Friends and coworkers of long-time New York City AIDS and harm reduction activist Keith Cylar announced this week that he had died early Monday morning. Cylar's HIV turned into AIDS in 1989, and in the last year he developed cardiomyopathy, a serious enlargement of the heart. Cylar died in his sleep of cardioarythmia. He was 45 years old.
Diagnosed with HIV two decades ago, Cylar embarked on a career serving the most downtrodden among those afflicted with the disease. After organizing ACT-UP's Housing Committee, Keith joined his partner Charles King and attorney Virginia Shubert in founding Housing Works (http://www.housingworks.org), a community-based AIDS service organization that helped thousands of homeless people with HIV and AIDS find housing and other social services at a time when the medical and social services system were failing to respond to the twin crises of homelessness and HIV/AIDS. Cylar served on a number of nonprofit boards, including DRCNet's.
An announcement from Housing Works this week excerpted portions of an interview that appeared in the Housing Works bulletin last year. Recalling Housing Works' early days, "I couldn't get people out of the hospital because they didn't have a place to live... New York City literally had hospital gridlock and that was when they were keeping people out on hospital gurneys in the hallways. That was when people were not being fed, bathed, or touched. It was horrendous. You can't imagine what it was like to be black, gay, a drug user, or transgender and dying from AIDS."
Cylar didn't have to imagine it -- he was living it. "There was this incredible sense of anger and fury and determination that we were not going to die," said Cylar. "And if we were going to die, then we were going to go down fighting. It's a weird place that gets you to not care whether you had enough sleep or if you were going to pay your taxes. A lot of things just weren't important. What was important was making sure you were at the demo. Making sure that we were going to stop this government, changing the way this epidemic was killing us. Life could not just go on as usual as long as we were suffering, as long as our friends, our lovers, and our sisters, our brothers were dying."
At Housing Works, Cylar was tireless in demanding that the city, state, and federal governments provide housing and services, making the agency a leader in both providing services and advocating for its clients. He played a leading role in the development of federal legislation to create and fund HIV/AIDS service programs, as well as HIV-related substance abuse and mental health services.
"He was loud when others remained silent," said Dennis DeLeon, founder of the Latino Commission on AIDS (http://www.latinoaids.org). "He could shame any bureaucrat into action, by any means necessary. He put his body in harm's way on countless occasions, spending innumerable hours behind bars to try to wake people up to injustice. He was a national figure on the AIDS scene, promoting the successful model of client empowerment and entrepreneurship to address social ills. He consoled the families of countless friends who were clients who had lost loved ones."
Cylar's death came mere days after he traveled to Houston to attend the Drug Policy Alliance's "Breaking the Chains" conference on race and the drug war. His long-term commitment to the anti-drug war cause and the rights of drug users was demonstrated by his presence at many such events over the years. For example, DRCNet executive director David Borden recalls first hearing Cylar speak at a major northeast conference in New York City sponsored by the Harm Reduction Coalition in June 1995. "That conference was an eye-opener for me, and the panel I remember the most vividly was one on which Keith was a speaker and which had a lot of passionate dialogue between the panel members and the audience. At one point, responding to an issue raised in the question and answer session, Keith made clear just how fully he embraced the personal autonomy aspect of harm reduction philosophy by declaring, 'It is okay to use drugs.' He wasn't just talking about marijuana."
Cylar did work with DRCNet in 1999, when DRCNet and other organizations were in a "war of words" with TV personality "Judge Judy" Sheindlin over a comment she had made in Australia dismissing needle exchange programs. Sheindlin had been quoted in Australian as saying "Give 'em [injection drug users] dirty needles and let 'em die." To Cylar, Judge Judy's remarks were a callous death sentence, not only for drug users but their loved ones. "I assume that she means that if one of her children was unfortunate enough to get themselves addicted to drugs, or to sleep with someone who at one time injected drugs, that she is advocating that her child is not worth saving... even that we ought, as a society, to cause her death," he told DRCNet at the time. "The population at risk here numbers in the millions, including untold numbers of children yet unborn. She is advocating genocide." (See http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/116/judgejudy.shtml and http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/128/dumpjudgejudy.shtml online).
