The official biography of James McGrath, who joined Western Michigan University College Law School, in Lansing, as president and dean a year ago says: “His focus has been on public health and the law issues, particularly the law’s effect on the health of populations with little or no political power, including lesbian and gay, transgender, and intersexual legal issues.”
That was not a random choice. McGrath, 63, is a gay man who is raising a 7-year-old daughter with his husband. Editor and publisher Berl Schwartz interviewed him recently. This interview has been edited and condensed. A video of the complete interview is available at www.lansingcitypulse.com.
How did you come out?
In high school, there were not any positive role models. Doing anything homosexual was a crime in most places. The only images I had of gay people were men who were more like women, and not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I just didn’t identify that way. I thought, “Well, I’m not gay, but I don’t know what I am. Something’s different about me.”
Then I joined the Air Force right after high school. What a great place to question your sexuality. It dawned on me that I did have an attraction to other men. I had my first crush, my first boyfriend, my first kiss in the military. There was no such thing as don’t ask, don’t tell. They did ask, and I told. Because I’d been a fairly exemplary young airmen — I had a medal for good conduct medal and for some superior service — I was given an honorable discharge after about three years. It was really fortuitous in that I discovered what’s different about me is that I’m gay and there’s a whole gay world out there.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Rhode Island College studying theater. I was hired by a local children’s theater. It was probably one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had, but it paid minimum wage. And, at the time I had bought this house in Rhode Island for a dollar that had been abandoned for 20 years that I fixed up.
So I was doing all of that and had a lot going on and minimum wage was not cutting it, so I started working as a DJ at clubs and doing sound for bands and singing in a band and playing saxophone. We toured and put out a couple of vinyl records that were just horrendous. I listen to them today and cringe.
I was around clubs a lot, and they were closing this one club and over a couple of drinks I was poo-pooing the way that this guy managed the place. “He’s an idiot and I would do so much better.” And what everybody didn’t tell me was he was standing right behind me, and he says, “If you think you can do it better, I’ll sell you my liquor license.”
It was $25,000. So I sold my house, but it took about eight to 10 times that amount, I had to borrow a lot of money, it was really hard. And I had the benefit of a high school education plus about a year and a half in theater, so I wasn’t really ready for this. But the club worked out OK. And just for your information, in case this should ever arise in your life, a single mattress will fit perfectly on a pool table. The little pockets become drink holders.
I would invite some friends over on Tuesday night because we were closed, mostly gay people. Before I knew it, we had 40 or 50 people showing up on Tuesday night and I thought, “Maybe there is a market for this.” It became the biggest night of the week.
I kept the club for just over three years. We had a country band, a Las Vegas band, we had the caveman band, a heavy metal band, it was really fun. On Heavy Metal Night, though, one guy got crazy with this guitar, smashing it against the pole in the club, and a piece flew out and hit a woman directly in the face as she opened the door. And I learned my very first legal lesson that we owe the people coming to our place of public accommodation the highest duty of all. I was sued, and it was clear I was going to lose. I was horribly under-insured, so I gave the club to my employees because I didn’t want to fire 40 people. They actually found someone to pump some money into it and kept it open for another 10 years, at least.
So now we’re in the ‘80s. And that, obviously, is a dark time for the gay community with the AIDS crisis. How did you deal with that?
We did all sorts of dance benefits to raise money for people with HIV. But it was like a drop in the bucket. Things were so expensive. The only medicine that could treat HIV disease was AZT, which cost $10,000 per year per patient. I got very angry and heard about this group in New York called ACT UP doing these great demonstrations and really putting the public spotlight on the government’s inaction against this epidemic. Then we had a local group in Rhode Island start too called ACT NOW, and after about six weeks, I said, “You need to change your name to ACT UP.” And they said, “Why?” And I said, “Because it’s been six weeks and you haven’t done a damn thing. So you’re not really acting now.” They said, “Well, what ideas do you have?” And mine were kind of grown out of my New York experience. I would go every Monday to ACT UP New York’s meetings at the gay community center. I came back with great ideas.
Public reporting of test results was keeping people from getting the test, so we fought against that with a sit-in the Governor’s Office and were arrested. That’s the whole point of non-violent civil disobedience: You get arrested and media attention. We were doing things like that.
