The portrait in this Monday’s Humans of New York belies the intensity of its subject matter: An attractive, well dressed older white man looks quizzically at Brandon Stanton’s camera.
In the accompanying text, though, we learn that Carl George was on the frontlines of the early AIDS epidemic.
“It was a tsunami,” he recalls. “In April of ’82 there was an article in the New York Times about a new gay cancer, and everyone thought ‘oh well.’ I was in my twenties. I wasn’t worried about a thing. But then every week you started to hear about somebody becoming ill. My boss was one of the first. He was a famous florist. He went into the hospital on Thanksgiving and was dead by Easter. I lost most of my friends.”
The 59-year-old New Yorker is an artist, filmmaker and curator who’s shepherded exhibitions for the Armand Hammer Museum, the New York Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Kinsey Institute. (His 1989 film DHPG Mon Amour documents how people with AIDS took control of their own health care and was incorporated into the acclaimed documentary How to Survive a Plague.)
“A lot of the first men to die were privileged,” recalls George, who is of Lebanese and French-Canadian descent. “They were closeted, corporate white men. During the day they were bankers but at night they’d hit the leather clubs and bars. But they learned their privilege didn’t matter after they got sick. They were just ‘gay.’”
Not used to fighting the system, they forged bonds with people of color, sex workers, and other marginalized groups ravaged by both the virus and government indifference.
“It was a beautiful thing, really,” he says. “Our feminist lesbian sisters taught us how to protest because they’d been doing it for decades. They showed us how to organize meetings, and bring people together, and force the government to the table—things we’d never had to think about as white men.”