Martin Duberman: Cover Story

Holding Tightly But Gently
Historian Martin Duberman in His Latest Book on Singer Michael Callen and Poet Essex Hemphill Revisits the Early Battleground That Was AIDS
by Lester Strong

Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Stephen Churchill Downes

After the introduction in the mid-1990s of protease inhibitors, the first class of drugs to successfully suppress HIV and inhibit the damage it causes to the human immune system, AIDS began to recede from the American consciousness as a major health concern. Gone were the mass protests by ACT UP and other organizations aimed at prodding government medical research agencies and pharmaceutical companies to come up with effective medicines to deal with the disease. Gone was the panic over the disease that led to calls for the quarantine of those infected by the virus. And gone—or at least diminished—was the rampant homophobia unleashed by the fact that AIDS in the United States first manifested itself in a big way among gay men.

Times have definitely changed in regard to AIDS. But for anyone who lived through the epidemic in its early years, the memories are still there, and they’re not pleasant.

Noted historian Martin Duberman has brought those years vividly to life again in his just-published book Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS. His credentials for doing so are impressive: A Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the CUNY Graduate center in New York City (where he founded and was first Executive Director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies), he is also a multi-award-winning biographer, playwright, and novelist.

As a resident of New York City for many years and a gay activist, Duberman was aware of the AIDS epidemic from its start. As he explained in a recent interview with A&U about the book: “I was certainly aware early on. I was friends with Larry Mass [Dr. Lawrence Mass; co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, or GMHC], who wrote the first feature article about the disease in the New York Native in 1981. He was full of information on the subject, and we talked about it frequently. I also remember a trip to Fire Island very early in the epidemic to visit Larry, who had a house there. Vito Russo [author of The Celluloid Closet, published in 1981, a pioneering book on lesbian and gay themes in the movies] was staying there for a weekend, and he was up in arms that the gay community in Cherry Grove literally had their heads in the sand about AIDS, not mobilizing themselves, not raising money, not doing anything. I knew a lot of people who early on were already concerned about what would soon be labeled ‘Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,’ or ‘GRID.’”

Aside from talking with people who were soon in the thick of dealing with the AIDS crisis, Duberman over time came to have a more intimate acquaintance with the epidemic. A number of close friends were diagnosed with the disease and eventually died of it (including Vito Russo in 1990). Amid very busy academic and writing careers, he found the time to serve as a caregiver for many of those individuals, and after the founding of the People with AIDS Coalition (PWAC) in 1985, he volunteered several hours a week as a phone operator for that organization, as well as the proofreader of its newsletter.

In the mid-1980s also he met the man who became his life-partner (with the advent of marriage equality they have since married). An HIV test for each revealed that Duberman was negative while his partner was positive. This was well before the introduction of protease inhibitors, and in Hold Tight Gently he details both the upset over the diagnosis and the turmoil for years as his partner tried medicine after medicine, to no avail. In the interview, he described it more tersely: “He tested positive, and then it just became endless doctor’s visits, endless experiments. For one study he traveled back and forth to Boston for months, and was that a nightmare!” Nothing worked, and everything looked very bleak. “And then,” Duberman writes in the book, when his partner’s “T-cell count fell below 10, came the unbelievable release of protease inhibitors…and he’s reacted well to them down to the present day. In the end, we were among the lucky ones.”

As a long-time supporter of progressive political and social causes, Duberman knew that in the United States medical care is skewed depending on where you’re placed on the racial, social, and educational continuums. When it came to writing Hold Tight Gently, he wanted to track the early years of the epidemic in this country in their black and white dimensions. The virus and illnesses were the same for everyone afflicted by them, but the experience of having AIDS could be very, very different depending on who you were, where you lived, and what your racial or ethnic background was. As Duberman makes clear in the introduction to the book, the experience of having AIDS in this country “remains a profoundly gay one, with young, poor, nonwhite men disproportionately impacted….” It was his hope that a glance back might help those of us concerned about AIDS today in setting priorities for the future.

