Allan Robinson, AIDS Activist

I met with Allan on November 29, 1989, at Hunter College School of Social Work, where he was working at an alternative treatment AIDS project. I was gathering material to use in “Acquired Visions: Seeing Ourselves Through AIDS,” an Other Countries program performed on December 1, 1989, at Studio Museum in Harlem as part of the efforts of New York City artists involved that year with “Visual AIDS: Day Without Art” and the World Health Organization’s AIDS Awareness Day. Our purpose was to document, through an assemblage of poetry and prose, our changing response to AIDS — from terror and helplessness to empowerment and healing.

I chose to meet with Allan because he was one of the few men I knew who was an active member of both Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). He marched down Fifth Avenue with GMAD in the New York City Gay Pride March, and up Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard in the African-American Day Parade. He was also very visible at many ACT UP demonstrations. I would run into Allan every other week or so at some meeting, lecture, or watering hole where we would scope “the boys” and update each other on what was happening in “our communities.” When Allan and I met, I was prepared to interview him in a traditional fashion; he, however, was waiting to tell a story. After turning on the tape recorder, I was able to ask him one question: “Tell me about your family and how you became a member of ACT UP?” His response filled the next two hours. I nodded and interjected with a few “Uh-huhs.” I even got in a few “But whys,” and “What do you means?” Although not a complete transcription, what follows is the only written account of our November meeting. Allan died in 1991.

I’m from New York City, my father is Jamaican and my mother’s American. I was born in Harlem and raised in Clinton Hill. Actually, my parents helped integrate that area. The area around Pratt Institute was in transition (i.e., the white flight of the ‘50s and ‘60s and not the gentrification of the late ‘70s and ‘80s). Neither the ethnic Italians nor Irish exactly welcomed us.

In the summer of 1968, the year Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy got shot, I went to my first demonstration protesting the Vietnam War. I was 15 years old, very confused about what was going on and very rebellious. I think I was like many young Black men who had gone to Catholic grammar and high school. It was a crazy period because I didn’t know any gay people, but I knew what was going on, since I rarely dated girls. I had had one affair with an altar boy, and another with a friend of mine when we were kids like several boys do, but there was no love nor self-esteem involved in either of these relationships. I learned about “Gay Life” in New York by stumbling into a subway bathroom where I saw men having sex.

In 1971, during my Sophomore year at Rutgers University, I came out with the help of the Rutgers Homophile League, (which I understand to be the first gay campus organization). I came out, not just in style but with support and love from some young and older gays and lesbians. I need to interject something: I had this concept that I was very ugly before I came out. I think that ugliness is something a lot of Black people go through. It was gay men who told me for the first time that I was beautiful, or that I was handsome, or that I had a wonderful body. Gay men I would meet just walking down the street helped me with my self-esteem. Just having someone whistle, or make some kind of ultimately sexist comment helped. Sometimes there were flattering comments, namely what people would say to me when I was intimate with them. (Laughter.) You know, I actually suspected that was an easy way for them to get me in bed. And sometimes it was. Interestingly enough, I overheard someone in an ACT UP meeting, a white man in the group bragging to his white counterparts, that whenever he wants to meet these young cute Brown and Black men, he just walks up to them and tells them, “You’re beautiful!” He said it works every time.

After Rutgers, I came back to New York and joined the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), which, I suppose, was everyone’s exposure to “the Gay Ppolitic,” whatever that is, at the that time. But it was still party time as far as I was concerned. I mena, I was about 21 years old or so, and it was all new to me. It was exciting! See, I didn’t much get involved in all of the politics. I went to and participated in some of the early gay day parades. It was great to just meet other gay men who where aware, to celebrate our bodies, whether it was in dance — which I did a hell of a lot of — or seeing our numbers on the streets. Certainly, most of the young Black men I knew on the street and in the clubs were not concerned about gay politics. I mean, the ones I formed bonds with. I really did not know politically-minded Black people unless it was in the traditional Democractic Party politics. During all this time, I was still going to other political events — Central America, South Africa, Angela Davis, and Lord knows what else! I went to the demonstrations and events because I sensed that, for a while, we really could make significant change. We as a people. There was that energy in the ‘70s, that we would change the world. That the world was changing. I also went to those demonstrations to register my body, and usually there were only a handful of Black and Brown people in attendance — even at the South African protests — unless they were indeed orchestrated by Black and Brown people. At the time, I really didn’t understand our absence at those events. I think I have a better understanding now, as a result of my involvement with ACT UP, both in ACT UP’s AIDS and gay and lesbian contexts. Let me back up a little. In 1982, a few months before I moved to San Francisco for a year, I went to my first forum on AIDS. It was held at NYU. There were a couple of person’s names I had recognized from the Fire Island party scene who had died of AIDS. The early deaths from AIDS were both shocking and big news. Outside of these instances, I really didn’t know anyone who had AIDS. Anyway, present at the meeting were people like Larry Kramer, Paul Popham and others who became the nucleus of those who formed the future GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis). THere were maybe 600 overwhelmingly white men present. I think Matilde Krim may have been there, and others, at least from a neuropathic point of view, pioneers in AIDS research. The people from NYU showed photographs of people with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. They also had overhead projections of just how many men had died of AIDS and had used poppers, ethyl chloride or claimed to have taken acid, or had engaged in anal or oral sex. I got the feeling that most of those present, as a result of their early concern and participation, thought that this was going to be a temporary crisis, that life would go on as it had been, and that the crisis would not get bigger than what had already happened. I think that participants believed that they could be back at The Saint or Fire Island or wherever it was that they were going to continue to hump and play. Sure, there would be some initial painful losses, but they would be gotten over.

