Phil: Hey, this is Phil, aka Corinne.
Alex: And I’m Alex Berg and you’re listening to the I’m From Driftwood Podcast.
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In February 2019, I’m From Driftwood sat down with activist, journalist, and editor Jay Blotcher, who shared stories of active demonstrations and being tasked to hold a high jinks memorial.
Jay: In the latter part of the ’80s and the early part of the ’90s, my life in New York City was dominated by AIDS activism. I was an AIDS activist. I was a member of ACT UP. ACT UP was a direct action coalition of people who took to the streets to change policy regarding AIDS in the government, in medicine, in everything. When I joined ACT UP in the fall of 1987, I thought, “Where do I belong?” and somebody said, “Well, what do you do?” I said, “Well, I’m a journalist,” and they said, “Okay. Why don’t you become part of our media committee?” “Well, what do they do?” “The media committee reaches out to journalists to make sure that they write about the AIDS problem,” because a lot of people were ignoring it. The New York Times was, is, and remains the newspaper of record and so, if something doesn’t appear in The New York Times, then it’s as if it didn’t happen, and The New York Times was really bad on their AIDS coverage.
Fast forward to 1989, the Times, at this point, had just published an editorial. The headline, I believe, was Why Make AIDS Worse Than It Is? The idea of this op-edwas, yes, AIDS is an awful thing, but there’s only a finite number of people who have AIDS and, once those people who are infected pass away, then we’ll have fewer people with AIDS. It was one of the most callous, tone-deaf editorials that The New York Times ever wrote. Needless to say, we, the members of ACT UP, were pissed off. This was just the crowning glory of years of ignorant coverage of the AIDS crisis. And so we decided that we were going to have a demonstration in front of the home of The New York Times publisher, and his name was Arthur Sulzberger Sr., and he was nicknamed Punch. I don’t know. It was a name that came from his childhood. A bunch of us started wheatpasting nights before the demonstration, and it was all on the Upper East Side.
The posters had a variety of messages that all were focused on The New York Times saying, “Your coverage is going to cost lives. You’ve got the story wrong,” and, in one image we had, we took a photo of Arthur Sulzberger Sr. and wrote on top of the poster, “Punch, you fucked up.” This was the prelude to the demonstration that was going to happen later that week. This demonstration happened on a hot July afternoon at 80th and Fifth Avenue, which was the home of Arthur Sulzberger Sr., right across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And, because they knew about the demonstration, the police were there as well. There were only about 100 of us. There were probably 150 cops there to protect the home of Arthur Sulzberger Sr.
We realized we weren’t going to get anything done here at Fifth Avenue and 80th Street, or 81st Street, and so the people who were negotiating the demonstration, who had organized it, said, “We need to try another alternative, another strategy,” and so they said, “We are going to march from 81st and Fifth Avenue down to 43rd Street and Broadway to Times Square to the office of the Times.” We were going to bring our message of anger and protest right to the front door of the Times, and so 100 people just starting marching down Fifth Avenue to the Times and the cops went crazy, “What the hell are you doing? Where are you going?” At first, they were trying to stop us, but they realized that the only thing that they could do was give us an escort because, otherwise, we were going to create a traffic jam.
We arrived in Times Square. By now, it was rush hour and there was all this traffic there and we were in the middle of 100 or more than 100 people screaming and yelling and speaking out against The New York Times and, at this point, the cop said, “Well, what are you going to do now?” “We’re going to go in front of The New York Times.” “Oh, no, you’re not.” “Oh, really? Okay then we’re going to have a sit-down right here in Times Square at rush hour.” “Oh, okay. Well, you can go into 43rd Street.” Again, they escorted us into 43rd Street because we had stood up to them and we got out in front of the Times and we protested.
We had the protest and we left and the anger subsided. We were trying to point out that, if The New York Times was getting the story wrong, that was going to have ramifications in the public sphere because politicians read The New York Times to tell them what’s important and, if The New York Times is trying to make AIDS seem unimportant, then politicians aren’t going to fight as hard to enact AIDS policies. We really felt good coverage in The New York Times, good AIDS coverage, was a matter of life and death and that’s why we went to protest that day. And the most interesting, most horrific, part of this afterwards was that nobody wrote about it. The only newspaper willing to touch the issue was The Village Voice and they wrote a whole piece about not only the fact that The New York Times had been bad at AIDS coverage, but also that they obviously had enough power in this city that they could also squelch any resultant coverage and summon hundreds of police at a moment’s notice.
