I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Larry Kramer’s name: my friend Eddie’s deathbed in an AIDS hospice in Wichita, Kansas.
I was working as a bartender at the time and Eddie was in construction. We, along with a few other guys, were sharing a house, and Eddie & I had become the best of friends. He was positive when I met him and seemed healthy as a horse. The AZT was working. And then it stopped working.
Eddie became very ill very quickly. Returning home to Michigan was not an option, Eddie told me, because his parents had thrown him out when they found out he was gay. I called them anyway knowing he would die soon. I shouldn’t have. Eddie was right. To his parents, he was already dead.
I don’t remember exactly how long he was in the hospice facility, but it was a few months. Every day, I and a few friends would visit him. On one of those days, I met a guy, whose name I can’t remember, visiting another patient. He was wearing a black T-shirt with a pink triangle in the center and the words “Silence = Death” below it. I asked him about the slogan and subsequently learned about ACT UP and its founder, Larry Kramer.
So when I learned of Kramer’s death, I immediately thought of Eddie and the thousands of others for whom Kramer fought so valiantly. I thought of other friends lost to AIDS and still others who live with it. And I thought of New Orleans and all the activists who fought in the trenches thirty years ago, none of whom I knew at the time but some of whom I’ve had the privilege of becoming friends with in recent years.
ACT UP was founded in New York City in 1987 by Larry Kramer as a direct action group to raise awareness about the epidemic, and more specifically, the lack of adequate funding allocated by the government to fight the disease. Prior to ACT UP, Kramer had co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
In New Orleans ACT UP staged a protest at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in 1988. Specifically, the group protested the fact that state funding for AZT, the only FDA-approved drug for the treatment of AIDS at the time, was about to run out. Protesters formed what they called a “human billboard” at the entrance to the convention. Protesters held signs and panels from the national AIDS Memorial Quilt and distributed leaflets indignantly questioning why the state and city should spend $800,000 hosting the Republican Convention and not spend a dime on AIDS.
The New Orleans chapter of ACT UP also called attention to discrimination within the criminal justice system against people living with AIDS. A 1991 class action lawsuit against Sheriff Charles Foti alleged maltreatment of inmates in the parish prison.
In 1992, ACT UP held a press conference in front of the criminal courthouse to call attention to police brutality. Specifically, the press conference recounted the case of an incarcerated man who had been beaten by police during an arrest at his home on minor charges. In the course of the beating, the man, who was HIV positive, bled on one of the officer’s shirts. The man was charged with attempted murder and booked into Orleans Parish Prison, where he was denied medical treatment.
This homophobic attitude permeated the criminal justice system. The District Attorney’s office had a policy of charging persons arrested for prostitution with the crime of knowingly transmitting HIV. Attorney Mark Gonzalez, who was a member of ACT UP, testified to the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Lesbian and Gay Issues in 1989 about a client of his who was the victim this policy. Several police officers had barged into this man’s French Quarter apartment, without a warrant, and arrested him on drug possession charges, even though police found no drugs at the scene. During the arrest, the police noticed a bottle of AZT and told him as they were taking him to jail, “not to worry about the charges—you’ll probably die of AIDS in jail.”
In 1990, ACT UP, which then consisted of only half a dozen members, managed to stage a protest at City Hall in which 500 people participated. This was the protest in which City Councilman Johnny Jackson was arrested along with Stewart Butler. The group was protesting not only inadequate funding in general, but also the state’s plan to defund the pharmacy fund for people with AIDS. The arrest made quite a splash in the news, which irritated the politicians and bureaucrats in Baton Rouge. That night, Jackson made a few calls to the capitol and let the powers-that-be know that if the pharmacy fund was dissolved, they would stage another protest and shut down the Mississippi River Bridge on a Friday at 5:00pm. The pharmacy fund was spared.
Another memorable demonstration occurred at the Orpheum Theater, when international celebrity socialite Princess Lee Radziwill was an honoree at some gala function. According to Rich Sacher, “We dressed as jesters, handed out roses and flyers to the arriving crowds, and told them the city was joking around with AIDS. At that time, there was zero support of any kind from city government for PWAs. Sidney Barthelemy was mayor, and he was embarrassed when Radziwill told the audience from the stage that she was shocked at the city’s dereliction.”
ACT UP also waged letter-writing and petition campaigns to be sent to Governor Buddy Roemer and Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary David Ramsey demanding $3 million worth of funding for Charity Hospital’s C-100 Outpatient Clinic. In addition to letters, the group also flooded the Governor’s Office with postcards depicting a coffin with the succinct message: “This is the alternative to C-100 full funding!”
Funding for research and treatment was not the only thing lacking. Ignorance of the disease and the lack of effective treatments created a real need for education and outreach. Led by Ted Wisniewski, a resident at Charity Hospital who saw the need first-hand, several medical professionals and others began meeting to discuss ways to address the crisis. Those meetings led to creation of the NO/AIDS Task Force.
The aforementioned vignettes represent only a small fraction of the community’s response to the AIDS crisis. Besides ACT UP, there were other activist groups, other protests, and other legislative fights.
While much has been written about the AIDS crisis, an exhaustive, comprehensive history remains unwritten. That history begins with Larry Kramer. May he rest in power.
(Note: Portions of this essay were excerpted from my forthcoming book, Political Animal: The Life and Times of Stewart Butler).