The state had big billboards that said, “Call this number for testing,” and it sounded very caring, but they were going to track you. So we went around at night and painted over the phone number of all of those billboards … little art projects like that. At the Rhode Island borders, there were big signs that say, “Welcome to Rhode Island, the ocean state.” And we actually had these big metal plates we riveted on that said, instead of the ocean state, “Home of mandatory HIV testing.”
I was going to New York every week and ended up sitting near Peter Staley (an important AIDS activist then) who’s now very, very famous, you can read about him in the Smithsonian. I became part of his little group called Power Tools, a small group that would infiltrate.
Our most famous action was at the New York Stock Exchange. Burroughs Wellcome (which made AZT) wasn’t actually publicly traded, but there was a way to trade interests in Burroughs Wellcome. We dressed in what we called business drag, which was just a suit with a little pin that said I was from Bear Stearns, other people from other companies. We went up in the balcony just a few minutes before the bell, and three minutes, exactly, before the bell went off, we pulled the trigger on air horns and it was deafening. There was six of us up there and the air horns went for five full minutes. We had timed it of course, and nobody heard the starting bell. People were furious and they were yelling at us, “What are you doing?” And we have a big banner up that either said, “ACT UP” or “Fuck your profiteering.” Either way, they were incensed by it. And we started throwing out these fake $100 bills that had a message about Burroughs Wellcome on them. The people were not, in any way, positive about this action. And we’re trying to get at us to probably kill us. So I was so relieved when the police showed up this time because we had handcuffed ourselves to that balcony and we had no keys. Luckily, we had regulation handcuffs, they extricate us from the balcony and get us out. People are trying to hit us, but we all get out alive.
And did you end up going to jail for that?
Yes. That was the point.
When we went to Burroughs Wellcome in the South, we weren’t sure how much the bail was going to be set at, so, if I may name drop, Keith Haring, a very famous artist who actually succumbed to HIV disease, gave us $10,000 each in traveler’s cheques in $100 denominations, and each one had Keith Haring’s signature on it, which was worth a lot. And I was like, “Oh man, I want one of those.” But no, it was only in case we needed the bail.
Because three of us were actually infected with HIV, Burroughs Wellcome did not want us to spend considerable time in jail and actually lobbied to get us out of jail. We ended up staying there just one day, Which was very lucky because we were charged with amazing things, like fraudulently representing ourselves by using those name tags. We were told we kidnapped someone by running past them to get in the elevator — like ridiculous charges. We could have been in jail for a long time awaiting trial, so we’re very thankful that Burroughs Wellcome was actually an ally in that. And, by the way, after each of these actions, Burroughs Wellcome dropped their price 20%, but it was a “coincidence” each time that they had been planning that the next day already.
You had some encounters with the late great Larry Kramer. What was he like?
He is a real hero of mine. We didn’t see eye to eye on everything and, to be honest with you, I met him, but I doubt he would even have remembered my name because he had such disdain for me. I can’t really blame him, I was the new person to the group, I was very unsophisticated compared to like Peter Staley and David Levitt, who’s a very famous author, and there’s a lot of people there just really steeped in the knowledge you needed to really be a great activist. I was still learning and I was willing to take chances, that got me into the group. And so Larry, fortunately for me, never vocalized his disdain because it probably would have ruined me, but you could tell he had no love for me.
I don’t agree with everything Larry did. He had very Victorian views on sex. He thought sex should be between two people who were in love and stuff like that. I was a little more sex positive at the time, I wasn’t married either. And he wrote the novel “Faggots” that really was excoriating the “gay lifestyle.” Not every gay man is a crazy sexual debauchery kind of person as in that book. But he was that way a long time before HIV hit and it kind of solidified his view like, “Well look, if we’re not doing this stuff, these horrible things won’t happen.” People were very upset with him because, certainly, it wasn’t what’s caused HIV, but it did help it spread faster in the community.
But he was just an amazing man, he kept us on our toes. He kept people angry, which was really important to get this stuff done, angry enough to get arrested, angry enough to help change the laws.
It was a really great, exciting, but sad and deadly time. When I look around my cohort, there’s not a lot of men my age … far fewer than should be alive today because of HIV.