David vs. Leslie

Sally Field Can Play The Transsexual is a work of fiction. So is its main character David. But the book contains many pieces from my own story, and I think it is important to go on the record as to the parallels. I will do that in this blog in bits and pieces.

First I should mention that this is not the first character I have created given the name David, and that was very intentional. David Searching was a movie about a potential-filled boy searching for perfection in himself (and others). I felt I could never really become what I was expected to be, so I created a film version of those expectations being fulfilled. The David in Sally Field is in many ways the Gemini twin of that boy. If the David Searching character made all the positive choice I felt I might not be able to live up to, then the David in Sally Field makes all the scary, potentially harmful choices I had considered but was too afraid to make.

I tested positive in 1990 when I was twenty, in Dallas, TX, when free and anonymous testing first became available to me. Based on my medical records, doctors estimate I probably had a conversion sickness when I was eighteen.

Being positive has always been a divider and I have always been on the wrong side of it. It is all I have ever really known.

From the time I tested positive, I was very vocal about my status. I felt it was my duty to make sure people realized that if it could happen to me, it could happen to them. When I began online dating, I made sure to always post my HIV-positive. I even did a one-man show in New York about the effects of growing up in a conservative Christian environment – and how as a teenager I was already resigned that AIDS would get me for being a sinner, no matter what I did.  

I grew up with overbearing parents in a judgmental small town, afraid to try to be my truest self. Running away was something I thought about daily in my adolescence, and something that I explored in creating the character of David. And David’s journey is based on two men I know who were provided for by wealthy benefactors lost to AIDS. I always feared that if I had run away, I would only ever be a sexual object, and I poured those fears into the creation of David, who tricks his way to New York City and then becomes an escort. 

Unlike David, I honestly have no idea how I got HIV — which is usually the first question people ask when they learn my status. I drank a lot as a teen, and I ran off with strange men to do strange things in the woods (such is the reality of growing up gay in Arkansas). I don’t remember choosing not to have safe sex, but I must have given in at some drunken point. I think, because I was so young, my immune system held out until there were viable drugs. I never have contracted any AIDS-related opportunistic diseases, so I am very lucky in that regard.

Like David, testing positive was the best thing that ever happened to me. When I was told I had only a few years at most to live, I stopped trying to please the people around me (who I knew would never be pleased anyway). I came to New York and pursued my dreams. I learned what I was capable of, which was so far beyond anything the people from my hometown could ever imagine. Since the day I tested, I have worn my status like a badge. Almost everyone I have come into contact with knows, with the exception of some former work colleagues.

But I always wondered what might have been if I were HIV-negative. Which one of those men who rejected me because of my status might have made my life better. I know for sure that many of those who refuted me could have done so in less hurtful ways. I didn’t plan for a future because I wasn’t supposed to have one. I wasted a lot of resources and potential relationships of on instant gratification, and felt justified in doing so. I didn’t stick with things that weren’t working because I didn’t think I had the time to waste. As a result, I have done a lot of things in my life, but not many of them for very long. Some of these real life incidents and feelings were also poured into the character of David. Creating David has been a cathartic experience for me; I gave him a different set of challenges than I faced, as I was always positive. But I also gave him a resolution that was much more optimistic, the way I am striving to be in my own life.

Leslie SmithComment