Threads: The Life of Marty Kass - 2007

The first oral history interview I ever did was with my Uncle Marty, conducted for the oral history course I took with Gerry Albarelli while I was in the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence. Six months and more than twelve hours of interviews later, I was hooked on oral history, and am forever indebted to Marty for sharing with such candor, reflection and vivid recollection his remarkable stories of life. 

Threads: The Life of Marty Kass  

Marty Kass was born in 1950 and came of age in the years leading up to Stonewall. His most intense memory from childhood is hiding in the crinoline lining of his mother’s hoop skirts in 1953. In puberty, he had to wear clothes from the huskies section; his mother told him at age thirteen to stop walking like a fairy, something he figured was tied to the size of his hips, the way they must have swayed. In high school, he dressed to protest, wearing an Army shirt, a self-proclaimed hippie who, when his high school banned blue jeans in 1968, went out to buy a pair to wear the next day. He came out in 1973, out of the closet and into the seventies, a period of, he says, “so much liberation.” He says of coming out that everything he didn’t know before, he suddenly knew; he knew what to wear, if he wanted to be a gay man: Danskin tops, Carmen Miranda hirachis, chokers, bracelets, hot pants, platform sandals, clogs. When he went to the baths in 1976 to get a taste of the real freedom of the seventies, the absolute anonymity of being naked scared him.

Threads, a compilation of stories edited from over twelve hours of life history interviews, is Marty’s story, but it is also the story of America’s closet, of how what it means to come out has changed in the past fifty-seven years. It took Marty thirty-five years to get comfortable in his skin; Threads tells the stories of that journey, particular to Marty, but also telling of the decades he lives through, coming of age in the early sixties, college in the late sixties and early seventies, the liberation of the seventies, AIDS in the eighties and nineties.  


Organized by chronology and clothing, Threads covers Marty's story from birth to now. Here are two excerpts, shared with permission. 

Chapter Five

Dressing the Part

1973 – 1975

In fall of 1973 I started my assitantship in the scene shop at Albany, and I was terrible with that stuff, I even told them I’m not good at this, but apparently I was the best they could get, I don’t know, they paid me, it wasn’t gobs of money, but it was $2800 a year, which was enough to live on, and they paid tuition and fees, so that was just to live on, I mean, you could do that in Albany back then. And I didn’t do a whole lot of work for them in the scene shop. 

Michael claims that the first time he met me, I was wearing hot pants and a tank top in the scene shop, and it was a purple tank top, he says, and platform sandals, which were popular, but you know, straight men didn’t wear them, gay men wore them. I don’t remember wearing this, but Michael claims I was wearing this and he walked in and took one look at me and he said, “Isn’t this the pits?” Michael was very funny, and it was evident to me that he was gay, and I really liked him right away, I was never attracted to him, which is probably why we’ve stayed friends for so long, but I just liked him so much, right away. I remember thinking that day in the scene shop, Michael’s gay … and I think I am, too. And three days later I met John. 

There were only seven of us graduate students in the theater department, and when I met John, I was so attracted to something about him, everything about him, just everything. I just wanted to be with him. He was a nice looking guy, and obviously gay. That stood out to me. He had a load of polish and charm that I loved, he looked and acted sophisticated and I really liked that, he was funny, so funny, and bright, and he could also be a little serious. We started to spend some time together, and I decided I wanted to have sex with him. And I said to myself then, I’m gay. Not bi-sexual, I’m gay. I said it to myself, and I said it to Michael, I said, “I’m gay.” The first person I ever told. Then I said it to John, I met a couple of John’s friends and said it to them, I told my friend Paul and the other graduates in the theater department, and I started to think of myself in that way and to tell people, to tell everyone, that’s a lot of what coming out is, you tell everybody, I mean you don’t go into the supermarket and yell, “I’m gay!” but…. I started wearing clothes that were associated more with the gay image. I wore a Danskin top!  And Carmen Miranda huaraches, which were very popular for women and gay men, and I started wearing them, I didn’t care that women wore them and gay men wore them, I wanted to wear them, I started wearing jewelry, I wore a choker, I wore a bracelet, I wore lots of rings, I was announcing to the world, I’m gay, so this way when I went to the supermarket, you knew it, you knew it. I wanted everyone to know it.

