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The Riddled Death Of Spencer Cox

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Chivas Sandage writes a profound tribute to Spencer Cox and challenges us to question why the man who wrote the breakthrough drug trial protocol that saved millions of lives likely died because he didn’t take his medication.

I wanted to write a tribute titled “Didn’t We Get Arrested Together?”—Spencer’s favorite pick-up line—but hit a wall of questions. How could a key activist and spokesman for the pivotal organization ACT UP, a co-founder of the Treatment Action Group, and the director of the HIV Project for TAG—a self-taught “citizen scientist” who passionately fought and won the battle against AIDS for himself and for all of us for almost twenty-five years—so quietly succumb to AIDS-related pneumocystis pneumonia at the age of 44?

If Spencer Cox wrote the controversial, groundbreaking drug trial protocol that saved millions of lives, why would he stop taking the medication that he helped make available and which had already saved him, ultimately gambling with and finally inviting his own death?

Why would key AIDS activist Mark Harrington and others claim that Spencer had returned to using methamphetamines when some of his closest friends counter that’s not true—not the man they knew in his last years?

How could Spencer’s significant contribution to AIDS research—co-designing and personally writing the drug trial for the early protease inhibitor that was approved in only six months, making AIDS no longer a death sentence—go unattributed to him in David France’s recent Academy Award nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague? He’s a handsome face in numerous frames and a felt presence. He has a few lines. The addition of a single brush stroke could have helped define Spencer’s role (and notable character) in a film that understandably focuses on the more prominent activists. In fact, France made a powerful clip of Spencer’s last interview for the documentary available on YouTube and Facebook but it isn’t in the film. That haunting footage is just an outtake. How ironic for a man who had been an actor and playwright to see himself so faintly sketched into the story of his life. After the filming and screenings and parties, how did he feel about having a minor part in his legacy, while he was dying of the disease he so victoriously fought?

After defending his controversial protocol in Barron’s made him, as France says, “briefly, the most-hated AIDS activist in America,” how is it that he came to be considered a friend by thousands in the gay community in addition to friends from college and high school and countless people who never met him in person yet corresponded with him frequently—even daily—on Facebook and other social networking sites?

Even some of those closest to Spencer through the years are struggling to understand the mystery of this brilliant, generous, devilishly quick-witted, charismatic, and complex man’s death. When obits claiming Spencer died of AIDS-related illness were followed by others linking his death to drug addiction and/or not taking prescribed medications, Internet discussions flared. More obits and articles and blog posts about him (and comments on all of the above) continue to roll out. Strangers, fellow activists, colleagues, exes, old friends, mentors, and conservative trolls all have something to say.

Spencer500The scroll of his Facebook wall is full with weeks of remembrances, links and photos. In one Bennington-era snapshot, a gorgeous, dark-haired boy wearing a disheveled, untucked, deeply unbuttoned white shirt carries a long-stemmed red rose between his teeth and looks right into you.

Follow Spencer’s tracks and you’ll be reminded and/or learn: AIDS is #6 among leading causes of death for Americans between the ages of 25-44; gay and bisexual men of all races account for the majority of those with HIV; Black and Latino communities are significantly and disproportionately affected; half of the 1.1 million who are HIV positive in this country do not have health care; one out of every five people with HIV is unaware they are infected; depression and risk-taking behaviors including substance abuse and unsafe sex amongst middle-aged gay men are all diagnostic symptoms of PTSD.

Spencer was a veteran of the war we don’t call war; he was a hero amongst heroes that are largely unknown to most of the nation. His death makes every bit as much terrible “sense” as my combat photographer father’s death from a “war-related” illness called alcoholism-induced cirrhosis of the liver. Spencer just lasted a little longer than my dad after returning home from the front lines. Combat veterans like Spencer struggle to ever fully return. When you’ve fought that hard and seen the faces of men you love—so many still just sweet-faced boys—collapse around you, one after another, slowly or quickly dying, some in your arms while others live but are never the same again, it changes you.

How can day-to-day life ever compare to the steady, cyclic adrenaline rush of literally fighting for your life and the lives of those around you, or the deep-seated camaraderie of surviving, eating, drinking, and partying with men who you share a bond with like no other you’ve known, or working harder than you know how to, doing work that makes a difference—even makes history. How, after all that, how do you settle and stay settled in the “civilian” life year after year, decade after decade?

