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Andy Velez, a seminal New York AIDS and Latino Queer activist dies at 80

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Andy Velez. (Photo by Bill Bytsura of The AIDS Activist Project)

Andy Vélez, an internationally prominent AIDS activist, whose three decades of advocacy work resulted in improved drug access and civil rights for people living with HIV, especially in the Latino community, died on May 14, 2019 at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. He was 80.

His sons Ben and Abe Vélez said the cause of death was complications arising from a severe fall in his Greenwich Village building in April.

Until his recent accident and despite several health challenges, Vélez had remained consistently active in the AIDS and social justice communities, taking part in protests for ACT UP and Rise and Resist. Vélez was a seminal member of ACT UP, joining the group in 1987, its first year of activity, and played a prominent role in its most notorious demonstrations over the past 32 years.

Andy in a portrait of four ACT UP comrades who traveled to Yokohama in 1994 for the International Conference on AIDS.

Vélez was born on March 9, 1939 in the Bronx to Ramon Vélez and the former Dorothy Solomon. The family, including siblings Eugene and Raymond (“Al”), soon relocated to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, where they lived a few years before returning to the Bronx. Vélez graduated from William Howard Taft High School in 1955 at age 16. He attended City College for a brief time, but interrupted his studies when he left home. Years later, after attending night school, Vélez would formally graduate.

Vélez earned a Master’s degree in psychoanalysis in 1976 and worked with the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies under Dr. Phyllis Meadow in the Village. He maintained his own therapy practice for two decades. Vélez had initially explored psychoanalysis for personal reasons, suspecting that he was homosexual. In 1964, he was entrapped by an undercover policeman in a Park Avenue South bar. Vélez spent the night in the jail facility known as The Tombs, a traumatizing experience that would provide the impetus for his activism. Vélez lost his position at the Housing Authority when his boss learned of his arrest. He received a suspended sentence of six months. But when Vélez pushed back legally with the help of a progressive lawyer, his conviction was later reversed.

While he initially hoped to become an actor, and appeared in several off-Broadway productions in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Vélez found success in other careers. He entered book publishing in 1969. Over the course of 16 years he worked his way up to the position of president of the prominent Frederick Ungar Publishing, managing the company until it was sold in 1985. Notable among his literary projects was a 1984 collaboration with screen star Marlene Dietrich to update her 1962 bestseller Marlene Dietrich’s ABC.

Once he was divorced, Vélez began to make active connections with the LGBTQ community. He served as a leader for the Gay Circles Consciousness Raising Group for almost three years. One evening, after his group ended, Vélez walked past the first meeting of a new organization dedicated to addressing government inaction surrounding HIV/AIDS. He was intrigued.

The group soon had a name: ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Vélez became involved in several ACT UP committees, including the Media Committee and Actions Committee. He was involved in high-profile demonstrations and civil disobedience arrest scenarios that showcased ACT UP’s signature street theatre activism, such as chaining himself in the office of a pharmaceutical company, or covering himself in fake blood to symbolize the lives lost to AIDS because of government negligence.

However, Vélez found his niche with the group’s Latino Caucus, which focused on the raging but neglected epidemic in the Latino community. Significantly, Vélez and his colleagues traveled to Puerto Rico to help organize a local ACT UP chapter in the commonwealth. He was also a founding member of Queer Nation in New York City in 1990.

He was involved in many AIDS educational and service organizations over the years, serving as an administrator and bilingual educator for AIDSMEDS.com for more than a decade. His writing and activism intersected significantly when he moderated a community forum on AIDSMeds.com, where he directed desperate people to lifesaving medical information. Vélez also wrote about the epidemic for numerous community publications, including POZ, Body Positive, and SIDA Ahora. For ten years he moderated the POZ Forum. He took part in aggressive and effective treatment access work with Treatment Action Group, and worked in a New York City HIV clinical trial unit, alerting affected communities to their vulnerability to tuberculosis.

