“ ‘Cause love don’t need a reason
Love don’t always rhyme
And love is all we have for now
What we don’t have is time.”
– Love Don’t Need A Reason
In memory of Michael Callen
(11 April 1955 – 27 December 1993)
They Are Falling All Around Me
Michael Callen was a US singer and gay man who became an important AIDS activist during the terrible pandemic that swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s – and which continues to this day in many parts of the world. One of his legacy songs, Love Don’t Need A Reason, was co-written by Australian-born singer Peter Allen (who also died of AIDS) and singer Marsha Malamet.
My personal introduction to Michael Callen took place at the US National March on Washington on 25 April 1993, not because I attended the event, but because I watched film clips from the March on the ABC News in Australia. I was visiting a lesbian friend who has since passed away, and we were captivated by Michael’s song – a moment of beauty and peace during a stormy era when our civil rights were under attack and many of our friends were suffering and dying from a dreadful epidemic.
Do Not Turn Away
Michael Callen was a musician in The Flirtations, but his long list of activist achievements forms an impressive resume in itself. He rallied People With AIDS, formed support networks, led activist protests, wrote and edited activist books and literature, and appeared in a number of HIV/AIDS-related films during an era of terrible stigma.
Although he came from a background where he had enjoyed a lifestyle of sexual freedom and ‘promiscuity’ within gay male communities, he later spoke against this behaviour in the era of AIDS, and expanded his activist work to support all who were affected by HIV/AIDS – women, children, minorities, haemophiliacs, and others.
He ‘coined the term “people with AIDS” (PWAs) to replace the early characterizations of PWAs as AIDS victims’ and spoke of empowering them:
“Michael Callen used to say there was ‘a special magic in the room’ whenever a group of people with AIDS got together. Because our lives were at stake, we generally did our best to share what we were learning without judgment, without personalizing our arguments, without any agenda except to learn.”(Strub, 2014, 296)
Michael Callen worked passionately to agitate for those with AIDS. He even helped to invent the then-revolutionary concept of safe sex. Impressive work for one individual – a musician by trade, an activist by calling.
Living in Wartime
I do not know if he considered himself a Humanist, but he was an atheist and he certainly undertook activist work that upheld Humanist principles, by working for the dignity of others and empowering the dispossessed. Although he testified to members of New York Congress in 1983 that, ‘At age 28, I wake up every morning to face the very real possibility of my own death’, the most recent book on his life and works notes that his atheism contained elements of ‘hope and optimism’ (Jones, 2020, 349), which I see as another Humanist trait.
In 1988, he noted the insidious nature of living with AIDS:
“Two weeks ago… I looked down and noticed my first KS lesion on my leg. A biopsy has confirmed my suspicion. I thought I’d made a separate peace with AIDS, but it’s continually negotiating in bad faith. AIDS is a wily adversary. One cannot turn one’s back for an instant.” (Callen, 1988, xix)
Two years later, he displays a more positive attitude during the era when HIV remained a virtual death sentence:
“While I would never have wished for AIDS, the plain truth is that I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. Having AIDS has been like going through ten years of therapy – every week.
“AIDS has taught me the preciousness of life and the healing power of love. I’ve been more productive than at any time prior. I’ve travelled the world and met hundreds of wonderful people that I’m sure I would not have met any other way. I’ve tried to see AIDS as a challenge to begin living, instead of a sign to begin dying.
“AIDS forced me to take responsibility for my own life – for the choices I had made and the choices I could still make. For better or worse, AIDS has made me the man I am today.” (Callen, 1990, 10)
We could surely all learn from his uplifting attitude.
The Healing Power of Love
Perhaps one of Michael’s greatest gifts to the world was his strong hope. Author Sean Strub reports of Michael’s 1990 book, Surviving AIDS, written at a time when HIV was largely seen as a death sentence:
“In Surviving AIDS, Callen interviewed people with AIDS about why they thought they were alive. He found that those who had survived the longest shared three important traits: They believed survival was possible; they could identify a reason to get up in the morning; and when asked how they treated their illness, they could rattle off a list of different strategies. What was on the list wasn’t important. Survivors sought survival; seeking and experimenting with various treatments and strategies was the key.