There wasn’t any immediate change that was yielded from that protest. Any change in their editorial policy and being better about AIDS issues and gay issues would happen a few years later with the change of editorship and change of staff there and the change of the times, the change of the era where people were a little bit more sensitive towards LGBTQ and AIDS issues. All the problems that brought ACT UP into being are still there now, so there is ample reason to get out there in the streets and to fight, as the slogan went, ACT UP, fight back, fight AIDs, and I think, unfortunately, that it’s just as relevant now as it was over 30 years ago.
It’s April of 1992, and I’m at Beth Israel Hospital on the East Side of Manhattan, and it’s not exactly the best place for a birthday, but this is where my friend is with AIDS and he’s having his birthday. And so a bunch of us have gathered there and we’re giving him gifts and there’s food, there’s birthday cake and ice cream. We’re tucking him back into bed after giving him gifts and everything and we’re standing around very awkwardly and, suddenly, he says, “I have a last request,” and we’re all stunned because we’re trying to keep things light and he’s getting very real with us. He said, “This is what I want. After I die, I want my ashes to be placed in balloons and let fly free over Central Park.” This friend was one of the most punkish, hardcore, unsentimental people around, and so we thought, “Okay, maybe he’s delirious or maybe he’s just goofing with us,” but he wasn’t. He, suddenly, in the last throes of his life, he decided to become very sentimental.
He died in July of that year and we all gathered together in that October in Central Park. My friend was a very dark person, he had a very dark worldview, so it made sense that the day of his memorial was a dark, cold, rainy day, the kind of rain that feels like razorblades in your skin. His mother had had him cremated and, with my instruction, she had sat at the kitchen table and placed ashes of her son in these balloons with a little teaspoon and brought them down from Syracuse to New York City for this ritual that he had asked for. We had a helium tank that we set up there right outside of Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial, and we’re fixing the balloons to this helium tank and blowing up the balloons and tying them, it’s this bizarre little assembly line, and we finally got enough … we’re creating these little bouquets of balloons.
And so we got over to Strawberry Fields, the memorial, and we were ready to let the balloons fly, and the balloons sunk because there were too many ashes in them. Everything was going wrong. Everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong. And so one of the guys, who decided to make himself the boss of everything, suddenly said, “Okay, change of plans, everybody. We’re going down by the pond.” Carrying these two heavy balloons, we went down to pond and we’re looking at each other, “Well, what are we going to do now?” And he said, “Yeah, just burst the balloons over the pond,” and that’s not exactly as poetic as letting these balloons fly up in the air. We burst the balloons over the pond and, at that point, this wind whipped up and one of my friends, who was one of the deceased’s friends, got a bunch of ashes in his eye. I’m standing there picking these ashes out of his eye while he’s saying, “Damn it, I knew he would get me back. I knew he would get me in the end.”
One of the times we were filling a balloon, it got away and it went … and sputtering ashes of our friend all over the place. It was just as bizarre as you could imagine. It wasn’t exactly as poetic and as beautiful as we wanted, but it went along with his life, which was a very odd and wonderful life and, even though we were cursing him throughout that day, we were also laughing because of the absurdity of it all. After we had let the ashes be disseminated in this pond, which is probably illegal, we stood in a circle and we had some champagne and somebody took some sage and burned it to clear the space, to cleanse the space, and, while we’re standing there, a man comes out of the bushes and he’s dressed in ragged, dirty clothes and he starts singing.
He starts singing this song by The Stylistics called You Make Me Feel Brand New, which was a ’70s soul song, and he was singing it a cappella in a beautiful falsetto and so we’re looking at him and we’re thinking, “Why is this man singing to us?” And he stops singing and then he put his hand out because he wanted some money, this is how he made his money, and I thought, “Oh, no.” And so I went up to him and I said, “Excuse me, this really isn’t the place for this. We’re having a funeral for our friend,” and he’s like, “Oh, okay. Well, why didn’t you tell me? It’s not like I would’ve done it if I had known,” and he got really resentful. But, at that point, my friend’s father said to the guy, “Can I take a photo of you?” and so the guy calmed down and he wanted to make amends, so he posed for a photo, and that was just the end of a day of complete absurdity.
