What were the Denver Principles?

January 30, 2004

Bobbi Campbell with his lover in 1981
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.

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 AIDS.

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 sex. i

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

Further Reading
  • Berkowitz, Richard. 2003. Stayin' Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex (Westview Press).
  • Callen, Michael. 1990. Surviving AIDS (Harper Collins).
  • Shilts, Randy. 1987. And the Band Played On (St. Martin's).

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