"I walk in the footsteps of giants, the freedom fighters who came before me," said Madonna during her "surprise" appearance at the Stonewall Inn (not really the Stonewall, of course, but sort of a faux Stonewall. It was a bagel place for a long time in the 1970s, with odd, diagonally placed wood paneling.) You need to watch the video of her appearance to get how truly odd and surreal it was. Now, all of a sudden, she's a freedom fighter? Her words are written out on rainbow index cards, and she reads them like she's seeing them for the first time. I couldn't make it all the way through her live performance of "Like a Prayer." If Elvis wasn't dead, he is now -- and rolling over in his grave after her rendition of his classic "Can't Help Falling in Love."
Madonna and I are not on speaking terms, and here's why.
When I was working at GMHC in the mid-1990s, at the height of AIDS deaths in New York City, GMHC held an annual dance-a-thon fundraiser. Thousands of people would raise money and dance all night at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. The dance-a-thon attracted a younger crowd, with more black and Latinx participants than the larger AIDS Walk event. In addition to the DJs, there were a few live performances sprinkled throughout the night. Salt-N-Pepa were regulars, singing "Let's Talk About Sex." Madonna was living on Central Park West then. It was a quick subway ride down to the Javits Center for her. We asked her to appear at the dance-a-thon one year -- maybe it was 1994 -- and she kept saying she was interested but would not commit. That meant we could not advertise her appearance, which would have been a huge boost for the fundraising. Even in the days leading up to the event, she would say she was "thinking about it," but no commitment.
On the day of the event, she showed up at the Javits Center. I was in a small room backstage with her, her entourage, the GMHC director, and our fundraising staff. I was standing right next to her when she was asked if she wanted to meet the director and she flippantly responded, "No," and literally waved him away. I revered our fearless director, Tim Sweeney, and her disrespect toward him -- a true freedom fighter -- was unconscionable. She sat there, still refusing to go out on stage and address the crowd. Finally, she decided to go out to say a few words (no performance).
The next day, the media was full of stories about her appearance. She got credit for appearing at an AIDS event. But GMHC wasn't able to raise any money from it. Madonna had appeared at an AIDS dance event in Los Angeles a few years before this. She danced up a storm. But, that was around the time of "Holiday," and she was hungry for our love and money. In 1994, it was "Vogue." And although she greatly profited from a dance style and community that invented the thing that defined her career, she was a superstar now and could afford to be rude to those who had made her one. I closed the iron door to her then -- and I know how to hold a grudge.
I'm always skeptical of celebrities and causes. It's a hard balancing act to get right. When it works, the celebrity can use their fame to bring attention and sometimes money to a worthy cause. But all too often, celebrities decide that they know more than the people who are actually working on the issue or, worse, they use the issue to focus attention on themselves. The best person I've ever seen to strike this healthy balance was Elizabeth Taylor. She raised the money, did her homework, raised her voice, and created celebrity havoc like no one else. When she went to Congress to talk about AIDS, everyone showed up. When she spoke at the 1996 International AIDS Conference about the U.S. ban on federal support for syringe exchange, she publicly accused the U.S. government of murder. Elton John is a mixed bag. Dionne Warwick, a disaster. Ellen now appears to think she speaks for us all. If I have to see Annie Lennox in an "HIV Positive" T-shirt one more time, I'll scream. Magic Johnson's face was all over the New York City subways for a long time shilling for pharma. Bono has raised a ton of money, but those fucking sunglasses are even worse than his policy pronouncements.
On New Year's Eve, Madonna used the Stonewall Inn -- the site of an actual riot against police violence and harassment -- not to talk about resisting a neo-fascist presidential administration and the rising levels of racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, homophobic, and transphobic hate crimes in New York City and the nation, and what that could mean in the year approaching the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. No, she spent most of her time talking about how we need to listen to one another. That's the great message she came down to the Stonewall to impart to the huddled queer masses?
Madonna's appearance at the Stonewall was mostly just a sad case of desperately seeking God-knows-what.
David Barr is a native New Yorker who has been working as an AIDS activist since 1985. He's worked with the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition, ACT UP, GMHC and many other organizations. He is currently working with the Joep Lange Institute.