A Voice For The Fallen
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. He was there when cops beat protesters who were marching down South Broad Street in 1991, after the coffin they were using as a prop fell to the ground, sending ash into the air and igniting a scuffle. He's successfully lobbied City Hall for needle-exchange programs, Harrisburg for funding for gay rights groups, and the Philadelphia School District for condom distribution. He's protested pharmaceutical companies and federal regulators, whose rules slowed the approval and distribution of HIV/AIDS drugs.
"He's shameless, in a good way," says Bill Heinzen, a New York attorney who spent much of the 1990s here making common cause with Bartlett. "The first time I saw him, he was standing in front of 1,000 people at a demonstration near City Hall, showing how to put a condom on with just your mouth."
Dressed in a tan suit jacket and blue corduroy pants, Bartlett finishes his lunch and speaks over the din of chatting tourists and bustling office workers escaping their Center City cubicles. He talks with purpose, but that's not the man many of those who know him best describe. They better recognize the man who burst into his best Ethel Merman after making a presentation for Ignite Philly 4 at Johnny Brenda's in October.
But he's all business now, as he finishes the last bite of his lunch, leans back and tries to remember all of his friends, scores of them, who died of AIDS-related illnesses in the 1980s and '90s.
"I counted once, maybe 35 people I was close with," Bartlett says. "And that number is low, compared to others I know."
Since the first Philadelphia AIDS case was diagnosed in 1981, some 4,600 of the city's gay men have been wiped out by the disease. Men like Dominic Bash, a Kensington drag queen who flamboyantly led gay-pride parades down to Penn's Landing in the years leading up to his death in 1993. Or Kiyoshi Kuromiya, an assistant to Martin Luther King Jr., who passed away in 2000. Or Antonio Gerena, a mainstay of Bain's Deli at the Bellevue Stratford, who died in 1990.
Or John Kelly.
"John Kelly was this campy Philadelphia gay guy. He was like an older brother, someone I modeled myself after," Bartlett says. "He taught me the power of the fierce sissy. Effeminate guys have to defend themselves their entire lives, from bullies and, for a long time, from a world that wasn't accepting. We may not fight like another guy would, but you don't want to fuck with a sissy."
Bartlett stops. He leans back in his silver chair, his tan suit jacket bunched up and his eyes watering slightly. "Having a moment of feeling," he says.
There were countless others. Men Bartlett knew, and men he didn't. All of them had their own stories. Chris Bartlett wants to give them a voice. <p class="secondary_story">
Tuesday, Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day. As part of the commemoration, Bartlett is being honored in a City Hall reception by the Penn Center for AIDS Research for his community-organizing efforts.
There, he'll speak about the Gay History Wiki (<a href="http://gayhistory.wikispaces.com/" target="_blank">gayhistory.wikispaces.com</a>). It's his community-edited, online encyclopedia of the people, places and things that made up this city's gay community during the AIDS epidemic, from 1981 until a new cache of treatment methods made the disease more manageable in the mid-1990s. Though local gay histories exist in several others cities - Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York City, in particular - none are opened to the masses. In that sense, Bartlett's is unique.
Currently, the site mostly features short blurbs, obituary transcripts and the occasional photo. It's not much to look at. But "a Web site for dead people shouldn't be too fancy," Bartlett says.
And in any event, he hopes to make it a lot bigger.
"We're 15 years away from when this thing became more treatable," he says. "But in a lot of communities in Philadelphia, not everyone has the access to health care that makes that possible, like lower-income people and people of color and young people."
As of 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 23,396 AIDS cases in the Philadelphia region. Inside the city itself, at least 16,000 people are living with HIV or AIDS, according to an October 2008 <i>Inquirer </i>story. An estimated 1,400 more Philadelphians are infected each year - and though the disease is often linked to the gay community, it hasn't stayed there. More than half of the new infections are passed on through heterosexual contact. The disease is ravaging the African-American community.
The problem hasn't gone away.
"I don't think [the gay] community has really ever addressed what happened in the past anyway," Bartlett says. "AIDS is still an issue worth being passionate about."
Since 2005, Bartlett has combed through city, church and private organization records, and interviewed men throughout the region trying to find everyone who died after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. In 2007, he slowly started piecing together the site. Ultimately, he aims to memorialize as many of the roughly 4,600 gay Philadelphia men who, his research estimates, died of AIDS during those early, devastating years. More than 700 names have made it to the site so far.
The wiki isn't a full-time endeavor. Bartlett is also the interim co-executive director of the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, which helps LGBTQ groups find grant money, and consults on LGBTQ youth leadership initiatives for governments, companies and other groups. The wiki, Bartlett says, supplements his other work.
The site's platform is designed to be open and collaborative. Bartlett doesn't see this as <i>his</i> project, per se. Rather, it's a communal effort. He's just facilitating it.
"He wants to help build the structure so people can develop the leadership and connections to do it on their own," says Matty Hart, a longtime friend and activist who helped Bartlett find a $7,500 grant to get the site up.
But Bartlett's not just trying to build a "social network for dead people" - a term he sometimes uses to describe the project. He sees the wiki as a chance to rally the community around its fallen, and to not let the lessons learned from those painful days become casualties themselves.
Bartlett points to the inter-generational conflict often associated with Holocaust survivors, who don't want to tell their children about what they endured. Of course, within the gay community, the issue is not so much that the elders aren't willing to talk, but that the younger generation isn't willing to listen. "There is this real similar conflict between older gay men who rage at younger gay men for what they call unsafe behaviors like unprotected sex, drinking and drugs," Bartlett says. "Now lots of young people engage in behaviors like this, but it's coming from a different place in gay communities, I think. We haven't processed or really come to terms with what happened to us."
To Bartlett, having a repository for a culture that was so violently decimated - some 4,600 souls were lost; today, Philly's gay male community numbers only about 25,000, Bartlett says - may help overcome the horrors of the past.
"I went to a lot of funerals. We all went to a lot of funerals," Bartlett says. "But I never became numb." <p class="secondary_story">
While living with his father in West Phillythe summer after he graduated Brown University in 1988, Bartlett was partnered in the ActionAIDS Friends for Life buddy program with a woman from Kensington who had contracted HIV through needle use. He would visit her every couple of weeks and just sit with her for an hour or so, in a depressing nursing home that, for many people, was a place of last resort. He never did find out if she had any family. At the end of the summer, he said goodbye, shipped off to graduate school and never saw her again.
She didn't speak much, he says, so his recollection is hazy. Bartlett can't quite remember her name. He can't quite remember the long trip to visit her at a nursing home near 21st and Girard. He can't quite remember everything they did together. But he does remember the experience awakening him to the understanding that AIDS - like so many other horrors worth fighting against - affected diverse groups of people, so he damn well better get good at bringing diverse groups of people together, if he was going to make any kind of difference at all.
After graduating from Brown, Bartlett studied at New College, University of Oxford in England, and immersed himself in ACT UP, the radical AIDS awareness organization. In the early 1990s, Bartlett moved back to Philly and became involved in gay-rights activism here, first with the Philadelphia ACT UP chapter, and from there, with innumerable protests and causes.
"There isn't an LGBT nonprofit that doesn't know Chris," says Mark Segal, founder and publisher of the <i>Philadelphia Gay News</i>.
"He always had this role at the table if you were talking about gay men's health or causes in Philadelphia," adds Heinzen.
And with the wiki, Bartlett's role may get bigger, says John D'Emilio, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of several seminal books on the history of the gay-rights movement, who has seen Bartlett's wiki.
"Until fairly recently," D'Emilio says, "the GLBT-rights movement has been a local movement, not a national one. So in the 1970s and 1980s, you'd see an occasional story from the media capital of New York, or from San Francisco - which has this reputation as being a beatnik, hippie city - but the same attention was never paid to places like Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta. But, really, what made the national movement in the late 1980s and 1990s was the work in dozens and dozens of cities, and the work on the ground in a couple cities particularly - and I think a project like Bartlett's is going to make us realize it."
"ACT UP Philadelphia had an impact nationally and internationally," says Pat Egan, a professor of politics at New York University who first met Bartlett in 1992, during a safe-sex counselor training program Bartlett led. That organization's work, and the successes they had on a municipal and state level - with Bartlett's help - made other similar fights more impactful, he says.
"This community was a big part of a movement. Those stories just get lost without Chris doing what he's doing." <p class="secondary_story">
If Bartlett's wiki had a mission statement, it would probably go something like this: "To help those who lived through those dark years heal, and to connect that generation with those who came after."
"As I am gradually becoming an elder in the gay community, I'm trying to find that next way to connect these generations," Bartlett says. "This wiki is a tool to develop conversation between young generations of activists - gays, yes, but not just gays - also anyone who wants to start, live and sustain a movement."
In the summer of 1991, ACT UP Philadelphia converged with other LGBTQ, labor, women's rights and sundry liberal organizations in Kennebunkport, Maine, to protest then-President Bush's re-election campaign. They chartered a bus. Bartlett was riding. So, too, was a man named Harry Reed, a sanitation worker who came with a travel bar in tow, making martinis and handing out beers - which, as Bartlett mentions, is referenced on Reed's wiki entry.
"A lot of the people on that bus died that year or soon after, including Harry," Bartlett says. "I think we all knew he was sick then and that must have been scary." But they pressed ahead anyway. The movement was bigger, more important, than any individual, or any disease.
"That was a time when I realized I was born at a unique moment that allowed me to participate in a defining time in history," Bartlett says. "We can't possibly let all these stories disappear."