Jose Abrigo: I am the Director and Supervising Attorney of the Manhattan Legal Services LGBTQ/HIV Advocacy Project.
We serve clients who identify as either HIV or LGBTQ or both.
I am also a CUNY Law alum. I am really excited that CUNY Law is starting a fellowship in your name to support folks who want to go into this Zeld, because it didn’t exist when I was a law student, and it could have helped a lot.
David Mixner: I am so battered, and so actually overwhelmed by it all, you know. I never finished college; I finished three and a half years, and they expelled me because of my work against the Vietnam War.
So, to end up this glorious life – it’s the best seventy-fifth birthday gift I could ask for.
JA: I have known about your impressive career. And just before this interview, I brushed up on your biography and your many accomplishments done on behalf of the LGBTQ2IA community and HIV-positive community. And I’m curious and want to go back to what you just mentioned, the fact that you started college but didn’t finish.Can you talk about what triggered your involvement in activism and your sort of evolution into activism?
DM: Actually, it was three people who, and I was in high school – one was
President Kennedy, who made a call to a new generation to leave their homes and
not only involve themselves in America, but in the world – in the Peace Corps and
things like that. I am a Catholic and Pope John the XXIII and the Vatican had a
great inbuence on me in the sense that it was a rekindling of liberation theology,
which says very simply, God put you here on Earth to serve others and that is your
mission. And then, of course, the third one, I actually did some work, not major
work – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I grew up in a very poor family, didn’t have indoor plumbing, didn’t have electricity,
and I think we generally would be known today as hillbillies. We struggled in the
family, and I could see the injustices against my own family. One time, we lived on
a company farm, and they owned a house and they owned us. I will never forget
that feeling of watching my parents deal with it. We were like serfs.
I came from a very segregated area. Believe it or not, South Jersey, Southern Delaware, and Eastern Shore Maryland was known as Little Dixie. We had a Confederate cemetery in the county I grew up in that holds 3,000 Confederate Veterans in southern New Jersey, which sort of shocked people. And I saw segregation first hand, and I saw the degrading and humiliation of proud individuals in the name of anybody but all of that had an impact on me.
JA: That’s really amazing. And so, you sort of mentioned the first start of your activism was sort of working and organizing against the Vietnam War. Can you describe a little bit about that?
DM: The first thing that I actually did was as a freshman at Arizona State. It was on behalf of the garbage workers in Tempe, Arizona, who were mostly getting 25 cents per hour back then and were almost, at that time, totally Hispanic in this small college community. They went on strike, and no one was paying any attention to them, and I went to the picket line with them, and I said, you should get some students down here, and they said, no, the students will never join us.
So, I went back and got four or five of us to plot something – we were going to stage a rally on the campus, and it was the first march I ever organized on my own.We did interviews, and we did everything, and it’s ironic because when we got there the day of the march on the campus to go picket that line with the garbage workers, maybe there were 30 or 40 there, and it was kind of disappointing, but,you know, 30 or 40 is something to build on.
And then the university overreacted, having seen all of this publicity that we were going to march and they went nuts and suddenly a quarter of the way into the rally,100 police arrived at that rally site with hoods, shields, and nightsticks and immediately we ended up with 1,500 students, mostly because those cops came in. I was able to take 1,500 people two miles to the picket line, and the workers got a huge lift.
JA: That’s so amazing. So how did you first get involved with the workers?
DM: I read about the strike in the Arizona Republic, and my dad was a union member, so we come from a union family. We went from a coal mining family and a family of farm workers when I was growing up and in later years as Teamsters. So, I just went down to join the picket line like I have done often with my own
JA: Unions are so important. Unfortunately, I had to leave the union when I became a supervising attorney. But beforehand, I was part of the executive committee of the Legal Services Union. Uplifting working folks is so crucially important.
DM: It’s always been ironic to me the anti-union rant that we have people who have some resources, you know, they try to paint them with every negative brush they can paint them with. The fact of the matter is we couldn’t stand up for ourselves. Nobody would. We’ve learned that, and unions stand up collectively for people who have no voice in the workplace.
And if you go back to the days when there weren’t unions, it was the worst possible safety, working conditions and wages you could imagine. I always remember when Rockefeller in Colorado at the Ludlow Massacre when the mine accident happened. He ordered 10 to 15 different nationalities and none of them speaking English, and he did it that way so that they couldn’t organize, they couldn’t talk to each other, and there was a big mine explosion and the first question that Rockefeller asked was how many mules we lost because mules were more expensive than human beings. And that’s what we are talking about with the union. I’m a big union guy.
JA: I’m also a big union person.
JA: Can you just talk generally? You mentioned this before – it sounds like you’ve always been involved. Are there any other movements that you were part of while you were in college?
