Stories of Injustice

'Ryan White was a teenager from Kokomo, Indiana, who was expelled from his school due to his HIV status. He died when he was 18 years old.'
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Ryan White, 1971-1990
Recording by Jim Parsons
Story by The AIDS Memorial

Ryan White (December 6, 1971 – April 8, 1990) was a teenager from Kokomo, Indiana, who was expelled from his school due to his HIV status. He died when he was 18 years old.

White is buried in Cicero, close to the former home of his mother. In 1991, his grave was vandalized on four occasions.

White, a hemophiliac, contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. He was diagnosed in December 1984 and told that he had only 6 months left to live.

Doctors said that White posed no risk to other pupils. However, when he attempted to return to school, parents and teachers protested against his attendance, scared that he could transmit HIV through casual contact.

The dispute made news headlines around the world and turned White into an advocate for AIDS research and education. Although he lived 5 years longer than predicted, he sadly died just one month before his high school graduation.

Over 1,500 people attended White’s funeral on April 11, 1990 at the Second Presbyterian Church on Meridian Street, Indianapolis. His pallbearers included Sir Elton John AIDS Fundation and Phil Donahue. His funeral was also attended by @MichaelJackson.

Sir @EltonJohn performed a song he wrote in 1969, Skyline Pigeon, at the funeral. White also inspired him to create @ejaf.

On the day of the funeral, former President Ronald Reagan wrote a tribute to White that appeared in The Washington Post. This was seen as an indication of how White had helped change the public’s view of HIV AIDS, especially when considering Reagan’s indifference to the virus. By the time he finally addressed the epidemic in 1987, nearly 23,000 Americans had already perished.

'(Glenn) Burke, who played for the Dodgers and Athletics, was the first and only MLB player to come out as gay during his career and the first to acknowledge it publicly.'
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Glenn Burke, 1952-1995
Read by Sterling K. Brown
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport

Glenn Burke (November 16, 1952 – May 30, 1995) was a Major League Baseball player who died of AIDS in San Leandro, California. He was 42 years old.

Burke, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics, was the first and only Major League player to come out as gay to teammates and owners during his career and the first to acknowledge his sexuality publicly.

In 1978, having been open about his homosexuality with his Dodgers teammates and management, Burke was traded to the A’s for the veteran Bill North.

Al Campanis, the Dodgers’ vice president, even offered him bonus money if he married.  “I guess you mean to a woman?” Burke replied.

Burke had a strained relationship with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, allegedly because Lasorda’s son, Tom Lasorda Jr., was gay and became friendly with Burke.  Lasorda Jr. died of AIDS in 1991.

Although Burke started regularly in the outfield for the A’s, a pinched nerve kept him off the field. Refusing to take cortisone shots, he quit the team. However, he returned the next spring.

Former Burke teammate Claudell Washington has said that when A’s manager Billy Martin introduced the new players to the team, Martin said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot.”

A knee injury led Burke to the minor leagues. Living as a gay man, he believed that his dream of starring in the major leagues was unlikely, so he walked away. In The New York Times, Burke was quoted saying, “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn’t changing.” 

In his autobiography Burke said, “Prejudice just won out.”

Burke would later star in gay baseball and softball leagues and won medals at the Gay Games. In 1987, he was hit by a car, leading to a downward spiral of drugs, homelessness and crime. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to theft and possession of a controlled substance and served time in prison. By 1994, he had discovered that he was HIV positive.

Burke’s sister Lutha, knowing he would die soon, searched for him on the streets of San Francisco. After finding her brother, she brought him home to Oakland to care for him in his final days.  In December 2020, 25 years after his death, Burke was honored with the opening of the Glenn Burke Wellness Clinic at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center.

'Max Robinson was an inspirational figure for me when I decided to become a TV journalist and news anchor.'
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Max Robinson, 1939-1988
Recording by Don Lemon
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport

Max Robinson was an inspirational figure for me when I decided to become a TV journalist and news anchor.  I’m Don Lemon, and Max’s professional ascent to become, in 1978, the co-anchor of ABC World News Tonight on ABC News, alongside Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds, showed me that it was possible for a Black American to become a news anchor on a major network.

Many people aren’t aware that Max was the first to reach that height in our business, and was also a founder in 1975 of the National Association of Black Journalists.   He mentored and supported other Black journalists and technicians trying to work their way up the ladder in a White-dominated news business. Sadly, however, Max struggled with alcohol, and died of AIDS on December 20, 1988, at the age of 49.

After growing up in segregated Richmond, Virginia, Max’s first news anchor job was for a Portsmouth, Virginia, TV news station where – and this seems unbelievable now – he had to recite the news from behind a screen, so that viewers didn’t know he was Black.  One day, he pulled down the screen and the station was flooded with complaints, leading to his firing the next day.

