Connect with us

Books

‘The Storm’ chronicles 15 painful years in the AIDS epidemic

Author Zyda on losing partner, coming to terms with cards life dealt him

Published

on

The Storm, gay news, Washington BladeChristopher Zyda has been picked on by Joan Rivers, resigned and un-resigned a day after quitting from a high-level job with Disney and given a (widely viewed on You Tube) University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) English Department commencement speech. Zyda, 58, who grew up in Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, a conservative, upper-middle-class LA suburb, has played the piano since he was seven and enjoys CrossFit.

Growing up a Roman Catholic, Zyda drove his catechism teacher to distraction. A skeptical young man, he invented many lively sins to confess to the nun teaching them how to practice confession. On hearing his “sins,” the sister quickly kicked him out of the confessional.

Zyda’s parents wanted him to become a doctor. But from early on, Zyda’s ambitions lay elsewhere. In his heart he knew: English majors rule. Growing up near Hollywood, he wanted to write screenplays.
When he was a freshman at UCLA, Zyda jokes, “I came out to my parents and said ‘I want to be an English major.’”

Though Zyda knew he was gay when he was a teenager, he was closeted then. His first reveal was when he came out to his fraternity in 1984.

His (deceased) sister Joan, a journalist, was a lesbian. The Chicago Tribune fired her because she was gay.

At age 29, Zyda became a widower when Stephen, the first love of his life died from AIDS at age 41 in 1991. Stephen, who grew up in Washington, D.C., was an attorney and an economist. He attended Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale Law School.

Zyda met Stephen in 1984 at the Athletic Club Gym in West Hollywood. Stephen lived then in LA’s upscale Windsor Square/Hancock Park/Fremont Place neighborhood. Stephen was 33, Zyda was 21. Late last year, Zyda’s memoir “The Storm: One Voice from the AIDS Generation” was released. “The Storm” covers 15 years of Zyda’s life — 1983 to 1998 — from his first year living as an out gay man to his life in the aftermath of Stephen’s death. It offers “Searing and empowering reflections from a dark, defining era in LGBTQ+ history,” according to Kirkus Reviews.

“My story is just one of many stories from the AIDS generation,” Zyda writes in “The Storm.”

Yet, though written from his unique perspective, “The Storm” speaks to those who lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic and to young people who want to understand that time.

In a telephone interview, Zyda, who lives in the Hollywood Hills in LA and is married to Michael Wieland, spoke about his life and what it was like to write “The Storm.”

For decades after Stephen died, Zyda didn’t want to emotionally relive that part of his life. “For 26 years, those painful memories were buried,” Zyda said.

“I didn’t want to write about it,” Zyda said, “I didn’t think it would be that exciting. But friends got on me. My friend Karen wouldn’t give up.”

Zyda began writing in 2017. A group of his friends critiqued every chapter as he wrote. “I told myself that I’d have to write it in six months,” he said. “I wrote every Tuesday and Thursday night after dinner and for an entire day every weekend.”

“I travel a lot to the East Coast,” Zyda added. “If I was on an airplane for longer than two hours, I would write. If I didn’t have to work on business, I’d write in my hotel room.”

He wanted his memoir to come from his own experiences, so he didn’t read other AIDS memoirs.

At first, facing his memories was difficult. “When I started writing, I got a horrible cold. It lasted a long while.”

But his reading group kept after him to write more chapters. They couldn’t wait to read the chapters as fast as he could write them.

After a while, “I realized how much it helped me to put it on the page,” Zyda said. “It helped me to emotionally face my history.” Zyda completed a first draft of “The Storm” in 177 days – just under six months. “My husband was so supportive,” Zyda said, “even when I told him the memoir was about my first partner. And that I’d have to spend less time with him.”

Writing “The Storm” brought him back full circle. “I’d wanted to be a writer,” said Zyda, who graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s in English in 1984. Yet, he had to cast his dream aside to care for Stephen when he became ill from AIDS. In 1989, Zyda earned an M.B.A. from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

In 1988, he began working as a summer intern with the Walt Disney Company. Zyda worked for Disney for 10 years, eventually becoming Disney’s Chief Investment Officer.

