John James was born in 1941 in Brooklyn, NY. His father, a Montana native, was a lawyer; his mom was from Iowa and sold real estate part-time to help make ends meet. As a child, John’s family moved around. From 9 to 12 years old, they lived in Germany. After graduating from high school, John attended Harvard College, graduating in 1963.

John began to figure out he was gay in his teens, but didn’t fully accept it until he was 20. His biggest fear was the law of unforeseen consequences – in his own words, “getting in over my head”. Also, during his college years, Massachusetts law provided a long prison term for "the abominable crime against nature" - greatly increased if it occurred on a Sunday.

On July 4, 1965, five years before Stonewall, a consortium of gay rights groups operating under the name East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) staged the first Reminder Day march in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Originally conceived by activist Craig Rodwell, the event was created to remind the American people that millions of queer American citizens were denied the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. Although he was employed at the time by the National Institutes of Health, a federal agency, John joined 38 other people at the event. A photographer captured him there: tall, thin, and dressed like the other men in a dark suit and tie.

But John’s most important work by far was creating and publishing AIDS Treatment News from 1986-2007, part of an underground information network that people with AIDS, doctors, researchers and even the federal government turned to for the latest information about the disease. Thanks to such newsletters, drug companies gradually became more responsive, doctors started treating HIV+ people as partners, and people with AIDS seized control of their own health. According to the New York Times, the most influential newsletter was AIDS Treatment News, which by 1991 had 5,000 subscribers and was produced every other week for 20 years by John and six researchers in John’s tiny San Francisco apartment.

Today, John lives at the John C. Anderson Apartments, an LGBT-friendly seniors community on a tree-lined street just over a mile from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. John’s apartment is almost bare. For his interview, he sits on a squeaky $2 folding chair from a local AIDS thrift store. Tall, gangly and self-effacing, John has spent his life devoting his resources to things that matter. He almost certainly saved some people’s lives. Without a doubt, he saved many people’s dignity.   
Mason Funk: [00:00:00] Okay. Do me a favor and start by telling us your first and last names in the way that you would like them to appear on camera.
John James: John James.
Mason Funk: Could you spell them for us?
John James: J-O-H-N- J-A-M-E-S
Mason Funk: Okay. John, tell me a little bit about where you were born and what year. Just paint me a little picture of your family.
John James: Okay, I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1941.
John James: [00:00:30] My father was a lawyer who worked for the government all his life. He was in antitrust mostly and he and my mother met during the New Deal operation in Washington, D.C. He was from Montana, my mother was from Iowa. I was the oldest kid and then there was a younger brother and sister.
Mason Funk: Okay, okay. Your mom and your dad were both westerners or mid-westerners?
John James: [00:01:00] Midwesterners by ancestry. They met in Washington D.C. I'm not sure exactly what the office was at that point. I didn't talk to him a lot about work but they were working on the New Deal.
Mason Funk: Okay. What kind of mom was your mom? Was she a traditional mom? Was she a working mom?
John James: Working from time to time. They had money problems, especially with us 3 kids and how are they going to put us through college and school.
John James: [00:01:30] My mother sold real estate at times but not all the time.
Mason Funk: Okay. Describe yourself as a young person growing up. What kind of young person, what kind of a kid were you?
John James: I was a nerd all my life. I was not interested in people and socializing.
John James: [00:02:00] I was interested in ideas and science. Things like that. I had a few friends. I did have some. Very much would be called an introvert.
Mason Funk: Okay. When you left home, did you go to college or how did you eventually leave home and begin to set off into the world?
John James: [00:02:30] I went to college, I went to Harvard and graduated in 1963 and sort of the regular in terms of years, finished high school, go to college. The expected track in the upper middle class family. Then when I finished school,
John James: [00:03:00] I ended up getting a job in Washington D.C. a the National Institutes of Health as a computer programmer and my family was there so I actually stayed with them for a few months until I found a place on my own in a boarding house actually called Hartnett Hall, a huge operation with many dozens of people. Sometimes foreign students, sometimes Americans.
John James: [00:03:30] I chose to move out to my own place. In any case, staying with the family was temporary.
Mason Funk: Right. Yes ma'am.
Kate Kunath: Your chair has got a little squeak. When you shake your head even it squeaks the chair so you might want to sit forward.
John James: That was a $2 chair from the AIDS thrift which is a good operation here in Philadelphia.
Mason Funk: [00:04:00] Right, right. Useful for everything.
John James: Yes.
Mason Funk: Except when it squeaks and then I just have to sit still. When you participated, I don't want to get too far ahead, but when you participated in those protests in Philadelphia, were you living in Philly or were you just going down for the protests?