DM: Yeah, before I got involved in the anti-war movement in Vietnam, I was involved in the civil rights movement. I did go down South. I got arrested a lot, and you all remember it was an enormous number, starting in 1964, of college students who went South to give witness to the old Quaker tradition of giving witness and going to jail and opening freedom schools and supporting people as
much as they could.
I think I went to jail seven times down there, and, at one point, I was housing with a civil rights legend and most people don’t know her – Fannie Lou Hamer. I was staying at her house in Mississippi. She was a pig farmer and had a household of children.
Every day she would walk to the courthouse to register to vote. And every day they would beat her to the ground. And she finally was permanently disabled. And after she got out of the hospital, the first thing she did was walk up that long gravel highway up to the courthouse.
And I was assigned to house with her and help with Hattiesburg and Ruleville people to register to vote, and the night before we had to walk up that long gravel road to the courthouse, I got very scared, and I was young, maybe 17 or 18, and started crying.
I was so embarrassed to cry in her home with this famous woman who lived in poverty and who had been disabled trying just to get the right to vote. I was embarrassed to cry to Miss Hamer, who was a big woman, like I’m a big man, I asked Miss Hamer, where do you find the courage?
And she got up and she walked over to me and sat down next to me on the couch and she put her arms around me and said, oh, honey, courage is just a lack of options.
JA: You know that that’s the nature of that, that so many of the clients you just described who have no options and the best thing you can do is help to fight the fires?
DM: You don’t get up in the morning, Jose and Elizabeth, and walk around and say, now how can I be courageous? Can I find a person ready to jump in front of a bus? Can I talk someone down? You get up to do this normal life, and things unfold before you. Whether it’s a great injustice or a simple act, and you know who you are as a person and what you must do. And I think the most important thing in my life was knowing who I was as a person and values and principles that I knew I would never compromise no matter what.
I do want to say that values and principles are different from issues. Issues you negotiate and you get as far as you can. Values and principles are who you are as a person. Love is a valued principle. You don’t stop loving, forgiveness, nonviolence. I can go down my valued principles, but those are non-negotiable. On the other hand, if it’s an environmental bill and you can gain major progress
forward, take it! It might not be perfect, but we’ll make it perfect later.
JA: I would love to hear what we could learn from you, how your values and principles served you, in all the many things that you have done throughout your life.
DM: It’s served me well. I think that those values and principles served me well. At times, I have been carried on people’s shoulders for implementing it, but just as often I have, by being stubborn on my values and principles, even by my own community, even by those in the progressive movement, because I will not bend them as Lillian Hellman said, “to Zt the fashion of the day.” And, people say, “You
can’t do that,” and I’ll say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, but you don’t have a vote.
This is my life. I have to live with myself. I have to continue with this work with a sense of honesty of myself. And if you tell me to take that away, then I am rudderless in this society.” I think that it has been the one thing. The other key
thing that I have learned is, you know, when I got involved at a very early age, 17, and my whole life, 60 years of activism. Can you believe that 60 plus years of activism nonstop?
I learned that, especially if you had early success like I did, you get very self important.
You think you are indispensable. You think you know the truth, but none of us know the truth, because every day you get up, and you get new information that changes what we know is the truth. And Donald Trump didn’t mean anything to us and told us others had a different view of the truth, and some truth is debatable.
Someone said one time, come to a family reunion. I said I can’t, I’m too busy, and I can’t have any fun, etc., etc. And then I suddenly sat back and realized that if I didn’t have a life personally Zlled with fun and love and laughter and time off, the
very qualities I was Zghting for that everyone should have equally – rich, poor, no matter their ethnicity, race, religion – everyone should have that right of security, freedom, and joy.
Joy is a very important word to me, and if I don’t have it in my own life, if I’m not taking time off, to create those moments for myself, how am I going to describe it to others if I don’t experience it myself, and I will sound like a cold ideologue. I will make instead of a spontaneous place of happiness and cold ideology. And so, I learned very early on to make sure I had those virtues in my life so that I could passionately describe them.
JA: That is so powerful. I mentioned this before. One of the things that I am always sort of struggling with is mentoring other activists to prevent burnout, learn to love yourself, and learning how to love. It’s important for self-sustainment. In addition to your 60-year amazing career, are there any other tips you can give?
DM: I was a close friend of a Chilean poet, we’ll just leave it at that, because I don’t believe in redefining people – that was their job when they were here on Earth. But I was sitting on the back porch of his summer home in Chile and he had a football-sized sea grass field that went from his house to a cliff overlooking the Pacific, and that cliff had an immediate drop of like a thousand feet.
And it’s the kind of cliff you see in movies when a car goes off the road and the car tumbles down the cliff and explodes, it hits the rocks at the bottom.
