John-Manuel Andriote, journalist and author

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John-Manuel Andriote’s Victory Deferred collection is showing at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The exhibit, based on his 1999 book of the same name, is part of a display dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Andriote’s many interview subjects include AIDS activist and author Larry Kramer.
JM Andriote | image: Tracy Powell

JM Andriote | image: Tracy Powell

Forty years after Stonewall, I sIt down with Andriote to talk about his interview with Kramer, the early years of AIDS activism, and why gay in the mainstream could actually be a good thing for the modern Gay Rights Movement.

CHRIS DELATORRE: Your book, Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America, takes a historical look at the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Tell us about it.

JOHN-MANUEL ANDRIOTE: Victory Deferred opens in the 70s, looking at gay life in America at that point. It was after Stonewall and before AIDS — the disco years. Right after Victory, I wrote a history of disco. The two were not altogether coincidental. From there, I look at how AIDS really transformed or brought many things — if not to fruition — to a whole new level. Organizing nationally gave people a sense of their own power.

The New York Times, in its recent article, claimed [the gay movement] has no moral leader because the movement was about the right to be sexual. That seems so retro. It goes back to sexual liberation in the 70s. It’s hard to relate to that now. The movement is about the right to love whomever you love. Sex is a subcategory of that. To most people, the love part has been left out of the equation. And you see that in the movement for marriage. [The gay rights movement] is all about wanting equal rights, but it boils down to the right to love.

DELATORRE: It seems like the preoccupation with sex always gets in the way. Sex is important to relationships but, then again, it’s just sex. Why are humans so hung up on it?

ANDRIOTE: Gay people fall in love. They commit their lives to their partners. They want to raise children and create a loving home. If it’s really only a movement about the right to be sexual, that really leaves out a big part of the spectrum of LGBT people we’re talking about.

DELATORRE: Your work was unanimously accepted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History for exhibition in 2009. “Victory Deferred” brings together various facets of your research — interview tapes, transcripts and other materials related to your research for the book. That’s huge.

ANDRIOTE: As a writer, when you’re young and selling articles for peanuts while building a portfolio, you’re doing it because someone somewhere validated you — they told you you’re a good writer and that maybe you should think about doing it as a living. It takes a lot of faith in yourself, talent and intelligence, to pursue that. At this stage in my career, to have Smithsonian people say the work that I’ve done is really worth having other people access and draw from it in their own work, is gratifying.

DELATORRE: Name a few things in the exhibit that you’re especially fond of.

ANDRIOTE: Well, the exhibit includes all of the tapes — the verbatim transcripts. I spent many hundreds of hours transcribing, word-for-word, the interviews I’ve done for Victory Deferred. The people I interviewed are basically a “who’s who” of the gay movement — both in the community and government — key people who shaped this country’s response to the AIDS epidemic. The exhibit also includes correspondence between my editor and I and between various gay activists. Many of them are no longer alive, which makes their voices (now archived at the museum) that much more precious. Then there are also these files of now historical articles I clipped from newspapers and magazines back in the 80s.

DELATORRE: And your early career as a journalist?

ANDRIOTE: I started writing about AIDS when I was at Northwestern, doing my master’s in journalism in 1985. It was late that year — I was doing an internship for Medill School of Journalism’s Washington program — when I met Bill Bailey. He became my boyfriend. Bill was a longtime volunteer buddy at Whitman-Walker Clinic. He encouraged me to write about AIDS. He told me I should devote my career to it.

DELATORRE: 1994 was a difficult year for you.

ANDRIOTE: Bill died in ‘94. We hadn’t been together for that entire time, though. He had a partner, David Wolf, for the last five years of his life. Bill and I remained very close friends. He told me something at the hospital, during his final illness — I said, “gosh we’ve been through so much together” (in terms of AIDS history, so much had happened in such a short time), that we’d been friends for so long. And he said to me, “and colleagues.” You have to know Bill, because he was the ultimate Washington animal. When he became a lobbyist for HIV prevention for the American Psychological Association (that was the last 8 years of his life — most of the time I knew him), he was Mr. HIV Prevention. During Bill’s memorial service on Capitol Hill, Tom Sheridan described Bill as the father of the HIV prevention lobby in Washington. That was huge. Here was a man who had HIV and who ultimately died from AIDS-related causes, spending his energy and amazing passion trying to help ensure that other people didn’t get infected with HIV. I thought that was really quite a testament to his character. For him to say that we were colleagues meant a lot. We had worked together and stood together on things we were really passionate about.

