The Untimely Death of Spencer Cox Offers Another Reason to Confront WeHo’s Crystal Meth Epidemic

AIDS activist, HIV, crystal meth, addiction
Spencer Cox

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.

  1. This article was shared with me today by Marco Colantonio and perhaps we can do something at the DAB to take up this issue. Excellent from the heart article and sad at how many people suffer from meth addition.

  2. I wonder if there was anybody there with him at the end. Somebody to hold him and tell him he left a great legacy. I hope so. I wish I could’ve been there to tell him how many people he helped to save. Thank you Spencer. RIP

    1. Yes, luckily he DID have several close and amazingly loving and devoted friends around him during his life and during his last days. Many of them were especially brave & heroic & I’d mention their names except that I know that none of them would want to draw attention to themselves and detract from Spencer in any way. Suffice to say that he was greatly loved, and that he knew it, and that he greatly loved them in return. Thanks for your thoughts. And yes thank you Spencer and R.I.P. always; you will never be forgotten.

  3. Thank you Mark, and Raul, and Matt, and Jennifer. I have to say (with the disclaimer that while I knew Spencer Cox I knew him mostly years ago, through FB, & through many close mutual friends & so was not privy to his recent battles, if any, nor were they any of my or anybody’s business) that while I am glad for the attention his death is getting re: the hitherto unacknowledged problems of the very real long term damaging effects of PTSD & depression on long term AIDS survivors AND on those of us who were in the trenches doing AIDS work from the beginning but did NOT get sick/sero-convert, I am also *very very wary and cautious and made way squeamish* by all this holier-than-thou moralizing/sanctimonious pontificating about Spencer’s purported drug abuse which NONE of us know was active in recent years (it’s my impression it was not) & which NONE of us can say with even the meagerist of authority played any role whatsoever in his death. I really really wish that those who want to do advocacy within the AIDS & gay communities around crystal meth & other drug addictions would STOP holding Spencer up as some sort of scared-straight/worst-case scenario and sacrificial lamb. This worthy (anti-drug addiction/addiction prevention & recovery work) can be done AS if not more effectively without making unfounded claims about Spencer and without attempting to effectively tarnish his miraculously accomplished legacy. Also, as I just wrote in response to someone who accused me of wanting to trivialize the problem of drug addiction in our (AIDS/gay) community and of wanting to “make drug addiction invisible as AIDS once was”: “Please understand that my comments were *not* directed at you or your work, but at the cumulative tone of much coverage of Spencer’s death. And please understand also that I have been in the trenches with AIDS work since the very very beginning of the epidemic (1982/3, way pre-ACT UP-I worked for the People With AIDS Coalition and for the org that later became AmFar) and please understand also that I have seen literally hundreds if not thousands of friends die horrible painful deaths due to AIDS and/or due to drug use either connected to or predating AIDS diagnosis. Please understand further that for 30+ years I have been fighting *against AIDS invisibility* and *for the recognition and public acknowledgement and prevention and (emotional as well as physical) treatment of AIDS and of AID-related PTSD & depression and the self destructive behaviors that many too many slide into as a result of same*. Please understand further that though I am not an addict in recovery or otherwise I have known and loved many too many addicts and indeed feel that it is not just necessary but *crucial* that the invisibility and stigma around addiction be directly and forthrightly addressed in the AIDS and gay communities as well as elsewhere. All I WAS saying is that in my strong opinion this important drug awareness, prevention, and recovery work can be done *without* invoking Spencer and making unfounded and often sanctimonious charges re same.”

  4. It certainly makes lively reading to say meth killed Spencer, but it didn’t. Did his prior usage contribute to his health problems — possibly. Is it a huge challenge for the community? Absolutely. But he was not using for a long time and as his friend I’m getting really sick of the irresponsible use of his death as a platform to discuss drug addiction in the community. It’s inaccurate, it is not how he spent his final years, and it disparages both his legacy and the wonderful, brilliant person he was.

    1. Thank you, Jennifer. So tired of the “easy” explanations of Spencer’s death. Now we need to move on to the hard questions: what led this smart, informed, empowered activist to stop taking his meds? And what do we need to do to ensure this doesn’t happen to other longterm survivors?

  5. I thank you for this article. I am sad as I reflect back on this year and see Spencer and others leave us. Meth is simply a car crash in our community. The Tweakers Project will always exist as a “place” where people can support each other without judgement. Please use our resource list at and join our facebook live group which serves as a 24/7 “meeting place” for support and help from those who speak the same language at

    1. Just want to say once again that I think Spencer had not used meth for a long time, so it may not have played a part in his death.