I had a fear of heights, and I didn’t want to go near that cliff and the intelligentsia and the key artists in the Chilean revolution of Salvador Allende who is one of my heroes, was elected president by Chile, would meet at this poet’s house. And every
night at sunset, they would go out to watch the sunset over the Pacific – it was a ritual. I didn’t go, I always found an excuse – I’m going to help get dinner ready or whatever, and one night this poet and I were watching the most amazing sunset, and he was much, much older than me.
I was in my early 20’s, and the sunset was one of the most beautiful sunsets either of us had ever seen, and I said to him, “Sir, a terrible beauty has been born.”
And he said, “What do you mean?” And, I said, “The sunset is spectacular because it’s open-air nuclear testing, and all the air is filled with radiation that’s creating this terrible beauty.”
So he said, “Ah, yes, I gotta get up David,” and I helped him up, and he took my hand, and I thought we were going in the house. We walked a few steps to the cliff. I was shaking, I was so terrified, the arrogant pride of youth would not let me tell him I was afraid (as if he didn’t know, my teeth were chattering, my body was shaking, I probably wet my pants, I can’t remember!), and we got to the edge of the cliff and I wore cowboy boots and could see the sand beneath the tips of the boots and he said, “Now, David, this is where you belong – on the edge because in the laws of physics, no one can stand in front of you because they’ll, of course, fall and you had to walk through a lot of fears to get here and that’s your choice in life.
You can walk through fear and be the one who describes colors of the sunset to those who sat back on the porch or you can sit back on the porch and have the colors of the sunset described to you – and I wasn’t about to have anyone describe no Goddamned colors of the sunset to me. I wanted to be the one painting the picture, and telling the story. One of the more important lessons I’ve had. And each time I walked through fear and haven’t always been successful, but it has always been the right thing to do.
JA: So speaking of walking through fear, can you describe a little about your world in politics after you left college? One of the things I am really interested in is your experience in California, what got you out to California and got you involved in politics there?
DM: Well, I mean, what got me out to California. I became political with John Kennedy, an Irish Catholic family, and if we didn’t go out and put bumper stickers and call cards for St. John, as my mother called him, I think she wore black for six months after he died. Jackie didn’t wear black that long. And so that’s when we became political as a family.
And that interest continued certainly through the civil rights movement and seeing the power that the Congress and the president of the United States had on things that I cared about. During the Vietnam War is when I became super political and super active, and I lost four in my family in Vietnam. And, if you haven’t been to a military funeral, I hope you never do have to go. It is devastating for a military family, and I went to four of them.
I went to California to come out in 1976, and I was 30 years old. Up until that point, I had been very successful in politics through the anti-war efforts, and I was on the McGovern Commission to reform the Democratic Party. I wrote a couple of their most successful planks, including 50% of all the delegates had to be women and have proportional representation in states that held primaries and caucuses, which meant if you got 30% of the vote, you got 30% of the delegates, because when I was working for Eugene McCarthy, we would get 70% of the vote in Pennsylvania, and we would get two delegates or we’d get X amount of votes in a certain state, and it would be two delegates because the bosses ran the party.
We got them passed and broke up most of the machines in the major cities at the time, but I went to California and came out of the closet, and when I went around to continue my involvement in major races, you know, campaigns, ballot initiatives, the moment I came out, I wasn’t welcome.
What about the Democrats here? Not only was I not welcome, people who I had contributed to in the past in 1976 and before sent their checks back. I was too hot to handle. And it was devastating to me quite honestly. I knew there would be problems with my family when I came out, and there was – I couldn’t go home for three to four years, but it was devastating that you would open up and people who I thought were friends and who I helped win elections sent their checks back. They weren’t big checks, sometimes $25, but they thought I was so controversial for the mere act of saying who I am. What’s so controversial that they sent them back, so I went into a little bit of a depression, and, if you’ll pardon my language, fuck them, I said to myself.
This is not acceptable, and I know how to do this, and my community was fighting initiatives all over the country. Anita Bryant, one in Miami and St. Paul, Wichita. I was a member of a support group of 30 men who were all professional, white-collared people who had come together called Orien to support each other as we came out. Because that was the time that Harvey Milk came out. And so I talked to them about politics, and, by the way, of the 30 men I worked with for a long time, I’m the only one still alive who made it to 40. Everybody else died of AIDS. I am the only survivor. I gave eulogies at 29 of their funerals. We decided to form – what we didn’t quite know at the time – the first LGBTQ+ PAC in the history of the world. There had never been a political action committee in the community. I was working politically for a lesbian couple, Diane Abbitt and Roberta Bennett, Phyllis Lyon, and Del Martin, and Pat Denslow, some of the legendary Zgures from the women’s game. Ivy Bottini. And, they said, look, it can’t be all bad. And I said, you’re right. So, a couple of us of that 30 said to the rest, if we’re going to do something historically, we have to do it right.
