Scales of Justice
From the courtroom to the showroom, attorney Ben Schatz — aka Rachel of The Kinsey Sicks — has fought for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS
by Hank Trout
It’s the late 1970s. You’re an accomplished, promising young undergraduate at Harvard College, full of great promise. But you’re torn about your career path. A passion for social justice pulls you to enter the legal profession as a civil rights activist and crusader——but your little gay heart just screams to live onstage. So, which is it? A career in the law or in the theater?
For Ben Schatz, the acclaimed LGBTQ rights attorney, the law and activism won out. He graduated from Harvard on June 4, 1981——in one of the odd, auspicious coincidences in Ben’s life, June 4, 1981 was the day before the very first reports of a “gay cancer” appeared in The New York Times. After graduation, Ben was on to Harvard Law, graduating with a JD in 1985. He immediately began working on AIDS discrimination advocacy.
Before becoming director of the National Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, Ben founded the AIDS Civil Rights Project at National Gay Rights Advocates when he graduated from law school in 1985. He then served as presidential advisor on HIV issues, Schatz created the first national AIDS legal project and authored President Bill Clinton’s HIV policy. “I was the chief author of both the HIV and sexual orientation policy papers of the 1992 Clinton campaign,” Ben told A&U, “and worked closely with community leaders David Mixner and Roberta Achtenberg in the process. I never knew who exactly was reviewing my policies and what would be accepted. So, I just did my best, and they were remarkably receptive, especially on the HIV front.
“On the queer front,” he continued, “I knew that there were some things they’d never go for at the time, such as marriage equality. But back in the ancient days of 1992, just the fact that they were willing to have anti-discrimination policies at all was a huge change after the genocidal, hate-filled blight of the Reagan/Bush years.”
Some of Ben’s most essential work was in the field of AIDS and insurance, fighting the industry’s “horrifying, completely blatant discrimination” against people living with HIV/AIDS. “I wrote an article for the Harvard Law Review on the subject and worked closely with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners——a fun-loving bunch if ever there was one. As a result of a lot of work (fantastically partnered by Jeff Levi of NGLTF), they passed a national policy opposing discrimination in insurance on the basis of sexual orientation, which was huge back in the 1980s.”
Ben and others were keenly aware of the urgency of the work they were doing for people living with HIV/AIDS. “At that point legal strategy was somewhat guerrilla,’ Ben said, “in that we couldn’t allow cases to last longer than the lifespan of people living with AIDS. So, the focus was less on ‘landmark litigation’ than filing complaints, shaming the wrongdoers, and getting tons of press about it.” As the number of seroconversions and deaths continued to rise, that urgency grew exponentially. Ben and others were there to meet that urgency.
Apparently, Ben’s career as a respected, influential LGBTQ rights attorney did nothing to quell his heart’s longing for the theater. He has said he learned that “activism and theater are not mutually exclusive, talent is overrated, and making people laugh is much more fun than suing them, and no less effective in making them think.” After all, he says, in the first half of his career, his real job as a LGBTQ rights attorney and activist was actually “My first TV role: non-threatening and appealing homosexual.”
In 1993, Bette Midler brought her show to the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. Ben and some friends, “a group of refugees from successful careers as professionals and activists” (Irwin Keller, Maurice Kelley, Jerry Friedman, and Abatto Avilez), decided to attend the concert dressed as the Andrews Sisters, trying to create a little joy in the darkest days of the AIDS pandemic in San Francisco. They assumed they would be joining dozens of other drag queens at the concert. They were wrong. They were alone! Approached later to perform at an upcoming fundraising event, their reply——“We don’t sing!”——proved false; they learned that they all had musical backgrounds, and so they began harmonizing. Thus were born The Kinsey Sicks, America’s Favorite Dragapella® Beautyshop Quartet (Ben as “Rachel,” Irwin as “Winnie,” Maurice as “Trixie,” Jerry as “Vaselina,” and Abatto as “Begoña”).
Sadly, founding member Avilez died a year later, and was never replaced, reducing the Kinsey Sicks’ number to a quartet, a formation they have maintained ever since, with various performers.
From the very first notes of their first appearance in 1994 (on a street corner in the Castro District of San Francisco), the Kinsey Sicks have mixed slick a cappella harmonies with pungent satirical lyrics. Last year the Kinseys celebrated twenty-five years of bringing their music and outrageous comedy to audiences throughout the U.S. and internationally. They can brag of having mounted an acclaimed Off-Broadway show, an extended run in Las Vegas, and appearances in over forty U.S. states and internationally.
Their earliest shows, with names like Sicks Appeal, The Balled Sopranos, Motel Sicks: A Dragapella Summer Vacation, and GreatesTits, all premiered at San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center. Their more recent musicals have drawn diverse audiences to I Wanna Be a Republican, Oy Vey in a Manger, Wake the [email protected]#k Up America, Each Hit & I, Electile Dysfunction, America’s Next Top Bachelor Housewife Celebrity Hoarder Makeover Star Gone Wild, and Things You Shouldn’t Say.
In 2001, the Kinseys produced and starred in the Lucille Lortel Award-nominated 0ff-Broadway hit for best musical, Dragapella! Starring the Kinsey Sicks at New York’s legendary Studio 54; Ben was also nominated for a Drama Desk nomination for Best Lyrics. (Another of those uncanny coincidences in Ben’s life: The first production meeting for Dragapella! was scheduled for September 11, 2001.) In 2006 they mounted a much-lauded extended run at the Las Vegas Hilton. They have also recorded nine CDs, released two feature films (a concert film, I Wanna Be a Republican, and a behind-the-scenes documentary, Almost Infamous), and have released three DVDs of their shows.
Things You Shouldn’t Say showcases a stirring eleven-minute monologue that Ben wrote for Rachel that demonstrates his continued passion for LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS advocacy. The monologue details Ben’s experience as a young Harvard-trained lawyer and the genesis of The Kinsey Sicks amidst the horror of the AIDS epidemic. “It’s hard for the brain to tell the coherent story about something that your heart is still desperately trying to forget,” Rachel tells us. After excoriating “Ronald Fucking Reagan” and his administration’s immorally inadequate response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, she reaches the crescendo of the monologue, “We are not the ones who should be ashamed!” At that moment, Rachel becomes a raging, unstoppable force, connecting the cruelty of the Reagan government to today’s puzzling political climate. It is an extremely powerful monologue.
Ben’s character “Rachel” is, according to the Kinseys’ website, “loudly feminist, angry, and an activist noted both for her diminutive stature, muscular build, and her refusal to shave her underarms.” Ben has also been the chief writer for The Kinsey Sicks, making him “largely irresponsible for the lyrics that have made tens of thousands cringe.” In July 2018, Ben announced that Rachel would retire from the stage at the end of the group’s 25th Anniversary Tour. He continues to write for the group and work behind-the-scenes. “Yes, I continue to torture my fellow Kinseys by remaining lead writer for the group. Who knew it would be so fun and easy to horrify audience members without having to leave the house? We’ve got several unforgettable/unforgiveable songs in the pipeline.”
So we can look forward to more music and mischief from The Kinsey Sicks as they continue to tour and perform and record. And I’m sure Ben will continue to make mischief with his work with the Kinseys and other projects. He told A&U that, currently, as we still shelter in place, “Masturbation and overeating are at the top of my agenda, at least until the pandemic’s over. It’s a pity that they’re difficult to accomplish simultaneously. Still, it’s always good to have a challenge… I’ve got other writing projects in the works. I’m currently working on a book. (Writing it, not reading it. The latter chore will be yours if I actually finish it.) Oh yeah, I also have a lot of fun on my Rachel Kinsey Facebook page, and on my Twitter account, @rachelksicks, for those who are feeling especially masochistic.”
To follow the further adventures of Ben and of the indefatigable Kinsey Sicks, log on to their website https://kinseysicks.com/home, including a store selling their DVDs, CDs, and other merchandise; you can also view Rachel’s monologue there. You can also check out the fun on their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/kinseysicks/ — as well as Ben’s/Rachel’s solo page https://www.facebook.com/rachel.kinsey.37.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick Greathouse. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.