Spencer Cox_1The meetings, support networks, protests, and actions that punctuated Spencer’s days as a younger man simply don’t exist in the same way or to the same degree as they once did. In the minds of many, the AIDS epidemic is supposedly “over.” But we’ve got half a million people taking a handful of relatively expensive drugs every day. And no cure. And no vaccine.

Yes, it appears that what we have is a pharmaceutical dream—continual demand with no end in sight.

The person I most want to ask about Spencer is Spencer. So I went to him—went to his words—looking for clues.

Nothing I’ve read prepared me for what he had to say about his last months.

I happened upon his outed Gawker alias “FrenchTwist40.” About two and a half months before he died, he got caught up in a volley about class issues in America. The article in question was about one percenter Westgate CEO David Siegel who threatened his employees with closure if Obama were to be re-elected. Someone made a random comment about a perceived welfare queen standing in line at the grocery store with six kids supposedly holding IPods. A discussion about benefits and fraud started up. As FrenchTwist40, Spencer challenged the other commenter to “try living on it.” Suddenly, he began to speak very personally:

Look, I have a disabling illness. It won’t last forever, but for the moment I’m stuck with it. And the thing about it is, it’s not constantly disabling. Some days, I’m fine, and get around with no problem. Other days, I’m curled in fetal position in bed the whole day (and more often, several days), racked with pain the whole time. Some days I’m on the subway getting the stink-eye from some old or pregnant lady who clearly wants my seat, and can’t tell just by looking at me that I’m sitting because I’m on my way home from a doctor’s appointment, and if I stand for one more minute, I’m going to fall on the ground.

And the biggest problem in terms of getting work? I don’t know in advance which day is gonna be which. Which makes me an undependable employee. If you saw me on one of the good days, you’d assume I was gaming the system. Why? Because you don’t know what else is going on. And you also don’t know about the choices between things like food and medicine that I’m making. And whenever some zero-tolerance wise-ass decides I need to recertify, that means I have to haul OUT of bed, no matter how sick I am, and go sit for hours in a waiting room, or run all over town trying to collect various papers from doctors, etc., which yes, is often mind-bogglingly awful if, say, it’s a nausea day. So your zero-tolerance for fraud policy? It’s actually a less-than-zero tolerance, because some people simply aren’t going to be able to get through all that. They won’t be able to pull the bullshit together until they’re forced to, when their benefits get cut off, and by then who knows how many days that means without food, medicine, or what penalties for late rent. So MY point is, mind your own damned business. There’s enough oversight that we know fraud is NOT, despite what you say, terribly rampant. And if you’re busy judging someone else’s haul at the checkout, then guess what? Maybe you need another hobby, but you’ve got too much time on your hands.

And P.S. It’s not just YOUR tax dollars going to fund these programs, any more than it’s MY premium dollars going to pay your medical bills whenever you file an insurance claim. I paid taxes for a lot of years in this town to ensure that programs like this WOULD exist for people who need them. I now need them, and feel not the slightest compunction about using them. Nor do I need some busy-body balefully eyeing my grocery cart trying to decide what I deserve and what I don’t. And if you tried to tell me directly, I would quite rightly tell you to mind your own fucking business.

Which is what I’m telling you now. Mind your own fucking business.

Spencer let his opponent have the last word. But his own final comment on the subject reminds me that the name he chose for his organization—“Medius”—can be traced back to the Latin for “the middle finger.” Spencer had the ability to give it while being intensely intimate and making himself entirely vulnerable to the kindness—or lack thereof—of strangers.

Perhaps our questions can lead us toward greater understanding and inspired action. I’m also reminded of what he said in his outtake clip about the breakthrough protease inhibitors that have saved the lives of millions: “What I learned from that is that miracles are possible. Miracles happen.

May Spencer’s death disturb us enough to do something. Something big, like he did. May we find the courage to restart and support the Medius Institute for Gay Men’s Health—the legacy he intended to leave his community and the world. May we break the silence that isolates people living with HIV/AIDS and cultivates depression, feeding PTSD and its myriad symptoms. May we demand universal health care in this nation so that no one has to choose between food and medicine. May we break the silence that still equals death.

If Medius had received the funding it needed and deserved, Spencer might be alive. May his death haunt us long enough that we learn to understand and solve the riddles that killed him, before they kill us.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to make certain facts clearer.

Image of Spencer Cox (top) courtesy of http://lovemeasiamthebook.com. Other images courtesy of Facebook with the exception of the Bennington-era photo by Debra Eisenstadt Morgen.

