The Final Secret of David Wojnarowicz
NYU’s Bobst Library is an empty cavern where fluorescent lights hang down like stalactites and lone students wing through the stacks like bats. My ears are straining to catch some sign of life when I hear the squawk of a recalcitrant brake as the librarian wheels a metal book cart my way. If my soul could salivate, I’d go wet inside. Saints’ relics, the shirt off Justin Bieber’s back, lost tapes showing what really happened that day in Dallas—I couldn’t give two shits about those curios. I’m about to hold David Wojnarowicz’s final secret: the Magic Box. 
Through his art, Wojnarowicz gave voice to the unspeakable, be it the banal brutality of the suburbs, the roaring horror of AIDS, or the beauty of two faggots fucking on an abandoned pier in downtown Manhattan—all subjects he came by honestly. His father was violently abusive, alcoholic, and eventually killed himself; his mother was often absent and rarely parental. By the time he was a teenager, Wojnarowicz was hustling among the junkies and pimps in pre-Disney Times Square. Yet like an alchemist, he somehow distilled shit into gold, turning a painful childhood into powerful, layered artwork that was at once raw and intensely structured. His paintings, essays, and installations graced everything from the 1985 Whitney Biennial to ACT UP protest signs. If playwright Larry Kramer was the conscience of 1980s queer America, Wojnarowicz was the id—full of rage and lust, love and fear.
And he understood that that rage could be his weapon. In his essay “Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-Inch-Tall Politician,” Wojnarowicz wrote that “to speak about the once unspeakable can make the INVISIBLE familiar if repeated often enough in clear and loud tones.” This was his central project, his central problem: how to make legible the queer outline of his life, which America would have rather seen destroyed, or, failing that, kept silent. Wojnarowicz believed that this articulation had the power to “shake the boundaries of the illusion of the ONE-TRIBE NATION,” his dismissive term for the false sense of shared experience that was at the heart of every two-and-a-half-child, three-car-garage, prefab, Norman Rockwell–style American dream. It was all part of the “pre-invented world”—the shit we are handed at birth, like language and capitalism—which was built to serve the needs of those in power and which Wojnarowicz rejected vocally and often.
Continue

The Final Secret of David Wojnarowicz

NYU’s Bobst Library is an empty cavern where fluorescent lights hang down like stalactites and lone students wing through the stacks like bats. My ears are straining to catch some sign of life when I hear the squawk of a recalcitrant brake as the librarian wheels a metal book cart my way. If my soul could salivate, I’d go wet inside. Saints’ relics, the shirt off Justin Bieber’s back, lost tapes showing what really happened that day in Dallas—I couldn’t give two shits about those curios. I’m about to hold David Wojnarowicz’s final secret: the Magic Box. 

Through his art, Wojnarowicz gave voice to the unspeakable, be it the banal brutality of the suburbs, the roaring horror of AIDS, or the beauty of two faggots fucking on an abandoned pier in downtown Manhattan—all subjects he came by honestly. His father was violently abusive, alcoholic, and eventually killed himself; his mother was often absent and rarely parental. By the time he was a teenager, Wojnarowicz was hustling among the junkies and pimps in pre-Disney Times Square. Yet like an alchemist, he somehow distilled shit into gold, turning a painful childhood into powerful, layered artwork that was at once raw and intensely structured. His paintings, essays, and installations graced everything from the 1985 Whitney Biennial to ACT UP protest signs. If playwright Larry Kramer was the conscience of 1980s queer America, Wojnarowicz was the id—full of rage and lust, love and fear.

And he understood that that rage could be his weapon. In his essay “Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-Inch-Tall Politician,” Wojnarowicz wrote that “to speak about the once unspeakable can make the INVISIBLE familiar if repeated often enough in clear and loud tones.” This was his central project, his central problem: how to make legible the queer outline of his life, which America would have rather seen destroyed, or, failing that, kept silent. Wojnarowicz believed that this articulation had the power to “shake the boundaries of the illusion of the ONE-TRIBE NATION,” his dismissive term for the false sense of shared experience that was at the heart of every two-and-a-half-child, three-car-garage, prefab, Norman Rockwell–style American dream. It was all part of the “pre-invented world”—the shit we are handed at birth, like language and capitalism—which was built to serve the needs of those in power and which Wojnarowicz rejected vocally and often.

