Northwestern University, 633 Clark St, Evanston, IL 60208
Interviewee: Roma Baran, Interview Number: 034, Interviewer: Sarah Schulman Date of Interview: November 5, 2003: "When I first stepped into the room, Tom (Tom Cunningham (died December 9, 1992) ndr) was the Administrator, I think – even though that meant very little. ACT UP was pretty anarchic. Tom and I got to be really close friends, and Tom died December 9, 1992, which was sort of shocking in that it’s over 10 years. And Tom – besides the fact that he sort of shepherded me through the initiation into the finer, political underbelly of ACT UP and its power factions – we would go out after meetings with the group. We always went somewhere after meetings. And because we got to be really good friends we spent a lot of time together. And it was a time for me when I was about to change careers, and I had also broken up with a long term lover, and I had the kind of free time that you have when you’re in college – where Tom and I could just walk around and walk into an afternoon movie. And Tom sort of – in a lot of ways, I think was the brother that I never had, and he was – really, of all my friends I have ever had in my whole life – he was the most uncritically, totally supportive of everything I did. And he very much supported the idea of me going to law school. And then when he was quite sick, I would go to his house in Brooklyn and bring my law books and study while he watched television. And one of the things – you’re talking about all the women being dead – one of the things that makes ACT UP different from other kinds of political organizations is dealing with the issue of death. Dealing with the issue of the leaders of the organization dying off, and dealing with the very personal sense of immediacy – dealing with people who didn’t have much longer to live. And, my whole attitude towards death was changed – not so much by the organization, but by my very personal interaction with Tom. And I think a lot of people have had similar experiences as a result of the friends they made in ACT UP. Tom would come out to my place in Long Island and spend time there. And I think one of the last times he was there, we had an incredibly intense conversation. Tom was amazing because he didn’t want to pretty it up. When he was in the hospital dying and someone would come in and say, “What a nice day, the Franklins put new roses in, in front of their house,” he would say, “But what do you think about the fact that I’m dying?” And he couldn’t deal with people who couldn’t deal with it – on that issue. And I watched him go through the process of getting ready to die and making the decision to die, and dying. And it was so different from my experience of anyone else’s death in a family of older people. The conversation we had out on Long Island was – I suddenly felt guilty because I felt ghoulish befriending him and becoming so close to him, that I was somehow a voyeur in this intense process and that I was getting – sapping this intense experience, that had a ghoulish element for me, because I wanted to participate in the discussion of the detail of how it was going and how he felt about it. And so, I made this confession. I felt really uncomfortable about making it. And he said the most amazing thing that completely spun me around. He said that it was precisely my interest in his process of dying that made my friendship with him so invaluable, because most people wanted to push that away and emphasize everything else that was still happening. And the fact that that was the most important thing happening to him and that’s what I wanted to focus on. And even more, that I wanted that and he could give it to me. As he was less and less able to give things to people that they wanted – whether it was to have the energy to go to a movie, or even the energy to have a conversation, that he could give me what I wanted, which was to watch him go through dying. That he could give that to me he said was absolutely invaluable. And it spun me around, because I think for a lot of us – certainly for me – the fear of dying is about the fear of being alone, and the fear of having to hide your fear; the fear of having to be alone in the process of being afraid of it. And I watched Tom be completely – right till the end – be completely open, engaged, straightforward, in the moment and himself through the process. And it gave me the sense that it was possible to die that way. So I just wanted to say that, to talk about Tom."
Tom Cunningham (1960 - December 9, 1992) was a social worker who helped deaf people and others with disabilities and a was leader in AIDS organizations.
Cunningham, who lived in Brooklyn, worked as a sign-language interpreter and social worker in Chicago and New York. He understudied as a sign-language interpreter for theatrical productions and volunteered his signing skills for lectures and political events.
Later he worked in marketing and computer consulting. He also wrote reports, poetry and fiction for The New York Native, Le Gai-Pied in France, The Village Voice and The James White Review.
He worked for a year and a half as the administrator of Act Up in New York, an AIDS research and protest organization. He was also in charge of media for the Health Education and AIDS Liaison. He helped to bring AIDS programs to Hispanic New Yorkers and the disabled.
Mr. Cunningham, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Merrick, L.I., graduated from Northwestern University.
He died on December 9, 1992, at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan. He was 32. He died of complications from AIDS, his family said.