Tribute: Andy Vélez

Tribute: Andy Vélez

Photo by Bill Bytsura

Andy Vélez, an internationally prominent AIDS activist died on May 14, 2019 at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. He was eighty years old. The cause of death was complications arising from a severe fall in his Greenwich Village building in April.

Born March 9, 1939, in the Bronx, Velez spent part of his youth in Puerto Rico before returning to the Bronx, where he graduated from William Howard Taft High School in 1955. He earned a Master’s degree in psychoanalysis in 1976 and worked with the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies under Dr. Phyllis Meadow in the Village. His therapy practice thrived for two decades. He had become interested in psychoanalysis when he began to suspect that he was gay.

Vélez had hoped to have a career as an actor, and appeared in many off-Broadway productions in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1969, he began a sixteen-year career in book publishing with the firm Frederick Ungar Publishing; he worked his way up to the presidency of the firm, managing the company until it was sold in 1985. From the 1990s through the 2010s, Vélez returned to his love of theater by covering the theater scene in New York for several LGBT magazines, as well as conducting interviews with jazz greats for All About Jazz and the New York City Jazz Record. He also wrote the liner notes for the CD reissues of several Broadway musical classics, as well as for collections by legends such as Doris Day, Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, and Artie Shaw. From 1990 to 1992, he taught courses in musical theater at The New School, bringing to his classes luminaries from the golden age of Broadway like Barbara Cook, Elaine Stritch, and John Kander and Fred Ebb.

Once he had made active connections with the LGBTQ community, he served as a leader for the Gay Circles Consciousness Raising Group for almost three years. One evening, after his group ended, Vélez walked past the first meeting of a new organization dedicated to addressing government inaction surrounding HIV/AIDS. He was intrigued. The group was ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Vélez joined several ACT UP committees, including the Media Committee and Actions Committee. He participated in high-profile demonstrations and civil disobedience arrest scenarios that showcased ACT UP’s signature street theatre activism, chaining himself in the office of a pharmaceutical company, covering himself in fake blood to symbolize the lives lost to AIDS because of government negligence. Justice was important to Vélez from the beginning of his activism, which, in 1964, was forged through trauma when he was entrapped by an undercover police officer at a bar, arrested, and convicted, a decision that was later reversed thanks to his resistance and the help of a progressive lawyer.

Vélez found his niche with ACT UP’S Latino Caucus, which focused on the rampant but neglected epidemic in the Latino community. Vélez and his colleagues traveled to Puerto Rico to organize an ACT UP chapter in the commonwealth. He was also a founding member of Queer Nation in New York City in 1990. For many years he was involved in AIDS educational and service organizations. He served as an administrator and bilingual educator for for more than a decade. He also wrote about the epidemic for numerous community publications, including POZ, Body Positive, and SIDA Ahora. He also took part in aggressive treatment access work with Treatment Action Group.

Andy was a longtime presence on the global AIDS scene through his work as an AIDS community liaison for the International Conference on AIDS. In 1994, Velez headed an ACT UP/NY contingent that attended the conference in Yokohama, Japan. From left, Jim Aquino, Jay Blotcher, Andy Velez, Kevin Robert Frost. Photo by Bill Bytsura

He became a prominent presence on the international AIDS scene for more than two decades, working with co-organizers of the International Conference on AIDS to guarantee the inclusion and participation of people with HIV. He also served for several conferences as the official liaison to the activist community. He also consulter for the Latino Commission on AIDS and was a guest speaker on HIV/AIDS issues at high schools and colleges across America. His involvement in social justice activism, with collectives like ACT UP and Rise and Resist, persisted until his recent fall.

When asked many years ago how he would like to be remembered, Vélez replied, “As someone who was able to help.”

Andy Vélez is survived by his sons Ben and Abe, both of Brooklyn, his daughter-in-law Sarah, his granddaughter, his younger brother Eugene (“Gene’) of Alamo, California, as well as thousands of comrades in the global AIDS and LGBTQ activist communities. Funeral services were private. A public memorial service will be held this summer. Donations in Vélez’s memory may be made to ACT UP New York, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and the Latino Commission on AIDS.
—Reporting by Hank Trout