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Donna Summer's Letter to ACT UP

| 39 Comments
When the news hit that Donna Summer had died, I was reminded of her little-known scrape with ACT UP, the AIDS activist group I joined shortly after its first demonstration in 1987. As many will recall, even though her music was hugely popular with the gay community, she faced an ongoing backlash after the Village Voice attributed some quotes to her from a concert in 1983, saying she slammed gays and claimed AIDS was a punishment from God.

As some in the community continued to embrace her, others grew angrier at her hedged denials (words like "misunderstanding" were used), and the issue continued to percolate (see this transcribed 1985 story from The Advocate).

By 1989, various ACT UP chapters started protesting at Donna Summer appearances, including this Boston Gay Pride event, as reported by Gabriel Rotello in Outweek Magazine (July 3,1989):

Outweek story on Donna Summer and ACT UP

To everyone's surprise, Donna Summer wrote a letter to ACT UP New York attempting to mend the divide. A few quotes from the letter were reported at the time, and appeared often in recent online obituaries, but the letter itself has never been seen publicly.

So I asked Jay Blotcher, who was ACT UP's media coordinator at the time, if he still had a copy. He said he had kept it, but it was now with his ACT UP archives which he donated to the New York LGBT Community Center. After a few phone calls and emails, the Center pulled Jay's archives out of storage, and sent me a scan of the two-page letter.

I don't think ACT UP kept up their demonstrations after she sent it, but that probably had more to do with our priorities at the time, rather than this strange letter. Note to PR agents: when you apologize to the gays, it's probably not best to quote at length from the bible (even though it's a lovely quote).

So here it is, and I've transcribed it below the scanned images...

Donna Summer letter to ACT UP, page 1
Donna Summer letter to ACT UP, page 2

Transcribed:

July 26, 1989

Dear Members of Act-Up:

I am really sorry that my reply has taken so long, but this is not a matter that I take lightly and because of my schedule, I was forced to wait until I was clear and not under pressure.

First of all, let me say that these accusations are unjust and unfair. At first, I was unknowingly protected by those around me from the bad press and hate letters I was receiving regarding this matter. During that time I was pregnant (twice in 18 months), was engulfed in a major law suit and several of my family members passed away. My manager, at that time, felt my life and emotional health was at stake so there was no response.

Since then, however, I have made numerous replies and spoken openly to try and clear up this misunderstanding. I cannot force you to believe what I tell you, so if you choose to continue on with this fighting and arguing, that's up to you. I did not say God is punishing gays with aids, I did not sit with ill intentions in judgement over your lives. I haven't stopped talking to my friends who are gay, nor have I ever chosen my friends by their sexual preferences.

We have too many good memories together to live in this state of unforgiveness. I never denied you or turned away, but in fact you turned away from me. If I have caused you pain, forgive me. It was never my intention to reject you but to extend myself in love. I know that some of you really need me now because you've written and told me so. Can't we just forgive each other for this past confusion?

My motto in this life is 1st Corinthians 13. "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a face that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails, but where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophecy in part; but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope an love. But the greatest of these is love."

I love you,

Donna Summer




Peter on:

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Comments on Peter Staley's blog entry "Donna Summer's Letter to ACT UP"

Needless to say I am a devoted fan and I am still heartbroken at Donna's passing. I myself am not gay and do not judge or condemn them for their personal sexual preferences because I believe they are born that way.I remember the press conference Donna held apologizing for the comments she said she did NOT make. I know how devoted she was to ALL her fans and how deeply this hurt her.I met Donna Summer in person and she was a warm loving person. Do not tarnish her memory with unforgiveness and hatred.Listen to her song "FRIENDS UNKNOWN and you will hear from her heart how she felt about her fans.

Quoting Scripture -- Dear Late Donna -- not a good choice to get gay people to think you are not a self-righteous Christain.

However personally I do not think she was anti-civil equality. But who knows. She has passed.

I wasn't there so I don't know what was said by Ms. Summers or the men she was speaking with who then reported her alleged anti-gay remarks but I will say this: her letter seems sincere. Although I wish people wouldn't say, when attempting to apologize for something, that "it was never my intention to..." As simple "I'm sorry" is better than saying "I'm sorry that you were upset by what I said."

RIP Donna. You will be missed!

The thing about this letter, Peter, is that it does not read like a PR agent's effort. That's what makes it valuable.