And, as we were leaving, the core group of us, we thought, “We came here today to curse our friend at the same time that we were honoring him, but now we realize what a great gift he just gave us of this experience where we all came together and we got something done, even though it was absurd and idiotic and overly sentimental, but we achieved it.” And, for that reason, all these years later, we remember him because he gave us that gift of that absurd memorial. There were so many people whose lives were cut down in the AIDS epidemic, such vibrant, wonderful people, who will not be known by future generations and I think it’s important to remember how our lives were so diminished by this wholesale extermination of these people, a government turning its back on people with AIDS.
And so I think it’s important to tell the stories of these people as often as possible because we have a government now that turns its back on people and people with AIDS and we have to remind people to always be on guard and to be vigilant because this could happen again and again.
Alex: Here to catch up and revisit his moving stories, please give a warm Driftwood welcome to Jay Blotcher. Hi, Jay.
Jay: Hello. Good afternoon from the Mid-Hudson Valley of New York state.
Phil: We are so happy to have you here. First things first, how are you doing?
Jay: It’s a thoughtful time. There are a lot of books coming out right now about ACT UP. There is a renewed attention on this direct action AIDS protest group and that is very gratifying since I spent more than 15 years of my life involved with the organization.
Phil: And for our younger listeners who may not have heard of ACT UP and don’t know what it is, can you explain what ACT UP is and, also, how you got involved with it?
Jay: ACT UP is an acronym. It’s two words, ACT UP. It actually stands for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, and this was an organization of like-minded souls, progressive people, who were focused on the fact that our country was not doing enough to address the AIDS issue. ACT UP was formed in New York City in March of 1987, and began a series of demonstrations not only in New York, but other ACT UP chapters began across the country and across the world and we had many major demonstrations, and our focus was to raise awareness about AIDS, to get our government, the United States government, to do something active and proactive about addressing drug access and addressing the discrimination against people with AIDS. There was so much that was going wrong and hurting people with AIDS and shortening their lives because our government decided that the people who were getting AIDS were disposable, frankly. It was rampant homophobia, rampant racism, things that you still see now.
And ACT UP, through a series of demonstrations, conferences, protests, very colorful protests, raised awareness and helped expedite the process by which drugs could be approved and get into the hands of the people who needed them who were suffering with HIV/AIDS.
Alex: I want to backtrack a little bit to actually the 1980’s, and, in particular, a 1989 New York Times op-ed that was really enraging. It was titled Why Makes AIDS Worse Than It Is and it sparked a demonstration that ended in front of The New York Times building. I know that a lot of activists actually will sometimes call The New York Times The New York Crimes for their failures in covering the crisis. What feelings come up for you when you think back to that day?
Jay: Well, first of all, if my memory serves, it was 32 years ago this month and ACT UP’s feud with The New York Times had been going for some time. We had been calling them out repeatedly for their inadequate AIDS coverage, for erroneous AIDS coverage, for AIDS coverage that sided with pharmaceutical industries and companies. I had joined ACT UP in 1987 and, by the time summer of 1989 rolled around, I was the head of the media committee for ACT UP New York and my job was to communicate with the media even when they got it wrong. And so I was in this interesting position that I had to be the peacemaker. Mind you, this was before social media. You had to go through the media to get attention. And so ACT UP had been monitoring this for a while and really getting angrier and angrier, and the tipping point, of course, was this op-ed that you just mentioned.
In a very cold, analytical way, this op-ed essentially said, “Hey, cool off about anger about AIDS because, once everybody who’s infected dies, we won’t have to worry about it anymore.” And I can’t convey … well, our listeners can imagine the message that is sent out by that, and so we decided it was enough. And so we were going to have a demonstration at the home of Arthur Sulzberger Sr., who was, at that time, the publisher of The New York Times. His apartment was across the road from the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Fifth Avenue and 80th Street, I believe. And so we made something posters in advance, I sent out the press release in advance, everything was done in advance, oh, and then we went wheatpasting these posters up near his home on the tony Upper East Side.