Chivas picChivas Sandage’s first book of poems, Hidden Drive (Antrim House, 2012), places Ada with Eve in Eden and explores same-sex marriage and divorce. Her essays and poems on gay marriage have appeared in Ms. Magazine,The Naugatuck River Review, Upstreet, Same-Sex Marriage: The Moral and Legal Debate (Prometheus Books, ‘04) and are forthcoming in Knockout Magazine. Her work has also appeared in Artful Dodge, Drunken Boat, Evergreen Review, Hampshire Life Magazine, The Hartford Courant, Manthology: Poems on the Male Experience (Univ. of Iowa Press, 2006) and Morning Song: Poems for New Parents (St. Martin’s Press, 2011). Sandage holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BA from Bennington College. She lives in Connecticut with her wife and daughter and blogs at csandage.com.

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News

New Bombshell Book on Trump Reveals He Wanted to Be Treated Like Hitler: ‘Totally Loyal’

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Two of the country’s best journalists have published reporting from their new book about Donald Trump that includes huge bombshells, including that as president he compared himself to Hitler, in a positive way for both men. Trump, essentially, imagined himself as Hitler, and wanted his generals to display unflinching, unquestioning loyalty.

“Trump’s love affair with ‘my generals’ was brief, and in a statement for this article the former President confirmed how much he had soured on them over time,” The New Yorker’s Susan B. Glasser and The New York Times’ Peter Baker write at The New Yorker, in an piece titled, “Inside the War Between Trump and His Generals.”

“These were very untalented people and once I realized it, I did not rely on them, I relied on the real generals and admirals within the system,” Trump wrote to them.

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“It turned out that the generals had rules, standards, and expertise, not blind loyalty. The President’s loud complaint to John Kelly one day was typical: ‘You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?'” Glasser and Baker reveal.

“Which generals?” Kelly asked.

“The German generals in World War II,” Trump responded.

“You do know that they tried to kill Hitler three times and almost pulled it off?” Kelly said.

“But, of course, Trump did not know that. ‘No, no, no, they were totally loyal to him,’ the President replied.”

That’s just one bombshell.

The article is drawn on reporting from their upcoming book, “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021.”

Glasser and Baker obtained a resignation letter Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley wrote to Trump after the Lafayette Square Bible photo-op incident.

“The events of the last couple weeks have caused me to do deep soul-searching, and I can no longer faithfully support and execute your orders,” Milley wrote. “It is my belief that you were doing great and irreparable harm to my country.”

Milley, in the letter he ultimately did not give Trump, accused him of “using the military to create fear in the minds of the people,” saying “we are trying to protect the American people. I cannot stand idly by and participate in that attack, verbally or otherwise, on the American people.”

“I swore an oath to the Constitution of the United States and embodied within that Constitution is the idea that says that all men and women are created equal,” the letter also says. “All men and women are created equal, no matter who you are, whether you are white or Black, Asian, Indian, no matter the color of your skin, no matter if you’re gay, straight or something in between.”

“We’re all Americans. That under these colors of red, white, and blue—the colors that my parents fought for in World War II—means something around the world. It’s obvious to me that you don’t think of those colors the same way I do. It’s obvious to me that you don’t hold those values dear and the cause that I serve.”

He also wrote: “it is my deeply held belief that you’re ruining the international order, and causing significant damage to our country overseas, that was fought for so hard by the Greatest Generation that they instituted in 1945.”

Read the entire article here.

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Less Than Half of Florida Voters Would Choose ‘Polarizing’ DeSantis New Poll Finds

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Ron DeSantis is facing much more challenging odds of winning re-election than some would assume as a just-released poll finds less than half of Floridians would vote for their Republican governor.

The poll, released by Florida progressive groups but more heavily weighted toward a GOP electorate finds just 48 percent of all registered voters would vote for DeSantis, and 43 percent would choose the Democratic nominee, Florida Politics reports. The Democratic gubernatorial primary is August 23, between U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, their former governor, and Nikki Fried, the current commissioner of agriculture.

“About 2,244 registered Florida voters [were] weighted to reflect a midterm electorate favorable to Republicans. Respondents were surveyed between July 26 and 31.” The poll was released by by Progress Florida and Florida Watch.

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DeSantis is viewed favorably by 50% of voters, but unfavorably by 48%.

“Given his financial advantage DeSantis remains a favorite to win re-election, but his polarizing nature could put a ceiling on his support,” a memo from pollsters Geoff Puryear and Annika Ramnath reads.

