Matt Mills, Xtra, 2012.05.31:
I stumbled… across the case of a gay man who was fighting aggravated sexual assault charges…. He was treated horribly by police and even more appallingly by members of his own community of gay men.
Well, so was Ron Kelly, but the people who mistreated him are the ruling elite of Toronto’s diverse gay communities and get away with everything, not including murder.
The difference between ACT UP and AIDS Action Now
Tim McCaskell, a source so frequently cited in Xtra that he was simply quoted by surname in a different article in the aforesaid issue, wrote an ode to his and his friends’ work in AIDS Action Now.
So much of AIDS activism was about meetings. In comparison with New York, our meetings in Toronto were quite restrained. We elected a steering committee to ensure the group was controlled by a poz majority. We elected cochairs to manage things.
On the other hand, ACT UP’s regular general meetings every Monday night at the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Center could involve several hundred people. They were facilitated, not chaired. I attended at least one while visiting the city in the early ’90s. It was like a very large, unruly orchestra that hadn’t been tuned, with rotating conductors. But somehow it made music.
And here’s the difference.
At ACT UP meetings, someone like Tom Duane could and did get up and make an appeal to the general membership about a vulnerable gay man with AIDS at risk of losing his apartment. (It happened – the footage is right there in How to Survive a Plague, the stunning ACT UP documentary the gay press downplays in favour of that other one codirected by a prominent and approved leftist lesbian.)
AIDS Action Now’s “steering committee” could and did refuse to help Ron Kelly, a diminutive, loudmouthed, politically incorrect man with AIDS who was pursuing a discrimination complaint against the most left-wing university in Canada, York. According to 1991 news reports I looked up, Ron missed “too many” of his music classes, from which York then barred him. York also insisted that Ron merely alleged he had AIDS, an insinuation that Ron was lying.
I was in the room at the 519 when Ron made one of his appeals for help to AIDS Action Now. An appeal, I emphasize, from a gay man with AIDS to a steering committee made up entirely of gay men, most of whom were HIV-positive. I sat there and listened and watched as Glen Brown and his fellow steering-committee members angled their heads back suspiciously and asked a number of questions that all seemed to begin with “I dunno, Ron.”
In my presence this steering committee – the rulers of what passed for AIDS activism in Canada – decided not to back up Ron Kelly, effectively siding with York University. They never did this at all to anyone else. Ron was singled out as being unworthy of help.
Since he already had full-blown AIDS, everyone at AIDS Action Now had to know at some unconscious level that they were hastening his death. (He was going to die anyway – he knew he wasn’t going to beat it, he told me on the phone once. Ron’s legal rep, Barry Swadron, at the time a law student, didn’t respond to a phone call and E-mail last week – not even to help me out with getting the date of Ron’s death right. I believe it was in 1992.)
Ron Kelly just wasn’t their kind of people
If only he’d been just like the steering committee, or a much-valued multiple minority like a woman of colour. But he wasn’t. He was, in all clear respects, exactly the kind of person a gay-run AIDS activist group should have defended. They didn’t.
That kind of behaviour was emblematic of AIDS Action Now. I was told to my face by Brent Southin that I had no right to object on a certain topic because I hadn’t been there long enough. Those are the words of a cultist.
Meanwhile, at the real thing – ACT UP – everything was put to a vote and everyone could speak without any kind of hazing process or probationary period.
AIDS Action Now slammed the door on Ron. Its politburo – the metaphor is accurate – ignored many chances to follow up and make amends. Ron didn’t give up. Among other things, he stormed the podium at the 1989 AIDS conference in Montreal and pled his case, and that of other seropositive gay men, before the full assembly.
(If his article is any indication, all McCaskell remembers is ACT UP’s storming the stage. McCaskell also addressed the assembly, but chose to write himself and Ron out of history. The former case could be viewed as a way to avoid self-aggrandizement, but basically if McCaskell wrote about his own storming the stage he’d have had to write about Ron’s.)
Separately, I was in the room at a Queer Nation meeting where the same kind of leather-jacketed lesbians who refused to picket Public Enemy for homophobia (it was my idea, dismissed as RAYSISS) sucked air and sneered at Ron. (“And don’t give me any of your condescending comebacks, ’cause I’m a little guy and guys like me get beaten up first!”)
Tim McCaskell and his lifelong friends have done well for themselves since the era of AIDS Action Now. Glen Brown even ran Pride Toronto for a while. I certainly recall the preposterousness of McCaskell’s lecturing high-school kids about how antiracist they ought to be, but he’s worked for the public school board for ages. (He didn’t respond to a fact-checking E-mail asking if he still does. If I were his kind of people, I’d have his cell number and could have just phoned him.) Southin does important outreach work at a call centre. But Brown and Southin are among the men who abandoned Ron Kelly.
It’s not as though AIDS activists were too busy to focus on individual cases. Toronto was in all real respects the global centre of support for Simon Nkoli, a black gay South African AIDS activist. (He hit the tetrafecta.) I was in the house on Euclid for an AIDS Action Now meeting when McCaskell muttered that he had to call South Africa, rustled through his address book, and dialled the wall phone.
Simon Nkoli, half a world away, was worth saving. Ron Kelly, these men’s neighbour, was not. (For John Greyson – like McCaskell’s longtime lover, Richard Fung, an activist filmmaker – Nkoli was worth shooting a documentary about.)
All these men are the peer group of Xtra’s Matt Mills, who, I assume, would never contemplate publishing an editorial about Ron Kelly’s being treated “appallingly by members of his own community of gay men.” The message I get is straightforward: If people Mills likes and supports and generally agrees with – the AIDS Action Now steering committee – made a decision way back when, then obviously the decision was correct and Ron must have had it coming. (Another message is easy to find in the pages of Xtra: Men who deliberately infect others with HIV are innocent not only until proven guilty but despite that. They too are worth defending while, in others’ hands, Ron wasn’t.)
It only stands to reason that Tim McCaskell is a spokesperson for the group that almost killed off the Pride Parade and might still do so, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. In a retrospective about the People with AIDS Foundation in Xtra, McCaskell complained about “class” differences that kept PWA from merging with ACT. His class, the true ruling class of Toronto’s gay community, consistently makes things worse.
There’s always somebody whom people like this won’t help because they’re the wrong kind of people and don’t deserve help. Are you one of them?