John James: I was still working at the National Institutes of Health and that was my first day in Philadelphia, was the July 4th, 1965 demonstration in front of Independence Hall.
Mason Funk: [00:04:30] Okay great, we'll get there in a minute. I wanted to ask you during these years when you were going through high school and introverted nerd going off to Harvard, when did you start to be aware of yourself sexually of your orientation?
John James: I didn't accept that I was gay until I was 20 and I didn't really have much of a hint until I was 18.
John James: [00:05:00] It crossed my mind at one of my classmates that ... I went for 3 years to a boarding school. It was all boys, now it's boys and girls. It crossed my mind that there was an attraction for a classmate and that maybe in the future it would be possible to marry
John James: [00:05:30] such a person but I didn't really think about it. It was not serious. I didn't realize that I was gay. I didn't want to realize that I was gay. I saw it as being ... My image of it was like being drunk in the gutter when I was in high school.
Mason Funk: This is probably in the late 50s I would imagine. Mid to late 50s?
John James: [00:06:00] Yeah. Left high school, I was class of '59.
Mason Funk: Okay. What did you hear or what word did you hear bandied about? Did you have any frame of reference for homosexuals or gay people in your personal experience?
John James: I got approached by 2 or 3 people over the years and I turned them down of course.
Mason Funk: Who were these people who approached you?
John James: [00:06:30] One was in a bus and as I was riding the bus, my parents were in the row in front and there were 2 seats and I was in a row with 2 seats and there was a guy there in the outside seat. He got into conversation with my parents and so on and his hand reached over and started playing with me.
John James: [00:07:00] I didn't particularly mind it but I was afraid of getting an erection in front of my parents, so I didn't like it for that reason. I knew I did not want to pursue that. I didn't want to be gay. When we got off the bus, my mother said, "Oh, such a nice man." They missed it entirely.
Mason Funk: [00:07:30] Right, wow. Okay. So that people can understand, help us understand that you as an employee of the National Institute of Health that it was against the law for a federal employee to be gay and you could be fired for being a homosexual.
John James: [00:08:00] Yeah. I'm not exactly sure what the exact situation was. Would I definitely be fired automatically or would there be some discretion or not? I don't know.
Mason Funk: Let me interrupt you for a second. I need you to set up what you're talking about because we'll never hear my questions. Working for the National Institutes of Health as an employee of the federal government, and then you can start that way and then carry on what you were going to say. Give us the year.
John James: [00:08:30] This was around mid to early 1960s and I was working for the US National Institutes of Health near Washington, D.C. It was a bus ride in those days, that was before the subway. I was concerned that I was going through the demonstration at Independence Hall for gay rights that I would likely be fired if my employer found out
John James: [00:09:00] that I was there and I don't know for a fact that I would have been. The people I worked with were happy. They would not have wanted to fire me but their hands might have been tied. I just didn't know. I asked not to be photographed in the demonstration and unfortunately a picture got taken that showed me and I didn't even know that picture existed until about a year ago.
Mason Funk: [00:09:30] How did you find out about the photograph?
John James: I found out about it because at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, there was an exhibit on the history of gay rights and how it's related to the US Constitution and there was a press conference at the beginning of that, and I was there. One of the pictures that happened to be projected on the wall
John James: [00:10:00] before the press conference started was that picture with me in it. I asked Chris Bartlett, he's the executive director of the William Way Center, which was running much of the show, and I said, "Hey I think that's me. What year was that taken? Was that the first of the demonstrations of the July 4th reminder day demonstration that we started in 1965?" He said he thought it was and I looked again, it certainly was me.
John James: [00:10:30] It was taken by some friendly person. I don't know how. It had been on the internet for years and years and has never looked for it, my name wasn't attached to it anyway because it would be hard to know. If it hadn't been for that picture, I don't know anybody in the march, that's surviving,
John James: [00:11:00] who knew me, and so there would actually be no proof that I was there.
Mason Funk: Wow. That's cool. Let me backtrack a little bit. When you say you didn't want to be gay, why didn't you want to be gay? And put my question in your answer.
John James: [00:11:30] I didn't want to be gay as a boy or a teenager, and why didn't I want to be gay? The reason is I just didn't know what would be opening up. I would get into situations that I couldn't control and didn't know how it would end up. That was the main reason I didn't want to be gay.
Mason Funk: Were there any familial reasons? Were you worried about ... I've talked to many many people asking this question.
Mason Funk: [00:12:00] Some people were very afraid of, for example, bringing dishonor on their family or of their parents rejecting them for example. Did those thoughts cross your mind?
John James: I didn't worry about that. I was pretty sure it would not happen.
