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The Angriest Queer

Not even the shock-brigade theatrics of ACT UP can contain the rage of Danny Sotomayor. He's too mad to talk and too busy to die.

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April 23, 1990: It's Monday-morning rush hour, and 1,000 AIDS activists swarm north over the Michigan Avenue bridge. They chant, blow whistles, and wave banners and placards shaped like tombstones. Many are costumed--as blood-spattered surgeons, as corpses, as winged fairies, as leathermen. Some have simply joined the protest before heading off to Arthur Andersen or IBM. One group, identified by their T-shirts, consists of PWAs (people with AIDS). There is a woman in a wheelchair, a blind man led by a guide dog. They are all wedged onto the sidewalk by 250 police on foot and 50 more on horses. Some of the police wear rubber surgical gloves.

The mass moves quickly and efficiently, like irritated ants, leaving thousands of "Silence = Death" stickers plastered on mailboxes, lampposts, and street signs. The stickers, with their small pink triangles, are the calling cards of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, the militant organization that is leading the demonstration. And in the thick of the crowd is Daniel Sotomayor, 31, innocuous and boyish-looking in his walking shorts and black T-shirt. He darts in and out of the heaving crowd like a ferret, dispensing stickers and occasionally leaping onto a flower box or fire hydrant to scout the progress of the march.

"We're here, we're queer, and we're not going shopping!" goes the chant as the crowd rolls east onto Erie. The clerks in Saks Fifth Avenue are squeezed into the front window, slack-jawed. Ferd Eggan, another of ACT UP's leaders and the key organizer of today's demonstration, stops at Erie and Saint Clair. He uses a bullhorn to tell the crowd that the police have said they will make arrests if protesters step off the sidewalk into the street. As if on cue, the crowd bellows in unison, "Act up, fight back, fight AIDS!" and pours into the intersection. The demonstrators immediately are met by a wall of mounted police flanked by beat cops on foot. The horses snort and flinch and stamp their hooves on the pavement. Most of the crowd bleeds left and right, choosing not to confront the equine wall. Daniel Sotomayor, five foot six, 140 pounds, stands with his feet planted, his shoulder slamming into a chestnut mare. "Shame! Shame!" he screams, pointing his finger at the expressionless rider. Then he dodges around the horses and sprints down the street. Three of the police horses now have bright pink triangle stickers stuck squarely on their chests.

It's 36 hours before the demonstration, and Sotomayor is sitting cross-legged on the damp grass, huddled arm in arm with friends and wrapped in a sleeping bag against the chill night air. He's listening, head bowed, to a folksinger on the small stage a few yards away. The singer is strumming his guitar and singing a melancholy song about lost love. Silently, someone points into the night sky: a shooting star. And then the moment's over--shattered by the screaming siren and whirling lights of an ambulance approaching Cook County Hospital, across the street.

The hospital sits on Harrison Street like a crumbling relic, dwarfed by glass-and-stainless Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke's Medical Center to the east and squared off, bunkerlike, against the rush of commuters snaking west on the Eisenhower.

A steady stream of the city's indigent spins through the revolving doors into the hospital of last resort. A security guard slouches on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette and checking out the crowd that's gathered in the small public park across the street. "What's going on over there?" he asks. "A music festival?"

People are holding candles and sitting in small groups, or sprawled on the grass. A few are making out. The scene looks almost collegiate. It's not. It's an all-night vigil organized by ACT UP to dramatize Cook County's allegedly inadequate funding of the AIDS ward at the hospital, and the hospital's policy of not admitting women to the ward. Hundreds of gay activists have convened here from ACT UP chapters in 25 major cities. Their targets: allegedly discriminatory health insurance practices at Prudential Insurance, Aetna, and Mutual of New York, and unnecessarily restrictive treatment guidelines at the American Medical Association.

ACT UP is the shock brigade of gay activism, known for its outrageous--and often illegal--tactics and media-savvy demonstrations. ACT UP/New York members have disrupted high mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral to protest John Cardinal O'Connor's opposition to condoms and gay rights and chained themselves to the New York Stock Exchange to call attention to unnaturally expensive AIDS drugs. Last year, ACT UP/Chicago was busy as well. It zapped Governor James Thompson's AIDS advisory council members, showering 50,000 pink paper triangles on them from the balcony of the State of Illinois Center as they walked through the atrium. They badgered Lyphomed, the Deerfield-based distributor of an important AIDS drug, into providing the drug free for indigent PWAs (though the company has not yet followed through on its promise). They temporarily derailed the city's 1989 AIDS public-awareness campaign, calling it racist, dangerously ignorant, and homophobic. And now they organized this weekend-long National AIDS Action for Healthcare, the largest AIDS demonstration ever held in the midwest.