From the 1990s through the 2010s, Vélez returned to his first love of theater by covering the scene for several LGBT magazines, as well as by conducting interviews with jazz greats for All About Jazz and the New York City Jazz Record. He penned liner notes for the CD reissues of several Broadway musical classics, such as Finian’s Rainbow, The Pajama Game, and Saratoga. He also provided liner notes for vocal collections by legends such as Doris Day, Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, and Artie Shaw. From 1990 to 1992, he taught courses in musical theater at the New School. Among his in-class guests from the golden age of Broadway: Barbara Cook, Sheldon Harnick, Elaine Stritch, John Kander and Fred Ebb. He was included in the anthology Cast Out: Queer Lives in the Theater, a collection focusing on out lesbians and gays currently working on the American stage. 

Vélez became a prominent presence on the international AIDS scene for more than two decades, working with co-organizers of the International Conference on AIDS to guarantee the inclusion and active participation of people with HIV. He also served for several conferences as the official liaison to the activist community. He served as a consultant to the Latino Commission on AIDS, and was a guest speaker on HIV/AIDS issues at high schools and colleges across America.

Years ago, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Vélez replied, “As someone who was able to help.”

Andy Vélez is survived by his sons Ben and Abe, both of Brooklyn, his daughter-in-law Sarah, his granddaughter, his younger brother Eugene (“Gene’) of Alamo, California, as well as thousands of comrades in the global AIDS and LGBTQ activist communities.

Funeral services will be private. A public memorial service will be held this summer.

Donations in Vélez’s memory may be made to ACT UP New York, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and the Latino Commission on AIDS.

Andy Vélez, presente y pa’lante!

 

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Obituary

Out American composer & lyricist Stephen Sondheim dies at 91

Sondheim did not come Out until age 40 & didn’t live with a partner until he was 61 when he was in a relationship with dramatist Peter Jones

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Sondheim was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in September 2021 (Screenshot via CBS)

ROXBURY, Ct. – The man who was heralded as Broadway and theater’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century with eight Tony awards alone, Stephen Joshua Sondheim, known for landmark musicals such as “Company,” “West Side Story” and “Sweeney Todd, has died at 91.

Sondheim’s death was announced by his attorney, Rick Pappas. who said that the composer died Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. The day before Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner with friends in Roxbury, Pappas added.

An online listing of Sondheim’s accolades include nine Tony Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2008), an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Laurence Olivier Award, and in 2015, the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed on him by former President Barack Obama.

He has a theatre named for him on both Broadway and the West End in London.

Sondheim has written film music, contributing “Goodbye for Now” for Warren Beatty’s 1981 Reds. He wrote five songs for 1990’s Dick Tracy, including “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)”, sung in the film by Madonna, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Film adaptations of Sondheim’s work include West Side Story (1961), Gypsy (1962), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), A Little Night Music (1977), Gypsy (1993), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Into the Woods (2014), West Side Story (2021), and Merrily We Roll Along (TBA).

Sondheim did not come Out until he was 40 and did not live with a partner until he was 61 when he was in a relationship with dramatist Peter Jones. His current partner, actor-producer Jeff Romley, whom he married in 2017 and he had been living together for over 6 years at the time of the composer’s death.

David LaFontaine, a professor at Massasoit Community College, wrote about Sondheim’s early years and the critical friendship that would end up impacting his life, career, and American Theatre;

“Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born in New York City on March 22, 1930, the only child of affluent parents who divorced when he was ten. He believes he might have succumbed to depression had it not been for a friendship that began in the summer of 1941 with the Hammerstein family, who lived near Sondheim on the bucolic Highland Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

“Dorothy and Oscar Hammerstein became my surrogate parents during my teen years,” says Sondheim, “and that’s essentially how I became a songwriter, because I wanted to do what Oscar did.” During his four years as a student at the George School, Stevie, as he was then called, often spent entire summers at the Hammerstein farm.”

Oscar Hammerstein II was an American lyricist, theatrical producer, and director in the musical theater for almost 40 years. He won eight Tony Awards and two Academy Awards for Best Original Song. Hammerstein along with his partner composer Richard Rodgers created some of the notable musicals in Broadway history including Oklahoma! (1943),  South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959).

This past September Sondheim was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, for a conversation that covers a lot of ground, from “Company” to “West Side Story,” to a new show titled, “Square One.”

