Reflection on AIDS Activism

Hal Hayes

Shortly after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1982, I began working at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). I was openly gay from the very beginning, but some of my colleagues were closeted and at that point, I was the only employee who was completely out. There was even a closeted partner who had never been married and still lived with his mother. Now today, of course, people there are fully out, and it’s a good working environment.

From my first year there I had a yearly beach picnic day for my SOM colleagues every summer in Fire Island Pines. It was a fun education for some of them to be in the middle of this almost completely gay community. It put most of them in the awkward position of being the minority for the first time, and they were smart enough to be aware of that and collegial enough to accept it as a teaching moment.

During this time I was also involved in community activism and more direct forms of protest. I regularly participated in demonstrations by AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) before it even became ACT UP. I vividly remember a protest at the Statue of Liberty Centennial in 1986 where we marched without permits and the police tried to stop us. I was there with a friend in the group, and we couldn’t get through because the police were blocking us. I realized that if we broke up and melted into the crowd, we could reconvene. The word went through the crowd to break up into ones and twos and reform at a nearby statue. As the whispering went around, somehow the chant started up, “Ones and twos, ones and twos, that’s the way they took the Jews.” It was really frightening, many people were horrified, and some began crying, but it worked, and we got away from the police. We made it down to Battery Park. It felt victorious for a moment, but there were network news cameras next to us, and they would not film us because of what our signs said. They refused to publicize or even report that this was happening. There was very little support, and some bystanders were openly and aggressively hostile.

This was a time of great awakening in the LGBTQ community with the birth of many community organizations, some responding to the AIDS crisis and others dealing with professional and social issues. I was one of the founding members of the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects and Designers (OLGAD) under the leadership of another architect, Daniel Lansner. Dan called a meeting at the LGBTQ Community Center in New York to see who would show up. We were all surprised to have nearly 100 attendees. I helped facilitate that first meeting along with Dan, Jane Greenwood (2017 Out 100 awardee), and others; we all continued to work with the organization, and I focused on the administrative structure, outreach and interface with mainstream professional organizations. OLGAD grew quite large for a while—in the several hundreds. We were all probably in our twenties or early thirties when we formed it; many older architects and designers were too closeted to even want to be seen in the Center, and many of those who did attend did not want their names to appear on any lists. I was able to host a number of meetings and events at the offices of SOM with the knowledge and approval of the partners, and several other members were also able to host events at their firms.

During this time there was a lot of advocacy around all gay issues, particularly driven by the desperate need to address what we now know was the growing HIV threat. It was a very challenging time. A lot of people were dying; horribly, gruesomely, in pain and afraid. There was a lot of fear even among those who were seemingly healthy, because for a very long time, no one even knew what the transmission modes for HIV were, or the variably long incubation period. Before we even called it HIV, AIDS was still commonly used, but before that, it was gay-related immune deficiency (GRID), and even earlier just “gay cancer,” stigmatizing the entire community.

One of the weirder parts of the epidemic was that it outed people. A large percentage of the community was in the closet at this time. Architecture in general—and interiors in particular—was known for having a larger percentage of gay people, but as I experienced in my firm, many of these people were deeply closeted. When HIV started to cull that group, it became obvious that there were a lot more gay men in the profession than people even realized.

An entire generation was decimated by HIV. It did, and sadly still does, affect people in all walks of life, but it seems that the visual and performing arts were hit particularly hard. At SoHo’s Gallery 91 in 1994 there was an exhibition dedicated to architects taken by the disease with a wall of names of architects, planners, and designers who had died of HIV. I remember writing the names of a couple of fellow alumni from Carnegie Mellon.

At that period, I think if you were not active in some way, you would have been ashamed of yourself. It was just impossible not to become an activist in the face of government inaction and social approbation. One of the worst things I ever heard said in my life was that while it was a terrible disease “it was killing all the right people.” It wasn’t the mainstream civil rights movement of the ’60s or the first flowering of the gay rights movement of the early ’70s, but it was the second, maturing gay civil rights movement that was driven, as much as anything, by HIV. It wasn’t possible to just sit back and do nothing. There were too many issues, there was too much injustice, there were too many people dying. You had to get up and do something. My perception is that the degree of involvement was far greater than it is now. I sincerely hope it doesn’t take another crisis to shock our community into action again.