Mason Funk: I wasn't worried about, and fill in the blank.
John James: I wasn't worried about my parents or family knowing. My brother and sister implicitly knew for many years and we just didn't address it openly at that time in our correspondence.
John James: [00:12:30] My parents were liberal about such things. The early days might have been, you need to do therapy or something like that, which I wasn't interested in doing, but that would have been the worst of it.
Mason Funk: You knew based on your parents' stance on social issues, you knew they weren't going to have an issue, so to speak, with it?
John James: [00:13:00] I knew it wouldn't be a big or serious issue. They would be concerned about my welfare and for that reason might want to get me into some kind of treatment that I wouldn't have wanted to get into and wouldn't have seen any use for. It wouldn't have been a family catastrophe, it wouldn't have reflected badly on anybody else.
John James: [00:13:30] That was no issue for me in the early days back around the early 1960s.
Mason Funk: Were you an activist in any area? Were you involved in civil rights demonstrations?
John James: Yeah. I was involved in-
Mason Funk: Tell me about ... Give me the time frame.
John James: [00:14:00] This was during the Vietnam War and I think I first became aware of it and got involved in 1964. I was opposed to the war, of course, but I was not active or a leader. I would go to the demonstrations, I had friends who were opposed to the war, we talked about it and tell people that we were opposed to the war but I wasn't any kind of a leader in that movement. I was involved in other movements and that was the psychedelic drug movement.
John James: [00:14:30] When I was at Harvard, that was the year I graduated was the year that Timothy Leary was fired from Harvard for leading a movement there to get these drugs studied and applied for human enlightenment and therapy which hasn't been done for about 50 years, but now there's a movement again to apply some of them
John James: [00:15:00] and other mind altering drugs as well for important medical treatments for people. I was interested in that because of looking for new ideas. I saw myself as a ... That was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to find new ideas and bring them into society and make them useful.
John James: [00:15:30] I figured this is something I'll look into as a source of new ideas. I was a little bit afraid of it, of course, and I liked to push myself to get over those fears sometimes.
Mason Funk: What did you do? Did you experiment?
John James: Yeah. First, I asked Leary if I could be involved in his experiments but he had agreed not to let undergraduates ...
John James: [00:16:00] I took a class from him before knowing he had anything to do with this. Before knowing that psychedelics really existed. All I knew about it at that time, it was 1960 or before, there was a thing on television where was shown a study or a picture of an artist who under the guidance of a psychiatrist took LSD and it was described as the drug that gives you temporary insanity
John James: [00:16:30] and then he drew pictures of faces and they looked like drawings of a crazy person so the TV reality was cut and dry and presented in that way. That was all that I knew. He was an interesting psychologist. His book was awarded the best book on psychotherapy of the year
John James: [00:17:00] by one of the professional associations and so he was well known for that. He was strongly recommended by a teacher of mine in the year before when I was a freshman. At that time, Leary had not even taken any of the drugs. It was the summer where he took psilocybin in Mexico. It was psilocybin mushrooms.
John James: [00:17:30] I was involved in that in more of a leadership role there writing about, actually helping to found a group called the Psychedelic Information Center of Washington D.C., which we started sometime around 1964.
Mason Funk: Wow, that's a fascinating side story. How did you first hear that some people
Mason Funk: [00:18:00] or there's this idea we're going to walk around on July 4th, 1965 with signs in front of the Constitution Hall in Philadelphia. Where did this idea first emerge? Tell us that story.
John James: I was living in Washington D.C., and working as a computer programmer for the National Institutes of Health and I was reading in the news,
John James: [00:18:30] there was news about the Mattachine society and it's controversial view that homosexuals should be treated like anybody else. There was going to be a meeting, I went to the meeting. At the meeting I spoke and said that I believed a particular restroom near Dupont Circle in Washington D.C., had 2 way mirrors
John James: [00:19:00] and I was being watched and he said that was well known in the gay community that that room was indeed equipped with 2 way mirrors in Washington. It was Frank Kameny was the head of the Mattachine society who I brought this up to. I decided I would go to the meeting of the group and I went to a few meetings and was not an active member
John James: [00:19:30] but participated in the meetings, got to know a few of the people and then when a big event was coming up, the march in Philadelphia on July 4th, at Independence Hall, when that was coming up, I thought I'd like to go to that and so I did.
John James: [00:20:00] We went down on a bus and other people came down from New York on a bus and there was a local Philadelphia group as well that also dealt with the organization of the march and so on. I was apprehensive. We didn't know what was going to happen. I was apprehensive there could have been bombs but there wasn't and there was really no anti-gay presence at all.
