A Tribute to a Columnist that Never Shied Away from Critical HIV Issues
by Chael Needle
Have you ever known someone who always has an original take on the issues of the day? A friend, or someone you religiously follow on social media, or a favorite writer? With all that has taken place in the last couple of years, from Trump’s fascist attempt to damage American democracy to the worsening oppression of LGBT individuals in Russia, from climate change to COVID-19, I have often wanted to turn to see what my colleague Patricia Nell Warren, who had a green thumb and black-inked fingertips, would have to say. But that has been impossible for two years now. Since her death on February 9, 2019, the world has suffered an immeasurable loss.
Although she would go on to develop a long-running A&U column, Patricia Nell Warren first appeared in our pages in the April 1998 issue, when she wrote an op-ed about setting the record straight when it comes to AIDS history, and, in particular, creating an accurate account about who did what. She writes: “Today it’s an accepted fact that Elizabeth Taylor was the first brave celebrity to stand up for AIDS awareness. Right? Wrong.” She takes aim at a 1998 APLA ceremony that spotlit Elizabeth Taylor as first on the scene. Yet, as Warren points out, actress Zelda Rubinstein starred in APLA’s “Mother Cares” safer sex awareness campaign, created by Tyler St. Mark (Patricia’s business partner at the press she founded, Wildcat). Neither were mentioned. Others, she argues, like actresses Vivian Blaine and Mamie Van Doren, had been glossed over in histories of early AIDS activism. Ultimately, though, she deflates the gay community’s love of celebrity: “The glammier, the better. Pity the poor pioneer who is not viewed as glammy enough. Most of our people won’t pay $300 a plate to see a community pioneer, no matter what wonderful thing they did.” (And just like Patricia to publish this in an issue featuring Carrie Fisher, a celebrity advocate!)
This critique, which also touches on the ableism and ageism embedded in who becomes valued in the gay community, is classic Warren. And, by “classic Warren,” I mean three things: she wrote in a voice as clear as a bell; she thought outside of the box; and she cared enough about her community to point out where it stumbled and fumbled, as the above-mentioned article shows.
Her impeccable writing style had been undoubtedly honed at Reader’s Digest, where she worked as an editor, before launching into career as a fiction and nonfiction writer. Most readers know her from her beautiful, passionate novel, The Front Runner (which drew on her experience as one of the first women marathoners in the U.S., even breaking into the Boston Marathon when it is male-only). And she brought to her editorials that same love of deeply felt, well-crafted writing. Her style never gets in the way of substance and paragraphs, like this one in a May 2006 editorial, pop like light bulbs: “Today our country needs activism, for sure. Every person who cares about the survival of democracy—and that includes a fair shake for immigrants—needs to act on that conviction. And it’s not just our democratic well-being that is at stake. The personal health of Americans is at stake as well. We need activism from every American who is concerned about the shoddy state of much of our medical research, and the fatal crumbling of our healthcare system.”
Even one sentence could be enough make you sit up and take notice: “As I write this, the Smithsonian apparently has yet to realize how pathetic it looks, having publicly peed its pants when a gang of preachy politicos said boo to it about an eleven-minute video.” Who knew alliteration could be a deadly weapon? This is from the March 2011 issue and Warren is commenting on the flap over a Wojnarowicz video in an exhibit that had been decried as blasphemy by some Catholic critics.
Like Wojnarowicz, Warren, too, had a fire in her belly that motivated her to hone her unconventional perspicacity. Her A&U column had been aptly titled: Left Field. She played hardball for social justice and those who could use an advocate and ally. She shone a flashlight on financial conflicts of interest in AIDS research, the insidious drive for profit by Big Pharma, the double standards that maintain the divides between the developed and developing world, corruption, and government-led oppression, at home and abroad, among other issues. She tackled under-reported issues like the devastation of AIDS services in Puerto Rico and diseases that were marginalized. Warren did not flinch from the facts and her analyses were often deep dives into the intricate webs of power. For example, her April 2013 column, entitled “Hanged, Beaten, Burned” drew connections among religious conservatism in countries like Uganda, Russia, and Papau New Guinea and the oppression of LGBT individuals, including the detrimental effect on AIDS services.
Objective, Warren did not hesitate to call out politicians and other policy makers on both sides of the aisle. In her October 2004 Left Field, she castigated both the DNC and RNC for stifling peaceful protest, in the cites of their respective conventions: “Many Americans believe that today’s anti-dissent atmosphere started with 9/11. Not completely. Criminalization of peaceful protest started back in the 1990s, when the minor charges and light fines that were traditionally levied against peaceful protesters began giving way to punitive felony prosecutions. That wall of police that we saw in Boston and New York City is becoming a permanent structure in our society, as our leaders use all powers available to them—including FBI harassment—to shield themselves from dissent, even the non-violent variety.”
Reviewing our archive of her writings convinced me even more that we were blessed to have Patricia Nell Warren in our corner for as long as we did—the AIDS community, the LGBTQ+ community, the the global community of social justice warriors can honor her by continuing to stand our ground in left field.
For more information about ensuring Patricia Nell Warren’s legacy or purchasing one of her books, log on to Wildcat Press.
Chael Needle writes fiction and poetry when he is not serving as Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.