An Activist’s Journey
David Mixner Explains How the Constancy of His Principles & Values Strengthened His Fight for Peace, Love and Understanding
by Mel Baker
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Alina Oswald
David Mixner is being blackmailed. It’s 1969 in Washington, D.C. At age twenty-three, David has become one of the national leaders in the Vietnam War Moratorium campaign, but now his sexuality is being weaponized against him.
As a teen David knew he wanted to leave rural New Jersey and become involved in politics. He took his first steps in college in Arizona, organizing for civil and labor rights, later becoming involved in the national civil rights movement. He would go on to organize in battles for LGBT rights, work to end the nuclear arms race, raise funds and awareness to battle AIDS and play a pivotal role in helping elect Bill Clinton to the Presidency. But there were plenty of reversals, betrayals and heartbreaking losses along the way.
Fall of 1969 is a tumultuous time, David is one of the key players in the Moratorium to End the Vietnam War. He has known since he was a child that he was gay and has had only one relationship in college with a man named Kit, who was killed in a car crash just months after they met. He could only attend the funeral as a friend and was unable to share his soul breaking grief with anyone.
Now in Washington, D.C., he is working hard on the Vietnam War moratorium, but feeling lonely, he visits one of the clandestine gay bars in the district.
David is approached by a man named Frank. They have sex, but also conversation, romantic dinners in the man’s apartment and outings on the town.
Frank claims to be a federal worker, who knows of David’s work and supports what he is doing. He also shares many of his interests and promises that his home will be a sanctuary for David. After a month long, nearly daily romance, Frank says he had to go on a business trip but would meet David in a hotel restaurant when he returned in two days.
When David went to the restaurant, two men sat next to him and said, “Frank isn’t coming.” They flashed some kind of I.D. at him and showed pictures of him and Frank having sex. (David was too rattled to examine their I.D.) They told him if he didn’t spy on the anti-Vietnam war movement for them, they would send the pictures to his parents and the press. He had three days to decide.
Filled with terror and dread he ran to Frank’s apartment. It was empty, with not a scrap of furniture or a trace of Frank. The building manager claimed that no one had rented the apartment for months.
Frank was clearly an operative of some kind. The romance, the love David thought he had found—an illusion. The whole surreal relationship like something you’d read in a bad spy novel.
The next three days nearly shattered David Mixner. All he could see was “death or eternal shame.” Everything he’d worked for since he’d become a civil right’s activist in Arizona was on the line. His loving relationship with his family and beloved sister Patsy would be wrecked and worse yet, the publicity could damage the anti-war movement he had become a major player in.
He drank, dropped acid, desperately tried to escape from the terror that engulfed him, with the Moratorium March on Washington just weeks away.
David begins to realize that the “agents” who entrapped him would be in trouble if they actually sent the pictures to the press. After all they had either paid Frank to have sex with him or he was an actual federal agent who was having sex with another man, something unlikely to play well in the press of 1969, just months after the Stonewall riots in New York.
David decides that if they do expose him, he will take his own life and so with that cold comfort, he waits.
It’s the third day, the Fall of 1969. The two men pull up to David in a car and say, “well?” The 23 year old stares back and says, “send the damn photos, I don’t care.” and walks away.
Non-violent activists believe the power of the oppressor is always about fear of what they “might” do, how they “could” harm you. Those who have fought injustice remind us that a corrupt state can’t actually apply enough force to hold all of the people down, unless they convince people to cage themselves within their own prison of fear. The power of non-violence is expressing moral force by refusing to give into that fear.
David’s activism is based in part on the ideals of Liberation Theology, a strain of Roman Catholicism and some Protestant churches, that apply religious faith to aiding the poor and oppressed through political and civic action.
“It is a theology that’s not very accepted in the Catholic Church, but basically it is you’re put here on Earth to help others. You can’t become a victim in that process. I’ve never felt like a victim, and I’ve had some very tough times, I just knew that that was my journey and that those were my values and those were my principles. I also learned very early to distinguish between issues and principles. Issues come and go, values and principles never come and go. They are the core of your essence and who you are.”
David compares his generation’s struggles with those of young people working today for LGBT rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, the fight against climate change, income inequality and the desperate effort for some kind of gun control policies.
He is especially encouraged by the brave young activists from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida who lost seventeen fellow students and teachers in February.
“It [the Anti-Vietnam war work] looked very similar to the students at Parkland. The adults had abdicated responsibility, They had given up on the war’s inevitability. Of course, they’re not the ones that are dying. We were the ones dying. Every one of us knew people that had died, they were not doing anything, so we had to get together and take care of our own lives. We literally were given death sentences because of politics.”
Death sentence by politics would again become the theme in David’s life when AIDS exploded onto the scene in 1981. “I lost over 300. I did ninety eulogies in two to three years. I lost the people nearest and dearest to me and I’m still here.”
One of those he lost was Peter Scott, the man who he describes as the love of his life, who he had built a political consulting agency with in southern California.
David watched again as the government—this time under Ronald Reagan—did next to nothing to stop the deaths of thousands. This time of gay men and others affected by AIDS.
Once again he marched in the streets, raised money and used his political connections to demand political allies take action.
The complex and horrifying nature of those early days is well documented.