DELATORRE: How did you end up devoting your career to writing about HIV/AIDS?

ANDRIOTE: It was sort of the perfect storm. Friends of mine were starting to get sick and die from AIDS. I was 26 years old. As a journalist, I was reading five newspapers a day (this was before the Internet, of course), along with magazines; I was keeping up with what was going on in the world. [AIDS] was a big unfolding story in 1985. Rock Hudson announced he had AIDS, people were terrified, there was a lot of hysteria. It hadn’t yet exploded in terms of the understanding that this was a global issue. Africa had been written about, but it wasn’t nearly on the scale of the pandemic it later became. AIDS affected me personally. It was affecting my community. And I had engaged as a journalist. It sank its teeth into my imagination. And so it was worth pouring myself into. And because of that I became very aware of injustices people with AIDS were experiencing. That’s the first time I discovered my passion about social justice — about fairness and unfairness — so it captured me on a spiritual level as well.

DELATORRE: Flash forward a bit. When compared to other movements like Black civil rights or women’s rights, the gay rights movement seems fundamentally different. But it seems like the LGBT community is trying its hardest to conform to society. Why?

ANDRIOTE: That’s a fundamental issue that’s never been resolved to the satisfaction of Joe Six Pack — whether or not being gay is a choice. Even if it is a choice, why shouldn’t it be protected? Protected like so many other choices, like which religion you practice or if you don’t practice any religion? Those are choices. And if you do see being gay as a choice, there’s this thing about how you play the hand you’ve been dealt. Do you want to get married and have children? Do you want to have a similar life to what’s considered the norm for heterosexuals? What does it mean to be gay? It hasn’t been satisfactorily answered.

DELATORRE: And it’s a catch 22, because as traditional labels dissolve people forget about the people behind those labels. Then the “we” behind the LGBT community begins to dissolve as well.

ANDRIOTE: And when we talk about “we” who exactly are we talking about? Larry Kramer has been a critic forever about that idea of “what does it mean to be gay?” and for whatever reason I find myself agreeing with him. Kramer says sex is a strange thing to base a community on – this sort of priapic brotherhood. That goes back to the 70s — this whole idea about gay liberation as sexual liberation—the freedom to have sex wherever, whenever and with whomever you want. Not all people who consider themselves gay are comfortable with that idea, certainly not with that public representation of what it means to be gay. I’m not comfortable with it.

From the time that I came out in the early 80s (I was in my early 20s), I was very aware of those gay men who were affluent and upper-middle class — the ones who lived in nice apartments, went to Rio, had nice clothes and rented a house on fire island in the summer. That, to me, was a very specific experience of being gay. Often after dinner parties the same men would put on their leather and go to the Mineshaft [1]. There was this juxtaposition of upper middle class, St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, Episcopalian respectability, but also this raunchy and promiscuous side of gay life. I had very mixed messages coming at me as a young gay man about what it was to be gay.

The Mineshaft | Lenny Waller. All rights reserved.

The Mineshaft | Lenny Waller. All rights reserved.

hadn’t necessarily related to either one of those things; neither sat well with me. I’ve always felt that tension within myself. What does it mean to be gay? What do I mean by it? I mean, I didn’t come out of a closet and embrace my homosexual nature in order to fit into another closet other gay people define for me.

DELATORRE: Tell us about your stint with the American Psychiatric Association in the 90s.

ANDRIOTE: I worked for the American Psychiatric Association from 1991, when I started as a temp, until the middle of 1995 when I was working in the aids education office. We organized training programs for psychiatrists and psychologists and other mental health providers all over the country. The association changed its classification of homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. The American Psychological Association and the Therapeutic Association, I believe, followed suit.

DELATORRE: You interviewed Larry Kramer!

ANDRIOTE: My interview with him was so many years ago. I recently contacted Larry about interviewing again, actually, for the revised paperback edition of Victory Deferred that I’m working on now. The first interview for Victory was back in 1995. Meeting with Kramer—going into his apartment on Fifth Avenue, right next to Washington Square — is a momentous thing. Historic things took place there. The meetings that led to the founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) took place there.

