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Eric Sawyer was born in 1954 in Binghamton, New York. Although his parents had little money and even less in the way of social standing, they were determined their kids should do better, rise higher. Eric was quiet and moody kid. He cried easily and was dubbed a sissy. After a late growth spurt, Eric became a star athlete and student body president. But Eric never forgot the rage he felt was a bullied boy. Later in life, he would channel that rage to fight against the defining event of his generation: the AIDS epidemic.

After college, Eric headed west to Boulder, Colorado for grad school, where he promptly came out and threw himself into the world of queer activism. In 1980, he moved to New York City with the aim of making a lot of money by renovating old buildings, and using the revenue to fuel gay political causes. He had no idea that he was already carrying the HIV virus. In those days, no one knew; but that soon changed. A “gay cancer” was ravaging the community. Four years later, Eric’s lover and soul mate Scott got sick. Purple legions appeared on his face, neck and hands, and his hair fell out. Eric and Scott were thrown out of restaurants by screaming waiters. Strangers on the street spat at Scott. Scott died, and Eric was told to get his affairs in order. His response was to get fighting mad. He and writer Larry Kramer became founding members of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). With ACT UP, Eric participated in countless actions like dumping the ashes of people who had died of AIDS on the White House lawn. But Eric also saw far too many people with AIDS dying homeless on the street. He started a housing committee within ACT UP, and then a standalone organization called Housing Works to advocate for housing for homeless people with AIDS. Housing Works still exists today, providing housing for _________ per year.

In the mid-1990s, lifesaving drug “cocktails” for people with HIV became available in the US. When Eric learned that cost and other factors put the treatment out of reach for 97 percent of the world’s HIV-infected population, he founded a new organization called Health GAP (Global Access Project), to bridge the essential medicines gap between developed countries and the developing world. He worked directly with UNAIDS helping to develop a number of policy programs including the three zeros (zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths). After retiring from UNAIDS in 2016, Eric served as vice-president at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), one of the world’s leading provider of services to people with AIDS.

Eric lives with survivor’s guilt. He wonders why people he considers more deserving of life than himself died, and he lived. “You never really get over it,” he says. If there’s one thing that consoles him, it’s how the fervent, outraged activism unleashed by AIDS radically altered the way that public health is done on a global scale. At the core of the shift is the motto “nothing for us without us”. In practice, it means that people facing disease the world over are reclaiming authority over their lives and treatment, rather than being treated as passive bystanders. At the end of a long interview reviewing and reliving more than 30 years of pain, grief and rage, this reality brings Eric to tears. 
Eric Sawyer: [00:00:00] Well I know you probably don't need the ... I was going to say, I've probably had like an arc of early on caregiver then work for, in New York to develop a safety net for people living with HIV, developed housing works, especially for poor people. Then started to go to international conferences and realized there was no medication in the developing world.
Eric Sawyer: [00:00:30] So switched gears to the global treatment access movement and through all of that work, eventually got recruited by the UN to be a liaison to the NGO community for the UN headquarters. So ...
Mason Funk: We'll cover most of that.
Eric Sawyer: All right.
Mason Funk: Because honestly, at a certain point, well pick and choose.
Eric Sawyer: Right, right, for sure. Yeah.
Mason Funk: [00:01:00] I've got a lot of that in my notes. And sometimes what I experience when I read interviews that people have previously given is they sometimes focus a little bit more on the actual work and sometimes feel like the stories were capturing are also just about perseverance side [crosstalk].
Eric Sawyer: Yeah.
Mason Funk: So we'll probably spend a little time on that.
Eric Sawyer: Sure. Yeah.
Michelle McCabe: Were rolling.
Mason Funk: Okay. So start off by stating and spelling your first and last name please.
Eric Sawyer: I'm Eric Sawyer, E R. I. C. S. A. W. Y. E. R.
Mason Funk: [00:01:30] Okay. And if you could tell us when and where you were born?
Eric Sawyer: I was born in Binghamton, New York, which is just across the Pennsylvania border. Kind of where the flat part of New York state meets the triangle down towards the city.
Mason Funk: Okay. And when?
Eric Sawyer: I was born on February 5th, 1954, which makes me 65 years old.
Mason Funk: Okay, congratulations.
Eric Sawyer: [00:02:00] Thank you.
Michelle McCabe: Can you just pull your shirt down a little bit.
Mason Funk: Okay. So this is always the first question, which is just kind of place us in your family a little bit. Like what the family, I tell it's called the family culture. What was valued? What was held up, what was despised?
Eric Sawyer: Right. I grew up in a fairly conservative waspy family in upstate New York.
Eric Sawyer: [00:02:30] Most of my relatives were farmers. My father was a truck driver, my mother was a stay at home mother. I was the third child out of five. I have two older brothers, two younger sisters, and after I came out, the family joke was I was the transition between the boys and the girls. My family, uh, you know, went to church on Sundays and to Sunday schools up until about the time
Eric Sawyer: [00:03:00] when I was a teenager. I got in a fight with a couple of boys in Sunday school and my mother was really angry at the way, you know, that played out and we quit going to church at that point. But ...
Mason Funk: Tell me more about that, what happened and why was your mom angry?
Eric Sawyer: [00:03:30] Well I think actually it might have been related to the fact that I was different, you know. I was a bit of a Sissy and you know, somebody was kind of bullying me and I, you know, lost my cool, became aggressive and you know, so I don't know exactly how that all played out, but we quit going to Sunday school and going to church after that, so.
Mason Funk: Okay. That's interesting. I mean your mom just basically she, she took that one incident to a certain degree anyway and basically said screw church?.
Eric Sawyer: [00:04:00] Uh, yeah.
Mason Funk: Okay. You mentioned other things that I read this feeling different .
Eric Sawyer: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I always knew that I was different as a kid and I didn't really know what it was, but I, you know, cried really easily and was very dramatic and,
Eric Sawyer: [00:04:30] you know, pretended I was an Indian and would belt a towel around my head, like I had, you know, really long Apache hair. I always wanted to be the Indian with my shirt off. My two older brothers were, you know, big jocks and you know, we're always playing baseball and football and stuff with other kids from the neighborhood. There were a lot of kids their age,
Eric Sawyer: [00:05:00] there weren't any kids other than girls my age. And I was always trying to play with them, a football or a baseball and I was never good enough or whatever to play . And so I would do things like steal their ball if the ball got hit and run to the bathroom and lock myself in, and then they would beat the shit out of me. And eventually, at when I was actually in kindergarten, first grade through about third grade,
Eric Sawyer: [00:05:30] some older kids in the neighborhood started, getting me to perform sexual favors for them. And that kind of ... I guess that was kind of clear that that was what the difference was. And you know, at one point one of my older brothers caught one of them and kind of started to fight
Eric Sawyer: [00:06:00] and then told me boys aren't supposed to do that to other boys. And that if I didn't, if he ever saw me doing that again, he would beat me up too. So ...
Mason Funk: There's an interesting connection there, I feel like. Cause you've mentioned that you guys grew up fairly poor from what I understand.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah. Yeah.
Mason Funk: And you were doing this in exchange for things you maybe, couldnt get otherwise.
Eric Sawyer: [00:06:30] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, literally they would ... The same people who ... They were pubescent, 13 to 15, and they were always tying me up in the barn or abusing me in one way or the other. But they would bribe me with candy bars to blow them. And to me it was like, oh, they're actually being nice to me and I get candy, I didn't mind having oral sex with them.
Eric Sawyer: [00:07:00] So it was not something that I realized as inappropriate. At that point my family never really talked about sex or anything. And later on actually when I started going to therapists and recounted some of that based on questions from the therapist, she was like, well, do you realize that was sexual abuse? And I was like,
Eric Sawyer: [00:07:30] I'd never thought about it that way. It was something I didn't mind doing and I didn't know what was wrong. And y the people actually nice to me and gave me candy, something. We never got a so ...
Mason Funk: Did that, did she quote unquote change your mind on that? Or what do you think?
Eric Sawyer: In hindsight and what I know now about consent
Eric Sawyer: [00:08:00] and taking advantage of people, I do realize that it was inappropriate for a 15 year old to be making a five, six, eight year old, like suck their dicks. But at the time I didn't really feel that it was bad. It wasn't as bad as them, like hanging me upside down by my feet over the cow gutter and, and threatening to like dunk my head in cow shit.
Mason Funk: [00:08:30] Did this ... I'm sure I'm not the first person to ask this question, but you later on you came to work very avidly and ardently on behalf of disenfranchised poor people.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah. Yeah.
Mason Funk: Well do you feel like was there ever any kind of, for you sort of connection between your experience of being
Eric Sawyer: Gay?
Eric Sawyer: Well and being, you know, taken advantage of due to your poverty and siding with marginalized people?
Eric Sawyer: [00:09:00] I think part of the reason why I did kind of side with the others even in elementary school was because I felt different because I knew ... I mean my grandfather actually used to call me cricket, the Indian girl because, you know, whenever people were I'm teasing me, bullying me , like one time in the cow barn a cow took a dump
Eric Sawyer: [00:09:30] and it's, some of it's splashed on my shoes, and I started like crying and jumping up and down about oh shit, I got shit on me He like, you know, yelled at me and said, Look at cricket the little Indian girl, he's jumping up and down like he's on the war path. And everybody thought that was so funny. And so that was my nickname , on that side of my family. From then on, cricket, the little Indian girl.
Eric Sawyer: [00:10:00] And I'm like, in school I was quite quiet and a bit of a sissy. And about the only people who would be my friend were like someone who is very overweight, the only Jewish family or, black family in the school district. I mean, that's who I like, you know, shared the art table desk with was the only black person in that class, a girl.
Eric Sawyer: [00:10:30] And I remember like siding with and trying to stop like a young girl who was quite overweight and whose family was quite poor and she never really had nice , clean clothes or whatever. And so I would specifically seek her out to you know, try to comfort her in a way.
Eric Sawyer: [00:11:00] So, yeah. So I think that's part of why I, motivated or was motivated or kind of moved to the other circle. But after I reached puberty and became one of the biggest kids in the class instead of, you know, one of the skinniest, I became pretty good in sports.
Eric Sawyer: [00:11:30] I had a lot of built up aggression from being bullied so much. So, you know, when I got on a football field or I'm on a wrestling match or a wrestling mat, I became pretty aggressive and ferocious. So once I started being really one of the star athletes for the school people started accepting me and including me.
Mason Funk: [00:12:00] Do you remember at all what it was like when you first tapped into whatever that was, that inherent or built up power and aggression? Did you, do you remember feeling like, oh my God!
Eric Sawyer: It was interesting that my sophomore year in high school between my freshman year and my sophomore year, I grew seven inches and gained 40 pounds.
