Michael Callen

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Michael Callen
Michael Callen.jpg
Born(1955-04-11)April 11, 1955
Rising Sun, Indiana,
United States
DiedDecember 27, 1993(1993-12-27) (aged 38)
Los Angeles, California,
United States
Cause of deathAIDS related complications
OccupationMusician, author, and AIDS activist
Known forEarly AIDS activist

Michael Callen (April 11, 1955 – December 27, 1993) was an American singer, songwriter, composer, author, and AIDS activist. Callen was diagnosed with AIDS in 1982 and proceeded to become a pioneer of AIDS activism in New York City, working closely with his doctor, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, and Richard Berkowitz. Together, they published articles and pamphlets to raise awareness about the correlation between risky sexual behaviors and AIDS. As a major contributor to the foundation of AIDS activism, specifically activism from people with AIDS, Callen helped draft unprecedented documents such as How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, and The Denver Principles. In addition to his written work, Callen was a leader and founder of activist organizations including The People with AIDS Coalition and the Community Research Initiative. As a musician, he was a member of the openly gay and politically active a cappella quintet The Flirtations and released his own solo album, "Purple Heart" in 1988. He consistently spoke out for AIDS activist and gay and lesbian organizations and made frequent speaking appearances. Callen remained a primary public figure in AIDS activism until he died at age 38 from AIDS-related complications of pulmonary Kaposi's sarcoma at Midway Hospital in Los Angeles, California.[1]

AIDS activist[edit]

Activism with Sonnabend, Berkowitz, and Dworkin[edit]

In 1983, Callen co-authored the book How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, which outlined the tenets of safe sex, developed in collaboration with Richard Berkowitz and Dr. Joseph Sonnabend. In 1990, he wrote Surviving AIDS, which received an Honorable Mention from the American Medical Writers Association.

Inspired by Sonnabend’s theory, Callen joined with fellow person with AIDS Richard Berkowitz and partner Richard Dworkin to write an essay entitled “We Know Who We Are: Two Gay Men Declare War on Promiscuity” for the New York Native. What the men referred to as “promiscuity” was the frequent backroom, unprotected sexual encounters that dominated the gay sexual culture of the time and place. In the post-Stonewall Riots and gay liberation years, the popular belief was that sex was a revolutionary act, and more sex was equivalent to being more liberated.[2]

The essay, in which gay men with AIDS placed the blame on themselves and their community for the spread of the disease, was controversial. Callen and Berkowitz were criticized for their alleged internalized homophobia and potentially detrimental stance on AIDS. Berkowitz and Callen, however, highlighted their authority to speak out against promiscuity as gay men with AIDS.  

Denver Principles and People With AIDS Advocacy[edit]

Callen went on to become a pioneer advocate for the representation of people with AIDS in AIDS activism leadership. In 1983, the idea of people with AIDS representing themselves in activism brought Michael Callen to an AIDS forum in Denver. The people with AIDS at the forum attended workshops and exchanged stories of their experiences with AIDS through caucuses.

Callen and Bobbi Campbell became delegates for the other men in attendance, and the two of them synthesized the consensus reached over the course of the forum in the Denver Principles. The document was read during the closing session of the conference and was met with an immediate embrace from the audience of gay and lesbian medical professionals.

The Denver Principles consist of four sections: recommendations for health care professionals, recommendations for all people, recommendations for people with AIDS, and rights of people with AIDS. The principles establish the identifier of People With AIDS as opposed to “victim” or “patient,” encourage health care professionals to carefully consider the emotional and psychological effects of AIDS in addition to the medical, highlight the importance of activism and ally-ship from within and outside the community of People With AIDS, and affirms the basic yet fundamental rights including life, love, dignity, and medical confidentiality, of People with AIDS. The Denver Principles draw inspiration from Campbell’s nursing background, Callen’s work his doctor, and concepts from women’s health activism, as well as the testimonies of men at the forum. They ultimately led to the founding of the National Association of People With AIDS (NAPWA).

Organizational Leadership and Later Activism[edit]

Callen was the a founder of numerous grassroots organizations in various arenas of AIDS activism. He co-founded the New York People With AIDS Health Group, an underground buyer's club that provided access to new drugs and treatments for AIDS and AIDS related illnesses before the FDA approved them, prompting the FDA to ease restrictions and regulations in the drug approval process.[3] He also founded the Community Research Initiative for people with AIDS and their doctors to test new drugs through clinical trials.

