyAware.com, Them.us and HuffPost Queer Voices. In the spring of 2020, he began hosting a live interview show on Instagram for TheBody, called “At Home With”, featuring prominent members of the HIV and LGBTQ+ community.

Takeaway

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Transcript

Charles Sanchez TheBody.com Merce The Series Uninvisible Pod / UP /

Lauren: All right, guys, thank you so much for joining us. I am there today with Charles Sanchez. Charles is a contributing editor at TheBody.com, also creator of musical comedy HIV web series, Merce, and is living with HIV. He’s going to talk to us all about that today. Charles, thank you for joining us! 

Charles:  I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Lauren: Well, as our listeners will know by now, we like to start at the very beginning of a story, and Charles, I was hoping we could start at the beginning of yours … if you could let us know when and how you first realized you had something going on health-wise, how you were diagnosed with HIV, and how you’ve managed your health since that diagnosis?

Charles: Oh, well, I have a very dramatic HIV story. I was living in Little Rock, Arkansas, which is dramatic to begin with! And I was sick with what I thought was a stubborn case of bronchitis. And my roommate came home to find me on the floor blue from lack of oxygen. And she took me to the hospital. I don't remember any of this. She carried me to her car and drove me to the hospital. And the next thing I knew I was waking up with my family all around me. My family is living in Arizona — and they're all in Arkansas, and I'm in the hospital. And I didn't know what the hell happened. The doctor told me then that I had AIDS, and that was my diagnosis. This was in 2003. So I was very shocked.

I had no idea that I was even HIV-positive or that anything was going on like that in my own body. It was pretty scary.

And I had to go from someone who was working three jobs, to now someone who was disabled. Because I had almost died. It was three-and-a-half weeks in the hospital. I got out of the hospital on Thanksgiving Day; it was the best Thanksgiving of my life!

Lauren: I bet.

Charles: My parents moved to Arkansas for a couple of months while I was recovering and figuring things out. So I lived with my parents at 35 years old for a couple of months!

Lauren: That can be a strange experience. I've been there. (laughs)

Charles: But my parents are really great. And they really took great care of me. I'm so grateful and lucky that I have family that loves me and that's really supportive, and has been adaptable through my craziness and through things in my life. They've still loved me through my craziness.

Lauren: They’ve showed up, it sounds like.

Charles: They’ve showed up, and continue to!

Lauren: That's lovely. So how have you taken control of your health since? Has it been a combination of medication, treatments, and lifestyle changes?

Charles: Yes, some of all of that. I started taking medications right away.

I think a lot of people have had scary experiences with doctors, and I don't want to discount that. I have not.

I have had amazing experiences with doctors, and I trust my doctors very, very much. And I always say to people, if you don't trust your doctor, then you need to find another doctor. Because it's your health, it's your life. So yes, I started taking medications right away. My doctor also had said to me at the time … this is still in Arkansas, I live in New York now … but he’d said to me, “Exercise is one of the best things for you across the board. It helps the medication work better, it helps your stress level go down.” Also he had said to me, “Stress is a killer, especially someone living with HIV or any chronic illness. So anything that you can do to manage stress, and to manage that in your life, that's what you need to do.” So I have developed, over time, other stress-relieving things — and they've also changed. Diet has gone up and down. Sometimes I'm really careful about what I eat. And sometimes I'm stuffing my face with brownies and ice cream! 

Lauren: You mean, sometimes you're stuck inside during a global pandemic? (laughs)

Charles: I don’t know what you mean! (laughs) Yeah, I've gained about … well, I've been saying I've gained 10 pounds … I've really gained about 13 pounds in the pandemic.

Lauren: You’re not alone.

Charles: A friend of mine said to me, “We're all going to have to get used to a new esthetic.” 

Lauren: Oh! I like that. (laughs)

Charles: Curvy is in. (laughs)

Lauren: Curvy has always been in! (laughs) Now it's just more in! I love that. It sounds like your family have really showed up for you over the years. Did you find, despite these good relationships with doctors, that you had to rely on them as personal advocates? Or was this a journey to becoming an advocate yourself in your health care?