Larry had recently reconnected with this man who he demonized in his 1978 novel Faggots as “Dinky” — the boyfriend who couldn’t be faithful because he was caught up in the whole sexual subculture. The Fred Lemmish character (the Kramer character) wanted to move on from that. Well, Dinky and Lemmish reconnected years later and they’ve been together ever since as partners.

The New York Times in 1995 had just done a story about Larry called “When A Roaring Lion Learns to Purr” — that was the headline (it was fantastic) — so one of my questions [to Larry] was, “is it true you’ve learned to purr?” [laughs]

For a man who was notorious for being a “roaring lion” — for blasting people in high-decibel pitches, in histrionic terms — one-on-one, sitting in his living room, he was more like a purring cat than a roaring lion. I think that I wrote how he seemed kind of sad. That’s the part of Larry people have missed. They only hear about the histrionics — the anger, the outrage. They don’t look beneath that to realize why he’s been so angry — the terrible loss, the disappointment, the disillusionment that he’s experienced as he’s lost so many people, as he’s watched the U.S. government and its scientists not doing everything it seemed they could do — and it was affecting his friends. It affected him in a personal way.

Larry Kramer | image: David Shankbone

Larry Kramer | image: David Shankbone

As we’ve seen with ACT UP (which Larry was instrumental in starting and inspiring with his speech at the gay and lesbian community center in New York), is that when people are afraid and grieving, it’s a very vulnerable thing to show the world your sadness an grief. So anger and rage and hostility are put out there as a shield to protect your broken heart. That’s what people haven’t wanted to see. Just how deeply his heart’s been broken. They don’t see the man. That’s what I was interested in and ultimately that’s what changed how I thought about Larry.

DELATORRE: What’s your opinion on the “one-person-slash-icon” to lead the gay rights movement?

ANDRIOTE: There is a difference between organizations like Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the Gay Movement. I wrote about this in the final chapter of Victory Deferred. When Elizabeth Birch was first hired as director of HRC, she was quoted as saying something like, “how would you feel if you woke up and found the movement had been handed to you?” Think about that. To a movement that for years had lamented the absence of a galvanizing leader — someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. — to have someone like Elizabeth Birch appoint herself to that role was breathtakingly arrogant and astounding. The point is that any of these people who are paid executive directors of gay rights organizations — their job is to organize politically. But that’s not the same as being a moral figure like King or Gandhi or someone like that whose authority to lead comes from something other than being a director of some organization.

DELATORRE: I agree. For someone to be that galvanizing iconic moral figure people look for to really move them, spirituality has to play a vital role. Maybe similar to what happened to you when you found your passion? Has the gay rights movement had a chance to find its spiritual pulse? To identify with the movement as nothing but sexual, for instance, is just plain wrong.

ANDRIOTE: The real point is that each of us has opportunities in our lives—within our organizations and our families — to help create change. What it means to me to be “gay and proud” is that who I am, who I love — the issues of concern to gay people and certainly gay America’s experience in the AIDS epidemic — is that this is part of the mainstream. This is a part of human life. I always felt like I wanted to write about this in mainstream publications, that I wanted my books to be published by mainstream publishers. The University of Chicago Press published Victory Deferred, and that was intentional. I never seriously considered going to a gay publishing house because, to me, that’s like singing to the choir. And the choir already knows the song, although they don’t really know it. Most gay people don’t really know our community’s history.

I’ve often said that if older gay men did the job they should do in transmitting what we have experienced — telling the stories of our struggles in the AIDS epidemic and how hard we fought and how proud we were to be out in the streets, if we really preserved our history and passed it down to younger people — I think that’s something to tremendously proud of. And I think that part of creating and sustaining a gay community is preserving our history and our wisdom and keeping our stories alive. That’s why the Smithsonian exhibits and panels at the New York Public Library are important, because they help preserve and transmit that history and wisdom.

But ultimately it’s about making sure that we’re represented in places like the National Museum of American History. That’s why it was so gratifying to me to have my work collected there and not just in a gay history project. It says that this is a part of American history.


[1] Once a premier New York City members-only club, the Mineshaft (at Washington St. and Little W. 12th) was open around the clock from Wednesday night through Monday morning, featuring a roof deck, clothes check, dungeons and other amenities. The S&M free-for-all opened in 1977 before the AIDS era, and was finally closed by the city’s Department of Health in 1985.

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