But Max rebounded, and in 1966, he was hired as a reporter at Channel 4, the NBC affiliate in Washington, DC, and became a regular guest on Meet the Press.  He won an Emmy award for the documentary series The Other Washington, portraying life in Anacostia, a Black section of Washington, DC known for crime and poverty, and showed how discriminatory laws perpetuated poverty and inequality in healthcare and education.

Max moved to Channel WTOP in 1969 and later moved up to co-anchor the nighttime newscasts at 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.  But being the first Black man in his position at a series of jobs apparently took a toll on his mental health and self-esteem.

“I can remember walking down the halls and speaking to people who would look right through me,” Robinson is quoted as saying in the book Contemporary Authors. “It was hateful at times … I’ve been the first too often, quite frankly.”

Famed Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, who was ABC’s Washington bureau chief in 1980-1981, claimed that Max was deliberately excluded from any decision-making regarding the newscast he co-anchored.  Max publicly complained about racism at the network, including at a Smith College speech in 1981.

After Frank Reynolds died in 1983, Robinson was a no-show at the funeral where he was supposed to sit next to First Lady Nancy Reagan.  He claimed he had had too many drinks, couldn’t sleep, took some prescription drugs, and didn’t wake up on time the next morning.  Soon thereafter, Peter Jennings was named the sole anchor of World News Tonight, and Max was moved into a weekend anchor position.

The next year, Max left ABC to become anchor at a local NBC-owned station in Chicago, but often failed to show up at work, entered rehab for alcohol abuse, and retired in 1985.  The autobiography he was writing with the help of Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page was never finished.

My CNN colleague Bernard Shaw observed:  “Max, at the time of his death, had more arms around him than he had when he was fighting lonely battles fighting racism in the industry, fighting the things all of us deal with in our personal lives.”

'It was insulting to learn the LA Police Commission was in charge of certifying massage therapists… [It] was messing with the wrong HIV+ massage therapist.'
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I had to Fight for My Right to Work
Story and Recording by Andrea de Lange

I’m Andrea de Lange and this is my story about what happened to me starting in 1987, when I tested positive for HIV.

I was 23. My boyfriend and I had been living together for a year, and we called each other “soulmates.” But HIV is a litmus test for whether someone really is a soul mate, and John failed miserably.

He treated me like a leper every single day! I was afraid of being single, so I tolerated his rage and cruelty for the next two years. Finally, I kicked his ass out.

All that abuse hacked away at my self-esteem. The support of my friends and family helped me through that scary and stressful time. Being a full-time college student at Cal State Northridge and doing a lot of public speaking and interviews also helped. It rechanneled my pain and fear into ways I could benefit others.

Dr. Tilkian gave me hope that I could stay healthy. I became involved in alternative treatments through holistic healers I met at Louise Hay’s weekly Hayrides and at Marianne Williamson’s Center for living. I became healthier than ever.

This helped me separate myself from all the fatalistic dogma medical sources and the media were imposing on anyone HIV-positive. We were slapped with timelines: supposedly, we could remain asymptomatic for up to five years. Then we’d get AIDS, and succumb to a nightmarish death, within two years. AZT helped fulfill that prophecy, usually much quicker than the timeline.

I got my Bachelor’s in Art, then completed a Master’s program in counseling. While doing an internship, I bought a ’52 Packard from a friend; then side-hustled as a driver and extra on the film Ed Wood. Johnny Depp’s bodyguard and driver became my husband.

Ben and I moved to Albuquerque, and I worked in the HIV field over the next four years. My career was great. But my marriage? Not so much. I ended it after three years.  And that, along with several other stressful things, led to my burn out.

I knew of the New Mexico School of Natural Therapeutics, and I completed the school’s six-month, 750-hour program for massage therapy.  I returned to LA as a nationally certified massage therapist, and picked up a permit application. It was insulting to learn LA Police Commission was in charge of certifying massage therapists – but it got worse. Applicants needed to submit a doctor’s letter stating they were HIV- and Hepatitis C- negative!

I knew the U.S. Supreme Court added HIV to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1997. The LA Police Commission was messing with the wrong HIV+ massage therapist.

I contacted the HIV & AIDS Legal Services Alliance, and they provided me with a lawyer. The Police Commission was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so Brad Sears and I literally made a federal case about it.

Our grievance ended after a year, and we won. The commission had to remove all discriminatory wording from permit applications and send permits to anyone previously denied one because of HIV or Hep C.  Plus, they had to conduct HIV educational trainings for their staff.

Recently, Brad told me he cited our case in another discrimination case. That is one of many things that make me think it was all worth it.

'Sylvester was a pioneer in the gay community. And during a time when most gay entertainers were in the closet, he wasn't. Sylvester was proudly out, and he paved the way in so many ways.'
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Sylvester, 1947-1988
Recording by Billy Porter
Story by Dave Marez and Irwin M. Rappaport

Sylvester, sometimes known as the Queen of Disco, was famous for an androgynous look and a fierce falsetto voice.  Born in the Watts section of Los Angeles on September 6, 1947, he grew up singing in a Pentecostal church but left the church at age 13 and soon after left home after being shunned by the congregation and his mother for being gay.

