By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
ANN ARBOR – Rich Merritt is coming to OUTfest Sept. 24 to give some advice: “Our secrets keep us sick.” Merritt received that advice from a therapist who was part of his journey, which has included surviving roughly fifteen years of Bob Jones’ fundamentalist schools, a stint in the Marines as a closeted gay man, drug addiction and recovery, and negative publicity about his brief time making gay porn films.
Merritt first peeked out of the closet in 1998, when the New York Times Magazine included him in a story about gays in the military; Merritt was also on the magazine’s cover. Though he was identified only by an initial in the Times article, subsequent media coverage after he left the Marines revealed something Merritt had chosen not to share – his stint, while in the military, making gay porn films. His reaction to the subsequent negative publicity was one factor which led Merritt to drug addiction.
Merritt has written about it all in his book, “Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star.” Don’t judge this book by its title – rather than tales of bawdy sex, the book is actually the story of one man’s journey beyond survival and into learning how to live.
Since the book’s publication in June, Merritt has been interviewed by national publications ranging from the Gay & Lesbian Times to A&U. Granted, press interviews are part of the job of selling one’s book, but Merritt seems to go beyond glib self-promotion to share experiences that might help others lead better lives. Or even just stay alive.
In the A&U July interview, for example, Merritt says of his early sexual promiscuity, “I allowed myself to be lured into [unsafe encounters]. The first few times I had sex, it was unsafe, but I was ‘straight’ and the guys were either ‘straight’ or in the military, so I reasoned they could not possibly have HIV/AIDS. Pretty stupid. In my young and repressed mind, a condom prohibited the ‘bonding’ I was seeking. I wanted to share everything with this guy, even it if was bad.”
Merritt has also been outspoken about the detrimental effects of Christian fundamentalism. In a May 13 column in Southern Voice, which is posted on Merritt’s website, www.richmerritt.com, the author bids a not-so-fond farewell to Dr. Bob Jones III upon his retirement from heading the schools that bear his family’s name.
“Indeed, through faith, hope and experience, I have made tremendous growth, both spiritually and personally, as I’ve overcome my affliction. My affliction however, is not my homosexuality; rather, my affliction has been the tormented shackles of fundamentalist bigotry. In the 20 years since you handed me my Bob Jones Academy high school diploma, I’ve slowly and painfully learned how to combat the self-hatred I learned in your schools. I’ve reprogrammed my mind away from the contempt for other sinners that you and your institution instilled in me. THE MAIN DIFFERENCE between us is that your belief system requires you to reject all other belief systems, especially ones practiced by those you define as pagan. My liberal belief system requires that I maintain respect for opinions, traditions and practices of all other faiths, even those held by people who wish that I be stoned to death.”
Merritt will be on the Main Stage at OUTfest, Kerrytown’s annual block party to celebrate National Coming Out Day, at approximately 6 p.m. on Sept. 24. Other OUTFest events will include live entertainment on two stages, an auction at the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project center, dancing in the streets, and a speaking appearance by State Representative Alma-Wheeler Smith.
At 7 p.m., following Merritt’s address at OUTfest, he’ll be doing a reading and signing of his book “Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star” at Common Language Bookstore.