On a Deadline to Stay Alive: A Tribute to Pioneering HIV/AIDS Journalists

Linda Villarosa
Linda Villarosa speaking at "Bodies on the Line: A Memorial to Honor AIDS Journalists"
Juno Rosenhaus

"When Jeff collapsed in the newsroom, he was down to two T cells. In a bit of gallows humor, he called them Frick and Frack."

New York Times columnist Samuel Freedman related this poignant anecdote about his friend and colleague, the reporter Jeffrey Schmalz, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1993. Freedman's story was part of a keynote address he gave at "Bodies on the Line: A Memorial to Honor AIDS Journalists," held June 22 at New York City's LGBT Community Center.

The powerful tribute was co-sponsored by NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, HIVandHepatitis.com, PLUS Magazine, Positively Aware, POZ Magazine, Pride Life Magazine and TheBody.com, with support from the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Fifteen journalists, writers and activists who died as a result of their HIV infection were honored by their peers, admirers, friends and loved ones via recollections and readings. In addition, more than 200 journalists were identified and honored in a visual tribute.

Freedman's anecdote about Jeffrey Schmalz, which sent a gasp through the room, was one of many stunning observations. In his recent book, Dying Words, Freedman chronicles Schmalz's courageous 1990s HIV/AIDS reporting amidst the homophobia and oppression of the era. Yet, as the event at the community center unfolded, it became clear that Schmalz had not been alone in his fight to cover HIV/AIDS while fighting for his own life.

The event resonated with current events: At a time when the veracity of journalists is routinely questioned by the Trump administration and citizens alike, the tributes were a reminder of what journalism at its best offers: desperately needed truth-telling through investigation, personal reflection and testimony.

Anne-christine d'Adesky
Anne-christine d'Adesky
Juno Rosenhaus

"Many journalists were pioneering AIDS journalists while themselves dying of AIDS," said Anne-christine d'Adesky, the award-winning HIV/AIDS journalist and social justice activist who organized "Bodies on the Line." d'Adesky recently released a memoir, The Pox Lover: An Activist's Decade in New York and Paris, which looks back at the intense experiences of HIV/AIDS journalists and activists in the '90s. She conceived of the event as a memorial and celebration of HIV/AIDS journalists who have been lost, and as a forum to celebrate their voices and accomplishments.

"One of the true pleasures of [retaining] my '90s diaries has been the ability to introduce people to some of the journalists and artists who were my colleagues who died of AIDS," d'Adesky told TheBody.com. "I want to use The Pox Lover to have conversations about what their decade meant for us -- as a living history we can take forward. It's not nostalgia. There's huge value in reading it now for what we have to do."

The honored journalists left behind a body of work that provides a multi-faceted look at the nexus of HIV, homophobia, fear, government response and grassroots activism. Their archives illuminate how individuals and communities navigated those complex issues with intelligence, rage, horror, humor and, sometimes, denial.

"The heightened tragedy of these losses (to HIV/AIDS) is that they just wanted to do their work," Freedman noted. "Their personal lives should not have been a risk factor. And yet, they were slain."

Journalist Linda Villarosa honored the late gay black writer Craig Harris, while activist A. Toni Young described the impact that ABC World News's Max Robinson, who struggled with coming out as gay and HIV-positive, had on her as a black gay reporter.

JD Davids
JD Davids
Juno Rosenhaus

Buzzfeed editor Mark Schoofs remembered the Bay Area Reporter's Mike Hippler, one of the first journalists to cover Ward 5B at San Francisco General Hospital, which cared for people diagnosed with AIDS. Writer and editor Liz Highleyman paid tribute to the little-known Michelle Wilson, who created The Positive Woman, the first newsletter for HIV-positive women.

Other pairings included writer Charles-Rice González remembering Joseph Beam, writer Ann Rower on the actor and writer Cookie Mueller and TheBody.com's JD Davids remembering Kiyoshi Kiyomira, creator of the seminal online HIV/AIDS resource Critical Path.

Along with Adam Pawlus of the NLGJA, d'Adesky announced the Kiki Reporting Scholarship, named for d'Adesky's friend and colleague Curtis "Kiki" Mason, an outspoken and incisive POZ Magazine columnist and HIV cancer trial pioneer who died of AIDS complications in 1996. The scholarship will be administered yearly; further details are forthcoming.