Refusing to bow to pressure to conform, for his high school graduation photo Sylvester wore a blue chiffon prom dress and his hair in a beehive.  He moved to San Francisco in 1970, where he performed for a couple of years with the infamous group of drag performers “The Cockettes.”

He released in a solo album in 1977, performed regularly in gay bars in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, and was cast in a cameo singing role in the Bette Midler film, The Rose.  It wasn’t until his third album in 1978 that Sylvester found success including his best-known hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”.  That album, with background vocals from the Two Tons of Fun, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, went gold, topped the dance charts in the U.S., and led to major talk show performances and promo tours in the US.

On March 11, 1979, while Sylvester recorded his Living Proof live album in a sold-out show at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein awarded him the key to the City and proclaimed it “Sylvester Day.”

Never forgetting his community roots, Sylvester performed at gay pride festivals that year in San Francisco and London.  Another dance hit, “Do You Wanna Funk,” released in 1982, was co-written with Sylvester’s frequent collaborator, writer-producer Patrick Cowley, who died of AIDS that year when the disease was still known as GRID.

Sylvester, along with Joan Rivers and Charles Nelson Reilly, did the first-ever AIDS fundraiser at Los Angeles’ Studio One nightclub in 1982.  He called his 1983 song “Trouble in Paradise,” an AIDS message to San Francisco, and performed benefit concerts to raise awareness and money about the epidemic.

Sylvester’s boyfriend at the time died of AIDS in 1987, and Sylvester’s own health began to decline later that year.  In the spring of 1988, Sylvester was hospitalized with pneumonia but managed to attend the Gay Freedom Parade in June in a wheelchair.

The Castro Street Fair in October of that year was dubbed “A Tribute to Sylvester.”  Although he was too ill to attend, he heard crowds schanting his name from his bedroom and continued to give press interviews, openly stating that he was dying of AIDS and trying to highlight the impact of the disease on African-Americans.

Sylvester James, Jr., died on December 16, 1988 at age 41.  At his direction, his body was dressed in a red kimono in an open casket.  In his will, he bequeathed all future royalties to two AIDS charities.

In 2005, Sylvester was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame and in 2019 the Library of Congress chose “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” to be preserved in the National Recording Registry.

'Jeff taught me many things. But most importantly, he gave me my defiance. It saved my life.'
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Jeff Moreland
Story & Recording by Lee Raines

Jeff Moreland was my first boyfriend. We met in college. He was a year younger than me, but much wiser and more worldly. He was brilliant and talented and funny and very intense, and I was sheltered and shy. He was also openly, defiantly gay, and I wasn’t sure what I was. All I knew was I had fallen in love, “all at once and much, much too completely.” I was Mad About the Boy.

Jeff quickly grew tired of my dithering about coming out of the closet. He’d shout, “YOU SAY YOU LOVE ME BUT YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SEEN WITH ME IN PUBLIC? YOU DIDN’T SEEM SO NERVOUS BACK IN THE BEDROOM!”

He had a point.

Jeff took me to my first gay bar, the Georgetown Grill, in Washington, D.C. I found it grim, furtive and joyless, and swore I’d never go back. Undaunted, he talked me into a weekend trip to New York City “to see some shows” and steered me onto Christopher Street.

I’d never been to Greenwich Village. I was self-conscious, fretful, wondering if I’d been duped somehow, when Jeff suddenly grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go. I tried to yank my hand away but his grip was strong and I was too embarrassed to make a scene. He leaned in, whispered, “You have to be defiant at first,” and pulled me down the sidewalk.

Panic-stricken, I bumped into a humpy guy with a mustache wearing a leather vest. He eased around me with a comical, nasal, “Careful, Mary!” Someone shouted, “HEY, GIRLS!” It wasn’t directed at us but it sounded like encouragement.

As we walked, I noticed locals on their stoops smiling at us. I realized I was on Christopher Street holding hands with a boy I loved with all my heart and started to enjoy the sensation. By the time we reached Seventh Avenue, I was walking on air, joyous and giddy with gay liberation.

Jeff dragged me out of the closet that afternoon. He taught me many things.  But most importantly, he gave me my defiance. It saved my life.

Jeff died during the plague early on, but I still feel his hand in mine. He pulls me forward and whispers, “Be Defiant!”

Light a candle for those we have lost to AIDS. But remember also to be defiant.

'A Florida hospital chartered a private jet to fly a 27-year-old man diagnosed with AIDS to San Francisco, where he was deposited at a local AIDS foundation with $300 in cash.'
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Morgan MacDonald (1955-1983)
Recorded by Kathryn Danielle Hirsch
Story by Karen Eyres

In the early days of the AIDS crisis, a Florida hospital chartered a private jet to fly one of their patients – a 27-year-old man diagnosed with AIDS – to San Francisco, where he was deposited at a local AIDS foundation with $300 in cash.

