In the world of gay and HIV media, Spencer Cox’s death yesterday at the age of 44 from AIDS-related complications is getting the enormous attention it deserves. Spencer, a friend of mine, was wickedly smart and devilishly funny. He had a passion for bulldogs. And when he threw himself into a cause like fighting HIV/AIDS or helping gay men deal with depression, there was no stopping him.
Spencer was a founder of Treatment Action Group, an organization that in 1992 emerged from ACT UP to lobby for accelerating HIV/AIDS treatment research. Spencer also was a spokesman for ACT UP, which made history by taking those infected with HIV to the streets to pressure drug manufacturers, the government and health care providers to address an epidemic that came close to destroying an entire generation of gay men.
Spencer Cox also was a meth addict.
That’s an aspect of his brilliant, inspiring and sometimes troubled life that hasn’t emerged in the coverage I’ve read thus far. Those stories tell us only that a man infected with HIV around the time he graduated from college died an early death, seemingly belying the current thinking that HIV no longer is a fatal illness.
I don’t claim to have known Spencer’s T-cell count or viral load in recent years. I am aware that those people, like Spencer, who were infected before the advent of so-called triple drug therapy, are more likely to develop resistance to the drugs that keep HIV in check. I also have read that Peter Staley, Spencer’s good friend, has said Spencer stopped taking his HIV medication some time ago. But I do know from research and the sad stories of too many friends that addiction to crystal meth greatly increases one’s chance of becoming infected with HIV and of dying of AIDS.
I write about Spencer’s meth addiction, which occurred late in his life, knowing that I will be castigated by those who believe publicity about it somehow diminishes his achievements. The Spencer I knew, who I believe was in successful recovery, wouldn’t agree. The Spencer I knew, who boldly chanted “Silence = Death” at ACT UP demonstrations, today would agree that that slogan would be more appropriate in a discussion of crystal meth.
“Miracles are possible. Miracles happen,” Spencer says in a clip from “How to Survive a Plague,” David France’s justly celebrated documentary about ACT UP and the early years of the epidemic. But miracles, like those that changed HIV infection from sure death to a chronic disease, don’t happen without the hard work of people like Spencer Cox. In West Hollywood, a city whose gay population is plagued by crystal meth, we’re fortunate to have activists like Jimmy Palmieri, whose The Tweakers Project offers a directory of resources for those combating meth addiction, and city Councilmember John Duran, who advocated for creation of the West Hollywood Recovery Center and initiated public forums on crystal meth addiction.
But I’d like to see us, as a community, find a way to take the issue of crystal meth out of meeting rooms and into the physical streets, as Spencer and others did in the early years of ACT UP, and into the virtual world where most gay men meet. I’d like to see us demonstrate to their owners that allusions to drug use (“let’s parTy,” “chem friendly”) on Scruff and Grindr and other gay meet-up sites are as offensive as homophobic slurs would be in the Los Angeles Times. I’d love to see powerfully designed signs in the windows of WeHo shops that proclaim “Meth = Death” the way ACT UP proclaimed that “Silence = Death” to spark a discussion about the impact of drug use on AIDs and HIV.
It’s all another reason to lament the untimely death of Spencer Cox. If he were here, he’d channel his smarts, his energy, and his passion into making it happen. We owe it to him, and to ourselves, to try it without him.