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Kickstarter project to document AIDS reporting legacy of Jeffrey Schmalz

Columbia journalism professors Kerry Donahue and Samuel G. Friedman plan World AIDS Day release of Jeffrey Schmalz project.
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    Jeffrey Schmalz, L, working with colleagues Eileen Butler, Al Siegal and Lou Jordon o|Teresa Zabala/The New York Times

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    His dying words.|New York Times


It’s hard to believe sometimes in this day of amazing developments for the LGBT community -- Caitlyn Jenner and trans visibility, gay marriage, a pansexual Miley Cyrus -- that being out and talking about your personal struggles was rare, if not revolutionary.

But it was, and it was not too long ago.

A Kickstarter campaign by two Columbia University journalism professors is aiming to preserve the memory of an important and heroic voice in LGBT history, the late New York Times journalist Jeffrey Schmalz.

Schmalz, who died 22 years ago of AIDS, was perhaps the most important chronicler of the disease back then, a dozen years into the epidemic when it had fallen off the front pages, when there were no modern drug cocktails to fight it, and when it was still a death sentence.

|<image-caption><p>Schmalz, as a high school graduate (L) and two years before his death.</p></image-|Family photo(L); Fred Conrad/NYTimes(R)

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His final piece, a gut-wrenching Times magazine cover story was headlined, “Whatever happened to AIDS?"It was published in late Nov. 28, 1993. Schmalz had died Nov. 6.

They were his dying words.

“I have come to the realization that I will almost certainly die of AIDS,” Schmalz, 39 at the time, wrote.

“I have lived longer than the median survival time by 10 months. The treatments simply are not there. They are not even in the pipeline. A miracle is possible, of course. And for a long time, I thought one would happen. But let's face it, a miracle isn't going to happen.”

Columbia’s Kerry Donahue, who directs the school’s radio program, and Samuel G. Friedman, a Times journalist who considers Schmalz a mentor, needed $20,000 for their plans to produce an audio documentary and companion book to be released by year’s end.

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The Kickstarter expires in three days and already they’re up to more than $26,000.

Friedman told Metro he is overwhelmed and gratified by the response and the hundred who have donated amounts ranging from $10 to $350.

“Kickstarter is a real empirical test of people's commitment to a project at one level,” he said.

“I'm very heartened by the fact that people, both straight and lgbt, who lived through the horrific first wave of the AIDS crisis, want that history to be preserved.”

“And at another level, it's confirming to have young people, who've grown up in a far more tolerant era, show such interest in the experience of someone like Jeff Schmalz who faced such obstacles even in coming out.”

Schmalz, who was hired by The Times while in college, was Friedman’s editor on the Metro desk at one point. Schmalz was an out gay man with his colleagues, but not the bosses.

It was a time when the newspaper’s stylebook, which Schmalz would eventually work on, referred to gays and lesbians only with the clinical term, “homosexual.”

The Kickstarter page writes:

The Times newsroom of the 1970s and 80s was a homophobic place, and journalists known to be gay or lesbian were stalled or even demoted in their careers.Colu

Then, one day in December 1990, Jeff collapsed in the newsroom with a brain seizure. It was the first evidence that he had full-blown AIDS …Jeff was endangered and he was outed. Yet he was also cracked wide open in positive ways. He found his calling in writing about HIV and AIDS, doing memorable portraits of Magic Johnson, Mary Fisher, and Harold Brodkey, among others, and chronicling his own experience reporting on the most personal beat imaginable. As Jeff himself said at the time, having AIDS stirred an empathy in him that he had long obscured beneath a witty, cynical, hard-driven exterior.

“I feel a moral obligation to keep jeff's story -- his life, his death, his work -- from being forgotten,” Friedman said.

“I remember the playwright Athol Fugard saying once that he felt he had an "appointment" to address a particular subject. This project felt like a profound appointment. in a very realistic way. I understood that if I -- and now my wonderful team of collaborators -- did not do something to preserve Jeff's legacy, then no one else would.”

Friedman and Donahue hope to time their release of the project, called “Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz,”by World AIDS Day, Dec. 1.

Friedman told Metro that even though the Kickstarter goal, people should keep giving.

“We will be setting aside several thousand dollars to underwrite coverage of LGBT issues by journalism students at Columbia and CUNY. So donors will be helping to seed LGBT journalism by the next generation of Jeff Schmalzes.”

John A. Oswald is editor-at-large at Metro and can be found on Twitter@nyc_oz.
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