Ed. note: YOU MAKE ME FEEL will shift focues every few months or so, going where the conversation needs to go/so we keep it interesting. February begins a series of interviews and art that grapple with HIV/AIDS, how it’s affecting us today and what it’s longstanding effect has created. As with the first six interviews, we’ll be coming at this via intersectional feminism and queer-fuck-shit-up-ness. This first interview was conducted several years ago as part of a project for a class I took at CCSF called “AIDS in America,” taught by Ardel Thomas. If you’re interesting in being featured and/or interviewed for YMMF on this topic, please email email@example.com.
M.K. Cluff is a friend and longtime hairdresser of myself, my mother, and hundreds of other women in San Diego, CA. He took me from bad-black-dye job back to strawberry-blonde without hurting nary a hair on my thirteen-year-old head. He grew up in a Mormom Family in Salt Lake City, UT and came out in the ’60s, telling me that in the 1980s and early ’90s “we [queers] stopped our lives, so to speak, and not put them on hold but came together, very strong, and very commited, because no one, not even family members for some of those people, would even help or financially or medically or physically.”
YOU MAKE ME FEEL #7: An interview with MK Cluff
I’m MK, I am 58 years old. I was born in California, January of 1953, with a lovely little Mormon family. Then we moved to Salt Lake City when my sisters became of marrying age– no Mormons in L.A., only Jorges and Juans. I then spent the next 18 years of my life trying to get right so I could leave Salt Lake. Graduated the University of Utah with a theater/music degree and a minor in psychology, and moved to Virginia to get away from Mormondom, and the fact that being a homosexual and Mormon doesn’t get along well. Spent 18 wonderful years there absolutely living it up- from New York down to Florida and places in between. Had a change of life at 38 and decided I wanted to come back to San Diego and I’ve been here for 21 years.
Honestly, from the earliest of ages I had an attraction to men, and it wasn’t so much of a camaraderie or good buddy system– I physically was attracted and aroused mentally, as well as sexually, I would say as early as 6, 7, 8. I know I spent a lot of time looking at crotches, hoping to see another penis, that’s for sure! You of course don’t want to accept that, so I spent middle school frustrated because I wanted to have a girlfriend like everyone else but the only thing I was attracted to were boys at gym, or after hours. I had a minor sexual experience when I was in sixth grade with a friend Jamie and we did everything from masturbate, masturbate each other- we even did a little penetration, experimentation, in the sixth grade. I was kind of young, I’ve always been highly sexual (laughing). Then again, being in the Mormon faith, family and friends always telling you what you should be or shouldn’t be, I was bullied, I was picked on, I was called “faggot” and “femme” from almost as early as I can remember. Finally in high school I thought and accepted that I was homosexual, but it wasn’t ‘til my first year of college, 17, 18, that I actually had my first physical encounter. Up ‘til then I was pretty sheltered…I actually had a friend through high school and college that when I finally came out denounced me and eventually came back east to tell me that he was gay and I wasn’t in a place to listen to that…anyway, so my first homosexual physical activity was when I was about 17. The guy was 38- we always refer to that as our “mother” or “bringing-outer.” I thought it was amazing, I thought it was wonderful, and then immediately left the next morning and went back in the closet with denial. But, pretty well by then I was out and gay. I spent 2, 3 days absolutely bawling my eyes out with the realization that I was abnormal for society’s standards. It was really hard- you don’t want to be abnormal, you don’t want to be disliked, you don’t want to be chastised, verbally and physically hit, abused, outcast. I mean, I know there’s that realization where you just have to be honest with yourself and that’s about 16 or 17.
Believe it or not I’ve never been to a bath house– I’m one of the few people. Actually, the first time I heard or experienced or talked to anyone about AIDS was the guy that brought me out. He had just moved back from San Francisco- that would’ve been ‘70, ‘71. He didn’t necessarily call it AIDS at the time. He just said that there was an illness- as you say, gay cancer– and actually his partner had become ill with it. And I didn’t know anything at that time. So he came back to Salt Lake feeling that he would be safe and out of the gay fold of San Francisco. So, interestingly enough, he talked about it very briefly but at that point no friends of his had died or anything, because they had just still considered it an odd disease or a gay cancer disease. But I don’t even know if he even referred to it as gay cancer at that time– I think he just said that his friends had been ill in something that the medical field had no idea what it was.
