INTERVIEW BY MARK ALLEN
In 1990, AIDS was still a misunderstood, scary scourge of gay communities everywhere, and contracting HIV was more or less a death sentence. It was also the year that Diseased Pariah News debuted. DPN was the first publication by and for HIV-positive people, and it was definitely the only publication by and for HIV-positive people that was hilarious. As you can probably infer from the title, founders Tom Shearer and Beowulf Thorne (née Jack Foster, aka Danger Penis) were not weepy, spiritual sorts. Life gave them AIDS, so they made Lemon-AIDS.
DPN was crass, satiric, honest, and confrontational right out of the gate, featuring articles with titles like “Top Ten Ways to Avoid Bruises From Sitting With a Bony Ass” and “Which Nutritional Supplement Tastes the Yummiest?” Other highlights included a love-advice column penned by someone named Aunt Kaposi and a series of comfort-food recipes called “Get Fat, Don’t Die!” Want more? There was the illustrated guide “Are You a Serocloseted Republican?” and “The Well-Dressed AIDS Terrorist,” which depicted a tool belt with vials of blood for tactical use. And who can forget “AIDS Barbie” or “Kaposi’s Sarcoma Ken”? There’s never been another gay publication like it.
Tom Shearer died in 1991, in the middle of putting together the second issue. Beowulf Thorne passed away in 1999. Tom Ace, who joined DPN’s editorial team in 1991, continued to run the magazine until its last issue in 1999.
Like a lot of magazines from the 90s, the print-only DPN fell off people’s pre-internet radar after its heyday. Recently, a 29-year-old AIDS-history enthusiast named Tom Leger unearthed copies of the magazine and created an online archive (diseasedpariahnews.com).
Through him, I was finally able to track down Tom Ace, DPN’s sole surviving editor. He’s doin’ fine and living in Colorado, y’all!
Vice: There’s been a lot of response to the new DPN online archive. Why do you think people remember it so fondly?
Tom Ace: I think the impression that people got from our magazine is not something you forget.
What was your target audience?
Gay men like us who were living with HIV and AIDS at the time. Tom Shearer, in the first issue, wrote, “Our editorial policy does not include the concept that AIDS is a Wonderful Learning Opportunity and Spiritual Gift From Above. Or punishment for our Previous Badness.”
Wulf used to say that the magazine was “A combination of Spy and Good Housekeeping, for the HIV set.” From the start, DPN set out to be sensible. We saw AIDS as a disease, and our essential element was humor. We didn’t seek advertising. I used to cite Mad and Consumer Reports as our two main inspirations.
Did putting out a magazine at a time when you could well have been dying make you fearless?
We were incautious about a lot of things. DPN #5 included a flexible phonograph record with songs based on tunes we had no rights to. And Mattel could have taken a dim view of “AIDS Barbie.” We thought, “Who’s going to sue a magazine put out by people who are dying?” No one ever did.
What was some of the best hate mail you guys received?
We were entertained when we’d hear of issues being seized at customs, or when we’d get a note from a prison guard saying why he couldn’t pass DPN on to an inmate who’d bought it. One bookstore wrote to us demanding we publicly apologize and pull all unsold issues from distribution. We had printers refuse us once they saw it. There was an organization in Texas that told us to stop sending them issues, saying that we promoted the kind of “freewheeling” lifestyle that helped cause the whole epidemic. We liked the quote enough at the time that we printed it on the little “sanitized” ribbon that was wrapped around our next issue.
How did the gay community react?
Generally speaking, the responses were encouraging. DPN was entertaining to all my gay friends. At the time I knew a lot of gay men who were HIV-negative, or negative men who were in relationships with positive men. People were fascinated by DPN. There were lots of opinions. If people’s critiques of a particular issue contradicted one another, I knew we’d done a good one.
The “AIDS Barbie” piece you mentioned was very popular.
Another follow-up idea we had that never got off the ground was “AIDS Barbie’s Malibu Dream Hospice.”
Who came up with those?
Those were Wulf’s ideas. He had a good imagination, with a broad set of interests. He knew a lot about biology. Toward the end of his life—Wulf’s main passions were DPN and plants—he landscaped his yard with an eclectic variety of shrubs and trees. He was especially fond of his Stapelias, the flowers of which smell like rotting meat and are pollinated by flies.
What about the Meat Market section, which featured romance ads for guys with HIV? I love the one with the headline that reads “Come Nibble on the Crumbs Left Over From a Bacterial Banquet.” Were you guys responsible for any lifelong romances?
Not that I’m aware of. A guy from a San Francisco-based gay newspaper once pleaded with Wulf to withdraw a personal ad he’d submitted, which bore the headline “This Gun Shoots Death.” It was followed by an explanation that this was his way of telling you he had HIV. Wulf stood his ground and printed it.
Is there anything you regret publishing in DPN?
