In the rolling hills of Tennessee, men garden in floral sun dresses and wide-brimmed hats. Faeries -- that's what they like to be called, as in Radical Faeries, an alternative, rural-based queer and free-spirit movement.
The land they tend is certainly enchanted, with wildflowers, creeks and caves. Forget the faded overalls that most farmers favor; this is a fairy-tale farm where Old Mac-Donald sports skirts, painted fingernails and the occasional beard. Welcome to IDA -- short for Idyll Dandy Acres, a queer arts commune nestled in the buckle of the Bible Belt, an hour east of Nashville.
In addition to the 2,000 heads of garlic grown here each year, creativity is a flourishing crop.
Especially for Spree, an IDA resident who describes himself as "Livid with AIDS." "When you have HIV, you get put on hold and told to wait by this big bureaucracy," says Spree, 39. "You go crazy. People aren't listening to you. And there's a lot of anger."
Other IDA residents might dance their blues away -- or juggle, paint or write -- but Spree's medium is theater. He uses it to satirize what it means to live with AIDS. Spree and his partner of seven years, MaxZine, have traveled the country and Europe with the critically acclaimed troupe they cofounded: The Eggplant Faerie Players.
Like those of many artists, Spree's performance pieces are autobiographical, culled from his experiences as an information specialist for the National AIDS Hotline in the mid-'80s. Spree kept a notebook of silly questions that are hard not to laugh at: Can you get AIDS from a cow that has been violated by a man? Can your clothes pick up the virus at the laundromat?
Back then, Spree was a struggling actor involved in New York gay theater and the early days of ACT UP. He had already given up on Hollywood, where he'd headed after high school with two goals in mind: Becoming a star and coming out. Says Spree: "I quickly figured out that I could do the Rock Hudson thing or be true to my Faerie spirit. I chose being true."
Despite his work as a counselor and activist, Spree -- a Georgia native who a few years ago traded his given name for the more whimsical moniker -- was unprepared for his 1989 HIV diagnosis. "When it happened to me, I couldn't take any of my own advice. I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm doomed,'" he says. "Testing positive was like coming out -- I had to feel comfortable with it before I could deal with other people's reactions."
Soon after he arrived at IDA in 1994, Spree developed Kaposi's sarcoma, weakening to the danger point in fall 1996. Today, he is a "cocktail miracle." Even his KS lesions are fading.
If protease inhibitors are keeping Spree healthy, so is communal living. An average of 10 men and an occasional woman live at IDA, supporting themselves mainly through crafts, day labor and -- for the PWAs -- disability. Each resident pays $165 a month for everything from food to dish soap, plus all the garlic they can eat. The remaining garlic gets traded for vegetables and eggs. IDA's prime trading partner? Short Mountain, another nearby Faerie commune.
Magic is big at IDA; one resident carries a wand when venturing into Nashville, as if for protection. For Spree, that magic is palpable. "IDA feels very nurturing. It's where I need to be," he says. "After I got my feet radiated [for KS], I would go there to put them in the cool water. I told MaxZine that after I'm gone, if he sits there, I'll come sit next to him."