And so, we insisted that 50% of the board be women, 50% be gay men. And that instead of just one chair, we would have two co-chairs, and one had to be a woman and one had to be a man. We didn’t realize that again at the time that this was the first national LGBTQ organization to do that, because there had been a history of tension between the two communities, mostly caused by gay men, because there was a great deal of misogyny. In fact, in that group, we had to fight hard to get the votes to make that a reality. I didn’t believe lesbian issues or women’s issues were the same as ours.
And not only that, but we also adopted what looked like a very conservative platform at that time. We included abortion because our lesbian sisters asked us to. And that just wasn’t done and made a lot of people crazy, but we got through it. Not only did we get through it, but I also remember we had our first fundraiser, and everyone expected us to bring in the usual $5,000 to $6,000.
And we ended up bringing in $40,000 at that fundraiser, which was unheard of. And, just as we go for it and got moving, there was that city council president who was anti-gay in Los Angeles and supported a vehemently anti-gay police chief named Davis. We wanted to get rid of the police chief, and the only way we could do it was to beat the city council speaker, John Gibson, but, unfortunately, he represented the district in the Harbor, San Pedro, very working-class, white-collar. No one thought we could defeat him. As a result, the Republicans didn’t even put up anyone against him. He ran alone for years.
No one else would accept our money. We wanted to give them money. We raised money like a PAC, and no one else would accept it. And one of the few times in my life had I seen politics, political wars funding religion – the wrong kind of religion. So, we found this For Peace and Freedom Party candidate named Jim Stanberry. And we poured money into him and hundreds of volunteers. You have to understand, he got 3% before and people said, what are you doing? I said, well, we’ve got to do something.
And he ran against him, and well he got 40% of the vote. When people saw how little power the city council president had in his own district, they removed him as president, and we got rid of the police chief. And that was our first victory. It came from strategic, well-placed resources, volunteers. And going to that age, we could have fallen, if we ended up with 2% of the vote, we would have lost all credibility. And we’ve got to take chances in the struggle for freedom. And that was really terrific.
Fortunately for us, we had had that victory and a lot of credibility. Now, suddenly, everybody wanted to be part of MECLA called Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles. And so we had some resources. Anita Bryant came to California with State Senator John Briggs and put on the ballot California Proposition 6 that said if you are homosexual and discovered as a teacher or anyone accused you of being a homosexual, a child, a parent, whoever, you had to go before the school board, and they would take a vote whether you were one or not, and if you were found to have those tendencies, you would lose your teaching credentials for life. And Anita Bryant had won in all those places by 60% plus, some 70, and a large segment of especially the money community, but also the grassroots said, let’s not fight it.
We don’t have the money. We’re going to lose big, and maybe if we don’t fight it, we can say, well, we didn’t oppose it, it was just that we withdrew from the election. But, there was a small group of us, and they really went after us because we wanted to fight it. I said, how can you remain silent in the face of such horrendous discrimination? And we didn’t have any money because the money people wouldn’t support us, and I always got I’m good at raising money. My daddy says you have to milk a cow twice a day, and if you don’t, it’s in pain. Well, that’s how I feel about people with money. You got to milk them twice a day. And, if you don’t, they’re in pain.
Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, who, I believe at that time, had one of the biggest grassroots organizations in the country because no, none, zero churches would allow us to attend as openly gay people. So, he formed the Metropolitan Community Church, and he had congregations all over the country. He was part of this very small group that we thought we’d have to fight. And he said, “I’m going to fast until we get $100,000,” which is like almost half-a-million dollars in today’s terms, and he said, “not pledged, but in the bank.” He fasted for 17 days, and, at the end of 17 days, we had $100,000 in the bank, and we were able to open a campaign office and start all sorts of fundraising.
We had another fundraising problem when we went to fight this initiative, because if you gave more than $99 in California, you had to be reported on the disclosure form. At that time, in 1977 I think it was, a vast majority of people were still in the closet, like 80% were still in the closet, and even lower among monied people, and they didn’t want to give. We got more $99 checks than I’ve ever seen in my life. I had dreams about $99 because we couldn’t break past that barrier, and we needed some big checks.
So, I called a Los Angeles Herald Examiner reporter friend, and they came out and I said, you know, if you could maybe do a column on the fact that people are afraid to give more than $99 and that maybe that will help shame a few people, you know? So, I was hoping for like a third, an op-ed piece, or a column by this reporter friend who was closeted.
