SCOTT O'HARA

The Pleasure Activist
The Incomparable Scott O'Hara.
By Owen Keehnen

When I talked to Scott for this formal interview he had just written a wild and very smart memoir called Autopornography (1997). I loved it because he walked the talk. He was so out there and honest about everything…. He never used an alias for his porn career and didn't agree with compartmentalizing any part of his life since that struck him as mentally dishonest and unhealthy. I found that very cool and progressive and sane.

He first came to prominence in the early 1980s when he was awarded the title 'The Man With The Biggest Dick in San Francisco'. Well, as you can imagine with that on his resume the porn studios came calling and he ended up making approximately two dozen titles over the next few years (83-88) such as 'The Other Side of Aspen Part II', 'Below The Belt', and 'In Your Wildest Dreams'. He was a sexual warrior and most of his greatest tales were off screen. He even wrote a book of semi true/semi fantasy tales called Do It Yourself Piston Polishing (for Non-Mechanics) from Badboy Books.

Once he discovered his HIV status he moved to Wisconsin and focused on the self-publishing 'zine scene that was starting to really explode at about that time. He came out with two of the most respected queer titles of the era 'Steam' and then 'Wilde'. Eventually they went under and he focused once more upon his writing. At the time I first talked to him he was mainly concerned with a musical he had just finished writing which he did live to see produced even though it was not the great success he had hoped.

We talked periodically on the telephone and he even popped by Chicago for a book signing while passing through -- if I remember right I think he was picking up a car that was still in Wisconsin. However, that visit I had hepatitis and was too sick to meet with him. When I woke up (about a month later) we would talk periodically over the phone. That went on for the next few months. He always seemed very engaged and excited until one day I called and he noticeable down. He told me he had been given "the prognosis". What do you say to that? Not too long afterwards, on February 18, 1998 he was dead. Such a lust and love for life gone at 36.

A few weeks later I got a package in the mail…ever the grim joker the card said, "This is the last chance to do with me what you will" and inside was a packet of his ashes! (He'd divvied them up among his pals and although we did have fun talks, I think I probably got some ashes more because I lived in a city he had loved and could spread some of him here.) I tried to think of what would give him the greatest pleasure. I knew his "preferences" and I wanted to do something to honor the unique artist/sexual being combination that he was. I split the ashes and dropped a sampling while "visiting" one of his favorite bathhouses 'Man’s Country'…a temple for him. The other half I dropped in the Shakespeare Garden north of town. It is a very peaceful place with a stone walkway leading through grounds where all about the path were planted those foliage and herbs and trees and such that are mentioned in Shakespeare's work. The two combined seemed very Scott. I hope I did him right…

Why was this the right time to write your life story?

Is there a bad time to write a book? I was tired of being asked a lot of the same questions and I wanted to get it out there once and for all. I can't imagine any situation where keeping secrets is good for you. That's been one of my big messages and the best way to put that into practice is to write this book.

In reading Autopornography I was really struck by that unflinching honesty. Was that tough or does it come naturally to you?

It's very natural for me. Straightforward and personal is the only way I can write. I don't write fiction very well.

Does that mean the erotica stories in Do It Yourself Piston Polishing and your tales in the Flesh and the Word books are true?

Yes. Those stories didn't necessarily happen that way, but they all came form my feelings about those situations and in similar experiences.

What's your cardinal rule for writing good porn?

I'm the stereotypical porn writer. I sit at my desk with a hard-on jerking off while I'm writing. If it isn't hard then nothing good will come out of it.

So to speak.

Oh boy!

In Autopornography you write about not believing in long-term commitment and monogamy, but I understand that's changed in the last few months…

It's true and it's still going well. It's an eight-month semi-monogamous relationship. There is commitment, but it's not of the 'Til Death Do Us Part variety. Nothing I've really written in the book has changed. I still believe people change, situations change, and that's just the nature of things…but I will say we are committed to trying.

I've also heard you have written a musical!

