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An activist’s journey: former Jumbo Gregg Gonsalves leads in AIDS activism

Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 21, 2013 02:02


As an ambitious high school graduate, Gregg Gonsalves applied to Tufts with medical school among his ultimate goals. Although he ultimately never graduated from Tufts, his time as a student on the Hill proved critical to his development as an activist fighting AIDS, a role he continues to play to this day. Recently, Gonsalves was featured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “How To Survive a Plague” (2012), which tells the story of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Treatment Action Group (TAG).
“I came to Tufts thinking maybe I’ll be a physician and then go into medicine, but I fell in love with poetry,” Gonsalves said.
This love of literature was inspired by two of his professors — Fletcher Professor of English Literature Lee Edelman and former Associate Professor of Russian David Sloane — who later became his advisors after Gonsalves declared a double major in English and Russian language and literature.
“A lot of the stuff I read with Lee Edelman and [Professor Emeritus] Howard Solomon was very critical in how I viewed the world,” he said. “I remember once that Lee Edelman was describing to a poetry class about a generation of kids being rabid teenage pragmatists. I think he was talking about the ’60s, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be a rabid teenage pragmatist. I don’t want to be ruthlessly pursuing some sort of career.’”
Outside of the classroom, Gonsalves began to find himself involved in activist groups on campus. His activism at Tufts came to a head with the divestment protests in 1985.
“We took over Ballou Hall ... in an anti-apartheid protest,” Gonsalves said. “That act of political activism basically was a training point for me.”
He recalled the large number of students — hundreds, by his count — who occupied the building in a sit-in protest that lasted for three days and two nights. In the midst of the protest, Gonsalves left with the intention of going to the Tufts University School of Medicine, where he worked in a lab, but ultimately decided to turn around and return to the protest just before leaving campus.
“This ring of police surrounded me at the entrance to Ballou Hall, and I said, ‘I’m getting back in there no matter what,’” he said. “I dove past the police into the crowd of students, many of them going back into Ballou Hall.”
Later on, Gonsalves said, the protests at Ballou drove him to continue pursuing politically motivated work.
“The anti-apartheid protest in Ballou was exciting, you know — it felt like we were doing something that was important,” Gonsalves said. “With the anti-apartheid protests it was freedom or oppression, and with ACT UP it was life or death for the sake of my then-partner.”
The issue of AIDS was consistently present in Gonsalves’ life upon arriving at Tufts. As he explained, the year he matriculated, 1981, was the same year that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first reported on cases of the virus in the United States. By 1985, Gonsalves decided for personal reasons to take time off from Tufts. Upon returning in the summer of 1987 to finish his undergraduate degree, he met an HIV-positive person for the first time.
“I took a class over the summer [of 1987], thinking it was the last class I would take to finish my degree, and that summer I met the first HIV-positive person I ever knew,” he said. This man, who became Gonsalves’ boyfriend, gave Gonsalves a new, personal perspective on the effects of the virus.
“It was a shock. I was a young guy, barely older than you are, and never met anybody HIV-positive in my life,” Gonsalves said. “All I could think of was that he was going to die, but we ended up dating each other for a while.”
Gonsalves initially became involved with ACT UP Boston while searching for treatment for his significant other. ACT UP is an international organization that uses direct action to fight AIDS, using both a legislative and medical approach. 
“Back then, there were no drugs for HIV that really worked, so I went in search of information,” he said. “I ended up in ACT UP Boston and started learning everything from…older gay men who were researching treatments and things to stave off sickness and death. That was how I got involved in activism after I left Tufts.”
Over time, the fight for AIDS education and treatment would hit even closer to home for Gonsalves and his family. 
“I found out many years later that my cousin had HIV and he [then died] in 1996,” he said. 
He would later be diagnosed with the virus in the mid-1990s himself. 
“It became a sort of personal struggle,” he said. 
Today, Gonsalves’ work with ACT UP is a central focus of “How to Survive a Plague,” which chronicles the work of AIDS activists during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He hopes the film will help people to learn more about the history of the disease.
“This weekend, I asked people if they knew what ACT UP is and they said no,” he said. “The history of the work we did was in danger of being wiped away. I think that ‘How to Survive a Plague’ and its Oscar nomination helped put the history of AIDS activism into the mainstream, and I think that’s very important.”
Gonsalves maintains that it is particularly important for college students to be aware of the history of AIDS activism, since it has largely included young people. Like Gonsalves, most of his colleagues at ACT UP were just out of college when they first became involved.
“Nobody had any credentials to argue with the National Institutes of Health and the [United States] Food and Drug Administration, but we taught ourselves,” he said. “You don’t have to wait until you become a professional to get a job or work in global health.”
Today, global health activism has become Gonsalves’ area of work. After ACT UP achieved notable success toward the end of the 1990s, Gonsalves went to South Africa to help improve HIV awareness there.
Since leaving Tufts, Gonsalves has gone on to receive his bachelor’s degree from Yale University through its Eli Whitney Students Program. Currently, he is co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership between Yale Law School and the Yale School of Public Health, where he is also working toward a PhD.
According to Gonsalves, returning to college made him aware that AIDS activism is alive and well in younger generations.
“I originally thought when I got back to university after 25 years that it was a more conservative generation, or radical teenage pragmatists as Lee Edelman said 25 years ago, but it turns out that this wasn’t the case,” he said. “There were people like the people who stormed Ballou Hall in 1985.”
Gonsalves expressed hope that students will continue to engage in public health work. As his own non-traditional experience shows, not playing by the book can yield results.
“With your current resources, your talents and your own passion, you can spark a movement and make changes like we did,” he said. “All you need is a few people to change the world.”

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