December 17, 2013
Kenneth Cole's appearance on Chelsea Lately last week was meant to promote the documentary he produced about the history of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (The Battle of amfAR). Instead, the shoe designer insulted gay activists everywhere.
When asked by Chelsea Handler how he became involved in AIDS research, the (straight) designer replied, "This was like 25 years ago and people weren't talking about AIDS then because stigma was so devastating (and arguably stigma has killed more people than the virus itself has), and the gay community wasn't speaking up, they were afraid to."
Let's see. Twenty-five years ago gay people like myself were in our fifth year of AIDS activism, community service, and weekly memorials. We were screaming as loud as we could. And because of our voices, things changed, despite Cole's inaccurate observations.
The first person to call out Cole's ignorance was iconic activist Sean Strub, founder of POZ Magazine and author of the upcoming AIDS memoir, Body Counts. Strub's posting, "Kenneth Cole Needs a History Lesson," has been gaining traction since it published on Friday:
I've got news for Ken Cole. Twenty-five years ago, it was almost solely members of the gay community who were speaking up about AIDS. In fact, in 1987, the executive directors of almost all the national lesbian and gay organizations protested government inaction in an act of civil disobedience and got arrested in front of the White House.
Cole's remarks are part of a larger tendency of people re-framing AIDS history to suit their own purposes, in this case, promoting the amfAR documentary and canonizing two of its founders, Mathilde Krim and Elizabeth Taylor. And a storyline in which the straights come to rescue the diseased gays, I might add, may assuage heterosexual guilt for their own inaction.
For his part, Kenneth Cole responded to my Twitter tirade about the vital role of the gay community during early AIDS by tweeting, "@MyFabDisease agree, our film Battle of amfAR confirms your point. I was saying that because of stigma, many others were reluctant to speak."
But regrettably, the HBO documentary doesn't confirm the role of gay community at all. In fact, it minimizes it.
At least Phill Wilson, a leading black voice on HIV, represents those caught up in the maelstrom of human tragedy, as he explains nearly dying himself from AIDS before combination therapies were approved (thanks in no small part to gay treatment advocates). But early gay activists such as Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen are given very short shrift, with Berkowitz used primarily as a gay mouthpiece to praise amfAR's Mathilde Krim -- as if his own monumental contribution writing "How to have sex in an epidemic" weren't enough.
Except for fleeting images of ACT UP, the documentary suggests that gay men struggled powerlessly until the straight cavalry arrived. This would come as some surprise to the gay men with AIDS who, in 1983, created The Denver Principles, the historic document of social empowerment that changed attitudes toward people with AIDS, and health care itself, forever.
The person with HIV whose story the documentary eventually tells in the most detail is HIV advocate Regan Hofmann, bless her, who also happens to be the straightest, whitest woman with AIDS who has ever lived.
Words and images matter. If the very significant role of gay men in AIDS activism and research is being downplayed now, what will history report in another 30 years? If we as gay community don't stand up for our place in history, then I fear no one else will.
Some might argue that any documentary about AIDS and the current state of research is a positive thing, and that attitude is understandable. And I am grateful for the massive contributions of amfAR and the deep pockets of people like Kenneth Cole.
The trade-off, however, shouldn't be the truth.
Read Mark's blog, My Fabulous Disease.