Given DeSantis’ nearly-daily press conferences, often surrounded by children or law enforcement, many forget he won his gubernatorial election in an extremely tight race, by 32,463 votes, a margin of just 0.4%.

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To beat DeSantis the Democratic candidate would need to overcome the poll’s five-point spread, meaning securing more than half of the nine percent of undecideds or pulling several points away from DeSantis, or greatly increasing Democratic voter turnout. Back in April DeSantis decried Democrats moving to Florida, calling it “a problem” because “they would continue to vote the same way.”

The polling memo notes that 65% of Florida voters “prefer the Democratic message” on abortion.

“Democrats in Florida need to make sure that as surely as abortion rights were on the ballot in Kansas…abortion rights are on the ballot this fall, and that voters know that Marci Rubio, Ron DeSantis, and legislative Republicans support extreme abortion bans, even for victims of rape and incest,” the pollsters’ memo adds.

DeSantis has doubled down on many of his highly controversial moves, including signing into law the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which made nationwide news for months. He reversed a 50-year law that effectively granted Disney World the ability to assume most governmental operations for its district, as a punishment for the company, a huge employer in the Sunshine State, speaking out in opposition to the anti-LGBTQ law.

Authoritarianism exert Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University, in June told Insider DeSantis is “a very dangerous individual” because “he is equally repressive, but doesn’t have the baggage of Trump.”

 

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RIGHT WING EXTREMISM

Trump Rambles for 108 Minutes in CPAC Speech Filled With ‘Unapologetic Fascism’: Report

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Former President Donald Trump spoke for nearly two hours in his closing address at the CPAC summit in Dallas.

In Trump’s view, America has been destroyed in the 18 months since he left office, with out-of-control crime, inflation, and oddly enough unemployment, which Trump estimates to be three times the official number.

Trump took the stage to the song “God Bless the USA” and began by thanking the “proud patriots” in attendance.

Trump said he was proud to be joined by Rep. Ronnie Jackson (R-TX), who was his White House surgeon.

“He was an admiral, a doctor, and now he’s a congressman,” Trump noted, saying he asked him which was the best.

“And he sort of indicated doctor, because he loved to look at my body. It was so strong and powerful,” Trump said.

Trump then introduced Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).

“This is no time for complacency,” Trump warned. “We have to seize this opportunity to deal with the radical left socialist lunatic fascists. We have to hit them very, very hard. It has to be a crippling defeat.”

He went on to complain about Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) for supporting the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed a procedural vote after Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote while Trump was speaking, resulting in harsh words for GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

“But McConnell is the most unpopular politician in the country, even more so than crazy Nancy Pelosi, and something has to be done,” Trump urged.

Trump said Biden “surrendered our strength and our everything [in Afghanistan], they surrendered our dignity.”

Michael Hardy, senior editor at the Texas Monthly, was one of the local journalists covering the speech. He said that line had “echoes of the Nazi ‘stab in the back theory’ of losing WW1.”

Trump then described crime in “Democrat-run (sic) cities” in very dark terms.

“The streets of our Democrat-run cities are drenched in the blood of innocent victims,” Trump claimed. “Bullets are killing little beautiful little children who never had a chance. Car jackers lay in wait like predators.”

Hardy described that as “some literal blood-and-soil rhetoric.”

And Trump went on saying “we need to courage to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done,” which Hardy said “is a rallying cry for street violence and worse.”

Trump went on to call for a military takeover of San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Portland.

“Trump’s rhetoric is significantly more extreme than even a few years ago,” Hardy said. “This might be most frightening speech I’ve ever heard. Full-on, unapologetic fascism. Trump has either been reading Mein Kampf or having someone read it to him.”

Trump repeated his lies about election fraud and teased a 2024 presidential comeback.

Former RNC official Tim Miller said, “I know everyone in the DC GOP is just hoping Trump will die but it’s impossible to watch this CPAC speech and not come to the conclusion that he’s going to run and be very hard to beat in a primary. Sorry to be the bearer of bad weekend news.”

After his speech, Trump danced on stage to the song “Hold On I’m Coming” by Sam and Dave.

“Don’t you ever feel sad; lean on me when times are bad,” Sam and Dave sang. “Then the day comes and you’re down; in a river of trouble and about to drown. Just hold on, I’m coming. Hold on, I’m coming.”

Watch below or at this link.

 

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