The fight against HIV and AIDS continues, but now there is a new crisis. This magazine did a detailed profile on David’s critical work in the July 2002 issue.
I suggested that the opiod epidemic resembles the early days of the AIDS crisis. David agrees.
“[The opioid epidemic] is affecting a sector of society that has no voice. It is epidemic, especially in poor white areas. In Appalachia, in the Ozark Mountains. It is an expression of desperation, loss of hope of no more dreams, because we have abandoned those people. What no one is dealing with is that the next step in this is a widespread AIDS epidemic in those areas. Because of the sharing of needles.”
“Well it is! It’s affecting a sector of society that has no voice. It is epidemic, especially in poor white areas. In Appalachia, in the Ozark Mountains. It is an expression of desperation, loss of hope of no more dreams, because we have abandoned those people. What no one is dealing with is that the next step in this is a widespread AIDS epidemic in those areas. Because of the sharing of needles.”
I asked David what the people dealing with the opiod crisis can learn from the fight against HIV and AIDS?
“The thing is what did we learn? Are we willing to care enough about people that we think of as racists and voted for Donald Trump? Do we have the compassion to reach beyond that and to give them voice so they can demand action?
“We have to find a way to teach what we learned in the fight against AIDS to help them find their power, their voice and to help them organize. It is especially—I believe, and it is only my belief—imperative that those of us who went through the AIDS epidemic, who learned to fight back, who learned how to build coalitions, who learned how to put pressure on the political process to extend our hand in those places even though it might not be the most welcomely received and help them survive this horrible epidemic.
“We know how to do it!”
If economic and cultural despair among the white working and middle class is a theme of the early twenty-first century, fear was also a theme fo the early eighties, beyond the AIDS epidemic.
Fear of nuclear annihilation.
I’ve been interviewing David by phone from my radio studio in San Francisco as he sits in his home in New York. Back in 1986 that distance was spanned on foot by four hundred of my friends and me on the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, where a community we would call Peace City walked from the west coast to New York and then down to Washington, D.C.
David had grand visions for the march when he founded PRO-Peace in 1985. Five thousand people would do the march, in a carefully designed peace village. Major concerts with big name celebrities would be held along the way. Staff would prepare the marcher’s meals and wash their clothes. One of my fellow marchers called it “Club Med” for peace.
It didn’t work out that way. David raised a lot of money, but only 1,200 people had signed up and the funding from the big name celebrities who promised to help dried up. PRO-Peace collapsed just days into the march, stranding the marchers in the desert west of Los Angeles.
David considers it his biggest personal failure. “I made some bad decisions and some of it based on ego quite honestly, I understand that now and I could have avoided that. I wanted to be liked and please people. I should have been tougher and told people what I thought and I failed to do that.”
The marchers reorganized themselves and more than 500 completed the journey, changing their lives and helping change the zeitgeist around the threat of nuclear war.
David learned lessons from that failure, but remembered to hold tight to values and principles, even as the issues changed.
David was a tireless fundraiser and organizer in the LGBT community for Bill Clinton, whom he helped into the White House. David knew Clinton as a young man, who espoused the same values as Mixner, but whose principles could be compromised over issues, if they threatened political expediency.
“I got arrested in front of the White House over ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I wasn’t sure if I was right or wrong, but in my heart I felt that it was wrong and that a lot of people’s live were going to be affected. What was interesting is, that when I got arrested I got very little support from the community. The Advocate [a major LGBT magazine] put on their cover “David Mixner, Friend of Nobody.” The thing is, I knew that would happen and for me to be a victim and complain about the lack of support was an unrealistic expectation for me.”
Fighting despair is perhaps the activist’s greatest challenge. David admits to being truly terrified of the Trump administration.
“The fact of the matter is we are in perhaps the most precarious time that I can remember. Always before when we did the anti-war or nuclear stuff, there was a sincere hope that we could make change and never did we doubt that our democracy was safe. I think now there is a real question of whether the institutions that enabled us to protest and to create change will survive this presidency.”
Still, he believes the stories of the heroes of the past can help the current generation in this time of great fear.
“If you feel you come out of nothing historically, then you are nothing. On the other hand, if you come out of noble and brave and courageous people, you become noble, brave and courageous. That’s why we can’t have a future until we know our history.”
David Mixner remains in the fight and intends to keep doing so.
“Right now I’m working on three different fundraisers, a new book, I just finished the Mixner trilogy, three one-man shows. I’ve been in intensive care over the last ten years. But I refuse to sit on the sidelines.
“I’m seventy-one years old and making sure that story is being told. But not in a way that makes me a relic. I’m not ready to be put on a shelf, I still have value, we have a tendency in this community [the LGBT community] to put our seniors out to pasture, to not listen to them and certainly not take care of them.
“My mind is sharp I have more knowledge than almost anyone in this community, I know our history and I know how to organize. I refuse to be made a relic that they applaud when I go in and don’t listen to me.”
I believe him. A man who told the FBI to go fuck themselves when he was twenty-three years old, isn’t likely to let himself be folded between the pages of the history books while he’s still standing up in his cowboy boots.
Some of the quotes come from Stranger Among Friends, David Mixner’s autobiography.
Mel Baker is a broadcast journalist and former LGBT and anti-nuclear weapons activist. He is married to artist Leslie Aguilar and lives in San Francisco, California.