Wednesday, June 3, 2015


"Open Chelsea, make it quick, New York City is getting sick,"  ACT UP chanted at their protest over the closure of the Chelsea STD today at City Hall, just off the heels of the governor's calls for an end to the AIDS epidemic.  The blueprint calls for halting the growth of the epidemic through early testing, treatment, and structural supports, including housing.   The  closure of the Chelsea clinic in the center of a neighborhood grappling with high rates of syphilis and HIV seems to fly in face of this plan. ACT UP was there to remind everyone of this.

I heard about the demonstration on the ACT UP list serve, where Jim Eigo wrote:
 “I ACT UP so the next generation will be free of HIV!”

Now try your own! (And if you’d like, share them with the rest of us.)

I was thinking, I ACT UP because pleasure is a resource.  Joy overlaps with justice.  Fuck safe! Shoot Clean!

For ACT UP, HIV prevention has always involved simple doses of access to information, frank discussion about sex, knowledge about routes of transmission, early treatment, harm reduction and a sex positive, anti-prohibitive queer politics.  


In this way, it is really a way of looking at the world.  Its about how we connect safer promiscuity with prevention, the stories we share as we build community.  When Sarah Schulman interviewed me a few weeks ago about ACT UP, we talked about many things, but the point I reflected on was this point: ACT UP is discourse.  Over the decades, it has involved sitting on a bus trip to an AIDS demo in DC reading Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble, about the ins and outs of the struggle or David Feinberg’s Queer and Loathing, recalling the early days of AIDS as both funny and horrifying, Situation Normal, Completely Fucked up. Its a narrative about getting drugs into bodies across the globe and then acting up to make it happen.  These stories are reality creating machines.  They are also spaces which allow us to laugh and revel in the messy spaces between friends and losses, connection and separation, love, lust and the queer spaces in between. Its about speaking up, calling out those in power with gusto and abandon, raging for what is right with hope, anger, humor, sexuality, care and delicious defiance.

It felt like that today, passing the police and fire department having their own memorial session, on the way to ACT UP.

People were marching when I arrived across from city hall park.

Jim Eigo and I talked about the Sarah Schulman interview I had just completed, thinking about the ways the group continues.  (For the record, people like Jennifer Flynn, Eustacia Smith, Sharonann Lynch, Julie Davids, Asia Russell and countless other queer women should be interviewed, probably way before my interview is posted.  I’m honored to have been a small part of this movement of the last twenty two years.  But many have done much more than my small gestures at demonstrations and blogs).  More than  history, today, there are wonderful people doing amazing work in the group.  And as ACT UP veteran Kate Barnhart put it after a transgender client of hers was diagnosed with both advanced AIDS and cancer, crying on her shoulder, its hard to think of this epidemic as anything near over.

 “Its not as if what we are doing today is inconsequential,” noted Eigo.  “The Chelsea Clinic had 20,000 visits a year.”   Yet, now it has closed.  The question is how can the city fill the gap in those 20,000 visits?  Where do people  go now that there is no longer a free government clinic, wondered Eigo, suggesting the city had effectively blown a hole in the safety net preventing new infections.   “This is a place where young men of color and transgender women go, especially after they may have had a risky encounter. These are the people we want to access.  This is a place people go to,” he continued,  noting that now there is a small print out at the clinic door saying closed, with the address for a clinic 70 blocks away.  “How many of these people would be getting prep or post exposure prophylaxis?  I’m afraid we are going to lose these people,” Eigo continued, pointed to the $500,000 it costs the city every time someone tests positive for HIV.  Many are not going get prep  or pep.  Instead he worried they will be “living with an infection that could have been prevented.” The city should be opening more clinics not closing them argued Eigo especially if they are serious about the blueprint to end the epidemic.  “In more ways than I can imagine, this is gumming up the works.” 

Jim Eigo and Benjamin Shepard, Eigo's #1 fan. 
Message to clinic patrons from the NYDOH.

“The mayor says shut down, we say ACT UP!”  screamed those on picket line. 

“We say blow me,” noted another gentleman under his breath.  He would not go on the record for this blog.