What's strange about this letter? What's wrong with quoting the Bible to gays? Why is her explicit, heartfelt apology over the misunderstanding over something she always denied happened -- that was reported by one single source with no supporting evidence -- being held up to ridicule?

There is nothing strange about this letter. Her career was being affected by a lie, and her fans, who she obviously loved, were being turned against her. Of course she wrote this letter.
There is nothing wrong with quoting the Bible to gays. And this comes from someone who is not just an atheist but actively anti-religion. Religion may be evil, but those who practice it do not necessarily have to be. She used a book to run her life (and there are an infinite number of ways to run your life based on that book), so of course she quoted it.

There is nothing to be gained by ridiculing the sincere, kind and peace-making words of a dead woman who was a friend to the community and who was trying to correct the lie that she was not.

It was a good idea to publish this letter, but not in this context, which is regrettable at best.

Thanks for posting this Peter.

I remember her being interviewed on TV, either it was the news or an entertainment program like "ET", where she DID make the remarks about AIDS being our punishment from God, as well as the "it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" comment. Some TV company somewhere must have saved that interview in their archives. I was one of those who tossed her records in the trash after that. The memory of that interview remained fresh in our minds, because her career never recovered.

Donna did a benefit concert for the Gay Men's Health Crisis at Carnegie Hall in 1998 that raised over a half million dollars! I was there and it was a magical evening. No one has ever come forward with any real proof that she made anti-gay comments so as far as I'm concerned its a non issue.

Like Ron, who posted a comment before me, I am a long time devoted fan and I'm also not gay. Donna Summer was a true treasure. She was a tremendously talented vocalist and way more than the Queen of Disco.

I believe that this terrible rumor was started by a hater (of gays, Donna Summer, disco music or all of the above) and should be dismissed.

I also met Donna Summer and she was a very kind, warm person. I do NOT believe she made those statements.

We lost a legend. Let it go and let her RIP.

I never believed the hateful comments that were attributed to her. And I believed her when she said she did not make them. Many gay people have been traumatized by the church and people calling themselves Christians. When Donna Summer became a born-again Christian, it was natural for some of her gay fans to misinterpret this as rejection, especially at the height of the AIDS crisis in this country. Summer was a wonderful, gifted singer and entertainer whose music brought me a lot of happiness. I choose to remember her that way.

Why was'nt the letter signed ?

Where there's smoke, there's usually fire. I remember hearing those unkind comments attributed to Ms. Summer from several outlets at the time, and like many felt angry and betrayed.

I cannot verify that she said exactly what was reported, but suspect it was along those lines.

That said, many new "born agains" have a tendency to go overboard in their first few years following conversion and I suspect that was the case with Ms. Summer. She was attending the same ultra-conservative southern California church as my then teen-aged husband at the time so I can vouch for their anti-gay views.

However, I suspect like many, through the years Ms. Summer mellowed in her religious fervor and softened her views... her work on behalf of AIDS charities, etc. would seem to point to this.

I do not believe she had hate in her heart and am choosing to remember and celebrate her thruogh her legacy of wonderful music. Everyone makes mistakes, and I hope when my time comes that I am remembered for whatever good I do in my life, and not for the mistakes I made.

What is strange, is the comment: "when you apologize to the gays, it's probably not best to quote at length from the bible". The scripture denoted "love". And was not stated to give further offense, but imply that what she believed, she was going to now apply to herself concerning everyone. bigotry can run more than just one way!

The whole "Adam and Steve" quote came out long after this alleged incident . I am not, generally, an easily forgiving person. However, this letter seems as sincere as any I have ever read.

There is no dichotomy between being a good Christian and gay-loving.

Let her rest in peace and remember the enjoyment she brought to us...what's to painful to remember we simply choose to forget....

she was ant-gay. i hung out with paul jabara in the villlage in nyc before he bacame famouse for writing songs her peoples songs and he complained to me she would say anti-gsy slurs in front of him. both are dead now.

This is a tired, old story. I was a huge fan of her music. It is totally accurate to say that the playing of her fantastic songs in gay disco's in NYC and LA made her career. She made those hateful comments and her career went down the tubes quickly and never recovered.
All the bs denials - and I never said this, I said this - is just spin. Gay people made her career huge - she turned on them because of some crazy born again crap - and then she lost her career. It's a simple store.
She will always be a fantastic singer with a beautiful voice. I remember hundreds of men running out to the dance floors in NYC as soon as the DJ played her songs. It was wonderful.

