City Paper: Chris Bartlett, Gay History Wiki and preserving a community
Today — yes on Thanksgiving — I’m happy to say I have the cover story on this week’s Philadelphia City Paper, the popular alternative newsweekly, profiling Chris Bartlett and his push to chronicle the lives of 4,600 gay men he says died in Philadelphia after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
Chris Bartlett sits down with his egg roll, just as the weekday lunch rush pours into Reading Terminal Market. At 43, this short, fiery gay man with tightly cropped, graying hair and thin, pursed lips, is already something of an elder statesman in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community. For nearly two decades, he’s been at the center of just about every gay- and AIDS-related movement to hit this city’s streets. [More]
I previously wrote a shorter feature on Bartlett and his Gay History Wiki for Technically Philly, and he was recently interviewed by the Philadelphia Gay News.
Below, as always, check the extras from a half dozen interviews I did and other goodies from the research of this piece.
I chose to lede the story with something mundane — eating an egg roll for lunch as we started our longest of four interviews. I felt it was a strong contrast to the seriousness of the subject we discussed. I kep being taken by the triviality of conversation around us. I think it speaks well to Bartlett, but it was hardly the first lede I wrote.
Other ledes I tried:
- It was more than 28 years ago that the AIDS epidemic went national, 15 years since a new cachet of drugs made the virus more manageable and Chris Bartlett is looking a little grayer for the road.
- There was a lot of concern that this story wouldn’t make clear how much laughing and living was a part of the roughly 15 years that HIV-AIDS ravaged Philadelphia’s gay community.
- Holocaust survivors have this inter generational conflict with their children.
- And that’s when he started singing Ethel Merman.
- It’s meant to be the first step toward building a social network for dead people.
I’m very pleased with what I chose.
I had lots of lengthy interviews, most of which went to informing the voice and background of the piece. Below, I share some of the highlights.
Bartlett spoke often of those he knew best who are now on the wiki. Here are links to some of those mentioned in the story:
Kiyoshi, Dominic, Jon Lox, Jon Kelly.
- At some point after graduating from Cheltenham High School and before shipping out to Providence to attend Brown University in 1984, Bartlett was taken aside by his father.
“Do you know about this thing called AIDS that’s out there right now?” Bartlett remembers being asked by his father, who was also gay. “You better protect yourself.”
- On the Kensington woman he was partnered with: “I don’t remember now. I imagine I must have said goodbye, but i don’t remember… I never found out what happened to her.”
- While at Brown, Bartlett answered hot line calls at Rhode Island Project AIDS. He was confronted with the ignorance and fear that had taken the country over. He was a gay youth at a time when a gay plague was said to be exterminating gay men for the sins of their move for equality that started in the 1970s.
“But I don’t think I was ever fearful,” Bartlett says unflinching, leaning in, keeping his wild eyes steady. He had other lessons to learn.
- Friends pick on him for his fashion sense.
- “At Dominic [Bash]‘s funeral, I said Dominic brought Dignity (the name of a Catholic gay group) and Integrity (the name of a gay Episcopalian group) to ActUp. I didn’t mean it as a pun, but it worked.”
- There outside the Bellevue Stratford protesting an appearance by President George H. W. Bush in 1991, when Bartlett says a dozen protesters got their asses kicked by cops after a coffin that was being used as a prop fell, ash flew into the air and a scuffle followed.
- “I learned something from them all. Dominic was harsh, smart and tough, Jon has this campy humor. Kiyoshi knew everyone and built coalitions.”
- In 1992, Bartlett launched the Safeguard Project, a LGBT health education organization, leaving in 2001
- “We learned this gay community is strong enough to endure,” he says.
- The Inquirer gave ActUp the Al Sharpton media manipulation award a couple years running back in the 1990s, Barlett says.
- “People forget how little people cared about gay communities prior to the Clinton years,” he says.
- We got something and then wanted the same for injection drug users, poor people and black people, he says. We fought.
- “Sometimes this older community, I think, is nostalgic for that, for when we were fighting and protesting.”
- “It’s like the early days of the AIDS quilt.”
- “That moment hasn’t passed I don’t think. There’s a lot more to do.”
