Remembering Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill and the Battlefield of AIDS

Meticulously researched and evocatively told, Hold Tight Gently is this celebrated historian's poignant memorial to those lost to AIDS and to two of the great unsung heroes of the early years of the epidemic. This is an exclusive excerpt.

BY Martin Duberman

March 20 2014 3:00 AM ET

From award-winning historian and activist Martin Duberman comes the poignant new dual biography of two men central to activism in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS. Callen and Hemphill were both diagnosed with AIDS and raised awareness of the epidemic long before the rest of the nation becoming aware of the disease’s existence. The year 1995 saw the release of protease inhibitors, the first effective treatment for AIDS, but it was also the year Essex Hemphill, an African American poet and performance artist, died from complications related to the disease. Michael Callen, a singer, songwriter and pioneering AIDS activist from the Midwest, had already passed away two years earlier. Here's an excerpt from Duberman's moving biography of the men and the times in which they lived.

From Hold Tight Gently:

At all times — who can predict a street encounter? — Mike carried with him a jar of lube, 25-cent packets of K-Y to ease entry, a bottle of poppers (amyl nitrate, which produced a disinhibiting rush), two (before and after) five-hundred-milligram pills of tetracycline as anti-STD prophylaxis, and Handi Wipes for the cleanup. Though Mike hardly resembled the muscled gym-built physique then coming into fashion, he had no trouble attracting partners. He was delicately, willowly, handsome: six feet tall, olive skinned, green eyed, and thin (around 135 pounds), with naturally curly dark brown hair — through the right kind of spectacles, something on the order of a Renaissance cherub (minus the wings). Mike wasn’t interested in most of the “extreme” sexual practices then in vogue (fist fucking, water sports, scat, or S/M). His single-minded focus was on getting fucked. When he totted up his sexual scorecard in 1982, at age 27, he figured that since coming out, he’d been “penetrated by an average of 3 men once every 3 days.” Deducting for sick days, that put him in gold medal contention with a total of 2,496 partners, of whom he professed to know the first names of no more than a hundred.

Biographer Martin Duberman (right)

He was outspoken and unashamed about his “sluthood.” Not every fuck had been magical, but the vast majority, he insisted, had given him pleasure. And what, he wanted to know, was wrong with that? No coercion had been involved, no pederasty, no exchange of cash, no pretense at faithfulness or romance. Like other gay male sex radicals of the day, Mike denounced the puritanical fuzziness that sanctioned multiple monogamous orgasms in order to produce children but frowned on a comparable number with multiple partners to produce pleasure. He did “not accept the concept of sexual addiction at all.” A bit later, after he’d become a spokesperson for a segment of the People with AIDS (PWAs) movement, he’d read his sexual history somewhat differently, referring to his generation of sexual liberationists as “predatory, shame-based, dark, use-once-and-throw-away, no contact sex — [all of which went] deep into our wiring.” Later still — in part as a result of reading books by “sex-positive” feminists — he’d reclaim and celebrate his “slut” years.

There was one hitch: the escalating number of STDs. Mike was in and out of [Dr. Joseph] Sonnabend’s office so often that they eventually shifted to a first-name basis. Mike was fond of saying that “if it isn’t fatal, it’s no big deal,” but Joe was less nonchalant about his multiple, incessant infections. When Mike contracted hepatitis for the third time and developed fevers, night sweats, and bloody diarrhea, Joe hospitalized him. Consommé and a battery of tests were his diet for a week. His acne and hemorrhoids improved but a firm diagnosis remained elusive. Sonnabend called in a tropical disease specialist, but the best he could come up with was “atypical malaria.” Mike had never been to the tropics, and the paracytology tests failed to confirm that diagnosis or any other. The doctors were back to where they began — scratching their heads.

Above: Michael Callen at the Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, 1988 (photo by Jane Rosett)

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