            In spring of that year, I had to give a two-hour presentation for a seminar I was in, and the professor was a very kind of stuffy guy, and I wore my biggest bell-bottom jeans, a Danskin top, a choker, rings, three bracelets and clogs, and felt like, I can do this and my professor, to hell with him! I couldn’t believe I was doing it, I was like boy am I making a statement! Oh I couldn’t believe it, I just felt like so liberated. So liberated. I owned being a gay man. I owned it. The class, they knew I was gay, but I was really, like, going all out, you know. Clothes that I didn’t necessarily wear all the time but I was starting to wear sometimes, and, saying I’m a gay man, look, I’m gay, wearing things that were associated with being gay for a man to wear. Straight men my age just didn’t wear a Danskin top, but I was, you know, a gay man did. And I was making a statement and oh did I feel liberated, as a gay man.


Chapter Nine

The Top Coat

1987 - 1990

I knew I had been exposed to the virus in ‘83 because I’d gone to the doctor, a gay doctor, with swollen lymph glands, and he told me I’d been exposed, and he checked my T-cells, and he said I had lymphendemy and I knew if you had that it meant you’d been exposed, but he told me not to worry, that it didn’t mean I’d contracted it. Well, in 1987, I had a friend who was a nurse at the Community Health Project in the Gay and Lesbian Center, and I hadn’t been feeling well, I’d had fungus, shingles a few times, extreme fatigue, and I hadn’t connected them, if anything I’d thought, oh I had shingles and I got over them so well, I must have a great immune system. But my friend knew that I had lymphanoctomy, and I was having all these days where I just didn’t feel right, and he said, “You really should get the AIDS assessment test,” and I said, “Oh alright, I will,” and he said, “I can book you,” and it was literally like right away, so I said, “Okay.” My friend Tony went with me, he already knew he was HIV positive, and the tests took all morning, and I’ll never forget, I did that December 2, and on December 30th, I got my results and they told me my t-cells were 371 which was in the ARC category, but they didn’t say ARC, the said “moderate immune suppression,” which made it sound better, and so I was going to be getting checked through Community Health Program because at that time you wanted it to be anonymous so that it wouldn’t effect your insurance, because for insurance reasons, it was just awful to have HIV. They weren’t even calling it HIV disease then like we do now, they called it AIDS, ARC or HIV positive symptomatic or asymptomatic. I was kind of stunned by that and I remember I went to David, my therapist, that week and told him and he said, “You mean you have ARC?” I just looked at him and said, “I guess so.” My T-cells were 371, which was the 200-400 range, moderate level. Minimum, HIV; moderate, ARC; maximum, AIDS. I said, “You’re right, it is.” And I burst into tears.


It put everything in such a different perspective for me. I had a New Year’s Eve party to go to the next night and I went, and I didn’t tell anybody really, I had a friend Michael Redd who knew about all my symptoms and was worried so much about me, but I didn’t tell him yet because he was taking care of this guy he’d been involved with for three years who was dying of AIDS, and he spent the last six months of his life at Michael’s house and Michael was taking care of him and I just didn’t want to make his life harder. But I thought I was going to be dead in two years, I was sure of it, I just had a feeling, I knew it.


I didn’t tell anybody in AA yet, at meetings. But then I realized I’d see people at meetings and they’d say, “How are you?” and I’d turn it around and say, “How are you?” And I wasn’t looking people in the eye, so I needed to share about this. I was going to a meeting on the East Side at Gracie Square Hospital, which is between First and York on 72nd Street, and I had decided it was something I needed to do so I can look people in the eye again. I was apprehensive about it and I wasn’t sure why because everyone shares terrible things in meetings but I don’t know, there was shame going on, and also I thought nobody would ever date me again. That was my biggest thing, I would never have a date again, not that I wouldn’t tell somebody, if I was going to have sex with somebody I’d certainly tell them, and in those days you were foolish if you didn’t take precautions anyway. The rule of thumb in ‘87 was assume everybody’s positive.