Charles: Well, I think it's both.

When I was newly diagnosed, I had no friends that I knew of that were living with HIV.

They came out of the woodwork. I had a couple of friends who told me later, “Just so you know, I'm living with HIV, and it's gonna get better. You’re gonna be okay.” And were really encouraging. I didn't know that beforehand. And so I really felt alone. And I relied on, at the time it was the Arkansas AIDS Foundation. They've re-formed and have a new name, and I can't think of what it is right now …

Lauren: We’ll find it. We’ll link to it. 

Charles: They were really incredibly helpful. I think there are community organizations like that across the country that do amazing work. But they were just a place for me to go. And I connected with people there. I did have a caseworker that was really helpful with me, maneuvering things like the healthcare system and things I just had never had any experience with before. And when I moved to New York, the first thing I did was connect with the major AIDS service organization in New York, the Gay Men's Health Crisis, and I got a caseworker right away — just to have a place to connect with. I had therapy there. I really took advantage of them a lot when I first moved back to New York. I don't rely on them so much anymore because I have other resources. I've developed a whole other system and a whole team of people in my life that I check in with regularly. So I don't need that same sort of social support.

Lauren: It’s amazing. To me, this is a great example of these no-profits that are always raising money and doing events and things. This is where the money is going. It's going to create social services and infrastructure for people who are newly diagnosed, which makes this path to treatment and to living a full life so much smoother. And if only we had that in other areas of health care. But how wonderful that you have it. I'm also thinking to myself, as you're telling me the story, this is such a contemporary story of an HIV diagnosis, right? Because 20 years prior, it would have been something completely different.

Charles: Yes, absolutely. And it was, for a lot of people. Even so, for me to have an AIDS diagnosis in 2003 was … that's wasn't really happening. Had I been tested beforehand, they could have caught it earlier and saved me that drama.

But I like a little drama. My higher power knows, I like a little drama.

So he made sure I had what I needed.

Lauren: That’s good! So tell us what is a typical day looking like for you? I know … I ask this question, and there's no such thing as a typical day for many of us. But how are you balancing the demands of work and life, as you are managing potential symptoms and flares?

Charles: Well, the physical symptoms of HIV right now in my life are not as blatant. I don't have skin flare-ups of Kaposi's sarcoma. I don’t have the things that we consider hallmarks of HIV and AIDS from the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the pandemic was really raging, before we had medications. How it affects me now is mostly in fatigue. I'm a person with a lot of energy, but I do get tired and I need to take naps. That’s really my major symptom, besides just the regularity of having to take medications and stuff.

Lauren: So you're very much like many of us other Spoonies who are dealing with fatigue on a day-to-day basis.

Charles: Yes, yes. Also, I forget that it's a symptom. Sometimes I'll find myself, like, oh, why am I so tired? Oh, right, I have this thing. And it can also affect mood and everything else, too, that can contribute to fatigue. We're complex creatures.

Lauren: So true. And it sounds like you had the social services support to actually get mental health care involved from the get-go as well, with your health care plan.

Charles: I did. I took advantage of that a lot. Especially when I first moved back to New York, I was in therapy for several years. Amazing, amazing help. I recommend it to everyone.

I had a friend recently tell me I need to go back in therapy — and I'm not sure how to take that.

Lauren: Well, let's see how this interview goes! (laughs) This can be your beta test! So have you been in situations … this is an invisible condition … have you been confronted and forced to validate or justify the existence of your diagnosis to people who just didn't understand it because they couldn't see it?

Charles: Somewhat. What I tend to get when I tell people … I don’t usually say AIDS, but I will say HIV … my diagnosis was AIDS, and that's my reality. That's just who I am. But when you tell someone that you're living with HIV, you either get a “I had no idea.” They brush it off. Or you get the opposite, which is, “You're so brave!” And I’m, like, no, I'm brave for a lot of things, but not for having HIV.

Lauren: Well, because to you, it's your day-to-day. To them, it’s like this miraculous thing. 