Eric Sawyer: [00:12:30] So while I did okay in things like football and baseball and wrestling before that, when I gained that height, that weight, my coordination also really kind of caught up and I found myself able to overpower people and, and out run people and yeah tackle anybody on a football field.
Eric Sawyer: [00:13:00] And it was very invigorating and there was a certain level of excitement or power that I felt to finally be able to like hold my own and even get back at some of the kids who had bullied me earlier, It felt good to body slam them at wrestling.
Mason Funk: Do you remember any specific incidents?
Eric Sawyer: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Eric Sawyer: [00:13:30] So that physical power or whatever it was, I think part of why I was wrestling even in college, was that, that made me feel like I was on an even playing field with other guys, probably helped counter act some of that feeling, and those voices in my head of being cricket girl or being the little sissy that nobody wanted to play baseball with.
Mason Funk: : [00:14:00] Okay. We'll get back to that at a certain point a little later on. What did you learn or not learn in your family about things like, like advocating for the dispossessed?
Eric Sawyer: My family had the kind of moral integrity of that wasn't good to make fun of other people.
Eric Sawyer: [00:14:30] You should always help people who are less well off than you. And my mother would, whenever somebody had a death in the family or we're going through hard times my mother would be one of the people that would kind of rally around baking casseroles or cookies or whatever and giving them to people. And My mother always like brought forward,
Eric Sawyer: [00:15:00] the ethics that if somebody is here and do you want something to eat or drink, you should always offer it to somebody else. And so that kind of attitude was instilled in me at a young age. Also the idea that, you know, it wasn't ever good to bully people and she would always like yell at my brothers and sisters. Mainly my brothers for bullying me that,
Eric Sawyer: [00:15:30] that was inappropriate and she would act out in anger and if they were holding me down and spitting in my face, she would come after them with a belt or a, a paddle and let them feel what it's like to abuse someone or ...
Mason Funk: How about on your father's side? You havent mentioned him much.
Eric Sawyer: [00:16:00] My father was a long distance truck driver and he wasn't around much. He, you know, after like elementary school or whatever, he started hauling chemicals long distance and, and we found out later on that he also, during that process kind of took up with another woman and Buffalo. And so it seemed like he only came home when he needed to change truck tires
Eric Sawyer: [00:16:30] or change the oil in the, in the truck or whatever. And there was a lot of tension between my mother and he and my mother was always like taking in foster kids and laundry and having kids like dropped off at our house before when their parents went to work and they would she'd put them on the bus and they'd get off the bus at their house and play with us and be in our, in our house until their mothers got off of work and so
Mason Funk: [00:17:00] One second okay?
Michelle McCabe: Just hold for that.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah.
Michelle McCabe: Let me take the opportunity to adjust the shade.
Mason Funk: [00:17:30] This is a very happy place for her. I bet you work here and shes just right there.
Eric Sawyer: She also likes to sit in that window ledge in the sun.
Mason Funk: Does she watch stuff go by outside?
Eric Sawyer: Yeah, yeah.
Mason Funk: Well she didn't [inaudible] sleep.
Eric Sawyer: When there were two of them. They would each sit in the window.
Mason Funk: Oh, yeah.
Michelle McCabe: [00:18:00] Okay.
Mason Funk: So there was a lot of tension like when your dad would come home and your folks eventually stayed married.
Eric Sawyer: They did surprisingly.
Mason Funk: Do me a favor start by saying, my parents.
Eric Sawyer: My parents did stay together. Kind of surprisingly, even though there was lots of tension, always about money, my mother always doing these side jobs or whatever to try to make extra money
Eric Sawyer: [00:18:30] because there wasn't enough to go around and she also kind of regretted or resented the fact that my father wasn't around much. So she was a disciplinarian and she would often, when my father came home, like yell at him about money and then she would yell at him about how rotten these kids are and how she always had to punish them. He was never around and you know, this one did that or that one did that.
Eric Sawyer: [00:19:00] I had to spank him. So take your belt off and now you spank them. And so maybe they'll listen to you. And at one point my father said, you know, I almost never see these kids and I walk in the door and you're telling me how rotten they are and telling me to hit them. You know, you want to hit them, go ahead. But I'm done hitting them. He walked out and got in the truck and left for that weekend. And so that in a way changed that dynamic of my mother going after him.
Eric Sawyer: [00:19:30] And then when I was in college this package arrived at our house with a box with all of these pictures of my father, like giving this woman's daughter's away in their wedding and cards that he'd given her in, you know, some presents he had given her for holidays and anniversary cards for there getting together. And like my father never gave my mother a card or a present.
Eric Sawyer: [00:20:00] And so that ... My mother was shattered and they almost split at that time, but instead she decided to stick with him and sold our house and moved to buffalo where his, where this woman had lived and where his company was based to try to prevent that from happening again.
Eric Sawyer: [00:20:30] And not that many years, maybe five years later he had an accident and hurt his back, had to have surgery ended up falling in the hospital and became disabled. And so then she ended up having to take care of him all the time and he was around all the time in it, you know, it kind of like dominated the next 25 years of their life was, you know, his being dependent on her and her having to wait on him hand and foot until he eventually died. Yeah.
Mason Funk: [00:21:00] Wow! Thats quite a saga.
Eric Sawyer: I can't believe that she stayed with them, but be that, you know, then she had to wait on him hand and foot after he kind of shit on there.
Mason Funk: So this package arrived, I mean this, not really the reason why were here. But this package arrived because this woman had, hed broken up with her.
Eric Sawyer: [00:21:30] Well, no, he ... She basically described in the letter, he's always been saying he's going to leave you and marry me as soon as the kids got old enough to be on their own or whatever, he'd leave her and marry him, marry her, and she basically said, you know, it's time for you to be true to your word and leave your wife and let's get married.
Eric Sawyer: [00:22:00] And he didn't. And so she was like, get out and felt so angry that she wanted to both hurt him for not leaving my mother, but also let my mother know what a horrible man he was for cheating on her all these years.
Mason Funk: [00:22:30] Okay. Wow. Well there's a lot there.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah.
Mason Funk Now, I'm, I'm curious, we'll switch the focus back to you a little bit. Cause you already kind of talked about this a little bit, but you, you later said in interview you became volatile, hot tempered and aggressive. And I do understand, I think we do understand now a little bit where those traits came from. It's kind of a curious psychological question,
Mason Funk [00:23:00] but do you feel like those traits were always inside of you and just not able to, kind of like Im looking towards what fueled your activism?
Eric Sawyer: Right. Yeah. I think my aggression largely came from being bullied and the fact that I was too small , and skinny and whatever to fight back against the bullying. And I realized that my mother's temper, for example, only got worse
Eric Sawyer: [00:23:30] if I cried too loud or I tried to get her to stop spanking me or whatever. She would sometimes this makes her sound horrible but I was hyperactive and she would sometimes tie me to the dining room chair with, strapping me with belts around my stomach and chest.
Eric Sawyer: [00:24:00] And tell me I had to stay there until I was quiet and didn't cry for, and didn't move for half an hour. I kind of didn't do anything about abuse or whatever, because of that if you acted up or whatever you got it worse. And I think that helped,
Eric Sawyer: [00:24:30] like develop this kind of unresolved rage in me. But I think my activism also comes from the fact that I was so angry that my, lover Scott, who I view as my soulmate died and I couldn't do anything to try to save his life or end his pain or there was so much stigma and discrimination and shame directed from society and people in restaurants
Eric Sawyer: [00:25:00] or people in the subway towards him. In the early days of AIDS when nobody knew how it was spread, nobody knew how to prevent getting it. People were afraid that if they were close to you, they might get it. And I was so full of grief when he died and also full of rage that I couldn't save his life and the government or nobody did anything to save him. And I knew that I was also symptomatic
Eric Sawyer: [00:25:30] at that point and that something had to happen or I would die too. And so that unresolved grief and rage over not being able to save him kind of propelled my anger. Kind of an activist creed as always turn your anger and your grief into action and it worked for me. That's part of why I got so involved in activism. It felt good to fight back and to fight for my life.
Mason Funk: [00:26:00] Yeah. Interestingly, You used the phrase in the early days, your experience was if you acted up and you literally use that word or phrase, you got it worse.
Eric Sawyer: I know.
Mason Funk: So how do you think you figured it out that you could act up and you would not only not get it worse, but you could actually ...
Eric Sawyer: A difference?
Mason Funk: Transition. Yeah.
Eric Sawyer: [00:26:30] Well, when we first started Act Up, we were in a situation where there was no coverage about aids whatsoever. And what coverage there was was things like five gay men diagnosed with this strange, rare cancer in New York City. No one knows how its spread. It's also been found in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Fear, fear, fear.
Eric Sawyer: [00:27:00] And that was kind of rightfully propelling, or producing this hysteria around AIDS and the only coverage was negative. Oh, it's these promiscuous homosexuals that are getting it. And there was all of this stigma related to it. And when we start ...
Mason Funk: Sorry. Wait for a second. Should we be pausing?
Michelle McCabe: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Sorry, it was just at a certain point that siren, I dont wanna ...
Eric Sawyer: Yeah, yeah.
Mason Funk: [00:27:30] Theyve finally start off. They quit flirting and they just put the siren on.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah. Yeah.
Mason Funk: Okay. I'm going to have you go back [inaudible]
Michelle McCabe: Sure.
Eric Sawyer: [Inaudible]
Mason Funk: Okay. I'm going to have you go back a little bit.
Eric Sawyer: Okay.
Mason Funk: I want to make sure that none of that is [crosstalk]
Eric Sawyer: Right. Okay.
Mason Funk: So just hold that thought. Okay. You just tap me anytime its getting there, if I don't respond.
Michelle McCabe: [00:28:00] Okay.
Mason Funk: Okay, so, just for safety, I'm gonna have you go back essentially, literally the first coverage, this famous article in five men, strange cancer, whatever. Just go back and start that again if you want.
Eric Sawyer: Sure. So when the epidemic first started appearing in the press, it was an article in New York Times about five men
Eric Sawyer: [00:28:30] who came down with and died of this stranger, rare cancer. And or about people coming down with a rare form of pneumonia that had no treatment. And really young people dying of pneumonia and they're, oh, by the way, all gay men. And not only gay men, but promiscuous gay men. And so there was all this stigma around these horrible out of control,
Eric Sawyer: [00:29:00] gay men are coming down with this fatal disease. You know, what is it? We know, what are they doing? And, and so it developed all this, you know, hysteria around gay men around this disease. And because nobody knew how it was spread, no one knew how to prevent getting it. Nobody really knew the cause. It kind of propelled society to react very aggressively against gay men. They were getting evicted from their apartments, fired from jobs. Alot of doctors wouldnt treat them,
Eric Sawyer: [00:29:30] hospitals wouldn't admit them. There was only one funeral home owned by a gay man in New York City that would bury somebody who died of AIDS . And so when we started doing demonstrations calling for more research to find, try to find treatments and going public with the fact that, hey, I'm sure I'm a gay man, but, I work for a management consulting firm. I've got a family. I'm a nice guy.