John James: [00:20:30] Thinking back on it, that's to be expected. There was no internet then. Anything we did in Mattachine society was unlikely to be covered in the mainstream press and so it was certainly not in advance of the demo and so there was no way for the news to get out. And as far as my employer, I wasn't worried about that because I realized that unless somebody who worked with me in Bethesda,
John James: [00:21:00] Maryland at the National Institutes of Health happened to walk by Independence Hall in Philadelphia on that day, which was very unlikely, that nobody who I worked with would know. That was the case. No one did know.
Mason Funk: You call it a march but in reality I think there were maybe 40 people, right?
John James: [00:21:30] Yeah, I don't remember. People have put together the exact statistics. I haven't looked it up. About 40 people.
Mason Funk: What was the strategy? How was it presented to you guys or another way of asking that question is as you're driving on the bus, what are your so called marching orders? What's the plan?
John James: The plan had to be formulated well before then because Frank Kameny insisted that we all wear business attire, men wearing suits and ties
John James: [00:22:00] and I needed to wear suits and ties at work so I certainly had that and was comfortable in it. I wore that along with everybody else. I wasn't involved in the group making the signs. They came with us on the bus and we picked the sign we wanted to carry and march, I think it was about 2 and a half hours.
John James: [00:22:30] I took a little break to get some ice cream or water ice or Popsicle in the middle because it was a hot day. The only bit of negative whatever from bystanders was that the person I was buying ice cream from said, "There were some things I never thought I would do"
John James: [00:23:00] and obviously meant selling anything to homosexuals, to people he knew were homosexuals.
Mason Funk: Tell us a bit more about why Frank Kameny insisted that you all were dressed in business attire. What was the point of that? Incorporate my question in your answer.
John James: Frank Kameny, head of the Mattachine society in Washington D.C., insisted that we as men wear suits and ties
John James: [00:23:30] and women wear comparable business attire. The idea was to show that gays were like anybody else and we're not weird or strange in any way. And I could understand that, although that was not my orientation. I would discuss it with him sometimes. My idea of a movement was to combine all the movements.
John James: [00:24:00] In fact, later in the 60s, it was called the movement like around 68 and so on. The movement encompassed the Vietnam war certainly, that was probably the biggest component of it. Civil rights and free speech rights, including on campus where a big Berkeley demonstration occurred on that
John James: [00:24:30] when the effort was made to move political tables off the campus or to ban them where they had been for a long time before. I wasn't there for that. I was working near Washington, D.C.
Mason Funk: You had a vision of a unified movement?
John James: Yes, oh yes.
Mason Funk: You said you would discuss this with Frank Kameny.
John James: [00:25:00] I discussed it a little bit. He had his idea of how it should be done and I recognized that there was some truth in it. That was one way to go so when I was working with Frank and his organization I did it his way. Otherwise, I did it my way.
Mason Funk: Can you sum up for us briefly, almost like you're explaining this to someone for the first time.
Mason Funk: [00:25:30] Explain to us the difference between you and Frank and your basic approach to I guess you could say social change or progress.
John James: The difference in how Frank Kameny and I approached the way a movement should operate was Frank wanted to have the gay movement be a gay movement and that's it and not deal with other issues.
John James: [00:26:00] I wanted to have a big general purpose movement of all the good causes for freedom, peace, and justice, and all of it together. That would be a kind of thing that people could build their lives around, whereas the movement for one specific cause was Frank and a few people could build their lives around that but it wasn't a general thing.
John James: [00:26:30] There was a difference in strategy and both obviously have their place. I just preferred the big general mix of everything.
Mason Funk: This may seem like an odd question but why did you prefer that?
John James: I really don't know. I just found it attractive. I wanted to live and work with the highly creative people that were attracted to the movement
John James: [00:27:00] and what we called the movement and realized later that that kind of time existed in the 60s and part of the 70s is not normally in existence. What was different was that some of the brightest people in the society who otherwise later would have just been tracked into business
John James: [00:27:30] and working in finance and making a billion dollars here or there were committed to the movement instead. As one of them put it, I'm trying to remember the phraseology: The world lies prostrate before us. Why not rise to the rape? That was how he saw the issue,
John James: [00:28:00] that he was coming from a privileged class of the most powerful country on earth and could mistreat people around the world to a great extent or to be part of that mistreatment and he decided not to. That was the way ... A lot of the people we knew in the movement, their fathers were big shots in Washington. Their fathers were big shots in the federal government and in the CIA, things like that.
John James: [00:28:30] That could be a problem because one case, the guy's father had him committed to a mental hospital, pretty clearly, it seemed for the father's career reason. The kid wasn't having problems.
