As Nightsweats was gaining national notoriety, pressure was building at home.
In 1992, Frank Jackson, as chairman of City Council’s Public Health Committee, introduced an ordinance that could criminalize those living with HIV and AIDS.
In Jackson’s proposal, authorities had the power to test anyone charged with a criminal act that could result in the transmittal of AIDS, AIDS-related illnesses, HIV or a sexually transmitted disease. Anyone who failed to “take reasonable measures” to prevent exposure to the virus risked indefinite confinement.
“It’s hard to find a constitutional right that isn’t violated by this type of ordinance,” says Susan Becker, professor emerita of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at CSU and general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “The existence of these laws significantly increases the stigma and reinforces the fear of different groups of people.”
But 25 years later, Jackson says the legislation was nothing more than a prod in the right direction.
“It was like having an 800-pound elephant in the room that nobody wanted to talk about,” says Jackson. “The legislation was never intended to be passed. It was intended to raise the profile, garner attention and then make it controversial enough where people began to have a discussion around it.”
Over the course of the next three years, council held public hearings on Jackson’s ordinance to discuss how to address the ever-growing epidemic in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.
By 1995, the AIDS epidemic had become the ninth leading cause of all deaths in Cleveland. In the city, more than 2,000 cases of AIDS had been recorded and more than 6,000 people were living with HIV.
Although white male homosexuals were the largest population of those infected, women, children, intravenous drug users and minorities were the fastest growing populations dealing with the disease.
So, in January 1995, Mayor Michael White called a state of emergency, drawing $1 million in new federal and state grants to create prevention programs, further education efforts and provide medication to the desperate populations in need.
But it wasn’t enough.
By October, local AIDS activists were losing faith in Cleveland’s administration. They argued the city had been dragging its feet to spend almost $360,000 of state money to pay for five AIDS health educators.
“All my friends were dying,” says Kudrin. “It was our Auschwitz. It wasn’t an option to remain silent anymore.”
On Dec. 1, 1995, Kudrin led the charge on City Hall with a caged bust of a female mannequin wearing the bright pink-lettered “HIV+” shirt from Nightsweats and T-Cells.
Wearing black ski masks to protect their identities, they carried her inside a chicken-wire cage — as if to symbolize Jackson’s quarantine and the money city officials were holding hostage. “Arbeit macht frei” — work will set you free — was spray-painted on the front.
“I’m not their enemy. I’m really their friend,” Jackson told a Plain Dealer reporter, at the time.
“We tell the truth,” says Kudrin. “That was our job.”
Less than six weeks later, Jackson stepped down as chair of the Public Health Committee and became chairman of the Community and Economic Development Committee.
In 1998, Jackson’s committee devoted $1 million of block grant money to AIDS-related services. Jackson’s ordinance never saw a vote and was tabled in 2008.
With the implementation of new protease drug inhibitors — the drug cocktail designed to further extend the quality of life for those living with AIDS — the work around long-term survivors evolved.
“HIV care became not only about helping people dying but helping them figure out how to live,” says Pike.
The walls of Gordy’s Lakewood apartment are covered with bright blue fabric and lined with gold ribbons.
“If I had a tombstone, I would want to put on there, ‘Glue guns saved my life!’ ” he says, laughing briefly before dry mouth turns it into a cough.
He doesn’t have the money or the means to paint, so he’s improvised, creating a bright white and blue paper chandelier hanging over his dining room table. In the center of the room, two yucca plants with elephant-ear-sized leaves spread out like open arms.
“This adds life to the place,” he says. “This is growth.”
Gordy isn’t afraid to talk about death. When you’ve survived endless bouts of pneumonia, skin cancer, diabetes, kidney failure and a quadruple heart bypass, death becomes a part of your reality, a part of your native tongue. He’s already paid off his cremation services.
“Put the wailers down front and keep the little weepers in the back,” Gordy says, laughing again. “If anyone wants to throw themselves on the coffin, keep the aisles clear.”
As he talks, his hands rest on his knees, slightly gnarled and always shaking from neuropathy. He goes to physical therapy three times a week and takes more than 20 pills a day to maintain his health. For the last 25 years, the same AIDS Taskforce case manager has provided his medication and food, and helped pay for his apartment.
In March, the Taskforce unexpectedly lost its federal grant funding administered by the Ohio Department of Health and in turn, filed a civil suit against the department. They argued that the loss would impact approximately 350 clients — including Gordy — whose health and welfare could be severely impacted by the loss of nine full-time case management staff.
“Activism today is lonely, because people believe [AIDS] is either eradicated or so manageable that it doesn’t matter,” says Bob Candage, director of clinical services at the Taskforce. “It’s not necessarily the fear of the virus anymore, but it is fear of people finding out who you are, what that means, and who’s going to reject you or accept you.”
Advances in HIV prevention and medication have created a wave of new challenges for long-term survivors like Gordy keeping up the fight. For Nightsweats, it meant they had to adapt. “People just didn’t want to deal with AIDS anymore,” says Kudrin.
During the late ‘90s, Nightsweats splashed “Team HOMO” across T-shirts, hats, sweaters and mugs. The rebranding allowed Kudrin to branch out without the AIDS baggage. One of the company’s best-selling T-shirts asks, “What if the Hokey Pokey is really what it’s all about?” with whimsical shapes bent and spread among a variety of stars.
“It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to sell,” says Kudrin. “But it was our entree into people saying, ‘Oh, our AIDS agency is doing work, and that’s my favorite shirt.’ ”
Last summer, when 49 people were killed in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, it sent ripples of fear and sadness throughout the world. That same night, at the 70th Tony Awards, Lin-Manuel Miranda received a Nightsweats and T-Cells shirt in a Tony Awards swag bag that had the signatures of all the award nominees — a project Kudrin has been doing for Broadway Cares since 1993.
Within days, Miranda had enlisted Kudrin to print more than 15,000 shirts with a design based on the final words of his Tony Award speech, with “LOVE NOW” boldly displayed across the center.
For three months, Kudrin’s shop came alive. To fill the orders, he recruited help from local case managers working with HIV-positive and AIDS patients. As Kudrin and his partner printed and dried the shirts, the new crew tagged, folded and packed them in boxes, shipping them out. It was a sign of what Nightsweats and T-Cells has always been and what it continues to be: a safe space, a resuscitation center, a movement.
“I have become reinvigorated,” says Kudrin. “I’m looking to the next generation who’s going to come in and manage this as we go away.”