|"He Kills Me": AIDS activist art from Gran Fury. Ronald Reagan, burn in hell!|
I wish I had a picture of my late friend and comrade Joe Galanti. I have a vivid if incomplete memory of a specific photograph: taken at a revolutionary counterprotest of some KKK/Nazi rally in the midwest in the late 1970s, it shows Joe and other comrades charging forward against the enemy lines. The comrades are wearing painted football helmets and bearing shields: the anti-fascist confrontations of those days were serious business. I remember the expression on Joe's face in this photo, yelling some warcry: it's like a battlefield photo, which I guess indeed it was. I don't remember if Joe was charging the fascists directly in this photo or up against their police protection. I vaguely remember this action ended in arrest, but it was taken right before I got to know Joe, and the details are lost to time.
Joe was born Joe Alongi, but in the ways of the revolutionary left of those days renamed himself Joe Galanti, picking an old family name for his nom d'guerre. The Chicago left wasn't so huge that he was a stranger to me when we finally became friends in 1978 or 1979: I had surely seen him around at demonstrations or events. His party, the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) was notorious for its anti-Klan/anti-Nazi work. While not quite as notorious as the Communist Workers Party who had comrades literally martyred by fascist killers down in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the end of that period, the RSL was definitely committed to building counterprotests that could literally stop the fascists in their tracks. Others on the left called them adventurists for their tactics, and remembering that photo there are certainly grains of truth in that argument. Chicago's segregated suburbs were infested with fascist vermin, of both the home-grown Klan variety and swastika-bearing, uniform dress-up German-style nazophiles. These were dangerous situations: I remember coming back from one suburban confrontation, must have been 1979 or 1980, when our car was followed from a counter-rally by a carload of Nazi sympathizers who tried ramming us off the highway: we escaped at high speed through a maze of suburban streets. The RSL had given up the football-helmeted charges by then but not the war itself.
The funny thing was that Joe was a pussycat. If he could be dynamic in action and a deft speech maker, he was soft-spoken and goofy in person. He was brilliant, with a great grasp of revolutionary politics and obviously a real commitment to fighting for his vision. Joe was also proudly out and gay, at a time when the left's relationship with the gay struggle was marked by great deals of ambivalence or even hostility.
Even though I had been warned off their adventurism, when I came out those many decades ago it was only natural that I would be forced to reevaluate the RSL since I was looking to integrate my communist politics with my newly open self-identity. I don't remember when I decided to treat Joe as something other than a raving lunatic, but at some point we began talking politics, and he really rocked my world.
He gave me a lot of space: he introduced me to another person in the RSL periphery, Michael Botkin, who would shortly become my roommate and also Joe's lover. We formed a sort of transitional organization, the boldly named Gay Revolutionary Discussion Group (GRDG, which we pronounced "Grudge"), and drew others toward the RSL from the gay activist world through this nominally independent core. Eventually I was ready to return to the hardcore left, formally joined the RSL, and GRDG folded into the League. It was smart organizing on Joe's part: and all the time we were studying the issues and organizing protests and intervening in the community. We organized protests against the movies "Cruising" and "Windows" and got involved in a fight against police repression of the Chicago gay community. I was really won to the RSL by Joe, who built a bridge between the critical Leninism of the RSL, community activism, and personal expression and identity.
Joe was fiercely charismatic: if he was intimidating at first, everyone who knew him soon fell in love with him. Having lived in New York City now for over thirty years, it's easy to forget how novel New Yorkers like Joe seemed to us quaint midwesterners back then. His New York accent and his dark Italian good looks were charming and compelling. I was happy when he and Michael became an item. We, sometimes with other comrades, would socialize frequently, going out to gay bars and discos or holding houseparties. Partying, Joe became a kind of psychedelic hippy, and warmly touchy and feely in ways enticing to those of us who grew up in Chicago's icy urbanity. He was an apostle of free love, and adored the icons of early gay counterculture.
It turned out Joe also had a personal secret dark side. He would sneak off to leather bars where he lived a whole different kind of life, one that even Michael didn't learn about til months after they had started becoming involved. This proved a bit of a challenge for Michael who didn't share the seriousness of the leather/S&M world, but he was game at least for a while. I remember sitting in our living room listening to music when Michael came out of his bedroom looking thoughtful and a little perplexed. "Hey I just fistfucked Joe." He announced before turning around and going back to his room off the kitchen in the back of the apartment. Joe seemed even happier having come out of this sort of second closet, though the intensity of Joe's sexuality became a tension on their relationship.
I was sad to leave Joe and Michael behind when I moved to New York in the late summer of 1981. I moved here to work for the League itself, and soon lived and breathed politics 24 hours a day. I stayed in touch with them, and saw them occasionally at national gatherings. But then that world just ended.
I remember several disturbing phone calls a couple years later. Calls from Joe, or Michael, or a mutual RSL friend. Joe was sick. Michael was sick. There was some weird factional trouble in the Chicago RSL. Michael left. It's confused in my memory... I remember a difficult conversation with Joe over the phone when he seemed deeply panicked...he had indeed been diagnosed with AIDS. Not a brand-new disease by then but still always a death sentence. He was discussing his plans: "If I live long enough..." the rest of this terrible pronouncement is blotted out of my memory by a rush of noise.
I saw him one more time. He came home to NYC on a sort of last pilgrimage...this was somewhere between 1985 and 1987. He seemed well, but much thinner. He had a list of things to do. He wanted to feast on Nathan's oysters: he was shocked that they had become so expensive. Shortly thereafter I fell away from the League myself: personally terrified by AIDS and demoralized by the Reagan era, I was in political retreat and heading for hibernation. I don't even remember when the call came, or who it came from, that Joe had sickened again and succumbed to the disease. I'm guilty as hell that I was nowhere to be found. I miss him still: I miss his passion, his commitment, his courage, his ability to synthesize revolutionary politics into a compelling narrative. There's so much Joe didn't get to see. What a terrible terrible loss.
Joe loved to dance. He loved disco, and loved the adventurous new sounds that crept into the music after its r&b/funk base seemed to tire. One song I remember he loved to no end was "Pop Muzik," by M. This one's for you Joe.
I have been trying to honor my friends lost to AIDS each World AIDS day. Click here for my previous writings about them and the struggle against AIDS.