Mason Funk: Wow. Can you tell me that story? You made that an aside of what you were talking about before but can you just tell me the story of that one individual just as you remember it?
John James: [00:29:00] All I knew, I knew him in Washington D.C.
Mason Funk: I knew this fellow or I knew this guy.
John James: I knew this person in Washington D.C., this man a little younger than I was and he was more into the hippie thing than I was. I only knew him by the name he took which was Dandelion. I never knew the rest of his name.
John James: [00:29:30] We met in meetings and so on. We didn't know each other particularly well and I do remember one time, a meeting with a cop was speaking, and I happened to be up near the stage afterwards and Dandelion was there and just pleading with the cop, "Don't involve my father." I didn't know why that was.
John James: [00:30:00] He wasn't worried about himself particularly but he was worried about, didn't want to involve his father. Later, I found he had been committed to a mental hospital. We did exchange a letter. Maybe I knew his name but somehow it got through and he answered back but it was nothing significant. I've never been in touch with him again.
Mason Funk: [00:30:30] Effectively, his father, you intuited or knew that his father had committed him as a way of basically erasing him?
John James: I assumed that. I didn't know for a fact but the kid was not in trouble mentally. He was fine. He was just more of a free spirit than his father, by far, and would get arrested presumably for drug things. I don't know what his arrests were
John James: [00:31:00] but didn't want the police to move after his father or to involve his father and I don't know how that was but he couldn't convince the cops to leave his father alone. Then he was in the mental hospital so I just put 2 and 2 together.
Mason Funk: Let me ask you this. The movement that you envisioned, The Movement, whatever became of that?
John James: [00:31:30] That's a whole story of the 60s, 70s and so on. It's had an immense cultural influence but it basically got mostly wiped out with people being thrown in jail, with people being sent off to wars and things which I figured at the time and still see it as a plausible answer
John James: [00:32:00] that the jails and drug laws and the wars and so on were created, for other reasons as well, certainly, but partly, to enforce conformity among our young people so that they would be good soldiers of the GNP and sometimes good soldiers of ... As someone said, approvingly, once, some conservative newspaper columnist,
John James: [00:32:30] we needed McDonald Douglas to make the world save for McDonald's.
Mason Funk: Wow. Okay great. Great great great. After that first July 4th, 1965, tell us about the fact that the name that was given to these marches was Reminder Day.
Mason Funk: [00:33:00] Explain that to us and then tell me what your involvement was in future years.
John James: These marches were called the Reminder Day Marches and there were a total of-
Mason Funk: The marches on July 4th-
John James: The marches on July 4th, in Philadelphia, at Independence Hall, were called Reminder Day marches and there were 5 of them in succeeding years. I was only at the first one. It was to remind people about the liberty, the promises of the declaration of independence in the constitution.
Mason Funk: [00:33:30] Okay. Why did you never return?
John James: I never went back. I didn't go back to the other marches because I wasn't that much into it. That wasn't a big part of my life. My main interest was my professional interest which was computer programming and that was where I spent most of my time and that was what I wanted to do
John James: [00:34:00] and the movement things were more than a sideline, quite a serious commitment, but in the movement context, the gay part of it was not number one for me. Number one, I was against the war in Vietnam. That was the most serious to me.
Mason Funk: [00:34:30] That's really interesting. It's unusual in the course of these interviews we've been doing. It's interesting to hear someone who was actually more passionate about another cause.
John James: Right.
Mason Funk: How did your life, it doesn't sound like ... Were you in later years, did you ever re-immerse yourself or get re-involved in gay activism?
John James: I was on the edge of gay activism but I was not-
Mason Funk: [00:35:00] I guess you can say in later years.
John James: In later years I was on the edge of gay activism but not central to it. I remember particular events, I remember going on one of the, I think it was gay activist alliance bus tours and demonstrations from New York City. I don't remember how I was there because I was not living in New York City at the time or how it came about. It came about through mutual friends
John James: [00:35:30] and getting involved that way. We just went on one of the bus rides that would have gay demonstrations right in the middle of suburban Long Island communities, things like that. There was that, but that was just one bus ride. A time later, I was backstage after a public meeting and I remember that was the only time I saw Harvey Milk personally,
John James: [00:36:00] not when he was a speaker to thousands of people and I was impressed by how one of the younger gays was so moved by him and his example and Harvey Milk was so important to that person personally and to me it was important but it was nothing like the commitment of this other person who thanked him for his work.
Mason Funk: [00:36:30] Does that mean that you didn't feel a burning need or desire or instinct to throw yourself in the gay activist movement? Was that because you had what you needed essentially as a gay man? Had you come out by this point? How were you living at this point?