To tell his story, Duberman decided to focus on two individuals: Michael Callen, a white Midwestern transplant to New York City in the 1970s intent on pursuing a singing career; and Essex Hemphill, a black poet born in Chicago but raised in Washington, D.C., who became a central figure in a flowering of black lesbian and gay male culture during the 1980s that was compared to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Both were diagnosed with AIDS early on in the epidemic, and both died before the introduction of protease inhibitors—Callen on December 27, 1993, at age thirty-eight, and Hemphill, who was two years younger, on November 5, 1995, also at age thirty-eight.

“Mike and Essex never met,” said Duberman during the interview. “I knew them both a bit, and I admired them both. As I began to research the book, I saw they played off against each other very well in terms of balancing the story. They tell the black and white dimensions of the epidemic very well.”

One of those dimensions: the differing reactions of Callen and Hemphill to the organized AIDS protest movement. According to Duberman, Callen jumped right in: “He was radical in his approach to AIDS, an important and very vocal activist. From the start he demanded that people living with AIDS have a say in their own treatment and care, and was one of the founders of the self-empowerment group PWAC. He battled the straight medical and political establishments when he felt that was called for, and battled the AIDS service and protest organizations—for example, GMHC or ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power]—when he felt that was needed. He was very courageous.” Callen continued his singing career, most prominently performing in different venues with the gay male a cappella group The Flirtations, leaving behind two albums as a member of The Flirts and two solo albums. But from the time of his diagnosis through most of the rest of his life, singing was subordinated to AIDS activism.

Essex Hemphill, on the other hand, mostly avoided the white-dominated AIDS protest movement. Instead, he threw his energy into writing poetry and essays, editing a book of literary work by black gay male writers titled Brother to Brother, appearing in films and performance pieces aimed at exploring black gay identity and experience, and in general working to put black gay male and lesbian writers on the larger cultural map. He identified as gay, but he identified as black first. In Hold Tight Gently, Duberman quotes Hemphill directly on this point: “My race…even at the point of birth, was more important than my sexuality. That’s going to always be the case….I love my race enough to know that I’m a Black man first and foremost and that my sexuality falls in line after that.’”

Another difference in the white/black dimensions of the epidemic: AIDS is, if left untreated, an acute, life-threatening, medical condition. But as Duberman notes in Hold Tight Gently, “While most white gay men were clamoring [before protease inhibitors were released] for admission to experimental drug trials, some African Americans were reluctant to enter them. Thanks to the notorious Tuskegee experiment (1932–72), distrust of the government was deeply entrenched….” (The Tuskegee experiment was the infamous decades-long study where the U.S. Public Health Service tracked the “natural progression” of syphilis among 600 impoverished African American men in rural Alabama without ever treating them for it although penicillin as an effective cure was available for more more than half the duration of the study.)

Duberman also notes another difference between the black and white responses early on during the epidemic: “Just as some white gays feared quarantine, some blacks feared that AIDS was a deliberate genocidal plot—‘just as the introduction of heroin had been’—to decimate minority communities.”

There’s no indication in Hold Tight Gently that Essex Hemphill himself feared drug trials or thought AIDS was a genocidal plot by the government. But as the book makes clear, an important aspect of the black gay male mindset at the time was the perception of racist attitudes among many of the white professionals who made up the AIDS medical and services establishments and many of the white AIDS activists, including many of the white gay men who were themselves infected with the virus. That affected not just Hemphill in a big way, but the larger black community concerned about AIDS, the latter so deeply that the solution for many was to set up their own organizations to deal with the disease: the Black Coalition on AIDS (San Francisco), Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD; New York City), Black Gay Men United (Oakland), Spectrum (Washington, D.C.), the Minority Task Force on AIDS (multiple chapters), among others.