Callen was frequently seen on television talking about AIDS. Appearances included Nightline, Good Morning America, 20/20, and The Phil Donahue Show. He wrote for several newspapers and magazines, including the Village Voice, The New York Native, and Outweek; some of his articles are collected in Surviving and Thriving with AIDS, published by the People with AIDS Coalition in 1988. He also appeared in German filmmaker Rosa Von Praunheim's 1990 film Positiv - Die Antwort schwuler Männer in New York auf AIDS.


Despite his career and prominence as an activist, Callen was met with resentment, suspicion and opposition from others. Since he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1982 and survived over a decade, people speculated as to whether his diagnosis was real or fabricated to get attention. He responded to that criticism by releasing his medical reports and pictures of his lungs which showed his pulmonary Kaposi's Sarcoma.[4] Additionally, Callen stood by his belief in the multifactorial theory when there was scientific proof that HIV was the cause of AIDS.

Callen openly questioned the HIV theory of AIDS and was especially critical of AZT monotherapy when it was first introduced: "The HIV paradigm has produced nothing of value for my life and I actually believe that treatments based on the arrogant belief that HIV has proven to be the sole and sufficient cause of AIDS has hastened the deaths of many of my friends."[5]

Performance career[edit]

Michael Callen briefly was the lead of the a cappella group Mike & the Headsets. In 1982, Callen, along with Janet Cleary, Pamela Brandt, and Richard Dworkin formed a queer rock-and-roll band called Low Life. After Low Life disbanded Callen’s solo album Purple Heart was released and quickly acclaimed as a staple of gay men’s music.

He was a founding member of the gay male a cappella singing group The Flirtations, with whom he recorded two albums. He also had a solo album, Purple Heart, which a review in The Advocate called "the most remarkable gay independent release of the past decade." Callen recorded two albums with The Flirtations, as well as a double disc album, Legacy, which was released by Significant Other Records in 1996 after Callen’s death.[6]

Additionally, Callen made cameo appearances in the films Philadelphia (1993) and Zero Patience (1993), in which he famously performed a song in falsetto as the fictitious "Miss HIV."[4]

In partnership with Oscar winner Peter Allen and Marsha Melamet, Callen wrote his most famous song, "Love Don't Need a Reason", commissioned by Larry Kramer for his play, The Normal Heart. The song was introduced at a 1986 AIDS Walk and was performed frequently at gay pride and AIDS-related events around the country. The song has been covered by numerous gay men's choirs as well as the Peter Allen Broadway musical The Boy From Oz (1998).[4]


  • 1983: How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach (co-author)
  • 1990: Surviving AIDS (author)



as part of The Flirtations
  • The Flirtations (1990)
  • Feeding The Flame: Songs By Men to End AIDS (1992)
  • Purple Heart
  • Legacy – a 2-CD album (posthumously)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dunlap, David W. (12/29/1993). "Michael Callen, Singer and Expert on Coping With AIDS, Dies at 38". The New York Times. Retrieved 10/23/2018. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  2. ^ Jones, Matthew J. (2017-10-20). ""Luck, Classic Coke, and the Love of a Good Man": The Politics of Hope and AIDS in Two Songs by Michael Callen". Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture. 21: 175–198. doi:10.1353/wam.2017.0011. ISSN 1553-0612.
  3. ^ Zonana, Victor (Feb. 1, 1989). "Portrait of Courage Michael Callen Fights for Life, and the Means to Defeat AIDS". Los Angeles Times. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  4. ^ a b c Jones, Matthew J. (2017-10-20). ""Luck, Classic Coke, and the Love of a Good Man": The Politics of Hope and AIDS in Two Songs by Michael Callen". Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture. 21: 175–198. doi:10.1353/wam.2017.0011. ISSN 1553-0612.
  5. ^ "Immunity Resource Foundation – Meditel Film and Video Archive". Immunity.org.uk. Archived from the original on August 7, 2013. Retrieved March 31, 2013.
  6. ^ Jones, Matthew (November, 2016). ""Enough of Being Basely Tearful": "Glitter and Be Gay" and the Camp Politics of Queer Resistance". Journal of the Society for American Music. 10: 422–445 – via ProQuest. Check date values in: |date= (help)

External links[edit]