Charles: Right. And like I said, I'm brave for taking a bootcamp class and getting through the whole thing. 

Lauren: (laughs) That is a very brave thing to do, yes. 

Charles: Right? But to be living with HIV and, I guess, managing my condition … I want to stay alive — and I have that thing. So I'm doing the things that I need to do to stay alive.

Lauren: Do you think that idea of you being so brave is also so deeply connected to the stigmas attached with a disease like AIDS? 

Charles: Absolutely.

Lauren: So you're having to deal with that as well when you're confronting people who maybe haven't dealt with anyone before who's HIV-positive, or, you know, just don't understand your personal experience?

Charles: ...

Well, and I think we have this collective scar in our society of the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and what HIV and AIDS looks like.

And there are those images of people who were ravaged by AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and were covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma scars all over their face, and were skinny, like Auschwitz victims. That's really hard to get rid of; that's really hard to battle and say, “Okay, that's not today, that was 30 years ago.” And so I think that's why people say I'm brave. And it's also that they don't know what to say … so that’s a “nice” thing to say.

Lauren: Can we teach people? This is a great teaching moment. What should people say if you meet someone new — be that a practitioner or a friend or otherwise — and it comes out that you have this diagnosis? What should the reaction be, rather than “You're so brave”? What would a more fitting reaction be?

Charles: “Oh, do you want to get a burger?”

Lauren: Yeah. Because it's just your life.

Charles: Right? Because if I have HIV, and I need something from you, I'm going to ask for that.  I have HIV, and I'm raising money for …!  But otherwise, I'm just telling you, just confiding in you or trying to bond with you in a certain way. But yeah, let's go get pancakes.

Lauren: I like this … pancakes on a burger … we're on the same train! So in terms of this, we're touching on the stigmas here … have you also experienced any undue … either prejudice or privilege, either end of the spectrum … within the healthcare system, particularly regarding the way that you present? You're a gay man, you're Latinx. Can you see your circumstances having been different if you presented otherwise —  if you walked into services as a white male or a woman?

Charles: Oh, I think certainly those differences are blatant; I think, yes. I also think I'm very privileged. One of the things that makes me privileged is that I am educated and I'm well-spoken. I'm quick, I can talk to people, I'm friendly. But as far as being Latinx … people say, “No one's prejudiced against you, Charles, because you're not like that.” Well, who am I like?

Lauren: What's that presumption?

Charles: Yeah. I don't know.

I don't know when I've been prejudiced against. I don't always see it.

Lauren: Do you think that's also because the services that were in place when you were diagnosed and the infrastructure that was built there was much more inclusive because it was designed specifically for AIDS patients?

Charles: Absolutely. Absolutely. I remember they were so grateful that people were not dying of AIDS anymore. The health care system in Arkansas was amazing. The nurses and the doctors, they were just amazing. I remember a nurse saying to me, “Wow, we don't see Kaposi’s sarcoma anymore. We don't have an AIDS ward anymore.” They were so grateful that we weren't dying. But I can't even imagine the kind of prejudice a trans person experiences. I can only imagine, I should say, because I can't fathom it. And I can't fathom also the kind of privilege a tall, white, blond-haired, blue-eyed white guy experiences. And I'm sure they have that.

Lauren: Yeah. Would you even go as far as to say that this racial and gender inequality and sexual inequality in the healthcare system is a public health crisis in and of itself?

Charles: Absolutely, because there isn't equality. And it also links to everything; it links to money and poverty and your social network and what your beliefs are. It just includes so much. That's why I believe in universal health care. Yeah, I said it.

Lauren: I love it! I love it. Thank you.

Charles: Because everybody should have the same access to health care. It shouldn't be financial or situational.

Lauren: But do you think universal health care would solve people's inherent biases? 

Charles: Well, no …

Lauren: That would be a separate program of disability, equality and inclusion.

Charles: Yeah, that's something, but it would certainly be a start. If people knew that they could go get an HIV test, and it wasn't going to a certain clinic in a certain neighborhood — and everybody's going to know if I go there. If it's just, no, I'm going to my doctor, I'm getting an HIV test. And no one's gonna know except me and my doctor. What would that do?

