oral history

After a Death, a Radicalization

By Alexis Danzig as told to Whitney Joiner
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After a Death, a Radicalization
Alexis (front row, in denim jacket) at ACT UP's infamous ashes action in Washington D.C. in 1992.

I. HE SAID, “I’M GAY, BUT THAT’S OKAY, RIGHT?”

My parents got divorced in 1974. I was about 12. My father left my mother for his longtime best friend. I had no idea he was gay. I grew up with gay people in my parents’ friendship circle, so that was never strange or new, but my father coming out was a complete revelation to everybody. There was a lot of anti-gay violence in New York at the time, so I was very worried for his physical safety. There was an organization from my junior high school, little thugs, to go and beat up gay men in Washington Square Park.

My father moved in with his best friend. Being a curious 13-year-old, I was going through my father’s sock drawer in the way of forensic 13-year-olds. And I discovered a cock ring. I knew that it was too small for a wrist; I didn’t know what else it might be for. I wrote a letter to my mother and basically said What’s up? My mom did a really great thing. She said, “You need to talk to your father.”

So my father sat down with me in the dining room of his new apartment, with this man who I’d known since I was six or seven. We sat across the table from each other and my father said, “I’m gay, but that’s OK, right?” This is how the math went: my father was OK, and if my father was gay, being gay was OK. But all of a sudden that was the end of the conversation. There was no further discussion about what that might look like or feel like. It was weird.

For him it was just sort of like—it was a relief to get to tell me. But he didn’t take care of me in that conversation. By that I mean, I’m a parent now, and I know what it means to sympathetically, empathetically deal with a child’s questions and the confusion that a young person might have, with very little experience of the world or sexuality, to try to put things in perspective. My father didn’t do that for me. For him it was much more of an Oh, thank God she knows now.

Then I became a confidant at a very young age. Occasionally there would just be this, like, Wow, that’s too much information, Dad. But it also meant that as I grew older, I had a ton of information about how people operated in the world. I thought of it not so much as over-sharing, but more like this is really useful information for allowing me to see the world from the viewpoint of an adult gay man.

 

Alexis, her father Allan, and brother Adrian circa 1974.

Alexis, her father Allan, and brother Adrian circa 1974.

II. I SAW A LIST OF SYMPTOMS HE HAD WRITTEN DOWN ON A TINY 3X5 CARD.

We were both living in France. He had a year of teaching abroad at the Sorbonne on a professor exchange program and I was in his apartment in Paris and I saw a list of symptoms he had written down on a little tiny three by five card. I can see it in my mind’s eye, in his handwriting. Night sweats and loss of appetite. I remember reading the words, but they didn’t compute. They didn’t add up to anything. I might as well have been a laundry list or shopping list.

I really didn’t want to deal with it. I was only peripherally aware of the AIDS crisis at that point. This was probably 1985 or ’86. My father left Paris early and he lost a lot of weight. I remember being in Paris in the shared apartment where I was living, and getting a phone call from my brother. He said, “Dad has AIDS,” and that’s how I found out.

I was 26. I got an early ticket and went home to New York. I put all my crap in my mom’s place. Both my parents lived on the Upper West Side and I ran into my father and his partner, my stepfather, leaving their house. It was sort of like, “Oh, hi, bye.” That was my reintroduction to New York and my father being ill. I was never part of taking care of him or being allowed in on treatment issues. There was no discussing anything. It was very similar to how he’d acted when he came out. It was like, it’s a done deal.

The medications then were weird home remedies. I think that my father was trying to not deal with it, and then it was not going to be a problem. I remember thinking If this is the way it’s going to be, then I guess this is the way it’s going to be, and I’m not going to fight to be included in their family dynamic. But I took it upon myself to learn everything I could, and as a result I became the go-to person in art school for safe sex information.

 

III. ONE OF MY PRIZED POSSESSIONS IS MY FATHER’S ADDRESS BOOK FROM HIS DAYS OF GAY ASSIGNATIONS.

My father was sent away to boarding school because my grandparents figured out that he was gay. The story was that my grandmother came home one day and my father was dressed up in her clothes. Of course, 75 years later, we have different ways of dealing with that, thank God. I think the lesson my father took was that he was essentially wrong—that he had to hide who he was, and one of the ways of doing that was by getting married, getting a good job, having children.

