Let’s Talk HIV: Remembering the Dead this World AIDS Day
December 1, World AIDS Day, is just around the corner and as the day approaches I’ve been thinking of marking the occasion by remembering and honoring absent friends who’ve died from HIV-related illnesses and complications.
For World AIDS Day last year, on my personal blog, I wrote about a true unsung hero of the epidemic, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, who was my first AIDS doctor and whom I cannot credit enough for helping keep me, and so many others, alive and relatively well.
Before the term AIDS was created, and even prior to GRID, gay-related immune deficiency, Sonnabend was on the frontlines of gay male health in New York City. Among his accomplishments was developing effective prophylaxis regimes to avert opportunistic illnesses, creating safe sex guidelines and assisting people with AIDS to empower themselves. Retired from seeing patients, he lives in London now.
This year it’s time for me to recall five deceased friends and colleagues, and a bit of their lives and achievements.
Michael Callen -- I met him through Sonnabend because we were both under his expert care. Callen was instrumental in putting a human face to AIDS, worked tirelessly to create the PWA Coalition, an organization with a crucial newsletter full of valuable information about the then-few treatment options, and he also was a fine singer and musician. He collaborated with federal researchers, fellow PWAs, drug companies, the few politicians who gave a damn, and with boundless optimism and charm. The impact of Callen’s medical advocacy and urging PWAs to empower themselves are benefiting those of us alive today.
James Reid -- We became friends at the end of the 1980s in New York. Reid cherished his African-American literary heritage and read all the books by writers who flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. With a ready grin under his walrus moustache, he tended to the daily needs of his friends, abandoned by their families, as they battled AIDS destroying their bodies and minds. Full of jokes he knew were bad, Reid was a firm believer in the healing power of a smile and laughter. His shoulders comforted so many others and me when it was time to cry over all the dying and pain we were witnessing.
Steve Michael -- He and his wonderful partner Wayne Turner joined with me on the 1992 ACT UP/Presidential Project in the snowdrifts of New Hampshire and South Dakota, as we chased Democratic and GOP candidates demanding they answer the question on our placards: What about AIDS? Michael and Turner, who is very much alive, eventually moved to Washington. DC. and devoted themselves to nudging President Bill Clinton to keep his AIDS promises. Expert at keeping AIDS activist concerns in the news, Michael was the go-to person for reporters who needed an excellent quote. Michael was the loudest voice on the DC Ryan White CARE Council demanding, and receiving, accountability from local service organizations.
Danny Sotomayor -- Before we met in person, he would often call me late at night and in a friendly (and very scared) voice unleash his anger and fears over facing death at a young age. Sotomayor was a key activist from fly-over country, Chicago, and played an instrumental role in shaping national AIDS activist networks and the massive demonstrations at the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration. His tolerance for bullshit was low. He expressed his views with pointed humor through syndicated editorial cartoons in dozens of gay papers. The cartoons may have been just one panel, but Sotomayor’s artwork and words captured the anguish and occasional joy of activists and readers too numerous to count.
Hank Wilson -- This activist cut his political teeth in the 1970s working on Harvey Milk’s campaigns for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Before legal protections for California teachers existed, Wilson came out of the closet, kept his job with junior high school students and formed a gay teachers’ support group. After receiving an AIDS diagnosis, Wilson sobered up with Alcoholics Anonymous, helped launch street activist groups, while always pushing gays to reach out to the homeless and poor LGBT people among us. In his final years, we organized pickets at foreign consulates when gays or PWAs abroad faced discrimination or were denied medical care.
All of these men fought the good fight, in ways large and small that had a beneficial impact on those who knew them while they were alive and extended after their deaths.
The few words I’ve said here about these terrific people scarcely begin to convey the depth and fabulousness my friends possessed, but honoring our dearly departed loved ones doesn’t require many or any words. We can use mental images, a personal keepsake, a handful or hundreds of words to remember our lost friends.
Just think about your dead and missing friends this World AIDS Day, in some way that is meaningful for you.