And the next day, a whole banner headline was across the front page: “Fear Stalks NO on Six Campaign.” It was a story about how people were afraid to give. Our phone started ringing off the hook. Norman Lear, Lily Tomlin, John Travolta pledging $1,000, $2,000, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Norman Lear. And suddenly, like, I think in one day we raised like $50,000. Once all those names, Burt Lancaster was on it, were on the disclosure forms, no one could tell who was gay or who wasn’t. And that changed it all. We were able in the end to raise $2.5 million dollars and win.
We became the first group to defeat an initiative or a referendum on gay rights in the country, and, interestingly, our victory, if the truth be told, belongs to a lot of people and certainly to our community. But a key figure in that was Ronald Reagan. I was campaign manager with Peter Scott. When we started, 75% of the people in California supported taking teachers’, who were gay, certificates away for life. 75% and as the polling we got to about a month out and suddenly we were at 46%, 54 to 46, but to get to 46% we had to pull everything we knew out, and we didn’t know what else to do, and we were so close. Well, Peter, and I, my partner at the time, happened to know some very closeted Reagan staffers. They were terrified to meet with us at the time because we were very public with the initiative– well-known gays, self-proclaimed gays, self-identified gays, avowed gays. I never understood what avowed homosexuals meant, as they wouldn’t let us get married, so we couldn’t take vows. I didn’t understand it at all.
Three of Reagan’s top advisers met us at a Denny’s in East Los Angeles, a Mexican Denny’s because they knew no one would know them as Republicans, showing up in the middle of summer with the raincoats, hats, and sunglasses. I’m not making this up, and they said, “What do you want? How can we help?” And, I said, “I want a meeting with Governor Reagan, 15 minutes to talk about this issue.” And, they said, “David, you know, he’s going to come out in favor of this initiative.” I said, “I think he is, but I know that is the last thing that might tip this in our favor.” They called us back and said, “We’ve got your 15 minutes on the calendar. It was a little complicated for us, but we got it. You have your 15 minutes, and then they’re going to usher your ass out of the ouce and know that’s where he’s at.”
Peter and I went in. I even got a new suit to put on and did my best to be a Republican. We went in, and the famous jellybeans were on the desk. I must say, of all the politicians I’ve met within my life on any number of issues, he was one of the most gracious. He welcomed us, offered me jellybeans. I was so nervous, I almost poured the full jar of jellybeans into my hand, and we sat across the desk, and he said, “Well, son, what can I do for you?” He knew why we were there, and I said, “Well, Governor, you know why we’re here. We want you to come out against Proposition 6.”
He said, “Well, boys, you know, I’m not going to do that. You know I appreciate you coming in here. It shows a great deal of respect to me and my position. Rarely do I have people who have the courage from the other side to come in and ask for help.” I said, “Well, thank you, Governor, but I’m stunned that you’re on the other side.” He said, “Stunned? What do you mean you’re stunned?”
And then I said, “Well, I never thought I’d live to see the day where Ronald Reagan would support anarchy in the schools.” He said, “What the hell are you talking about, anarchy in the schools?”
I said, “Well, I don’t know if your people have read this initiative, but I have, and I’ve had lawyers check it out before I came in here today. There’s a phrase here that says if a teacher is accused – whether they’re straight or gay – of being a homosexual, it is mandatory that a trial takes place before the school board where they could lose their teaching credentials for life. Now, I said, “Governor, I’ve read your biography. I know you played practical jokes. We come from sort of similar backgrounds; that line alone means that any child who’s facing a failing grade for not doing their homework or any child that acts up in the school and is threatened with expulsion or detention, all they’d have to say is that that teacher or principal is gay. Teachers and administrators would be terrified of this initiative because it could stop their income for life.”
He said, “You’re kidding me.” I said, “No, Governor, don’t take my word here. We highlighted it for you,” and we handed over this section of Prop 6. And he said, forgive my French, “Those stupid fuckers.” We ended up talking for 45 minutes. He wanted to know more about the issue, and they kept coming in and saying, “you only got 15 minutes,” and he told them to go away. At the end, we got up, and he walked us to the door, and I said, “Governor, can I ask what you’re going to do?” And, he said, “Nope, we can’t.” We both laughed and walked out of the office.
Now you have to understand, this is important, especially in today’s context. Nobody in the movement wanted us to go see Ronald Reagan. They didn’t want us to have a meeting with him, didn’t want us to acknowledge him, thought we were fascists for going to see him, that we would lend credibility to him. We only got their approval to go by agreeing that we would resign as co-chairs, if we went, and he came out against the initiative, which they 100% agreed that he would. So, we went back to the headquarters. Everyone is all riled up, pure, and self-righteous.