Lauren: Would that free us up to actually connect to our health on a deeper level? 

Charles: Right.

Lauren: Beautiful. So talk to us about your advocacy work. I want to know about all the work that you've done, not only creating your series and working as a contributing editor for TheBody.com, but I know you do a lot of your own work as an advocate. So talk to us about your experience going from self-advocacy to advocating for others.

Charles: Well, it's been an evolution, it's been a progress. The first thing I ever did when I was still living in Arkansas … they asked me to be the lone delegate from Arkansas for the AIDSWatch, which is the yearly HIV conference that happens in DC, where advocates talk to members of the Hill.

And it was really frightening and I threw up before I went in.

Lauren: I don't blame you! 

Charles: Because I was so nervous. 

Lauren: It was probably the burger and the pancakes! (laughs)

Charles: Right? It’s the combination!

Lauren: It's just a dangerous combination. 

Charles: But I was nervous. They're wonderful. They give you a lot of information. They tell you what to say, they give you a packet. But I really wanted to do a good job; I'd never done anything like that before. And it was my first taste of doing anything like that. And when I moved to New York, I kind of started everything all over — my social structure … I had friends here, but I really had to start over in everything … find a new doctor and all that kind of stuff. And I started wanting to do performing. So I took a writing class, which led me to start writing my stories — that had social issues in them, because I was telling my truth, I was telling my HIV stories and all those kinds of things. And then I started writing Merce, which is my web series. And then from the web series, people started noticing me and asking me, “Will you write an essay for us?” I think TheBody.com were the first people to ask me to write before they contracted me and they hired me. So that's kind of how I got into the realm and the circles. And then I started making connections and making friends, and just saying ‘yes’ whenever anybody asked me. When the Start Talking. Stop HIV campaign asked me to be part of it, I said, “Yes.” And so I just say ‘yes’.

Lauren: I love that, that idea of saying ‘yes’, and embracing the world instead of running away from it when you're dealing with your own diagnosis — and looking to help others. It's interesting to me that you mentioned that you were given this packet in preparation for going to speak on The Hill. It sounds like infrastructure-wise, again, there were plenty of avenues set up for you to succeed in that work as well, which is wonderful.

Charles: ...

I’ve found that there's a lot of that kind of structure available if we look for it.

There's things like: How do we talk around Black people and Black Lives Matter in HIV situations? Well, there's a group that has already done that. We just have to look for it.

Lauren: Yeah. So it's like every sort of faction of the HIV community is speaking their own truths and talking about their layers of identity really, within that truth. So I know we touched on this idea of universal health care. I want to know from your perspective, as someone who has utilized the health care system here in the US, in what ways is it working, and in what ways does it require improvement?

Charles: Oh, gosh.

Lauren: It’s a loaded question, I know!

Charles: Yeah, that’s a lot.

Lauren: If it wasn’t enough for you to tell us your HIV diagnosis story, let's dig deeper! (laughs)

Charles: Right. (laughs)  How do you feel about global warming?

Lauren: Well, if you'd like to! (laughs)

Charles: Well, just coming from my own perspective, I really do think — and I've learned this as I've talked to other people across the country, in different situations, in different states — how privileged I am and how privileged I have been. When I was put on disability, I was given Medicare, and people were saying, "Oh, I can't get in to see that doctor.” “Oh, really? I got right in. I didn't have a problem because it was covered, because of da da da …” And so that's really interesting, the different levels of insurance — good insurance, and bad insurance, and insurance that doesn't cover this or that. And that so much regular health insurance doesn't cover dental.

Lauren: And why is it so complicated, yeah. Why doesn't it cover dental?

Charles: It's your mouth!

Lauren: It’s your health!

Charles: It’s such a strange thing. So I don't understand how it all works. And I really don't even understand how I'm privileged. Except when things have changed in my situation, and I've had to be, like, “Oh, no, what does that mean?” And I ask people, and someone is telling me, “Oh, you're in the Medicare doughnut hole." Oh, that doesn't sound good. What's that?

