What attracted you to serving on the board of the Memorial?
I belong to a generation of gay men, lesbians and people of color for whom the AIDS epidemic in New York was a uniquely defining moment. What makes the New York City AIDS Memorial so compelling to me personally, and so important to the city is its vision of weaving the individual, private stories of the more than 100,000 New Yorkers we have lost to HIV, of those who are living with HIV, and of those who have cared and advocated for people with HIV into a shared, collective history. New York City has needed a space that is dedicated to building a culture of public memory of the AIDS epidemic in the city that I love.
When and how did you encounter the epidemic?
Before moving to New York in July 1983, when I was 25, I spent many weekends with a couple of women, family friends who lived in San Francisco, in the Castro. Although I came out as a university student, my experience of gay and lesbian life in San Francisco was transformative. My first Pride March, first visit to a Black gay bar, my first encounter with the daily life of a gay and lesbian community were all in San Francisco; it was also there that I first heard about this strange and terrible disease that didn’t yet have a name. I remember hearing conversations in the bars and cafes about people suddenly dying, flyers and makeshift memorials, the shuttered stores and the obituaries in the Bay Area Reporter. The last thing my mother said to me before I got on the plane to New York was, “Take care of yourself.”
I arrived in the City already aware of the emerging epidemic, and it cast a shadow over what my experience of New York would be. I met this incredibly sweet man who lived on 81st Street who had just become sick and was bereft. He’d come to New York from a small town seeking space to create a full, happy life as a gay man. His name was Tom, and although we were very much attracted to one another, we never had sex. He was the first person I knew personally who had AIDS, which some people were calling the gay cancer or GRID. It’s hard now to convey the confusion, sorrow and sheer terror of the time. I was fortunate to find a spiritual refuge in the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and in many ways my participation in that community, and the relationships I made with the men and women who showed up there, saved my life. The number of people with AIDS in that congregation was staggering. Each week, we’d hear of someone who was in the hospital or who had died.
In 1986, I got involved in a task force at Columbia, where I worked and still work. We were to make policy recommendations about how the university would deal with this epidemic. I met two remarkable people, Paul Douglas, who died in 1995, and Laura Pinsky. Paul and Laura wrote one of the first and most influential books on the epidemic, The Essential AIDS Fact Book, which did so much to challenge the hysteria that characterized so much of the early response to AIDS. This was the time when people were calling for quarantining gay men and branding the butts of HIV+ people, when people in power stoked the flames of ignorance and moral panic. I fell in with a group of people at Columbia (most but not all of whom were queer) who made it their business to know everything they could about AIDS, and to teach it to others. I learned a lot from them about the power of a public health-based strategy in talking about HIV prevention and treatment, and of education and advocacy that challenged ignorance with knowledge and evidence-based argument.
Who will you be remembering at the Memorial?
I was a founding member of the Majority Act Caucus of ACT/UP NY, along with three remarkable, fierce gay brothers who are no longer with us, Joe Franco, Robert Garcia and Ortez Alderson. I will be remembering them. I lost almost all of my closest friends who were gay men of color; most of them died before their 35th birthdays. I’ve outlived them by almost a quarter century. I would have never imagined my college friend Sam Owens, an incredible singer and actor who I stayed with when I first came to New York, or Tony Thomas, a fellow Yale Law School grad who got sick as a young lawyer here in New York, wouldn’t be here today. Paul Douglas, I’ll remember him every time I walk by the Memorial. What I’m hoping is that the physical space of the Memorial will serve as a meeting point or crossroads of memory.
Why do you think the Memorial is so important?
It can serve as a repository, a keeper of the history of the early epidemic and the heroism of New Yorkers from all walks of life, who refused to allow ignorance, fear, indifference and cruelty to dictate our response to the catastrophe that engulfed us. It’s important to preserve and honor the vision of the community that was formed during the worst days of the epidemic. We live in a moment when so much in the culture conspires to diminish and minimize the linked fate, the collective imagination that knit us as individuals into communities.
The Memorial will also be a geographical, architectural embodiment of and a place for the remembrance of all the AIDS activist community achieved in defining health care as a human right, in building the patient empowerment movement, conceiving and conducting community-based clinical trials and drug development, and creating and defending the culture of safer sex.
I am also deeply moved by the fact that the Memorial was inspired by two young gay men, Chris and Paul, who decided that they wanted to create a space in which their generation could learn about the history that preceded them and which has shaped their lives as New Yorkers in ways that they could see but only partially understand. Reinvigorating, re-energizing and re-connecting the past and the present is part of the living work of the Memorial and underscores its value as a site for remembrance, but also recommitment to ending the epidemic. I still want to see an end to AIDS in my lifetime.
Kendall Thomas is the Nash Professor of Law and co-founder and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture at Columbia University in the City of New York. He is also a Visiting Professor at Stanford Law School and a Visiting Professor in American Studies and Afro-American Studies at Princeton University. Kendall was a Founding member of the Majority Action Caucus of ACT UP, Sex Panic! and the AIDS Prevention Action League. A former member and Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of GMHC, he is now a member of the board of the NYC AIDS Memorial.