What were the Denver Principles?
January 30, 2004
The AIDS epidemic has had a profound effect on the LGBT community, bringing
many people out of the closet for the first time and influencing the attitudes
of government officials and the public toward gay men. It also spurred major
changes in how people with a disease relate to the medical establishment.
Bobbi Campbell with his lover in 1981
The earliest years of the epidemic were fraught with fear and uncertainty as
gay men confronted the burgeoning health crisis. Despite the climate of
secrecy, some men took the courageous step of acknowledging that they had the "gay
cancer" that would soon become known as AIDS.
In San Francisco, Bobbi Campbell, a registered nurse and a member of the
Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence - a drag troupe of gay men dressed as nuns -
recognized the need to put a face to the new disease. In December 1981, he came out
in the pages of the local gay newspaper, The Sentinel, and in 1983, he
appeared with his lover on the cover of Newsweek magazine, earning him the title
of "AIDS Poster Boy."
Pioneering AIDS physician Marcus Conant suggested that Campbell and another
man he was treating, Dan Turner, get together to discuss their experiences. Out
of this meeting grew People with AIDS San Francisco, the first advocacy group
by and for people with the disease. In May 1983, Campbell was among those who
led the first-ever candlelight march organized by people with AIDS, behind a
banner proclaiming "Fighting for Our Lives."
In New York City, Phil Lanzaratta did several early news interviews and wrote
a personal account of living with AIDS for Christopher Street magazine. In
1982, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, who had been introduced by their
doctor, Joseph Sonnabend, attended one of the first peer support groups for
people with AIDS at Beth Israel Hospital, as well as early meetings of Gay Men's
Health Crisis. But, Callen later recalled, he grew frustrated with GMHC forums
"where those of us with AIDS would sit silently in the audience and hear
doctors, nurses, lawyers, insurance experts, and [social workers] tell us what it
was like to have AIDS." The two soon formed a new group called Gay Men with
In June 1983, Campbell, Turner, Lanzaratta, Callen, Berkowitz, and about 10
other gay men with AIDS attended the Second National AIDS Forum, part of the
National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference in Denver. During an ad-hoc meeting,
the men hashed out their visions for a self-empowerment movement and a
national network of people with AIDS.
One point of contention for them concerned how gay men could stay healthy
without sacrificing their hard-won sexual freedom. Some of these men had been
trailblazers in developing the concept of safer sex. In 1982, for example,
Campbell and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence produced "Play Fair," the first
safer-sex brochure, and Callen and Berkowitz wrote a controversial article for
the New York Native entitled "We Know Who We Are: Two Gay Men Declare War on
Promiscuity." Callen, a self-proclaimed "slut," and Berkowitz, a former
hustler, had come to believe that rampant sex and drug use could wreak havoc on the
immune system. In 1983, the two published "How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One
Approach," which emphasized risk-reduction measures such as condom use.
At the end of the conference, the small group of people with AIDS took the
stage before the keynote speaker and read a statement that became known as the
Denver Principles. "We condemn attempts to label us as 'victims,' a term which
implies defeat, and we are only occasionally 'patients,' a term which implies
passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are people
with AIDS," they declared. Among the 11 principles, the PWAs asserted their
right "to be involved at every level of decision-making," "to be involved in
all AIDS forums with equal credibility," and "to die - and to live - in
dignity." The statement was met with a moment of stunned silence, followed by 10
minutes of applause.
The inspiration from the Denver meeting fueled the creation of countless
local PWA groups, community research initiatives, buyers' clubs to procure
alternative therapies and unapproved pharmaceuticals, and the National Association of
People with AIDS. "We came to Denver as sick people and left as activists,"
Berkowitz later wrote. "We marched in parades, testified before legislatures,
started newsletters and hot lines, organized PWA coalitions. Against a barrage
of medical reports that an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence and media
images of PWAs as disfigured monsters, we gave the most stigmatized disease of our
time a human face."
Several of the PWAs at the Denver meeting, including Campbell, died soon
thereafter, but a few became long-term survivors. Callen gained renown as a
singer-songwriter, both as a soloist and with the a capella group the Flirtations.
He gave his final performance at the 1993 March on Washington, before dying of
AIDS later that year. Berkowitz, still alive today and the group's sole
survivor, went on to write a book (published this year) about the invention of safer
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.
Berkowitz, Richard. 2003. Stayin' Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex
Callen, Michael. 1990. Surviving AIDS (Harper Collins).
Shilts, Randy. 1987. And the Band Played On (St. Martin's).
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