John James: [00:37:00] When did I come out? That's actually, it depends on how you ask the question. In fact, the date could be different by decades depending on how you ask the question. All my personal friends knew that I was gay from the 1960s in Washington, D.C. On the other hand,
John James: [00:37:30] my boss and management never knew it and my parents never knew it, I never told them. My brother and sister assumed clearly but I didn't acknowledge it. That was the way it went. I was in the idea that I wasn't going to wear it on my sleeve but I wasn't going to keep it a secret except when certain particular strategic purposes like keeping my government job.
Mason Funk: [00:38:00] It didn't bother you on some level that you couldn't be out at work?
John James: It bothered me a little bit.
Mason Funk: Tell me what bothered you.
John James: The fact that I couldn't be out at work and would actually be fired if I was found out, that bothered me a bit but just in the scheme of things, it wasn't that big a deal.
John James: [00:38:30] If I had been fired, I could have found other work. I deliberately ... This is something that is significant that can be overlooked. Knowing that I was gay when I was in college had to do with the field of work that I picked. I think I showed the most talent for physics but I decided not to go into that because you'd only work for the government or for big organizations
John James: [00:39:00] and I was concerned about the example of Robert Oppenheimer who was kicked out of his profession after running the project that built the atomic bomb. Was kicked out of his profession, he couldn't talk with his old colleagues anymore because that would have been a security violation for them to have discussed the work they were doing.
John James: [00:39:30] I figured I didn't want to go into a field where the work was secret and where you could only work for governments or big corporations and so I picked computer programming because I was on an academic track of social psychology. It was called social relations at Harvard, that was my major. What you did with that was to go on and get a PhD
John James: [00:40:00] and then teach it. I wasn't into doing that graduate school so I needed to have a way to make a living and had always been vaguely interested in computers and didn't know anything about them so I took a class at Harvard and then actually what occurred was that a friend of mine used the computer in the entrance lobby of the chemistry building
John James: [00:40:30] when the chemistry people weren't using it. There was a little group of students who did that, and it wasn't exactly a legal exchange. I got a key from him at one point and we'd come in there. We actually made a contribution to the operation of the center
John James: [00:41:00] because the chemists didn't really know or much care about computers. They were interested in their work and we fixed things up and made things run smoothly. That's where I really learned. I sat down with a manual and started ... It was called the IBM 1620 which, in those days, it was scientific small computer. The 1401 was a business computer which I didn't do much with.
Mason Funk: [00:41:30] I see. Hold one second for these sirens. If you can give us a brief overview, how did your life play out in terms of relationships? Did you have any serious relationships, any long term relationships? Have you mostly been on your own? Just curious about that.
John James: There was actually only one long term relationship that lasted over a year. Somebody who became known in New York,
John James: [00:42:00] Pete Wilson, who has since unfortunately died of AIDS. He had a radio show but that was after we were lovers. We just went separate ways at one point. He moved from New York to Washington to live with me at one point in our relationship. As I say, it lasted more than a year and then
John James: [00:42:30] we didn't get along. Difference in different ways. We broke up and he went back to New York.
Mason Funk: You mentioned in some ways you never had a big dramatic coming out to your parents or work but you might have some insight or some wisdom these days everyone talks about coming out
Mason Funk: [00:43:00] and oftentimes it's very traumatic and oftentimes it's very tragic. People lose their families, not as much as in the past but it still happens. To some young person or even a middle age person who is about to come out, do you have any wisdom or insight or suggestions you might give to that person?
John James: Not particularly. Everybody's life is different. I tend to favor caution. Make sure it's what you really want to do. You can't un-come out.
John James: [00:43:30] In my case, when it was a matter of accepting that I was gay to myself, the basic reason was that I knew my life was not going to work out if I didn't. It's been very good for the movement that people have come out. I can't criticize anybody on that.
John James: [00:44:00] You have to think about yourself first in something like this. Be sure that that's what you're ready to do, and also realize that, at least it worked in my case, you can be out to some people and not out to others. Not keeping a secret of it, but not wearing it on your sleeve either. It's not a yes or no. Sometimes,
John James: [00:44:30] it is a dramatic coming out but sometimes it's gradual. You can come out to many people and not to others.
Mason Funk: Great. That's good insight. That is a good insight. What would you say, what is your hope for the future?
John James: My hope for the future is mainly not gay related. I hope that we don't move into a dystopia
John James: [00:45:00] that we seem to be moving toward in lots and lots of ways. I doubt if there will be any human beings alive in 300 years and I think the greatest danger of killing every last human being is artificial intelligence and that's being debated and discussed and so on. As far as being gay is concerned,
John James: [00:45:30] I want that to be accepted as a normal human variation that some people are, some people aren't, and some people are in between in various ways and there are all kinds of identities and one's sexual and gender identity should be one's business as far as it doesn't impinge badly on other people. It's not for anybody to say
John James: [00:46:00] that sex change is wrong or being gay is wrong or whatever. It's for the individual to decide. It's a personal matter, it shouldn't be a public issue.