The stories of Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill indeed reveal the differing white and black dimensions of the early AIDS epidemic, and in a startling way. Neither man had it easy, because the disease itself has never been easy to have. But their priorities could not have been more different. For Callen, once he had contracted AIDS, the main issue was medical: finding drugs that could cure the disease, or at least stop it in its tracks. Hemphill, on the other hand, certainly understood the consequences of having AIDS, but his own physical welfare was less important to him than something else. In Hold Tight Gently, Duberman quotes a black friend of Hemphill as saying he “never really took a proactive stance with his own illness.” But he was proactive to the end in advancing his chosen cause: the creation, promotion, and visibility of black gay male and lesbian cultural accomplishments in the face of white indifference and even black hostility from conservative black cultural and religious leaders who denounced homosexuality as a threat to black survival.

What do Callen’s and Hemphill’s stories tell us about dealing with AIDS today and tomorrow? One answer suggests itself in the title of Duberman’s book. Hold Tight Gently is taken from the title of the section in Hemphill’s Brother to Brother devoted exclusively to writings by black gay men on AIDS. Enter a warm embrace, it seems to say, one that is firmly protective but also reassuringly friendly. But is that what Essex Hemphill and other African Americans stricken by AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s felt about the medical establishment charged with their care?

The AIDS crisis today is all encompassing in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and nationality. To meet that challenge, a paradigm of care must be achieved that is all-welcoming and that embraces everyone so as to meet each person’s needs as that individual perceives them. No doubt both Essex Hemphill and Michael Callen would have approved of that approach.

Book Excerpt

Hold Tight Gently
Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS
by Martin Duberman
The New Press

Diseases relating to sex have long been viewed in Western culture as the result of divine retribution. As Peter Lewis Allen has demonstrated in his splendid comparative study, The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present, the link between “debauchery” (variously defined) and punishment has a long history in the West, with “unbridled lust” widely cited by physicians and clerics alike as attributable to everything from leprosy to syphilis to bubonic plague.

Allen makes the additional and crucial point that the latest plague would be marked—as none had been previously—by the afflicted banding together and beginning to see themselves as a “group of people defined by their illness and entitled to rights because of it.” In the same way that Mike Callen, Joe Sonnabend, and Rich Berkowitz were on the verge of combining their resources, others, too, were beginning to realize that they need not sit passively by while their country abandoned them. They could become proactive on their own behalf.


In part to contrast the different perspectives of Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill, Duberman also includes their voices, resonating with different vibrations within the pre-HAART era.

From Michael Callen:
“There’s so much to do!” Mike lamented. He worried about his legacy. “It’s begun to dawn on me that some people misinterpret my message of hope to mean that everyone with full-blown AIDS won’t necessarily die of it. I have never said any such thing! Instead, what I’ve been trying to explain is that no one diagnosed with AIDS needs to die on cue! That’s a very different message. Long-term survival is possible; my own life proves it.”

From Essex Hemphill:
“Some of the T cells I am without are not here through my own fault. I didn’t lose all of them foolishly, and I didn’t lose all of them erotically. Some of the missing T cells were lost to racism, a well-known transmittable disease. Some were lost to poverty because there was no money to do something about the plumbing before the pipes burst and the room flooded. Homophobia killed quite a few, but so did my rage and my pointed furies, so did the wars at home and the wars within, so did the drugs I took to keep calm, cool, collected.…Actually, there are T cells scattered all about me at doorways where I was denied entrance because I was a faggot or a nigga or too poor or too black. There are T cells spilling out of my ashtrays from cigarettes I have anxiously smoked. There are T cells all over the floors of several bathhouses, coast to coast, and halfway around the world, and in numerous parks, and in countless bars, and in places I am forgetting to make room for other memories. My T cells are strewn about like the leaves of a mighty tree, like the fallen hair of an old man, like the stars of a collapsing universe.”

Copyright © 2014 by Martin Duberman. These excerpts originally appeared in Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.