After Mee and I split up and I started intermingling with college life and sexuality. You’ve gotta remember, that was the back end of the sexual revolution, pretty well free and open and absolutely fabulous. I think I honestly– and I guess we can all say this– lived through part of the best teen and early 20s generation. It was very open sex– the hard part was finding places in Salt Lake to go party. I mean there were gay places and gay bars but they weren’t necessarily called that. But everything was very much open, it was very much partying, it was very much you’d go to the bar and meet someone and go somewhere and have sex– that could be in the park, could be behind the dumpster, could be in their apartment, and then you actually just go back to the bar and start it all over again and just…drink, and drugs, and sex and…. then all of a sudden, when they started calling it AIDS/HIV, or a gay cancer beyond that, people got very, very funny. It was trying to educate the whole community about safe sex. It got to the point where people masturbated each other or kissed each other but there was no penetration for fear of sharing the semen. And back then they weren’t even sure about spit, after the news came out. So it went from absolutely very free and open and one person after another person after another person– it wasn’t consciously known that you were out to lay everyone in town, but pretty much everyone was out to lay every one in town– and then at the first initial fear of AIDS everyone just kind of stepped back. It was very frightening. And it was hard to get acclimated to a sexual prowess of protecting yourself, protecting your partner, to remember to put a condom on, or in the early ages to do a blowjob with a condom on. And you know, no man likes a condom, straight or gay, by the way, because it does take away. Then of course we learned various techniques…so, I think definitely for, I’ll say at least a good decade that I’m aware of, it slowed people down from sexual prowess. It was still there, but it was a lot more selective, it was a lot more frightening. I mean, there was a point where sex was just part of breathing, eating and sleeping, and you could not get enough of it, to almost fear of touching someone else for fear that you would catch that horrible, heinous disease that was a death sentence. I mean, it was automatically a death sentence at the time.
I owned a salon back east and as you can guess I would say half of my staff were gay. That would’ve been ‘81, ‘82. One of my workers was very much a community activist. He was out going to hospitals, volunteering to wander streets and bars and pubs, parks, anywhere someone would be looking for sex, and trying to pass out condoms and made them aware of safe sex. But I remember a couple of my staff members, and I’m going to say about ‘81, brought in a friend or two and cut their hair, and they were definitely in some form of AIDS. They were very gaunt, very emaciated. And I remember looking at that person and I was absolutely frightened. I mean, I think that was the first time no matter what news I’d seen or documentary I’d heard or gone to the community center and learned about safe sex, that was the first time I think that I’d stared at it face to face. And it scared me to the core of my being. It was really, really life altering. But I remember trying to be compassionate and…the stylist was very kind, cut this kid’s hair, he left and I remember the next client to come in laid back and the first thing she said is, “I want to make sure you bleach that sink. I don’t want to catch AIDS.” Another stylist in the room, I remember, turned on their heels and said, “You know, as awful as that disease is it’s a sensitive virus, and the moment it would’ve been on the bowl it would’ve been dead.” But I just remember that, being just heinous. In the beginning I was frightened. I mean I was very scared of AIDS, as we all were, because we were all very promiscuous. There was no concern for safety. It was all about the pleasure of love and sex. I remember from there on out various times we would have clients in with the disease and it just seemed to be debilitating. And it was hard because ignorance is something that is ugly and you try to be kind and understanding and teach the ignorant about the disease- at that time we knew so little about it. But that was my first encounter and that was pretty– pretty real, that was pretty scary.