Mason Funk: Right. Is it important to you to be able to tell your story and if so why?
John James: [00:46:30] Yeah. The most important part of my story has only been partly been told is my work in AIDS. I published AIDS treatment news, a newsletter for 20 years and wrote most of it. Lots and lots of things happened there that are not clear from just the events, and that for understanding of the history,
John James: [00:47:00] it would be good that it would be clarified. I'm looking for people to talk to about that like an oral history project that would be focused on that. That's the most important as far as a public issue. I don't know.
Mason Funk: Tell me about that though. I remember seeing a reference to that and I had forgotten until this minute that you did refer to that in one of your emails. Where did you get the idea to start this AIDS treatment news?
John James: [00:47:30] On AIDS treatment news, the way it began was that I had some chronic fatigue. Not that serious but enough to be bothersome. This was in the early days of AIDS, in fact, starting before HIV was known. I was living in San Francisco at the time and so, of course, it was something that people talked about. There was no test at that time
John James: [00:48:00] because it wasn't known but it was widely suspected that it was caused by a virus but that wasn't known at the time so there was no way to get tested and so I figured the chances were good that I had it, because so many people in San Francisco did. I didn't have it, as it turned out but I started thinking what would I do if it turns out that I do have it?
John James: [00:48:30] I figured there must be some things you can do, maybe diet and lifestyle wise that would either help or hurt in progression of the illness, and that the best guidance on this would be to look at the scientific research that was being done and see what was known and then just put together whatever one can put together for one's self. I started looking at that and later when the test became available
John James: [00:49:00] I found I didn't have HIV but I worked at National Institutes of Health although there I was a computer programmer and teaching computer programming to the scientists at one point but ... I've always been interested in medicine. I went through college with the intention of studying pre-med and going into medical research. It just didn't work out that way.
John James: [00:49:30] I realized that there was no way I could do the lack of sleep schedules that were customary in medicine, and still are. There's no way that I approve of it either because it's bad for the patient as well as the doctors. The medical industry has not gotten over it yet of running people at hours that are biologically very difficult
John James: [00:50:00] and they're going to make mistakes that they wouldn't have to make. I had some medical interest and background and I've always been interested in how do you get information out of data. How do you analyze and learn things useful from the information that's flowing in or that you can get from various places? Basic question about research has been a lifelong interest.
John James: [00:50:30] Also, happened to be working at a programming job then. A little company called Cetus which no longer exists because it was bought by a bigger company. Cetus was notable for the person who invented the PCR testing of biological material including medical samples but much more besides, was working at Cetus at the time
John James: [00:51:00] and I didn't know him because it was in a different part. I was in the small computer section there that was in support of the biologist and some clinical people. While working there at night, one evening, I noticed a book from a company called Dialogue. In those days there was no world wide web
John James: [00:51:30] and Dialogue was what you would dial up and get on to various databases and they had dozens of different databases and a big thick book with a blue sheet on each one of them so I noticed that and I found out I couldn't use it through the company because I didn't have the access permission and codes but I found you could get your own and in those days you only paid for what you used and I didn't use much.
John James: [00:52:00] They got onto mostly the MEDLINE database which is now available free and and I think was available then but in an inconvenient format and so I would look up these things that people were interested in about medical treatments and such for them and volunteered for an organization doing that and then decided to make it into a newsletter.
John James: [00:52:30] When there was a considerable demand for it and people would offer to pay for it or send postage stamps which wasnt worth doing and would not be self supporting but I figured I would put a low medium industrial price on it and much lower for people with HIV. It quickly changed to much lower for people with financial difficulty because they didn't want any implication of HIV status to be in my mailing list
John James: [00:53:00] which of course we kept very very confidential for people's privacy. There wasn't HIPAA then, the federal privacy law, but that was the prime commandment that we didn't let that list out. Actually that's why I didn't use volunteers in the newsletter. Only employees, because I didn't want to have a lot of people around where the list could have gotten taken.
Mason Funk: [00:53:30] Wow. That's a huge story and unfortunately we don't have time to-
John James: I realize that.
Mason Funk: It really is though. I encourage you to ... I know that this may not be germane but Act Up has a huge archive. I don't know if they would consider your story as a part of that.