So at that meeting, the guy who was qualifying was really wonderful, and after he was done qualifying and he asked who wanted to share and I put my hand up immediately so I’d get called on first. I said that I had been diagnosed with ARC and wanted to share because I wasn’t looking anybody in the eye anymore, and I wasn’t talking about me anymore, I wasn’t answering how I was. The other thing I said was I always wondered if I had some big significant thing happen if it would make me want to drink, and this didn’t make me want to drink. I was three and a half years sober, and I remember thinking I was so glad I was three and a half years sober, I felt like I could handle it better than if I was new to sobriety and didn’t have tools for living. People came up afterwards to talk to me and were just so supportive. The only person who kind of irritated me was this guy who came up and said, “Make sure you take a lot of Vitamin C!” And I thought, Vitamin C is really not going to take care of it. Well, he felt helpless, he wanted to say something to me and he had his own fears so that was the best he could do, but everybody was so kind and wonderful, they couldn’t have been better and more supportive, without being obnoxious, you know, they didn’t offer me pity and advice. So that was just a really free feeling and it allowed me to share it at every meeting I went to. And I started telling lots of people, whoever it was appropriate.

I worked at that time at the Department of Youth Services, for the city, and I told my good friend there, Nancy, and I did tell my boss because it was starting to interfere with some of my job duties, I did a lot of field work and that was getting very hard for me, I wanted to do more office work. My therapist, David, was the one who told me, “You’re allowed to do that, the law allows you to do that,” so I told my boss, but not anyone else really, and otherwise, why would I tell my boss unless it had anything to do with my work?

I felt so funny because I felt like I was asking to be treated special, and I didn’t want anybody to treat me special. And a lot of people were starting to treat me special because I had ARC. I would pick up from people that I was special, that they thought I had it worse in life than they did, sometimes in AA I would get a feeling from people that they thought that my life was harder than theirs, and I didn’t want anybody thinking that because I thought everybody’s life is what is was, and everybody had things in it, and I didn’t want to be unique. It had taken me too long to get over terminal uniqueness.


There was still so much ignorance about it then, too. Even Nancy, my good friend at work, even Nancy said, “I’m working with this family that has little children and I’m always touching them and stuff so you and I have to be extremely careful about when we touch,” and I said, “Nancy, you’re not going to get it from touching me, you’re not going to get it from drinking from the same cup,” and it was like, where are you living, you know? She’s supposed to be this hip woman in New York City and this was the end of ‘87 and she didn’t know that? Nancy didn’t even know that? And some of the men where I worked, I didn’t announce I had AIDS but it must’ve gotten around a little bit, and a couple people were upset about using the same bathroom as me, and they were straightened out pretty quickly. I heard from somebody that they went to the assistant commissioner who was in charge of us and he told them, “Why don’t you use one on another floor because Marty’s not going to change where he goes.” There was just so much ignorance about it.


And that was at the government level, too. I thought it was awful that the government wasn’t funding the research, that it was private donations, it astounded me, it was affecting more and more people and I thought it was only because it was affecting gay men they weren’t doing anything, kind of like Katrina, it’s because it was black people that they didn’t do anything, I don’t care what Bush says, it’s because it was black people, there’s no way if it had happened in Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, boy would they have gotten help there right away, or Myrtle Beach, or any of the white communities, they would’ve gotten there right away.  So I mean, they were poor blacks and they didn’t get help, and that’s how it was for gay people, and they were treated badly in the hospitals, at that time, you go in the hospital with AIDS and a lot of times they wouldn’t bring the food into your room, they’d leave it outside, and these were people too sick to eat even, they were dying, and the medical personnel were so afraid of getting AIDS.  


So I started telling people, and my life changed a lot, too. I decided I want to live and do things sort of now, because I don’t know what’s in the future, it’s not like I went crazy with credit cards like a lot of people did. Actually I was saving some money, I started a savings account. I felt freer than I had in a long time to enjoy my life. I remember one day, I had planned to start my Christmas shopping, which I always enjoyed, I used to buy a lot of little gifts for people, little things but they were just right for you, so my first day I was going to go was going to be a Saturday and it was December 5th and it turns out we had a huge snow, and we had weather that was five degrees, and I said, “I’m going anyway, and I’m allowed to, because I don’t know when I’ll have another Saturday when I feel so good to go shopping.” I had such a wonderful day, I dressed as warm as I could, I had a top coat in those days, my friend Theo had one and he decided he was getting rid of some stuff, it was a little big on me, but those things could be, and he gave it to me, it was silver or grey and black tweed, he said it matched my beard, in those days I had a beard that had a lot of grey and white in it, early, I’d started graying when I was 29. That day, shopping, I felt very in the moment, and oh it felt good.


