You may remember Michael Kearns as John-Boy Walton's collegiate
brother, or in Brian De Palma's Body Double, or perhaps you've seen
him as the priest, hooker, dancer, West Hollywood stud or
hemophiliac in one of his world-renown, multiple-character plays. If
not, then you might recognize his '70s modeling debut as the cover
boy of Grant Tracy Saxon's book, The Happy Hustler. Too young for
that? Maybe you know him as the only openly gay actor in the '80s.
No? None of these rings a bell? You weren't in his home town of St.
Louis for the annual celebration of Michael Kearns' Day? Perhaps the
following will jog your memory:
In the fall of 1991, immediately following the death of actor
Brad Davis from AIDS, Michael Kearns announced his HIV status on
Entertainment Tonight, becoming the first openly HIV positive actor
in Hollywood. "What is in your head?" asked one friend just after
Kearns' decision to nationally come out with his HIV status. Asked
the same question today, Kearns responds, "Self love, self worth and
Three years positive at the time of Brad Davis' death, Kearns
realized that "if another actor had to die in a state of closeted
shame, nothing had changed in the six years since Hudson's death. In
spite of all the red ribbons, the "Liz Taylor" events, and all of
the blah-blah about the benevolence, caring, generosity and
sincerity in The Industry, nothing had changed in Hollywood. Nada!"
Certainly his indictment of Hollywood wasn't what one would refer to
as a prudent career move.
After his prime-time, finger-pointing foray, "unlike the closeted
actor famous for his dalliance in a porno theater," Hollywood wasn't
exactly clamoring for Kearns' signature on a contract.
While giving up the idea of, "being a movie star" at 28 or even
35 due to political views would not have been easy, it was just fine
at 41, when the only roles offered were dying, HIV-impacted persons
in wheelchairs. "Having lesions applied to my face in a makeup room
was a little too Twilight Zone-y, even if I was the first openly
gay, openly HIV positive person to appear in a prime time television
role [Life Goes On, 1992]. By then, I knew I certainly didn't need
the television and film industry to provide me with a venue to act
in," says a man who has more than carved a permanent venue for
himself on the stage.
By 1989 Kearns was proving his expertise as
writer-performer-director-producer with his award-winning, solo
performance of a dozen PWAs in Intimacies and then again in '91 in
More Intimacies. In 1993, Kearns won a Drama-Logue and a Robby Award
for his performance in Charles Ludlam's Camille and was nominated by
the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle for Lead Performance. "No one's
ever said I can't act" -- an understatement, you'll agree, if you're
fortunate enough to see him this winter on either coast in his
latest solo theater production, Attachments, an autobiographical
piece that spans childhood to fatherhood.
Fatherhood? In 1992, following the death of his lover, Philip,
Kearns' lawyer mentioned that he was in the midst of adopting. The
words "I want to adopt a baby" jumped right through Kearns' lips.
"Once I said it out loud, it was like saying I'm gay on national TV.
I couldn't take it back."
A roller coaster ride is how you might describe the next eight
months. Preliminary interviews on the phone. Psychological
interviews in person. Three separate agencies, including PACT, the
conduit agency in San Francisco which places hard-to-adopt babies
("read: ethnically diverse") with even harder-to-become candidates
("read: gay"); Vista Del Mar, the local adoption agency in LA; and
finally the birth-mother's agency in Texas. At no time did anyone
one ask if Kearns was HIV positive, nor could they according to the
Americans With Disabilities Act. Eventually, Kearns was matched with an African-American woman in Dallas.
Thousands of dollars spent on the pregnancy and one week prior to the due date, Kearns received a phone call from a hopeful, gay father-to-be. "Welcome to the Gay Daddy Boom," he remembers the cheerful prospective saying. "My lover and I are thinking of adopting. What agency are you with?" With that Kearns and his mouth launched into the details of his entire case.
At exactly nine the following morning PACT phoned to inform him that they had
received an anonymous message revealing Kearns' HIV status. "What
is in your head?" asked all three agencies whose dream-team of
lawyers followed up with a host of questions like, "When exactly do
you think you'll die?"
Unable to give a precise date, Kearns' fundamental response to
these and many other shaming questions is best proclaimed in his
upcoming play, Attachments: "You analyzed me, you interviewed me,
you put me under a microscope and you approved me.
Have you forgotten what's good about me now that you know I'm HIV
Technically, there was nothing any of the agencies could legally
do to prevent the adoption; however, just after giving birth, the
mother -- discovered to be scamming several different gay men at the
same time -- refused to relinquish the baby.
Instead he has become a foster parent to Tia, an angelic,
14-month-old African-American child. Realizing that his time with
the baby could be limited for any number of reasons -- including "a
system that favors drug-addicted birth mothers to single gay men;"
his health, which he feels the baby has only served to bolster; or
even his death -- Kearns devotes nearly all of his energy to Tia. On
his off hours -- as if parents have any -- he deftly manages to keep
up his career as the writer-actor-director and now, as the recently
published author of T-cells & Sympathy, a collection of 34
monologues in the age of AIDS. As for the near future, what's in his
head? Don't worry, Hollywood. Kearns is too preoccupied with
diapers, bottles and baby dolls to make any talk show appearances --
at least until Tia enters pre-school. Then he'll have mornings off.