Eric Sawyer: [00:30:00] The press started responding with some empathy and people started saying, Whoa, maybe they don't deserve to die. And so the kind of response that we were getting and the fact that it was kind of changing people's perceptions to us was really rewarding. And when we were saying why shouldn't we be able to see a doctor or why shouldnt a hospital admit us?
Eric Sawyer: [00:30:30] If we need to be quarantined or whatever, do so, but, we deserve healthcare. We deserve to see a doctor, we deserve to be in a hospital, if we're dying. The public responded and realized that that was true. And so the pressure from the general public kind of forced
Eric Sawyer: [00:31:00] the media to respond in a more sympathetic way. And the pressure on government kind of changed people like Ted Kennedy and others who had some moral fiber to say this has to stop. I mean, Ronald Reagan is kind of famously known when he was asked by a cabinet member in the mid eighties, shouldn't we be doing something about this AIDS stuff? You know, his response was, why aren't the right people dying?
Eric Sawyer: [00:31:30] You know, it's a bunch of junkies, queers and whores which one of them are you why do you care? What do you got to tell us about yourself? And so dead silence next item on the agenda. And it wasn't until really Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor, went to Nancy Reagan and kind of said, this has to stop. And you're getting beat up in the press
Eric Sawyer: [00:32:00] about your lack of concern for American citizens. You need to change that. And we've got an idea why don't we give Ronald an award for responding to AIDS. And since there's all this criticism, because of the lack of response, we'll bring forward a bill in the Senate for $100 million research grant to try to find a cure for AIDS . And we can give you an award at a fancy fundraiser in DC
Eric Sawyer: [00:32:30] to try to clear up your legacy. But it was also a way of trying to get them the Reagan administration to start acting appropriately. In the same way that that intervention by Liz Taylor and Senator Kennedy started moving the dime, the demonstrations that we were doing. Were moving public opinion and putting pressure on the government to respond.
Mason Funk: [00:33:00] When you say that, well actually, you know what, we're gonna circle back and we're going to go forward.
Eric Sawyer: Sure.
Mason Funk: Cause I don't want to fail to talk about Scott and specifically your relationship, how you met, how you became soulmates, what it was about him. And then of course we'll talk about his death.
Eric Sawyer: Alright.
Mason Funk: But who was Scot?
Eric Sawyer: Scot Bernard I feel was my soul mate. He was a mergers and acquisitions lawyer for a big Wall Street law firm.
Eric Sawyer: [00:33:30] He was two years younger than me. He was like a black diamond skier and he played varsity tennis at MIT , went to Boalt law school in San Francisco, Oakland at Berkeley. And he was like just the sweetest guy you've ever met. He would do anything for you. He was so kind to me. We were madly in love
Eric Sawyer: [00:34:00] and not that long after we started dating, he came down with Cap Osteosarcoma. So it was kind of this situation where I met this really smart, athletic, handsome Swede brilliant man who treated me really well that it felt like the rug was being pulled out from under me because, Oh God he's got the gay cancer that
Eric Sawyer: [00:34:30] he obviously has AIDS Everybody dies of AIDS in a year or so. I don't know. I'm going to lose him. So that was so devastating. And he was really brave during the whole intervention. I knew Larry Kramer, and so, I called Larry, what can we do? And he told me about a gay doctor who is treating lots of patients. I should go see him. He had some connections to NIH
Eric Sawyer: [00:35:00] and they were starting to do an interferon in a cerumen trial and maybe Scott could get in there. And so we started fighting really hard to try to save his life and doing anything we could to, and the treatment that Scott received was like so horrid. I remember one time we went into a restaurant and Scott by then had gone from 192 to probably 140.
Eric Sawyer: [00:35:30] Eventually he weighed like 125 but lost a lot of hair, this covered with these cap sarcolemma, purplish gray callus like lesions and looked kind of like a walking skeleton. We went into this restaurant and the waitress instead of bringing over menus Scott had sat down and drank some water out of the glass that was sitting on the table. She brought a garbage can. She walks over with the garbage can instead of menus
Eric Sawyer: [00:36:00] and literally she takes his water glass and throws it in the garbage can and she holds the garbage can next to the table and swipes all of our silverware into the can and yells, Get out, get out. We don't serve disease faggots in here. And immediately Scott's like crying uncontrollably and he like, gets up and starts to leave. And I'm like, Don't go, don't go. She can't,
Eric Sawyer: [00:36:30] she can't do this. Shes got to, she can't treat us like this. Just got to service. And he was like, I can't, I can't do this. I can't be here. And so we walked out, but just that kind of immoral, like absolutely gross behavior just because someone was sick, was the kind of thing that people, they just faced all the time. Like we'd walk into a subway car and it was like a smelly homeless person just walked in
Eric Sawyer: [00:37:00] and like literally everyone would like part away from us and the next subway stop, everybody leave the car and run to the car before or after us. And he was spat upon in the street just the way that people were treated was really inhumane. And that kind of a lack of humanity.
Eric Sawyer: [00:37:30] And abuse that people with AIDS faced really enraged me. And when, when Larry Kramer called me up and said, hey, I want to start a civil disobedience group Scott had already died, I was ready to do something to like let my anger out and try to change what was happening.
Mason Funk: [00:38:00] What I think people in this day and age might have hard time understanding is what it was like to be in the middle of that. Whether it was putting all your hopes on possible new drug that was in development or just simply not knowing what was going on.
Eric Sawyer: Right.
Mason Funk: Can you try to communicate like I say to someone who just doesn't know what that was like? What that state of uncertainty was like?
Eric Sawyer: [00:38:30] Yeah. Well in the early days of the epidemic, it really felt like we were living in the middle of a war zone. And I myself was symptomatic and after Scott died, my doctor said to me based on your bloodwork and the symptoms you're getting, you really need to get your affairs in order. I think you have maybe a year, year and a half, two years tops
Eric Sawyer: [00:39:00] and you don't want to leave your family with a mess. So think about a will. That was really frightening. I mean, I kind of felt like I was on a conveyor belt on the way to a cliff. And I didn't know how far away the cliff was, where it was going to fall into a grave.
Eric Sawyer: [00:39:30] And so you really didn't think about anything other than two weeks away. Cause you didn't know, am I going to be in the hospital in two weeks? Am I going to be, you know, do I want to plan a vacation three months away? I might be dead by then. And so there was just like the sense of, you know, utter hopelessness and desperation and all of your friends were or many of my friends were getting sick and dying and people that I would be out to dinner with,
Eric Sawyer: [00:40:00] two or three weeks later might have gone in the hospital and I find out that they died there of pneumonia. It was just like such a fearful time. And when we started doing act up actions to try to force the government to find a cure or doing actions to like try to get the city to like give people with AIDS, expedited access to Medicaid cards
Eric Sawyer: [00:40:30] or, or access to food stamps. Because people were like losing their jobs and losing their health insurance and had no way to get treatment without a medicaid card or without insurance or being evicted from their apartments and ending up like couch surfing, and not having access to housing placements on government housing grants. And so when we would take for these demonstrations demanding food stamps
Eric Sawyer: [00:41:00] or Medicaid cards or housing placements and the city and New York state started responding. It was it felt great and it encouraged us to demand more and to take more and more serious actions to try to save our lives.
Mason Funk: Can you tell us, I read about the circumstances under which Scot died, apparently on this flight. I know.
Eric Sawyer: [00:41:30] Yeah. Well, Scott was a lawyer at a big Wall Street law firm and his friend was really great, to him . They Well literally, they sent his secretary to our house to take care of him while I was at work. And the management,
Eric Sawyer: [00:42:00] consulting firm I worked for wouldn't get me time off to take care of him . And he wanted to go to see his mother one more time before he died and he was quite ill and I was supposed to go with him on this trip to see his mother. And
Mason Funk: Hold on one second. I'm sorry. Its the siren.
Mason Funk: : [00:42:30] Okay. So if you could just back up a little bit. He wanted to take one more trip to see his mom.
Eric Sawyer: So Scott wanted to go and see his mother because he knew he didn't have long to live and hadn't seen her in a really long time. And so
Eric Sawyer: [00:43:00] I was going to take a day off from work and on a Friday fly down with him to see his mother. And then my boss tells me a report that I had just turned in for one of our clients needed revisions and that I couldn't have the day off as she said, and that Scott would have to like go forward on this trip by himself and
Eric Sawyer: [00:43:30] I could join him afterwards. There was no way he could fly by him himself. And he was so frail. He didn't want to postpone. The trips are the only one we could get with no notice to fly with him was his secretary. And so I like take him like really early in the morning before I went to work to Laguardia
Eric Sawyer: [00:44:00] so that they could fly down together. The flight attendants didn't want to let him on the plane. They were like, he's got AIDS . We can tell, we can't have him on our plane. Everybody's gonna be ... It's going to upset everyone and he can't fly. And I was like, he doesn't have AIDS . He has cancer. That's his girlfriend. You've got to let him on the plane. And they do let him on the plane
Eric Sawyer: [00:44:30] and the plane had a stop in Chicago. And when they were in the line to take off to the second leg of the flight leaving Chicago for Tennessee, he stopped breathing and get a hysterical call from Nancy who was traveling with him saying what do I do? What do I do? He stopped breathing. They don't want to touch him. Like, the EMS people don't want to touch him. He told me like,
Eric Sawyer: [00:45:00] don't tell him what's wrong with him. What do I do? What do I do? And I was like, well, you need to tell him that he does have AIDS . He has a do not resuscitate order, they can give him oxygen, do whatever to try to save him, but no tubes, no equipment. And then she calls me like 20 minutes later and says he's dead.
Eric Sawyer: [00:45:30] And so that starts this whole process of me having to figure out how to get the body to Tennessee and what to do. So I was kind of crying hysterically and somebody heard me crying in my office and a friend came in and said, what's going on?
Eric Sawyer: [00:46:00] And I told her what had happened and she was like why were you here? Why weren't you like with him? I mean, and I say, well, my boss would allow me to go until this report was at a dead. And she was like, you got to be kidding me. And he goes out, she goes, I'll be right back. And she goes and talks to the head of our unit and she comes back and says, with the woman that was the head of the unit, who said, why didn't you tell us what was going on?
Eric Sawyer: [00:46:30] You know, we would have let you work from home. This is insane. And she said just give us the report with the notes from your boss about what has to be changed. Sharon will do the changes. You get Outta here. You go do whatever you need to do to take care of your boyfriend.
