Comedian Kenny Shults gets historical, emotional, and, of course, funny—about some very difficult and controversial topics.
Kenny Shults, the comedian, does stand-up in New York City and elsewhere. And that’s the first way people tend to connect with him…”wow, he’s funny.” But the humor comes out of what we like best here at The Good Men Project — the ability to glean insights from deep within ones soul, by looking at things honestly and saying what others are afraid to say. But the other side of Kenny is one you don’t always see in people who specialize in being funny (because damn, that’s difficult and time-consuming all by itself) — is that Kenny first and foremost specializes in public health and behavior-change program development surrounding a variety of at-risk populations, including adolescents, men who have sex with men (MSM), intravenous drug users (IDU), homeless and runaway teens, and trans populations. He has also developed many programatic initiatives that teach consequential thinking, problem solving skills, and self confidence. Savas Abadsidis talked with Kenny at length about his work in HIV Prevention, his thoughts on circumcision, and how he looks at straight guys.
How did you get involved in HIV Prevention?
When I was in my early 20’s I was living in Austin and waiting tables at a popular Tex Mex restaurant called Trudy’s. I had only come out a few years before in a small, very conservative south TX town called Corpus Christi, so when I got to Austin I felt incredibly liberated. I started going to a place called Out Youth Austin—it provided a drop in center and support services for gay youth. It was an amazing place and I feel so grateful for that opportunity. Out Youth was tiny and always struggling. Funding came largely from donations, for which the seemingly always-exhausted Executive Director was perennially on the hunt. I think a small portion of their funding came from the local AIDS prevention organization, AIDS Services of Austin.
I was thrilled by the work they were doing, not only because I benefited from it directly, but also because the work itself was fascinating. The idea that there was work and a career to be found in addressing the needs of the oppressed was mind-blowing.
I was raised super-poor in the projects of New Orleans and barely made it out of poverty. I leveraged my personality to make what I thought was a fortune waiting tables; a profession I always thought interesting and got around the conventional, hourly-rate approach to making a living. It was beautifully meritocratic because as long as you were funny (and correctly got people the food they ordered) you could really clean up. And I did.
But the idea that I could make my living combating social ills like homophobia was a game-changer. I started volunteering. Soon I was helping Out Youth to build a homeless youth effort called Project PHASE which met the needs of gay street kids who were at greater risk for getting HIV because of their circumstances as well as their participation in survival sex—the exchange of sex for food or a place to stay. Project PHASE took off and received funding and I was hired to be the part time HIV health educator, demonstrating how to clean needles and put on condoms properly. A position at AIDS Services of Austin as the “Gay Community Educator” became available and I was asked to interview.
I was 22 at the time and couldn’t really understand why I was being considered for the position. I still felt like a
kid, only had a few community college classes under my belt, and had little to offer but a bevy of raw passion. It seemed like an elaborate practical joke. I remember during the interview I panicked and froze. It felt like an hour, but the interviewees just sat there patiently looking at me with respect, waiting to hear my answer. I considered walking out at that moment, but in truth I think the only reason I didn’t was out of fear of further humiliation. So I came up with an answer that must have satisfied them as they offered me the job the very next day.
I quit waiting tables and took my dream job, which paid 19k a year. This was an incomprehensible figure. I thought I was finally rich beyond my wildest. I was elated. But also terrified. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. And I was charged with developing my own HIV-prevention program targeted to gay men in Austin!
I remember one day, soon after I started, furtively taking a photocopy of the job description and breaking down the bulleted list of job responsibilities. I went through each of them one by one looking up words I didn’t know, trying to get my head around what they meant, and listing as many activities as I could think of that related to the fulfillment of that duty. “Fake it till you make it”, as they say. My fear that I was an idiot who had somehow conned these people into hiring me into this big-money job drove me to do the job well in order to fool everyone around me. Ironically, this yielded some pretty innovative approaches to working with gay men around HIV, even by today’s standards.
Early on in the job, I stumbled upon a video cassette on which was an interview with Walt Odets, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley who also happened to be the son of famous playwright Clifford Odets (though at the time I had no idea who that was). In the interview Walt discussed gay sex, and the value of fluid exchange, and the respect we need to give gay men and their sex lives if we are to inspire them to protect themselves. He also discussed something extremely controversial—addressing the needs of HIV-NEGATIVE gay men who were suffering from PTSD and using drugs and alcohol to create opportunities to escape their fear. In the early 90’s talking about the needs of negatives was tantamount to telling people with AIDS to go fuck themselves. The stigma was absolutely palpable—it took Reagan 7 fucking years to even mention the epidemic, so early AIDS activists were consumed by the seemingly Sisyphean task of making sure people with AIDS were looked after, cared for, and provided with vital services. Mentioning negative gay men was not kosher. So I (of course) started a support group for HIV negative gay men.
It was interesting because gay men flocked to the groups, desperate to discuss their fears and struggles. I also got all kinds of terrifying calls from AIDS activists and others threatening me and calling me an awful person for what I was doing.