I got a phone call at my home from none other than Abe Rosenthal, who I believe was the head of the city bureau. He was a real high-end person, a real mover and shaker in The New York Times. And he called and he said, “I found one of your press releases and so I’m calling and I want to know why you’re doing this,” and I’m like … I was caught … I said, “Well, because you’ve been telling lies about people with AIDS and gay people for decades.” The New York Times used to print the names of gay people who’d been entrapped in sexual situations in parks or in bathrooms in the city and they used to summarily print in the newspaper their names and addresses to give them public humiliation and to ruin their lives because, at that time, anything like that was a major crime and their lives would be ruined and some people would even commit suicide because of this.
The New York Times’ attitude, their negative attitude, towards gay people went back many decades and Abe Rosenthal was one of people who powered that. He commissioned a story early on, around 1965, that he had just come back from working as the editor at some foreign outpost of The New York Times, I think it might have been Russia, I’m not quite sure, but he came back and he noticed, visibly, gay men walking through the city and this incensed him and he said, “There’s something wrong. This is a moral outrage,” and he commissioned a story saying that these people who are becoming emboldened and are being visible are a threat to New York City life. That gives you a sense of what this man’s mentality was.
And, on top of that, of course, was the mentality that they had about people with AIDs. They just didn’t care enough to really analyze the story and to really challenge the pharmaceutical companies about what they were doing and to challenge politicians about the fact that people with AIDS had no human rights and that they were summarily being thrown out of jobs and thrown out of their apartments because of their HIV status. It was really a horrible situation and the Times, the newspaper of record, was only inflaming that situation. Here I am on the phone with Abe Rosenthal and he’s listening to me and you can tell that he’s just clucking his tongue and thinking that I’m a mad man he said, “I guess we can’t convince you to call off this demonstration?” I said, “No, it’s going ahead.” He said, “Okay. Thank you. Goodbye.”
What met us, when we got up there, were probably about 150 cops who were all over, swarming all over, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in front on the famed stairs and everywhere, and there were maybe 80 or 90 of us and so this was more than one cop, almost two cops, per demonstrator. And one can only imagine that Arthur Sulzberger made a call to the cops and this was New York Times’ power at its most evident, that he just could make a call and get all these cops … because ACT UP was not a violent organization. We had taken a vow of nonviolence when we started in March of 1987. There was nothing to fear from us except you might get a bruised ego when we call you out on your wrongdoing and your injustice.
The amount of muscle shown that day by the cops was so excessive and so unjustified and we were unable to do what we wanted to do that day, which was a simple protest in front of his home, which was within our First Amendment rights, and it was a hot summer day as well. It was not the day that you wanted to be out demonstrating. But a few of us started talking and said, “Well, we’re not going to get anything done here. Why don’t we go to the Times?” We marched, all 80 or 90 of us, we marched from 81st and Fifth that day all the way down to Times Square. And it was like, just as we were arriving at Times Square, it was rush hour, but we were ACT UP and we were fired up and we had a promise of what we needed to do.
And then a couple of more angry people did burn a few copies of The New York Times, which I didn’t agree with. That sends out the wrong message. We were not about stopping the press and we were not about censorship, we were pointing out that misinformation had very dire effects and that, if the Times got the right information out there, it could save countless lives.
Phil: Thank you for sharing that, Jay. I want to ask what’s your take on how the media covers HIV and AIDS stories today?
Jay: Well, it’s unfortunate, but when 1996 came around and the advent of protease inhibitors, suddenly, that’s the ballgame. I guess AIDS is over. Newspapers, and some which had reporters solely assigned to the AIDS beat, started reassigning them to other things. The fact is that protease inhibitors were an amazing breakthrough for AIDS, but it didn’t mean that everybody got protease inhibitors and it didn’t mean that everybody who took protease inhibitors would respond to them and it also didn’t mean that people of color and poor people and women were getting equal access to these drugs. The number of injustices regarding AIDS were still strong. The protease inhibitors had changed the playing field a bit, but it didn’t mean that the story was over, and so it was very, very frustrating for us in the AIDS community to see everybody just saying, “Oh, okay, cool.”