After leaving Disney, Zyda worked with Amazon as its assistant treasurer, treasurer and vice president and international CFO. In 2001, he joined eBay as its vice president of finance. In 2003, he became San Francisco-based Luminent’s senior vice president and CFO.

In 2007, Zyda launched Mozaic, LLC, a boutique Beverly Hills-based investment management firm. Today, he is Mosaic’s CEO.

Disney was “incredibly supportive” when Stephen was ill with AIDS, Zyda said. But he wasn’t covered under Zyda’s health insurance. (Disney didn’t offer benefits to same-sex couples then.)

At that time, LGBTQ people had few, if any, legal protections. People with AIDS, and their partners, were routinely shunned by their families, health care providers – sometimes, even friends.

Thousands and thousands – hundreds of thousands of people died from AIDS. “People disappeared,” Zyda said, “it was the AIDS vortex of insanity.”

Homophobia was still rampant in the 1980s and early 1990s. “My sister was crushed after she was fired by the Chicago Tribune because she was a lesbian,” Zyda said, “she had no legal recourse and she wouldn’t come out to my parents.”

Zyda came out to his parents when Stephen became ill with AIDS. His parents believed then that being gay was sinful. Because of their homophobia, he was estranged from his parents for a time. Later, his folks accepted his sexuality and they and Zyda had a loving relationship.

Stephen’s parents, Zyda said, fell completely into the “AIDS vortex of insanity.”

Stephen’s parents’ feelings about Stephen having AIDS and toward him were “tied to their religious morality, anger, shock, and fear,” Zyda said.

Not all of Zyda’s memories are painful. He and Stephen traveled, studied philosophy and engaged in rousing political debates. Stephen was a Republican – fiscally and socially conservative; Zyda was fiscally conservative and liberal on social issues. Today, he identifies as an independent.

Early in their relationship, Zyda and Stephen went to a benefit where Joan Rivers raised money to help people with AIDS. The couple deliberately sat in the front row – hoping that Rivers would pick on them. “It was great! She skewered us!” Zyda said. “Then, she gave us all the plants on the stage because we were such good sports.”

Zyda decries the homophobia of the Catholic Church. Yet, its core values of forgiveness and being a good person have remained with him.

“Writing this story helped me to come to terms with the hand of cards dealt me,” Zyda said. “There’s a ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ quality about my life.” “Overall, I’ve been forgiving and made the right choices,” he added.

The Storm, gay news, Washington Blade

Author Christopher Zyda’s ‘The Storm’ speaks to those who lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic and to young people who want to understand that time.

 

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Books

Six books not to miss this fall

Memoirs, love stories, and ballroom await

Published

on

‘Unprotected: A Memoir’ by Billy Porter is out next month. (Book cover image courtesy Abrams Press)

Staying inside and curling up always seems like a great idea but in the fall, it almost feels urgent, doesn’t it? The great news is that there are a lot of good reads slated this fall for the LGBTQ reader.

Not your normal coming-of-age tale, “A Tale of Two Omars” by Omar Sharif, Jr. is the story of the author’s youth during the Arab Spring in 2010. But that’s only the launching point for the rest of the story: Sharif, the grandson of the great actor Omar Sharif, writes of his grandfather and the rest of his scattered family, and visiting them on various continents. He also writes of danger: a job he took that wasn’t the kind of work he thought it was, and the threats he received for speaking out about his homosexuality in homophobic Egypt. It’s a thrilling book, salted with memoir and you’ll love it. (October)

If you’re obsessed with the most recent incarnation of “Cinderella,” then you’ll likewise want to have “Unprotected: A Memoir” by Billy Porter on your shelf. This is a story in the author’s own words, about growing up Black and gay, raised by parents who hope to change the latter, and seizing the strength to stay use your talents and stay the course. (October)

Who doesn’t want it all?  In the memoir “Greedy: Notes from a Bi-Sexual Who Wants Too Much” by Jen Winston, the author humorously examines what it means to be bisexual, why coming out as bi is fraught with landmines; dating, pronouns, sex, and more. Yes, you can have it (almost) all. (October)