Lauren: Yeah, it doesn't sound good!

Charles: Yeah, sounds delicious, but it's not good. So even in my own privilege, I've had to shuffle and figure things out. And then to hear about other people in different states. And especially I think about trans people and the suffering they have to go through to just change their name, let alone get health care and the things that they need for just basic care — let alone their transition or anything else they might have to go through.

It's unfathomable to those of us who don't have to do it.

Lauren: There’s just so many layers of complication. And it sounds like your average person, depending on their level of education, is going to need help just to navigate how-to. And if we need to rely on other people and organizations in order to do that, surely there's a fault with the system if it's not simplified so that everyone can understand it.

Charles: I mean, I imagine it's difficult for everybody, even people who are college-educated. Maybe you are on your parents’ health plan throughout college. You get out of college, and … “Wait a minute, I don't have health insurance anymore.” Maybe you didn't think about it. Why would you? You think you don't need it or whatever, because you're young and gorgeous and whatever.

Lauren: But healthcare is something that we're all going to need at some point, right?

Charles: You don't know when you're gonna need it. 

Lauren: You don’t. The other thing I'm wondering, too … you mentioned going on disability. Because disability is another point of contention, because there are limits on what you can earn, when you're on disability. And there are many who are of the opinion, myself included I’ll admit, that disability is so limiting a person's ability to earn that you're not able to even move up in socio-economic status. You’re capped at a certain line, be that poverty or otherwise, and that can be really difficult as well.

Charles: Yeah, a friend of mine calls it a gilded cage. It is a help for sure. And it is connected with your healthcare and all these other things. If it was just the money, it would be a different matter. But it's money and it's connected with all these other things that keep you healthy … your housing and your food supply, and all that stuff. But yeah, it's incredibly limiting. And while it is a help, the government is not here to help us.

Lauren: Yeah. We could do better.

Charles: Yeah. So I think there needs to be a medium, or a better bridge or something, I think.

Lauren: Absolutely. So I would love it if you could give some tips here to our listeners — someone who maybe they've got an HIV diagnosis or an AIDS diagnosis; maybe they suspect something's off and they haven't been tested yet. What would your Top Three Tips be for someone who's living in the uncertainty of an invisible condition?

Charles: Wow. Well, an HIV diagnosis today is not what it was 30 years ago.

Lauren: So true.

Charles: ...

It is not a death sentence. You can live a full and healthy life living with HIV.

The medications today are miraculous. And there are choices, so that if one medication maybe doesn't work for you, or you have side-effects that you can't handle, then you can switch and you can find another one. And there's also new medications still being developed, which are amazing. So that's the first thing — it's not a death sentence. And if you're afraid about getting tested, I totally understand that. It's scary. Any diagnosis is scary.  To find out you have anything wrong with you, it's going to be a jarring new life. But there are support systems. There's a lot of information. Even from the CDC website, hiv.gov. TheBody.com is a great resource, Pause magazine, HIV Plus Magazine, a+u magazine, Positively Aware. So there's a lot of resources if you just want to go online, and not talk to anybody. And then there's social resources online; everything is happening on Zoom right now. There are meeting support groups happening online that you can connect with. There are people who are willing to talk to you. You can find me really easily online.

Lauren: I did!

Charles: Case in point. And I'm easy, right? I respond!

Lauren: True! 

Charles: Actually, someone wrote to me on Instagram a couple of days ago. It was so lovely, and I feel privileged to be able to be helpful. So reach out; don't be afraid to reach out. I feel like a lot of the advocates that I know, who are on social media and who are doing the kinds of things that I'm doing … we’re all kind of like that. We’re gonna respond to you. If you start getting crazy, we're going to stop responding to you. But in general we want to help. And we're glad you're here.

Lauren: Yeah, I think that's very well said. Give us Top Three Things … one more Top Three list … Top Three Things that give you unbridled joy. I know that you've had to change your lifestyle a bit, right, to manage symptoms, with exercise and managing fatigue. But what are three things that you would always turn to for joy, even if you’re having a fatigue flare, that will comfort you? What are your top three joy items … burgers, pancakes.

