Things are finally starting to turn around for Mark Morris. He never had a perfect life, but after decades of domestic violence, prostitution, homelessness, and becoming HIV-positive, Morris is now, at 46, at a point where he can approach the obstacles that come into his life with courage, strength, support, and finally, a smile.
As a result of an abusive 20-year relationship, Morris needed cosmetic and dental surgery; scars covered his face, his nose was crooked and jagged after having his face kicked in, and his teeth seemed to be beyond repair. After searching the Internet for resources for domestic violence survivors in Southern California, he did not find many leads or inspiration until he came across the nonprofit group Give Back a Smile, which helps connect those in need with philanthropically minded dentists.
Michael Fulbright, DDS, a Redondo Beach, Calif.–based dentist, has many pro bono cases under his belt. He learned about Morris through this organization and decided to donate his time and resources to help reconstruct his smile. He will be working with his team to give Morris back his lost teeth and replace broken-down fillings in hopes of raising his confidence and self-esteem.
“It was my hope that I could take my skills at being a cosmetic dentist and apply those to people in need while giving back to the community,” said Fulbright, “and by volunteering for this program, I am healing the effects of domestic violence by providing free consultation and dental treatment to restore the smiles of survivors of domestic violence.”
For Morris, however, there was a long and painful journey before he crossed paths with the dentist who would change his life. Morris fled his conservative home in Minnesota at age 15 and settled in Key West, Fla. Shortly thereafter, he contracted HIV. With no income or place to stay, he resorted to prostitution. During this time, he formed a relationship with a man named Pierre, a drag queen and fellow prostitute whom he dated for almost a year. While the relationship was not abusive, Morris began to experience abuse on the streets as a sex worker.
"There was definitely a lot of abuse on the street,” Morris said. “One time, I was forced to perform oral sex. I was beat up and had my clothes ripped from me. I was not in a good place, but through it all I knew that things would get better. Someday, it would all be over."
After a year in Florida, Morris went home and returned to his high school, where he was tormented for being gay. His family did not accept him at the time, and like many LGBT youth of today, he did not feel safe or secure at school.
By age 17, Morris met a man named Mark in Minneapolis; they would stay together for 20 years, until Mark's death in April 2001. For most of their time together, they lived in San Francisco. The relationship was very traumatic; Morris recalled, "I just kept thinking that the abuse would stop, that I loved him, and that things were going to change. What I did learn is that abusive partners do not change; they sometimes get worse."
Things seemed to change for Morris after the start of the new millennium. Morris met his future husband, Larry, while attending church in San Diego. After being together for some time, the two got married in 2008, on the last day possible for same-sex couples to do so before Proposition 8 took effect in California, banning same-sex marriage.
Although things appeared to be getting better, Morris has faced a few bumps along the way and is still not safe from discrimination or harassment. On his most recent birthday, September 16, in Lake Forest, Calif., Morris was performing on the street when two men drove by and tossed windshield wiper solution in his face. The case is currently in court and is being pursued as a hate crime, due to the dialogue exchanged, including the words "fag" and "faggot."
Morris has recently finished an autobiographical book, Looking For Love Under Landmines, which is over 300 pages and documents the trials and tribulations of growing up gay in a conservative environment, childhood prostitution, and finally gaining some closure on domestic abuse that lasted over two decades.
In addition, Morris spends at least five days a week performing music on Hollywood Boulevard — channeling gay icons such as Lady Gaga and Madonna. Of his love for music, he stated, “I love to perform; I love to embrace who I am and many artists, Lady Gaga specifically, has improved things for those in the LGBT community. She is making it a priority to make acceptance inclusive to all people. With my new smile, I can finally sing with complete confidence.”
As domestic violence is often portrayed as a male aggressor/female victim type of crime, both Morris and Fulbright want make people aware that everyone — male and female, gay and straight — can be vulnerable to abuse.
“Once I received Mark’s case, I was initially confused; I saw that the name was male, but realized it was correct once we called the patient for his initial exam. I have to admit that stereotypically, I think of victims of domestic violence being female,” said Fulbright. “Once I met Mark and he told me his story, I realized what a great opportunity I had to treat such a nice man and help him restore his life, while hopefully bringing gay domestic violence to the mainstream so that these people can get the care that they so deserve.”
Mark Morris and his husband, Larry, currently live in Los Angeles. His book, Looking for Love Under Landmines, is available by contacting [email protected].