I loved Donna Summer. I was pissed for a while after hearing the rumors she had said some negative things but then I saw her interviewed and listened as she said she never said that and I believed her. I am also still heartbroken at the loss of such a beautiful woman with a beautiful spirit and amazing voice.

She apologized and that's all I need to know she meant what she said.

Let's remember her amazing voice, her incredible songs and respect her wishes to forgive her for any misunderstandings.

Rest in peace Donna Summer. We loved to love you!

I've heard many say that Donna only apologized because her career tanked after her supposed anti-gay statements... Her career hardly tanked... compared to most singers of her caliber, talent, and celebrity, Donna had a rather accomplished career until the end of her days. Most disco divas and pop singers could only hope to be doing as well as Donna had been 35+ years on... The only performers that come to mind that outshine her longevity are Barbra Streisand and Madonna. My point is that she didn't need the money, and her statements/apologies imo came from a sincere place... And even if she did make regrettable statements about gays at some point in her life, people change and evolve, and I hope that I am never too consumed with anger and hate to realize when they do.

I never believed any of it. Even before she denied it in other interviews. As Bono said upon her death, listen to "State of Independence", and you will learn everything that you need to know about music and her.

Her final interview was toward the Gay Community, when she knew she was going to die.

http://www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com/2012/03/donna-summer-100-uncensored-on-her-rise.html

To me this in not unlike the controversy surrounding Michael Jackson. I think there's a tendency to want to believe the best but I think there's an equally strong impulse to erase the past. People are complicated. They aren't always comprehensible in their words or actions. Sometimes it belies a conflict within themselves.

In the end, she was a great artist who made a lot of people happy. She wrote the letter in the spirit of reconciliation regardless of blame. That might not be enough for some. It is for me.

I think even if she made that comment about gay people, we should forgive her. Who never made a bad comment about someone without thinking??? We all make mistakes and I believe she did not say that, specially when she knew we gay people put her up there. This rumour in my opinion was created by someone who envied her at that time.

I love her & morn her passing no matter what...
I do believe that she did indeed make "some kind of comment" & that her newly reborn commitment( at the time) to Christianity most likely fueled that BUT I also know many many people who have done the same when pursuing or renewing an endeavor, fad or life changing commitment. We ALL have things that we have said that we later regret or reflect upon and realize that we were just plain STUPID...If you think that you haven't then you need a reality check ASAP! The music, the voice & the shear joy that her music brought should not be negated by unproven, gossip ridden & undocumented accusations...I'm not by nature a grudge holder & wish that those who cannot seem to let to go of this could BUT I do understand that for some, if it's the only thing to hold onto, then a grudge is all that you indeed have to hold onto...So, I'll be dancing & singing along VERY badly & cherishing the memories that Donna enhanced, created & made for me!
Salute!
Dave

She said it, she didn't say it! Whatever.. What is important is that she tried to make emends regardless.
I remember all the fuss about this but I also remember her denial, in any case I forgave her than and forgot it. I will not going to dig up bones now that she is dead and I wish people did the same.
A person can make mistakes and say things in the heat of the moment and wish they could take it back. I think she felt just that if she really made those bigots comments.
I love her music and I always will. It will always remind me of my youth and happy moments in my life. I still play her music and always will. Disco is the only kind of music that makes me fell truly happy and Donna Summer is a big party of that. I know she was much more than just the Queen of Disco, but to me that is the most important thing about her career.
I never though of her as any kind of gay icon, I just love her music it is just simple as that.
I will miss her and I hope people always remember Donna Summer for what she gave us; The gift of music.

Sorry Timothy but your memory is quite faulty on that recollection. The ET piece was a press conference in which she flat out denied the accusation again. This was after The New Yorker had published it as fact and thus Donna sued.

I have it on DVD copied from VHS is you need to see it. It's also in her VH1 Behind The Music episode.

Thanks.

That was a super fantastic post. The world needs teachers like you. It not only would be a better place, but it wouldn't reek of rotten feelings. People would find strength of personality, individuality and community. Would that there was a foreseeable end to the "world" as we know it, my vote would be for people like to to be chosen to be "saved" to "re-populate" the world. I think Mother Nature would be thankful to have your students walking the earth.

My humble opinion!

There is no video because it new happened no TV report. No interview in fact the incident took place in three different cities and 6 very different account of the event. Why you ask ........... because it never happened !!!

