An Interview with Mark Anthony Caruso, Retired NYPD & Survivor
By Dave Griffiths
Many of you probably don’t know this about me, but I am a HUGE Survivor fan. I have watched this show ever since the very beginning. And when I say beginning, I mean it! I watched the entire first season and loved it! I was one of the 51.7 Million fans watching eagerly as Sue Hawk ripped her fellow players to shreds and handed Richard Hatch the Million dollar check. I have seen just about every episode since and if I could, I would apply to be on the show and it would be a dream come true. I’m that much of a fan!
So while Andy Fields interviewed Richard Hatch about his Survivor experience, I chose to ask my new friend Mark Anthony Caruso if he would talk to me about some of his experiences, both on the show, and in life, that have made him the man he is today. I was absolutely thrilled when they both agreed, because I am a huge fan of both of these inspirational gay men. Richard Hatch’s intensity and his self-confidence and Mark Anthony Caruso’s heart and his drive, are what stood out to me while watching these two men on television. I’m sure, after you read their interviews, you’ll see why they are both great men and true survivors.
Mark Anthony Caruso, more affectionately known as “Papa Bear,” was born and raised in New York City and now lives in the Freeport area, just east of Manhattan. He is a retired New York Police Department morgue detective and recently went back to school later on in life to get his nursing degree. It is clear that this man is a caring and giving individual, but how has he kept his positive attitude, even through so much hardship? I asked him about his past and how it was growing up in NYC after the stonewall riots as a young boy. Papa Bear replied “I was born and raised in NYC and remember going to the gay parades in the 70’s and 80’s and how thankful I was for the people of stonewall for giving us a chance for me to be myself in this new world. I knew I was gay from very young, but I officially came out in my early twenties. I was working as a police officer in the 6th Precinct Manhattan in the 1980’s, where the stonewall riots occurred. The area has a large gay and lesbian community to which I was proud to work and serve.”
I asked him what it was like to be a part of the police department while his gay brothers and sisters were battling it out against your fellow officers. “It was tough because we were trying to make changes within the police department,” he replied. “When I was a police officer in the very beginning of my career in the ‘80s, it was not fashionable to even come out as an openly gay cop.” So I asked him if he had ever felt discrimination from his fellow officers and how he dealt with that. “I was discriminated when I was working on patrol in the early ‘80s. Times were different and officers didn’t accept gay officers,” he said. “I dealt with it by trying to do the best job and gaining respect of the other officers. Times and attitudes have changed over the years.”
While he wasn’t a member of the gay activist movement, he was doing his part in changing society’s views by being an openly gay police officer, which was very uncommon in those days. “I marched in the gay parades as an openly gay police officer and then Detective,” he said. “I love looking back at the photos of the small group and then smile now on how advanced the Gay Officer Action League (GOAL) has grown in the years that followed.”
I wanted to know how he dealt with playing both roles, as a police officer, and then as a gay man as well, and if he ever found it difficult to be both at the same time. “In the beginning,” he said. “I was made fun of in all areas relating to being gay. My locker was vandalized, anti-gay statements were written on it, it was filled with condoms, etc. I even responded to calls alone when other police officers turned away. I worked hard and eventually they got to know me and things changed, as well as attitudes.”
Caruso has been a police officer since 1985, reaching detective in 1992 as the first openly-gay officer assigned to the Hate Crime unit, formally known as the Bias Unit in New York City. They investigate crimes including assaults, homicides, and crimes that have any bias related to them.
Then came that fateful day on September 11, 2001, which is a day we will all remember forever. Caruso was a morgue detective at the time and his job was to go in there and bring the families closure. It was a difficult job, identifying victims and notifying families, but he and his coworkers worked tirelessly to give those families closure and bring them peace of mind. I asked him how being in NYC during the period has affected him until today. “I feel we were all in a state of shock and were working on auto pilot. Who would ever think that something that horrible was going to really happen?” he said. “I changed as a person, becoming more aware of life and just how short it really can be. I think it’s hard living with the memories of what happened and how it changed our lives forever. I still sometimes find it hard to talk about or even see images of the World Trade Center.”
It was during this time, he and his coworkers would bond while sitting around the television and they would watch Survivor: Africa. He decided that life was too short and he wanted to apply to be on the show. While the producers took their time in casting him, he finally got his chance and in 2011, was cast in Survivor: South Pacific, the show’s 23rd season.
I asked him what it was like to be on the deserted island with no comforts of home. He said, “In the beginning, I think most of us were shell shocked and once the excitement wore off, it was all about surviving. I even shocked myself by making a make-shift bathroom and hunting for food.” When I asked him what made him want to go on the show in the first place, he replied “I was a big fan of the show and wanted to challenge myself to see if I could win the top prize.” His favorite part of being on the show was definitely fulfilling a dream of his and the part he enjoyed least, I asked. “The voting off process is not the coolest thing because feelings are bound to get hurt.” His plan when coming onto the show was to be the person that the tribe looked to for guidance, support and humor, which didn’t necessarily work out for him, as he ended up getting voted out third from his tribe.
I asked Papa Bear if he felt any discrimination on the show for being gay, but he said “No, I didn’t feel any different treatment because I am gay. The show is ‘every person for themselves’ and that’s how it plays out.” If he could do it all over again, he thinks that he would spend more time getting to know his teammates, in order to gain a better alliance.
We finished discussing the show and I asked him what the lowest point of his life had been so far. Without hesitation, he responded saying “My lowest time was when my first partner passed away in my arms from cancer when I was in my twenties.” March 6th this year, was the 21st anniversary of the death of his partner and he still pays homage to him by remembering him on that date each year. Papa Bear, who was probably little more than a cub at the time, was his caregiver, best friend, lover, and on that day, he lost a part of his soul. I asked him how you possibly overcome a loss like that, especially at such a young age. “I overcame it by working harder in the police department by focusing on my job, but you never forget,” he said.
It was just a few months later, that he experienced one of his high-points in life. Papa Bear said “Although God has blessed me with many; I think it was when I became a Detective, months after my partner passed away. It was bitter-sweet to be promoted and have your work be recognized after suffering a major loss.” In 2005, after 20 years as a police officer in New York, he retired with honors from the NYPD presented to him by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Police Commissioner.
Today, after the loss of his loving partner, going through 9/11 and the difficult aftermath, being voted out of Survivor, and dealing with the rigors of a life well-lived, Mark Anthony Caruso, or Papa Bear, as he lovingly jokes is his name, has recently gotten his nursing degree and has been happily partnered to a great guy for the past three years. “We’re best friends that slipped in becoming partners,” he said. “We knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses way before the relationship even started.” While they are not yet legally married, even though it is legal in New York State for same-sex couples to get married, he joked that he might be looking for a ring.
I ended our interview by asking him if he had any advice for a young gay man growing up in today’s world. He emphasized ,“My advice… get your education and work hard, because it worked for me hopefully it will work for you. I would further tell them to enjoy life because life is too short.” And to anyone else who is currently going through a difficult time, “Have faith because difficult times occur in all our lives and better days are ahead.”
Thank you for bearing your soul for us, Papa Bear.