Continue

Getting High on HIV Medication

In 1998, the antiretroviral drug efavirenz was approved for treatment of HIV infection. Though the drug was highly effective, patients soon began to report bizarre dreams, hallucinations, and feelings of unreality. When South African tabloids started to run stories of efavirenz-motivated rapes and robberies, scientists began to seriously study how efavirenz might produce these unexpected hallucinogenic effects. 

Hamilton Morris travels to South Africa to interview efavirenz users and dealers and study how the life-saving medicine became part of a dangerous cocktail called “nyaope.”

Getting High on HIV Medication
In 1998, the antiretroviral drug efavirenz was approved for treatment of HIV infection. Though the drug was highly effective, patients soon began to report bizarre dreams, hallucinations, and feelings of unreality. When South African tabloids started to run stories of efavirenz-motivated rapes and robberies, scientists began to seriously study how efavirenz might produce these unexpected hallucinogenic effects. 

Hamilton Morris travels to South Africa to interview efavirenz users and dealers and study how the life-saving medicine became part of a dangerous cocktail called “nyaope.”
Watch Part 1

Getting High on HIV Medication

In 1998, the antiretroviral drug efavirenz was approved for treatment of HIV infection. Though the drug was highly effective, patients soon began to report bizarre dreams, hallucinations, and feelings of unreality. When South African tabloids started to run stories of efavirenz-motivated rapes and robberies, scientists began to seriously study how efavirenz might produce these unexpected hallucinogenic effects. 

Hamilton Morris travels to South Africa to interview efavirenz users and dealers and study how the life-saving medicine became part of a dangerous cocktail called “nyaope.”

Watch Part 1

This Death Row Inmate Is Dying to Donate His Organs
In 2001 Christian Longo killed his wife and his three young children and fled to Mexico. Once he was brought back to the US, he was convicted of those murders and placed on Oregon’s Death Row, where he has resided since 2003. He was once on the FBI’s top-ten most wanted list, and James Franco is even going to play him in an upcoming movie.
Christian, now 40 and still in jail, is turning a new leaf. In an effort to give back to his community, he has decided to donate his organs upon his inevitable execution. The only problem is, due to the lack of an efficient prisoner donation protocol, he pretty much can’t. Chris is even willing to forgo all appeals of his death sentence if he can donate his organs upon his execution. Still, he’s been denied.
Through his Gifts of Anatomical Value from Everyone (G.A.V.E) organization, Chris is looking to change that. The mission of G.A.V.E is to remove the medical and ethical issues involved with prisoner organ and tissue donation and gain approval for some of the 2 million incarcerated individuals to donate. If successful, the organization will substantially reduce the number of people on waiting lists for organ and tissue donation (which is more than 121,000, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network).
I recently conducted an email interview with Longo about how he came to found G.A.V.E, the work his organization is doing, and the impact prisoner donation could have if certain ethical and political barriers were removed.

Image via FBI
VICE: What piqued your interest in prisoner organ donation?Christian Longo: After watching a friend increasingly suffer from a degenerative disorder called scleroderma, it became apparent she would eventually need a kidney transplant. After being told by my prison system that consideration may only be given for donations to immediate family, I put together a proposal for my unique circumstances as a death row inmate. I offered to end my remaining appeals and face execution if my healthy body parts were able to be donated to those in need. My request was denied.
How surprising was it to find out you couldn’t donate?It was a Spockian “that’s illogical” moment followed by a fear that someone I cared about might not be able to find a suitable donor… which pissed me off.
Continue

This Death Row Inmate Is Dying to Donate His Organs

In 2001 Christian Longo killed his wife and his three young children and fled to Mexico. Once he was brought back to the US, he was convicted of those murders and placed on Oregon’s Death Row, where he has resided since 2003. He was once on the FBI’s top-ten most wanted list, and James Franco is even going to play him in an upcoming movie.