I remember MANDATE magazine (an 80's gay porn rag) showing a picture of a bodybuilder ripping Donna's pic apart - it was during the era of her She Works Hard For The Money promo, but the pic was a poster of her Quincy Jones DONNA SUMMER album cover artwork. The editor's blurb beneath wrote about the boycott at its earliest stages.

I've seen every interview Youtube posts, every guest spot on every talk show, every article and written interview about this subject, and have seen her in concert twice (yes, I confess, I love Donna Summer!) All I know is, her music is something I keep coming back to, regardless of the Olivia Newton-Johns, the Jane Olivers or the Madonnas or the Streisands or the Barbara Cooks or even the Maureen McGoverns; even when I put something on the player at night to fall asleep to. (Imagine, falling asleep to MacArthur Park and Hot Stuff!!) Her voice resonates within my core; my feet can not stop moving when she sings.

It was my hope that she and Streisand would make a video or one or the other would walk out of the wings at the other's concerts and they'd do a filmed event of No More Tears (Enough is Enough).

I think we as the Gay Community put her on a pedestal, especially after she mentioned us ("and maybe some of you men, too!") during THE MAN I LOVE on her Live and More album, and wouldn't accept that perhaps she was human, with a sense of humour that sometimes did not carry through with every attempt at a joke - sing along if you know the chorus!

I miss her presence, I hope her unfinished albums will be released, and my inner 12 year old gay adolescent still chooses to idolize her. My inner 47 year old adult approves.

I am a Born Again Christian and have been a part of the gay community who loves Donna Summer and was saddened but also overjoyed about her passing and according to scripture she is still alive but with The Lord. Being born again isn't crap as one of the commentors stated, isn't that like you making judgement statements just like you are blaming Donna Summer of. In the beginning of her career she never said anything for or against gay people. Gay people took to her and lover her because of her music. There are many singers who have gay followers (madonna and lady gaga) She said she didn't say it and she's gone so leave it alone. If you are comfortable with who you are what does it matter what anyone says...She ended her letter with scripture whats wrong with that. Stop making something out of nothing. Did anyone turn straight because of these suppose to be remarks? To end this...Jesus Himself gives all a choice, either accept Him or reject Him, that is perfectly up to you and I have no judgements towards anyone...Leae her alone..she said she didn't say it..let it go..may she rest in peace....

Ms. Summer asks us to forgive her for the past misunderstanding, but she never quite admits what that was.
I'm sure her legions of gay followers would never accuse a diva like her of something so harsh if they didn't have a reason to.
But she did try to make it right.

I am a gay white male and well past 21. What an accomplished artist we have lost, I for one will always remember her. The anti gay remarks attributed to Donna Summer are not quite believable. My guess is that someone with a bone to pick took remarks made by Anita Bryant and put Donna Summers name on them. With all the hatred and bigotry in this world its about time we let go of this petty bitching, it has gone on more than long enough. Lets turn our focus to the real issues in this world, poverty, famine, sickness, and hate, are issues worthy of our attention. All of the finger pointing and she said this, that or the other, are petty issues that should be religated to the of the tabloids.
A person trying to live a life according to Cornthians 13 should be encouraged. The world would be a better place if everyone did.
My "Last Dance" day isn't so far away, I will enjoy heaven because there will be way more that "One Hell of A Band". Donna you have left us with a great treasure. You can rest easy because of the music you have given us. You will never be forgotten!

Fascinating to read this letter. Thank you very much, Peter Staley, for all the trouble you went to in order to retrieve it from the archives!

Unfortunately it is not an impressive letter. It amounts to a denial followed by thrusting at the reader nothing other than a very long quote from the bible, which has the effect of admonishing the reader in words that appear to be cloaked with "love".

I suspect that this was a much-thought-out exercise to seek to put an end to the embarrassing matter of activists highlighting Summer's unacceptable stance on HIV and AIDS.

So sad that this has all come up again, but bad news will always be remembered more than any good news.