  6. I’d say that “Meth=Death” IS the “evidence-based approach.” At this very late date, to ignore the rampant destruction of meth, especially in the gay HIV poz community smacks of denial, and veers from the target. I think if something is certifiable deadly, informing people that “Hey, this shit will kill you” is hardly untimely, or politically incorrect. Was “Silence=Death” “garbage”, or a “vehicle for spouting off” against sex? I would say no.

  7. Phrases like “Meth=Death” and equating drug use with a moral evil like homophobia just stigmatize people and push them away from things that may actually be helpful. A better way to honor Spencer’s memory and stay true to his leadership in TAG would be to cut the hysteria and take a level-headed, evidence-based approach to the problem. I’m not a fan of speculation about his drug use either. You don’t know, right? Did methamphetamine kill Spencer Cox? How significant was it to him these last couple years? It seems more a vehicle for spouting off about drugs than any kind of factual argument. Anyway, these comments are not to suggest that meth use isn’t problematic, but I’d rather see more of an embrace of harm reduction than a new gay DEA shoving tired Just Say No garbage at us.

  8. But I’ve been told by a number of people that Spencer had stopped using meth. Does anyone know the truth? Was it meth addiction or depression? We need to know.

  9. The crisis is beyond AIDS and HIV, beyond Meth, and beyond drugs. Spencer gave his life for the benefits of others, which is something no one doubts and everyone appreciate, while he was not attending him as he needed, using meth for a real reason, and I can’t help to ask myself, what was that reason? what did he use meth for? somewhere deep is the answer. It’s not a simple or easy answer, it’s much more complicated than we’re able to comprehend, but one thing is clear to me, AIDS, meth, drugs, self-abandon and all other forms of self-aggression, are not the real problem, but the consequence of something deeper. I would say the main issue is the way we have constructed ourselves, our basic structures, our system of beliefs, our unresolved emotional heart, and the way we design and manage each response to every stimulus that today’s society encourage us to face. I will kindly and respectfully shift his sentence into “how are we going to survive ourselves”. Spencer, R.I.P.

  10. I applaud you writing this and breaking the silence. The issue of meth addiction is something Spencer and I shared. He didn’t exactly hide it…. Quite a number of AIDS activist warriors have been impacted by the meth epidemic…. which writer Sarah Schulman rightly sees as (within this subgroup) an extension of the AIDS crisis.

  11. I had no idea Spencer had a meth problem. There have been so many deaths directly or indirectly attributable to meth addiction. The obits never say “died as a result of meth addiction.” The autopsies are never done. The statistics are not collected. The thousands of deaths go on in silence. Thousands more live on, active in their addiction, shells of their former selves. The causes are never examined. I escaped the same fate myself, and that is a miracle that I never take for granted.

  12. Thank you for writing this. I did not know Spencer died. He and I have been friends for 20 years. I am heart broken by the news.

  13. Bravo! Here another spotlight on yet another hushful if not outright ignored element of this diverse population of ours. This is drastically complex as some souls search for ways and means to inform, scare or hell, perhaps even educate a disengaged gaggle of geese. Teaching the unteachable in an untenable atmosphere is such a drag on spirit and success, no?

  14. You are to be commended for raising this, Henry, not castigated. We have known for years, perhaps even close to two decades, that drug and alcohol use go hand in hand with unsafe sex and new HIV infections. It has been a long time since anyone in the gay male community made any serious effort to confront this. It is, admittedly, a very difficult problem to solve, but if Spencer’s life tells us anything, it tells us that it is possible to solve difficult problems.

  15. I was an early colleague of Spencer’s in ACT UP, and last saw him in late October when we, with Mark Harrington, conducted a Q&A session after a screening of How to Survive a Plague in Manhattan. I knew of Spencer’s Meth use, but did not know it firsthand as it occurred when I was no longer doing AIDS work, and so, was no longer a close colleague. I think it is enormously important that we talk about recreational drug use in our community, and how the use of drugs like Meth might complicate a life lived with HIV and its chronic medications, and how those of us who went through the daily death of the early plague years might be particularly susceptible to the obliterating allure of Meth and other recreational drugs. So I don’t castigate you for your column at all, but commend you for starting the discussion.

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