Morgan MacDonald from Vero Beach, Florida was discharged from Shands Hospital at the University of Florida at Gainesville in October 1983 and immediately flown to San Francisco, where he was abandoned. MacDonald said Shands Hospital transported him to California against his will.  Before his hospitalization, he lived in a religious commune in Florida.

Shands Hospital spent $7,000 for a Learjet to fly MacDonald to San Francisco. He was left on a stretcher at the office building of a city-funded AIDS foundation, which transferred him to the AIDS Ward at San Francisco General Hospital. Dianne Feinstein, then-Mayor of San Francisco, sent a telegram to Governor Bob Graham of Florida, informing him that a public hospital in his state dumped an unwanted AIDS patient on her city. She called the incident “outrageous and inhumane.”

The hospital defended its actions, saying MacDonald no longer needed hospital care and the hospital was unable to find a Florida nursing home that would accept him. The hospital’s public relations director said that the AIDS Foundation in San Francisco agreed to give MacDonald 30 days of free housing.

But Dr. Mervyn Silverman, San Francisco’s public health director, said the Florida hospital had contacted both the City of San Francisco and the AIDS Foundation and “played us one off against the other.”

Dr. Silverman said that while MacDonald was free to return to Florida, his condition was acute and it was essential that he receive appropriate care. Morgan MacDonald died 21 days later at San Francisco General at the age of 27.

'My goal was to criticize him and get people to laugh at him at the same time… So, I dreamed big. A big condom, that is. Draped over Jesse Helms’ house.'
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We Put a Giant Condom on a Senator’s House
Recording by Peter Staley
Story by Irwin Rappaport & Peter Staley
Photo from video footage (c. 1991) taken by the late Robert Hilferty

In his 30-year career as a U.S. Senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms was known as “Senator No.” He vehemently opposed the end to racial segregation. He fought against other civil rights legislation including voting rights. He led a filibuster against making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. He was against abortion and opposed the United Nations.

When he felt threatened by a Black candidate running for his Senate seat, Helms’ campaign released a video showing a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter while the narrator said, “You needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”  So, this was a hateful guy who would do anything to stay in power and to stop the march toward equality and justice for minorities and women.

I’m Peter Staley. My career as an AIDS activist began in 1987 when I joined the organization ACT UP. There, I became an active member. I planned and participated in protest actions and got arrested 10 times. In 1991, I founded a spin-off of ACT UP called the Treatment Action Group, or TAG for short.

The LGBT community was another target of Helms’ hatred. He was the most vocal opponent in the Senate for federal funding for AIDS research and treatment.

Speaking about the LGBT community, he said, “It’s their deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct that is responsible for this disease.”

He called us “perverted human beings.” In 1988, he introduced a so-called Helms Amendment, proposing to amend legislation that funded AIDS research and treatment. The amendment prohibited the use of any federal funds to ”promote, encourage, or condone homosexual activities.” It passed with only 2 objections in the Senate and only 47 “no” votes in the House.

Bigotry prevailed against sensible public health policy. An effective HIV prevention campaign for the LGBT community, which was the group most impacted by HIV and AIDS, would have included materials about how to have safe sex. Helms’ amendment endangered more lives — gay, bi and straight — because he didn’t want the government to fund anything that would recognize LGBT sexuality or even our existence.

I’d had more than enough of this bigoted, small-minded man.

A supposed public servant had contributed to the death of my friends and was standing in the way of fighting the disease. Someone needed to confront him, to make him uncomfortable. My goal was to criticize him and get people to laugh at him at the same time. And I wanted TAG to stage a dramatic action soon after we formed the organization. So, I dreamed big. A big condom, that is. Draped over Jesse Helms’ house.

We found his address through a gay man who worked in the Senate. We took photos of the two-story brick Colonial house. Once we knew the standard size of a door and did some fancy math, we knew how large the condom needed to be. We found companies that made huge inflatables like a big blow-up gorilla you might see in front of a car dealership. The lowest bid for the giant condom, made from parachute material, was $3,500. But we were a new organization with little money.

One day while vacationing on Fire Island, I’d had a fight with my boyfriend at the time, journalist Kevin Sessums. He thought my idea for this Helms project was too risky. Kevin went to his friend, music industry legend David Geffen for moral support. But instead of consoling Kevin, David agreed with me. Later that day on the beach, David Geffen handed me a wad of cash, $3,500, and told me to keep his involvement a secret. We had the funds we needed and ordered the inflatable condom.

After the condom arrived, we stenciled the front of it with a message we wanted to have front and center for all the TV cameras. It read: “A CONDOM TO STOP UNSAFE POLITICS. HELMS IS DEADLIER THAN A VIRUS.”