The compare-and-contrast article we did on poppers is now too pro-drug for my taste. I still think it’s cool that we hired a lab to do chemical analysis on a few different brands, but if I had to do it over again I would’ve been more neutral, if not cautionary, about drug use. To put this into perspective, nitrites were one of the more benign recreational drugs around. This was before Viagra, which is dangerous in combination with poppers.
Why was your mascot a cartoon mouse?
That’s an OncoMouse, a member of the patented string of laboratory rats guaranteed to spontaneously develop cancer at age two or less. They’re nature’s pariahs. We felt sorry for them and decided to elevate them to official mascot status.
You documented the events surrounding the day of your editor Tom Shearer’s death in an almost slapstick-like story [“Darn! One of Our Editors Is Dead!” DPN #3]. I loved when his boyfriend is narrating on the phone to another friend, “He’s dying... he’s dying... OK, he’s dead.” Then events unfold at a bargain-basement crematorium where they “bag ’em, burn ’em, and urn ’em for only $795!” Did all of these things actually happen?
Did you really mix Tom Shearer’s ashes into the ink for DPN #4? That got a lot of attention.
Actually, no. But I do have a Tom Shearer paperweight that Wulf made. It’s a mass of some clear substance with various things embedded in it: a photo of Tom, pieces of his ashes, and an AZT capsule.
Your first contribution to DPN, a fiction piece [“The Second Coming Out” DPN #2], involved an HIV-positive man implying he’d prefer not to practice safe sex. He said, “It’s still not as fun as buttfucking the way God intended it.” What are your thoughts on that now?
I don’t think DPN promoted a freewheeling lifestyle. Far from it, and I think people understood this. DPN implicitly promoted safe sex, and we never promoted barebacking. I hope the tone we projected was that AIDS was a very unpleasant thing, and that HIV infection should always be avoided. We were just more honest with our feelings about doing that. Back in 1987, the county health-department employee who gave me my HIV-positive test result talked with me about adapting to the realities of the disease. I wanted to admit that most people found condoms and restrictions not to their tastes, and that to pretend otherwise was counterproductive. I didn’t think people would respond well to advice that didn’t ring true. Somehow we got on the topic of tasting and swallowing semen. I said that it’s a turn-on for many gay men, and that they would miss it. I told the health-department guy that he should recognize he’s asking them to give up something they want to do. I felt he should admit that safe sex is a sacrifice, but one that’s worth making. He countered that maybe one day someone would develop a synthetic substitute that tastes the same. I swear he said that.
Funny! What do you think of barebacking? It seems like young gay men aren’t as concerned about HIV infection as they used to be.
I don’t get the whole barebacking thing. I tell people that they really don’t want HIV. I’ve been lucky enough to survive for 23 years with it, but even so it has had effects that I can assure you are worth avoiding. This is easier for me to say now at 51 with a much-diminished sex drive, but there is so much to life besides sex. Sex is great, but so is the rest of life. Is there not something to be said for striking a balance? If sex is so important that it outweighs good sense about your health, ask yourself if you’re seeing things in proper perspective.
Did you ever feel that AIDS could be viewed as “sexy”?
No. I never understood the “bug chasing” thing that happened a few years ago—men supposedly looking to intentionally infect themselves—and “seeding,” that whole thing.
What about DPN’s nude centerfolds of HIV-positive men that listed their interests, current T-cell count, and favorite medications and procedures? Or the guy with a g-string made out of syringes? Did you consider those features to be sexy?
Yes! I mean that in the sense both that they were intended to be sexy and that, in my opinion, they succeeded. Some were parody, but even then they were a mix of the two.
What did you think of POZ, the first mainstream lifestyle magazine for HIV-positive people?
POZ debuted around the time of DPN’s third or fourth issue. Honestly, we had no real problem with POZ. We liked it, but it became a natural target. We tossed around the idea of doing a parody of POZ... I remember we thought the title might be AIDZ. But that idea never got off the ground. We did do a parody of those types of pharmaceutical ads, on the back cover of DPN #11. Pharmaceutical ads had a lot of fine print, so we had a lot of fun with that.
What did you think of gay men with AIDS blaming their condition on the Reagan administration, and later the first Bush administration?
Looking back, I think it’s hard to dispute that AIDS got less attention than it should have. If it weren’t concentrated among gay men and IV drug users people would’ve probably paid more attention. A “Let them drop dead” attitude was more commonplace than it is now—in public opinion and among commentators. In that regard, Reagan was more in sync with his time than he would be today. I wouldn’t say we focused on people like Ronald Reagan to the point of scapegoating, but we did fault him and others for having ignored the unfolding crisis. Who did we blame for things? It wasn’t so much blame as much as... going back to Mad magazine, Mad wasn’t into blame, they just commented on the silliness in the world. In my own personal life I never blamed anyone for my HIV infection. We at DPN saw HIV as the main culprit.
Do you miss Tom and Beowulf?
Yes, oh sure. I don’t think a DPN-like magazine was inevitable if they didn’t start one. HIV has taken away many people I’m very fond of. I continue to miss them. Absolutely.
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