“I’m outraged,” noted Carlos Valentin, who lives on 34th street and 9th in Chelsea. “There’s a sign on the door that says go to Riverside.  That’s the closest thing.  You see people wondering where that is,” he continued referring to the  100th Street and Amsterdam address for the clinic. “We live in a community where STD rates are high.”

Carlos Valentin 

Data confirming Valentin's point. 

“Health care is a right.  Open Chelsea Clinic, ACT UP!” screamed the crowd.

Walking through the picket line, I ran into Dan Beal, the iconic YIPPIE and Ibogaine activist, carrying a sign declaring, “Cure the Sick.”  We talked about his plans to open an ibogaine clinic in Kabul Afghanistan. I  told him it was great to see him.  I was glad to see him out of jail.  His interview is part of the first chapter of my study of play and activism, Play, Creativity and Social Movements.

Shepard, Beal, and his sign.

“I was dead for three minutes but they brought me back,” noted Beal.  “I don’t give up, just because I’ve been arrested, locked up, gone to prison, and died, I do not give up.”

As the rally was ending, Jim Eigo  spoke.

“Its almost impossible to under emphasize the importance of STD clinics in the fight against HIV,” he explained, questioning the New York Department of Health’s commitment to their campaign, New York Knows, their new testing initiative.  “To knock out the central clinic, the hub of care in a gay neighborhood, a destination for  gay men and trans women, is beyond belief.”

“ACT UP, fight back, END AIDS!” the group screamed, over and over.

James  Krellenstein followed comparing the closure of the clinic to the treatment  Dr Craig Spencer when he tested positive for Ebola last fall.  According to some estimates the city spent $4.5 million dollars on his treatment, using every resource in the book. Yet, a clinic which effectively prevents the spread of HIV and other infections was closed over budget constraints. “We will not be silent when queer bodies are made subordinate to budget decisions,” he followed.

James  Krellenstein

“Embarrassment is not enough,” noted Andrew Velez.  “We need to inspire action.”

Asked what everyone can do, Velez called for everyone to call their representatives to ask them to reopen the clinic and to come to the next ACT UP meeting.

Finishing the zap, I thanked everyone who keeps the group going, greeting veterans and newbies, the students from Purdue University who took part in the action.

It’s a pleasure to see so many friends from ACT UP at the demo, who’ve been there through the years as well as those just acting up.

What are you reading Jim, I asked as we left.  He pointed to Shakespeare and we talked about the Tempest.  

ACT UP has been dealing with this storm for years now, helping us create a new world through our actions and words, research and action, and commitment to creating a human way to treat the sick, prevent future infections, and support a more colorful, queerer world along the way.  My books and Rebel Friendships have always been inspired by the group. 

 ACT UP provided background on the zap in their press release.

 In March of 2015, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) shuttered the Chelsea STD clinic for multiyear renovations, without any prior notice or any realistic plan to remedy the grave public health consequences of this action. Conservative estimates project that, unless significant action is taken, the continued closure of the Chelsea clinic will result in tens of additional New Yorkers becoming infected with HIV each year, at a lifetime cost to the taxpayer of at least $4.45 million per year of clinic closure. ACT UP/New York will be leading a large protest at noon on the west side of City Hall to demand that DOHMH and the de Blasio Administration immediately and transparently implement solutions that will fully make up for lost testing and treatment capacity caused by the clinic closure. Chelsea remains the epicenter of the syphilis and HIV epidemics in the New York City, with the highest syphilis diagnosis rate in the nation and the highest HIV diagnosis rate in the city. The Chelsea clinic identified the highest number of early HIV infections—the most infectious stage of HIV infection—of any clinic within the five boroughs and represents nearly a quarter of the city’s STD testing and treatment capacity. Diagnosis and treatment of HIV and other STIs are one of the most effective methods of slowing the spread of these diseases.

"How many New Yorkers will be lost to testing because of this poorly planned clinic closing?" asked veteran ACT UP member Jim Eigo. "How many of them will become HIV positive? How many forward infections will this fuel? Every HIV infection costs New York about half a million dollars, and the cost to the New Yorker who will now have to live with a lifetime infection is incalculable."
The DOHMH and Mayor’s Office have known for over eight years that the clinic was going to close, yet no plans existed to make up for the services lost to the community. Activists find the contrast between the response to the ongoing syphilis and HIV emergencies—in which thousands of New Yorkers become newly infected each year—and the DOHMH’s response to the single Ebola case in late 2014, disturbing. The DOHMH spent over $4.5 million on Ebola in late 2014, yet refuses to publicly commit to any money to help fill the public health gaps left by the closure of the city’s busiest HIV and STD clinic.