We did a practice run so that we knew how long it took to blow up the condom. We scheduled the action on September 5, 1991, during the Senate’s summer recess while Helms was out of town. We knocked on his door the night before to make sure no one was home. CNN and all the local TV stations were told we’d be doing a demonstration at a politician’s house. They were to meet us at our Arlington, Virginia motel early the next morning, and follow our rented U-Haul truck.

As news cameras rolled, we arrived at Helms’ house with our equipment: the giant condom in a large duffel bag, a heavy portable generator, a long extension cord, two ladders, rubber mallets, plastic stakes, one of those early clunky cell phones, a small cold-air blower for the ground, and a large blower with a custom-built stand for the roof.

We pushed and pulled the duffel bag and air blower up a 28-foot extension ladder to the roof. We unfurled the condom and connected it to the blowers. Other team members staked the bottom of the condom into the grass. Then we prayed the cops wouldn’t arrive until after we’d inflated it. The first police car arrived minutes later, just as the reservoir nipple at the top of the condom was rising over the house. One of the policemen got out of his car, took a look at the improbable scene in front of him, and chuckled.

After spending a lot of time on the radio with their bosses, the cops asked us for our driver’s licenses, wrote down our addresses, and told us it was up to the Senator to press charges or not. The condom stayed up for 15 to 20 minutes, and the press got all the photos and videos they needed. The cops allowed us to climb back up onto the house to take down the condom ourselves.

All we got was a ticket for parking the truck in the wrong direction. We were free to go and could take the condom with us. It’s now in Los Angeles at the One Archives.

That night, CNN and local TV stations around the country played short funny clips of the action. Senator Helms complained about it on the floor of the Senate a week later, calling us “radical homosexuals.” But he never pressed charges and never passed another life-threatening AIDS amendment.

Toward the end of his career, Helms supported increased funding to prevent mother-to-child transmission of AIDS in Africa, but he never supported more funding to fight AIDS in the U.S. He died in 2008.

'This/MY generation of artists — and OUR audiences — disappeared. You are standing on our generational, grave like, culturally curtailed, and tribally intrinsic sinkhole.'
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Pride Tirade 2021
Story and Recording by John Kelly

Happy as I limp my wrist in pride for us — the outcast, the maligned, the persecuted, the entrapped, the murdered, the sweated, the followed, the avoided, the violated, the blackmailed, the serial-tattooed, the sneered, the ostracized, the erased, the hated, the invisible, the raped, the tolerated, the patronized, the parodied, the joke, the denigrated, the evicted, the diminished, the emasculated, the de-promed, the expelled, the therapized, the shock-treated, the lobotomized, the numbed and the drugged, the lost, the dead, the erased, the removed from tangible history, the persistent dwellers in blessed proximity, the survivors, the warriors, the steadfast, the persistent, the inclusive, the non-ageist, the color blind, the expansive, the essential, the imaginative, the true, the warriors, the activists both stewing and shout spewing, the long term survivors demanding to be honored, the generational glue that is gold, the striving and striding toward our place in the sun that demands to be respected, and the imperative that we acknowledge that the AIDS pandemic ruptured our inter-generational dialogue, and our personal, systemic, collective and more generally cadenced growth. 

This/MY generation of artists — and OUR audiences — disappeared.

YOU are standing on our generational, gravelike, culturally curtailed, and tribally intrinsic sinkhole. You may be afloat and faring ok on the gravitas of a vast family of ghosts and heart shattering loss, of dead young unresolved spirits.  Advance, as we had done, in your own way and manner, and as you continue to grow and transform the world, please aim to bless the ground on which you re-trace our analog step.

WE walk the very same path.

'Sullivan was the first transgender man to be publicly known to identify as gay. His activism is considered to be one of the primary reasons for our current understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as separate, unrelated concepts.'
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Lou Graydon Sullivan, 1951-1991
Recording by Rizi Timane
Story by The AIDS Memorial

Lou Graydon Sullivan (June 16, 1951 – March 2, 1991) was an author and activist who became the first transman to die of AIDS. He was 39 years old.

Sullivan was the first transgender man to be publicly known to identify as gay. His activism is considered to be one of the primary reasons for our current understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as separate, unrelated concepts.

In 1986, Sullivan had reconstruction surgery but was diagnosed with HIV afterwards and informed that he had 10 months to live. It is speculated that he contacted HIV in 1980 just after his chest surgery.

He wrote, “I took a certain pleasure in informing the gender clinic that even though their program told me I could not live as a gay man, it looks like I’m going to die like one.”

In 1973, Sullivan grew up in Milwaukee, born into a Catholic family, and identified as a “female transvestite.” By 1975, he identified as a “FTM transsexual.” Later that same year, he relocated to San Francisco where began working as a woman but cross-dressed as a man.