It was a difficult couple of days. And then three days after we met him, on the front page of the L.A. Times, and in every newspaper in the state, was a column by Ronald Reagan coming out against Proposition 6 because it would create anarchy in the schools. Two weeks later, election night came around, and we won the election 54 to 46, the first time ever – statewide in California – and carried 80% of the counties. So, Ronald Reagan put us over the top.
JA: It is such an inspiring and important story.
DM: I think self-righteousness is one of the great enemies of civilized dialog and intellectual thought. As much as we criticize Republicans in Congress for not standing up to Reagan, I think we must show the same courage in our movement. There’s a tendency to sort of police people and what they can say or who they can meet with or what’s allowed and what can be written and people losing their jobs because someone stands up and says that person is a racist, a fascist or whatever, and that’s the enemy of thought.
That is the rigidity of self-righteousness and purity that makes us like them. And that’s not acceptable, and, you know, I always say you can disagree with a person 90% of the time on 90% of the issues, but the purpose of a movement is to bring people to join you, not to make them pass a litmus test or quiz. Asking where do you stand on statehood for Puerto Rico or where do you stand on this issue and then making them feel uncomfortable.
Our job is to make a home in a movement comfortable for anyone of any ethnicity, any politics, any ideology to join us, to overturn a great evil. We have a moral obligation to find those places of common interest among those to make our movement grow. We are giving a voice to the voiceless. We are giving power to the powerless, and, for us to be rigid, as those who have had maybe a better life than most who were working on our behalf is outrageous.
If we turn down opportunities to expand our movement, if we want to know why they feel I’m for independence for Puerto Rico and others are for statehood, I can go work with groups that support that. But, I don’t have to make it a litmus test for others to support, like the funding of rebels in Africa who are committing genocide and rape on a large scale.
So, we must never forget that the purpose of a movement is to make it comfortable for others to join us, thus making the movement more powerful, more widespread, and leading to success. It’s not to punish people who don’t think like you on other issues or have a history of maybe mixed, or what I would consider questionable choices in politics. Our job is to make them comfortable because our job is to help those who are powerless and voiceless, not to make ourselves feel self-righteous and right. It isn’t about making David Mixner right. It’s about change. And we must never forget that.
JA: This goes to my next line of questions regarding your career. So, when I was in college, I was lucky because there I was in a LGBT dormitory where I lived my first year and then as a resident-in-charge of it for the rest of my time in college. One thing I have noticed, as far as my movements and rights go, is that it’s rapidly changing.
When I first joined the movement, the primary focus was coming out. Four years later, the primary focus was on how to be involved in activist causes because people became more comfortable in coming out. The culture had shifted a bit to make it easier for folks to come out. Throughout your life, how has the LGBTQ2IA movement changed, and what do you think are the current issues right now?
DM: I think there is one issue. The most important decision I made in my entire life, and, I believe, the most important decision that any LGBTQ2IA people can make in their lifetime, is to come out however they are. It is such a place of freedom, such a place of joy. I often say my life began at 30 when I came out – 40 some years ago. It changed everything. The movements are in constant bux. Just when we thought we had the most brilliant plan, AIDS hit. We had all this excitement of defeating Anita Bryant. We were raising money. We defeated the city council president and the next mayor. And then AIDS hit.
It was devastating, and I think many of us still have post-traumatic stress afterwards. I lost 382 friends to AIDS. I lost my partner of 12 years to AIDS. Our whole life was dominated. The community across the board mobilized when our government turned its back on us and wouldn’t give us assistance. We created Project Angel Food, God Love we Deliver to deliver meals to people with AIDS, and PAWS that walked people’s dogs and took care of their cats, we did laundry. We all learned how to do IVs, so that we could treat them at home.
And many of us were included in a group that signed the pledge – I was one of the founders of the pledge – that no person with AIDS would die alone. Because many, many of our friends’ families disowned them when they found out; my partner’s
family disowned him and wouldn’t see him before he died. I don’t know how a mother and father can do that, but that’s another issue. We made sure someone was there all the time by their bedsides. It was a little easy because hospitals were given permission not to treat us. Initially, doctors didn’t want us in these hospitals because it would scare other patients away. There was so much discrimination.
The only way we could get into a hospital was to create separate AIDS wards, usually on the top boor of the hospital, and no one except AIDS patients were allowed there. We could just go room to room and visit all our friends. I was very proud of how the entire community came through to take care of ourselves. It was a great lesson for all of us who went through that period. The other thing that was good is that it made freedom within our own community even more powerful because so many of the men who were leaders at that time died, and lesbians, especially, stepped to the forefront. People like Torie Osborn, Jean O’Leary, Diane Abbitt, and Roberta Bennet became heads of these organizations.