Having sex was his extracurricular activity. I think that my father had a really high sex drive; I think it was a part of him where he really came alive and had a lot of fun, and I am very grateful for that. I can separate that experience from how he got sick, because people who have sex aren’t looking to become ill. Illness and sex are two different things. It is possible to be ethical and promiscuous; it is possible to be monogamous and pro-sex. All of these things are possible, and I have spent my life trying to honor the lessons that I got from my father. He happened to be sexual at a time where the dots were not connected, and that is a very sad and complicated thing.

One of my prized possessions is—I have my father’s address book from the days of gay assignations. It’s a little tiny black book that would fit inside a trouser pocket, and it’s filled with names. Some are just first names. Some are first and last names. Some are just descriptions of where he met the person. It’s this little time capsule that takes me back to a New York in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, of how gay men hooked up. Part of my father’s sexuality was to have sexual friendships—some of them lasted 30 years, people who he regularly tricked with. I really love and honor that.

 

Alexis (bottom row, second from right) with other women of ACT UP at a safer sex teach-in in 1990.

Alexis (bottom row, second from right) with other women of ACT UP at a 1990 safer sex teach-in.

IV. ACT UP BECAME MY HOME FOR THE NEXT FOUR YEARS.

It was such a difficult time [after my father died]. I felt so isolated and really ostracized. A lot of my straight friends just couldn’t go there: it was so icky for them somehow that my father was dead, that he’d died of a sexual disease, that he had been gay.

A good friend invited me to join ACT UP. I went to the LGBT center on 13th Street and I walked into this room of about 200 people. It was overwhelming. A lesbian named Gerri Wells welcomed me into the group with a big smile. It became my home for the next four years.

I came out officially on my 21st birthday, but I’d never had a place where LGBT stuff really all came together for me. It was remarkable to be in the room with lesbians and gay men and a sprinkling of straight people, all very, very committed to bringing their personal talents to what was needed to take place. We were really making it up as we went along. It was so exciting and so powerful. Some people knew [about my father’s death], but it was much more that I was there to do the work.

My identity and my activism really came together in the ashes action. [In 1992 ACT UP members threw the ashes of friends, lovers and family members who had died of AIDS onto the White House lawn to protest the government’s lack of HIV/AIDS research and support.] I wanted to participate in that, because I needed something with that kind of gravitas and that kind of anger. To have a moment, an action, where I could bring my own personal narrative into the story felt like a real gift from ACT UP, but I didn’t have my father’s ashes. A very good friend shared the ashes of his departed lover so that I could participate fully.

By the time my father was dying, I was in graduate school doing work on moral philosophy and feminism. After he died—and I had not been out about my father being sick or about him being ill—I brought some reading material in to one of my favorite professors, a professor of morality and medical ethics. She just dismissed it out of hand.  She said, “Oh, I’ve made a decision, I’m not going to read anything about the AIDS crisis.” In my head, I dropped out of school on the spot.

I could not compartmentalize in the way that I felt I was being asked to compartmentalize. It was like, I’d been asked by my father, I’d been asked by the culture, I’d been asked by this illness—and I was done. I needed to be truthful. I needed to live the reality in such a way that I was working to make things better and not to make things disappear. Problems are only exacerbated when you pretend that they don’t exist. And the problem was not gay people; the problem was government indifference, lack of compassion, lack of appropriate treatment, and the horrific homophobia of that particular time. It was very galvanizing. I mean, I’m forever grateful to that ridiculously insensitive, out-of-touch professor.

Behind the scenes [in ACT UP], lesbians and gay men were having sex. Not all of them, but there were definitely people were hooking up, though it’s not the language that we used then. That was one of the real draws for ACT UP. Here was a group of vibrant, mostly young, sexually active people. ACT UP was a place to cruise safely. So that was happening in the background, but in the foreground there was really this incredible exchange of information and ways of understanding what was happening to us on a political level and on a medical level and this sharing of skills. I learned from Jamie Bauer how to do civil disobedience trainings and martial trainings. Then I taught other people so that we could run demonstrations. It was a time of enormous generosity and intensity. Direct action is one of my elements, so I was just having the time of my life being a witness to social change.

I think my father would have loved my activism. A lot of times children and parents are estranged because they have different ways of being in the world, and my father—my questioning and my resistance and my anger and my feminism sometimes made him pull out his hair. Yet I think that he would have seen my commitment to living one’s truth as being the legacy that I got from him.

 

 

About the Author

Alexis Danzig is a third generation New Yorker, raising a fourth. The AIDS crisis turned her into a grant writer, and she continues to be involved in a wide range of social justice issues on the community level, including advocating for bicyclists and safer streets.

This interview was provided courtesy of StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives: www.storycorps.org. This interview was edited for length and content.

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