Eric Sawyer: [00:47:00] Had I like gone on above my boss and we're told other people what was going on who are more humane and weren't so AIDS phobic. I would've been with him when he died. But, and so then it was this whole process of the airline flying his body to Tennessee and going there, he wanted to be buried in Tennessee
Eric Sawyer: [00:47:30] by where his sister lived. Cause she wanted to be close to him or have him very close to her. And it was really devastating.
Mason Funk: You wrote at one point that it's so
Mason Funk: [00:48:00] hard sometimes for people to understand why that grief is still with you today.
Eric Sawyer: Well during that time, so many of our friends were dying and you really didn't have time to process individual grief,
Eric Sawyer: [00:48:30] because of doing activism. We were like constantly fighting for our lives, but so many people were dying. And if you didn't like keep pushing the grief down, you'd be paralyzed. You 'd just be overwhelmed. And when you love someone as a soul mate so deeply that you would do anything you could to try to save their lives and then they're gone
Eric Sawyer: [00:49:00] and you just feel this horrible survivors guilt you're thinking why did he die? Why didn't I die? He deserved to live more than me. You just never really get over it. And even though time goes by when you've spent hours at night taking care of someone
Eric Sawyer: [00:49:30] who is so sick and hooking them up to a catheter that's hanging out of their chest so they can have some nutrition going into their body and also like, hanging IV bags of antibiotics also to be pumped in, through that a port. Because your boyfriend refuses to go to the hospital and doesn't want to be
Eric Sawyer: [00:50:00] treated like a pariah in the hospital. And you have a gay doctor who like honors that wish and like brings you the antibiotics to treat them. You just feel so involved and so fragile. And you're doing everything you can to try to save their lives, but you lose the battle.
Eric Sawyer: [00:50:30] You never kind of get over that loss. And I find myself often watching like gay themed movies all the time, like late at night by myself and I'm always like, hoping that I can find one that in the end the boy gets the boy and the boy doesn't die.
Eric Sawyer: [00:51:00] And it almost never happens. I mean, so many gay films are about AIDS and death or somebody gets killed in a gay homophobic attack or whatever. And it just seems like there's so few happy endings and I want an ending that isn't one where my boyfriend dies
Eric Sawyer: [00:51:30] or the boy gets the boy and they get to live happily ever after. But, unfortunately I don't write the scripts.
Mason Funk: Okay. You wanna take a little pause?
Mason Funk: Hmm.
Mason Funk: Why don't we just ... Its a good time anyway to take a breath,
Mason Funk: [00:52:00] take some time. Were going to talk about some of the craziest things you did when you fought back.
Eric Sawyer: Okay.
Mason Funk: It'll be good to hear about as well.
Eric Sawyer: Okay.
Mason Funk: I'm just going to briefly go through them. When you guys hung David Kessler an effigy.
Eric Sawyer Okay. First Act Up ...
Mason Funk: [00:52:30] Setting up housing for people with AIDS in the middle of the street, like getting all kinds of crazy furniture and setting it up. I just want, one of the purposes of OUTWORDS obviously is to empower, right? Current and future generations of activists be creative, right? You guys were nothing if not creative . And then the last story is the White House story of the ashes. Those three I think make an amazing trilogy.
Eric Sawyer Oh, yeah.
Mason Funk: So basically when we're ready.
Michelle McCabe: Were rolling.
Mason Funk: [00:53:00] Okay. So let me I mean we could do some background stuff on how act up got started there and we will come back to Larry . But I think I just want to start jumping with these forms. In one of your interviews I read, you said you kind of told the story about David Kessler. You said the rest is history, but I don't want to assume that anybody, I mean, did people, yes, the rest is history, but I want to make sure we get a full picture of the circumstances leading up to that event and what you guys did.
Eric Sawyer: Sure. Are we ready? So sound good.
Mason Funk: [00:53:30] So give us a little like . In the early days of act up, we did lots of crazy things or something like that just to set the stage.
Eric Sawyer: Sure. So slightly ... Let me start it again. About six months after Scott died Larry and I were on the phone.
Mason Funk: Well reset once shes settled down, or whatever she wants to do. And by the way, when you say Larry for the first time, just say, Kramer.
Eric Sawyer: [00:54:00] Kramer.
Mason Funk: You can even go Larry Kramer Like something that people are gonna know. Something, something. Larry Kramer , the famous activist, and author. Okay. Oh, she's going for the sun.
Michelle McCabe: I think shes going to go Up.
Erci Sawyer: She's going to make a little noise. Go ahead baby. Up up. Go ahead. Go ahead. Up up. Go ahead.
Mason Funk: [00:54:30] Oh, she actually goes all the way up there. [crosstalk]
Erci Sawyer: Head down baby girl. It's okay. Head down, say goodbye . She's looking, go ahead. Go ahead. They, she's a little taken back by the blinds. Come on, come on.
Michelle McCabe: [00:55:00] Or putting up a little bit. it's okay.
Eric Sawyer: Okay, go ahead. Talk soon. Goodbye girl. Good girl. That's her spot.
Eric Sawyer: Have to get a photo of that. [crosstalk] Literally, this is probably not the most important.
Eric Sawyer: [00:55:30] It's uniquely sign.
Mason Funk: Well, I know my husband is going to get such a kick out of that photo because we were such. Thats very sweet. When I asked if she looked out the window, I was picturing her on the couch her on the couch, I didnt know she could get all the way up on the ledge . Thank you.
Michelle McCabe: Sure.
Mason Funk: Okay, so there we go. Were speeding still?
Michelle McCabe: Still Rolling.
Mason Funk: Okay,
Eric Sawyer: [00:56:00] So about five months. Let me start again. So about five months after Scott died, I called Larry to let him know that Scott had died and to ...
Mason Funk: Do me a favor, Larry Kramer.
Eric Sawyer: Oh, Larry. Right?
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Eric Sawyer: So about five months after Scott died, I called Larry Kramer, who was one of my best friends
Eric Sawyer: [00:56:30] who was a playwright, he wrote the book, Faggots, he wrote the play, Normal Heart, the founder of GMHC, and the founder of act up New York and said Scott did finally die. I want to take the skills I've learned, renovating houses in Harlem and tried to create some housing for homeless people with AIDS. Do you know anybody working on that? Can you connect to me?
Eric Sawyer: [00:57:00] And he said, yeah, yeah, I do. There's this organization named Bailey House blah, blah, blah. But I'm giving a speech at the game community, the gay and Lesbian Community Center next week where I'm going to call for a civil disobedience organization to be started to do demonstrations, to try to like force the government to do more research. And I'm trying to get people I know to come and be in the audience
Eric Sawyer: [00:57:30] and when I call for volunteers to help plan a demonstration I need people to come forward and why don't you come and help me launch this organization and then I'll introduce you to some of the people there that are working on housing issues. And he said bring some of your pretty boy friends from fire island as boy bait , and get them to like, say they're going to join too, so we can get people to show up.
Eric Sawyer: [00:58:00] And so I did, I played my role. I said, I will. We were talking about some of the things we could do. And Larry mentioned that he wants to hang Frank Young an effigy from a light post. And that since he did the play, The Normal Heart, at the public theater, Joe Papps a good friend, they have a costume, a scenery department,
Eric Sawyer: [00:58:30] and he's offered to literally make a paper mache , a life size replica of Frank Young does anybody know how we can hang it from the light pole ? And I stand up and say, Oh, well, I've got an extension ladder and I've got a pickup truck for my renovations and I can bring the extension ladder down in my truck and bring the effigy and we can hang it from the light pole, blah, blah, blah. And he was like, great, great, great.
Eric Sawyer: [00:59:00] So we decide to do that and literally the demonstration is going to happen rush hour on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway. And there trinity churches there we're gonna hang Frank Young from there and so we go down and literally pull the ladder off the truck
Eric Sawyer: [00:59:30] and hang Frank Young an effigy. They prearranged like 19 people to get arrested with the police and lots of other people, like three or 400 people showed up and lots of television cameras and the combination of announcing that Frank Young is going to be hung an effigy the FDA commissioner and that people were going to get arrested because of the lack of drug company response or our government response
Eric Sawyer: [01:00:00] and trying to find a cure like brings the press out. And it appears on the morning news shows, the noon news shows, the five, the six o'clock news, homosexuals are disrupting traffic in front of Wall Street to call for AIDS drugs. And it got so much attention that we had announced when we were going to have a meeting to plan our next demonstration and literally hundreds of people
Eric Sawyer: [01:00:30] showed up to plan this demonstration where about two dozen of us volunteered at Larrys speech and planned the first demonstration in his living room.
Mason Funk: Hmmmm What were some of the ... Well, first of all, what was the feeling like, and just do me a favor, say real quick again, who Frank Young is ?
Eric Sawyer: Right, right.
Mason Funk: Why hang Frank Young?
Eric Sawyer: So Larry says, I want to hang Frank Young an effigy from a telephone pole.
Eric Sawyer: [01:01:00] Because he's the FDA commissioner and the FDA develops AIDS drug or any kind of drug and he was doing nothing to get the FDA to develop drugs.
Mason Funk: Let's see. Hold on one second.
Eric Sawyer: There's two.
Mason Funk: They eventually settle down.
Eric Sawyer: [01:01:30] Yeah. I can . Joe should be working from home.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Eric Sawyer: I can call him.
Mason Funk: Well, lets see. They mightve just stopped.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Oops.
Eric Sawyer: See if he's there.
Mason Funk: [01:02:00] What was, well, first of all, let's take this moment just to these early years, Larry, you call him like the prophet of the epidemic. He was obviously front and center and take a lot of heat. What was your, who was he and why was he important? Why is he important?
Eric Sawyer: [01:02:30] I view Larry Kramer is kind of the prophet of the epidemic. Larry had written in the late seventies, this book called Faggots, that talked about how promiscuity in the gay community was really hurting people then it was propelling or are fueling epidemics of, like gonorrhea
Eric Sawyer: [01:03:00] and other health problems sexually transmitted within the gay community. And also discouraging people from forming long-term relationships. And he kind of said we've got to end this promiscuity and like rampant drug use and try to act like normal people who want to be in relationships. And that really angered a lot of gay people who for years had to deny their sexuality and hide in the closet
Eric Sawyer: [01:03:30] and not be able to have much sex in the time of the sexual liberation among straight people. And so there was a big blow back against Kramer's prophesizing about how this wanton promiscuity could come back to bite us. And a more serious disease could come forward then than just a regular sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea
Eric Sawyer: [01:04:00] and who knows, it might be fatal. And so those writings were almost like a prophecy. It was like how do you know that, it was like he was predicting the future. And so when lots of people started dying and the number of AIDS deaths were rising, even though there weren't a lot of them,
Eric Sawyer: [01:04:30] they were ever increasing on a weekly basis, more cases were being reported. He was like if it keeps increasing at this Steep slope we're going to have hundreds of thousands of cases within a few years. And so he came forward with the idea of forming a network to share information but then eventually to create an organization called, the gay men's.