Christian, now 40 and still in jail, is turning a new leaf. In an effort to give back to his community, he has decided to donate his organs upon his inevitable execution. The only problem is, due to the lack of an efficient prisoner donation protocol, he pretty much can’t. Chris is even willing to forgo all appeals of his death sentence if he can donate his organs upon his execution. Still, he’s been denied.

Through his Gifts of Anatomical Value from Everyone (G.A.V.E) organization, Chris is looking to change that. The mission of G.A.V.E is to remove the medical and ethical issues involved with prisoner organ and tissue donation and gain approval for some of the 2 million incarcerated individuals to donate. If successful, the organization will substantially reduce the number of people on waiting lists for organ and tissue donation (which is more than 121,000, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network).

I recently conducted an email interview with Longo about how he came to found G.A.V.E, the work his organization is doing, and the impact prisoner donation could have if certain ethical and political barriers were removed.

Image via FBI

VICE: What piqued your interest in prisoner organ donation?
Christian Longo: After watching a friend increasingly suffer from a degenerative disorder called scleroderma, it became apparent she would eventually need a kidney transplant. After being told by my prison system that consideration may only be given for donations to immediate family, I put together a proposal for my unique circumstances as a death row inmate. I offered to end my remaining appeals and face execution if my healthy body parts were able to be donated to those in need. My request was denied.

How surprising was it to find out you couldn’t donate?
It was a Spockian “that’s illogical” moment followed by a fear that someone I cared about might not be able to find a suitable donor… which pissed me off.

Continue

Stoya on Condoms in Porn
Harm reduction strategies are meant to reduce the harm associated with certain activities through education, illness prevention, and treatment. The adult industry’s system of regular STI testing and exposure tracking protocol is one such method of harm reduction. I would argue that the laws and rules associated with driving are also a kind of harm reduction. In the case of roads, two-ton vehicles are rocketing around at speeds faster than the most exceptional horse could ever hope to reach. Requiring drivers to follow speed limits, stick to established traffic patterns, and communicate with each other using turn signals and brake lights reduces the likelihood of one crashing into another. However, as long as human and mechanical error exist, the roads will never be completely safe.In the case of adult films, people are engaging in exhibitionistic sex for public viewing pleasure. These sex acts are generally longer in duration and more theatrical in content than the average sex act. Recreational sex and professional sex in front of cameras both involve a certain level of risk, and those of us who engage in professional sex in front of cameras take precautions to lessen the potential for harm at work. Every time that a hole in our precautions is exposed, we look for ways to further lessen the risk. As with cars, as long as human and mechanical error exist, sex will never be completely safe.
Continue

Stoya on Condoms in Porn

Harm reduction strategies are meant to reduce the harm associated with certain activities through education, illness prevention, and treatment. The adult industry’s system of regular STI testing and exposure tracking protocol is one such method of harm reduction. I would argue that the laws and rules associated with driving are also a kind of harm reduction. In the case of roads, two-ton vehicles are rocketing around at speeds faster than the most exceptional horse could ever hope to reach. Requiring drivers to follow speed limits, stick to established traffic patterns, and communicate with each other using turn signals and brake lights reduces the likelihood of one crashing into another. However, as long as human and mechanical error exist, the roads will never be completely safe.

In the case of adult films, people are engaging in exhibitionistic sex for public viewing pleasure. These sex acts are generally longer in duration and more theatrical in content than the average sex act. Recreational sex and professional sex in front of cameras both involve a certain level of risk, and those of us who engage in professional sex in front of cameras take precautions to lessen the potential for harm at work. Every time that a hole in our precautions is exposed, we look for ways to further lessen the risk. As with cars, as long as human and mechanical error exist, sex will never be completely safe.

