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An All-American Boy

In 1973 PBS ran a 12-hour reality TV series called "An American Family", filmed by husband and wife team Alan and Susan Raymond. This was decades before "The Osbournes" and "The Real World", before we even knew the term "reality TV", and it was thus revolutionary.

Every week millions of Americans tuned in to watch the everyday life of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. What they saw was new and gritty: a dysfunctional family experiencing real life problems such as marital tension leading to divorce. But perhaps the most shocking aspect of the show was that the eldest son, Lance, was open about his homosexuality. Hailed as brave for coming out on national TV, Lance would later say he was just too lazy to hide his sexual orientation. Whatever the case, he was the first openly gay person many Americans had ever seen, and his openness about being himself horrified conservatives and electrified young people, gay and straight. Lance was a phenomenon.

I never saw this show. In Victoria, B.C., we had no cable, no PBS. The only American family I was familiar with was The Brady Bunch. And they were far too wholesome to admit to any "deviant" sexual behaviour - or much sexual behaviour at all, come to that. But just across the border Lance was a trailblazer, and firmly in the media spotlight.

The show made the Loud family, and particularly Lance, famous; in a sense he lived the rest of his life in the shadow of that show, and would later say, "Television ate my family." He found the fame wonderful and horrible at the same time. It seemed to exert a pressure on him to live up to the heroic image many people had formed of him, when really he saw himself as an outcast, living life on the margins.

Andy Warhol

During the filming of the show he had lived briefly in New York city, and by the time it aired he had moved there. He met his childhood idol, Andy Warhol; he had written to Andy when he was 13, and to his amazement, Andy had written back. The two had corresponded for a time and exchanged late-night phone calls, till Andy got shot and became even more reclusive. Now, meeting in person in New York, they became close, and Lance saw Andy as a kind of father figure, a more appropriate one that his real father, who on television had professed himself disgusted with his gay son's life. "He was always kind of parental, and that was great," Lance would later recall of Andy. "That was one of the nicer things to come out of the series." From 1975 to 1990 Lance had a column, "LoudSpeaker", in Andy's Interview magazine.

The Mumps

In high school Lance and his friend Kristian Hoffman had been part of a band initially called Loud, later The Mumps. After a disastrous appearance on The Dick Cavett Show they had disbanded, but Lance and Kristian reformed the group in New York. They were a kind of "twisted, new wave Beach Boys on caffeine", recalls a friend; Lance, charismatic and energetic, was the front man. The Mumps were a fixture at Max's Kansas City and CBGB for a time, but unlike many contemporary bands they never really became famous, and eventually broke up. During the Mumps years, though, Lance lived it up, staying in the dilapidated Chelsea Hotel with his now-divorced mother, and partying constantly, surrounded by boys, drugs, and rock and roll. For a time, it was heaven.

A Death in an American Family

Disco hit, and Lance began hanging around Studio 54 where, still a recognizable celebrity, he was welcomed. He got into cocaine and continued to party. Sometime in those first years of the AIDS epidemic he seroconverted to HIV, but he told no-one; he made himself look fabulous by working out at the gym. He moved back to California and began writing for magazines like Circus, Interview, American Film, Details and Vanity Fair; he had a regular column in The Advocate, "Out Loud," in which he wrote about his role as a gay icon. He continued on his self-destructive path, abusing speed and crystal meth.

Eventually, his ill health caught up with him, and in 2001 Lance died in a hospice of liver failure caused by hepatitis C and HIV co-infection. Major obituaries were published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, and at his funeral Rufus Wainwright sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", accompanied on piano by his mother, Kate McGarrigle.

The Raymonds had stayed in touch with the Loud family, filming them for another show in the 80s, and as his health deteriorated Lance asked them to film again. Nearing the end of his life, he wrote an explanation for the request: "Make no mistake. This is not to emphasize the sadness of my demise but rather emphasize the love of my family and friends. When my time comes up, I want to be filmed because life this past year has taught me so much. I also stand as a role model as to what not to do in one's life." The resulting documentary, "LANCE LOUD! A Death in an American Family", intersperses shots from the original series with footage of an obviously ill and emaciated Lance reflecting on his life. It shows affectionate and touching interviews with family members, including his father, telling of how they love and accept Lance and all he has done.

This is where I learned about Lance Loud, gay icon and troubled soul, who lived life to its fullest and died too young.