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AIDS at 30 – ACT UP/LA’s Mark Kostopoulous – Unforgettable!

AIDS at 30 – ACT UP/LA’s Mark Kostopoulous – Unforgettable!

by Karen Ocamb on June 3, 2011

ACT UP's Mark Kostopoulous talks with Connie Norman (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Mark Kostopoulous – Unforgettable!

By Peter Cashman

“What the hell is this West Hollywood pretty boy doing here!”

That was my personal thought as I watched a curly-haired, slightly mustachioed, levi’d hard bodied fox work the room passing out fliers.

The room was one of the largest halls at that city’s Plummer Park. The event was a November post-1987 March on Washington community meeting which was packed to overflowing with both hard core activists and inspired community members.

The fox, I would discover very shortly after, was Mark Kostopoulos who had just turned 33. Four and half years later he would be dead.

What he accomplished in that time is simply remarkable.

The flier announced a public meeting the first week of December to form a Los Angeles chapter of ACT UP.

Could he have imagined that hundreds would turn out on a dark and stormy night to found ACT UP/LA. That in time his counsel would be sort by lawmakers, academics and people of faith. I doubt it very much.

Nor could he have imagined being honored by the California’s largest health advocacy organization (Health Access) at a San Marino garden party.

After all Mark’s politics had been forged in the deepest of red and would later be  shaded in pink as a leading light of Lavender Left.

ACT UP had no leaders said the mantra, but if ever there was a natural born leader is was Mark. The public meetings of ACT UP/LA were governed by consensus votes. Meetings and votes that were magnificently guided, and dare I say manipulated, by his sheer will, vision, skill and intellect.

Mark soon recognized that folks coming to ACT UP’s weekly meetings were politically diverse ranging from ‘his’ left to liberal moderates to disaffected Reagan Republicans and libertarians.  Mark adapted to these realities, and he went about educating, coercing and strategizing like no one I had ever seen. And I had seen plenty having had a politician father and working in the media all my life.

Political correctness, always a great laugh in those days, was given short shrift.

However It was impossible to be in Mark’s company without being aware of the broader progressive issues and sensitivities that informed ACT UP/LA’s AIDS activism.

ACT UP/LA protests President HW Bush in Century City in late 1980s (Photo Karen Ocamb)

Mark was a mail carrier by day and all his free time went to ACT UP. Well, almost all. Somehow he found time to date – he could hardly avoid it in a predominately gay male ACT UP. A relentless force shepherding Sunday ACT UP  coordinating meetings’ at his Echo Park home. Meetings, that like the general meetings, could be interminable. However consensus would be arrived at, minutiae prioritized and action plans developed and executed.

Fear and being surrounded by the dead and dying has a way of concentrating folks determination to act to get something very concrete accomplished.

Talk was critical but ACT UP was committed to action, specifically non-violent direct action, to fight the ‘business as usual’ policies that hobbled the war on AIDS. Mark repeatedly reminded us that this was what ACT UP did, that no-one else would or could do. He initially resisted efforts at the more genteel forms of political engagement, letter writing and lobbying. Later ACT UP would be famously effective in embracing these means to further pursue the issues it had angrily and often humorously voiced “on the streets.”

Mark Kostopoulous leads at news conference (Bad Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Whether it was demanding a long overdue dedicated AIDS inpatient ward and eliminating ing the terrible conditions at the 5P21 outpatient ward at County /USC Hospital. Or fighting discrimination against PWAs or getting more rapid access to promising drugs and treatments. Mark was brilliant at keeping people focused.

ACT UP got people’s attention rapidly. but despite progress after ACT UP’s week-long vigil at the hospital, civil disobedience at County Board meetings, newspaper op-eds etc. he did not hesitate to tell the LA Times at the end of 1989 outpatient care at County-USC remains “a scandal”.

Being Alive’s, Sean Kinney wrote in 1997,  “For those who receive their care at 5P21 (the LA county AIDS clinic), not one single day should pass that you do not publicly speak the name Mark Kostopoulos in pride. You benefit from his courageous fights.”

ACT UP protest at the federal building in the lat 1980s (I think the photographer is Chuck Stallard)

Berating the Catholic Church locally in late 1989 for its refusal to embrace condoms in the fight against AIDS he responded to then-Archbishop Mahoney in the LA Times. “We don’t need compassion when we are sick and dying. What we need is help in staying alive.”

Being around Mark was not always serious. He would sometimes bicker with Gunther Freehill quietly and not so quietly during meetings. That they developed a partnership in activism and love that would endure until the end was a tribute to them both.

Nonetheless Mark’s life was increasingly beset by his own health problems. Initially diagnosed with what was then known as ARC (AIDS Related Complex) in the late 80s his incredible workload no doubt hastened an advance to a bevy of AIDS opportunistic infections by the time he died in mid 1992.

In January that year, Critical Path AIDS Project in Philadelphia reported a war weary Mark had been asked about whether his activism with ACT UP had prolonged his life. “I don’t know if that’s true, in fact some say that AIDS activism is killing me.  I think the reality is that it doesn’t matter. The point is the quality of my life. Certainly the activism I’ve engaged in has made for an amazing four years.  I would not trade them away for anything. That’s the point.”

He told me once that his time with ACT UP marked the first time in his life he did not feel marginalized.

ACT UP/LA protest Hollywood homophobia and AIDS-phobia at the Academy Awards (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

My final memory of that audacious flier fox of the fall of 1987 was visiting him very briefly a few days before his death on June 20, 1992. Ferd Eggan captured it shortly after, when he wrote,  “It was not an easy death.  He survived five bouts of PCP, but his body could not cope with disseminated KS, fungus in his lungs, MAC, CMV and other infections, all at the same time”.

Mark Kostopoulus  was a helluva trouble maker. An over-achiever. He changed our lives. Those of us with HIV/AIDS that survive him, those who have succumbed to HIV since, benefit from all that he achieved. We are forever in his debt.

Demonstration following the death of ACT UP/LA founder Mark Kostopoulous (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Peter Cahsman (r) during the protest march commemorating Mark Kostopoulous' death (Photo by Karen ocamb)

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