The 20th anniversary of the Denver Principles is upon us, and I had hoped to celebrate it here. Have you heard of the Denver Principles? They are worth some study. They marked the official birth of the PWA self-empowerment movement and AIDS activism. Such a glamorous pedigree has given license to myths, but in fact the origins were grass-roots messy, not to mention gay raunchy. In retrospect, they were also miraculous.
In June 1983, 11 gay men from San Francisco and New York City were invited to attend a national conference of gay doctors in Denver. All 11 had the mysterious new disease. Many were in their 20s. Some had the blue Kaposi’s stigmata and the concentration-camp bodies that turned even medical professionals phobic. They also had the desperate courage—and, yes, rage—of prisoners of war facing a firing squad.
In a piece called “The Way We War” (POZ, February 1997), Richard Berkowitz, the group’s sole survivor, recalled how fraught (and funny) their first meeting was: “The two cadres immediately clashed.…The men from San Francisco kept hugging and holding one another—a far cry from our [New York] tendency to complain, yell and curse. But our differences went deeper than style. We argued over treatment approaches, …causes [of the disease] and, most fiercely, the connection between promiscuity [and AIDS] (a theory advocated by New York but denounced as homophobic by San Francisco). One night at dinner, Michael Callen suddenly asked, ‘Who knows how to take two dicks at once?’…a trick question intended to reveal what, other than AIDS, the 11 of us had in common:We were all sluts,” Berkowitz concludes. “By accepting the role of promiscuity…, as personally painful and politically provocative as it was, …we could lead the way in protecting the gay community by promoting safer sex. For 11 men made to feel like lepers while aching more than ever for affection, this was a revelation.” Owning up (and owning their truth), they were inspired to draft a genuine declaration of independence, seize the conference stage, unfurl a “Fighting for Our Lives” banner and raise a defiant voice.
“We condemn attempts to label us as victims, a term that implies defeat, and we are only occasionally patients, a term that implies passivity, helplessness and dependence on the care of others,” the statement began. “We are people with AIDS.” The POWs had turned themselves into PWAs.
They made demands: “Support us in our struggle against those who would fire us from our jobs, evict us from our homes, refuse to touch us or separate us from our loved ones, our community or our peers, since available evidence does not support the view that AIDS can be spread by casual, social contact.”
They claimed rights: “To as full and satisfying sexual and emotional lives as anyone else. To quality medical treatment…privacy, confidentiality of medical records and human respect. To die and to LIVE in dignity.”
They assumed responsibilities:“To choose [our] own representatives, to deal with the media [and our] own agenda…. To be involved at every level of decision-making…on the boards of directors of provider organizations…. To substitute low-risk sexual behaviors for [dangerous ones]…and to inform [our] potential sexual partners of [our] health status.” (For the complete Denver Principles, click on poz.com/pdfs/denver_principles.pdf.)
The words moved people, and more important, they got people moving. “And the rest is history,” it is tempting to add. In fact, last January, 130 Ugandan women with HIV presented the Kampala Declaration at a conference on mother-to-child transmission, stating, “We are the experts in our communities.” While this is only the most recent of many instances of PWA self-empowerment’s wildfire spread, it would be a betrayal of the blood, sweat, tears (and, no doubt, other body fluids) of the 11 founding fathers to celebrate the Denver Principles as a 20-year achievement. The reason barely needs stating: Conditions worldwide for PWAs are worse today than they were in 1983. Science has come far, the PWA movement even further, but politics is still business as usual.
Let’s own up: The weird disease that sprung up in the Castro hills and on tiny Christopher Street now girds the globe in a genocidal embrace. Your own suffering and losses have been multiplied by many millions. Still, our institutions and corporations (does that mean us?) deem saving entire communities—even, God forgive us, actual continents—not worth the cost. Then consider this: The world’s only superpower has other wars on its agenda. So the Denver Principles remain a dream deferred.
A celebration? No. How about desperate courage—and, yes, rage?