Jay: At that time, I was with the American Foundation for AIDS Research, an organization tasked to raise money to give to scientists so that they could come up with more inventive and aggressive medications for people with AIDS. Media is a business. Even more so, media is almost wholly corporate owned, and so it’s very clear there are certain things they don’t want to cover, certain things that they cover badly, and certain things that they ignore entirely, to our amazement and dismay. There are still many issues surrounding HIV, but you’re not going to find HIV issues on the front page of newspapers anymore, unless a celebrity contracts HIV. I’m thinking back maybe four or five years when Charlie Sheen came out with HIV, saying that he was HIV positive, and he was on the Today show and that was important, but the fact is that it took a celebrity to get AIDs back on the front page again.
Whereas the countless number of people who are poor, who are suffering right now with HIV in the United States, not to mention the dire situation that continues in other countries, especially in the continent of Africa, no one’s talking about AIDS anymore except the grassroots organizations that are still fighting, that are still providing prevention information, who are still providing drugs, and are still trying to remind people that AIDS isn’t a walk in the part, that just because there’s PrEP, that AIDS is a very serious issue. For younger people who did not live through the early years of the plague, there’s no sense of the severity. That’s why it’s gratifying that shows like Pose are actually giving us a time travel back to that era and letting us know how severe it was and how high the stakes were because it’s a message that still needs to be told.
Alex: Well, I’d also love to talk about your second story that you told I’m From Driftwood a couple years ago. It almost plays out like a movie, when your not sentimental, punkish, hardcore friend was succumbing to AIDS complications, he had one last request, which was to have his ashes put in balloons and flown over Central Park. You honored his request and then the high jinks ensued. Can you take us back to the moment you knew that the memorial was going awry?
Jay: Well, first of all, the person who we did this for, his name was Michael Santulli and he was from Syracuse, New York and he actually died July of 1992. It’s 29 years. It still hurts when you lose somebody that didn’t need to go, who was vibrant and defiant and a hell of a good time. It was his birthday, actually, when he let us know that he wanted this scenario. He had thought it out, and Michael was a no-nonsense guy who liked punk music and liked Nina Hagen and Lene Lovich and didn’t have a sentimental bone in his body, we thought. And here it is, it was his last birthday in April of 1992, “I want to tell you what I want done for my funeral.” And it’s like, “Michael, we just had a birthday party for you. Why do we need to talk about your funeral?” But Michael was a smart guy and he realized that the end was near and he wasn’t going to sugarcoat it.
Jay: And so when did it all go wrong? I think we did a first test balloon and so the ashes are in the balloon, we take the balloon full of ashes, and we put it up to the nozzle of the helium tank and turn it on and … well, the balloon went away and it started flapping all around and spitting ashes and we thought, “Oh, this is not going to be pretty.” And there were ashes, my friend’s ashes were on the ground in Central Park, and one of his friends was like, “Oh, we don’t want his parents to see that,” and so he stamped on the ashes to rub them out so that nobody would see them. I thought, “Is it going to get worse? Yeah, it’s going to get worse, isn’t it?” and it came out to be something very strange, but I guess, in a way, it was marvelous as well.
And the fact is, 29 years later, we’re still talking about it because it was so amazing. That was our friend Michael’s last gift to us, this bizarre, crazy memorial service. It’s important to remember that these were beautifully flawed people and they’re gone and they didn’t have to be gone if our government had done something and taken AIDS seriously when it first happened, and you see the parallel with COVID, that Trump did not take it seriously and hit it when it first happened. So much more could have been done and a vaccine could have happened sooner and people could have gotten life-saving prevention information earlier. History repeats itself in the most punishing ways when you look at the parallel between AIDS and COVID.
Alex: Yeah. Well, speaking on this topic, you say, in the first story, all the problems that brought ACT UP into being are still there now. In what ways do you think younger LGBTQ+ folks forget that there’s still a fight to be fought?