And at the center of ACT UP/Chicago is Daniel Sotomayor.

He, too, could sing sad songs. He has attended more than 20 funerals in the last two years. Ralph Hosmer, Sotomayor's onetime lover, is suffering from toxoplasmosis and cryptococcal meningitis, two common AIDS-related illnesses. A former college professor known for his eloquence and raunchy wit, Hosmer can no longer speak in anything but painful, raspy whispers; brain lesions have dulled his thoughts.

Sotomayor himself has AIDS. He was hospitalized for six weeks in the spring of 1988 with acute tuberculosis and Candida, a digestive-tract infection that had attacked Sotomayor's esophagus. He came very close to death, though friend and fellow ACT UP member Frank Sieple says, "I never really thought Danny might die. He's too mean to die." Indeed, after his doctors implanted a Hickman catheter in his chest to ease the injection of the countless drugs, Sotomayor had a fit and ordered the catheter removed. "Hickmans are dehumanizing," says Sotomayor. "Once they put one of those things in you, most people stop fighting. They think it's over. I would have ripped it out with my teeth."

Sotomayor hasn't been back in the hospital except for a week in November 1989, and though he should see the doctor every other week, he has tapered to monthly visits. "I forget to go," he says a little defensively. He swallows 25 pills a day--$700 worth of drugs each month--including INH (a tuberculosis medicine), vitamin B6, and fluconazole, and undergoes monthly treatments of aerosol pentamidine, a drug believed to ward off Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, or PCP, the dreaded killer of the majority of people with AIDS who have died. He also uses alternative treatments such as Chinese herbs and acupuncture to ease the tubercular ache in his lungs. He says he's feeling all right, though his T-cell count, a measure of the body's ability to fight off disease, is declining. A healthy person has a T-cell count of 800 to 1,500; Sotomayor's is 65.

"All the guys I've known who have died, sometimes I can see and hear them," Sotomayor says. "When I'm hurting or when I'm concerned about somebody who's sick, I try to recall them and ask for their guidance. I know they're helping me in some way. I trust that everything that's happening to me is happening because I'm ready for it. This is the right time for me."

Sotomayor is walking down Wabansia Avenue in Humboldt Park, on the west side. His old neighborhood. "Sometimes I wonder if ACT UP is what's keeping me alive," he says thoughtfully. Sotomayor helped found the Chicago group three years ago. "I wonder what would happen if I were to give up, if I stopped being really aggressive about things that I think are important," he continues. "I wonder when I'll stop living and start dying. Sure, I have AIDS, but I think we all make the decision to die. I just haven't made that decision yet."

Here amid the peeling paint, garbage-strewn gutters, and salsa-blaring Pontiacs, it would have been impossible to predict a life of such decisiveness. Sotomayor's mother had moved here from Texas and worked in a factory. His father was a Puerto Rican baker. Daniel was the middle child of five. And they all lived in a two-bedroom apartment facing Western Avenue.

"I remember my dad would go into these fits," Sotomayor recalls. "He'd rage around upstairs, bang the walls and throw things, and I'd run for the stairway--there was this great hiding place under the stairs. I would just stay under there holding my breath until he calmed down. Sometimes I was under there for hours." Sotomayor escaped the turmoil in his house by drawing pictures.

He still does. Sotomayor is the only openly gay syndicated political cartoonist in the United States. His regular weekly cartoons appear in Chicago's Windy City Times and in gay newspapers and magazines in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis. The cartoons are acerbic, sometimes bitter, and usually national in scope, with subjects ranging from Andy Rooney to Mike Royko to the Catholic church. Larry Kramer, the New York playwright credited with founding ACT UP in March 1987, has a Sotomayor cartoon hanging in his home.

"Danny fulfills a unique role in the gay community," says Jon-Henri Damski, a columnist for the Windy City Times and a 15-year observer of the city's gay community. "He has brains and talent and heart, but he also has all the anger of a person with a death sentence. He has a very short fuse--and I mean that in the sense that he produces a fantastic fireworks display. He spins and spins, throwing all those sparks, and we're all dazzled and a little afraid. But the thing about fireworks is that they never last long. Danny's job is to be very brilliant, very quickly. Other people will put out the fires."