- It’s a war, or something harsher still in the language of the Movement. Could I use the phrase “comprehensive list of deaths” instead of “comprehensive list of victims,” Bartlett asks me.
“Victim is viewed as a dis-empowering and often inaccurate word,” he says.
- “Is it ethical to disclose the HIV status of someone after they die? Now, I’ve found out that it is legal, but I don’t know if it is ethical.”
- So we say on that site that you can’t draw any conclusions about the people listed, some are alive, not all are gay. I want to connect those lost and here in the community I live in
Below, watch Bartlett introduce his idea at Ignite Philly 4.
Roger Broadley has been the pastor for more than 25 years of The Church of St. Luke and The Epiphany, which has been among the most welcoming to LGBTQ community members in all of Philadelphia. This is also the location where Bartlett was photographed for the story.
I spoke to Broadley, 58, twice including a 25-minute phone conversation. Broadley was born in Drexel Hill, grew up in Springfield, and aside from 10 years of college and seminary in New England, has remained in the region.
- “Facing what they face, gay men like other oppressed people, brings out a great sense of irony. The worst times are often the most memorable for laughing.”
- “We were here to help with anyone who needed help.”
- “There was a lot of energy, Action AIDS started in our basement.”
- We had 30-35 funerals of men affected by HIV/AIDs between 1988-1990, he says.
- I was energized a year ago when Bartlett said he wanted to create a way to build on the memories, creating the biographies
- We are going to move forward on having an event at the church, a dozen or more terminals set up, come and participate in celebrating the lives
- It’s been almost 15 years since medications completely changed the gay male experience
- If you’re under 30, you have no memory of the loss of a whole culture,” he says.
- An Episcopal priest really sees themselves as a part of the community, very civicly involved.
- “If a neighbor wants to have a funeral here, he can have one. thats how i was raised.
- “I didn’t look for anyone,they came here.
- People are happy here. There was laughter and a lot of energy.”
- On how accepting the church was of welcoming gay men in the 1980s: “The congregation was overwhelmingly middle aged women at the time, women who had jobs when at that time it was still suspiscious. Many never married and were completely open-armed and welcoming in these gay men. We’re practical place. We have this space and how can we help?
- He lives across the street and has for 25 years.
- “This was a whole new world that was opening up for us. There was this sense of incredible possibility, embracing everything. Some of it wasn’t great for us, but we were going for it.”
- Our energy had to get channeled for our brothers who were dying prematurely.
- How would you characterize Chris?: “He’s a systematic thinker, very smart and very thoughtful.
Much more connected with the movement and has this inexhaustible amount of energy. He’s a truth-teller, a challenging prophet. He’s very respectful of people. He really knows or really cares, always says something encouraging when he sees me, and that’s very honest with him. He’s furious and playful. He’s a team player, really believes in community. he’s not a church person but he had a church period. I think that’s why he gets that. He believes in community and what a church can do for that… You see him in a room and he’s alive. It’s remarkable…
I spoke briefly to the noted gay history academic from the University of Illinois at Chicago. See his CV here.
- “I met and and had dinner with Chris after a conference some months ago, maybe last winter.”
- “There are a number of GLBT historical web sites. Washingtron D.C. has one called Rainbow History and the history project in the district that puts up historical information in the community. In New York, Sarah Schulman, who is involved in ActUP, did a massive oral history project and put it up on web. There’s Chicago Gay History that includes lots of interviews that a journalist and publisher put together. There are other projects like that.
What seems unique here is the wiki, allowing widespread participation and involvement so it’s not just this tens of history nerds but it’s everybody who feels connected to the lives that have been lost and to the experience of AIDS and queerness in Philadelphia. Maybe there are others, but he’s probably trying a model that is something brand new. We will definitely see this in more places.
- Read a book on Philadelphia and gay and lesbian history from 1950s, 1960s and 1970s written by Mark Stein, he says.
My extra notes with Hart haven’t yet been transcribed from a written account.
Bartlett writes in an e-mail: “Bill Heinzen is a very old friend who has helped me think through the experience of intense trauma in communities (among WWI Survivors, for example). He knows everything too ”
- Full disclosure: Heinzen says he freelanced for CityPaper during in the 1990s “Dave Warner-era”
- He’s 43, a resident of the Village in Manhattan and a lawyer with city government. “I’m a month younger than Chris, so be sure to hell him he’s one of the elders I look up to.”