Jay: Well, all you have to do is look at the institutional racism in the medical industry, how people of color are not treated with the same level of care as Caucasian people, how trans people are not treated with the same level of care as cisgender people. The problems continue. For a while there, we had the pharmaceutical industry and the medical industry reforming themselves so that health care was accessible, but with the Republicans in bed with the medical industry, they’ve been able to fight and roll back a lot of the changes that were made so that, again, we have the absurd people that people don’t have the proper access to health care, especially during COVID, that lives could’ve been saved.
It’s still a mess and I think, thanks to George W. Bush and his tenure and then with Trump, the pharmaceutical and medical industries have been emboldened to be their worst selves. They have dug in their heels and said, “No, we’re going to be profit mongers. We’re going to limit access,” and I hasten to add the insurance company industry into that as well, they’ve been horrible, denying people access to health care and denying them coverage when they should be getting coverage. It’s still a tragedy that the United States, the strongest country in the world, does not have socialized medicine, and that’s something we have to keep fighting for. All those other countries that have socialized medicine right now, you don’t hear any of them complaining about it and you certainly don’t hear any of them saying, “Oh, this was a bad idea. Let’s roll this back.” All of them are taking care of their people and they are lowering the costs and so that everybody has equal access to health care in these socialized countries, and that’s something we have to keep working to achieve ourselves. The war, the battle is not over.
Phil: What ways can we galvanize queer youth to get involved with groups like ACT UP, just galvanize them to become activists?
Jay: Well, I think the first thing is you’re on your iPhone, kids, look up a little bit of gay history. Do it. Find out what used to go on. Don’t think of it as medicine. Don’t think of it as punishing education. Think of it as a step back into the past. Get a sense of what we used to fight for and what life was like and how we, as LBGTQ people, were second-class citizens because, as much as you’re enjoying your freedom now, the Trump administration was a reminder that it can be taken away at any time. There are cases facing the Supreme Court right now that could really roll back LGBTQ rights in this country, and so the fact is I just beg younger people, Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, to take more interest in what’s happening in the news and to consider yourself somebody who could be on the losing end if these awful things happen.
Get involved in politics on the local level. If you’re allergic to politics, then help out at some organization that helps people who are less fortunate, whether it’s LGBTQ, whether it’s the homeless, whether it’s people who suffer from mental illness challenges. This nation needs to heal. And I’m a proud gay man, but gay rights are not my only issue. I focus on environmental rights. I focus on homeless rights. I focus on Black Lives Matter rights and have marched many times. There are so many issues now. If you can’t march, then sign a petition, and if you can’t sign a petition, then do some volunteer work, and if you can’t do volunteer work, then write a check, damn it. There are so many things that can be done and people should feel empowered to do something. You don’t have to be an expert on all these issues. All you need to know is that things need to be done. Find something that attracts you and do it so that we can start healing this nation.
Alex: Well, on that note, what is the greatest lesson you’ve learned being a part of ACT UP and just the greatest lesson on your journey?
Jay: The things that I didn’t think I could do, I did, once I found the right group that nurtured and supported and encouraged me. Believe me, I did not grow up in Randolph, Massachusetts, with people telling me all the time, “You should buck the status quo. You should be a rebel. You should raise hell,” not at all. And yet, when I moved to New York City and I saw that New York City’s gay community was in the death grip of AIDS and that there was still homophobia everywhere, I realized, “This is not right.”
And Mom and Dad used to tell me that, if you were just a good person, then everything would be okay, but it wasn’t okay, and so I realized I needed to do something. I had to unlearn a lot of what I had been told in suburban Boston. I had to learn to fight back and to right wrongs and to stand up to injustice and I’m glad that I did and I’m glad that more people are doing that now because there’s a deep need to stand up and be defiant because the Republicans really want to trash this country and we can’t let them do it.
Phil: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corinne-
… and Alex Berg, and is produced by Anddy Egan-Thorpe. It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, the LGBTQAI+ Story Archive.
Phil: Its mission is to send a life-saving message to queer and trans people everywhere, you are not alone.
Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s founder and executive director is Nathan Manske. Its program director is Damien Mittlefehldt.
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Alex:Thanks for listening, y’all.