Nightlife in Seoul is the backdrop for “Love in the Big City” by Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur. It’s the story of a young gay man and his best female friend, and the fun they have exploring the clubs and bars in Seoul. As with many friendships, they both change and he is left to look for the love of his life alone. Fun, sassy, and poignant, this was a big best-selling debut novel in Korea. (November)

If something on the light side appeals to you, look for “The Coldest Touch” by Isabel Sterling. It’s a novel about a young woman who knows how someone will die, just by touching them. Understandably, she’d love to lose that power, until a young vampire is sent to help her, and they fall in love. Can the two thwart the danger in their town that’s coming from another, more sinister, paranormal figure? This is a book for young adults, but grown-up readers who love vampire stories will love biting into it.  (December)

And finally, for the reader with creativity and movement in their bones, “And the Category Is…: Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community” by Ricky Tucker is what you’ll want this fall. Go into an “underground subculture” for Black and Latinx trans and queer people, where marginalized LGBTQ individuals find acceptance, family, and help. With its roots in Harlem more than a century ago, you might not think you know much about ballroom, but you’ll be surprised… (December). Season’s readings!

Continue Reading

Books

Sullivan’s new book a cornucopia of wit, provocation

‘Out on a Limb’ offers queer cultural history with a point of view

Published

on

(Cover image courtesy of Avid Reader Press)

‘Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021′
By Andrew Sullivan
c.2021, Avid Reader Press
$35/576 pages

Gay writer and political commentator Andrew Sullivan’s first day in journalism began on a Sunday afternoon in 1984 in London at the Daily Telegraph.  The paper was housed on the “original Fleet Street,” Sullivan writes, “the place Evelyn Waugh had made eternal in his satirical novel Scoop.”

The editor that day, “a high Tory intellectual,” was completely blind, chain-smoked and “wore a patch over one eye, like a pirate,” Sullivan writes.

He was told to write an editorial on a topic he knew nothing about. Using, “all the skills my Oxford training in extemporaneous bullshitting had given me,” Sullivan writes, he wrote the piece.

Sullivan, who was instrumental in bolstering support for mainstream equality and for dismantling “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military, hasn’t stopped writing since.

Sullivan’s writing is as colorful as the Fleet Street editor with the eye patch.

I’m a blind lesbian. Reading “Out on a Limb” (on Audible and Kindle), there were times when I rolled my blind eyes.

At other moments, I marveled at Sullivan’s bravery and compassion.

But, whether I disagreed with or applauded Sullivan, I couldn’t stop reading him.

I’m betting this will be the case with you.

An Irish Catholic gay man, Sullivan is one of our most provocative and fascinating writers.

The essays in “Out on a Limb” cover everything from the death of Princess Diana to AIDS to “Brokeback Mountain” to Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality.

Sullivan, a self-described small-c conservative who was one of the first to bring Barack Obama to the attention of the mainstream press, has angered many.

“I have been criticized for abandoning the right,” he writes, “and for criticizing the left.”

Sullivan’s voted for, among others, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in Britain, and Ronald Reagan, Obama and Joe Biden in America.

The causes he has supported over 40 years include: marriage equality, the legalization of recreational drugs, welfare reform and, as he writes, “a very expansive concept of free speech.”

If you didn’t disagree with Sullivan on anything, you wouldn’t be human.

But, if you didn’t agree with him on some things, you wouldn’t have a heart or a brain.

The essays in “Out on a Limb,” are a time capsule of Sullivan’s career from his time with The New Republic (where he was the youngest editor in the magazine’s history) to his current perch with “The Weekly Dish.”

The collection shows how Sullivan’s views have evolved over the years. Sullivan, who with “The Dish,” was a blogging pioneer, is a refreshingly honest writer.

Some writers never want to cop to a mistake. This isn’t true with Sullivan, who says he was wrong about supporting the Iraq war.

It’s hard to remember how brave it was for Sullivan in 1989 to pen the essay “Here Comes the Groom: A Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” for The New Republic.

Then, when sodomy laws were on the books in many states, it was courageous to be out as Sullivan was.

Marriage equality wasn’t on the horizon – let alone on a magazine cover.

Sullivan writes movingly about seeing the AIDS quilt in 1992 on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

The collection includes some controversial pieces such as “When Plagues End: Notes on the Twilight of an Epidemic.”

