Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Exhumation of Bobbi Campbell (28 Jan 1952-15 Aug 1984)

Bobbi Campbell at 1983 SF Pride :: I can hardly be the first person to have been warmed by the angelic light of Bobbi Campbell, a soulfire extinguished two decades ago. Disarmingly handsome, Bobbi blazed for us a trail with the single-minded determination to make it safer for his brothers even as the world was about to enter its darkest hours with the onset of the AIDS plague.

I ached for him the first time I read Bobbi's words while browsing through some random items at the San Francisco gay archives (GLBT Historical Society) last week, just a few days after Valentine's. He'd written them for the June 1982 SF Pride Guide. It contained a warning, a haunting but gentle cry uttered as the terrible long night was about to descend upon us all: "Slow down. Take care of yourself". Bobbi Campbell already had AIDS at a time when no one knew what it was. He would live, at a frantic pace, to see but two more Pride Days.

Have you ever felt someone's ghost standing at your side, with his hand on your shoulder, and you can almost feel his warm breath on the nape of your neck? That afternoon in the archives I knew I had stumbled upon someone very special who I simply had to learn more about. Bobbi was only three years older than me and, at first blush, he seemed like a number of men I knew in my own early activist days in Toronto working as a volunteer at the The Body Politic.

"It was 20 years ago today ..."

How many of us are still alive who remember the Bobbi of flesh and blood? A registered nurse, and an early member of the drag troupe Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, there remain traces of his life story lingering on the net. Unlike others who survived the plague years, or lived on for some time - time enough for memoirs or artistic accomplishments -- Bobbi was taken from us in late 1984 -- much, much too soon.

Barely three years before Bobbi's death, reporter Lawrence K. Altman wrote a story in the Friday July 3, 1981 edition of the New York Times: "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals".

Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made.

The cause of the outbreak is unknown, and there is as yet no evidence of contagion. But the doctors who have made the diagnoses, mostly in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area, are alerting other physicians who treat large numbers of homosexual men to the problem in an effort to help identify more cases and to reduce the delay in offering chemotherapy treatment.

The sudden appearance of the cancer, called Kaposi's Sarcoma, has prompted a medical investigation that experts say could have as much scientific as public health importance because of what it may teach about determining the causes of more common types of cancer. But in the recent cases, doctors at nine medical centers in New York and seven hospitals in California have been diagnosing the condition among younger men, all of whom said in the course of standard diagnostic interviews that they were homosexual. Although the ages of the patients have ranged from 26 to 51 years, many have been under 40, with the mean at 39.

In a letter alerting other physicians to the problem, Dr. Alvin E. Friedman-Kien of New York University Medical Center, one of the investigators, described the appearance of the outbreak as " rather devastating." According to Dr. Friedman-Kien, the reporting doctors said that most cases had involved homosexual men who have had multiple and frequent sexual encounters with different partners, as many as 10 sexual encounters each night up to four times a week.

Bobbi Campbell Kissed by His Lover - 1981 :: By September, Bobbi became the 16th person in San Francisco to be diagnosed with Kaposi's. This relatively rare cancer usually appeared first in violet-coloured spots on the legs but these new cases showed up anywhere on the body. They did not itch or cause other symptoms, often could be mistaken for bruises, sometimes appeared as lumps and could turn brown after a period of time. The cancer often caused swollen lymph glands, and then killed by spreading throughout the body. Doctors investigating the outbreak believed that many cases had gone undetected because of the rarity of the condition and the difficulty even dermatologists had in diagnosing it.

What Bobbi and his doctors didn't know yet was that Kaposi's, and a rare pneumonia called Pneumocystis, were merely symptoms of something else soon to be recognized as far more terrifying. In time for Hallowe'en, Bobbi distributed pamphlets about the new "gay cancer" at a Castro pharmacy urging caution for the community. When he made his public declaration that he was stricken with this new scary disease in the December 10th edition of the San Francisco Sentinel, he became known as the "KS Poster Boy". From that moment on, till he drew his last breath, Bobbi was dedicated to raising awareness around the disease which would claim a generation of our brothers and change the course of the sex-and-drug liberation which had been launched a half-generation earlier.

Early in 1982, he began a column in the Sentinel in which he openly discussed his health, his ongoing experiences and pointed to resources for others. He began sporting a button that boldly commanded: "SURVIVE". A few blocks away, writer, composer and one-time intern to Tennessee Williams, Dan Turner was diagnosed in February and, at the suggestion of his doctor, Marcus Conant, shortly after met with Bobbi. They developed an instant rapport and, in Dan's home in the hills above the Castro district, the seed of what was to become People With AIDS San Francisco had been planted. But most importantly, Bobbi and Dan focussed on the concept of PWA self-empowerment itself. It would become their greatest legacy and an incalculable gift to us all. Bobbi was determined not to become a victim; he would live his life to the fullest and with the fullest dignity.

Yet even as young men were dying in San Francisco and New York at alarming rates, doctors still didn't know what was wrong. Whispers of "gay cancer" and "gay pneumonia" slowly gave way to the ugly term "GRID" -- Gay Related Immune Deficiency. (Researchers in France were known to voice out loud their astonishment than anyone in the US could believe a disease had a sexual preference.) It wouldn't be until a meeting at the Centers for Disease Control on January 4, 1983 that the more neutral Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was embraced.

Some politicians were being roused to action and on April 13, 1982 Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Ca), chairman of the Congressional subcommittee on Health and the Environment, held a first-of-its-kind hearing at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. Waxman hoped to raise political awareness, bring in media attention, and underscore the depth of the crisis for the relatively new Reagan administration. As expected, a number of established health bureaucrats spoke; but both Bobbi Campbell and Marcus Conant testified as well.

Waxman had grasped the seriousness of the situation even at this early stage and appealed for funding from the Federal government. "I want to be especially blunt about the political aspects of Kaposi's Sarcoma," Rep. Waxman said. "This horrible disease afflicts members of one of the nation's most stigmatized and discriminated against minorities."

"There is no doubt in my mind," Waxman continued, "that if the same disease had appeared among Americans of Norwegian descent, or among tennis players, rather than among Gay males, the responses of the government and the medical community would have been different."

Dr. Bruce A. Chabner, acting director of the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Treatment, disagreed saying the National Cancer Institute had sufficient funds to research the new ailments and asserted that Kaposi's sarcoma has received a "tremendous" amount of attention from the medical community during the past year.

"Advancements in research in this area will have a profound effect on research into all cancers," Chabner said. "Thirteen papers have already been written on the subject." And with those words, and the concurring sentiments of others in the medical and political establishment, the fate of so many was sealed. Gay males for now would be acceptable research fodder for cancers in general. There would be no special funding for research, care or prevention. The afflicted class didn't matter. It would be five more years before President Reagan uttered the word "AIDS" in public.


Turner at Candelight Vigil - c1983 :: Marcus Conant and Cleve Jones were among the organizers of the Kaposi's Sarcoma Research & Education Foundation created in April to educate the public about KS. It was Jones who encouraged Dan to join Bobbi and speak out publicly.

Following Bobbi's lead, Dan chose the occasion of the late Harvey Milk's birthday on May 22 at a rally on the closed streets of the Castro. His message contained three points: "Stay informed. Be cautious, but not paranoid. Be supportive." It was the start of his own journey of activism to which he dedicated enormous time, energy and love. At the time of his death, in 1990 at age 42, Dan was celebrated as the oldest surviving diagnosed AIDS patient.

(Another noted writer, Daniel Curzon, was a frequent collaborator of Turner's and delivered "The Monster in the Wood" at his friend's funeral. It is an angry, defiant, and yet hopeful tribute -- fitting for the lives of both Dan and Bobbi.)

A month later, buried in the closing pages of the 1982 SF Pride Guide, Bobbi's words rang out in an article entitled "What's it like to have Kaposi's sarcoma? It's a bummer." His plea follows in its entirety.

It's a bummer being thirty years old and having cancer. It's a bummer seeing friends stricken and die. It's a bummer going through the medical procedures that doctors use to diagnose and treat cancer. It's a bummer running up a medical bill into tens of thousands of dollars. It's a bummer not knowing what caused this cancer or if I can be cured.

Now, I'm a lucky guy in many ways. I don't feel sick. My cancer hasn't spread. I still function pretty much normally.

Also, I have a good support system -- a lover, a therapist, understanding parents, lots of friends. I have health insurance and disability insurance.

Even so, sometimes I get real depressed. This thing could kill me -- it killed two friends of mine, and hundreds of other brothers that I don't know personally. I don't want you to get it, too.

Are you thinking, "This can't happen to me"? I didn't think it could happen to me, either. But it did.

The main thing that underlies KS, and the other, related illnesses, is that the patient's immune system (how one fights off disease) has somehow weakened. No one knows for sure why this is happening. It is likely that immune suppression may be very widespread in urban gay communities.

How can you protect yourself? Well, I don't want to sound moralistic, but frequent use of " recreational drugs" lowers your immunity. So, too, does having sex with lots of different partners -- besides sharing good times you're also likely sharing all kinds of germs.

If your sex-and-drug lifestyle is in the fast lane, slow down. Take care of yourself.

Yes, it's your business, and only you can decide. But I want you all to be around for next year's Parade and Celebration! And the next ...

Bobbi Campbell in SF Pride Guide - June 1982 :: In the picture accompanying the Pride Guide column, the youthful, moustachioed activist smiles impishly at us, eyes twinkling, despite the severity of his message. It may be a key to why he was so effective: direct, yet gently non-judgemental.

In 1979, at the First Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries Gathering in Arizona, two men performed in nun's habits and in doing so hatched the idea of a theatrical group later called The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. By the time of the health crisis in early 1982, and in his guise as Sister Florence Nightmare, Bobbi joined the troupe and co-authored the first SF safer-sex manual, "Play Fair!", written in plain sex-positive language, offering practical advice and adding an element of humour. In these early days, the full gloom of the AIDS disaster had not yet struck our community.

A year later, Bobbi and Dan helped organize the 1st AIDS Candlelight Vigil on May 2, 1983 proclaiming starkly the words "Fighting For Our Lives" on a 20 foot long banner. And while there was a lot going on in San Francisco, activists were being created in the other, bigger AIDS hotspot, New York City. As part of the National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference planned for Denver, organizers were co-sponsoring the Second National AIDS Forum. The work Bobbi was doing on the West Coast was just barely on the radar screen -- something hard to imagine in today's Internet world -- and spread largely through outdated copies of the Sentinel. Suddenly it occurred to the organisers that AIDS patients ought to be at the conference participating, not just listening. It was a turning point.

Rick Berkowitz is the only surviving member of the group of PWAs which included: from SF -- Bobbi Campbell, Dan Turner, Bobby Reynolds; from NYC -- Phil Lanzaratta, Michael Callen, Rick Berkowitz, Artie Felson, Bill Burke, Bob Cecchi, Matthew Sarner, Tom Nasrallah; from LA -- Gar Traynor; and two others whose names are lost. These heroes, along with about 400 other conference delegates, spent June 9-13, 1983 making history midway between the nation's two "ground zeros".

In 1997 Rick recalled in a poignant essay entitled The Way We War:

We came to Denver as sick people and left as activists. The friendships and romances forged kept us alive and fighting for years to come and, of course, made the deaths terrible to bear. We marched in parades, testified before legislatures, started newsletters and hot lines, organized PWA coalitions. Against a barrage of medical reports that an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence and media images of PWAs as disfigured monsters, we gave the most stigmatized disease of our time a human face.

Bobbi Campbell, a San Francisco nurse, was the first person ever to go public as a PWA. Along with Dan Turner, Campbell founded People With AIDS San Francisco, the first organization of its kind, and organized the first AIDS candlelight vigil, leading a march with a 20-foot red banner that read FIGHTING FOR OUR LIVES. At the same time, a handful of gay men with AIDS in New York City was meeting in a weekly support group, with Michael Callen as its queen mother.

In Denver, the two cadres immediately clashed. The New Yorkers were uneasy about how the men from San Francisco kept hugging and holding one another and taking time for spiritual reflection -- a far cry from our tendency to complain, yell and curse. But our differences went deeper than style. We argued over treatment approaches (holistic or mainstream), the cause of AIDS (single agent or multiple infections) and, most fiercely, the connection between promiscuity, STDs and immune deficiency (a theory advocated by New York but denounced as homophobic by San Francisco).

One night at dinner, Michael Callen suddenly asked, "Who here knows how to take two dicks at once?" Opinions flew as Michael picked up two spoons and demonstrated his own technique. But, in fact, it was a trick question intended to reveal exactly what, other than AIDS, the 11 of us had in common: We were all sluts. By accepting the role of promiscuity in the development of AIDS, as personally painful and politically provocative as it was, Michael told us we could lead the way in protecting the gay community by promoting and having safer sex. For 11 men made to feel like lepers while aching more than ever for affection, this was a revelation.

Michael Callen - 

1980s :: It was a very powerful, empowering notion: we are not victims. (Michael Callen, another remarkably talented artist/activist, co-authored with Dan Turner a more extended version of the events of the conference that is worth reading.) Importantly, not only did they insist that the phrase "People With AIDS" (or PWAs) sink in with the health professionals attending, but the group created "The Denver Principles" which became something of a Charter of Human Rights for PWAs.

These included:

We recommend that all people:

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.

We recommend that people with AIDS:

Substitute low-risk sexual behaviours for those that could endanger themselves or their partners. We feel that people with AIDS have an ethical responsibility to inform their potential sexual partners of their health status.

People with AIDS have the right:

To as full and satisfying sexual and emotional lives as anyone else.

To quality medical treatment and quality social service provision without discrimination of any form based on sexual orientation, gender, diagnosis, economic status, or race.

To privacy, to confidentiality of medical records, to human respect, and to choose who their significant others are.

To die and to LIVE in dignity.

Bobbi Campbell at SF Pride March 1 - 1983-06-24 :: Bobbi headed to New York directly after the conference and brainstormed with several of his new friends and colleagues on how to launch a national People With AIDS organization. AIDS was increasingly appearing in the mainstream press and this year the theme of June 1983 SF Pride was People With AIDS. Ever ready to lead, Bobbi had an "AIDS Poster Boy" t-shirt made for his appearances at Pride, to the delight of friends and onlookers.