But in some ways I felt like a time bomb, because I knew I going to get AIDS, it was just a matter of when. I was one of those people who didn’t feel okay a lot of the time. I had a lot of viral activity where I would have days where I just felt sick, and I figured I was going to be dying soon, everyone else was dying. When my friend George died, in 1990, I couldn’t go to his funeral. I just couldn’t, I was so saddened by his death but I got to a point that I couldn’t go to another memorial service, it was too real about me, it was too much about me. I struggled with George’s, it was a really strange thing not to go to George’s memorial service. I just couldn’t do it, I’d been to too many, and I felt like a time bomb, not every minute, but things like that would make me feel like a time bomb. All the funerals, and when someone would raise their hand in meeting and say they’d been diagnosed with HIV, or ARC. It was so strange on our sixth anniversary of being sober, George’s and David’s and mine, it was 1990, and I was like, this is so weird, not to have George and David with me, it just seemed so strange not to have them with me, we were all within three days of each other and we all had different groups of friends and everything but we always came together on that one day, the three of us, and it really hit me hard then, that they weren’t there, and many people were dying, certainly into the nineties when they finally came out with more drugs, they came out with a prophylactic for PCP and the death rate dropped over 60% in one year, and I suspect that was around ‘97, somewhere around there, maybe a little earlier. They had a treatment before that, an inhaled treatment, but it wasn’t as successful. 

            I had a sponsee in AA, Matthew, who died from AIDS when he was 35, I flew out, I was in his hospital room when he died, it was very difficult, and I flew for the first time sober, I’d been sober nine years, and Matthew always said, “I’m going to get you to fly!” and I came there, he’d chosen to go off a respirator so he wasn’t fully there, and I got there and I leaned over and I said, “Well, you got me to fly.”

He had his mother call and ask me to come say goodbye. Of course I went. He had moved from New York to go to the University of Southern California to get a doctorate in psychology, and got halfway through, and he got very sick, and we used to talk on the phone, and at one point he sounded like, I said to him, “You’re sicker than you know.” Matthew just wanted so badly not to be sick, he didn’t always take care of himself, and I had to prompt him sometimes to get help, at one point I said, “You really have to go,” he was going to a clinic then, “You’re sicker than you think,” I said. They admitted him to a hospital and he was there three weeks and his mother called and said, “Matthew chose to go off the respirator, and he wants you to come say goodbye.” Well of course, I didn’t go, “Oh I don’t fly, I’m afraid,” I just went. Steve made all the reservations while I packed, and I remember they charged an outrageous amount of money to fly to LA the next morning, this was 1993 and they charged me thirteen hundred and something, round trip. Well, I didn’t even think about that, it was Matthew, and he asked me to come say goodbye, I’d been his sponsor for years, we were very close, and we went to see the AIDS quilt together in Washington in 1989, the first time it was presented, laid out, we went to see it.

Oh, that was just amazing to me, I knew the statistics, but then you see the proof of the statistics, and some of the things people wrote were just so wonderful, it was mostly just so positive, it was just so positive, we went on a beautiful October day, warm weather, and oh, some of the squares were just so incredible, all of them were incredible, but some of them were just so incredible. I found Hans’ square, and Matthew found a few people he knew, and it was such a personal feeling, and it was so quiet there, and peaceful, and the way it was laid out was so beautiful, and it was just an amazing thing to see this, to see all the people who died in squares represented, it was just so different than numbers. And I already was ARC, and Matthew already had AIDS, and it was just…. it was very touching. A very personal experience. I want to say overwhelming but that’s not the word, it was … overpowering. Overpowering. It was overpowering.


Matthew & Marty