This whole 'anti-gay' Donna Summer debacle began back in June 1983 after writer Jim Feldman (Village Voice) damned her show with a dreadful review. He clearly was not a happy man, and the alleged comment about 'Adam & Steve' WAS made that that show because I was there and heard it myself. I didn't find that comment offensive in any way, if anything it served as a reminder that Donna was very aware a large proportion of her audience were gay men. I took that as a positive, unlike Mr Feldman who complained about everything from the stage props, the price of the ticket and the various outfits Ms Summer wore that evening. He was full of vitriol and this small story resulting from one man being upset snowballed . . . But it was a slow burner. By mid 1984 the 'Aids is God's sin for homosexuals sinful ways' started to circulate, but without ANY back up or proof. This statement was never proved nor reported, and it's THIS statement Donna Summer always denied ever having made. And let's face it, who actually speaks or makes any comment using those actual words. The 'statement' was made up by a lot of the gay press and after some time it was, of course, being read as fact.

Donna Summer was NOT anti gay, but at the same time she was no pro gay. She had the right to that choice, but that didn't mean she should be vilified for it. We loved her music, we put her on that pedestal and we all therefore expected so much from her. When she didn't deliver in quite the way Madonna eventually went on to do, we accused, attacked and pigeonholed HER.

She was always a christian, raised in a church going family and it was with her family and her faith she eventually found real solace from the whirlwind success of her career and crazy lifestyle. Just because she didn't become the 'fag hag' celebrity we would all have loved her to be, some chose to attack her.

I met with her and her family many times during the 1980's and onwards, and never once found any of them to be judgmental of me in any way shape or form. Donna herself was nothing other than totally honest, friendly and incredibly warm & funny. She knew who I was, where I was from and how I lived my life. I was never turned away or felt remotely uncomfortable in her company, quite the opposite in fact.

Let her rest in peace, and let's not forget the thrill of hearing her songs in the bars and clubs back in the day, because that is all any of us should really be focussing on right now. Hopefully she will rest in peace, but with some antagonists out there, I doubt this will ever really go away. A real shame, what more can I say?

Why dig this up in a spirit of anger? Surely we can make ammends after a passing of a soul. Peter, given all the change you personally have ushered, I am sure you have seen many a monster see the light?

Thank you for remembering the truth. When her career flat-lined and gay money was no longer coming in, she FINALLY apologized and tried to make amends. She refused to raise money early on, when it would have meant so much. Yes, some of us still remember what really happened. May she rot in hell.

Thanks for remembering the truth about Donna Summer. BTW, if you're originally from Philadelphia and visited Fire Island, NY, I remember you.

I have NEVER seen an ET or anyother televison confession by her about the anit-gay remarks as being true. I am sure if it existed, I would have surfaced years ago - and even now; it would be invaluable. You see this letter surfaced. I imaagine you imagined such an interview. Maybe you saw a sound bite of an interview she denied the rumor -- there are plenty of those. I read about the letter in 1991, but never saw it until now. A close mutual(gay) friend says she was far from homophobic and treated him, and other gay friends in the business with love and respect.

You are a vicious little ugly soul Matt. You were NOT THERE because if you were, or any of you were, why didn't any of you come forward as witnesses to this ALLEGED statement when she sued for liable?? If it really existed on video do you not think it would have been used as PROOF so the paper didn't have to settle out of court for a HUGE sum of money!!?? In fact, when she politely asked them to retract the article as it wasn't true, THEY said NO, it sells a lot of papers. And THAT is what it's all about. They didn't seem to care that printing something like this as fact would hurt someone's career, whether it was true or not. They didn't care if some MISGUIDED FANS would turn on her and never give her the chance to prove her innocent.
No - all I have EVER heard about this RUMOR is "I know a friend.. a friend of a friend...etc No one was ACTUALLY THERE. It was NEVER said by HER and was NEVER PROVEN.
She was the most talented female singer to ever grace this planet and she gave everything of herself for all of her fans (and almost her life). To put up with this shit for years on end would test even the most patient. But she remained true, she GAVE back to the community and she LOVED. God Bless Her Soul as HE did her voice. RIP Donna Summer

Even in death, religion manages to rip people apart.

It helps to remember that she was being vilified by the Christian Right for being a salacious slut. She got her start in church, and she found herself being damned by many people whom she grew up with. She was probably very afraid for her soul, something that many of us who braved coming out of the closet should be able to appreciate. I compare Donna to Peter, who, terrified, denyied his friendship with Jesus. Jesus gave Peter (and everybody else in the world) a pass. As a gay Christian, I think Jesus wants me to give Donna a pass, so, for Christ's sake, I do, and I feel better for it. RIP girl. You worked hard for the money, and, on balance, you brought us much more joy than pain.

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