Mason Funk: Just one sec. There was something weird going on, but its stopped. [Crosstalk]
Mason Funk: [01:05:00] Okay. Larry came forward.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah. So, so Larry came forward literally said we need to start a network to share information about this odd new disease. S that people know what's going on and people may, it may be sexually transmitted people need to stop having sex with anybody but their partner and eventually said that
Eric Sawyer: [01:05:30] we need to start an organization to try to care for the ever increasing number of people who are dying because hospitals wouldn't take care of them. And somebody needed to like, take care of them, shop for them, cook their meals, help them die with dignity at least. And so he called for people to gather in his living room at that meeting, the gay men's health crisis was started
Eric Sawyer: [01:06:00] as a buddy group for the well to take care of the sick and a hotline soon developed for sharing information. Whatever could be collected with people calling up with questions am I sick? Am I going to die? How do I not get this?
Mason Funk: Yeah, it's a curious question. We'll talk about Larry when we're done because he's already said no to us interviewing him, but maybe with your ...
Eric Sawyer: [01:06:30] Yeah, I can call him.
Mason Funk: You might be able to help.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah.
Mason Funk: But anyway, and I'll certainly ask him this question, but the question I have for you is from going from that position of being like, I told you so to like directing is anger externally at the forces that were now going to help were going to treat people with AIDS with such disrespect and lack of humanity. It's an interesting transition and maybe he maintained the, I told you so the whole time, but he didn't let it stop him . What's your take on that?
Eric Sawyer: [01:07:00] Well there's a famous line in the Normal Heart where the doctor in a wheelchair who he was seeing basically threw a fit when she found out that he was starting to date someone and had a lover that he was having sex with. And she kind of like screams at him what are you doing? Do you want to die? I told you to stop having sex. You gay men need to start thinking with your head instead of your penises.
Eric Sawyer: [01:07:30] And Larry kind of repeated that rhetoric himself a number of times, including in the book Faggots and eventually I think he realized and lots of people told him, Look, gay men have been sexually repressed forever when we're finally embracing who we are. And acting on our natural instincts
Eric Sawyer: [01:08:00] we're not going backwards and we have to celebrate our sexuality and so drop that. I don't know if it was a conscious switch, but eventually he turned his anger towards like drug companies and the government and society in general who were not doing anything to find treatments or were e treating gay people so miserably.
Mason Funk: [01:08:30] That's interesting. Okay. When you call him a prophet, I'm just curious something, when I first read those words, I thought of it, the prophetic in terms of, I thought of it more in terms of his activism . I didn't really realize ... I have the book Faggots, but never read it eventually. He was literally in prophet in a way, foretelling the future.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah. Yeah. I mean the comments that Larry made in the book Faggots, literally about
Eric Sawyer: [01:09:00] how our drug use and promiscuity were making us sick in terms of sexually transmitted diseases, but God forbid a more serious medical disease thats sexually transmitted were to emerge the way that we're having so much promiscuous sex, literally we could spread an epidemic and a lot of us die. And that really was a prophecy. It was like he was predicting the future.
Mason Funk: [01:09:30] I don't know this, but were his words then subsequently co opted by say religious right?
Eric Sawyer: I don't know the types of comments that he was making about a promi ...
Mason Funk Can you do me a favor, just include Larry [crosstalk]
Eric Sawyer: Okay. Yeah. Yeah. I don't know if there's a direct line between the comments that Larry Kramer made about promiscuity and how it was
Eric Sawyer: [01:10:00] harmful for gay men and the community were directly usurped by the religious right. But it was a common theme to a lot of what the critics of gay men and Homophobes threw back at us as more and more people started dying. And people like Ronald Reagan
Eric Sawyer: [01:10:30] talked about how if people who were gay or lesbian want to stop the AIDS epidemic then they should look at they're immoral behavior because morality and science go on parallel tracks, they're hand in hand. Reagan basically said you're getting what you deserve because of your immoral behavior. And that certainly was replicated by the religious right and by people like Jesse Helms in the Senate.
Mason Funk: [01:11:00] Mm. Yeah.
Michelle McCabe: Could we just block a little bit of the light?
Mason Funk: sure.
Mason Funk: I'll cover a little bit of bit of Oh Okay.
Michelle McCabe: No, right there.
Mason Funk: Is that good?
Michelle McCabe: Yeah. Done it.
Mason Funk: Okay. Alright. Awesome. Now let's talk about, okay, so you got involved in housing in this advocacy. I want to talk about that because it was a specific area within this massive, [inaudible] . That's what you chose. How come?
Eric Sawyer: [01:11:30] I had started renovating buildings, abandoned buildings when I was in graduate school in Colorado. And not long after I moved to New York, I decided that I wanted to do a tier because I didn't want to pay the same for a studio apartment that I was paying for a renovated four bedroom house in Denver, Colorado.
Eric Sawyer: [01:12:00] And so I started trying to find out where could I afford to buy an abandoned building and fix it up and have a home that I owned where I could control what the rent was or what the housing costs were. And so ironically I had gone to Larry and ask him if he wanted to invest in one of these projects. And he almost did, but eventually his brother
Eric Sawyer: [01:12:30] who was a big shot owner of a named partner of a law firm talk to him out of investing with me. But because I had the skills and had already renovated one was working on another renovation.
Mason Funk: Lets pause for a second. Let's see what she is she going to drink?
Eric Sawyer: She may go drink or she looks like that's what she's doing.
Mason Funk: Okay. Let's just wait till she settles.
Eric Sawyer: [01:13:00] Yeah.
Mason Funk: That's what we always say. [inaudible]. We were, I think, close enough to the beginning of that story that we might as well just start over and maybe try to move through this story about Larry not participating just a little more quickly to kind of get to the heart, to the issue, to the question of housing for people with AIDS.
[Inaudible]
Eric Sawyer: [01:13:30] Okay, lets see. So because of the fact that I had developed a couple of buildings in Harlem and because I was learning that some of my neighbors actually had become homeless when they developed AIDS and couldn't pay their rent and got evicted from their apartment either because they didn't pay their rent or because of AIDS phobia.
Eric Sawyer: [01:14:00] I wanted to use my housing development skills to try to some housing for people who are becoming homeless. And so when we started act up, I wanted to focus on AIDS housing. And so I started a committee to try to both advocate for the government to develop some AIDS housing and to try to develop some housing ourselves,
Eric Sawyer: [01:14:30] and we weren't being successful in trying to get the government to develop housing. Their idea was to create a special needs shelter that had both patients who had TB and patients who had HIV in the same like shelter wing and give them extra Bologna sandwiches when it would literally be a tuberculosis incubator because people with HIV have no t cells and t cells are what fight tuberculosis.
Eric Sawyer: [01:15:00] And so everybody would die of TB. And so we decided that we had to focus on advocacy to develop medically appropriate housing. And the city wasn't protecting people with AIDS who were in the shelter systems, who would be beaten by the staff or other residents because of AIDS phobia. And so people were literally sleeping in the streets and parks under bridges in subway tunnels.
Eric Sawyer: [01:15:30] And so since the city's approach was to let people live in the street, we decided let's create an AIDS housing street-based center, right in front of housing preservation and development the city offices for housing. And so we took my pickup truck and a friend's van and started going around the city on bulk pickup night to pick up furniture that apartment buildings had put out when it was being discarded by their tenants.
Eric Sawyer: [01:16:00] And we brought them to my brownstone in Harlem and put them in the basement collecting enough furniture, couches, TVs, toilets, even to create a disruption in front of HPD. And we literally shipped all of the furniture that we eventually collected in the van and the truck set up living rooms and bathrooms
Eric Sawyer: [01:16:30] and even like some kitchen and old stove in the middle of the street and chained ourselves to it parked the van on one end of the block, the pickup truck on the other end of the block. And literally made the city have to like bring tow trucks to tow the vehicles away bring devices to cut that, the chains off of us to get us off the furniture. To bring garbage trucks down to collect the furniture so that they could
Eric Sawyer: [01:17:00] clear the streets and arrest us after they cut us off cut the chains and get us off the furniture. And so it took so long for the city to have to mobilize all of those things that we were on the five o'clock, the 5:30, the six o'clock news with a story of AIDS activists protesting the lack of medically appropriate housing, blocking traffic in lower Manhattan.
Eric Sawyer: [01:17:30] So our demand was for $25 million capital fund to create medically appropriate housing. And ironically, within two weeks, the mayor's office matched that demand and a couple of weeks later, the governor of New York then, then Mario Cuomo, matched it as well. So we mobilized $50 million of capital funding for the creation of AIDS housing , just from that demonstration.
Mason Funk: [01:18:00] The whole process, I just had to ask, take so long that you actually do where they any like live news. Like could they, would they send someone down there to do like a live news shot? While the police
Eric Sawyer: Absolutely.
Mason Funk: Tell us about that.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah. I mean whenever we were planning a demonstration like this we of course had sympathetic reporters that we talked to all the time we would give them advanced copies of the press release.
Eric Sawyer: [01:18:30] We'd let them know that we're going to be doing this street theater demonstration at this time. And so while the police didn't always know what we were going to do. Sometimes they got wind of and had police officers waiting. We made sure that there was media there. And so, there would be cameras showing up where we were going to be doing a demonstration ahead of time.
Eric Sawyer: [01:19:00] And if there weren't cameras there, we had our own video crews and still photographers taking pictures and ...
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Mason Funk: [01:25:00] Okay. So when we talk about infighting, passionate, angry people with different points of view,
Mason Funk: [01:25:30] what do you see looking back that maybe you couldn't see at the time?
Eric Sawyer: Well, while the infighting and the internal struggles for the focus of act up for bodies at demonstrations, for funding for the coverage of particular issues in a way contributed to
Eric Sawyer: [01:26:00] act up splitting apart. It also created a lot of organizations that survive to this to this day. The housing committee of act up eventually spun off and created its own a 5013c AIDS service organizations called housing works then it now has more than a hundred million dollar budget. It it has something like
Eric Sawyer: [01:26:30] 15 AIDS residences that has three Medicaid based clinics, diagnostic treatment clinics that has a couple of adult day treatment programs that has mental health and drug treatment programs. And it's got more than 500 employees and is funded by 13 thrift stores in a used bookstore cafe that we started as an entrepreneurial subsidiary.
Eric Sawyer: [01:27:00] The treatment that access group still is around doing important advocacy and work on not only HIV prevention and treatment issues, but also tuberculosis issues now and the opioid crisis. A number of women's organizations to provide medical care to women and also pediatric organizations came out of the advocacy that was done by those committees. There's lower east side needle exchange program
Eric Sawyer: [01:27:30] and some others that are doing needle exchange that got their infants ... got their starts in act up. And so while in a way, helped contribute to the kind of massive decline of act up, which is still around, but a shadow of its former herself. It spun off some amazing organizations that are really thriving today.