Charles: Those are givens. I’m a cookie boy. Also, I love to bake. Which has been a difficult thing in this pandemic because I'll bake a thing of brownies, let's say — frosted usually, with a ganache. 

Lauren: You’re speakin’ my language.

Charles: Then just eat the whole pan. So it's good and it’s bad. It's comforting. And in this time, certainly with all this uncertainty that's happening in the world, you’ve got to take your comfort where you can get it, for sure. I take a samba class online once a week. I started it in person at Alvin Ailey, and then the teacher’s now teaching from Brazil. It’s so cool to be in Rio and teaching from there. I used to be a dancer when I was younger. I stopped dancing for a long time, and I started taking this class just on a whim, and it reminded me of the pure joy of dancing when I didn't feel like I had the pressure to perform. That's what samba gives me. It’s a real joyful, prayerful, earthy dance. That's something that I really love, and I'm an exerciser anyway. I like to work out four or five times a week.

I don't know if that gives me joy, but it certainly gives me a break from the news and from everything that's happening.

Lauren: It gives you an outlet to process stress. 

Charles: Absolutely. And I connect with people. There are some people that I connect with on a daily basis. I talk to my mom at least once a week and I try to do it on FaceTime so I can see her face. And that's a source of comfort and regularity. Like, okay, in this weirdness, she’s still there. I'm still here. We can still talk.

Lauren: You’re showing up for each other. It sounds like you guys have gotten closer and closer.

Charles: In a lot of ways, I think we have, for sure. Is that three things?

Lauren: That is three things. It’s … community, like your people; samba and exercise; and baking. I love it. So what is your ask for listeners today? What can people tuning into this episode do to support you, and the HIV community, in your continued advocacy work?

Charles: Well, my Venmo account …

Lauren: I love it.

Charles: No, I’m kidding. (laughs)

Lauren: Feel free.  

Charles: No, I'd have to claim it and it would be a big drama!

Lauren: Oh, what a mess! 

Charles: This is a big question, too, like that global warming question.

But I think one of the things we need to remember in the world is that we are complex people.

Everybody … except for our President … but everybody else. Very complex. And you can be compassionate and mean in the same breath, and that we have a lot going on. I went to this conference last year called Healthy Voices.

Lauren: Oh, yes, I was supposed to go this year! So hopefully I'll see you in 2021!

Charles: It’s really an amazing conference, because it brings together people from different health disparities. Cancer and epilepsy and schizophrenia. And it really opened up my eyes that there are these other whole groups of people that are all doing the same thing I'm doing in their own avenues. Like, I'm doing it in HIV, but they're doing it in cancer, and they're funny and charming and full human beings. This is hard for me to say, because I don't want to sound … I don't know, like I'm putting somebody down, or that I'm patting someone on my head … but I met these girls who have schizophrenia. And I think it's one of those things that, for me, it was something that was easy to make fun of. Schizophrenia, I don't know, like multiple personality disorder. We don't know that much about it. The things we do know about it are, like, criminals … And these women … I said girls, that was wrong … women … are funny and charming and talented and cool. It blew my mind. And then that made me think, oh, we're all like that. Someone looks at me with HIV that way, with their preconceived thing. And then I talked to them, and was, like, oh … So I guess my ask is, treat everybody like they're a complex human being with thoughts and feelings and emotions and family and love in their life. And if you don't know about something, that's why God made Google.

Lauren: I like that. That's great. So what's next for you in your advocacy and wellness journey?

Charles: I'm thinking I might need a cupcake. That's just today. That's gonna be my reward for this. I don't know, I'm continuing to write for TheBody.com; I've been a contributing editor for them for the past three-and-a-half years, and I'm really proud of that work.

I just started working on a screenplay, that is a love story.

Which if you know me, I'm a little bit bitter. So for me to be writing a love story...! (laughs)

Lauren: You and I have more in common than we know! (laughs)

Charles: It’s a challenge. But I'm doing it on purpose. Because I was, like, wow, I really roll my eyes a lot at love. So let's …

Lauren: Let’s indulge in it. 