Stephen Sondheim Is Still Writing New Works, As “Company” Returns To Broadway

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Obituary

First trans mayor, Stu Rasmussen, dies at 73

Rasmussen, who used both he/him and she/her pronouns, became the first trans mayor in the nation’s history

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Stu Rasmussen (Photo Credit: Kyle Palmer, Silverton, Oregon Mayor)

SILVERTON, Or. — Stewart “Stu” Rasmussen, the first trans mayor in the United States, died on November 17 after several weeks under home hospice care battling metastatic prostate cancer. He was 73. 

Rasmussen, who used both he/him and she/her pronouns, became the first trans mayor in the nation’s history when he was elected to lead the town of Silverton, Oregon, in 2008, serving until 2014. Before coming out as trans, he served as mayor of the western Oregon town for two terms starting in 1988. 

The current mayor of Silverton, Kyle Palmer, took to Facebook to announce the news and offer his condolences. 

“Throughout his career as an elected official, Stu advocated for many things on behalf of those who shared his vision for Silverton,” Palmer wrote. “Although citizens can debate their support or lack of support for some of those visions, the time for those conversations has long passed. His volume of service to city government, his role as a longtime downtown business owner, and his impact on the LGBTQ population in Silverton and beyond leaves a huge legacy behind.”

Rasmussen, a self-described “gender anarchist,” leaves behind his partner Victoria Sage, who he began dating in 1974 and married in 2014. 

According to Palmer’s Facebook post, Sage noted that “he went bravely into the unknown on his own terms.”

In an email to the Statesman Journal, Sage said that she received many “beautiful and heartwarming” letters from people who said Rasmussen touched their lives.

Born and raised in Silverton, Rasmussen inspired many with his historic 2008 election. His historic 2008 election was covered nationally by People Magazine and Good Morning America. His story was the subject of a stage production in Seattle titled “Stu for Silverton.”

“He set an example for members of our community who needed to see that it was safe to live their lives openly in our community,” said Palmer. 

According to Palmer, Westboro Baptist Church, known for anti-LGBTQ+ picketing, protested Rasmussen’s election in 2008. But they were met with a large crowd of Silverton residents — many of them wearing dresses — who supported the mayor, demanding congregation members leave town. 

Along with public service, Rasmussen also ran a theater in Silverton for most of his life, “managing to preserve the magic of a small town theater even while showcasing the blockbusters that arrived in the late 70’s and navigating the frustrations of studio restrictions that made it harder and harder to turn a profit,” Palmer noted. 

“I’m comforted in the knowledge that he is no longer in pain,” said Palmer.

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Obituary

Veteran AIDS activist & TV-film-stage producer Scott Robbe dies at 66

“He was a fearless activist, always on the front lines, whether he was protesting pharmaceutical company greed or homophobia at the Oscars”

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Scott Robbe (Photo courtesy of Scott Robbe Estate)

By Jay Blotcher | NEW YORK – Veteran progressive activist and TV-film-stage producer Scott Robbe died on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, according to a statement by Paul Algiers, a longtime friend and the executor of Scott Robbe’s estate. Robbe was in hospice care at the home of his sister, Angela, in Hartford, Wis. He was 66.

Robbe died of complications from Myelodysplastic Anemia, a blood cancer he had battled for more than a year. He had undergone stem-cell treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston in April of this year.

Robbe was a prominent member in the founding of two direct-action groups in New York City: ACT UP and Queer Nation. Robbe was a member of an ACT UP undercover team, led by activist Peter Staley, that secretly gained access to the New York Stock Exchange in September 1989. Their goal was to protest and publicize the record high price of AZT, then the sole approved treatment for HIV/AIDS. Burroughs Wellcome eventually bowed to this nationally publicized activist pressure and lowered its drug price — then the highest in medical history — by 20 percent.

“Scott was a fearless activist, always on the front lines, whether he was protesting pharmaceutical company greed or homophobia at the Oscars,” said ACT UP New York veteran Ann Northrop. “And he was a total sweetheart.”