Mason Funk: [01:28:00] What was your role in the creation of housing works?
Eric Sawyer: Well, I'm one of two people who basically called for the creation of the Housing Committee of act up in myself and an architect who, we wanted to build some AIDS housing. And when we realized that we were too small and didn't have enough resources to develop housing ourselves
Eric Sawyer: [01:28:30] we turned to advocating for the city and the state and four different AIDSaids organizations that were better resource to develop AIDS housing. And the AIDS organizations didn't want to take on the issue of housing homeless people with AIDS because often they were like mentally ill or drug users or they had just too severe medical needs for them to take on creating housing for them
Eric Sawyer: [01:29:00] and managing their complicated lives. And so we realized we were going to have to do it ourselves. So we literally decided, okay let's create a 5013c we recruited some lawyers to join our committee and they filed all the paperwork. And then we started talking to wealthy donors about giving us grants to try to start an organization. I had bought a couple of brown stones from a sealed dig auction program
Eric Sawyer: [01:29:30] that housing preservation and development ran. And so I started mining the auction brochures and went down and borrowed some money and bought two adjacent plots on east ninth street between Avenue C and D , to build our first housing program and talked to the AIDS institute and talked them into giving us a development grant
Eric Sawyer: [01:30:00] to co- locate adult day treatment program and a diagnostic clinic on the bottom couple of floors of a housing development and put 40 studio apartment upstairs so that the medical treatment and the daily needs like meals and whatever could be provided through the clinic or the Adult Day Treatment Program and a residential tower could provide individual
Eric Sawyer: [01:30:30] and medically appropriate housing units. And so I worked as a volunteer, as one of the Founding Board members for about five or six years until we opened our first residence in the Kyler House on eighty- ninth Street, and then had our second AIDS housing model also with day treatment in a medical clinic
Eric Sawyer: [01:31:00] called the Pratt house initially, kind of co- developed with Pratt University, but in East New York. But then I started learning about issues around AIDS and the lack of treatments for even an opportunistic infection or prevention interventions and in the developing world and kind of switched my emphasis of my activism
Eric Sawyer: [01:31:30] and how I spent my time into trying to get AIDS drugs into the developing world.
Mason Funk: Great. That was great. That was a great overview of a lot of years.
Michelle McCabe: Mason?
Mason Funk: Yes. [Inaudible]
Michelle McCabe: Oh, I thought he did. No? Okay.
Eric Sawyer: Okay.
Mason Funk: Okay. So just say, give us a little summary of starting the community which eventually became housing.
Eric Sawyer: [01:32:00] Right. So, because of my experience and knowledge about developing housing through developing some brownstones in Harlem, I called for the creation of a housing committee to develop housing and to do advocacy for the development of medically appropriate housing. And eventually that housing committee morphed into an organization called housing works ,
Eric Sawyer: [01:32:30] which is now one of the largest providers of AIDS housing medical care and treatment in the US.
Mason Funk: Great. That was awesome. Before we forget, this story about the ashes [inaudible].
Eric Sawyer: Okay, sure, sure. So I think one of the most emotional actions that act up ever did was the first ashes action
Eric Sawyer: [01:33:00] where we literally carried the ashes of people who died of AIDS along the quilt that was laid out on the Washington Mall between the Washington Monument and the White House to dump them on the White House lawn. And there was a fairly famous writing, a piece of writing that David Juana Ravitch wrote
Eric Sawyer: [01:33:30] where he said that he wanted his death and his funeral to be furious and full of rage and that he wanted people to throw his dead body in the back of a station wagon and drive 90 miles an hour to Washington DC and crashed through the gates of the White House and throw his dead body on the steps of the White House. And the idea was that
Eric Sawyer: [01:34:00] the president should have to like see, smell, step over his rotting AIDS flesh, as payback for, to his inaction. And so another guy named Mark Lowe Fisher, one of the people in act up wrote a similar piece called bury me furiously talking about that same kind of concept.
Eric Sawyer: [01:34:30] But when an act up members boyfriend died. He was like I want to do that we cremated my boyfriend and I want to dump his ashes on the White House lawn. Let's form an action and let's do that. And so we began planning this action and we were like it kind of more like, let's have more than just your boyfriend's body ashes. Lets put a call out for others people's ashes
Eric Sawyer: [01:35:00] and let's do it on the weekend that the quilt is going to be on display on the White Houses mall. And that's literally like start at one end of the quilt and march through the quilt and like chant Out of the quilt and into the streets, join us, join us. We had a funeral drums beating a funeral cake cadence a military funeral cadence. And literally we ...
Eric Sawyer: [01:35:30] By the time the ashes action happened, we thought we would have the ashes of eight people. But by spreading the word through AIDS publications and AIDS organization, another eight people showed up of actions, including a grandmother who got on a bus in the Midwest and carried her grandsons ashes so that they could be dumped on the White House lawn. And here's, this 50, 60 year old grandmother carrying her son's ashes .
Eric Sawyer: [01:36:00] And my friend Larry Kert , who was the original Tony in West Side Story, an actor who had performed at the White House, he had actually performed at state dinners for every president starting with Eisenhower forward and was going to perform at a state dinner for George Bush senior. And planned to, before he started singing, make a statement about
Eric Sawyer: [01:36:30] how he was dying of AIDS and that he really needed the president to provide more funding for AIDS research. So people who were dying of AIDS , like him might have a chance to live. And somehow the White House got wind that that was gonna happen. And he was literally like in the queue , in the green room to go on and sing. And they like , stopped him and said, We've lost your music,
Eric Sawyer: [01:37:00] the pianist doesn't know the song you were going to sing. He was going to do a duet with Carol Lawrence. But we do have this song from West Side Story that Carol Sang in the place. So she's going to go on by herself . And Larry was so devastated that he went back to New York and within a couple of weeks came down with AIDS pneumonia and died. And his lover called me up and said, I know you're doing this ashes action, I still have Larry's ashes.
Eric Sawyer: [01:37:30] Will you give him his final performance at the White House? And so I said, Of course. And I'm carrying an urn with his ashes and a blowed- up two feet by four foot poster from the playbill from West Side Story with this picture and a bloody hand print in red paint smacked on the photo with Larry Kert not appearing on it.
Eric Sawyer: [01:38:00] And we literally marched through the quilt calling people to join us. And you know, we had like, I think five buses full of people. So three/ five buses, like 250 people approximately. By marching through the quilt people just started pouring into our procession. And by the time we got to the White House. There were thousands of people behind us and we're going to dump them on
Eric Sawyer: [01:38:30] the Pennsylvania Avenue side, 1800 Pennsylvania Avenue, but our spotters who were running ahead said there are complete barricades, there's police on mounted horses that there's no way we're going to get close to the White House fence, change of direction, let's go to the back fence and dump them on the back lawn. And so we proceeded as if we were going to go to the front fence and at the last minute we veered off to the back side of the White House.
Eric Sawyer: [01:39:00] We had to go around from the backside to the front anyhow. And so we just looked like we were going to go and then boom, went to the back wall and dumped the ashes and the police came running around with the mounted police and tried to like stomp us down. But by then we'd already dumped the ashes and everybody sat down and the horses wouldn't like step on the people.
Eric Sawyer: [01:39:30] And we proceeded to make some speeches on bullhorns. But it was really, really emotional and there's great footage of it that you can find online. But ironically, the White House was able to prevent any of the footage from really appearing in the news.
Mason Funk: [01:40:00] How did they do that?
Eric Sawyer: They basically put the word out that if anybody any network covered the action, they would never be allowed in the briefing room or allowed an interview with the president. So ... There were some papers though, like New York Daily News covered it in print.
Mason Funk: [01:40:30] What was ... How did you see the quilt at that time? Give us a little, just super short introduction to what the quilt was and how did you see it?
Eric Sawyer: The quilt developed early on in the epidemic. Cleve Jones was the person who came up with the idea and started making these panels to memorialize people who died of AIDS. And like a quilt
Eric Sawyer: [01:41:00] that your grandmother would stitch together of different panels of cloth. He decided let's build these three by five pieces of fabric that people could attach pictures to or embroider on or do something that told the date of birth and the date of death and what the person was like, so that people could remember that person
Eric Sawyer: [01:41:30] and stitch them together and let's have a big wall mural about it. And everyone thought it was such a great idea that it quickly grew from being like a few dozen panels to being literally tens of thousands of panels that would cover the whole mall of the Washington mall. It was a way for people to memorialize
Eric Sawyer: [01:42:00] and to remember their loved ones. And I think it was a good outlet for some of the grief and the anger that people had. But act up, and as an activist, in a way it seemed like while it was nice to remember your loved one in that way,
Eric Sawyer: [01:42:30] it wasn't enough and that you really needed to turn that grief into anger and then into action to stop the dying rather than just try to remember the dead. I think it had its purpose and I'm glad that it's still around that as a way to get some publicity to the AIDS epidemic. But I chose activism instead.
[Inaudible]
Michelle McCabe: [01:43:00] Yeah.
Eric Sawyer: Thank you.
Mason Funk: Okay. We're going to start, needless to say there are so many things we havent talked about, but we're going to start kind of wrapping up. Do you have questions stored up or do you want me to give you a minute while I just ask, maybe one more and then if you have any Im pretty sure we'll make space for that.
Mason Funk: [01:43:30] Well I think one of the most important things to talk about is how one of these about is how for me is how our experiences everything we've all been through as a community have empowered us to be prophets and certainly on the front on the global AIDS front . That was one of the things I think you might've even mentioned.
Mason Funk: [01:44:00] How not only our coming to terms with AIDS and finding innovative and creative solutions to battle the disease, but also for other types of medical crisis we become leaders. So I want to make sure we talk about that. And you're, that of course, comes directly from your own life. How you sort of shifted your focus? So that's a big, broad question. Could you talk about that ?
