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.
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!