One day a bath house opened in Austin and the public health community went nuts. Most people wanted to shut it down and thought it appalling that such a venture would dare open its doors at time when people were still dying in horribly large numbers. But I saw it as an opportunity, to engage with gay men and to provide them with a space where they could have sex safely and without fear of being arrested. The anonymous sex scene in Austin was the primary outlet for many closeted gay men—of which there were a profoundly large number in Texas—and public parks, public restrooms, rest stops, and porn shops were a regular part of most gay men’s lives.
One night as I pulled up to the bath house with a backpack full of condoms I was approached by a gang of men. I thought to myself, well here it is, here’s where I get stabbed and beaten and called faggot and die—in a parking lot of a fucking bath house. Bizarrely this was not a group of frat boys or drunk cowboys, it was a gang of HIV-positive men who had been waiting for me to arrive so they could yell at me and threaten me for “siding with” the bath house. One of those men was the Executive Director of the local Latino-serving AIDS service organization—a colleague—and was the most angry. He told me that he got infected at a bath house and that he would see that place closed down if it was the last thing he did. He got his wish.
This sort of thing motivated me even more. Right around that time Walt Odets wrote a book about the plight of the negative man and I clung to it it like a bible. I started to advocate for a distinction between primary and secondary prevention—that is, the separation of behavior-change messaging directed at positive men and negative men. At the time messaging to gay men did not distinguish between positives and negatives—because it was seen as an affront to do so—but this made the messaging useless. “Protect Yourself and Others” was a popular message at the time. But when you really start to unpack this statement it does very little to motivate anyone. What’s more, what if I don’t have HIV? What then? This was never mentioned, we were just told to “assume everyone has it.”
Telling gay men to assume all their partners have HIV was not a good strategy. The psychological effects of such a notion aside, this just wasn’t the case and it exaggerated people’s idea of their susceptibility to the virus. No one ever said “hey, it’s actually not only possible, but pretty darn easy to survive this epidemic because HIV is actually pretty hard to acquire.” But that is and was the reality—with a few minor precautionary measures, gay men could confidently avoid getting HIV while still having a fulfilling sex life. But this wasn’t how risk was addressed. We seemed to tell gay men that anything involving risk is off limits, implying that gay sex is expendable and that that’s just what we have to expect if we want to survive. So many men saw it as a choice. Completely abandon your sexual needs and desires, consider them dangerous and “risky,” use condoms for oral sex (as if), or get HIV. A very false choice, but one that many men made by saying “fuck it” and just abandoning all hope of staying negative. In fact, research that came out around that time clearly showed that gay men’s anxiety levels plummeted after sero-converting (after they became positive). It was actually a relief to finally just get it and get it over with.
But there’s risk inherent to most things we value. Skydiving, motorcycling, and bungee jumping sure—but also driving and crossing the street. But somehow the risk involved in gay sex was too great, and gay sex too belittled (it is an abomination after all) to create messaging that honored the value gay men placed in their sex lives.
I found dignity in this work, and a context to understand my own feelings about my sexuality and the shame and internalized loathing that characterized so much of my it. I used HIV prevention, and the advocacy of better approaches, as a way to begin my own healing process and as a way to educate the public about homophobia and it was so rife in the most-used campaigns.
Why do you think many efforts at HIV prevention have failed over the years?
It’s amazing to me that we still haven’t evolved our HIV prevention strategies for gay men. It’s all “use condoms and get tested,” the end. What if the test is negative? “Then keep using condoms and keep getting tested because you may be positive and in the ‘window period’” This doesn’t offer a lot of hope, and it certainly doesn’t help men to plan for their future. So the rest of my life is a neverending, always uncertain, terrifying landscape where I’m supposed to use condoms for the rest of my life? Gee thanks. The only thing I’m inspired to do is get drunk.
These over-the-counter Orasure HIV test kits seemed like a game-changer to me. I thought that once we had control over knowing our status—the way women could get a pregnancy test whenever they needed it—we would finally be in charge of HIV. I remember when I bought my first one at a Duane Reade in Union Square. It was in my backpack and I was shaking with anticipation about getting home to my apartment and taking the test. I was afraid, as I always am (regardless of whether or not I am even sexually active) but I was also exhilarated by the idea that I could do this on my own without someone saying something fuck-tarded like “Well, it’s negative this time, but I don’t want to see you back here again!”—something an HIV “counselor” said to me after taking an HIV test at an agency. WTF?
I think the most progressive and daring thing HIV prevention could do is to make the Orasure tests free for gay men. I’m still working out the kinks, such as how we prove that to the cashier at Duane Reade that you’re gay, but I truly believe if gay men were allowed and encouraged to use the tests as screening tools we could rid the community of the virus once and for all. But this notion is extremely controversial as we don’t like putting control over gay men’s sex lives in the hands of gay men. We do this with teens and other at risk populations too, but I am obviously especially sensitive to the way in which prevention methods have affected my life.
And in particular, the way the prevention methods failed this younger generation?
Young people don’t listen to traditional HIV prevention messaging. They have become desensitized to HIV and AIDS and
this is problematic for all kinds of reasons. And unfortunately the conventional approach to this is to try and ratchet up the scare tactics that numbed them in the first place. We are dealing with a much more savvy generation of people. The Internet—constant access to sex and sexuality resources, information and support—has put young people in a very different position. They have the information they need for the most part, but what they really need is behavioral messaging that supports them, validates them, and offers them solutions for creating a risk portfolio that’s suited to their needs.