It’s true that for many AIDS is no longer a deadly plague.

But AIDS is still a death sentence for many who don’t have health insurance or access to care.

Sullivan’s essays on gender and campus life such as “The He Hormone” or “We All Live on Campus Now” made me want to throw the book across the room.

I wish Sullivan hadn’t published a symposium on Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book “The Bell Curve” in The New Republic. (The book says there is a connection between race and intelligence.)

But I was moved by the essay “Dear Ta-Nehisi,” in which Sullivan explains why he felt compelled to air writing of, as he writes, “sometimes painful topics.”

“Out on a Limb” is a cornucopia of wit, queer cultural history and provocation. Enjoy the feast.  

Continue Reading

Books

‘All In’ a riveting biography of Billie Jean King

A fascinating story of a living, larger-than-life legend

Published

on

‘All In: An Autobiography’
By Billie Jean King with Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers
c.2020, Alfred A. Knopf
$30/482 pages

I know nothing about tennis except that I love Hitchcock’s thriller “Strangers on a Train,” in which a charming, sociopathic murderer enlivens the game.

There are no murders in “All In,” Billie Jean King’s memoir, co-authored with journalists Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers. But King’s candid autobiography is as exciting, as suspenseful, as a Hitchcock flick.

“All In” is a fab read not only for tennis aficionados and readers interested in LGBTQ history and women’s history but for anyone who enjoys a fascinating story of a living, larger-than-life, but very human, down-to-earth legend.

Some athletes, even the most acclaimed ones, are mainly known to sports fans.

Their achievements are important, sometimes record-setting, in their sports. But these sports figures aren’t cultural icons.

This isn’t the case with King. Like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, King, who was born in 1943, is iconic.
You likely remember where you were in 1973 when, along with 90 million other riveted viewers, you watched King beat self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.”

If you weren’t born then, you’ve surely heard how excited your mom or grandma were to see male chauvinism taken down. Then, when women often had difficulty obtaining a credit card, let alone fighting workplace discrimination, beating the pants off Riggs was no small matter.

King, a feminist and lesbian, is believed to be the first woman athlete activist.

In 2009, King received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work for LGBTQ and women’s rights and equality.

Then there is King’s stunning record in tennis. She was the top United States tennis player – winning 39 Grand Slams and 20 Wimbledon titles.

Often, the memoirs of famous people are bland, unrevealing. They are as exciting as Velveeta.

“All In” is a feast of flavors. Most memoirs, no matter how good, have some dull stretches.

This isn’t so with “All In.” From the get-go, it grabs you by the lapels.

The memoir is so revealing that, as you read it, you feel as if you’re reliving King’s life. King tells us about the people she loves.

Her family, like most people at the time, were homophobic when she was growing up. Yet King loved and respected her parents. They taught her, among many things, to “respect and never underestimate” her opponents, she writes.

Her brother Randy Moffitt, who was a pitcher in Major League Baseball has given her, King writes, “a lifetime of support.”

King writes of her love for Ilana Kloss. The couple, who have been together for 40 years, were married in a private ceremony in 2018. David Dinkins, the former New York City Mayor officiated the wedding.

“To Ilana, my love, my partner, to the moon and back,” King writes in the memoir’s dedication.
It took decades for King to become open and unashamed about her sexuality.

She grew up in a working class family in Long Beach, Calif. Her father was a firefighter. It was a timwhen women were expected to get married (to men) and have children.

Middle-class and upper-class women, even if they’d been to college, weren’t supposed to want to work.
The idea that you could be a gay tennis player wouldn’t have been on the horizon when King began playing the game as a kid.

King married Larry King (not the broadcaster) in 1965. Though they divorced, they are still close friends.
Some of the most gut-wrenching moments of “All In” are where King writes of being outed in the 1980s by a former female lover who filed a palimony suit. Though the former lover didn’t win in court, the outing nearly derailed King’s career.

King writes movingly about how, after much therapy and self-reflection, she became comfortable about her sexuality.

She tells us how she dealt with an eating disorder and other health problems. Above all, King challenges us to work for social change. She dedicates the memoir “to everyone who continues to fight for equality, inclusion, and freedom.”

Who wouldn’t be “All In” with that?

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular