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An Artistic Activist Legacy

Dr. Matthew Jones’ new book recounts the life of a pioneering AIDS activist and musician.

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Dr. Matthew Jones (photo by Alex Rosa)

Call it fate, or call it luck. Whatever it was, Dr. Matthew Jones isn’t questioning it. A seemingly random YouTube interaction led to a connection that ultimately gave Jones unprecedented access to the archives of activist, musician, and AIDS self-empowerment evangelist Michael Callen. In his new book, Love Don’t Need a Reason: The Life and Music of Michael Callen, Jones explains how Callen’s lessons and legacy are still at work today.

“The thing that motivates everything I do as a scholar and writer is telling untold or unknown LGBTQ stories, specifically about music,” explains Jones, a Houston-based musicologist and historian. “I learned about Michael Callen when I was in graduate school ten years ago. Michael was always listed in footnotes during my research, and I always wondered who this person was.”

After poking around on YouTube, Jones discovered Callen wasn’t just a staunch AIDS activist, but a fine musician as well. “I left a comment on a clip of a Callen interview someone posted, and asked for the rest of the clip,” Jones recalls.

What he didn’t realize was that the clip was from Callen’s surviving partner, Richard Dworkin. “I had no idea it was him!” Jones laughs. “He wrote back asking why I was asking about this. I explained I was doing research for a seminar paper, and he eventually invited me to his home in Queens.”

Shortly after arriving in New York City, Jones started rifling through Callen’s materials that the musician left in Dworkin’s possession, as well as other collections that he had assembled before his death.

“Richard also introduced me to Michael’s friends, his biological family, his queer family of choice, and his musical family. All of these people enthusiastically signed on to share stories about Michael and his life. It was stupid luck,” Jones admits. “I’ve never been the right person in the right place to tell a particular story before, but in that moment I knew I had to write this. Callen’s life is so compelling, his activism is important, and his music is so good.” Jones suggests starting with the album Purple Heart to get a taste of Callen’s music.

 

The out scholar was equipped with every possible resource to write his book. “I love digging through archives and reading letters that people write. I’m 42, so I grew up in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic and I’ve long been interested in its impact on gay male communities, [as well as its significance in] the larger LGBTQ+ context.”

Jones notes that almost everyone he interviewed said that most of their friends from that era are dead. “It was a challenge to keep going, [but] Michael had an abundant amount of hope and positivity. Part of Michael’s activist agenda was to avoid the propaganda of hopelessness. So I was able to avoid the hopelessness of the activism that I want my work to achieve.”

Today, Jones considers Callen’s inner circle to be his own friends. “Richard and I talked about what I envisioned this project would turn into, and he started tearing up,” Jones recalls. “He took my hand and said they had been waiting for someone to tell Michael’s story. That was one of the moments that solidified my friendship with Richard.”

The love, admiration, and fierce protection of Callen that Jones saw in his friends highlighted the importance of getting the book right. “Michael was treated very badly by some of the AIDS activist organizations and LGBTQ groups, so the people who knew him are fiercely protective of him and his legacy. Building trust with those people was really important,” Jones says. “Becoming friends with them has been one of the most beautiful and rewarding parts for me. Building intergenerational bonds [is so rare] in our community. The people who remain from the Stonewall era, they’re all pushing 70 or 80, and they aren’t going to be with us forever.”

Jones hopes that readers will come to appreciate Callen’s impact on queer culture, both as an artist and activist. “I hope that people reinsert him into the history of homosexuality, queerness, and HIV/AIDS in the late 20th century. The other thing I want readers to know is that a queer person can change the world,” Jones says. “Michael Callen co-authored a book in 1983 called How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach. That book introduced the idea of “safe sex.” Back when no one knew what the main cause of AIDS was, he wrote this book that introduces the idea that gay men should use condoms to avoid transmitting known infectious bodily fluids. That continues to shape the way people have sex to this very day.”

Gleefully looking forward to his book’s release by the queer-owned publisher Punctum Books, Jones reflects on his subject’s legacy:
“I hope some young LGBTQ person reading this book realizes we are people making history and shaping history. Our communities have been driving forces in so many things, and our accomplishments are often recognized [without mentioning that they are queer accomplishments].”

Dr. Matthew Jones’ book Love Don’t Need a Reason: The Life and Music of Michael Callen is available for purchase now. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/y53ax2x4.

This article appears in the November 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Zachary McKenzie

Zachary McKenzie is a marketing professional and freelance writer in Houston, TX. He received his bachelor's degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2014 and has lived in Houston since. Zachary is a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and enjoys spending his free time with friends, exploring the richness and diversity of Houston.

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