Continue

Stoya on HIV Transmission in Pornography
Last year, when the AIDS Healthcare Federation (AHF) poked their heads into pornography and started the initial push for Measure B, a rarely enforced law that requires condoms to be used in pornography produced in Los Angeles County, high-minded reformers like AHF president Michael Weinstein seemed to have an obvious misunderstanding of how porn works. Like Marie Antoinette’s debunked “Let them eat cake” quip, Weinstein’s “Make them wear condoms” solution to the potential spread of STIs in the business was misguided at best. Weinstein—who I like to imagine wearing an intricate ball gown and a towering wig—doesn’t understand the comparative rigor that professionally produced sex scenes entail. The risk of sexually transmitted infections can’t be neatly solved by a few pieces of latex, in pornography or out of it. 
Last week’s news that an adult performer named Cameron Bay tested positive for HIV has brought concern over porn practices back to mainstream attention, but you know what no one is talking about? The heterosexual end of the adult industry has not had a single case of performer-to-performer HIV transmission since 2004. In the few cases since 2004 where an adult performer has tested positive for HIV, porn performers’ self-imposed screening process overseen by the Free Speech Coalition, a nonprofit trade organization, has worked. While incredibly frequent testing has not prevented the rare occasion when a performer has acquired HIV offset, it has successfully prevented them from continuing to perform in sex scenes for long enough to pass HIV on to other performers.
Continue

Stoya on HIV Transmission in Pornography

Last year, when the AIDS Healthcare Federation (AHF) poked their heads into pornography and started the initial push for Measure B, a rarely enforced law that requires condoms to be used in pornography produced in Los Angeles County, high-minded reformers like AHF president Michael Weinstein seemed to have an obvious misunderstanding of how porn works. Like Marie Antoinette’s debunked “Let them eat cake” quip, Weinstein’s “Make them wear condoms” solution to the potential spread of STIs in the business was misguided at best. Weinstein—who I like to imagine wearing an intricate ball gown and a towering wig—doesn’t understand the comparative rigor that professionally produced sex scenes entail. The risk of sexually transmitted infections can’t be neatly solved by a few pieces of latex, in pornography or out of it. 

Last week’s news that an adult performer named Cameron Bay tested positive for HIV has brought concern over porn practices back to mainstream attention, but you know what no one is talking about? The heterosexual end of the adult industry has not had a single case of performer-to-performer HIV transmission since 2004. In the few cases since 2004 where an adult performer has tested positive for HIV, porn performers’ self-imposed screening process overseen by the Free Speech Coalition, a nonprofit trade organization, has worked. While incredibly frequent testing has not prevented the rare occasion when a performer has acquired HIV offset, it has successfully prevented them from continuing to perform in sex scenes for long enough to pass HIV on to other performers.