Eric Sawyer: Sure. So after I had started housing works I started and because of my work at act up,
Eric Sawyer: [01:44:30] I started getting invited to give speeches at international AIDS conferences. And there I learned that as bad as people with AIDS had it in the US and in Europe in Africa, people had nothing. They had no access to treatments to even treat there opportunistic infections. And so people were dying of things like tuberculosis and pneumonia because they didn't have access to the drugs. And we hit, we had long since gained access to drugs
Eric Sawyer: [01:45:00] to treat people with AIDS , for AIDS pneumonia, etc. And so I decided to switch my activism to try to get first the opportunistic infection drugs into Africa so that people didn't have to die of something that was now treatable like AIDS pneumonia. And then I reached out to organizations like Doctors Without Borders
Eric Sawyer: [01:45:30] who were also starting to mobilize for access to AIDS drugs as well. And as a coalition of Doctors Without Borders and health action international and the consumer project on technology, which was an international trade organization dealing with patents we came up with this theory, let's push for first the opportunistic infection drugs to be on the World Health Organization's essential drugs list so that at least governments in the world
Eric Sawyer: [01:46:00] had to make these drugs available. And then after we get the opportunistic infection drugs approved and on the WHO essential drug list, we then tried to get the antiretroviral drugs. And so we succeeded in those two things. And then it was like how do you pay for these drugs? And so we fought for like generic production and relaxation of the patent system, so that generic, more affordable drugs could be developed
Eric Sawyer: [01:46:30] and AIDS drugs that were branded and patented would cost tens of thousands of dollars were generic versions of them now costs less than $90. And so we knew that generic drugs where the only way that drugs were going to be provided in the developing world and they needed to be provided for free because people in the developing world in lots of places live on a dollar or two a day, and so they're not going to be able to spend
Eric Sawyer: [01:47:00] even $90 a year on HIV meds. So we pushed for the development of funding mechanisms and we wanted a war chest for AIDS . I talked about it in 1996 and the opening of the Vancouver Aids Conference and to ask for $3 billion and eventually the secretary general formed a global fund for HIV, TB and malaria
Eric Sawyer: [01:47:30] that would be funded by governments in rich countries to provide free medication in the developing world. Then eventually President Bush, the second, created the pepfar program, the president's Emergency Preparedness Fund for the AIDS response, which put up $3 billion a year for the purchase of AIDS medications for distribution in the developing world.
Eric Sawyer: [01:48:00] And that fight or through that fight to help start at an organization called health gap, the global access proud project health global access project. That did a lot of the advocacy with other organizations to get AIDS drugs into Africa. But that is a similar example of how the aids response has gone to change how public health is done.
Eric Sawyer: [01:48:30] Because the AIDS response was like the first time that people living with a disease came forward and did civil disobedience and created organizations to treat the people who were dying. We basically come up with the demand that nothing for us without us, meaning we need to be involved in every step of the development of the response because we want it to be humane. We want to know that it's gonna work for us and that all of our needs are met instead of just
Eric Sawyer: [01:49:00] what some medical doctor or a researcher thinks needs to be met. Eventually a lot of development processes like the TRIPS accord, which is trade related intellectual property rights system came forward where patents could be waived to create generic drugs for essential medicines that were needed to save people's lives.
Eric Sawyer: [01:49:30] And there were things like the Doha agreement and a number of trade related issues that came forward to make essential drugs available. This Global Fund for it was first going to be only AIDS but then it got expanded to TB and malaria developed. And literally, it changed how development is done. Not only public health, but development is done around the world.
Eric Sawyer: [01:50:00] And so, one of the things that I think is important to preserve is that history of how community involvement, how activism, how affected communities changed public health and development and the lessons of how that mobilization impacted those that crucial issues. Public Health and development
Eric Sawyer: [01:50:30] needs to be studied as a case study to teach people what to do to impact social change and to try to achieve social justice. It try to expand global human rights. And I helped create the New York City AIDS memorial here. And one of the goals other than just paying tribute to and memorializing the more than a hundred thousand people died of AIDS in New York City is to record
Eric Sawyer: [01:51:00] and archive the history of the HIV response and to develop teaching modules that teach young activists, old activists, anybody who wants to learn from the history of the AIDS response, how they might go about impacting social change.
Eric Sawyer: [01:51:30] Too many people that died horrendous deaths not to have something positive come out of that, their deaths and the community response that is now giving people life.
Mason Funk: [01:52:00] Okay. Thank you. Do you have a question that you wanna ask at this moment? [inaudible] So we can all cry or we can just pause for a sec. We have a few more minutes to go. Any thoughts?
Michelle McCabe: Something I'm wondering about is
Michelle McCabe: [01:52:30] there's so much stigma in the US about being gay and then having AIDS they're equal and separate and come out , it's like.
Eric Sawyer: Right. Massive.
Michelle McCabe: A mushroom effect to then go to Africa where the stigma against gay people is ...
Eric Sawyer: Even more intense.
Michelle McCabe: Times picking up.
Eric Sawyer: Right? Right. Yeah.
Michelle McCabe: [01:53:00] What was that like?
Mason Funk: And then you'll just answer me. [crosstalk]
Eric Sawyer: Yes. So , I think Africa contained a special challenge. Ironically, the majority of cases in the world exist in sub Saharan Africa. And they're primarily heterosexually transmitted cases, amongst men and women and children alike. But because
Eric Sawyer: [01:53:30] the first publicized cases were gay men in America it's been stigmatized as a gay disease. And so a lot of Africans a lot of African countries have laws that criminalize being gay or lesbian and some of them in some of those countries in Africa and the Middle East being gay has a death sentence as
Eric Sawyer: [01:54:00] the law that exists on the book for gay people, for just simply being gay. And a lot of countries have, like Nigeria and other places. Largely Muslim majority countries have laws that call for a 10, 14, 15, 25 year prison sentence simply for being gay. And so no one wanted to test and find out they had AIDS even
Eric Sawyer: [01:54:30] if they were dying of clearly the symptoms of it because they didn't want people to think they were homosexual if they were male or a drug user or sex worker if they were female. They would rather die in the shadows, than come forward and test and tried to get access to AIDS treatments simply because of the stigma of being gay, lesbian, drug users, sex worker. It,
Eric Sawyer: [01:55:00] I think, allowed the epidemic to rage even more out of control there because of the heightened stigma of those despised populations, the junkies, queer and whores. And because of the homophobia that existed, connected to HIV.
Eric Sawyer: [01:55:30] I've fought really hard to get free access to HIV drugs in the developing world. Because know I met some people at international AIDS conferences some really brave women that were coming forward and speaking up about the need for AIDS education and prevention and the need for drugs and talking about the death of their husband and their sick children and, or dead children. And at that point a lot of them had just found out they were sick.
Eric Sawyer: [01:56:00] A year ago when they were on death's door already. By then I had been living with symptoms of HIV for 15 years and I was like I don't deserve to live any more than that woman who's buried a child and lost her husband and is got three other older kids that she's trying to raise while she's dying.
Eric Sawyer: [01:56:30] And so that survivor guilt and that outrage over the inequality of the rich white people in Europe and the US getting to live and the poor black and brown people around the world being condemned to death in a year or two, just outraged me. And I knew I had to do something about it. It's part of the reason why I'm still an activist today.
Eric Sawyer: [01:57:00] I'm not going to stop raising my voice or fighting to give access to people, to medications to save their lives until everybody has, has access to medications. It's kind of like no people with AIDS should sit on their laurels while they're still people with AIDS who don't have access to drugs. And it's also
Eric Sawyer: [01:57:30] why I fight against laws that criminalize LGBT people. Like no LGBT person is free until all LGBT people are free and everybody needs to feel that way. We need to use our our privilege, our legal protections are our freedom in places where we have to fight for people who don't have it, who literally could be hung
Eric Sawyer: [01:58:00] if if it came out that they were gay or even if they're accused of being gay or that they might literally be thrown off a building by their uncle simply because they're gay
Mason Funk: Do you have other questions. Okay. Why did you choose to wear this tee shirt today?
Eric Sawyer: [01:58:30] Well, this tee shirt was developed by my friend Avram Finkelstein and some other people that we're in a collective called the silence equals death collective, that kind of then became grand fury and organization that did lots of graphics to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic. And this basically takes the pink triangle, which the Nazis forced gay people and Lesbians to wear in the concentration camps
Eric Sawyer: [01:59:00] where they were imprisoned and eventually murdered. Like the Jewish star, which ... Star of David, which Jews wore. And that symbol for gay people in Nazi Germany, the triangle was inverted, a downwards triangle. And the silence equals death collective flipped it so that it was pointing forward
Eric Sawyer: [01:59:30] like a positive ascent. And the Tagline, silence equals death basically says if gay people and people with AIDS continue to be silent about, you know, their injustice and about their disease, nobody's going to care and nothing's going to change and the end results going to be death. Your silence equals death. And, you know, it became the mantra, the brand, the symbol of, of um, AIDS activists.
Eric Sawyer: [02:00:00] And, um, I wear it so people will remember that the AIDS epidemic is not over and silence still kills. And we need to continue to raise our voice and demand action so that everybody has access to treatment and so everybody has a chance to be resurrected and live.
Mason Funk: [02:00:30] I see she came down there.
Michelle McCabe: Yeah. Would it be relevant to talk about this case in London?
Eric Sawyer: The cure.
Mason Funk: Oh.
Michelle McCabe: What does that feeling?
Eric Sawyer: Yeah. Ive done a lot of media about this. So the ... It's interesting that there was a lot of press
Eric Sawyer: [02:01:00] about the supposedly London cure case. Similar to when 12 years ago, a guy named Ron ...
Mason Funk: Do me a favor. I'm just going to Just real quick.
Eric Sawyer: Okay.
Mason Funk: Just give us a timeframe. Like, in When was it, January, February, this year? Just give us a date.
Eric Sawyer: Right. Okay. Let's see. It was probably late February, or no, actually it was in March. It's march, just like three weeks. Three weeks ago. Right.
Mason Funk: [02:01:30] Okay.
Michelle McCabe: It was March 4th, I think. I was with an AIDS researcher from South Africa on the exact date that it came out. Anyway, I think [crosstalk]
Mason Funk: So you can say, March of 2019.
Eric Sawyer: Okay. So in early March of this year ...
Mason Funk: I'm sorry ...
Eric Sawyer: 2019 ...
Mason Funk: Sorry, one more time. I didnt know you were going to say the year. Go ahead.
Eric Sawyer: [02:02:00] In early March of 2019, there was a lot of press at a scientific meeting in the west coast about the London patient cured of AIDS . And similar to about 12 years ago when Phillip Brown was ... The Berlin case, the Berlin cure was announced. There was all this excitement about, Oh my God, we might have a cure for AIDS . And both of these individuals not only were infected with AIDS,
Eric Sawyer: [02:02:30] but also had a terminal cancer and they had failed all forms of cancer. And what was done was they took the bone marrow from someone who had a genetic mutation of the CCR53 gene that changes the exterior of the CD4 cells so that it lacks a receptor that the HIV virus attaches itself
Eric Sawyer: [02:03:00] to be able to penetrate the coding of the virus, get inside the blood cell and penetrates the CD4 cell, gets inside and starts replicating new copies of the HIV virus and it through invading the cell. And making thousands and thousands of copies of itself that is then released into the bloodstream.
Eric Sawyer: [02:03:30] It basically crashes the immune system by destroying all of these CD4 cells because once they turn into these viral production machinery, they blow up and can no longer mobilize an immune response against the virus. And that particular intervention requires a bone marrow transplant, which means you have to like basically destroy the immune system
Eric Sawyer: [02:04:00] and the bone marrow of the patient and then find genetically mutated stem cells from the bone marrow of someone with this rare genetic mutation to implant in the patient who was dying of cancer and AIDS . And then hope that a bone marrow transplant takes that the immune system reconstitutes in a way that it's HIV resistance.