“Callen told me he was accused of offering people with AIDS ‘cruel hope’ by suggesting that survival was possible. “I tell them there’s no such thing as cruel hope,” he said, “Hope is hope – either you have it or you don’t.” ” (Strub, 2014, 236).
Such a concept as ‘hope’ might be open to accusations of demonstrating a religious mindset. Lawrence Rifkin suggests an alternative view of hope, divorced from the populist vision of a utopian, dreamy-eyed fantasy that denies the ugly face of reality:
So let’s admit straight out: humanism is not about hope. It’s about facing the world as it actually exists and making the best of it. It’s about looking this real world in the eye and, using imagination and initiative, building castles in the sand, not castles in the sky. It’s about finding goodness within the spectrum of what’s real and what’s possible. And in facing such truths, humanists don’t look outside nature for salvation; they don’t seek change through wish fulfillment. This perspective is not a limitation. It’s a motivator. It’s the ground for positive action and results.
It seems to me that this is actually the form of hope that Michael Callen grasped and shared widely. A gay cliché of dark humour during that same era was that if life offers you lemons, make lemonaids. This is what Callen did, not denying the world’s problems but defying them; offering enlightenment to those facing darkness; offering a tomorrow for those whose today offers little. We can learn a lesson from him a generation later, whether facing cancer or COVID, poverty or prosperity, pride or prejudice.
On The Other Side
Australian AIDS historian Nick Cook recalls Michael Callen’s ‘show-stopping speech’ at Australia’s Third National Conference on AIDS in Hobart in August 1988, where he ‘gave a rousing address about refusing to be ashamed of his infection’ (Cook, 2020, 143). This encouraged, ‘the first major coming out of people with HIV’ in Australia, led by activists Chris Carter and Terry Giblett (Menadue, 2014, 20) – a virtual takeover of the conference by HIV-positive Australian activists gatecrashing the stage, coming out to the world – and to each other – for the first time; amidst applause, cheers, tears, hugs and a standing ovation from the audience – in defiance of widespread stigma and discrimination across the nation (Cook, 2020, 144 – 150). In that event, Michael Callen changed Australia.
I am fortunate to own a copy of Michael’s books, in one of which he has inscribed to its previous owner: “Celebrate diversity and heal AIDS with love!” Such words are surely worth remembering during this current pandemic and beyond.
“Together we have come this far
Don’t wonder where the heroes are
You are one!”
– The Healing Power of Love,
(c) 1986 by Michael Callen & Marsha Malamet
(Callen, 1987, 94)
Michael Callen died of AIDS at age 38 on 27 December 1993. Had he been spared that fate, he would have celebrated his 66th birthday just this month. We can only wonder what music, what activism, and what hope he might have offered the world during those fruitful years of life that he was denied. Maybe that is his last lesson to us: to grasp every day and every opportunity while we can. Because love is all we have for now, what we don’t have is time.
Thank you, Michael.
This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
Berkowitz, Richard & Callen, Michael, with editorial assistance by Dworkin, Richard (1983). How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, New York: News From the Front Publications, May.
Callen, Michael, ed. (1987). Surviving and Thriving with AIDS, New York: People With AIDS Coalition Inc.
Callen, Michael, ed. (1988). Surviving and Thriving with AIDS Volume Two: Collected Wisdom, New York: People With AIDS Coalition Inc., August.
Callen, Michael (1990). Surviving AIDS, New York: HarperCollins.
Cook, Nick (2020). Fighting For Our Lives: The history of a community response to AIDS, Sydney: NewSouth Publishing/University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
Jones, Matthew T (2020). Love Don’t Need a Reason: The Life & Music of Michael Callen, punctum books, 11 May.
Menadue, David (2014). ‘Stigmatised but largely invisible’, in John Rule, ed., Through our eyes: Thirty Years of people living with HIV responding to the HIV and AIDS epidemics in Australia, Newtown: NAPWHA, July, 18 – 21.
Strub, Sean (2014). Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival, New York: Scribner.
© 2021 Geoff Allshorn