And it’s something the men, I think, who lived through those times will never forgive because we didn’t want to give up the battle of freedom in the name of AIDS, and they stepped to the fore and were by our side and helping us. We were burying our dead on Saturday morning and dancing at the disco Saturday night to reafirm life. It was a huge victory for us in the sense that, as the epidemic ebbed, it’s not over, it became totally not only acceptable, but preferable for lesbians and others to hate our organizations, and because AIDS had no ideology, it didn’t have an ethnicity, it didn’t have a race, it didn’t have a religion, it was the great equalizer.
JA: Thank you. Can I share a story of when COVID hit? I had to visit my mother in Los Angeles because she got incredibly sick at the end of March when New York City had become the epicenter of COVID. I went to go fly to see her, and the plane was empty. And when I was going back to New York City, my parents asked me, “Why are you flying back into the epidemic and probably dying?” And I said, “I need to take care of my city, take care of my community.” And what strengthened me were activists like you, and Michael Callan, who I heard stories about, stories about the AIDS crisis, who said, “I’m going to risk my life for my community. If I’m going to die, then I’m going to die.” So, I flew back.
DM: Many of your students who got sick, may still have long-term COVID. I had a very bad case of COVID and have had a very bad case of long-term COVID. It’s hell. Let me just tell you, I’ve been in critical care for the last ten years, and I have refused to surrender to it and have been given last rites four times, because every time I get out of the hospital, I would write another book. I did five stage performances off-Broadway. I kept reinventing myself, and, now because of my long-term Covid, it’s more difficult for me to focus, believe it or not. I can’t write like I did, so I started a video blog. Whenever God closes the door, I open it.
There’s not a schedule, so if I’m having a tough week and have to sleep a lot, I do. I volunteered for drug trials for long-term COVID survivors. We have to understand, we focused on the dead – there are 600,000 dead, which is unbelievable. But now, as we in this country start looking at the light at the end of the tunnel, there’s probably 10 to 12 million people who are casualties, and wounded to come back with heart problems, kidney problems, neurological problems, people unable to focus and function and do their jobs.
And it’s going to hit us like a ton of bricks. A number of people I know are suffering from the effects of long-term COVID which has never happened with any SARS disease before. This is new. I have spoken to Cornell Weill, and they’re going to open a whole wing to deal with this because we are probably looking at millions who can’t get back to work and are long-term impacted. I volunteered last week for drug protocol to help deal with these issues.
You know, you were just trying to do what’s right. And that’s what you did. You went home. You did what was right. You followed your values. You followed who you are as a human being. You knew where you belonged, and you knew that
courage is the lack of options.
JA: You are my moment of joy. You are so inspiring.
DM: You’ve got to find a moment of joy. You cannot become a victim because the moment you become a victim, others view you as weak. There’s nothing weak about being who we are. If anything, our history is one of strength and courage and empowerment and sacrifice. Victimhood is an attention-getter. It is portraying yourself as weak, feeling sorry for yourself. For God’s sake, with all the options we have in the world, even if you can’t write a book, you can write a letter to the editor. You know, you’ve got to look forward, and when things become difficult, you’ve got to look for another path and reinvent yourself. I probably reinvented myself seven times.
I was active most of my life. I became a writer when I was 50, and I wrote three bestsellers. When I got critically ill in my 60s, I said, well, I can’t write as much anymore. So, I did five off-Broadway plays telling my story to benefit the Ali Forney Center and ended up raising about $1.5M for homeless youth. That’s because I look for something different to do when I found out the other options that I had thrived on were now closed to me.
So instead of saying “poor me,” I just threw myself into it. When I said I was going to do a one-man show – I’m the Will Rogers storyteller type – my friends just laughed. I think the reason we sold out the first night was that half the tickets were sold to people who wanted to come see me make a fool of myself on stage, and the other half just wanted to know what the hell was going on, what’s he doing?
I remember getting the cast and all these Broadway people because I was on stage the whole 90 minutes telling stories interrupted by music. I said, you know, I don’t know what’s going to happen out there, and you have shown a lot of faith and trust in me on this. But, I want to tell you that if I embarrass myself, if I pick my nose or fart on stage, it’s not a reflection of you.
You just have to focus on one thing. And that is we raised $275,000 with the show, and the money is in the bank. So, whether I get out there and stutter and stammer,
they can’t get their checks back. Well, it turned out to be a huge success, greatly reviewed, with huge acclaim. I have Zve more, and we sold out every single one and raised over $1.5M for homeless LGBTQ2IA youth. Don’t be afraid to try new
things because you might fail. I could have failed, but I had already helped many people.
JA: In recognition of your faith, your work, and the inspiration and example you have set for the LGBTQ2IA community and the folks who are advocates for HIV/AIDS, what are your hopes for today’s students who will become activists and go onto work for our community?