Eric Sawyer: [02:04:30] So you're not going to do a bone marrow transplant on somebody that just has AIDS . So it's not as scalable intervention, because it's dangerous. Lots of people who they've tried this out and have died. Either because the immune system didn't reconstitute or there was a host donor reaction where the rejection of the donor material killed the patient.
Eric Sawyer: [02:05:00] And there's less than 1% of people of northern European descent to have this CCR5 factor. So it's not scalable. You can't find enough of this bone marrow to treat a lot of people. And so it's too risky, patients die it's way too expensive, it doesn't work for a lot of people, there's not enough material to produce it. So it's too dangerous, unaffordable, not scalable, not sustainable.
Eric Sawyer: [02:05:30] It's kind of like when the protease inhibitors and the triple cocktail came about, everyone was like, Oh, the cure is here, the cure is here. Cause people were, their immune system was resurrecting but they weren't cured. As soon as they stop taking the drugs, HIV roars back. And so my message is, it's interesting research, but it ain't a cure. And it's not going to help other than a sliver of people with terminal cancer and AIDS .
Mason Funk: [02:06:00] I didn't quite understand why the connection between HIV and cancer. [inaudible]
Michelle McCabe: Yeah, lets kina hold for them.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah. How this supposed cure works is that, someone gets a bone marrow transplant and you don't do a bone marrow transplant on anyone who has HIV
Eric Sawyer: [02:06:30] out of the hope of curing them of HIV when the HIV medications do a great job at managing the health an HIV patient and they're not deadly. It's not a deadly response. A bone marrow transplant often results in the death of the patient either because the bone marrow transplant doesn't take or there's a host donor rejection that kills the patient.
Eric Sawyer: [02:07:00] And so the only people that are given this intervention of a bone marrow transplant with the CCR5 genetic mutation are people that are in terminal state of cancer treatment. They failed all others and so they have to go to the high risk, potentially deadly intervention of a bone marrow transplant.
Mason Funk: Gotcha. Okay. That was good to talk about. Thank you.
Mason Funk: [02:07:30] yeah, we have ... We finish with four standard questions.
Eric Sawyer: Okay.
Mason Funk: The first is really super basic, but if somebody comes to you and says they're considering coming out, whatever that might mean to that person, what's your kind of simple kind of, sort of, relatively concise pearl or pearls of wisdom to them?
Eric Sawyer: Well, the first thing I do when someone tells me they're thinking about coming out is ask them a lot of questions
Eric Sawyer: [02:08:00] about who they are, where they work, what is their family background, how important is your family to you? Are they forcibly conservative, homophobic, religious? Have you thought about the fact that you may be rejected by people you work with, live with people in your family, you know, people who could be critically important to you. And to ensure that they've thought about
Eric Sawyer: [02:08:30] all of the implications and results that might occur to their coming out. Ask them why do they want to come out and make sure that they've thought about all of the repercussions and make sure that it's an informed incident that, especially like in the developing world, there are lots of people who come out and then theyre murdered, their houses burned, and so,
Eric Sawyer: [02:09:00] I think it's really important that a lot of people come out because I think part of how gay people are accepted more now in a way comes because of HIV. Because when you're sick and dying of AIDS people are gonna know. And so you have almost no recourse but to let people know you're gay and let people know you have AIDS and kind of try to deal with the fact that, hey, it's just a virus.
Eric Sawyer: [02:09:30] I'm no different than I was before. I've always been gay now I'm sick, but I'm sick because I got a virus, not because I'm being immoral. And so, I think the LGBT rights movement has been propelled forward because lots of people have learned that their brother, sister, cousin, uncle, work colleagues, are gay
Eric Sawyer: [02:10:00] and that they like that person and it's not a big deal that they're gay . And so, I think it is important for people to come out. I think you feel much better when you do come out. I mean, I was closeted in the work environment. Although, I did tell friends of mine that I worked with that I was gay and people probably did the math, you know, here's somebody in their thirties thats single
Eric Sawyer: [02:10:30] and dress as well goes to the gym all the time. Anybody who's astute does the math and figures it out. But it was so much of a relief for me to come out as gay and it was so much of a relief.
Mason Funk: Hmmm. Yeah. Thats a little intense right now I think we'll, we'll pop that was good to talk to the next in a way. And the dog's a minute.
Mason Funk: [02:11:00] A little intense, right now. Thats good. I think we got some good materials there, and I think we should pause and I think we should move on. just to be able to tag into the next Well kinda wait on the dogs a minute.
Eric Sawyer: Maybe theyre ... okay.
Mason Funk: Okay. Let me tell you the next question? The next question when we're ready is what is your hope for the future?
Mason Funk: [02:11:30] And my hope for the future as a doctor in a state ... Oh, dear.
Eric Sawyer: Okay. I'm longing for a day when homophobia disappears
Eric Sawyer: [02:12:00] and human rights are guaranteed for everybody in the world including the human right to help. That's a very lofty set of wishes for the world. But I'm hopeful that more and more people will continue to come out and develop a moral consciousness that demands
Eric Sawyer: [02:12:30] equal rights and human rights and universal access to healthcare around the world. And that more people will become activists to fight for those things. I'd also like a strong environmental movement to try to deal with climate change too. But I see a lot of promise in both the young teenagers that have been responding to gun violence
Eric Sawyer: [02:13:00] and are mobilizing around that issue. I find a lot of hope in the mobilization around equality between the sexes and that women, sometime, have equal rights and pay equity in a number of things like that. I really have encouraged by the, this young Danish girl Hannah,
Eric Sawyer: [02:13:30] can't remember her last name started like taking every Friday and skipping schools to protest in front of her parliament for their lack of a response to the, to climate change and the environmental crisis. And we've seen her go to Doha, I'm sorry to ... Where's that fancy place that everybody goes for the conference?
Mason Funk: The [inaudible]
Eric Sawyer: [02:14:00] No, no. She went to this big conference that happens once a year.
Mason Funk: Oh, dear. Ive seen her video, but I dont know of the conference.
Eric Sawyer: Yeah, yeah.
Mason Funk: But you can maybe just skip over that.
Eric Sawyer: I'm very moved by this young, a 16 year old in northern Europe who started protesting every Friday in front of her parliament calling for climate change and calling for a response to the environmental crisis
Eric Sawyer: [02:14:30] and she did a big speech at a conference of world leaders where she said, I want you to respond like I'm responding. I wake up every day and I'm not just concerned about climate change and the environmental crisis. I'm terrified every single day. I'm fearful for my life and what climate change is doing.
Eric Sawyer: [02:15:00] I want you to not only feel that fear too, but I want you to start taking action. And her message so resonated around the world that just a couple of Fridays ago, there were in more than a hundred countries around the world. I think it was like 123 countries. There were 1.4 million high school and elementary students who took to the streets on Friday
Eric Sawyer: [02:15:30] to protest with her for environmental activism and for a better response towards climate change. And hopefully that movement will keep growing. And so that people like Donald Trump can't say that there's no such thing as global warming or climate change and drop out of the climate accord, and start doing something for climate change.
Mason Funk: [02:16:00] Why is it important to you to tell your story?
Eric Sawyer: I think it's important for people like me to tell our stories because I think it ...
Mason Funk: Sorry, I want you to just make it a little more personal. Just you.
Eric Sawyer: Okay. I think it's really important to me to tell my story
Eric Sawyer: [02:16:30] and to talk about the outrage I feel that there isn't equal access to essential medicines and HIV drugs around the world, that there are still laws that criminalize being gay or lesbian and can result in not only long prison sentences, but death sentences, people being hung
Eric Sawyer: [02:17:00] or beaten to death or stoned to death simply because they're gay. I don't feel like I deserve legal protections or to live because I'm gay and a white American anymore than a black or brown person in a country where it's a crime to be gay and lesbian. And I want all those laws taken off the books. And I want LGBT people everywhere in the world to have human rights.
Eric Sawyer: [02:17:30] And I want everyone in the world. Especially poor people to have access to health. I mean, health is a human right. In my opinion, clean water and food security and housing are our human rights as well. And so I'm going to keep opening my big mouth and advocating for equal access to human rights and dignity.
Mason Funk: [02:18:00] Okay. Finally, this project OUTWORDS , which is essentially trying to collect stories like yours and hundreds of other people around the US who have taken various paths and done various things. What do you see as the value of collecting all these stories?
Eric Sawyer: Well I think there's a tremendous value into documenting people's stories and documenting activism.
Eric Sawyer: [02:18:30] When I was in college in the 70s, I started college in 72, three years after 1969 when the stonewall riots happened. So the very beginning of the LGBT movement and in a psych class, and a sociology class, both, that I took , that were, one was on the psychology of human sexual development and
Eric Sawyer: [02:19:00] the other was on a psychosocial aspects of alternative lifestyles. LGBT activists from New York City came to my school in upstate New York to talk about being gay as an alternative lifestyle. And here I was trying to pray away the gay thought of myself as a deviant and, and it was still a mental health diagnosis to be homosexual at that time.
Eric Sawyer: [02:19:30] And so, their coming forward and saying, I'm gay. No big deal. I'm just like everybody else. I should be able to live open and free, and love who I want. It made me accept myself and that process of sharing that word and documenting organizations and people that are trying to spread the message
Eric Sawyer: [02:20:00] I think continues to provide role models to the little gay boy or lesbian or transgender person living in some rural community in the US who may think they're the only one that feels what they feel and who has this different normality for their selves.
Eric Sawyer: [02:20:30] If those isolated LGBT youth can know that they're not crazy, they're not perverted, that they're just born different and their DNA is different than the majority of people with big deal it's okay to be who you are, who you were born to be. It'll help eliminate suicides
Eric Sawyer: [02:21:00] and bullying and people's lack of self worth and allow more people to see and live there real lives.
Mason Funk: I think were done. That's great.
Eric Sawyer: Okay. Cool.
Mason Funk: Thank you very much. Were going to do room tone.
Michelle McCabe: Yes.
Mason Funk: 30 seconds of just the room talking. You want me to say it? I'll just give it a
Michelle McCabe: [02:21:30] Yeah. Go ahead and say it.
Mason Funk: Room tone. Room tone.
Michelle McCabe: I'm going to kind of start the clock after that ...
Eric Sawyer: After the bus.
Mason Funk: They never fail, immediately you call room tone theres a [inaudible]
Eric Sawyer: Or a siren.
Michelle McCabe: [02:22:00] Okay.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Michelle McCabe
Date: March 28, 2019
Location: Home of Eric Sawyer, New York, NY