Cylar recently took a humorous view of a much less confrontational type of civil disobedience committed by DRCNet's David Borden and David Guard. "We had dinner a few weeks ago, working on things he was going to do for us as a board member moving forward, and I mentioned I had done my first civil disobedience," Borden said. "Keith asked me what it was, and I told him I had refused to report for jury service. He put his hand to his forehead, nodded for about ten seconds, then looked up and said, 'I guess you have to start somewhere.' It didn't occur to me immediately just how tame our action might seem to a hardcore AIDS activist like Keith. When I told him a few minutes later that the full humor of it had just sunk in, he laughed out loud. It was one of many ways in which he opened my mind to larger perspectives on activism." Borden added, "The value of a major AIDS activist leader and service provider, who was widely known in New York City to the general public, and who was willing to speak out not only about AIDS but against the drug war and prohibition itself, was inestimable. Our movement has lost a powerful ally."
"He is irreplaceable," said Michael Kink, an attorney and lobbyist who is legislative counsel for Housing Works. "There is no one with his depth of commitment and strength of leadership. We will all be very changed as we go on without him," he told DRCNet. "He certainly brought together a great crew of people, but we depended on him for guidance and inspiration. His death leaves a huge hole as we try to go on without him. His dedication to harm reduction issues and drug reform issues and his concern with the day to day needs of people who are using drugs was unparalleled."
Cylar also worked to ensure that Housing Works never forgot its core mission, said Kink. "Keith built into the DNA of this organization that we must always be a powerful melding of direct social services and advocacy for the people who are too often left out of the debates," he said. "Housing Works will never become another outpost of AIDS, Inc. And as a gay black man living with HIV/AIDS, he spoke clearly about all these issues, as well as the issue of drug use, both his own and that of others. That was something that has been really unique in the fields of AIDS prevention and treatment, as well as chemical dependency and drug reform. Every area where he worked was touched by his contributions."
Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), offered a perspective to DRCNet on Cylar's and Housing Works' importance. "I don't believe people outside of New York know his or Housing Works' status here in the City. Housing Works houses homeless people with AIDS -- that means they house drug users. At the same time, Housing Works turned its clients into activists and self advocates. Keith's death is kind of like losing the king of the activists. He was also a consummate schmoozer and loved having his inside connections. Keith moved from mixing with the government, to threatening the government, to beating the government -- all in the space of five minutes."
Many more words have or will be written about Keith Cylar. These are a few of the places to read them:
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/08/nyregion/08CYLA.htmlHousing Works has established a Keith Cylar Fund to channel donations to Housing Works, per Cylar's request before he died. Donations may be sent to 320 W. 13th Street, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10012, or visit http://www.housingworks.org to donate online -- make sure to indicate it is for the Keith Cylar Fund.
Housing Works has also announced memorial plans, which are open to the public. A wake will be held on Monday, April 12 from 6:00-9:00pm, at the Church of the Intercession, 550 West 155th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave., including a service from 7:00-8:00pm. Funeral services will be on Tuesday, April 13, noon, also at the Church of the Intercession. Following the funeral service, there will be a motorcade (including buses for those without vehicles) downtown and a procession to the Housing Works residence at 9th St. and Ave. D for internment of Keith's ashes in the garden and a reception. And, as Keith wished, Housing Works is hosting a party for Keith from 6:30-10:00pm at Webster Hall, 125 East 11th St., between 3rd and 4th Avenues.
Listen to Keith's conversation with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee during last week's Breaking The Chains conference, courtesy of Cultural Baggage: http://www.cultural-baggage.com/Audio/keithcylar.mp3