I first noticed him last year with a piece about Bob Bergeron that invokes Dancer From The Dance to suggest that this gay therapist's suicide was due to the fact that he couldn't handle turning 40 and losing his looks.
Here was a man who ended his life at the exact moment he seemed to be nearing a professional peak, one that involved the upbeat story of a mature gay man facing the second half of his life with enthusiasm, hope and an endless array of tight T-shirts.
“We sell this idea that 60 is the new 40, but it’s just lying,” said Dr. Frank Spinelli, an internist in Chelsea who referred numerous patients to Mr. Bergeron. “We tell children there’s Santa Claus, and then they get older, and learn better. I can’t even begin to imagine what Bob was going through.”And just the other day he wrote about Spencer Cox, the major ACT-UP figure who died of complications from his HIV infection. Bernstein likes his little ironies; just as he writes about Bob Bergeron killed himself in his 40s while writing a self-help book called The Right Side of 40, his piece on Cox asks the question--
Why would Mr. Cox devote his life to obtaining lifesaving medications for people all over the world, only to stop taking them himself?But then there's this--
So facial wasting is what did it? Again, aging and losing his looks? It's as if he's working towards a book of essays on the myriad ways gay men sacrifice themselves out of pure vanity.Mr. Cox’s friends worried that his depression and his physical deterioration were feeding off each other in profound ways. With them he was good humored and self-deprecating about the effect H.I.V. drugs had on his looks. Still, he had not had a significant relationship in years, and having lipodystrophy probably was not easy for him.“Spencer was not primarily motivated by being an attractor,” said his friend Carly Sommerstein, an editor at Simon & Schuster. “But we are all looking in the mirror and seeing things change.” She added: “Aging is complicated, and accelerated aging is very complicated. New York is an unforgiving city.”
Or each other, of course, if you add his moralizing obit of porn star Erik Rhodes--
“People faulted him for doing steroids, which was the thing that allowed him to be the ideal they wanted,” said Samuel Colt, an actor who appeared with Mr. Rhodes on-screen and was a friend for the last several years of his life. “And people were always trying to push drugs onto him.”Get that? Gay men and their insatiable hunger for smut and drugs are what did him in. Listen, I don't dispute that porn can be exploitative, but I also don't understand why the gay community requires such consistent, negative treatment.
A quick Google search shows the queer suicide feature is not that new to him. He wrote about the death of L.A. trans sportswriter Christine Daniels in 2009. Let's set aside the article's predictable pronoun disaster; all these similar tropes are invoked -- anxiety over appearance, aging, depression, isolation. Did Bernstein perfect the formula here? Just the right amount of acknowledgement that suicide is ultimately complex and inexplicable threaded through a run-down of obvious, reductive warning signs?
I've been hyper-sensitive to writing about suicide lately. Mindy McCready shot herself in one of the towns I grew up in, leading a lot of people in the media to talk way too much about her dramatic life and what must've done her in. I've been volunteering for a suicide prevention lifeline for over four years now. My own writing lately has been exploring the topic as well.
The subjects of these articles are not emblems of some crisis of substance in the vapid Chelsea social scene. They're not examples of how our culture exploits its most troubled. And they're not cautionary tales about the perils of non-conformity.
They're people. Gay, trans, or straight, they're all people, full of depth and contradiction and mystery. And it's really awful that they died.