Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dear Governor King

There is an obvious starting point for my activist lifestyle.
Starting in 1973, a battle between Massachusetts Governor Edward King and sensible people was waged over whether a 5 cent surcharge on beverages sold in bottles and cans should be enacted, redeemable when those bottles and cans were returned for recycling. The legislature passed the bottle bill three times before finally over-riding the Governor's veto in 1981.
I remember the fierce arguments over the issue now some thirty years later.
After one of Governor King's successful vetoes in the late 1970's, I wrote the Governor with an impassioned argument comparing the relative beauty of Vermont's highway shoulders to those of Massachusetts.
Apparently, my argument did not win him over, a crushing blow to a tween who thinks he knows all the answers.
In fact, his letter in response indicated that he hadn't even heard my argument at all. His reply thanked me for supporting his veto of the bottle bill. I was upset, thinking that my letter was somewhere in his office, sitting in the wrong stack on the scales of justice.

At the beginning of this post, I said that there was an obvious starting point for my activist lifestyle. But honestly I'm not sure. Why did I choose to act at that moment in my life, in history, on that issue? What, in the subsequent years, kept that activist streak alive?
Or maybe, my activist life didn't start then at all, and writing Governor King was just a one-off thing that any kid might have done, foretelling nothing.

If you had asked 18 year old Bill, several years later, if he was an activist, he would have said "certainly not!" In my college essay, I went to great lengths to make it clear I was interested in the pursuit of knowledge, of truth, and that I had no interest in politics at all.

People had tried to explain the differences between Democrat and Republican to me, but since everyone seemed to describe a different set of differences, nothing stuck in my head. It was all too nebulous for me to make sense of.
I thought science was inherently good, math even better, and that the only troubles arose when politics was used to interpret science.
Boy did I have that backwards!

My Life as an Activist

Well, this blog started out because I wanted to document my cross-country move, so that friends could follow along with me as I journeyed from Providence to Ann Arbor to White Sulfur Springs to San Francisco, and many points in between.
In the year that I've lived in San Francisco, what the purpose of the blog is has been less clear to me, but I did use it to help develop some thoughts on ITBLG health issues, such as thinking about national vaccine strategy as it relates to HBV/HPV/HIV, and the remifications, personal and political, of routinizing HIV testing...
I'm going to move it to a new phase now, documenting my own life as an activist, and reflecting on it from my current vantage point.
Below I've listed some of the groups, activities, etc. I've been involved with over the years.
Any feedback on what you'd like to hear more about? Let me know...

The early years

  • letter to Governor King about the Massachusetts Bottle Bill
  • letter to the editor about seatbelts in school buses

The high school years

  • Don't shut down the press
  • Energy conservation
The college years
  • 1987 March on Washington
  • Not Guilty
  • Brown's anti-discrimination policy
  • Yale Queer Studies Conference
  • Report for RI Department of Health on Needle Exchange efficacy

The ActUp years

  • Bill's News Headlines
  • Health Department mandatory testing demo - my first (and only) arrest
  • AZT demo at CVS
  • Network/RI
  • Ed Diprete's campaign for governor
  • Jesse Helms = Philip Morris = Bill of Rights = trouble
  • Pat Buchanan visits TF Green Airport
  • Dan Quayle visits the Biltmore
  • Providence Journal editorial policy
  • so many more...

The transition years

  • Needle exchange
  • CPG planning process
  • RI gay rights law
  • Hate crimes & anti-violence
  • Warwick sex sting
  • River Road public cruising sting

The thesis

  • Measuring heteronormative context

ITBLG Health Movement

  • The summits & academies
  • HBV vaccines at the baths
  • Men's health action committee


I just got back from the Seattle Gay Men's Health Summit, and I've got a lot on my mind. I think this is a turning point for me.
I've reached a level of prominence in the gay men's health movement that has taken me utterly by surprise. A bunch of people who don't know me personally have heard or read something about me. I have, if you will, a reputation.
Up to this point, my participation in the movement has been based on a series of individual relationships, so this is new and strange territory for me. The fact that there are people who know something about me before meeting me is both thrilling and disconcerting. Thrilling because I don't need to go through as much background with each new person, and disconcerting because I really have no idea whether what they've heard and the impression they have of it is, so I feel a bit exposed.
I think that generally the reputation I've developed is a good one, but of course a reputation is not a singular thing. I guess I never really thought much about having a reputation before. In a naive sense, I thought of it as a cloud around a person, but more or less an entity with shared meaning. But this weekend has made starkly clear to me that a reputation is not a thing, despite the use of the singular, that is we speak of a person's reputation, not a person's reputations.
It is, rather, a series of individual relationships, each its own thing between me and each individual I have yet to meet, mediated through mutual friends, a chain of friends, or my writing.
It's not that I've never had a reputation, or been concerned with what my reputation 'is'. It's just that I didn't come prepared to think about having a reputation within the gay men's health movement. As a college professor, albeit a recent one, I'm very interested in what my students think of me. Of course I want all of them to love me, but I also walk into class on the first day expecting that some won't. We are after all strangers with no expectation of shared ideals or values, and I'm asking them to work hard, and my evaluation of their work may well not match their aspirations or expectations.
One day, when I was googling myself (I guess maybe I'm more concerned with my reputation than I was conciously aware of), I saw that there was a page at about me. Everyone had warned me not to bother looking at RMP, but I was too curious, and had to check it out. I braced myself for some bad reviews, but was pleasantly surprised to find one relatively positive review. Later (after the grades went out), there were more... and braced as one might be, being called "the worst professor ever" carries a bit of a sting.
So, I'm not new to having a reputation, and not new to the idea of it being highly variable from one person to another. And not new to learning what I can from criticism, but not dwelling on the emotional weight of it. But walking into a classroom, you know you're a public persona, not a private person.
But at the health summits, I had gotten used to being a fairly private person. At the first summits, I went to some sessions, flirted on the sidelines, and nobody 'important' payed attention to me, and I was fine with that. If somebody came up to me and said "aren't you the guy who..." it would have been about my runner-up performance in the pool party kissing contest. I have to say, I'm still proud of the stagecraft K_____ and I employed for that.
Even at the Philly LGBTI summit, where I was on the opening plenary panel, helped design that panel, and helped develop the program, thereby having at least an email relationship with all the presenters. I had a couple of sessions myself, "Queer Blood" was one of them... the other is escaping my little brain at the moment, but I'm sure it had something to do with risk narratives in public health. More people knew me, or knew of me, but I didn't have any sense of people talking about me without also talking with me. It felt like my series of individual relationships was just getting bigger.
So in the wake of this summit, there are things that went on that made me aware of having a reputation, and it's taking me a little time to get used to that.
In the end, I think I like having a reputation. Even if someone hyperbolically believes that I am out to destroy the way they individually practice public health.
Because I am, after all, interested in fundamental change in how public health research is conducted, and how public health interventions are undertaken, by pretty much everyone in the field, especially me.