Thanks to Jon Nalley’s arrest, their names live on.
On January 23, 1991, New York police arrested 263 demonstrators following the rush hour takeover of Grand Central Station by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. ACT UP members brought the city’s evening commute to a halt. A banner hung over the Metro North arrival board that read “One AIDS Death Every 8 Minutes.”
Other placards, penned in magic marker, demanded “Money for AIDS Not War.” Less than a week before, the U.S. had launched Operation Desert Storm to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Demonstrators expressed outrage at governmental indifference to the continuing health crisis even as funds flowed to protect U.S. oil interests in the Middle East.
One of the protesters and one of those arrested was Michigan State University alum Jon Nalley.
Three weeks later, Nalley submitted a public affidavit to New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau to explain his personal involvement in the Grand Central protest.
In the document, he recounted twelve friends from college that he had lost since graduating in 1982. Rick Rapaport. Jim Dawson. Roy Reinholz. Steve Franklin. John Mathieson. Ben Lowery. Jim O’Connell. Scott Flack. Michael Bennett. Wade Keas. Michael Shuty. Kraig Debus. “These are not numbers, but people I loved and cared about,” Nalley wrote.
In the early 1990s, an AIDS diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence.
The twelve friends had died between May 1985 and August 1990, ranging in age from 24 to 42. They were young men who had been a formative presence during Nalley’s MSU years, when he came out as gay and became involved in the gay and lesbian movement on campus.
Twenty-six years later, Nalley’s words retain their emotional power. They fuse grief and anger, reflecting what scholar David Halperin terms the “personal experience of collective devastation” so critical to asserting gay visibility and personhood in the 1990s.
Nalley grew up in Grand Haven and majored in psychology and English at Michigan State. He took a semester off and lived for half a year in a Palmer Park apartment in Detroit, immersing himself in the bar scene along West McNichols.
Following graduation in 1982, he moved to New York, where he quickly became active in local Democratic politics. In 1993, he won a seat as an openly gay, openly HIV+ candidate to Community School Board #2 in Manhattan and served two terms.
He is a noted documentarian. His photographs, poetry, and writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Gay City News, POZ, The Body Politic, OutWeek, Jewish Currents, the New York Native, Village Beat, The Guardian, and the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review.
On the first of October, I met with Jon Nalley to learn more about him and about how he came to write his affidavit.
In our conversation over coffee at the Pennsy Food Court near Madison Square Garden, Jon explained how ACT UP attorney David Barr had urged the arrestees to write something for the judge in order to explain their rationale for engaging in civil disobedience.
Jon took the task seriously, typing it up on an old-style word processor. He went to a Notary Public and had the document notarized to make it even more official. He then filed it with the court, entering it into the public record.
The text was subsequently published in the ACT UP/New York newsletter. It impressed his big city friends.
As Jon free-associated and reminisced during our visit, I learned many new bits of detail about his deceased friends.
Michael Shuty left MSU when program cuts under Ronald Reagan eliminated Social Security survivor benefits for college-age students.
Kraig Debus waited tables at an expensive restaurant in East Lansing called Robert’s, where, reputedly, the most attractive, A-list gay men on campus worked.
Jon became fascinated with the peace sign in John Mathieson’s apartment window long before Mathieson became one of the first men he ever slept with.
He remembered riding on an empty plane on Christmas Day when he flew down to Alabama to see Wade Keas a year before he died. Wade’s mother Vivian wept as she greeted Jon, thanking him for coming.
As a historian, I see Jon Nalley’s affidavit as a powerful declaration of militant AIDS activism, akin to public documents of others who were jailed for pursuing social justice: the statements of Eugene V. Debs at his 1918 trial for obstructing the draft, photos of Dorothy Day refusing to participate in civil defense drills in the 1950s, and the famed Letter from a Birmingham Jail written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.
Nalley’s account shows that AIDS was not isolated to New York and San Francisco, but impacted flyover states like Michigan.
The affidavit also stands as a testimonial to the tens of thousands of AIDS deaths that motivated AIDS activism in the early 1990s, crystallized down to twelve friends forever lost.
Lost, not forgotten.