“Scott was one of those activists who didn’t flinch when our lawyers would warn us of all the possible charges and maximum sentences we’d face for infiltrating a powerful institution,” said Peter Staley, who chronicled his ACT UP days in the new memoir, “Never Silent”. “When it came to fighting for his dying gay brothers, he’d always reply, ‘I’m in.’”

In 1991, Robbe relocated to the West Coast and co-founded Out in Film, a Los Angeles-based group to battle homophobia in Hollywood filmmaking. At the time, several high-grossing films offered stereotypic and unflattering depictions of gay characters, including Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs”, Oliver Stone’s “JFK” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct”.

Out in Film demanded equity for LGBTQ people on both sides of the camera. Robbe and Lesbian Avengers member Judy Sisneros created a pioneering protest at the Oscar Awards in March 1991, during which demonstrators outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion called for increased queer visibility and fairness in career opportunities.

The Oscars protest was one highlight of a life devoted to progressive activism. It began in his teen years, when Robbe took part in 1960s marches for the environment, for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Over the four decades that followed, Robbe’s career encompassed both community organizing and producing dozens of works in theatre, film and television. 

Scott Douglas Robbe was born on Feb. 16, 1955, in Decorah, Iowa, to Helen, a homemaker, and James Robbe, a construction supervisor. The family relocated to Hartford, Wis., the following year. Robbe was a graduate of Hartford Union High School in Hartford, and entered the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1974, where he majored in theater arts. Located in the state capital, the college was known for its progressive student population, and Robbe took part in numerous protests.

After he graduated in 1978, Robbe moved to New York City, where he met his first boyfriend, a Bennington College student. They lived together in the East Village from 1978 to 1984. At the time, Robbe was helping to renovate the Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue in the East Village. At the same time he produced at the neighboring Entermedia Theatre his first theatrical production, “False Promises” by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. At the famed La MaMa ETC, Robbe workshopped Harvey Fierstein’s “Fugue in a Nursery,” which forms the middle segment of “Torch Song Trilogy.” That production won wide acclaim both there and after it moved to the Orpheum Theater. Robbe also produced several plays off-Broadway, followed by the Harvey Fierstein play “Safe Sex” on Broadway.

Robbe joined ACT UP New York after seeing the group protest at the White House in October 1987 during the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. He joined the group’s Media Committee and took part in numerous protests. He also joined the newly-formed Queer Nation in March of 1990, helping to mount demonstrations across New York City aimed at queer visibility. Robbe was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the early 1990s.

In late 1990, Robbe relocated to Los Angeles to produce TV commercials for Japanese television. His first film job was an associate producer role for 1982’s “In the King of Prussia”, depicting the Berrigan Brothers’ pioneering anti-war efforts and starring Martin Sheen.

Robbe’s extensive television credits include the first-ever LGBTQ comedy special for Comedy Central in 1993, called “Out There,” and hosted by Lea DeLaria. Robbe was on the creative team for the groundbreaking 2003 series “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” He also produced shows for Lifetime, Comedy Central, VH1, Children’s Television Workshop and American Playhouse.

In 2005, Robbe was named executive director and film commissioner for Film Wisconsin, Inc. During his tenure, Robbe brought 28 TV and film projects to the state, including the 2009 film “Public Enemies” by Michael Mann, starring Johnny Depp and Channing Tatum. Most recently, Robbe worked with activists in Cuba to bring pressure on the American government to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine in the country. Robbe was also involved in grassroots activism in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he had a second home.

Scott Robbe is survived by his mother, Helen, and his siblings and their spouses, Royce (Donna), John (Ken Hall), Jay (Francine), and Angela. Also surviving him are his uncle Peter Coffeen (Steve Getz), as well as several nieces, nephews and cousins.

There will be no funeral. Arrangements were handled by Milwaukee Cremation Society. A celebration of Robbe’s life will be broadcast online early in 2022. Donations in Scott’s memory may be made to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and ACT UP New York.

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Jay Blotcher is an American activist, journalist, and editor. He was active in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in its early years, serving as chair of the media committee, and was a founding member of Queer Nation.

Photo via ‘I’m From Driftwood’ LGBTQ+ stories video archive.

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