Kevin Hertzog began to challenge the status quo in third grade, when, encouraged by his teacher Ms. Riskin, he organized protests on everything from what was being served in the cafeteria to standardized testing. By his 20s, Hertzog was attending early ACT UP meetings in New York City, but wasn’t quite ready for the fight.
“The ACT UP guys were all serious and I’d show up in my make-up and a skirt,” he quips. “They were angry and I was in the ‘80s ‘me’ generation — I was mostly trying to have fun.”
Diagnosed HIV-positive, Hertzog spiraled into dark days after losing a friend to AIDS complications. He found himself at the Black Party, and realized he needed to change his life. He ended up making what he calls a “grow up” list. Item number one: HIV.
With the help of his sister, Hertzog sought treatment and found sobriety. Two decades later, when the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando happened, the activist part of Hertzog was re-born, and he co-founded Gays Against Guns.
Gays Against Guns organized a protest for the New York City Pride parade the following week: 49 people dressed in white with veils and calling themselves “Human Beings.” The activist performance protest—conceived by performance artist James (Tigger!) Ferguson — was effective and powerful, and immediately received national media attention.
“Just using the Human Beings is a powerful tool,” says Hertzog. “As gays, we’re nothing if not crafty and theatrical.” Since the New York Pride parade, GAG has marched on Washington, protested outside gun shows, and continued to meet monthly.
“Gays know how to grab attention,” Hertzog says. “From the time we’re born, we monitor the way people perceive us and why. We’re masters of how to get or deflect attention.”
As far as what other activists can learn from GAG, Hertzog reflects on “the lesson Larry Kramer taught us: in a crisis the regular rules don’t apply. If the status quo is causing carnage, you have the responsibility to challenge it. LGBTQ people challenge the status quo — just by existing.”
— Mel England, an actor and LGBT activist, who appeared on the cover of Plus magazine in 2015, and has written for Out magazine. He serves on the board of LGBT history project, The Lavender Effect.