And Sotomayor leaves plenty of scorched earth. He has more than his share of enemies--journalists, politicians, gay community leaders, and even other members of ACT UP who have found themselves in the hapless position of disagreeing with him. It's never easy. "What I do--what ACT UP does--isn't about negotiation," Sotomayor says. "There are already too many negotiators in the world. I'm about action--right now."

That's why he shouted down Mayor Daley at a press announcement of the 1989 AIDS public-awareness campaign, calling it "garbage." It's why ACT UP picketed Governor Thompson's Uptown residence, chanting, "Two, four, six, eight, what makes you think your governor's straight?" It's why Nancy Reiff, special assistant to Daley and the butt of one of Sotomayor's nastier cartoons, calls him "threatening." It's why Sotomayor has been arrested six times in three states. And it's why everything he does has an air of frantic urgency. His time is running out.

And pity those who move at a slower pace, whether Daley, Thompson, the Moody Church, the Chicago Transit Authority, the National Institutes of Health, or even ACT UP itself. During the last six months, Sotomayor's voice within the organization has gotten shriller, angrier, and more impatient, sometimes irritating or alienating those who work alongside him. "Danny can be a difficult personality," agrees Ferd Eggan, who, at 42 and after more than 20 years of political activism, is considered to be one of ACT UP's elder statesmen. "He's so angry, and he places such a low priority on tact and on dealing with the process of consensus. Sometimes that means that his behavior becomes more of an issue than it should, more of an issue even than what ACT UP is trying to accomplish as an organization."

"Bullshit," spits Sotomayor, his eyes flashing pure and furious. "This isn't a popularity contest, you know. I really don't care whether people like me, or whether they approve of my style or my methods. The question is whether I'm right and whether we're making progress. Because if we are, then fuck 'em.

"A few weeks ago a guy came up to me and said, 'Hey you ACT UP guys suck. If I get sick, I have my friends, I don't need the government to take care of me. I'm set.' And I thought, great. But I don't have that. Most of the people I know don't have that. The rich queers who have lots of stuff, lots of money, were always the good queers. And my friends, the ones who never had anything, we were always the bad queers. Well, now we're all in the same boat--we're all PWAs, and we're all disenfranchised. We're all bad queers."

Back at the demonstration, the bad queers aren't faring so well. Before the day is out, 129 protesters will be arrested. Six limp men wearing "bloody" surgical greens are dragged by police from the entrance of the American Medical Association at the corner of State and Grand. Fifteen more demonstrators are carried away from the headquarters of Mutual of New York at 333 W. Wacker, where they had sat down in a clump outside the entrance, locking their arms and legs together. Police use "pain compliance holds"--bending the protesters' thumbs and wrists back to cause excruciating pain--in order to separate the tangled block of activists. From the back of the crowd, other members of ACT UP squirt red paint at the police through syringes.

"Do you know how much I paid for this jacket?" one of the paint-splattered police would say later. "A hundred and thirty-eight bucks. And 45 for the pants and 40 for the shoes. And that's out of my own fuckin' pocket. No one's reimbursing me. So don't come crying about somebody getting their arm bent back. If you got one guy sitting on the ground who won't budge and you've got two or three decent-sized cops pulling on him, somebody's gonna get a little roughed up. And it isn't going to be me."

The police get rougher still as the march moves south down Clark Street. At the intersection of Clark and Randolph, a group of female ACT UP members throw into the street 15 mattresses they've been carrying, to symbolize the 15 beds in Cook County Hospital's AIDS ward that are empty due to lack of funding. Clearly irritated by the paint spraying and the protesters' persistence, police move in and arrest more than 80 protesters in less than an hour. The blind protester and his dog are led away. A young PWA from Long Island is tackled and held down by five police (he will later be hospitalized). The woman in the wheelchair is thrown to the ground.

And Sotomayor doesn't see any of this.

Shortly after the march moves past the AMA, Sotomayor and four compatriots quietly split off from the demonstration, fading into the crowd of pedestrians on Clark Street. They walk casually, spread far apart as if they don't know each other. Sotomayor pulls a shirt from the backpack slung over his shoulder. He changes it as he walks. He pauses at a bus stop in front of the Cook County Building, haggling with a guy on the street; Sotomayor tries to buy the man's Cubs cap to complete his disguise. And then, one by one, the five calmly spin through the revolving doors into the lobby of the building.

