The email took me by surprise. Sean Strub, the founder of POZ magazine, asked if I would write a few words about our friend Mario Cooper. “What happened to Mario?” I wrote back obliviously. Before Sean had time to respond, I called my friends Maurice Franklin and Phill Wilson and found out for myself. Our mutual friend Mario had passed away.
Mario was a trailblazer, a product of a prominent black political family from Mobile, Alabama, who dreamed of becoming the next Che Guevara as a child but would later be inspired by civil rights activist Julian Bond.
I first learned of Mario when I worked in the White House as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton. I had assumed, naively, that my colleague Paul Richard and I were the first openly gay African American men to have worked at that level. Then I discovered Mario had worked in the White House for President Jimmy Carter at a time when I was just a child.
I met Mario in the early 1990s during a period where role models in our community were dying and disappearing rapidly. He was black. He was gay. He was HIV-positive. And he was political. Mario’s story as told in Jacob Levenson’s book, The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America, was the story of a young black man from the south who had acquired political skills and connections early in his life, which he then used throughout his career to focus attention on the biggest public health crisis in our lifetime.
Mario had a playful side too. He would call me on the phone, lower his voice into a sexy growl, and greet me with the words “Hey stud!” Then, after a few moments of banter, he would launch into the business of his call.
We had much in common. I was a lawyer. Mario was a lawyer. He worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, just as I had. And he had served in the important role of manager of the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York City, a convention I missed as I was studying for the Bar Exam 3,000 miles away.
By the mid-1990s, the black community was in the midst of a dramatic public health crisis and the black gay community in a full-scale disaster. The AIDS epidemic had killed thousands of our brothers and sisters, and Mario had become the first African American chair of the AIDS Action Council.
But new challenges arose. As AIDS cases dropped among whites from 60 percent of the total in 1985 to roughly 35 percent in 1997, some in the white gay community were ready to declare victory.
Andrew Sullivan, a white openly gay senior editor at The New Republic, initiated the trend with a wildly premature piece in the New York Times magazine, “When Plagues End,” published in November 1996. A few weeks later, Newsweek magazine followed suit with a provocative and speculative cover story called “The End of AIDS?” published on World AIDS Day.
Just as AIDS had overtaken homicide to become the leading killer of young African Americans and blacks had surpassed whites in new reported cases of the disease, white America, and white gay America in particular, seemed ready to move on.
“As my white gay brothers and lesbian sisters couch their claim of equality in the warm radiance of the Civil Rights Movement, they also seem willing to walk away from AIDS as it extends its grip on other, nonwhite communities,” Mario responded in POZ magazine.
He told a story of a meeting with white AIDS leaders when someone argued they had to keep it a secret that AIDS was now a “disease of blacks.” The conclusion, Mario interpreted from the meeting, was that “our nation could support AIDS research, care and services for a mostly white, gay population, but that it was not politically feasible to sustain that support to fight the disease in the black community.”
Mario was relentless in calling out leaders who were unwilling to face the AIDS crisis in black America.
He called out white gay men. “It is my hope that before even one more white person says AIDS is over, he or she thinks first about the message that sends to people of color,” he wrote.
He called out black politicians and civil rights leaders, urging them to do more to fight AIDS in their own communities. And he convened a summit at Harvard in 1996 and launched the Leading for Life initiative, which has been described as “the spark that lit the prairie fire of AIDS awareness and advocacy in the African-American community.”
“What is stopping us from taking the streets and disrupting business as usual to sound the alarm about black AIDS?” Mario asked in an article in which he called for African Americans to create their own version of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. “We know we are capable of fighting for our rights, facing down water hoses and police dogs, even marching into Capitol buildings. What is it about HIV/AIDS that holds us back?”
I hadn’t seen Mario in years when I received that email message from Sean Strub on Saturday. I had heard he wasn’t doing well, and I knew he had rarely been seen in the public circles in which he had once traveled. But the news of Mario’s passing, and the absence of media attention following it, struck me.
Here was a man who had given his life trying to save our community.
He had started and led organizations. He had served in the highest halls of power. He had summoned the nation’s most important leaders to action. And he had shamed others who had failed to act. The least we could do now is to acknowledge his work and carry on his legacy.