- In 1994 or 1995 I first met Chris. I lived in Philly for four years, and he was very involved in gay men’shealth and very involved in creating peer networks among gay mens in their 20s and 30s. We became friends and shared group friends.
- Without being retraumatized by it, how do you keep up with the mass death of people without sugarcoating it?
- He had this unbelievable sense of history. He’d give a walking tour in Center City based on sites and areas and the links to people bars and — like Giovannis on this tiny Mole Street, west of city hall that I don’t think exists anymore — and be able to point out things no one else could. Gionvannis was by where the Clothes pin is now, it had been a street of mostly black bars and gay black bars unofficailly in the mid 1940s and 1950s and Chris knew this through conversations with older parts of the gay community.
- Someone suffering or dying related to AIDS was often not spelled out in those obituaries about the guys in 1980s, the way with suicide now. It was a pretty sensitive issue and get a lot of people, well, it’s pretty tough information.
- There has this intellectually curious guy, traditionally among gay men there has always been a group of people who were very.. I think what he’s doing is bringing together different elements of what has been seen as part of the gay community, the activist side and also the kind of classics major at Brown, the guy who goes for oxford, the guy who studies latin and greek and drinks cherry. He’ll talk to someone, this 76-year-old who maybe has a crush him and will tell him about erotic relationships from the 1920s… He wants those stories to be respected, not bee relegated to enternal impressionists.
- This is another level of activism, a way of connecting people to the past and community building which is inevitably empowering.
- I’ve given him a book about World War I, when post traumatic stress disorder first taken serious, treat it a more humane way, like after HIV and AIDS
- There was so much of Philadelphia history that was gay history. If you look at the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s. Rizzo was such a dominant figure. There is this bizarre interpaly between Rizzo and the gay community. Rizzo made his name before being mayor, as police chief, he made his name craking down on bars and coffee houses that used to be on Sansom west of Rittenhouse. It was where couples, the outcasts came together. Interacial couples, gay and lesbians, and the cops cracked down on that, particularly homophobic? I don’t know. But, to understand the history of Philadelphia and this lost bohemian past, you have to understand the gay history.
- What is your favorite Chris story?: It’d be about his occasional spacy-ness. Around the time Viagra came out, he had been in a meeting with someone who was taking alegra, the allergy medicine. Well, the person is this old man, and Chris says to me, ‘I cant believe he just took out his alegra. I guess I really admire that,’ he says, doing this whole Chris rationalization bit. He’s saying ‘I’m going to respect this guy for being empowered by his sexuality.’ And I have to say, ‘Chris, it’s Alegra, you’re talking about vigara. He has hayfeaver.
While reading up about Segal, who is very much a known name in Philly media circles, I came across a Philly Weekly story about a rift I once heard of, one between Segal and another noted gay activist in the city.
PHILADELPHIA GAY HISTORY
My original draft had a section devoted to Philadelphia’s role in the AIDS epidemic. I dropped it pretty quickly because it wasn’t part of the core story.
Some items I had:
- Whether it wants it or not, doesn’t much matter. Philadelphia has a place in the war against HIV/AIDS.
- We speak often that the first modern gay rights rallies were held in the 1960s outside Independence Hall, where discussions of every man being equal were first normalized.
- Philadelphia was home to AIDS Vaccine 2001, held that September, the first full-fledged scientific conference devoted to vaccines for the virus. By then, monkeys had survived nearly two years after being injected with lethal doses of the virus and then given an experimental AIDS vaccine.
- University City’s Wistar Institute loomed large in the discussion.
Other sections I dropped
- Bartlett is presenting at the Dec. 7 meeting of Refresh Philly, an organization of designers and developers, trying to coax some advice and help to build out the site’s design and functionality. This wiki could be something of a 21st-century AIDS quilt, collecting the lives lost to AIDS in a new wiki style and perhaps even being a signal for a future in which the dead are as much a part of social networks as those are alive. “What about a dead people you might know feature?” he asks.
I had my buddy Brian James Kirk give a look over the piece before I submitted it because, well, he had his own AIDS-related alt-weekly cover story this summer.