Continue

Tom Bianchi Photographed His Gay Paradise Before It Disappeared Forever
Close your eyes for a second and imagine you are at the party of your dreams. Everyone you love and are infatuated with is around you, the music you loved in your teens is playing, and bad trips are not a concept. You dance and you love and you spin and you love some more, and then all of your friends die.
I know it’s harsh, but it’s also sort of what happened to Tom Bianchi in the early 1980s, with the onset of AIDS. It’s also the subject of his latest book, Fire Island Pines - Polaroids 1975-1983—a selection of photos taken in a small part of Long Island called the Pines, that functioned as a kind of IRL utopia for a large community of incredibly beautiful and charismatic gay men in the 1970s.
Tom’s name, by the way, is one of those you should know, because he’s been integral in making the world you live in a nicer place than how you found it. You see Bianchi—who, in the early 70s, also worked as a lawyer in New York and Washington, DC—has spent most of his life fighting AIDS and weird heterosexual attitudes toward gay culture. He is the co-founder of a biotech company researching AIDS medication and, if he feels like it, he can also boast a long catalogue of incredibly affectionate photography, poetry, and video work.
With the release of his new book as an excuse, I called Tom up to talk desire and grow up a little.
VICE: Hi Tom, how are you today?Tom Bianchi: I’m very good, I just had a lovely breakfast out by the swimming pool. I’m ready to go today.OK, let’s do it. Shall we start by telling the story of how this book came to be?Growing up and coming out in Middle America, you had to imagine a world very different to the one you were living in. The world we were living in disregarded us and called us perverts. So the brilliance of Fire Island was that it was built by those people who imagined a different world and set out to create it. We carved out the tiniest little place just for ourselves, where we could be safe and laugh and play with one another on the beach, and not have any negative judgement surrounding us. What that did was attract the best and the brightest gays from all over America—particularly because of its proximity to New York, which was the centre of so much culture, fashion, style, and even film. It was a very glamorous time.
Was the creation of this neighborhood planned or circumstantial?The island is a 36 mile-long barrier a few miles off the Long Island coast, separated into small communities by extended open sand dunes. The Pines, which is one of these little villages, is a mile-long grid of boardwalks connecting about 600 houses built on telephone pole stilts sunk into the sand. Back then, some real-estate guys got to building on this virgin terrace, and it just so happened that the place began to attract bohemian New Yorkers; writers and artists would come out and live in little shacks. It wasn’t intended for the gay community, but it made sense when it formed to be a home for it.
And you happened to be there with a fancy, new Polaroid camera, too.I was a lawyer at Columbia Pictures at the time. At an executive conference in Miami, we were given an SX-70 Polaroid camera. It was this little plastic thing, which I took to Fire Island a little while later and started taking pictures of my friends. At the time, a lot of people were still in the closet so, as you can understand, they were extremely wary of having their picture taken. So, the important thing about this camera was that it allowed me to take the picture and a few minutes later put it out on the table for people to take a look. It made everyone immediately more comfortable and I very quickly formed the intention to show the world what a cool, amazing place the capital of Queerdom was. Or the provincial part of it [laughs].
Continue

Tom Bianchi Photographed His Gay Paradise Before It Disappeared Forever

Close your eyes for a second and imagine you are at the party of your dreams. Everyone you love and are infatuated with is around you, the music you loved in your teens is playing, and bad trips are not a concept. You dance and you love and you spin and you love some more, and then all of your friends die.

I know it’s harsh, but it’s also sort of what happened to Tom Bianchi in the early 1980s, with the onset of AIDS. It’s also the subject of his latest book, Fire Island Pines - Polaroids 1975-1983—a selection of photos taken in a small part of Long Island called the Pines, that functioned as a kind of IRL utopia for a large community of incredibly beautiful and charismatic gay men in the 1970s.

Tom’s name, by the way, is one of those you should know, because he’s been integral in making the world you live in a nicer place than how you found it. You see Bianchi—who, in the early 70s, also worked as a lawyer in New York and Washington, DC—has spent most of his life fighting AIDS and weird heterosexual attitudes toward gay culture. He is the co-founder of a biotech company researching AIDS medication and, if he feels like it, he can also boast a long catalogue of incredibly affectionate photography, poetry, and video work.

With the release of his new book as an excuse, I called Tom up to talk desire and grow up a little.

VICE: Hi Tom, how are you today?
Tom Bianchi: 
I’m very good, I just had a lovely breakfast out by the swimming pool. I’m ready to go today.

OK, let’s do it. Shall we start by telling the story of how this book came to be?
Growing up and coming out in Middle America, you had to imagine a world very different to the one you were living in. The world we were living in disregarded us and called us perverts. So the brilliance of Fire Island was that it was built by those people who imagined a different world and set out to create it. We carved out the tiniest little place just for ourselves, where we could be safe and laugh and play with one another on the beach, and not have any negative judgement surrounding us. What that did was attract the best and the brightest gays from all over America—particularly because of its proximity to New York, which was the centre of so much culture, fashion, style, and even film. It was a very glamorous time.



