He Emphasized Life, Not Hiv

Posted: January 30, 1996

I first met Jonathan Lax five years ago, soon after moving to Philadelphia.

I was new to the city, a young, naive gay man eager to report on the myriad of social issues affecting my community. I knew that AIDS held a hauntingly central focus for the gay community, and that if I was going to report on gay life, I would have to become intimately involved with the struggle against this devastating virus. What I didn't know was how much one man, Jonathan Lax, would play in exposing me to the multi-faceted complications of AIDS: the political, medical, social, economic and, ultimately, personal struggles against the disease.

My first step was to go to a meeting of ACT UP, the radical AIDS activist group. In a basement meeting room at St. Luke and the Epiphany, the Lutheran church on 13th Street, I had the first of what would turn out to be many confrontations with this turbulent group of angry agitators.

I was unprepared for the hostile reception I got from ACT UP that night -from the accusations they thrust at me as a member of the press, from their insistence on previewing anything I wrote before it got printed, from the way they threw me out of their meeting when I refused to succumb to their demands.

Before I left the room that night, I walked to the chalkboard in front of the crowd and scribbled my name and phone number. If anyone changed his or her mind and wanted to talk, I said, this is where he could reach me.

My phone rang later that same night. It was Jonathan, inviting me to the elegant brownstone where he lived on Pine Street.

When I arrived at his front door, I was greeted by a handsome man with a bushy black mustache, a head full of graying curls and a disarming smile. Without apologizing for ACT UP, Jonathan helped me understand the value of the group's anger. He showed me photos of the lover he'd lost to AIDS, and the life that was wiped away with the disease. And he told me of his own battle with the virus.

As the years went by, Jonathan became an invaluable source for stories I would write about the epidemic. Few people had the same kind of reach Jonathan did when it came to AIDS activism. While he was always ready to protest in the streets when necessary, he was equally comfortable sitting in a coat and tie around a conference table of pharmaceutical company executives, negotiating on behalf of people with AIDS about drug availability or prices or the number of slots open in an experimental trial.

Although I didn't always agree with Jonathan on tactics, it was impossible not to respect his opinion and learn from his insight. Few without medical degrees knew as much about HIV as he did, a fact reflected in a course on alternative therapies he taught at Medical College of Pennsylvania.

No matter what controversy came up - whether it was about the effectiveness of a new drug or the politics of AIDS funding or the way people with HIV were treated by the medical establishment - no one had a better pulse on what was going on than Jonathan.

But perhaps most important, Jonathan was a friend. In recent years, we were neighbors, and at dinners at the Opera Cafe or on walks through Rittenhouse Square, Jonathan would talk to me about life with HIV. What impressed me most was his emphasis on life, not HIV. As he kept up with medical research and political haggling, Jonathan also kept on loving men, kept up his sense of humor, and kept up hope. It was almost as if he was snubbing his nose at the deadly virus that coursed through his veins, and I came to believe that if anyone could beat this disease, it would be Jonathan.

Jonathan Lax died Jan. 11. He was 46.

The cause of death is still unclear, and an autopsy is being performed to determine it. Although Jonathan was HIV-positive, he remained relatively healthy. Close friends believe he may have died from an adverse reaction to an experimental drug he had started taking just two days before his death. Ironically, Jonathan had fought hard to get on that drug trial, and to have it opened to a larger number of patients.

It's still hard for me to believe that Jonathan is gone, and every time I round the corner of 15th and Pine, I look at his home and still expect him to come bounding out the front door, offering me a story tip or making plans to go to dinner.

I miss him dearly.

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