Sullivan founded female-to-male (FTM) International, one of the first organizations specifically for FTM individuals, helping them obtain peer-support, counselling, endocrinological services and reconstructive surgery outside of gender dysphoria clinics.

Although Sullivan lived as an out gay man, he was repeatedly denied sex reassignment surgery because of his sexual orientation and the view held by the medical establishment that transgender people should adopt “stereotypical heterosexual opposite-sex gender roles.”

Sullivan campaigned to remove homosexuality from the list of conditions that served as a reason to withhold SRS from prospective patients. In 1979, he was finally able to find doctors and therapists who would accept his sexuality, began taking testosterone and underwent a double mastectomy.

'The book implied that the first-known source of the HIV spread in the U.S. was Dugas. Media stories about Dugas exploded … In actuality, Dugas was not "Patient Zero" and the CDC never considered him as such. The CDC had labeled Dugas as "Patient O" (as in the letter O).'
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Gaetan Dugas (1952-1984)
Recording by Hank Stratton
Story by Karen Eyres
Photo by Fadoo Productions

Gaëtan Dugas died of AIDS at the age of 32 on March 30, 1984, very early in the AIDS epidemic.

Dugas was known by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control as a particularly helpful man from Canada who was forthcoming and transparent about his sexual history, which was very extensive but not entirely unusual for someone who was fully immersed in the sexually liberated gay scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

What was unusual about Dugas was the large number of cities on his map of sexual liaisons, afforded to him by his job as a flight attendant for Air Canada. He leased an apartment in Los Angeles and frequently visited other U.S. travel hubs, and he admittedly was sexually active just about every place he travelled to.

For CDC researchers trying to determine how HIV was spreading in the U.S. population, Dugas was invaluable, readily providing names and addresses for many of his intimate partners and giving data that supported some of the early infection pathways of the virus.  But in 1987, three years after Dugas’ death, he was erroneously vilified as “Patient Zero” and the person who brought the AIDS virus to the United States.

The publication of the book And the Band Played On by journalist Randy Shilts was quickly regarded as the seminal exposé on HIV and AIDS. Unfortunately, Shilts included in his book a profile of so-called “Patient Zero” to illustrate how the virus could spread. The book referred specifically to Dugas as “Patient Zero” and described him as a Canadian flight attendant with a home in Los Angeles and other cities.

The book implied that the first-known source of the HIV spread in the U.S. was Dugas. Media stories about Dugas exploded.  His handsome face accompanied stories in which he was characterized as a kind of “typhoid Mary” who callously spread the virus in the early days of the epidemic.

In actuality, Dugas was not “Patient Zero” and the CDC never considered him as such. The CDC had labeled Dugas as “Patient O,” as in the letter O.

Flash-forward to 2016, when researchers led by evolutionary biologist Dr. Michael Worobey determined that it was impossible for Dugas to have been the original source of HIV in the U.S.
Worobey’s team conducted a genetic study of blood samples taken from gay and bisexual men in 1978 and 1979 as part of a hepatitis B study, and based on the results of the data, concluded
that the AIDS virus was already prevalent in the U.S. in the late 1970s.

According to Worobey, “On the family tree of the virus, Dugas fell in the middle, not at the beginning. Beliefs about Patient Zero are unsupported by scientific data.”

'My intention in presenting these works is to provoke my community into action.'
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Ray Navarro, 1964-1990
Story & Recording by Debra Levine

Ray Navarro died on November 9, 1990. He was 26 when he died, and I loved him from the moment I met him.

His image is now often circulated, especially the fantastic one of him as Jesus, a reporter from the Fire and Brimstone Network, interviewing people at the St. Patrick’s demonstration.  But on the anniversary of his death, it’s as important to remember he was prescient in his critical analysis, and he left us with an archive of important writing.

In his Outweek obituary, Gregg Bordowitz, Catherine Gund and I wrote:

“Ray always identified AIDS as a crisis among people of color even when ACT UP, the media and most other people — including people of color — hadn’t absorbed that reality.”

We quoted from one of Ray’s essays, the powerful “Eso, Me Esta Passando.” In that essay, he addresses how homophobia remains a significant obstacle in designing effective public health policies in Latino communities in the U.S. His voice is so moving, and his efforts to shift the prevailing discourse of victimhood never ceased until the moment he died.

Ray wrote:

“I am an HIV-positive Chicano gay man from Simi Valley, California. By looking at me, you may not be able to see any of those things. You will also not be able to tell I am college educated, a video maker and scared to death of my own culture. For the last several years, I have grown comfortable with my gay identity, I have marched in the streets, go-go danced in bars, and wept at the death of people I respected who have died of AIDS. So now I am also an AIDS activist. Full time.”

And in conclusion Ray wrote:

“My intention in presenting these works [AIDS activist videos that he curated, created specifically for Latinos] is to provoke my community into action. Here are political analyses, protest images, sexy scenes, angry young men, defiant feminists, and gente. You will be hard pressed to find an ‘AIDS victim.’ Rather, we are Latinas and Latinos living with AIDS.”