The march has reached its final destination--the block-long section of Clark Street between Daley Plaza and the County Building. The entrance to the building has been blockaded by orange Streets and Sanitation sawhorses and about a dozen police lined up shoulder to shoulder. The protesters have formed a picket and march back and forth in front of the rubber-gloved police. Their singsong chant: "Your gloves don't match your shoes, and you're on the evening news."

Then a commotion erupts. People back away from the building and look up. There, on a ledge 25 feet above the street, stand Sotomayor, Paul Adams, Tim Miller, Billy McMillan, and Frank Sieple. Two of them frantically try to tie an access window closed. The others unfurl a banner and drape it from the ledge. It reads, "We demand equal health care now!" The five on the ledge wave their fists in the air, shouting "Seize control! Seize control!" The crowd goes wild. The television cameras roll. Then three Cook County policemen crawl out the window onto the ledge. One by one, they scuffle with the young men and wrestle them through the open window. Sotomayor struggles hardest. As the police drag him by his feet across the ledge, he wraps his arms around the building's flagpole. He's stretched taut, grimacing. And then a silver-haired plainclothes policeman grips Sotomayor's head in the crook of his arm and twists. Sotomayor, too, disappears through the window.

Sotomayor spins to the music. His eyes are closed, his head thrown back in a laugh. His arms pump intently to the beat. He giggles and hoots, whirling and bouncing off his ACT UP friends. Here at Berlin, at the postdemonstration victory party, all things seem possible.

But Sotomayor shuffles to the side of the dance floor and stops. He pats his fist against his chest, clearing his throat and concentrating on some imaginary inner spot. He coughs gently, then deeply, then more deeply still. It's painful to watch. Someone in the crowd reaches out and wraps him tightly in his arms. They stand perfectly still until Sotomayor is quiet.

On the darkened dance floor, the black lights give the bruises on Sotomayor's neck and arms an eerie purple phosphorescence.

On Tuesday, August 7, 1990--11,292 days after he was born, 4,080 days after he first made love with a man, 876 days after he was diagnosed with AIDS, and 106 days after he stood triumphantly on the Cook County Building balcony--Daniel Sotomayor resigned from ACT UP.

Flanked by his longtime friends Lori Cannon and Paul Adams and accompanied by his lover, playwright Scott McPherson, Sotomayor stood before a hundred or so members of ACT UP at the group's regular weekly meeting and read from a prepared speech. "I look around this room and I see some people who were my friends, some people who still are my friends, and I also see one or two of my new enemies. It makes me sad to realize that all the Nancy Reiffs and our other foes in the community could not have done a better job at dividing us than we have done in ACT UP. . . . To those who will continue to work with ACT UP, I hope they will work for change--a change to better ACT UP."

What had happened to sour Chicago's most visible PWA on the group he helped found? Some say he was sick of the group's internecine skirmishes. Some say he disagreed with the political course charted by the group's new steering committee. Some say he was unable to accept that ACT UP was no longer his personal soapbox. Some say he was withering under increasingly widespread criticism of his behavior. Some say he was demoralized when a senior ACT UP member implied that AIDS was damaging his judgment. Some say he wanted to spend more time with McPherson. Some say he was simply tired.

Sotomayor, for his part, says, "I quit because I can no longer do the kind of AIDS work I want to do with the hostility that I feel within the group. People with AIDS are not setting the agenda of ACT UP. In fact, AIDS has become the fourth item on the ACT UP agenda, after racism, sexism, and gay and lesbian visibility. The group is being manipulated to suit the politics of a small group of people who don't even have AIDS. Part of my power within ACT UP was that I was speaking as a person with AIDS, with the power of genuine urgency. I still have that power, and I'll continue speaking out. But I have a limited time, and I'm not going to spend it battling people's personal agendas and fighting people who claim to be my friends.

"Nothing lasts forever," he continues. "Not me, and not ACT UP. In fact, I hope AIDS is cured forever so I never have to go out on another goddamned balcony. Fighting AIDS is not about climbing out on balconies. And that's the real tragedy of all this, because I think some people do think it's about street theater. But it's not--it's about helping people with AIDS. They're the only thing that's important in all this, and I know I haven't betrayed them."

Columnist Damski, who has presided over the rise and fall of more than a few leaders within Chicago's gay community, predicts that Sotomayor may only now be hitting his stride. "Danny never belonged in ACT UP, or in any organization, for that matter. He's too much of an individual, and ACT UP always felt it had to keep him on a leash because they were uncomfortable with his power. Well, now he's power unleashed."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.

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