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The Turbulent Times of a Gay Cartoonist

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Last November 1, Daniel Sotomayor flashed a Gay Chicago press card and made his way into a historic press conference: Mayor Daley's unveiling of the city's AIDS Strategic Plan.

Sotomayor came with a chip on his shoulder. One crucial part of the AIDS Plan, its educational ad campaign, had already been shown around. It made Sotomayor furious. Now here was the city screening the first batch of TV spots. Every time an actor intoned the catchphrase "I will not get AIDS" Sotomayor shouted, "How?" Sotomayor wanted the ads to spell it out--Use a condom! Use a latex condom!

Some gay reporters who were there wished he'd shut up.

Sotomayor rose to confront the mayor. "After Monday's press conference [held two days earlier], where over a half dozen--a dozen--AIDS groups, health providers, activists denounced your ad campaign as ineffective, misleading, why didn't you listen to them?" he demanded.

Nothing's written in stone, said the mayor.

Sotomayor called the campaign "garbage."

Experienced journalists know how to ask aggressive questions while signaling that it's nothing personal. But with Sotomayor it was totally personal. He kept sounding off, and at one point the exasperated mayor asked the young hothead: "Are you a journalist?"

"Yes," said Sotomayor.

Sotomayor's free-lance political cartoons were appearing almost every week in Gay Chicago, a featherweight entertainment guide. But Sotomayor, who's 31, has excellent reason not to limit his life to one thing at a time. And his belligerence was a mark of a different affiliation. Sotomayor belongs to ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. ACT UP is a national group that practices guerrilla politics; its passions are concentrated by the perception that time is short, that friends are dying all about, and that to a lumbering power structure AIDS remains largely an abstraction.

Daniel Sotomayor himself has AIDS.

The next day, Sotomayor led an ACT UP demonstration at City Hall and was arrested.

A few days later, Sotomayor submitted a brutal cartoon to Gay Chicago. The setting was a tired old sailing ship labeled "machine." He drew press secretary Avis LaVelle shoving a paper bag down over the head of Mayor Daley, who held in one hand a baby bottle and in the other an all-day sucker. Meanwhile, his special assistant Nancy Reiff, sword in hand, prepared to nudge Jon Simmons, the mayor's liaison to the gay and lesbian community, off a plank and into the sea.

This cartoon drew on several perceptions then current among gays. One was that Daley took his counsel on gay issues only from Reiff, a lesbian whose ties were to the gay community's old guard. Another was that Simmons would soon lose his job.

This was a most unlikely cartoon to run in Gay Chicago, where Reiff once worked, and in fact it didn't. Sotomayor says copublisher Dan Di Leo thought it was terrific, but Di Leo's partner Ralph Paul Gernhardt hated it. Sotomayor tells us, "Ralph said, 'I had a dream about this cartoon--that's how upset I am about it.'" Gernhardt argued that the cartoon didn't reflect reality--Simmons hadn't been fired (nor, as it happened, would he be).

Gernhardt finally told Sotomayor he was putting the cartoon "on hold." If Sotomayor could sell it somewhere else, he should go ahead.

What happened instead? "Somehow, mysteriously, it disappeared out of the cabinet where it was kept, and a few days later it showed up in a flier circulated in bars," Gernhardt says today. Furthermore, "it was mysteriously faxed to the mayor's office."

Gernhardt saw this as a "breach of trust." And coming on the heels of Sotomayor's antics at the mayor's press conference--which he'd attended with Gay Chicago credentials--"a very big breach of trust." And considered in light of a chronic problem with meeting deadlines, the Reiff-Simmons cartoon brought both partners to the same painful conclusion. Sotomayor must be punished.

Or so Gernhardt says. A lot of gays who knew Di Leo and are sympathetic to Sotomayor refuse to believe it.

But Gernhardt tells us that Di Leo agreed to deliver the bad news himself. Trouble is, the next day Di Leo entered the hospital. And on Thanksgiving Day he died from complications relating to AIDS.

Gernhardt remembers visiting Di Leo in the hospital a few days before his partner died. Gernhardt: "He said, how's the business? I said, the one thing you haven't resolved is the Danny Sotomayor thing. He said, well Ralph, you're going to have to handle that one for me.

"I came back and told the typesetter to remove Danny Sotomayor's name from the masthead."