“This is public health malpractice,” said James Krellenstein, a founding member of ACT UP NY’s Prevention Working Group, “to shut down the city’s leading point of care for the most vulnerable population without any real alternative is an egregious act that will inevitably result in more LGBT New Yorkers becoming infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.”

 In meetings with activists over the past month, DOHMH officials, including STD director Dr. Susan Blank and Communicable Disease Chief Dr. Jay Varma, have failed to account for the lack of adequate planning and the negative public health consequences of the clinic closure.

 “New York AIDS activists have been bewildered and disappointed by DOHMH’s epic incompetence regarding the sudden closure of the Chelsea STD Clinic,” said Mark Harrington, a long time ACT UP/New York Member and executive director of the Treatment Action Group (TAG). “DOHMH had over eight years to plan for this renovation, but closed the clinic abruptly and without notice to the community. We will be watching their actions closely to ensure that acceptable solutions are in place by Gay Pride Week, less than a month away.”

ACT UP/New York demands that the city and the de Blasio administration immediately: ● Provide sufficient funding for expanded HIV/STD testing and treatment at neighborhood clinics ● Build an inexpensive, prefabricated temporary clinic on the Chelsea STD site that will have capacity equal to the original clinic. ● Provide funds to expedite the renovations of the shuttered clinic ● Appoint a community board to oversee the restoration of testing and prevention services to Chelsea and the renovation of the Chelsea STD Clinic

NEW YORK CITY CLOSES THE CHELSEA STD CLINIC, FEEDING THE AIDS EPIDEMIC IT PROMISED TO END! nnn • In New York City, Chelsea has the highest rate of new infections for HIV and syphilis. • Last year 10,000 New Yorkers came to the Chelsea STD Clinic for free and confidential testing for HIV and STDs, and for a range of prevention services. Run by the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), the Clinic could also link New Yorkers to long-term healthcare. • But on March 21, 2015, without warning the community, New York City shut the Clinic down for renovations. The nearest city STD clinic is now more than 70 blocks away. • Spurred by community anger, the City has deployed mobile testing vans locally and increased testing capacity at community organizations. By the end of summer it hopes to offer rapid HIV testing at the Clinic site and referrals to local clinics for more sensitive testing and other services. • But none of the remedies that the City has proposed will serve as many New Yorkers with the free services the Clinic offered. ACT UP ASKS: • How much will the closing of the Chelsea STD Clinic cost? • How many New Yorkers will be lost to testing because of this poorly planned clinic closing? • How many New Yorkers who need emergency Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) for possible exposure to HIV will not get it? How many of them will become HIV positive? • How many acute HIV infections will go undiagnosed? How many forward infections will this fuel? • Every HIV infection costs New York about half a million dollars, and the cost to the New Yorker who will now have to live with a lifetime infection is incalculable. ACT UP DEMANDS: • The City needs to provide all possible support for expanded testing and prevention services at neighborhood clinics and community organizations! • An inexpensive, pre-fabricated unit on the Clinic site could replace most of the lost services for most of the people the shuttered Clinic once served. The City should build it right away! • Renovation on the shuttered Clinic has yet to begin. Asbestos on the site threatens further delays. The City needs to do everything in its power to renovate the Clinic ahead of schedule! • City planning for the Clinic renovation has been poor. Potential remedies involve many unknowns. The City needs to appoint a community board to oversee the restoration of testing and prevention services to Chelsea and the renovation of the Chelsea STD Clinic! To End the AIDS Epidemic, New York City will have to expand the City’s HIV and STD Testing and Prevention Services, not cut them!

1 comment:

  1. You're a quick worker, Ben! Thanks so much for the coverage & the pics. Such great shots of some of my favorite activists--Nanette Kazaoka, Nancy Duncan, John Riley, Tim Lunceford...& all our new friends from Purdue.