Behind the Scenes of ACT UP’s Groundbreaking “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” Campaign
Kissing was an integral part of ACT UP culture, beyond ACT UP kisses, like the one that Read my lips was intended for advertising. If you saw a friend at an ACT UP meeting, you greeted them with a kiss. It was the same if you met an ACT UP friend for a drink or a coffee. Dorow described the kiss as a blood pact. “Everyone in the world tells me to be afraid of you and that you are a danger,” she described her reason for being. Kissing someone disproves that. It was a way of saying, “I’m not afraid of you. I am okay.”
But when Dorow agreed to be part of Kissing doesn’t kill she hadn’t realized she would kiss people on camera. “I barely understood what was going on,” she said. “I just introduced myself. Once she arrived and realized what was going on, Dorow was a nervous wreck for two reasons. “One, there were some super hot girls there, that I wanted from afar,” she recalled. “And, I was with Maria, my girlfriend, so I was nervous about that too.” Maggenti had a reputation for being competitive and wanted to embrace everyone. “Maria was in her element,” Dorow said. “She loves having her picture taken.” Dorow blanked out all memories of having to kiss other people. “I’m sure I was a horrible subject because I was so anxious,” she said. “So the irony that I ended up in the poster is insane.”
During filming, the Gran Fury people barked orders, telling people what clothes to try and suggesting different pairings. Finkelstein worked as a hairstylist and art director and focused on styling. “Avram was doing our hair,” Dorow recalled. “Or at the very least comb our hair, which wasn’t at the top of my agenda at that time in my life.” McAlpin, a trained photographer, took the real photos.
There were no real straight people on set, so Dorow teamed up with Vazquez-Pacheco, as the members of Gran Fury thought they made the most compelling straight couple. It made for a pretty sterile kiss. While filming, Dorow joked that it felt like a pre-party to a high school prom, with all the gays associating with lesbians and pretending to be straight for the sake of it. their parents.
The Gran Fury members had also reached out to fellow ACT UP member Jose Fidelino. In Fidelino’s memory, he was contacted to be part of Kissing doesn’t kill by Bob Rafsky, the Coordinating Committee member who, just a year prior, had lobbied against Gran Fury poster funding for the Nine Days of Rage. It is unclear why Rafsky was tasked with this. “I’m sure he slept with someone in Gran Fury at some point,” Fidelino joked.
Fidelino said he agreed to participate due to Gran Fury’s cultural cache. But he also had deeper reasons for wanting to participate in something like Kissing doesn’t kill. A native of Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Fidelino grew up not seeing anyone who looked like him – bookish, gay, and Filipino. “You didn’t see any homosexuals, except for the horrible stereotypes in the media,” Fidelino recalls. He left Overland Park as soon as he could, but didn’t forget that experience. “Part of my philosophy was that I had to live my life in such a way that it was easier for young gay people,” he recalls. And of all the work that Fidelino has done in ACT UP, Kissing doesn’t kill undeniably has become the most notable example.
Once an organization of gay white men in their thirties, ACT UP was beginning to look more like that poster, and less like Larry Kramer.
When Fidelino arrived at the shoot, he noticed the clothes meant for them. “These clothes, in person, were hideous,” he recalls. “They were made of this cheap polyester double knit.” And they were also uncomfortable. Annette Breindel, Simpson’s surrogate, had provided much of the clothing needed to impersonate a Benetton advertisement. Kalin insisted they weren’t cheap polyester, but rather luxury cashmere, although he admitted they might have been uncomfortable, given how hot it was during the day. of filming.
Either way, it wasn’t what ACT UP members used to wear. By now, ACT UP’s signature look – Levi’s, black boots, an activist t-shirt and leather jacket – was practically a uniform. “That chic, working-class East Village look,” as Fidelino said. These clothes were a far cry from that. “Obviously they knew what they were doing,” admitted Fidelino. “They looked bad in person. They felt bad when you wore them. But they looked great on camera.
The members of Gran Fury made various suggestions for who Fidelino should kiss, but ultimately settled on one of their own, Mark Simpson. How many of these people from Gran Fury also have their picture taken? Dorow wondered. Fidelino had never met Simpson before and hadn’t really enjoyed their kiss. Simpson was a smoker, as evidenced by the cigarette stuck behind his ear, and Fidelino was not. “Do not speak ill of the dead,” says Fidelino. “But it was like kissing an ashtray.” As unpleasant as it may have been at the time, the image was certainly striking. “I look like I’m about to be eaten alive,” Fidelino said of the latest blow. “I am convinced that I was chosen only because Mark opened his mouth and it created such a strange image.”