Around this time, I became tired and discontent with New York City, so I escaped to California. I called my sojourn, “A Spiritual Creative Sabbatical.” I wanted to be closer to nature. As an art photographer, I also did some group landscapes. After a few months in California, I began hearing from transplanted New Yorkers about people I knew who were dying. I went to the first candlelight AIDS vigil in San Francisco. It was moving, very moving. There were lots of tears. I began reading the gay press out there. The front page of The Bay Area Reporter would be talking about Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), but throughout the paper there would be numerous advertisements for poppers. Certainly, there was thought to be some relationship between poppers and people getting GRID. I thought how dare they do that, not just the ads for poppers but all the ads promoting hustling. I was furious! I wrote letters-to-the-editors calling them all sorts of slime, hypocrite death merchants and the like. They would never print my letters and they would never respond. In San Francisco, I got another taste of how gay white men could also be my enemy. Even though this disease was affecting gay men, I began to realize that gay men are as capable of profiting from people’s illness and death as much as anyone else. Bars and bath houses all over the city were selling poppers and other nitrates. The boys had gotten it down to a science. There were upscale bars on Castro Street and South of Market that had the name of the bar on each individual emery board (to allow patrons to file their nails before fisting someone) and container of Crisco. These same bars, some of them to this day, could not bring themselves to put a dish of condoms on their bar counter.

In 1983, I came back to New York City. I never felt San Francisco was my home. I mean, it was beautiful. There was a moment when I felt very comfortable there, when I didn’t think of New York constantly. I met some lovely people but there was energy in New York that was missing in San Francisco. Blacks were not in San Francisco in large numbers at all. In Oakland, yeah, but Oakland is not like the gay thing. I came back mostly because I realized I was getting homesick, since New York City was both my hometown and my gay point of reference. Once here, I tried to get involved. I called the then fledgling GMHC to offer my creative services. They asked me, “What could you do?” I told them, “I’m an artist, I’m Black blah blah blah.” They just didn’t want to deal with me. I could have pushed GMHC to be a buddy or something, but sheer fright of death prevented me from going any further. Not only were there friends that I was never to see again, but I found out that people died months after I got back. In some instances, I found out about their deaths years after my return. There was a period that the amount of deaths were so shocking that I would break down and cry. There were just waves of deaths. To this day, I continue to lose friends and hear about their deaths after their funerals. Even in the last few years, when people have been living longer or feeling better like Philip Blackwell, the playwright, or Walter Holiday, the actor, I still hear after the fact.

You know, just two years ago, I was sitting with both Philip and Walter at The Bar on Second Avenue and Fourth Street. They actually had been chipper about their illness. I think they both had had a bout of pneumocystis. I joked with them that I would write a piece called “The Gay Dog Food Company.” In the play, those of us who were survivors of the crisis would round up all the people who really fucked with us. We would round up the medical establishment, politicians, racists, the gay bucks who sold poppers, Koch and Reagan and turn them all into dog food.

Another strange thing I noticed in ‘83 was that people were only talking about white men and AIDS. I had known just as many Black men who were becoming ill from AIDS. Many of the Black men I knew would die soon after being diagnosed with KS or pneumonia. I think many of them hastened their illness by doing large amounts of cocaine, specifically freebasing coke. Including Walter, Philip, Tony Scott, Harvey Maclamore, I can name many people who were involved in things and activities that hastened their illness. That is rarely discussed. I actually started to remember all the names of all the people I knew that had died. I wrote the names down to actually sort of use for the salutation to the dog food play. Oh my God, it was ridiculous! Thirty names actually occupies the same space as thirty words and yet, it reads for hours and hours. Three-quarters of the names were Black. I think we’re going in record numbers because many of us get to health care far later than we should. Many of us tend to discover the illness when it has done irreversible physical damage and we emotionally cannot muster the self-esteem necessary to live longer.

