Andrew Cunanan and I were lifeguards together.
Not the actual water kind, but in an HIV prevention project of AIDS Foundation of San Diego called Project Lifeguard. The concept was that gay men would volunteer to go to bars, walk around and talk to patrons about safe sex. Andrew, with his charm and outgoing personality, was well-suited for the task. I was not, as it seemed so intrusive and paternalistic to thrust condoms on unsuspecting men enjoying a drink.
It’s ironic that we were part of a program named for saving lives when he would end up taking so many in such a dramatic fashion.
Tonight Ryan Murphy brings to life this dark journey of murder and madness in the star-studded television series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story on FX. And as it unfolds in melodramatic episodic fashion, it can be an opportunity for us all not just to reflect on how Cunanan’s story was told 20 years ago but whether advancements in LGBT rights since 1997 would change the narrative today.
Andrew Cunanan’s cross-country killing spree had all the elements of a gripping thriller — sex, money, power, secrets and murder. It played out like a sordid soap opera in the media and reached a furor after the murder of Gianni Versace. And it ended with so many unanswered questions when Andrew killed himself on a houseboat just three miles away from where he killed the fashion icon.
The media quickly jumped on all the scintillating details of Cunanan’s sex work, pornographic tastes and the fantastical stories of his adventures that may or may not have been accurate. This story of a murderous “high-class homosexual prostitute” was being told at a time when anti-sodomy laws were still legal in the United States, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was current policy and Will & Grace was still on the horizon. Gay sex was still seen as seedy and untoward and was great fodder for daytime talk shows like Jenny Jones and Sally Jesse Raphael.
The story of Andrew Cunanan is the story of a killer, but it’s also a story of mental illness in a community that has valued beauty and wealth over all other things. His mental health led to his violence — not being gay, doing sex work or having interest in S&M porn.
Cunanan had a memorable personality. He was bright and engaging, with a captivating, wide smile. I don’t know how much of that was performance and how much was authentic, but he knew how to use charm to get what he wanted.
Gay men can be very skilled liars in general. It’s something we learn out of necessity when living in the closet. Andrew Cunanan was clearly an adept liar, and that’s a very important skill to have in sex work, which is often not about selling the act of sex but selling the lie of attraction, passion or romance.
Cunanan’s personality, good looks and sex work also gave him access to powerful and wealthy people. Access to those circles is usually dependent on the class you are born into, and can seem attractive to gay men who have always seen themselves as powerless outsiders, particularly gay men of color.
His perceived hunger — for status, money and violence — fit perfectly into the narrative of the depraved homosexual. It’s a story we had seen splashed across headlines for decades. Gay men were seen as sexual predators, deviant, with mental disorders. In fact, the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder only served to distract from the very real struggles many gay men faced around those issues.
It’s easy to dismiss Andrew Cunanan’s killing spree as the actions of a madman, but that overlooks a real and ongoing problem with mental illness in our community. Of course his actions are the exception, not the rule. Gay men with mental health issues are not violent spree killers, and the physical harm they inflict is often upon themselves.
So many gay men try to disguise their struggles around mental health with expensive cars, sculpted bodies and endless Instagram selfies. But in the end they are battling an illness, often in silence, because we have prioritized status and ripped abs over mental health.
Renewed interest in the story of Andrew Cunanan and the death of Gianni Versace is an opportunity for us to have a real conversation about gay men’s mental health issues. Our concerns for HIV have eclipsed all other health issues while gay men still struggle around depression, suicide and drug addiction.
We must choose to prioritize mental health and create a space where gay men can speak openly and honestly about their experiences and seek the help and support they need. The mental wellness of our community can be improved with work, but it requires our attention and investment.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story premieres tonight on FX.
Featured image via CBS Local Minnesota