'Ed had a secret that he kept from his friends: He was in the United States illegally ... This explained why he never sought medical attention after being diagnosed with AIDS.'
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Ed Junior, 1982-2015
Story & Recording by Dave Coleman

Ed Junior had the voice of an angel, but only those of us involved in the karaoke scene of southern California got to hear it.  Affectionately known by his friends as Rihanna, he could match the best singers of our time like @WhitneyHouston, @CelineDion, @Siamusic and Freddie Mercury.

But Ed had a secret that he kept from his friends: He was in the United States illegally.  This explained why he never had a good job that lasted for long and why he never had a bank account.  It also explained why he never sought medical attention after being diagnosed with AIDS.  He didn’t have medical insurance, and thought he’d be deported back to Mexico and outed to his family.

Ed was too afraid to enter a hospital until the disease deteriorated his body so badly that he was collapsing and couldn’t hide it any longer.  Friends admitted him into the hospital.  He wasn’t deported.  He never left the hospital.  A few weeks later, he was dead.

As Ed laid on the hospital bed dying from AIDS, I would play his favorite songs for him, like Rihanna, “Shine bright like a diamond / Find light in the beautiful sea / I choose to be happy.”

Ed’s family came to the United States to claim his body.  A celebration of Ed was held at his favorite gay bar to raise money for funeral expenses, where we all tried to sing in his memory.  His family came and met all of Ed’s friends.  They shed tears for the loss of their child, but also happy tears for the amount of love this tight knit community had for this angelic human being.

Ed’s voice and kindness touched all of our lives.  He will be remembered always.  He shone bright like a diamond in our sky.

"I have taken chances that have almost killed me, and I will keep on taking them.  I have nothing to lose.”
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Ron Woodroof, 1950-1992
Recording by Matthew McConaughey
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport
Photo by The Dallas Morning News

Ron Woodroof was an unlikely hero, but he rose to the occasion and became a lifeline for many people with AIDS in the Dallas area. Ron created the Dallas Buyers Club in 1988 to get HIV and AIDS medication to those in need who couldn’t legally get it from doctors and pharmacies.

I’m Matthew McConaughey. I had the privilege of portraying Ron in the 2013 movie Dallas Buyers Club, for which I was honored with the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Ron, a feisty, foul-mouthed electrician who lived in Oak Lawn, Texas, tested positive for HIV in the mid-80s and was given only a few months to live.  Soon after, his third marriage ended in divorce. When the FDA-approved drug AZT failed to help his condition and caused significant side effects, Ron researched and bought drugs from outside the U.S. that were not approved by the U.S. government. They helped lessen his symptoms and prolong his life, but the FDA wouldn’t allow Americans to bring more than a three-months supply of unapproved drugs into the U.S., and clearly many people didn’t have the money to travel abroad to buy medicine.

With the help of his doctor and a fellow patient, he began importing, or obtaining from underground chemists in the U.S., different drugs, nutritional supplements and treatments through The Dallas Buyers Club for use by others suffering from HIV and AIDS.  Eventually, the club imported over 100 different treatments. Clubs would often test samples of new drugs at a friendly laboratory to make sure they had the right quality and potency.

According to a Dallas Morning News article in 1992, Ron, who often dressed as a priest or a doctor in a white lab coat, made over 300 trips across the U.S./Mexico border, smuggling as many as half a million pills in the trunk of his Lincoln Continental, tricked out with heavy duty air shocks so that the car wouldn’t sag with all the extra weight.  Ron and others who worked at or bought drugs from the buyers’ club risked arrest and death by importing and taking unapproved medications, but when your disease is a death sentence, is it really such a big risk?

As Ron put it, “Dammit … I don’t see how anything can be more toxic than HIV itself.  I have taken chances that have almost killed me and I will keep on taking them.  I have nothing to lose.”

Many buyers’ club operators and customers accused the big pharma companies and their FDA regulators of conspiring to keep drug prices high and to keep new competing drugs out of the hands of patients.  Certainly, the slow pace of FDA drug approval was no help to terminally ill people on death’s doorstep.

Ron took an experimental drug called peptide T, which was used to treat AIDS-related dementia, but when the U.S. government intervened and stopped his supplier in Denmark from shipping out the drug, Ron sued the Food & Drug Administration.

“I have no choice with peptide T,” Ron said. “It is the only line I have to staying alive.  When I stop it, I start dragging my leg.  I urinate on myself. I can’t speak.  I slobber all over the damn place.”

A judge ruled against Ron, saying that although there was no Constitutional right to import unapproved drugs, he personally thought that terminally ill people should be able to buy them.  Ron managed to strike a deal that allowed him to get the drug and report his results to the FDA.

Ron died in 1992, six years after his HIV diagnosis.

