The LGBT Community Center in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village was filled with stories, laughs and a few tears on June 23 as current journalists honored editors and reporters who committed their careers to chronicling the AIDS epidemic, with some of them losing their battle to the disease. The Bodies on the Line memorial also marked the launch of the HIV Reporting Scholarship, to be known as The Kiki.
Anne-christine d’Adesky, an investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker who reported on the AIDS epidemic for various New York publications (including POZ), cohosted the event, which coincides with the 30th anniversary of ACT UP and AIDS activism. (She also penned a memoir, published earlier this year and titled The Pox Lover: An Activist’s Decade in New York and Paris. Read an excerpt in POZ here.)
“Many of these journalists were extraordinary because they pioneered what they were going to write about,” d’Adesky said at the Center. “They pioneered how they were going to cover it, and often they themselves were struggling with or dying of AIDS.”
After welcoming the audience, d’Adesky gave a brief lineup of the afternoon’s program and introduced keynote speaker Samuel G. Freedman, a New York Times columnist and professor at Columbia University who paid tribute to his mentor and friend Jeff Schmalz, a writer and editor at The New York Times who died in 1993.
“Jeff was part of a really terrible period in the history of The New York Times,” Freedman said, explaining that the so-called paper of record failed to cover the epidemic as it unfolded, in part because of the stigma and prejudice against the people who were getting sick.
Freedman said one of the first New York Times stories about the AIDS crisis was called “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” and ran months late. What’s worse, it wasn’t until three years after the epidemic was widely known that an HIV story made it to the front page of the Times.
The subject was easier to overlook, Freedman said, because in the early ’80s many gay people, including journalists, were still closeted. Those who were gay or had personal experiences with AIDS would not bring up the topic at work for fear of being ostracized or fired. Schmalz was outed as gay when he collapsed in the Times newsroom from an HIV-related seizure on December 21, 1990, and was later diagnosed with AIDS.
After months of treatment, Freedman said, Schmalz came back not only as the same talented and ambitious but also as someone with a righteous mission, who asked to cover the AIDS beat.
“No one had ever written the full human pageant of this epidemic,” Freedman said. “Jeff caught that story at a moment where it was clear that [AIDS wasn’t going to be] just a story of marginal people. It was beginning to invade the whole society.”
Freedman said Schmalz’s 35 AIDS articles seemed like a thousand because of the way he was able to bear witness for a diverse group of people living with the disease. “It became clear that every mainstream news organization had to have their own AIDS reporter,” Freedman said. “Everyone had to have their own Jeff Schmalz.”
Other writers and artists shared similar tributes to, among others, a cartoonist, an essayist, an editor of novels and a woman who produced what is believed to be the first newsletter for women living with HIV.
After the tributes, journalist Frank Pizzoli, who has written for POZ, announced the launch of the Kiki scholarship for HIV reporting. The scholarship is nicknamed after Curtis “Kiki” Mason, a columnist for POZ magazine who helped pioneer HIV cancer trials and died of AIDS-related complications in 1996.
The scholarship will be awarded to a reporter focused on HIV coverage and will be administered and sponsored annually by NLGJA—The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. Learn more about the scholarship here.
Below is a list of the journalists honored at Bodies on the Line and those who paid tribute to them:
- Jeff Schmalz, of The New York Times, was honored by Samuel G. Freedman.
- Joseph Beam, editor of the Black/Out journal and the In the Life anthology, was honored by Charles Rice-González.
- Craig Harris, editor of the In the Life anthology, was honored by Linda Villarosa.
- Michael Callen, of PWA Coalition Newsline, was honored by Bob Lederer and John Riley.
- Paul Rykoff Coleman, of Outweek, was honored by Mark Burdett.
- Iris De La Cruz, of PWA Coalition Newsline, was honored by Sarah Schulman.
- Mike Hippler, of Bay Area Reporter, was honored by Mark Schoofs.
- Kiyoshi Kuromiya, of the free internet access program the Critical Path Project, was honored by JD Davids.
- Cookie Mueller, of Details and East Village Eye, was honored by Ann Rower.
- Assotto Saint, poet and editor of the anthology The Road Before Us and author of the autobiographical anthology Spells of a Voodoo Doll, was honored by Anne-christine d’Adesky.
- Danny Sotomayor, of the Windy City Times, was honored by Anthony Viti.
- Michelle Wilson, of the Positive Woman newsletter, was honored by Liz Highleyman.
- Max Robinson, of ABC World News, was honored by A. Toni Young.
- Curtis “Kiki” Mason, of POZ magazine, was honored by Frank Pizzoli.
The Bodies on the Line event was cosponsored by the NLGJA, HIVandHepatitis.com, Plus, Positively Aware, POZ, PrideLife and TheBody.com, with support from the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF).