Who was Michael Callen?

portrait1“He was one of the omnipresent, one of the titans.”
Tony Kushner

As a composer, singer, writer and AIDS activist, Michael Callen played a major role in shaping America’s response to the epidemic.

Callen was an AIDS activist before there was an AIDS movement. From the time of his diagnosis with Gay Related Immune Deficiency in 1982, he was involved in virtually all of the positive responses to the epidemic, including the self-empowerment of People with AIDS; the invention of safer sex; the community-based research movement; development of prophylaxis for major opportunistic infections; and the establishment of buyer’s clubs providing low-cost access to both experimental and approved AIDS treatments.

Callen coined the term “people with AIDS” (PWAs) to replace the early characterizations of PWAs as AIDS victims, thus laying the foundation for the PWA “self-empowerment movement.” Callen emphasized that people could live with AIDS and continue to make significant contributions to society despite their diagnosis.

Callen was a founding board member of the People with AIDS Coalition, the Community Research Initiative, the National Association of People with AIDS, the PWA Health Group, the New York City Mayor’s Interagency Task Force on AIDS, and the New York State AIDS Institute. He testified before the President’s Commission on AIDS, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the New York State Legislature, the New York City Council and the Australian AIDS Council. In the spirit of the PWA Coalition principles, he projected activism, independence and optimism.

Callen was a noted and influential writer on AIDS. In 1983, he co-wrote the booklet, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, the first guide to safe sex. The advice in the pamphlet, based on the concepts of AIDS researcher Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, has become the accepted standard of risk reduction. Callen was the first editor of the PWA Coalition Newsline and edited the two volume set Surviving and Thriving with AIDS, published by PWAC in 1988. From 1988-1989 he was founding editor of AIDS Forum.His book, Surviving AIDS, published by Harper/Collins in 1990, received honorable mention from the American Medical Writers Association. His efforts in defining and promulgating safe sex guidelines were documented in Randy Shilts’ book, And the Band Played On.

He was also a strong writer on the politics of sexuality. His essays appeared regularly in newspapers, magazines, journals and books, including the Village Voice, The New York Native and Outweek, as well as AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism, published by MIT in 1987 and The State of the Language, published by the University of California Press in 1990.

Through appearances on various news shows, such as Nightline, Good Morning America and 20/20 and a variety of talk shows, such as The Phil Donahue Show and Geraldo, Callen gave AIDS a human face. He also appeared in several films and documentaries, including the Hollywood AIDS movie Philadelphia and the HBO documentary Why Am I Gay? Callen also sang in John Greyson’s movie Zero Patience.

Callen’s work was recognized by several national organizations. He received awards from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Gay and Lesbian Press Association, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. On December 1, 1993, he received the City of Los Angeles Lifetime Achievement Award.  The Contemporary A Cappella Society of America named him A Cappella Artist of the Year in 1994.

As a founding member of the New York Gay & Lesbian Community Center Board, and through his activities in other organizations around the country, he also became a leading voice in gay and lesbian politics.

In addition to his political work, Callen was a popular singer and composer in the gay community. Callen’s AIDS activism had a major influence on his music, as reflected in his solo album, Purple Heart (Significant Other Records, 1988), which The Advocate reviewer called, “the most remarkable gay independent release of the past decade.” As a member of the gay a cappella group The Flirtations, he toured internationally and recorded two albums, The Flirtations (Significant Other Records, 1990) and Out on the Road (Flirt Records, 1992). Callen’s song “Living in Wartime,” an AIDS battle cry from Purple Heart, was featured in the original production of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart. Callen also wrote, along with Oscar winner Peter Allen and Marsha Malamet, “Love Don’t Need a Reason,” which Callen sang at numerous gay and AIDS-related events, including the New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles AIDS walkathons and the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights; and on network television programs, such as the Geraldo Show.

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Shortly before his death from AIDS-related complications in December 1993, Callen completed vocal tracks for 48 new songs. Twenty-nine of these compositions have been released as a double CD, titled Legacy, which garnered four Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards, including Album of the Year and Best Recording by a Male Artist.  Legacy, recorded with the help of such prominent musicians as Holly Near, Cris Williamson, David Lasley (James Taylor), Greg Wells (k.d. lang), Fred Hersch, Arnold McCuller (Phil Collins) and Steve Sandberg (David Byrne, Ruben Blades) are a testament to Callen’s commitment to the gay and lesbian community as well as his own passionate struggle for gay identity and selfhood.