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Ken Cole Needs a History Lesson

Fashion mogul Kenneth Cole produced a documentary this year about amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, an organization whose board of trustees he has chaired for many years.

The Battle of Amfar is being shown on HBO, but frankly, I'm not eager to see it. After all, the film's promotional material emphasizes a melodramatic mistruth: "In the darkest days of the epidemic, two very different women--Hollywood superstar Elizabeth Taylor and research scientist Mathilde Krim--joined forces to create amfAR (the American Foundation for AIDS Research), America's first AIDS research organization."

Mike, Mathilde, and Joe - Upper East Side - by Peter Serling-small.jpg
The important efforts by Elizabeth Taylor and Mathilde Krim in combating the epidemic are only diminished by such a lie. The first AIDS research organization in the U.S., and possibly the entire world, was the AIDS Medical Foundation (AMF), formed in New York in 1983 by Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Michael Callen, Mathilde Krim (pictured on right; photo by Peter Serling) and several others.  Sonnabend knew Dr. Krim from interferon research and had asked for her help in raising money to study what was going on with his patients.

The idea for the AIDS Medical Foundation came from the partner of one of Sonnabend's patients--an African American, I might add, whose role has also been largely lost to history--and the point was to pursue community-based research drawing on Sonnabend's pool of patients. I write about this history in my new memoir, Body Counts.

Krim was AMF's first board chair and quickly became its most generous donor. Two and a half years later, in September of 1985, a community clinician based in Los Angeles, Dr. Michael Gottlieb, formed the National AIDS Research Foundation with Elizabeth Taylor as his high-profile co-founder.  When Krim heard of Taylor's involvement, she smartly used her Hollywood connections (her husband was head of a movie studio) to contact Taylor and propose the organizations join forces. 

The truth is an interesting and important history, but curiously it isn't the one represented in the promotion of Kenneth Cole's film.  While amfAR's official history on its website isn't as factually incorrect, it does render the role of Sonnabend, Callen, Gottlieb and others invisible, in favor of highlighting Krim and Taylor.

OK, so maybe that all sounds like petty behind-the-scenes stuff no one else cares about.

But last night Ken Cole was on Chelsea Handler's Chelsea Lately and uttered another flat-out mistruth--a fabrication that is an insult to an entire community:

Handler:  "How did you get involved with AIDS research?"

Cole:  "This is was like 25 years ago and people weren't talking about AIDS then because stigma was so devastating (and arguably stigma has killed more people than the virus itself has), and the gay community wasn't speaking up, they were afraid to."

Kenneth-Cole-1.jpgI've got news for Ken Cole.  Twenty-five years ago, it was almost solely members of the gay community who were speaking up about AIDS.  In fact, in 1987, the executive directors of almost all the national lesbian and gay organizations protested government inaction in an act of civil disobedience and got arrested in front of the White House.

It is also worth noting that it has been under Cole's watch as amfAR's board chair that the visibility of people openly living with HIV on amfAR's board has dropped to an all-time low. There may be others I don't know about, but of the 26 individuals listed today as members of amfAR's board of trustees, I recognize only one, former POZ editor Regan Hofmann, as openly HIV-positive.  Fewer than a third of the trustees are women. Only one, Harry Belafonte, is African-American.

For Cole to suggest that either the gay community "wasn't speaking up" or imply that there wasn't adequate attention to the disease until he got involved is wrong on so many levels. He owes the gay community--and all those who were "speaking up" in those years--an apology.


Please visit Body Counts at, on and on Twitter @BodyCountsBook.

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Comments on Sean Strub's blog entry "Ken Cole Needs a History Lesson"

Thank you so much for remembering michael callen. I went to high school with him, and we all knew he would do something great in the world. He had tesified before congress, and shown in a photo in newsweek before our class reunion, so there was hushed conversation about him. But we his friends were so proud. Whenever the movie philadelphia comes on, I watch so I can hear him sing. He called me, out of the blue, knowing that he was dying. We had a wonderful chat, which I still treasure. He and so many died far too early; yet he did make a large difference in the world.

