With his death at the age of 30, Erik Rhodes has people talking again. People have bantered about why we care if a porn star died, have said that he brought this on himself, have locked themselves in rooms in tears, and even been so crass as to say he deserved it.
His real name was James, and he was a larger than life personality who meant different things to a lot of different people.
James was an enigma who in many respects represented the apex of what the gay communality idolizes: he was young, beautiful, muscular, masculine, tall, hung, sexually insatiable, and honest about the character he played in our society. He knew he needed help, begged for it and shunned it at the same time.
It was his “inevitable demise” — words used by James himself in posts that seemed to dare death. He seemed unstoppable. In a word, he seemed “invincible.”
James consumed more drugs, steroids, sex, and attention than 10 regular men. Even those who thumbed their nose at his actions somewhere inside acknowledged that they envied some aspect of him. But his death means more than that. While many who tangentially enjoyed his company may claim to have known him, there is a bigger picture that says more about us than it does him.
People can judge him for his excesses or his career, but it was us who wanted to see those limits pushed and us who consumed the product he became. While many roll their eyes at porn actors, without an audience they wouldn’t exist.
He was an iconic figure to many, but his pain was evident to those who knew him intimately. His recent breakup with long-term boyfriend was crushing. To those who knew the couple, he was more than a collage of faults and didn’t need 10 guys; he only needed one. James posted in his own words, “He was the only thing that made me keep my feet on the ground. I don’t think anyone will ever know me as well as he did, and honestly I don’t want to let anyone get that close to me ever again. (He) made me into a completely different person who I liked being.”
I shared my thoughts with his boyfriend after he heard about James' death. James was self-tortured but would be the last person to ask you to feel sorry for him, even if he needed it. He was a bad boy in need of rescue, a broken man in need of fixing and it tends to be in a gay man’s nature to want to coddle and heal. Few understand what it means to live so publicly. Trust is a commodity that quickly evaporates. For James, many wanted to help but everyone who offered made him wonder if it was only an investment of advice with the hope of a sexual return. And when he would test that suspicion, more often than not, he would be proven right.
It is lonely to be surrounded by a mob that sees you as merely a product to be bartered for, yet no matter how many examples of this we watch fall from the light, we still do not learn.
Because we envied him, the corners of our self-conscious minds empathized with him. His death revealed something terrifying to us about ourselves. In seeing him as something other than invincible, he revealed to us that we too are vulnerable, are mortal. It made us look at the prices we pay and at how far we might go.
And for a moment, and I hope a long moment, we will all judge the extent of our excesses and mitigate the dangers they pose with moderation. His loss may quite literally save many, and we must thank him for that.
BRETT EDWARD STOUT is a contributing writer to The Advocate.