I wasn’t being judgmental when I made the comment about the cocaine, because among those I named, friends and foes, there were some dynamic individuals. When I look back, half of the Black men in the group (some people won’t want to hear this) did not have intimacy with other Black men. They were always struggling with that. Also, some of them who did have intimacy with Black men, always preferred white men. I’m talking from a spiritual standpoint of how chasing white boys, whether in the bars or on Fire Island, could have helped prolong their lives. I certainly don’t mean dealing with or wanting white men is a co-factor for death; only that things exist which make us think that we as Black men are not worthy of love. If a Black man looks in the mirror and the deity doesn’t resemble him, he may look at another Black person and be unable or unwilling to feel love. A positive self-image has to be a major factor in one’s health, in one’s well-being. I’m not sure if there is any scientific basis to anything I’m saying, but I would trust my observations before any social scientist’s.

Then in 1987, I joined ACT UP. As always, I kept my distance. At the first meeting I attended, there were about 500 mostly white men present. An energy in the room made me go back, again and again. There were so few Black and Brown men in the organization that people kept approaching me. They would look to me, kind of feel me out about various issues. Then I sort of jumped into the organization and sat on the Majority Action Committee. Unlike other times, I got more involved because the issue was so close to home. I would hear them referring to us as this generic thing, “people of color.” I realized that there were people there who didn’t even know Black people. I would actually hear other Black and Brown people refer to our people as if they were talking in the third person. Outside of all my criticism, I found an energy in the organization that was frankly exciting. That energy helped me deal with the loss, anger, and the frustration with societal indifference I was encountering. I think that, in retrospect, ACT UP has satisfied that need for many people. So many people need that kind of conduit to deal with those feelings. I don’t want to criticize that aspect of the organization.

I did, however, begin to get very frustrated with ACT UP. The one thing I had never done was to become involved in the inner workings of an organization. I was highly visible. People calling me, always looking to me to be “the Black man.” I noticed very early on that had it not been for the health crisis, many of the white men I came in contact with would not think twice before returning to their old misogynist ways. As white men, they would not think it was their responsibility in life to change the status quo with regards to racism, sexism, and certain other social concerns in this country. One of the things I picked up, especially among the upper middle class, is that they were goddamned angry. They were angry because they thought they had everything — trips to Brazil, Fire Island, hanging in the clubs, boyfriends, drugs, money, and living perhaps on 81st Street and Central Park West. They were angry because they were being treated like everybody else.

I think Black and Latino men and women really have to process on becoming involved in civil disobedience. When I got arrested at Stephen Joseph’s office, I wondered how the cops would have responded to ACT UP if we had all been Black and Latino. Fortunately for me Ortez Alderson, a close buddy of mine, had also been arrested and we provided support to each other politically and spiritually through that action. Frankly, most of the so-called “people of color” in the group, with rare exception, could not relate to Ortez or me. They found us, to use the ‘60s vernacular, “militant.” So did some of the white men, actually so did a few of the white women. One of the things I attempted to do, because I love to plot, was to get the Majority Action Committee and Women’s Caucus working closer together. I thought such a coalition would work well, as a political means, to deal with these white gay men. It actually worked for a little while. Folks knew exactly what was happening and they did not like it. I heard a story about the first time I came to sit on the Steering Committee (the ultimate decision-making authority of ACT UP). One of the most prominent members of that organization, a white man, who sits on that committee, said, “I’m not about to allow him to come here and have us feel guilt for 400 years of what he has experienced.” I supposed that’s what he saw me as and the only thing I was bringing there. He was not going to allow me to have them feel guilty and to deal with racism. It was one of his best sisters who gave me this information. Prior to that, I thought I was being too sensitive, that the stick I was feeling up my ass was my own creation. It wasn’t, thank you!

I was active in ACT UP and concerned about AIDS even though I knew I was HIV-negative, at least that’s the way I tested. Then, in the spring, I tested HIV-positive. I didn’t exactly handle it the way I thought I would — I was shocked. I went off. I stressed out, and felt empty, lonely, and detached. I was asymptomatic but I still considered suicide — I even wrote out a note. Real drama, real, real drama. I made myself dream a solution. I realized that I had lost touch with who I was. As far as I’m concerned, there would still be life, there would still be consciousness. Also, there are people in my life that really care about me, that I love. I really enjoy living, trees, touching and I love all sorts of physical things. I think I said to someone that I was going to live to spite a couple of people. Life is my birthright, it is the earliest and fondest wish of my parents. I created new dreams and even envisioned myself as some stunning, unfettered, lovely 80-year-old man, with an adobe home in the Southwest surrounded by men in love. As Black men, when we view ourselves holistically, HIV really doesn’t mean that much. It means as much as everything else — racism, poverty, inadequate health care, homophobia, etc. I think to heal ourselves of all of this, we must continue to talk to each other.

Oh, what time is it? If I don’t go, I’m going to get in trouble. We have to continue this.


© B.Michael Hunter 1989

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