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.


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Larry Block
Guest
Larry Block

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.

amanwithanedge
Guest

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

Abby Tallmer
Guest
Abby Tallmer

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.

Abby Tallmer
Guest
Abby Tallmer

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… Read more »

Jennifer Johnson Avril
Guest

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.

Mark Milano
Guest
Mark Milano

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?

Jimmy Palmieri
Guest

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 http://www.tweakersproject.org 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 http://www.facebook.com/groups/thetweakersproject/.

Mark Milano
Guest
Mark Milano

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.

Jim
Guest
Jim

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.

Matt Curtis (@mattcurtisnyc)
Guest

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… Read more »

Mark Milano
Guest
Mark Milano

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.

Raúl
Guest

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,… Read more »

Jon Nalley
Guest

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.

Terry Beswick
Guest
Terry Beswick

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.

John Duran
Guest
John Duran

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.