Interview: Michael Kearns

By Mark McNease

Circa early 1980s. I was writing short stories and book reviews for a gay paper in Los Angeles called EDGE (long since defunct). Someone else who wrote for the paper was an actor/activist/presence named Michael Kearns, and while we never had much occasion to meet, I was delighted to know he is still acting, still writing, still teaching, and still vibrant in a city I consider a part of me.

Just some of the teaching Michael has done: Education Program Director for Spoken Interludes Next, Artist in Residence at the Downtown Women’s Center, Writer in Residence at Art Division, co-teacher of Solomojo with Tony Abatemarco. He founded QueerWise, a collective of elder writers who did Spoken Word performances in L.A. in 2011. Add to that his decades in theatre, his activism (including being the first actor in Hollywood to come out), and you have a man as vital as he is determined. It was a real treat to reach out after all this time and have him share himself in the following interview.

MM: Michael, your resume is extensive, including decades of theater. What’s it like to still be doing something you love all these years? What does theater give you that keeps you doing it?

MK: I think it’s rare to know your calling when you’re nine years old, but I did. For more than a half a century, the theatre has been faithful to me; it is where I live. Oh, there were attempts at television and film but I’m really meant (like Ethel Merman) to be on stage. Seriously, the theatre offers the least censored outlet for the actor. The level of investment is what continues to excite me and scare me. I never stop learning about myself and all of humanity.

MM: Of the creative things you do – acting, writing, directing – is there one that you’re most passionate about, or that is especially rewarding?

MK: I honestly think it’s the one I’m engaged in, at-the-moment. There’s the loneliness of writing that sometimes leads me to really want to engage in the sociability of acting in a play or collaborating with other theatre artists on a solo show. I also love to create the entire picture as a director. I didn’t direct seriously until I was in my thirties and it has really given me a visual consciousness that I never had. Or at least I didn’t have it as keenly as I do now.

MM: Can you talk about QueerWise: how it came about, who is participating, and your involvement with it?

MK: I’ve done various writing workshops targeted at specific audiences—from the homeless to GLBT youth. What I realized was sadly lacking was a place for seniors to tell their rich, valuable stories. I have strong leadership qualities, always have, and I took this on. It began as a weekly writing workshop and has now evolved to include a Spoken Word performance component. I guess you could say I created it and I direct the performances. I don’t like the “writing teacher” label since one nurtures rather than teaches writing. It’s my job to create a safe space where every word is valued. We, as seniors, are so undervalued. Invisible, in fact. That seems to be changing—what you’re doing, for example. Fabulous.

MM: Our website is geared toward an over-50 LGBT audience. What’s your perspective on aging within the LGBT community and how we view and treat this population?

MK: One of the many things I stress in my class is sensuality and sexuality. One needn’t be sexually active, per se, but we do not lose our romantic selves, our sexy selves, our sensual selves. Older people are made fun of and often depicted as sexless buffoons. I hate that. I think aging is particularly difficult for gay men whose looks inevitably change; when beauty has been a calling card, one has to find other ways to be attractive and find what’s within. That can be a tall order, honey.

MM: You’ve been in Los Angeles a very long time. What are some of the things about L.A. that have kept you there?

MK: Friends (those who remain alive, that is). I’ve been here so long that it feels like my hometown. We are part of each other. I’ve now lived, with my daughter Katherine, in the same apartment for over fifteen years. That’s a chunk of permanence and settling. I am nuts for New York (and threaten to retire there) but I’ll likely never retire and I’ll remain in L.A. doing those “gay plays.” I’m kidding, of course. I do so many other things but it’s always been an accusation that’s hurled at me. “Are you doing another one of those ‘gay plays?’”

MM: When I thought about you for an interview, the first thing that came to my mind was: is he still alive. I think that’s just a natural reaction for those of us who lived through the 1980s in L.A. and other centers of the AIDS plague. (My partner Jim’s death in 1991 was a big reason I moved to New York.) I often wonder who among the men I knew managed to survive. Can you talk some about your own experience with this, its importance to our history and to your own life?

MK: I haven’t stopped mourning or grieving since the mid-eighties and it gets worse, not better. I sometimes wonder if I’m alive. I certainly wonder why. I had a therapist say that my symptoms are “classically PTSD” and I’m sure it’s true. To have lost so many brothers and lovers and comrades—relentlessly, harshly, tragically—has damaged me. But that damage also forced me to become a parent; it has forced me into a state of constant gratitude. But there’s a darkness that follows me wherever I go and that’s fine—I carry those guys with me; they are in my writing, in my work, in my daily behavior. And there’s much beauty in this suffering—I’m the first to see that and admit it.

MM: You’re been an activist most of your life, including having been the first actor in Hollywood to come out publicly. Do you have any thoughts you’d want to share about the LGBT rights movement, then and now?

MK: I have such mixed feelings about this. It feels like we’ve assimilated to an uncomfortable degree (for me) and lost our collective boner in the process. Maybe this is what we wanted: to be accepted. But it feels like we’ve “whitewashed” ourselves, resulting in a lack of passion, heat, anger. And yet, in spite of marriage equality (blah blah blah) and adoption (including my own), the level of bullying doesn’t seem to have abated. I dunno. It’s tricky. The only person I can really speak for is me and—in spite of being a father and a proponent of gay marriage (blah blah blah)—I haven’t lost my edge. And if I do? That’s when I’ll retire.

MM: Your autobiography, ‘The Truth is Bad Enough,’ is coming out in the next couple months. That’s a very suggestive title. Tell us a little about it – the truth and the process that got you to the point of publishing.

MK: Well, “the truth is bad enough” is based on two specifics. My mother, in the divorce proceedings with my father, was accused of having some extracurricular hanky panky which was proven in court. But my overzealous father wanted to make her more of a villainess by accusing her of physical violence (he was a good foot taller than she was). My mother stopped the divorce proceedings and (in what would be a divine close-up in the movie) said, “Your honor, why is this man lying? The truth is bad enough.” Then there’s the happy hustler hoax which I engaged in during the seventies, pretending to be the author of a fictitious book (and becoming if not famous, infamous, in the process). The reality is that my life was more sexy and dramatic and juicy than “the happy hustler’s” so I also said, “The truth is bad enough.” The book traverses both of those stories and about 299 more pages of storytelling. I wrote the book for a multitude of reasons but one of them is very pragmatic—when I die (and I will die) some of the book’s stories would die with me. Let’s keep them (and me) alive through the book.