You know it was hard, not that homosexual isn’t that much more accepted today, it is, but back then it was definitely a curse. And it wasn’t something that openly any government agency or educational agency was helping us with. So as a community we really had to come together and start educating each other- on the disease, on the prevention of the disease. It was hard because the younger you were the more immortal you were and the less you wanted to listen, and the older you were you were just poignantly trying to explain to these people that this is how, how you keep your lives. Honestly it was more word of mouth, you started going to the bars and discos and there were condoms on the counter, people were in there talking to people about it. There was all kinds of newsletters and the gay rags- Gay & Lesbian Times- any local thing had information on it, for those that would talk about it. In the beginning it was more word of mouth, reading a gay rag and one trying to teach another, or pulling someone aside- it got the point where you still met people that weren’t interested in safe sex or protection. Different cities had different community centers and different communities, so I would think in a larger city there would’ve been more resources. At that time I was in Norfolk, VA, and even though it was a military town, the military kids you came across actually, tricks and such, knew more about it and more about the safe sex practice than most people you picked up at a bar. In New York it was rampant but by the time I started partying and carousing in New York we had lost enough and heard enough and were helping enough. But remember we had to become our own salvation civilization. We had to really look out for each other. You know Reagan put us back a whole decade (crying) because he refused to help and pay for research. And I lost page after page of friends.
When we finally, as a community I guess, realized that we ourselves were gonna be the only ones to help and do for, as the government and most of the health profession really did not want to deal with it. It was amazing how we came together as a community and how friends would tell friends, we would take turns going by and changing linens, throw them away, wiping their asses and putting them back in a diaper and trying to feed them. I remember most people saying that food was the hardest thing (crying)- that’s, eventually things like Mama’s Kitchen here. Literally we stopped our lives, so to speak, and not put them on hold but came together, very strong, and very commited, because no one, not even family members for some of those people, would even help or financially or medically or physically. And it was just very sad to see. So in the circle of friends, as everyone at that point was touched by one two or five or ten or twelve people you knew, you just took turns offering your help, assistance. You literally became health care provider, companions, you became housekeeping, you became cook, bottle washer- it was actually some very amazing times and it’s at those times you realize who loves you and who does not. I remember a lot of times personally, because I was such a workaholic, that I gave money to friends to help a friend or two buy a sheet or two, give ‘em a doctor’s visit or give them a ride or whatever. It wasn’t actually, I’m ashamed to say, until later in the ‘80s that I actually physically got truly involved with helping. I actually lived with two friends that were dying of AIDS-related, via cancer, watching them dwindle away, watching them sick, watching them vomiting, watching them go through the early stages of drugs. I can’t even remember that first one, which did absolutely no good for anybody. It was just heinous. Most of us got together two and three at a time to get the money together to buy the pills because a lot of time the insurance companies didn’t even offer it. Being Alive organizations or community outreach programs helped with some of the medications. Back then there was so little of them, so few of them. You literally became that person’s mother, father, brother, lover, nurse, doctor, chauffer. I don’t know how else to explain it.
You had demonstrators, mostly at pride parades. Political assemblies. The problem with the gay community, as much as we came together to help in the beginning with the early AIDS/HIV, we weren’t as well organized as most of us would’ve hoped later in life. I know there was a lot of anger, I had several friends that their whole obituaries were nothing more than a protest of the lack of government involvement and the fact that Reagan literally signed their death wish because he did nothing towards at least starting research, starting development, starting something to help fight this awful disease. Most of us were either oblivious to the political ramifications and those that weren’t were at the front door trying to push and shove and create organizations. We did it as low as mayors and city council and fought with them and if that worked we moved up to regional, state. Very rarely did I even hear about national rallies, protests. It was hard then especiallymost people, it was such a taboo and such a hands off situation that few politicians were willing to take up our cause. We literally had to beg and pray for medical science and research to start on our behalf. Politically, we were all angry but I don’t know if anyone could’ve, at that time, with so little we knew been able to manifest a political solution to it other than the fact that the delay in research and in governmental help for some of these people that were literally dying in front of us with no support, no research, no medications, no help.
Sadly enough in the beginning fewer got tested than got- it just, most people were in denial, most people did not want to know whether they were HIV– honestly a lot of people knew they were HIV and had not gotten the test and didn’t want to get the test in order to know. I had a couple of friends that were very active in the community and were always pushing people to get it, but I cannot tell you anyone at that point, in the early ‘80s, that actually ran to any type of a county, or a doctor, or even a gay community [center] to have any type of draw or blood test or whatever. I would say in the early stages, roughly one or two of my friends in a circle of 25 or 30 actually got tested. Half of them thought they had AIDS and the other half just did not want to know. The scary part was that even those that knew still went out and practiced unsafe sex, even though you continued to- it was their anger for being infected, and they just wanted everyone else they know to be infected too because they just didn’t think it was fair. And sadly I knew a lot of people with that mindset at the time. I don’t think, honestly, it was ‘til the community got strong enough in the late ‘80s before truly testing became, I think, nationally widespread and something most of ‘em did. Now they of course, 20 years ago did it anonymously, you could go in, draw the blood, you had a number you called the next day or week and found out the results of the test. In the beginning I would say few did it and few wanted to know. I remember the first time I went in and you know, it is one of those things where you just- they take your blood and then everything is so real because you’re in your head and you’re frightened you have it but you’re confident you don’t but at the same time wait I have a friend that did and I’ve actually been to bed with one or two that did and what was my possibility? And you know you literally can’t sleep, can’t eat, you beat yourself up. And then when you call and get the results you’re absolutely relieved. That this time they say negative but remember back then they were still saying dormantly it could stay in you for a decade or so. So, then you had a whole decade to think about and I think a very small fraction of people continued to get tested on a regular basis. And then I remember about 15 years ago, could’ve been longer- I don’t think so- the campaign about being open and discuss with your sexual partner or who you’re with your HIV status. But I’ll tell you , from there I had actually gone to bed with a couple people that never confessed their HIV status and later I found out died. But because I was so diligent thanks to my…it was condom or it wasn’t, that’s how it worked. It was clean or it wasn’t. and that’s just how it worked. I remember, I just…it wasn’t…as good a times as it was, it was darkest and scariest of times as well because something as simple as fun and sex had become this ugly, ugly life-altering nightmare of you’re gonna die. And if you get it at that time, in the early ‘80s, it was pretty well a death sentence in the next year or two.
I remember when I first heard about AIDS and the ramifications of the disease, I remember it pretty well stopped me from carousing and cruising and picking up, for a good six months or so. I was absolutely frightened of anyone, sexually. I remember that aspect of it. And I remember thinking, oh god why did this happen? It was just so wonderful before, just flesh to flesh and kiss to kiss and there was no plastic or latex or rubber in between the two of you. It seemed to set you back. And I was frightened, I gotta admit, I was absolutely frightened, and it actually slowed down my promiscuity quite a bit. Because I asked people, it wasn’t a point where you could just say, well let’s go get tested and then we’ll talk about it later, like, I think today it’s a little more convenient.
I remember the early theories- everyone was trying to think about how, where, what, you know, it was the gay disease, it was the gay cancer, it was God’s punishment for being homosexual, I remember all those things. I remember the theory about our government had blown it onto the coast of San Francisco and that’s what spread it but why did only the homosexuals seem to be plagued with it. I remember the theories of people screwing monkeys and it being transported from monkeys. And I remember a story or two about back in maybe ‘60s, could’ve been as early as ‘50s, a sailor or two happening into a place and they later realized it was actually AIDS/HIV at the time. I remember it, it changed me. It changed me from being the carefree, happy homosexual to being frightened but it also awakened my sense of nurture and help. I didn’t like that it changed my life entirely, I didn’t like that it changed my friends entirely, I didn’t like that it changed my whole world.
And you know what, to this day at 58 it has still changed my whole world. For the most part, today, my circle of friends, I will honestly say, has pretty well all died from AIDS or AIDS-related diseases. (crying) The only friends I have now other than one back east, are my friends I’ve met here and my circle isn’t that big. But I, I cannot begin to tell you how going through an address book, or thinking of a friend, or having someone call to discuss their brother who was a friend of mine or a partner of mine and now crossed over and dead because of the disease. And then you wonder why, why weren’t things moved ahead. I lost quite a few friends even at that brink between just the AZT and the protease inhibitors, to the cocktails they have today, which can actually keep people alive for 20, 25 years. I’ve talked to people that have survived at least 20 or 25 years. They might not be in the best of shape or the best of health but they’re still here. It’s hard to realize that your whole world can be taken away from you on ignorance, intolerance, hatred, it just…I pretty well lost my whole world of friends. I did. Even when I moved here I was actually introduced to some people and three of them have died since I moved here. You know, you spend a lot of time helping people, once you know their diagnosis then you take into consideration their short spans of life and what can you do. I remember taking a friend once down the end of OB [Ocean Beach] pier (crying), and he was gonna die any day. I just watched him look over and I tried to imagine what he’d be thinking. That life, what he was looking at- he grew up in OB- and just try to empathize and be compassionate…why someone so young and virile could be taken away on such hatred and ignorance? I don’t know what else I can say.
Pride today kind of is the same idea…we actually got the point where we could rally, or try to convince people from Norfolk to go to New York, or if we were demonstrating in Florida for us to go down there. You know that was the Anita Bryant thing too, the beginning of that, and we were trying to deal with that and get recognized and try to become a powerful organization. And it was amazing because in New York there was no want for demonstrators. I mean we could get as many people as possible but it still, other than being on the news, nobody really listened to it. But it was interesting because then you found that as communities far apart or state-to-state we actually started communicating and working together a little bit more on, let’s get our voice heard on this, let’s at least start demonstrating this, let’s start showing them that we are here, we’re not going away, and we want the respect and the help that we need. It was pretty amazing…New York was incredible because I remember one time just looking out and it just a sea of people, I mean the street was just absolutely full and it was all around Central Park and it was just, unbelievable. It was just unbelievable that people would actually come out and say, this is who I am and we’re tired of the way things are going, and you need to start listening to us or at least start helping us because we have exhausted our own community.
I get to the university and we have a little bit of an orientation for 20 minutes or so and then I go into this auditorium and it’s empty and it probably could house 300 people. And I’m thinking, oh my god, what have I done! And all she [the teacher] asked me to do was to identify myself, tell them about my lifestyle, and then it was going to be an hour and a half of questions and answers. So I’m sitting there watching this room be engulfed by all these college students. Now first of all we’re at a church school, so I’m thinking wow, this is beyond and unbelievable. Anyway, she gets up and starts the class and introduces me and I say, hello my name is MK Cluff and I am a homosexual. And I didn’t have to say any more than that and hands started raising and of course in the line of questioning they asked me how it felt, why did I think I was, what made me diff from a regular heterosexual man. It was interesting because at the time I was in a relationship with someone who had been married with child, and was now gay, and so then came in the questions about our relationship: how did the child, or the ex-wife affect the relationship. And I said well you have to be an adult enough to love enough to let go, and I never interfered with him and his child, or his wife, because that was not my territory at all. And I even asked him not to ask me any questions because no matter what I said it would be the wrong question. But then I spent what seemed like 3 minutes but was an hour and a half with them asking me everything from sexual positions, particularly how to peruse and find another gay person- yeah well, these are things that most people didn’t know at the time. This was about ‘83 and it was at Wesleyan College. And I remember thinking, good for me. Good for me to stand up- and you know what? The interesting thing was, is I, after the initial fear of saying hi my name is MK and I’m a homosexual, everything was very comfortable after that. It was a very adult situation. The questions were genuine and sincere from everyone. No one threw a “fag” comment in, or a little mockery. They were all genuinely curious. And I felt good when I left because it was like a one-on-one conversation with 300 people. But I felt like I had done some good, that I explained that I am human, that I am not a freak. That I have a partner, and we live a basically, a quoteunquote normal life. Interesting though never once did they ask about AIDS, or any of the diseases associated with homosexual lifestyle. They ask about top and bottom situation, they ask about how is it done? What is the relationship like at home, is there a wife or a husband…interesting stuff like that. They of course asked me about Larry, what would happen if the child moved into the home, how would that affect…but they never once asked me anything about me or my friends or anything about AIDS. Other than that I felt really good about it because I felt like I’d given them a little bit more window look into the gay lifestyle. And I felt pretty good about that.