DM: You know, I’m a great reader of history and biography. I’m a child of Dr. King and Gandhi. One thing that is for certain, and I don’t mean this in a victimhood way, for most people, I will be forgotten, and that’s just fine, because I don’t want them to focus on me, I want them to focus on the new generation of leaders who have a new way of doing things.
You know, I had to laugh the first time the pronoun debate broke out in the community. You know, them, they, he, she, whatever, I added sir to mine. I said, what the hell? That was my initial reaction. I spent my whole life getting candidates just to mention the word gay or lesbian or LGBTQ2IA, and now they want to remove that. What are they thinking? Don’t they understand the sacrifices that we have made!
And then suddenly I just broke out into hysterical laughter because I realized that it was time for the next generation to do it their way. And if that’s how they want to identify each other, why not? It wasn’t for me, I can identify myself anyway I want, but it’s a testimony to all the people who got us to this point to say the word gay wasn’t a victory anymore. It was normal. They’ve taken it to the next level of gender fluidity, and they also will have to watch out about not being cops on others who are less adaptable to the situation. Our job is to bring more, so I support them.
I see, emerging among our young people, phenomenal leaders. You know, movements continue with good leadership, and good leadership only comes when they can rally and mobilize a large group of people by inspiring them to do better. And when we get leaders who start lecturing to them or giving them cold ideology or not inspiring them and telling them how they have to believe in it, that’s when movements die.
That’s when I’ve seen them die in the past. And we must be very careful about that. But then someone else will reinvent this community, another movement will start, and we’ll become part of a greater thing, and maybe we will achieve our goal of not having to be separated, but be part of a greater community. We’ll see. All I know is it will never stop if we don’t stop.
When people abuse their positions of power, my experience is they don’t last long because it’s mostly an ego trip. We also have to understand that in movements, some people have dedicated their lives. And one of the things I had to be careful of is not to wrap up my identity in this movement. You know, I’m proud. I have stuck with it. I’ve been out for 40 years, but I’m not gay David Mixner or gay leader.
I’ll accept living legend maybe. But I am David Mixner – writer, author, blogger, activist, performer –I founded the first Vietnam Moratorium, one of the largest marches against the war ever. My identity is my journey, not my issues, and I think that’s important because if it becomes your whole identity and suddenly we don’t need all of the action we have, you can lose your job. There could be people no longer needing to be led. Then you become really angry and feel underappreciated, and, if you get to that point, just say, OK, that’s a milestone for us, our success.
So, what do I want to do now? Maybe I want to write that book I always wanted to write. Maybe I want to do that one show that I’ve always wanted to do. Maybe I want to go work with Doctors Without Borders in Africa. You know, I’ve worked in setting up clinics for HIV pregnant women in seven nations in Africa to help with that.
So, there’s not a lack of things we can do. It’s only if we’re lazy and resist redefining ourselves. And so that’s an answer to your question. We got a future, it’s a bright future. I think this next generation has some of the toughest challenges to protect
our democracy. We can protect it and have the courage to redefine who we are as a nation and take the necessary actions to ensure that everyone is protected. I’m a strong believer in constitutional change, you know, 500,000 people in Wyoming have two Senate seats, 30 million in California have two Senate seats and issues of justice, freedom, healthcare, and food stamps are being decided by the Senate who represents about 32% of the people in this country. Think about that.
So, we got to be brave enough to tackle issues everyone will tell you not to tackle, “Don’t go there, don’t do it.” You know, if I had a dollar for every time someone uttered those words, “Don’t go there, don’t do it. I say go to the edge, see what change is needed.” Look at the data, examine history.
I’ll leave you with a Bertrand Russell quote, “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” I feel those have been the passions for me. Thank you for this interview, and now by doing this interview, do I finally get a degree from your school? I need a degree before I die. I don’t want to die as an uneducated idiot. Thank you so much for this honor.
JA: It was so inspiring, so inspiring. And just such an honor to meet you. Thank you.
The transcript of this interview and related photos were originally posted on the CUNY School of Law’s website.
David Mixner is an advocate and political organizer for LGBTQ2IA+ rights and a prominent leader international human rights and American politics. For over 40 years, he has led efforts to prevent and fight HIV/AIDS in the United States and improve access, prevention, and treatment across the globe. As executive producer of House on Fire, he documented the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the African American community. Mixner has raised over $30M for not-for-profit organizations and candidates running for political office, including over $1M for openly gay and lesbian candidates. Mixner’s papers and correspondence as a peace and civil rights activist from the Vietnam War to the AIDS Crisis to his participation in political campaigns are housed at the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale University. He has co-written several screenplays: Dunes of Overveen (with Richard Burns) and Fire in the Soul and Jacob’s Ladder (with Dennis Bailey). He writes for Time, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and The Advocate, among other publications.