October 6, 1941 – Paul Popham
Paul Graham Popham was a Gay Rights Activist who served as the president of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis from 1981 until 1985. He also helped found and was chairman of the AIDS Action Council, a lobbying organization in Washington DC. He is the basis for the character of Bruce Niles in Larry Kramer‘s landmark play The Normal Heart, one of the first plays about the new plague: HIV/AIDS.
At the time that he was born in Emmett, it had a population of 3000. Emmett is in Gem County in southwest Idaho, the only town in the county and the county seat. I can only imagine young Paul Popham wanting to get out of town and to the nearest big city, Portland, Oregon, where he could attend Portland State College.
After graduating from PSU, he served as a first lieutenant in the Fifth Air Cavalry in Vietnam. In 1966, he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor after his platoon had served as a lure for North Vietnamese soldiers. He retired in 1969 as a Special Forces major in the Army Reserve.
He moved to New York City, and from 1969 to 1980, Popham worked for the Irving Trust Company, leaving as a vice president, before joining McGraw-Hill, a publishing house.
Popham never took an active political role until he read a newspaper article in 1981 about the disease that became known as AIDS.
By 1981, five young gay men, had been treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis Pneumonia at three different hospitals in Los Angeles. Two of the patients died. The Center for Disease Control published the first clinical reports of what would become known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. The report noted that the “patients did not know each other and had no known common contacts or knowledge of sexual partners who had had similar illnesses. The fact that these patients were all homosexuals suggests an association between some aspect of a homosexual lifestyle or disease acquired through sexual contact and Pneumocystis pneumonia in this population”.
The early stigma of a new disease was fueled by the rampant homophobia of the early 1980s. This defined the early years of the plague. The then-CDC spokesperson James Curran summed up the public perception at the time:
“The best evidence against contagion is that no cases have been reported to date outside the homosexual community or in women.”
Six months after the first report by the CDC, cases of AIDS were being reported in other risk groups such as injection drug users and Haitian immigrants. Still, it was the LGBTQ community that first took action to provide care and treatment to those living with the new plague. Among the first to respond was Kramer.
“We arranged for Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien of New York University to come and talk in my apartment to about 80 people who we were able to round up. If you were willing to listen to him, what he had to say was pretty scary. It seemed that the sensible thing to do was to spread the word that something was afoot, and that it might be wise for us to consider being more careful sexually. Alvin said at that very first meeting that he thought the disease might very well be spread sexually. Over the next six months we had some totally unsuccessful fund-raisers and we distributed material that Larry Mass wrote, laying out in a very straightforward fashion the little that was known and suggesting that caution was something you might consider. But already there were a lot of people up in arms, accusing us of being alarmists.”
“By January of 1982, things were obviously getting much worse, and I decided that we should become a more official organization and escalate our activity. So I called a meeting with six of us: Larry Mass; Paul Popham, who had already lost several close friends; Paul Rapoport, a rich real estate man who had lost his lover; Nathan Fain, who was a journalist and a friend of mine; and Edmund White, the writer, because I thought his name would help us get attention. At some point, Paul Rapoport said something like, ‘Gay men certainly have a health crisis,’ and I said, ‘Let’s use that for our name, Gay Men’s Health Crisis.’ And awkward as it was, that’s what it became. It was useful because it announced the problem and it also showed that this was an attempt at community empowerment, that gay men were actually trying to help themselves. Paul Popham was elected the first president, and we chose a board of directors. And so was GMHC born.”
In March 1983, Kramer wrote the first public call for increased awareness and activism around AIDS in a piece 1,112 And Counting for New York Native. It begins with:
“There are now 1,112 cases of serious Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. When we first became worried, there were only 41. In only twenty-eight days, from January 13th to February 9th , there were 164 new cases and 73 more dead. The total death tally is now 418. 20 percent of all cases were registered this January alone. There have been 195 dead in New York City from among 526 victims. Of all serious AIDS cases, 47.3 percent are in the New York metropolitan area. These numbers do not include the thousands of us walking around with what is also being called AIDS: various forms of swollen lymph glands and fatigues that doctors don’t know what to label or what they might portend. The rise in these numbers is terrifying. Whatever is spreading is now spreading faster as more and more people come down with AIDS.”
Kramer’s piece ends with:
“We shall always have enemies. Nothing we can ever do will remove them. Southern newspapers and Jerry Falwell‘s publications are already printing editorials proclaiming AIDS as God’s deserved punishment on homosexuals. So what? Nasty words make poor little sissy pansy wilt and die? And I am very sick and saddened by every gay man who does not get behind this issue totally and with commitment to fight for his life. I don’t want to die. I can only assume you don’t want to die. Can we fight together?”
Popham was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in February 1985 and he remained active with Gay Men’s Health Crisis until his illness made him too weak to work.
Popham was an accidental activist. Richard D. Dunne, president of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis at the time of Popham’s death wrote:
“His history had been quite the opposite from a gay activist. It was only an issue like AIDS that galvanized people like Paul.”
Kramer later lefdt Gay Men’s Health Crisis to found ACT UP. He frequently fought with Popham. Kramer wrote in his book Reports From The Holocaust (1989) that in his roman à clef play The Normal Heart, he made the protagonist Ned Weeks a version of his obnoxious self himself, and the character of Bruce Niles is a thinly disguised, sympathetic version of Popham. Bruce Niles is described as the “good cop” of gay activism: cautious, polite, deferential, and closeted.
The Normal Heart was a successful 1985 Off-Broadway production at The Public Theater. Bruce Niles was played by David Allen Brooks. The Broadway premiere of The Normal Heart was in 2011, directed by Joel Grey. Niles was played by Lee Pace. In the excellent film version of The Normal Heart (2014) directed by Ryan Murphy, Taylor Kitsch plays Niles. At the end of the film, information is displayed about the growing number of people developing AIDS, as one character’s Rolodex pile, with the contact info of his friends who have died from AIDS, grows bigger, eventually including Niles.
Popham made it until May 1987. He was taken by the plague at 45 years old. I hope he knows that he lives on as a character on stage and in a truly great film. Before he was taken, Popham reconciled with Kramer; in his last conversation with Kramer from his hospital bed, he said:
“Keep fighting, keep fighting, keep fighting.”