You are leaving out two MAIN players in this story. Dr. Arnold Klein was one of the co-founders of the National AIDS Research Foundation. It was David Geffen who got the heads of BOTH organizations in the room & would NOT let them leave until the two organizations merged & created AmFar. He knocked all their heads together & made it happen. There were many egos involved but David knew that the duplication of efforts with one organization on the East Coast & one organization on the West Coast was wasteful & he knew that in order to move forward & figure out this disease there had to be one unified organization. He SINGLEHANDEDLY made this happen I was there.
Howard Rosenman

Kenneth honey, 25 years ago I (and the largely gay staff and volunteers of the LA Shanti Foundation) had been speaking up and doing the work for years. Big-name straights, by and large, were a little late to the party.

Thanks, Sean, for calling him out. When I saw this interview I was so incensed I just about levitated off the bed. Besides saying ignorant things, Cole was also a really awful interview subject. Chelsey must have owed someone a major favor.

Does the average PWA or PWH really care about the inner politics and battles of AIDS Inc.? The rest of us couldn't care less who runs these groups, who takes credit for what, who pisses of which faction etc. Wear your ribbons, organize your bike marathons, pay yourself $100,000 salaries, spend half your budget berating people for using the terms clean and dirty etc. etc. but just maybe try to spend some time on actual HIV prevention and finding a cure.

I think the problem might be with Ken's math, not history. It was twenty nine years ago, not twenty five years that Kenneth Cole first spoke out. "Kenneth Cole continued to make a splash. In 1985, for his first major ad campaign, he decided to promote AIDS awareness and research -- the first figure in the fashion industry to do so. Coupling supermodels with children of all ethnicities, his ads read, "For the future of our children," and featured everyone barefoot. Though not a single shoe could be found in the campaign, it was a success."
In my memory of events 1985 was early for this sort of action. (
GMHC 1982 Larry Kramer onto ACT UP formed March 1987 AIDS Quilt started also in 87 March on Washington 87.
With all the great work he has done and the money raised/donated it would be especially sad to skew these facts.

Norm, thanks for researching and sharing this background.

Dave, I think you're right, that the average person with HIV isn't aware of and probably doesn't care much about these issues. But that doesn't mean that "inner politics and battles of AIDS, Inc." don't have an impact on either their lives or the course of the epidemic. Distorting the history of the epidemic takes us further from preventing HIV or finding a cure.

Howard, thanks for much for filling in some of the details from the Los Angeles end of this story. know the New York side much better, but appreciate learning more, which I'll reflect in future writing on this topic.

Excuse me but I have dealt directly with Mr. Cole at AmFAR meetings. It's my opinon he's a great asset to AmFAR.

I remember 25 yrs ago. I t was gay people who were fighting for their lives. i was infected with HIV around 1979 and diagnosed in 1982 by Dr Groopman growing the virus from my blood. I did not kick of the tests till 1990. HIV/AIDS has not been cured. It has become a forgotten disease. The only infectious disease, that kills thousands every yr, but almost never talked about in media. The you take a few pills and are fine is a lie. You take lots of meds and get to live longer. As more and more people are alive with HIV/AIDS, the numbers of deaths will climb. People like me have run out of new meds. The lie that HIV/AIDSA is manageable, is the first time in history that a disease, that is infectious, has been dismissed, by wording. HIV is worse than cancer, their is not cure. Gay men have been lied to. the odds of becoming infected over ones life still are very high, near 100%. eliminating gay, and renaming them MSM. is part of the lie. Gay men are morel likely to get HIV/AIDS, by such a factor, that it is a disease that mainly affects gay men. Lies do not a cure make. We all ignore the truth, but the truth, will not change cause of rewording the epidemic.

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This page contains a single entry by Sean Strub published on December 13, 2013 3:59 PM.

John and Michael: Deaths in the Family was the previous entry in this blog.

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