“Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS” by Martin Duberman

What a powerful book to read on World Aids Day.

We’re nowhere near realizing the psychological devastation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Martin Duberman’s page-turning history, “Hold Tight Gently,” is a bright, blistering account of the on-going epidemic of ignorance around the virus. Duberman focuses on two visionary leaders who illustrate inequities in HIV/AIDS treatment across race, class, and sexuality. Essex Hemphill lived in DC as a Black poet. Michael Callen was a White NYC-based singer. Neither met in person, yet their temperaments – fiercely alive, resistant to dogma, showing a preference for long-lasting change over momentary popularity – united them in fighting for their communities. Their stories are often funny, tender, sexy, outrageous, noble, shocking, cruel, joyous.

This book is full of astonishments. I was shocked to learn that Bactrim, which prevented pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) – a leading cause of death for those with AIDS – was available in generic form as early as 1981, but did not receive CDC approval for treating people with AIDS until 1988. In that interval, more than 30,000 Americans died of a preventable disease. Callen attributed his relatively long survival rate to the fact that his doctor, Joe Sonnabend, had prescribed Bactrim early on. Sonnabed described the CDC and NIH’s 7yr delay in recommending PCP as “a glaring example of a discriminatory response — that is, its selective denial to gay people… of the brutal indifference of federal health officials.” Against this homophobic malice, communities arranged for their own clinical trials, private fundraisers, and community education events for safe sex. 

Something I’ll always take with me is how Essex signed off his letters — “Take care of your blessings.” He later explained: “Some of us bake wonderfully, write, paint, do any number of things, have facilities with numbers that others don’t have. Those are your blessings. Some of us are very strong and candid and some of us are nurturers or combinations of all of those things. Just be aware of what your particular things are and nurture them and use them toward a positive way of living.” 

Michael and Essex passed at 38. This book is a beautiful ode to their work and a call to value the 40 million people globally who have died of AIDS.

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