The ‘Forrest Gump of Activism’ Who Helped HIV/AIDS Patients Get Life-Saving Treatment Information
About a twenty-minute walk from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, in a city of sites dedicated to heroes of the American Revolution, there’s a tribute to a hero of the city’s LGBTQ+ community at the Philadelphia FIGHT community health center. It’s dedicated to Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a gay civil rights activist and co-founder of the Gay Liberation Front movement’s Philadelphia chapter who revolutionized the way HIV/AIDS patients got reliable information about the virus.
The center’s Critical Path Learning Center is a free computer lab for HIV/AIDS patients. It’s named after the “Critical Path Project,” a pioneering newsletter and 24-hour hotline that Kuromiya managed, providing reliable information about the HIV/AIDS and treatment in the earliest days of the Internet in the 1980s and 1990s.
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Kuromiya, born May 9, 1943 in Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, was a Japanese-American prisoner camp. He and his family moved to Monrovia (Calif.) at age two. He lived on the West Coast through college when he moved across the country to the University of Pennsylvania. He had an awakening in politics while there. Che Gossett, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University who is writing a book about Kuromiya, said he would later refer to himself as the “Forrest Gump of activism” because he was involved in so many different movements.
He participated in civil rights protests, and in March 1965, traveled to Montgomery, Alabama where he was beaten unconscious while participating in the Selma to Montgomery march—he had to get 20 stitches in his head, according to a June 17, 1997, interview with Marc Stein, creator of the Philadelphia LGBT History Project. HeHe was also an anti-war activist. In April 1968, he posted fliers inviting UPenn students to the university’s Van Pelt Library to watch a dog being burned in a protest over the use of napalm (which was deployed widely during the Vietnam War). When more than 2,000 outraged and curious students showed up, they found a flier that read: “Congratulations on your anti-napalm protest. Your actions saved the dog’s life. Now, how about saving the lives of tens of thousands of people in Vietnam.”
In the early 1980s, as the AIDS virus was beginning to devastate the gay community, Kuromiya re-focused his activism around AIDS patients’ rights. He was one of the founding members of AIDS advocacy organization ACT UP and co-wrote the first standard of care for AIDS. He was pictured in 1994 Philadelphia Get in touch profile, the paper described him as “the city’s most knowledgeable layman about HIV.”
Kuromiya was the first to recognize the value of online newsletters in providing more vital information to HIV/AIDS patients. “You didn’t have to wait for the next journal to come out in the month; you could get on the very day… the information that might be the difference between your surviving another month or not,” says Chris Bartlett, who met Kuromiya through ACT UP Philadelphia in 1990 and is now the Executive Director of the William Way LGBT Community Center, home to Kuromiya’s archives—conference materials, scientific articles, newspaper clippings he collected about HIV/AIDS.
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He worked with HIV/AIDS patients to ensure their safety. In 1996 he participated in one of the court cases that led to the overturn of sections of the Communications Decency Act aimed at blocking “patently offensive” material online. Kuromiya claimed it could result in the censorship sexual information that is necessary to curb HIV/AIDS spread. “I don’t know what ‘patently offensive’ means in terms of providing life-saving information to people with AIDS, including teenagers,” he SubmittedA panel of federal judges.
Kuromiya took also care of AIDS sufferers. “There was no treatment in the past. [he]was working on an Ad-hoc basis what we would call hospice care now,” says Jane Shull, CEO of Philadelphia FIGHT, who met Kuromiya at an ACT UP meeting in the late 1980s. He was a personal activist. According to a New York Times article, he discovered he was HIV positive in 1989. He died from complications related to AIDS on May 10, 2000 at the age 57. Times Obituary
He was only inspired by his diagnosis to continue working towards stigmatizing HIV/AIDS. Explaining why he was so focused on his work to Philadelphia LGBT History Project creator Marc Stein in their 1997 interview, Kuromiya said simply: “I really believe that activism is therapeutic.”