Andy Vélez, an internationally prominent AIDS activist whose three decades of advocacy work resulted in improved drug access and civil rights for people living with HIV, especially in the Latino community, died on May 14, 2019. He was 80 years old.
His sons, Ben and Abe Vélez, confirmed the cause of death was complications arising from a severe fall in his Greenwich Village building in April. Until his recent accident and despite several health challenges, Vélez had remained consistently active in the HIV and social justice communities, taking part in protests for ACT UP and Rise and Resist.
Vélez was a seminal member of ACT UP, joining the group in 1987 — its first year of activity — and played a prominent role in its most notorious demonstrations over the past 32 years.
Vélez was born on March 9, 1939 in the Bronx, N.Y., to Ramon Vélez and the former Dorothy Solomon. The family, including siblings Eugene and Raymond (“Al”), soon relocated to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, where they lived a few years before returning to the Bronx
The activist earned a Master’s degree in psychoanalysis in 1976 and worked with the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies under Dr. Phyllis Meadow, and maintained his own therapy practice for two decades. Vélez had initially explored psychoanalysis for personal reasons, suspecting that he was gay. Then in 1964, he was entrapped by an undercover policeman and spent the night in the jail facility known as The Tombs, a traumatizing experience that would provide the impetus for his activism. Working for the Housing Authority at the time, Vélez lost his position when his boss learned of his arrest. He received a suspended sentence of six months, but when Vélez appealed with the help of a progressive lawyer, his conviction was ultimately reversed.
Though Vélez initially hoped to become an actor — he appeared in several off-Broadway productions in the late 1950s and early 1960s — he found success in other careers. He entered book publishing in 1969. Over the course of 16 years, he worked his way up to the position of president of the prominent Frederick Ungar Publishing, managing the company until it was sold in 1985. Notable among his literary projects was a 1984 collaboration with screen star Marlene Dietrich to update her 1962 bestseller, Marlene Dietrich’s ABC.
Previously married, Vélez began to make active connections with the LGBTQ community after his divorce. He served as a leader for the Gay Circles Consciousness Raising Group for almost three years. One evening, after his group ended, Vélez walked past the first meeting of a new organization dedicated to addressing government inaction surrounding HIV. He was intrigued.
The group soon had a name: ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Vélez became involved in several ACT UP committees, including the Media Committee and Actions Committee. He was involved in high-profile demonstrations and civil disobedience arrest scenarios that showcased ACT UP’s signature street theater activism, such as chaining himself in the office of a pharmaceutical company, or covering himself in fake blood to symbolize the lives lost to AIDS because of government negligence.
However, Vélez found his niche with the group’s Latino Caucus, which focused on the raging but neglected epidemic in the Latino community. Significantly, Vélez and his colleagues traveled to Puerto Rico to help organize a local ACT UP chapter in the commonwealth. He was also a founding member of Queer Nation in N.Y.C. in 1990.
He was also involved in many AIDS educational and service organizations over the years, serving as an administrator and bilingual educator for AIDSmeds.com for more than a decade. His writing and activism intersected significantly when he moderated a community forum on AIDSmeds, where he often directed desperate, distraught people to lifesaving medical information. Vélez also wrote about the epidemic for numerous community publications, including POZ, Body Positive, and SIDA Ahora. He took part in aggressive and effective treatment access work with Treatment Action Group, and worked in a N.Y.C. HIV clinical trial unit, alerting affected communities to their vulnerability to tuberculosis.
From the 1990s through the 2010s, Vélez returned to his first love of theater by covering the scene for several LGBTQ magazines, as well as by conducting interviews with jazz greats for All About Jazz and The New York City Jazz Record. He penned liner notes for the CD reissues of several Broadway musical classics, such as Finian’s Rainbow, The Pajama Game, and Saratoga. He also provided liner notes for vocal collections by legends such as Doris Day, Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, and Artie Shaw. From 1990 to 1992, he taught courses in musical theater at the New School. Among his in-class guests from the golden age of Broadway were Barbara Cook, Sheldon Harnick, Elaine Stritch, John Kander, and Fred Ebb. He was included in the anthology Cast Out: Queer Lives in the Theater, a collection focusing on out lesbians and gays working on the American stage.
Vélez was a prominent presence on the international AIDS scene for over 20 years, working with co-organizers of the International Conference on AIDS to guarantee the inclusion and active participation of people living with HIV. He also served for several conferences as the official liaison to the activist community. He served as a consultant to the Latino Commission on AIDS and was a guest speaker on HIV issues at high schools and colleges across America.
Vélez is survived by his sons Ben and Abe, his daughter-in-law Sarah, his granddaughter, his younger brother Eugene (“Gene”), as well as thousands of comrades in the global AIDS and LGBTQ activist communities.
Years ago, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Vélez replied, “As someone who was able to help.” Donations in Vélez’s memory may be made to ACT UP New York, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and the Latino Commission on AIDS.