For those of us living in large cities with visible gay populations -- such as Toronto in my case -- we were following the news with alarm and confusion. But for all of the talk in our community, it was still at least a year before the mainstream public "got it": that was when the gaunt, death -like grimace of Rock Hudson was splashed across the tabloids, newspapers, magazines and television sets the first week of October, 1985.

So when brave Bobbi Campbell and his lover appeared on the front cover of Newsweek on August 8, 1983, it was news! The cover story shrieked: "EPIDEMIC: The Mysterious and Deadly Disease Called AIDS May Be the Public Health Threat of the Century. How Did it Start? Can it Be Stopped?". In a sense, Bobbi was our human face on AIDS: a good looking, optimistic, undefeatable man who spoke plainly and compassionately and urgently on our behalf. Just as we had cheered when Leonard Matlovich, the Air Force Sergeant who came out as gay in 1975 and made the cover of Time, this was our moment to share with Bobbi. We were listening, even if hetero America, and the politicians, and the wealthy celebrity class were just as determinedly burying their heads in the sands intoning nervously "gay disease, can't touch me".

For almost the next year Bobbi drops out of sight on the net. I don't know if he was ferociously active or suffering bouts of ongoing illness. I haven't been able to verify if he even made it to 1984 SF Pride. I did discover that, in an ironic twist, Bobbi had moved into the same apartment previously occupied by Ken Horne -- the first man to be reported to the CDC infected with (what was later termed) AIDS -- and San Francisco's first AIDS casualty. But Bobbi did make two last important public appearances.

Bobbi Campbell & Andrew Small Kissing in Kitchen - 1983-06-25 :: First, at the Rally for Gay Rights on July 16, 1984 outside the Moscone Center where the Democratic National Convention was taking place. Inside, Mario Cuomo made the most impassioned speech of his career while the delegates chose a doomed slate of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. Outside, Bobbi was joined by 100,000 marchers demanding that the next group of elected politicians heed the dire health situation which by this time was sweeping through all major cities.

The Los Angeles Times writer Harvey Weinstein called the rallies (a second one that day included 150,000 unionists) "stirring". He reported:

One of the principal demands of the march was "immediate and massive federal funding to end the AIDS epidemic," a reference to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a disease that has struck many gay men. "AIDS is the issue," said Bobbi Campbell, who is afflicted with the disease.

The Democratic platform includes a plank calling for more federal money to combat AIDS and several other positions advocated by gays and lesbians, including an end to job and housing discrimination against them.

But, civil rights lawyer Mary Dunlap and co-chairman of the march said: "We have to do more than be visible and have the Democrats pat us on the head. Achieving our goals will be harder work than all this."

Near day's end, Bill Olwell, vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the highest ranking union official who is a publicly declared gay, linked the two events in a speech to the gay rally.

"This morning, I marched up Market Street with tens of thousands of my labour brothers and sisters demanding an end to the Reagan Administration," Olwell said. "This afternoon, I marched down Market Street with tens of thousands of my gay brothers and lesbian sisters demanding the same justice and equality and an end to the same repressive Reagan policies. This is what today is all about."

It was all for nought in the end as the Mondale-Ferraro ticket was crushed and Reagan sailed blithely and silently into a second term. Even the death of his friend Rock Hudson, a year later, did not move him to speak publicly about AIDS before 1987.

Two weeks later, on August 2, 1984, Bobbi appeared on the CBS Evening News in a remote interview live with Dan Rather. Fighting to the end, his words of inspiration allowed him to overcome the indignity of the circumstance. He was placed in a glassed in booth and the technicians refused to come near him to wire him for the interview. The rumours, and fears had reached the mainstream audience, but not the facts: AIDS was not easily communicable.

Two weeks later again, on August 15, the angel that was Bobbi Campbell, died.

Aids Quilt - 

Bobbi Campbell :: The 1985 SF Pride was dedicated in his honour and the ongoing third Sunday in May AIDS Candlelight Vigils feature an award in his name as an AIDS Hero. The uplifting, life-affirming work he did to found the PWA self-empowerment movement, and to insist on the dignity of gay men and women everywhere, is a debt we all share.

Afterword: I believe Bobbi Campbell was a true Aquarius child.

According to the stars, he had a talent for anticipating future trends, an inventive mind which gave rise to successful leadership. His flexibility made it possible to accept new circumstances and move forward where others faltered. He was best understood by other creative people and by those who appreciated an inventive sense of humour. As an Aquarian he made a good friend because he rarely judged anyone harshly.

I did not know Bobbi except from what I have read of his words and deeds and those of fated ones who shared part of his journey. I would have been bursting with pride to call him my friend. Perhaps, sweet Bobbi, we'll meet next time round.

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