Charles: Yeah. The story takes place in 1994. So it's when the AIDS crisis was still happening. That year was the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. And in New York City that year, the Gay Games and Gay Pride and Stonewall was all happening at the same time. So I'm putting this love story in that …

Lauren: … in that atmosphere.

Charles: That atmosphere, yeah. 

Lauren: Wow, that's really exciting. Well, I'm very excited to see where that will land.

Charles: Me too. I'm at the point now where I’m liking the story — which is dangerous, because then I want it to happen.

Lauren: Well, remember that 1994 has already happened. We can make all the events converge again, but we don't need a repeat of the last 25 years necessarily, right?

Charles: No, no, no, it ends. It ends. I already know how it ends.

Lauren: Fantastic. Well, this is very exciting. I know we also left one stone slightly unturned earlier on, before we started the interview, when I was talking about the HIV community, and I mentioned how, when I've reached out to members of the community who are advocates, how open people have been. And it seems like, especially given your experience when you were coming out with being positive, that there are some people who keep it private, and there are some people who are very public about it. But it's okay either way, right?

Charles: Absolutely. I have a big mouth. And that was a choice that I made. I knew that when I was in the hospital in Arkansas, and I was told my diagnosis. And I thought, is this the end? Those are the choices you have to make. Am I gonna give up?

Or can I be that guy, that friend, that funny guy who has HIV and he's fine. And that was my decision.

But if you decide not to be that, that's cool, too. But I think with a lot of people with HIV, we've already had to come out in other ways in our lives — whether that means we came out as gay, or we came out as an addict, or you're trans or whatever, you've already kind of had to go through a process of disclosing a big deal. So this is just another … we’re kind of comfortable … we've already kind of done that before. Even … I have some friends who are a couple, the elusive straight man with HIV.

Lauren: They exist. They’re unicorns and they exist!

Charles: (laughs) But the two that I know, they’re both advocates. And they both have very different stories. And they're both charming and outspoken about their diagnosis. But I think that's the same with any diagnosis — you make a decision about how you want to handle it, and how private you want to be or not, and involved in the community … you want to be or not. And either way, it's a personal decision.

Lauren: Yeah, whatever you decide is okay. I love that. So Charles, can you remind everyone where they can find you and your work?

Charles: Sure! My web series, there's Season 1 and Season 2 of Merce, The Series. It's an HIV-positive musical comedy about a gay guy living in New York who isn't sad, sick or dying. The second season came out in January. So you can find that on MerceTheSeries.com. We’re on Vimeo, we're on YouTube. We're also on OutTV, if you happen to be in Europe and you want to check out OutTV. And you can also find my work as a writer on TheBody.com.

Lauren: Charles, thank you so much for taking the time today to share your story and to walk us through life when you're not sad, sick or dying.

Charles: (laughs) Thank you. Thank you. Also, you can find me on the interwebs; you can find me on Facebook, and I'm on Instagram, and I'm on Twitter. 

Lauren: We’ll link to all of it on the website.

Charles: Great. And if you want to reach out to me, feel free to.

Lauren: I love that. Charles, is there anything else you'd like to share with everyone today?

Charles: Eat something delicious today!

Lauren: I love that. Charles, thank you so much. 

Charles: Oh, wear a mask! Wear a mask! 

Lauren: Wear a mask, because there are people who are, literally, immune-compromised. We need you to do that! 

Charles: Thank you. That would be helpful.

Lauren: That would be really nice. Yep, I'm with you on that one. Wear a mask, everyone. Well, thank you so much for your time and your energy today, Charles. What a joy to meet you and speak with you. And I hope one day we can break brownies together.

Charles: Pancakes, brownies, burgers.

Lauren: You name it. 

Charles: Tacos!

Lauren: Tacos? I mean, I live in LA. 

Charles: Oh, yeah, you get the good tacos out there.

Lauren: I get the good tacos, I do. (laughs) One of these days. Well, thank you so much, Charles.

Charles: You’re welcome. It's my pleasure.

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