In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, an officer from the New York Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in the city’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. The events that occurred immediately after and continued on for five more days became a turning point in the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights (Pruitt, 2022).
In 1972, a native New Yorker, former United States Navy officer, and one-time Barry Goldwater supporter, Harvey Milk, moved to San Francisco, opened a camera store on Castro Street, and changed his political affiliation from Republican to Democrat (Corday, 2021). In 1977, he became the country’s first openly gay elected official when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, representing what is known as the Castro District (Milk Foundation, no date). His campaign was described as entertaining and theatrical, unlike the standard campaigns of the time (Corday, 2021).
The decade of the 1980s also brought significant change to the way people fought for LGBTQ+ rights. Rather than looking for quiet assimilation and accepting any positive change that came, one man’s response to a burgeoning crisis was angry, in-your-face, and bellicose (Cohen, 2018). That man was an author, Yale University graduate, and one-time Broadway production assistant named Larry Kramer (Crowley, 2020). He saw a horrible illness, soon to be called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, ravaging his friends and the larger gay community (Crowley, 2020). In the long run, Kramer’s public health advocacy is credited with saving potentially millions of lives (Harris, 2020). A detailed examination of the early days of HIV, AIDS, and the response to it can be found in Randy Shilt’s 1987 tome And The Band Played On.
Rather than focus on what Kramer accomplished, the purpose of this article is to examine how he did it. Let us start with America’s first glimpse of the man: Kramer was talking about the number of friends he had lost to AIDS and what was happening to the gay community during a 1983 interview with Jane Pauley. He looked directly at the NBC News anchor and told her that the overall lack of public outcry would be different if the victims were “straight, white, and middle-class” (Lopez, 2020). The first shot was fired across the bow, whether America was ready to hear the message or not.
Saul Alinsky authored Rules for Radicals (1971) as a guide for community organizers just prior to his death. In the text, he listed 13 specific “rules” for effective community change, which have been adopted by many who wished to empower themselves as agents of positive social change (Fallon, 2019). Although no evidence of Kramer’s endorsement of the Alinsky (1971) model could be found, his tactics are mirrored in some of the “rules”:
As we take notice of where we are today with the care and prevention of HIV and AIDS, we see the fruits of Kramer’s efforts.
The snapshots of these three gay icons share an awkward commonality – those that they were advocating for didn’t necessarily agree or appreciate the messages or the messengers. At Stonewall, some neighborhood residents (and others across the country) feared significant retribution and violence from the police and political establishment, preferring to remain in the shadows. Many felt that the visibility of Milk’s campaigns, the theatrics and his “in-your-face“ display of his sexuality was harmful to his candidacy and the community. Kramer’s brashness and radical behaviors annoyed others as they viewed him as simply seeking martyrdom, not change (Crowley, 2020).
So what can we learn from these efforts? Why would we consider a more radical advocacy?
The answer can be found in the news nearly every day; we continue to lose people to overdoses at mind-numbing numbers despite our best efforts. There are tremendous harm-reduction efforts and interventions that are shown to save lives, but they are tremendously underfunded (despite recent increases) because they are deemed illegal by the federal government. We cannot even agree on the role of harm-reduction services – are they to be used solely as a gateway to treatment or is saving lives enough? The view of this writer is that the latter is true as it allows us to meet people fully where they are at and save brothers, sisters, parents, friends, and other loved ones. This would require the significant paradigm shift of placing value on the lives of individuals who use rather than the implicit (and unintended) message that one’s life is valuable if they choose a view of recovery as we see fit, or even recovery at all. Is this overdose crisis our Stonewall? Who will be our Harvey Milk? Larry Kramer?
It’s not about replacing a system but replacing a mindset.