Was the creation of this neighborhood planned or circumstantial?
The island is a 36 mile-long barrier a few miles off the Long Island coast, separated into small communities by extended open sand dunes. The Pines, which is one of these little villages, is a mile-long grid of boardwalks connecting about 600 houses built on telephone pole stilts sunk into the sand. Back then, some real-estate guys got to building on this virgin terrace, and it just so happened that the place began to attract bohemian New Yorkers; writers and artists would come out and live in little shacks. It wasn’t intended for the gay community, but it made sense when it formed to be a home for it.

And you happened to be there with a fancy, new Polaroid camera, too.
I was a lawyer at Columbia Pictures at the time. At an executive conference in Miami, we were given an SX-70 Polaroid camera. It was this little plastic thing, which I took to Fire Island a little while later and started taking pictures of my friends. At the time, a lot of people were still in the closet so, as you can understand, they were extremely wary of having their picture taken. So, the important thing about this camera was that it allowed me to take the picture and a few minutes later put it out on the table for people to take a look. It made everyone immediately more comfortable and I very quickly formed the intention to show the world what a cool, amazing place the capital of Queerdom was. Or the provincial part of it [laughs].

Continue

West African Truckers

The truck driver holds a mythic stature in American music, from the hayseed hagiographies of Slim Jacobs and Bobby Sykes to the liner notes of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking. There aren’t as many country songs about African truckers, but they are no less the virile champions of industry and gluteal fortitude than their US counterparts. On their backs rest the burden of an entire continent’s economic development and through their bloodstreams runs a hell of a lot of the continent’s HIV.

Trade in West Africa is perennially fucked, partially because the colonial powers of the 19th and early-20th centuries chopped the place up into a pizza pie of nonsensical borders, but also because most postcolonial governments in the region were so unabashedly corrupt we had to coin the term kleptocracy to describe them. Driving a semi full of margarine a US state’s length to its delivery point often involves passing through three or four separate countries and navigating the byzantine customs and immigration processes at each port of entry. Then there are the internal checkpoints manned by local police and customs agents on the lookout for smugglers, or nonsmugglers who can be intimidated into coughing up a bribe. Then there’s just fuckers who’ll pull you over and straight-up rob you. Infrastructure ain’t always so hot here, either.

All of which turns shipments that would take a few hours in Europe or America into grueling, day-cum-week-cum-month-long affairs punctuated by long and unpredictable periods of complete standstill. Which, in addition to wasting fuel and driving up the cost of goods with every unplanned stop, also fuels the sort of boredom that can only be fought by dumping money into the less savory sectors of the economy. Namely booze sales and roadside prostitution. Which is where the AIDS comes in.

Intrigued by the African long-haul trucker’s dual reputation as the foundational building block of West Africa’s would-be robust economy and lotharious Johnny AIDS-leseed, we hitched a ride with a trailer full of soap to see just how hard it is to get from point A to point basically A and a half.

(Source: Vice Magazine)