As Ron said in a documentary released that year, “Let me try anything I can get my hands on. Because if it kills me, at least I died trying.”

'The character Paul was based on Dante’s own experiences growing up poor, lonely, and ridiculed because he was gay.'
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Nicholas Dante, 1941-1991
Recording by Steven Canals
Story by @The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport

Nicholas Dante was a dancer and writer who is best known for co-writing the book for the smash-hit Broadway musical A Chorus Line.  Born Conrado Morales in New York City, he intended to study journalism but dropped out of high school at age 14 because of the homophobia he faced. 

He told journalist Jimmy Breslin: “I grew up in the ’40s, a Puerto Rican kid on 125th and Broadway, and obviously gay.  Nobody would hang out with me.  I was terrified to go out where anybody could see me.”

He worked as a drag queen and began studying dance. He landed parts as dancer in the choruses of musicals including Applause, Ambassador and Smith.

Dante wrote the book for the smash-hit Broadway musical A Chorus Line, along with playwright James Kirkwood Jr.  The show opened in 1975 and was directed and co-choreographed by Michael Bennett, who started developing the musical.

Bennett invited Dante to attend sessions in which Broadway dancers would tell stories about their lives.  Bennett chose Dante, along with Kirkwood, to write the story about seventeen so-called Broadway “gypsies” auditioning for eight spots in a chorus line performing behind the lead actors of a Broadway show.  The character “Paul” was based on Dante’s own experiences growing up poor, lonely, and ridiculed because he was gay.  

I’m Steven Canals, co-creator, executive producer, writer and director of the FX drama series Pose.  I grew up as a poor Afro-Puerto Rican queer kid in the Bronx, so I can relate.

The music for A Chorus Line was by Marvin Hamlisch, with lyrics by Edward Kleban.  The musical was revived on Broadway in 2006 and on the West End in London in 2013. 

Dante and Kirkwood won a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical in 1975, and the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1976.  At the time of Dante’s death, A Chorus Line was the longest running show in Broadway history.

During a tap-dance number, the character Paul falls and injures one of his knees on which he had recently had surgery. Paul is carried off to the hospital, and the remaining dancers see how fragile their careers are, they can come to an end without warning.

Nicholas Dante, who based the character of Paul on his own life, died of AIDS in New York City in 1991 at age 49.  Director Michael Bennett also died of AIDS in 1987.

As a prelude to the song “What I Did for Love,” a dancer character named Zach asks the rest of the dancers what they will do when they can no longer dance.  Their answer is that whatever happens, they won’t have any regrets.

When the eight dancers chosen for the chorus line appear on stage to take their final bow, the audience can hardly tell one apart from the other.  They have become the nearly faceless background singers of a chorus line.

Nicholas Dante never again attained the success he had as a writer of A Chorus Line, but hopefully he, like those dancers, had no regrets and will forever stand out from the crowd.

'HIV is certainly character-building. It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.'
- Randy Shilts
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Randy Shilts, 1951–1994
Recording by Dustin Lance Black
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport

So said Randy Shilts, in his 1987 book And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic.

The book chronicled the first five years of AIDS in the U.S., was nominated for a National Book Award and was adapted into a 1994 HBO movie starring Richard Gere, Matthew Modine and Angelica Huston.  Randy began researching the book and reporting on AIDS while working for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was one of the first openly-gay journalists at a major U.S. newspaper and worked for 13 years.

I’m Dustin Lance Black.  Randy’s first book, The Mayor of Castro Street: the Life and Times of Harvey Milk, was critical research for my Oscar-winning screenplay for the movie Milk, in which Sean Penn played openly-gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.  Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone.

Randy’s reporting and positions were sometimes controversial within segments the gay community.  Some criticized his suggestion that gay bathhouses were responsible for the spread of AIDS and his opposition to outing closeted and prominent gays and lesbians.

Randy delayed getting get his own HIV test results until he had completed the writing of And the Band Played On, because he didn’t want his test result — positive or negative — to affect his objectivity as a journalist.  According to his New York Times obituary, Randy found out he was HIV positive in March 1987 on the same day he submitted the manuscript to his publisher.

In 1992, Randy contracted pneumocystis pneumonia, and later that year, suffered a collapsed lung.  In 1993, he was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma.  Although mostly confined to his home and on oxygen, he managed to attend the Los Angeles screening of the HBO film version of And the Band Played On in August 1993.

Randy’s last book was Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf.  Published in 1993, not long before the announcement of the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy by the Clinton administration, the book explored the mistreatment and weeding out of lesbians and gays in the US military, and was finished from his hospital bed.

In the spring of 1993, Randy told a New York Times reporter, “HIV is certainly character-building.  It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity.  Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.”

Randy Shilts died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 42 in Guerneville, California.  He was included in the inaugural honorees of the Rainbow Honor Walk in the Castro district of San Francisco, and he was among the first 50 inducted into the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the national monument in New York City’s Stonewall Inn.