The third couple included in Kissing doesn’t kill were actually an actual couple, which is evident in the final poster. Kalin had also shot footage of Lola Flash and Julie Tolentino kissing before being invited to film. “I grew up not seeing myself,” Flash recalled, doing something like Kissing doesn’t kill all the more significant. “None of the black people I saw in popular culture looked like the black people in my family. They have all been challenged in one way or another, financially or mentally. Both my parents are teachers. My friends’ parents were doctors. I come from a very bourgeois background. But I haven’t really seen those pictures of black people. Pictures of lesbians were even harder to find, and she didn’t realize that lesbians besides her existed. “At the time, I thought only men were gay,” she recalls. She knew she liked girls, but had no idea other people did too. “I just thought I was from Mars or something,” Flash recalled.
Flash’s girlfriend had had the exact opposite. Growing up in San Francisco in the 1970s, Tolentino had no shortage of gays and lesbians in her life. She described her mother as “the epitome of fag hag” and there always seemed to be leatherworkers and radical fairies walking through their apartment. One of the most significant events in his life was the assassination of the city’s mayor, George Moscone, and Harvey Milk. Tolentino actually attended the same school as the Moscone girls. Taking the Crosstown bus from school that day, she got off at Market and Castro and joined a 25,000-person candle-lit march to City Hall. “I consider it the day of my coming out,” recalls Tolentino.
Tolentino also found something like Kissing doesn’t kill to be meaningful, not because it featured queer people, but because it featured such a wide range of them. When she moved to New York, Tolentino found it strange how gay and lesbian life in the city seemed so segregated. “The lines of class and color were more intense than I had ever experienced,” she said. “Leather guys were hanging out together,” Tolentino recalled. “Downtown ladies, business and lesbian real estate moguls were hanging out downtown.” In Tolentino’s recollection, middle-class, butch, black lesbians hung out in different places than middle-class, female, black lesbians. And Tolentino found that those lines of class and color were very apparent in ACT UP as well. Kissing doesn’t kill, and the choice of who appeared in it, was an antidote to this kind of segregation between gays and lesbians, and an attempt to dissolve it. “We weren’t using the term intersectionality yet,” Tolentino recalls. “It was done in real time.”
You can also see, in this poster, how ACT UP’s demographics have changed over the past two years, although Fidelino, Flash, Tolentino and Vazquez-Pacheco have all warned that ACT UP isn’t as diverse as Kissing doesn’t kill would believe. Yet the organization had undergone a remarkable change. Once an organization of gay white men in their thirties, ACT UP was beginning to look more like that poster, and less like Larry Kramer.
Shooting Tolentino and Flash also solved a long-standing issue within the body of Gran Fury work. The previous year, Gran Fury’s attempts to make a lesbian version of Read my lips had resulted in two rather tepid images – the Victorians and the flappers had not matched the verve of the sailors. Now Gran Fury had the perfect image, and so they made a final version of Read my lips.
In a separate shoot, Gran Fury also made a series of thirty-second video shorts, which were nearly identical to the poster version. Flash and Tolentino returned for the filming of the video, as did a number of people who were friends with the Gran Fury folks, including David Wojnarowicz and Nan Goldin. The shorts were originally slated to air on ABC, as part of a television special accompanying Red Hot + Blue, a charity compilation album. But channel executives thought the spots would be too controversial and so refused to air them. The video versions of Kissing doesn’t kill was however shown on MTV Europe.
Near the end of the video shoot, almost everyone from Gran Fury gathered in front of the camera and started dancing. It seems completely unstaged, as if they ran the tape for posterity, and what they filmed would never make it into the actual video. McAlpin or Finkelstein must hold the camera, as they were the only ones not to appear on set. Everyone else’s personalities are exposed. Nesline stands out, only because he’s so much taller than everyone else. McCarty, Moffett and Lindell are all friends. Nesline, then Simpson, hop towards the camera, securing their close-ups. Kalin and Vazquez-Pacheco then enter, parading collapsible reflectors, dancing with them like signs held above their heads. You can tell by its ease that they’ve danced together like this dozens of times before. The video is silent, but wouldn’t you like to know what song is playing?
This article was adapted from It was Vulgar & It was beautiful by Jack Lowery. Copyright © 2022. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group.