Six Pioneering Gay Writers Who Helped Bring HIV/AIDS To The American Forefront

In recognition of World AIDS Day, we thought we would do a short roundup of some of the most important gay writers to emerge from the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Sadly, many of these writers are no longer with us, but their works live on, serving as both educational tools and as unique time capsules for one of the darkest chapters in LGBTQ history.

Scroll down for six pioneering gay writers whose work and lives helped to bring HIV/AIDS to the American forefront…

Joseph Beam


Joseph Beam was a writer and activist whose articles and short stories were featured in numerous gay publicationsHis 1986 book In the Life was the first anthology of writing by gay black men that focused largely on the impact HIV/AIDS was having on their community. Although it was initially ignored by critics and academic institutions, today it is widely regarded as a literary and cultural milestone in gay literature. Beam was working on a sequel to In the Life called Brother to Brother at the time of his death of HIV-related disease in 1988. That anthology was ultimately completed by his friend, Essex Hemphill, and was published in 1991.

Essex Hemphill


Essex Hemphill’s writing has been published in dozens of journals, anthologies, and magazines. His most popular collection of poems and essays was 1993’s Ceremonies, which addressed issues including the sexual objectification of black men in white culture, relationships between gay black men and heterosexual black men, HIV/AIDS, and the meaning of family. Hemphill died of AIDS-related complications in 1995. A biography about him called Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS by Martin Duberman was published last year.

Randy Shilts

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Randy Shilts was a San Francisco-based journalist and author. He received nationwide fame with his book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1980–85), which was published in 1987 and won the Stonewall Book Award. It offered a detailed account of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Shilts died in 1994 from AIDS-related complications. Shortly before his death, he told The New York Times in an interview, “HIV is certainly character-building. It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.”

Assotto Saint


Assotto Saint was a poet, short story writer, essayist, and performance artist. His work has been featured in a variety of anthologies and in 1992 he was awarded the Lambda Literary Award in poetry from his anthology The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets. Saint died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. Two years later, his posthumous book called Spells of a Voodoo Doll: The Poems, Fiction, Essays and Plays of Assotto Saint, which blended elements of autobiography with an anthology of his previously published writings, was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in the Gay Biography or Autobiography category.

Melvin Dixon

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Melvin Dixon was an author and poet best known for his 1992 novel Vanishing Rooms, which examined gay life in New York City prior to HIV/AIDS and explored themes of homophobia, racism, interracial relationships, sex and loss. Vanishing Rooms won a Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Literature in 1992. Sadly, Dixon died of AIDS-related complications later that year right as he was on the verge of becoming an acclaimed novelist.

Larry Kramer


Though already an established HIV/AIDS activist, Larry Kramer proved himself a literary force to be reckoned with with his 1985 play The Normal Heart, which centered around the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City from 1981 to 1984. Kramer followed that up with The Destiny of Me, a sequel to The Normal Heart that ultimately went on to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1994, he published his first work of non-fiction, Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist. Kramer learned he was HIV-positive in 1988. Today he remains one of the leading voices in raising awareness to HIV/AIDS and advocating for more research and care for people living with the virus. When speaking about his creative pursuits, Kramer once said, “I don’t consider myself an artist. I consider myself a very opinionated man who uses words as fighting tools.”

Related: 10 Great Books To Get You Through The Holiday Season

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  • alphacentauri

    Larry Kramer is batshit crazy, intentionally sabotages every group he has been in from GMHC to ACTUP when they get larger and help people, and he does not speak for rich gay white urban men, gay men in general, HIV+ people, or the LGBT community.

    The rest of the people on this list deserve to be there.

  • Kangol

    Dear Queerty, that is not Melvin Dixon in the fourth photo!!!

    This is Melvin Dixon.

    I met him before he died. That is not Melvin Dixon.

    You have posted a photo of the AIDS activist Phill Wilson, who is still alive!

  • Bob LaBlah

    The TRUE cause of his death was never revealed but I think E. Lynn Harris should have been included here. He was a true pioneer in the gay writers category.

  • Kangol

    Thank you for correcting the photo slip, Queerty!

  • Paul

    I was born in 1979, but I have read Randy Shilts And the Band Played On and The Mayor of Castro street. Also I admire Larry Kramer for his continued activism!

  • inplaywright

    You forgot to mention Alan Bowne, playwright, 1945-1989. His play, “Beirut,” was adapted to the 1993 TV movie “Daybreak” starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Moira Kelly. In addition, Kevin Bacon was featured in his play “Forty-Deuce,” which earned him an Obie Award.

  • Kangol

    Another unforgettable queer writer on the AIDS epidemic was Paul Monette.

    His beautiful, wrenching memoir *Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story* brought me to tears when it appeared in 1991. It went on to win the 1992 National Book Award. He was gone by 1995. But in those days that’s how AIDS played its deadly hand.

    The female poet Tory Dent was another very brave writer whom AIDS took too soon, as it did Donald Woods, Roy Gonsalves, Craig Harris, Salah Abdoh, Gary Fisher, and so many others. Thanks to all of them and so many more for their courage and their words.

  • Bob LaBlah

    @Kangol: As I read your comment I just knew you were going to mention Marlon Riggs. I say no more but that was an impressive list.

  • Thad

    And I must note the absence of writer Steven Corbin, who we lost to AIDS.

Comments are closed.