Beauty and the Plague: The AIDS Tragedy Behind Your Favorite Disney Love Songs
Above: Howard Ashman in 1977. Archival photos courtesy of Kyle Rennick.
The first week of November 1989, filmmakers and executives from the Walt Disney Company gathered in a crowded room in Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to promote their latest cartoon to a group of pessimistic reporters. The press had reason to be skeptical: after two decades of critical and commercial flops following the death of its founder, Disney was bordering on bankruptcy, and the company’s new CEO, Michael Eisner, had threatened to shut down the animation unit unless The Little Mermaid, its fall 1989 release, turned a profit.
As you probably know, they didn’t need to worry. The film was a huge hit, at least partly on the strength of its soundtrack. The New York Times praised the film’s music, and the movie won Oscars and Golden Globes for Best Song (“Under the Sea”) and Best Score. Two decades after the its release, Disney World remodeled Fantasyland to create an entire section devoted to Mermaid. But back then in the crowded conference room, nobody knew this. The room was grim, and for good reason—if the filmed flopped, their careers might follow.  
The panel that sat in front of the press that day included Ron Clements and John Musker, the geeky animation-directing team whose last film, The Great Mouse Detective, had performed reasonably well but not well enough for Eisner’s taste; Jodi Benson, the Broadway veteran who voiced Ariel; and Alan Menken, a composer from Westchester, New York. In this crowd, the last member of the panel, Alan’s collaborator lyricist Howard Ashman, stood out like a sore, sickly thumb.
Skeletally thin and speaking in a soft but firm voice, Howard looked worn-out and effeminate, more like one of the gay men you’d see drifting around New York’s Lower East Side than someone who made family movies. He spoke with passion about Disney’s rich musical history, but after the panel, it was clear something was wrong. After the press conference, when the attendees adjourned to try out some of the park’s attractions, Howardlimped up the Dumbo ride’s ramp and had to call for his boyfriend, Bill Klaus, to assist him. Once Howard reached his Disney associates, he rode Dumbo, smiling like he was just another Hollywood native touring Disney World. As usual, he was doing the best he could to ignore that he was dying of AIDS.
“He was completely focused and energy driven,” Jodi recalled to me 23 years later. She didn’t realize the extent of his illness until 1991: “I got the call to fly to New York City from Los Angeles. When I arrived, I was able to visit him in his room as he was listening to auditions for the voice of Aladdin. Then it really hit me: This was very serious.”
Continue

Beauty and the Plague: The AIDS Tragedy Behind Your Favorite Disney Love Songs

Above: Howard Ashman in 1977. Archival photos courtesy of Kyle Rennick.

The first week of November 1989, filmmakers and executives from the Walt Disney Company gathered in a crowded room in Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to promote their latest cartoon to a group of pessimistic reporters. The press had reason to be skeptical: after two decades of critical and commercial flops following the death of its founder, Disney was bordering on bankruptcy, and the company’s new CEO, Michael Eisner, had threatened to shut down the animation unit unless The Little Mermaid, its fall 1989 release, turned a profit.

As you probably know, they didn’t need to worry. The film was a huge hit, at least partly on the strength of its soundtrack. The New York Times praised the film’s music, and the movie won Oscars and Golden Globes for Best Song (“Under the Sea”) and Best Score. Two decades after the its release, Disney World remodeled Fantasyland to create an entire section devoted to Mermaid. But back then in the crowded conference room, nobody knew this. The room was grim, and for good reason—if the filmed flopped, their careers might follow.  

The panel that sat in front of the press that day included Ron Clements and John Musker, the geeky animation-directing team whose last film, The Great Mouse Detective, had performed reasonably well but not well enough for Eisner’s taste; Jodi Benson, the Broadway veteran who voiced Ariel; and Alan Menken, a composer from Westchester, New York. In this crowd, the last member of the panel, Alan’s collaborator lyricist Howard Ashman, stood out like a sore, sickly thumb.

Skeletally thin and speaking in a soft but firm voice, Howard looked worn-out and effeminate, more like one of the gay men you’d see drifting around New York’s Lower East Side than someone who made family movies. He spoke with passion about Disney’s rich musical history, but after the panel, it was clear something was wrong. After the press conference, when the attendees adjourned to try out some of the park’s attractions, Howardlimped up the Dumbo ride’s ramp and had to call for his boyfriend, Bill Klaus, to assist him. Once Howard reached his Disney associates, he rode Dumbo, smiling like he was just another Hollywood native touring Disney World. As usual, he was doing the best he could to ignore that he was dying of AIDS.

“He was completely focused and energy driven,” Jodi recalled to me 23 years later. She didn’t realize the extent of his illness until 1991: “I got the call to fly to New York City from Los Angeles. When I arrived, I was able to visit him in his room as he was listening to auditions for the voice of Aladdin. Then it really hit me: This was very serious.”

Continue

How Mitt Romney’s potential repeal of Obamacare would affect the future of HIV/AIDS care

How Mitt Romney’s potential repeal of Obamacare would affect the future of HIV/AIDS care

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