The Tender Activist: Two decades

By : Scottie Campbell
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I’ve been fortunate in my life to have deep relationships and friendships. I’m the kind of guy who reflects on the significance of people in my life, what I’ve learned from them, what we’ve learned from each other. So it is not without consideration that I say the person who has made the deepest impact on me was Sidney Vincent Chase.

That’s not because Sid was my first true love, though there is that sweet reality. It is because in the fall of 1997, just a few days shy of his 30th birthday, Sid sealed himself up in a garage and asphyxiated himself on the fumes of a Jeep Cherokee. He was found a couple of days later by a friend of the family; it was her garage, he had been living with her. It was terrible.

The note he left behind was addressed to me; the weight of being the recipient has never left me. I inherited clothing, furniture, miscellaneous other goods per the note’s instructions. There was some money left behind, too. For a long time, I created a false reality of independence, freedom, and success using that (actually humble) inheritance.

The truth is this experience broke me. It was one of those challenges in life that get thrown at all of us that remain a measure of who we are as a human being. There is the fact that I survived and there is my own culpability. We were in a youthful break-up-separation-stage, I was being headstrong about not recoupling. I was his person. The undercurrent of the aforementioned delusions was that I believed I was a murderer; this belief, though weak these days, still subtly whispers through my cells and challenges my peace.

All of this seems necessary to bring up because this issue marks my 20th year of writing for Watermark. It was in the immediate aftermath of Sid’s suicide that I met Tom Dyer, Watermark’s founder. Some misguided person recommended me for Watermark’s annual “Catches” issue (being selected only helped to fan the flames of my “on my way” delusions) and Tom did the interview. That was the start of a friendship that continues to this day and, shortly thereafter, I finagled my first assignment for Watermark: an interview with Larry Kramer. Fuck. Me.

To prove my skills as a writer, I gave Tom a cassette of the WPRK radio version of my play Sidneyrella, a gay Cinderella story I wrote in college (other than the inspiration for the name, the play was not about Sid). Tom listened to the tape on a plane trip to Vail, if memory serves, and apparently laughed to the distraction of the other passengers. I would later learn that it isn’t that hard to make Tom laugh and his unique laugh always gets attention, but my “audition” worked.

Watermark has been my most consistent outlet for scribbling over the past 20 years, and has afforded me opportunities that I don’t think I would have had otherwise. There are too many memories to fit into my word count, but here are a couple: Being snapped at by Harvey Fierstein at the beginning of our interview for asking about his voice, then meeting him later, “If I’d known you were so cute, I wouldn’t have snapped at you.” Asking Rufus Wainwright if he would date someone who was HIV+, with self-serving intentions; Rufus Wainwright crushing my heart by saying he’d have to give it some thought. (Keep in mind this was years ago when usually the answer from guys was a solid no.) Then the be all and end all: getting to interview Eartha Kitt.

I had a lot of fun with an alter ego called Dott Comm for a while. She would cover nightlife with her well-hung sidekick, Estrella, from Orlando to Daytona to Tampa Bay and back again. Much bolder than I’ll ever be, Dott was glorious fiction, but she routinely pissed off advertisers with the unflinching truth. One year in the early 2000s, I won the WAVE for best journalist/columnist and Dott came in second. Yes, I was pretty certain I was the shit.

For a brief time I served as assistant editor for the paper, later being let go because Tom felt we didn’t see eye-to-eye on the direction of the paper. That was a confusing time for me and a lesson to never let your job become your identity, which I had done to a large extent. In retrospect, it was a fair assessment. Throughout the years I have often groused that Watermark lacks balls: the candidates endorsed are usually safe choices, local politicians are rarely called to task if they’re on our side. Similarly, criticism of businesses owned by LGBTQ or allies is avoided. These observations are easy to make having never been in a leadership role in the organization, never having it be my responsibility to pay people and keep the business viable. It’s unlikely to maintain a relationship for two decades and agree all the time.

It seems appropriate to end with a quote from my inaugural Watermark piece from April 1998, which may or may not be apropos of nothing. I asked Larry Kramer if writing “The Normal Heart” had been cathartic, he replied: “Writing is never cathartic, but it just put me in touch with my feelings.”

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