It's called 'Ex Lovers'. I wrote it in Wisconsin primarily as a valentine for all the men I've known and loved in San Francisco. It's about that strange queer phenomenon that's developed in the past couple decades where everyone is everyone's ex-lover and how that all works and how that is family. It's odd. I didn't set out to write a musical. I've always been a musical queen but I set out to write a play and then I added a couple songs and before I knew it…I'm kind of blow away by the fact.

Are there productions plans?

It's being staged here (in San Francisco) at The Rhinoceros Theater in January. It's my current obsession and I'm, still so surprised that it happened.

It's so typical in a way of your life though.

True.

You've had so many overlapping careers. You said you wrote it while in Wisconsin. While you were there you also had an entirely different career as the founder and publisher of the late great 'zine 'Steam'. What was your objective when you began it?

Like most of my projects it grew and changed. Originally it was a journal of my sex travels and a sort of consumer reports of bathhouses. I've always loved bathhouses and it bothered me that so many owners didn't pay attention to their customers. I wanted to create a quality index and it grew into a literary journal.

You don't hear that story everyday. What did you learn from the experience?

Besides the fact that I'm not a businessman? I met so many great writers. It was also great getting to help people, brining them out, and letting them know their sex lives were nothing to be ashamed of -- that really was the message behind the whole project.

In Autopornography you say that after discovering lesions on your leg, and before moving to Wisconsin, you lived at the beach one winter and contemplated life. What revelations came to you during that time?

It didn't take the whole season, it took about ten minutes and the message was 'Do It Now'. When I saw those lesions and I realized what they meant everything in my life turned upside down. It didn't frighten me as much as it made everything clear. I decided I wanted to live in the country, garden, and write -- so that's what I did for several years. Living out that particular goal was wonderful and now I'm just living out another one.

You are also known as 'The Man With the HIV+ Tattoo'. What led to that decision?

It's all part of that honesty, of wanting to be as out as possible. That worked on two levels, the public level of wanting absolutely everyone who saw me to know, a political statement if you will of "we are among you".

Meaning many people don't think they know anyone with HIV?

Yeah. Not in Wisconsin, though here in San Francisco that's not an issue. The private aspect was the other. That I always had trouble discussing my HIV status with partners and that caused me a lot of stress. A tattoo was an easy way of letting them know without having to go into it.

Lately you've been in the news as well as a proponent of barebacking.

Proponent is the wrong word. I'm not advocating anything. I think everyone needs to make up his or her own mind. For me certain things are an acceptable risk but I'm not about to tell anyone else where they should draw the line. However, I do believe anyone else who is telling us we can't do something is treading over the line.

As a long term PWA do you have a personal strategy for survival?

It's changed. For a long time I was a drug resister and I'm glad I was so this January when I broke down and started I was drug naïve and those drugs were still effective. Now I'm a relatively cooperative patient and do what the doctor tells me which is a big change. I'm doing well. The lymphoma is a problem, but it's being handled.

What is the most common question asked of you.

That makes me laugh.

How come?

Because it always used to be "How big is it?" and now I am asked a lot of different things. It's nice to know I have diversified enough that it's changed.

Speaking of, as a veteran of twenty-six porn films what was the thrill of making gay adult films -- the celebrity, the sex, the exhibitionism?

It was all oddly innocent and joyful for me. The main thrill was just knowing I was out there turning on men on TVs across the world. That's a thrill as an actor and also as an exhibitionist. I like the idea of people getting off on me and the idea of people getting off period.

I like that you never used a pseudonym or tried to hide your work in porn?

I think it's unhealthy to divide yourself into a sexual persona and a regular personal. I didn't want that ever. I never felt that part of my life wasn't worthy of the rest of me.

Which of your careers brings you the greatest pride -- as a playwright, a porn star, a publisher, or a memoir writer?

Currently my play is my greatest obsession. However, In general I sense I lump it all together and call myself, to use Annie Sprinkle's term, "a pleasure activist".