Spencer Cox, an AIDS activist integral to the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power and a co-founder of the Treatment Action Group that came out of it, died on Tuesday, friends report. He was 44.
David France, who produced and directed the documentary, How To Survive A Plague, which featured Cox, described Cox’s role in the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic:
As a very young man fresh from Bennington, where he studied Theater and English Literature, he arrived in NYC after finishing just 3 years. He was diagnosed with HIV soon thereafter. By 1989, at age 20, he had become spokesman for ACT UP during its zenith through the early 90s. A member of its renowned Treatment & Data committee, and later co-founder of TAG (the Treatment Action Group), he schooled himself in the basic science of AIDS and became something of an expert, a “citizen scientist” whose ideas were sought by working scientists. In the end, Spencer wrote the drug trial protocol which TAG proposed for testing the promising protease inhibitor drugs in 1995. Adopted by industry, it helped develop rapid and reliable answers about the power of those drugs, and led to their quick approval by the FDA.
Larry Kramer — also a part of the early AIDS activist community, including ACT UP, and known for his play, The Normal Heart, that looks at the early crisis — wrote to BuzzFeed about Cox’s death.
“As someone who was in a room in the same hospital as Spencer and at the same time, and who is having his own awful and painful heath problems, it is hard to fall into denial about what we still dont know and have yet to find out, to save our own lives, the lives of Spencer, and yes, Larry too,” Kramer wrote. “With sweet Spencer’s death went an enormous body of instinct that far surpassed many of the ‘educated’ doctors he had to deal with.”
In an outtake from France’s documentary that he posted on Tuesday, Cox talks about the advent of protease inhibitors — a “miracle,” he says — and about his aims in life.
“You make your life as meaningful as you can make it,” he said in the clip. “You live it and don’t be afraid of who’s going to like you, or are you being appropriate. You worry about things like being kind. You worry about things like being generous. And if it’s not about that, what the hell’s it about?”
Garance Franke-Ruta, now politics editor at The Atlantic, was an early activist with ACT UP and TAG as well. Echoing the sense of his comments in the outtake, Franke-Ruta focused on Cox’s spirit as much as his work.
“Spencer did great work with ACT UP and TAG, but what I remember even more was that he introduced me to Bette Davis and the other grande dames of black and white cinema, and no matter what was happening always had a hilarious and pithy quote from one of their films that could be applied to the situation at hand,” she told BuzzFeed. “He had a terrific sense of black humor, and unfortunately far too many occasions for needing it.”