John James: Oh they would. The Act Up Philadelphia, in fact most of the Act Ups are not very active these days
John James: [00:54:00] and I know they've been interested in archival work there and the same with William Way, Bob Skiba. I've been in touch with him. I just need to talk to him about this. I know there's been talk about oral history projects and I think I've said I'm available but it's a volunteer thing and nobody necessarily does it.
Mason Funk: [00:54:30] I have one last question for you, which is, this project, our project, is called OUTWORDS and it is a national interview archive of the LGBTQ experience. What do you see as the importance of a project like OUTWORDS?
John James: Any oral history type projects, they give a take on things that don't necessarily come out of the official records or big data analysis and so on. In other words, what are people actually thinking about? What were they thinking about
John James: [00:55:00] when certain things happen, when they did certain things? Why do they do those things? Sometimes it comes out in the official story and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it comes out wrong. There's really no substitute. I remember there was one on Holocaust survivors.
Mason Funk: Shoah Foundation.
John James: Which?
Mason Funk: Shoah Foundation.
John James: Yeah. I don't know much about that.
John James: [00:55:30] That's years ago, they distributed it on DVD and you could look at dozens of different interviews with people about their experiences and I thought that was just a model for collecting this history and taking it down and making it available as to what actually happened, what can we learn from it.
Mason Funk: Right. That's very directly our model.
John James: Right.
Mason Funk: [00:56:00] They eventually accumulated 52,000 interviews.
John James: Oh my goodness.
Mason Funk: Whether we get 52,000 remains to be seen. We're doing 40 this summer. Great. Let's just record, we have to record room tone, the sound of this room with nobody talking and then we'll be done.
Kate Kunath: Can I ask a question?
Mason Funk: Sure.
Kate Kunath: Can you tell us why you did the newsletter, the AIDS newsletter? Why you felt like it was important?
Mason Funk: [00:56:30] Respond to me when you respond to her. Look at me.
John James: Yeah right. Why did AIDS treatment news? It started gradually. I didn't realize that it could have a really great importance until later on when I realized that it just might. The real importance was to help organize
John James: [00:57:00] and educate the early AIDS activist movement. And what occurred in the AIDS activism later is that people in the activist movement would know as much or more about the subject than federal officials or pharmaceutical company employees. The scientists might know more about their special area, but as far as the overall and how it fit into the bigger picture,
John James: [00:57:30] the activist, the patients and other activists knew more. AIDS treatment news contributed to that. That's what I think was its major contribution.
Kate Kunath: Why was it important to have that information about the drugs, about what was going on with it? That knowledge gap, what was the conflict or problem that it was causing in America as far as awareness and the president acknowledging it and so on and so forth?
John James: [00:58:00] There were big problems in getting public acknowledgement of AIDS except for when someone like Rock Hudson died. When a celebrity was known to have it or to have died or to have a family member involved,
John James: [00:58:30] there were several waves of media attention, but otherwise, not much. Actually one of the real problems was the New York Times in the early days and so many people were getting sick and dying in New York and the New York Times had nothing for a long time or next to nothing. Part of it was the difficulty of getting AIDS acknowledged. In the part of the movement that I was in, the activist movement, was the treatment activist movement,
John James: [00:59:00] and we had a problem much more severe than it is now although it's still a problem and that is that interesting possibilities come up that in many cases people could manage to try on their own, find a friendly doctor to prescribe something off label or it may be just a diet thing you can buy in the health food store. Where it makes sense to try and how do you get the clinical trials run? If it's available in a health food store
John James: [00:59:30] or if it's off patent, the companies aren't going to be interested. The usual set up has been that the government does the basic research and then it gets passed off to companies to do the product research although that was modified in the case of AIDS where government got involved in doing some clinical trials that people needed the answers to and the companies were not motivated to do it because of competitive reasons and so on.
John James: [01:00:00] The problem was that after something looked like it might be interesting and even if there were no further obstacles in doing a test, you could expect to wait 10-20 years before it became available as an approved drug for all sorts of reasons. We found out in working on this that at times, activists had to be the go between different scientists
John James: [01:00:30] who were rivals or between drug companies and the FDA because the people didn't communicate on their own. They would do rivalries and exclusivity or they want to be the big deal.
John James: [01:01:00] The big drug companies coming to the FDA and getting the drug approved, I was at a number of those hearings and the companies were terrified. Everyone was terrified they might make a mistake and screw up the hopeful approval of the drug so they couldn't really ... They didn't talk to the FDA early to find out what the FDA wanted. Now it's better but still not completely right.
John James: [01:01:30] Activists would provide that glue to talk to the different people and get them on the same page when they should have been all along.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Kate Kunath
Date: August 08, 2016
Location: John C Anderson Apartments, Philadephia, PA