Sotomayor had been appearing in Gay Chicago for the past year only because Di Leo admired his biting drawings. Gernhardt was against it. "We're an entertainment guide. We're not related to newspaper-type things," Gernhardt explains. (Gernhardt seems scarcely related to any of the keenly felt issues of the day. Take the AIDS Plan ad campaign. Weeks after City Hall yielded to gay criticism and withdrew the campaign, we asked Gernhardt for his own opinion of it. "I never even saw the ad campaign, so I couldn't make any comment," he said.)

Now it was time for Gernhardt to correct his partner's mistake. The Monday after Di Leo died, Sotomayor came into the office with a new cartoon. Sotomayor was feeling terrible. Di Leo had been his friend, his mentor. Sotomayor tells us that Di Leo's last words to him, spoken the day before Di Leo went on morphine drip and three days before he died, were not "You're through." They were, "Give 'em hell, Dan. I'm on your side."

Should Gernhardt have waited a few days longer to give Sotomayor the bad news? At least until after the funeral service? Perhaps human decency points in that direction. On the other hand, the new issue of Gay Chicago would be out the next day, with Sotomayor's name purged from the list of contributors.

So Gernhardt took Sotomayor aside. You're suspended, Gernhardt said. Why? said Sotomayor. Gernhardt stated his reasons. Dan Di Leo and I agreed about this, said Gernhardt, even though he's not around to say so.

Then Sotomayor handed Gernhardt the cartoon he had brought in. It was, of course, a tribute to Dan Di Leo. "It was a very good cartoon," says Gernhardt. "I asked whether I could purchase it from him. He gave it to me. It's framed on one of our walls."

You just gave it to him? we asked Sotomayor. "He said, 'Name your price,'" Sotomayor remembers. "They'd just fired me. Dan was dead. I just didn't feel like negotiating. So I said if you want it you can have it. I saw him go over and whisper something to [general manager] Jerry Williams." Williams was writing Sotomayor's last check, and Sotomayor assumed they would fatten it with something extra for the drawing. "But they didn't. It was just my regular check."

Relations between City Hall and the gay community were in a state of serious disrepair at this time, and on November 29 Daley invited several gay journalists into his office to talk things over. When Sotomayor's name came up, Gernhardt informed the mayor that he'd taken measures.

"I brought the subject up," says Gernhardt, "because this followed right on the heels of the rather inaccurate cartoon that had been circulated by flier that I thought was detrimental to Nancy Reiff. I did this by way of apology to the office of the mayor. And I was very upset with Daniel Sotomayor for having used the name of my magazine to get into a press conference the mayor was holding and subsequently speak out as a member of ACT UP. What I said to the mayor was my way of saying Gay Chicago was not going to have any part of those kinds of tactics."

A tape was made of this session, and it circulated to Paul Adams, a onetime Mr. Windy City turned Gay Chicago columnist. Adams was so disgusted that he wrote a column announcing that "in solidarity with Daniel Sotomayor" he was resigning from Gay Chicago.

Sotomayor was slower to react. After he was suspended he went into the hospital for several days. But once he'd regained some of his strength, Sotomayor struck back.

Late last month, a new flier titled "Bert & Ernie's News" (after "the only gay couple on national TV") mysteriously showed up stuffed inside about 5,000 copies of Gay Chicago--"a terrorist-tactic-type thing," says Gernhardt, "it reeks of Ku Klux Klan operations."

The flier is dominated by a new Sotomayor cartoon. It offers us a stooping Mayor Daley, his pants pulled down, his haunches high, and a beaming Ralph Paul Gernhardt, on hands and knees, who has just planted a wet one on Daley's rump. A little bug on the floor points Gernhardt's way and says, "He can't fire someone on his own!" and a second bug replies, "Yeah, he makes a dead man do it!"

So Sotomayor could still dish it out. But as his friends knew, he was really in quite a bad way. No money was coming in, and he wasn't well.

So we are pleased to report that next Friday Sotomayor begins appearing weekly in the Windy City Times. "I think he's the most talented cartoonist working in the gay media," publisher Jeff McCourt told us. "He has a very exact eye for detail and he also has a nice sardonic sense."

WCT is a serious paper, and McCourt is a cautious man. Would you have published the Reiff-Simmons cartoon? we asked him. No, he said. "There's no specific reality behind it." Will you give Sotomayor a press card? No, said McCourt. And to make it clear Sotomayor is speaking for himself, not WCT, McCourt intends to run him with the classifieds.

"It's not exactly where I want to be," says Sotomayor. "But if that's the compromise then I'm happy to be published weekly."

Are you strong enough to keep drawing? we wondered.

"That's been kind of a problem, actually, my stamina," he conceded. "I do one, sometimes two cartoons a week. And that's about it for me."

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