[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #5 in October 2007]
Ferd Eggan, a writer, activist, teacher, and tireless advocate for people with HIV/AIDS, died in Los Angeles on July 7 at age 60 after a six-month bout with liver cancer, complicated by HIV and hepatitis C infections. For the past twenty years, Eggan’s leadership and his multifaceted strategic and organizing skills have had an enormous impact on the fight against AIDS, particularly in Chicago and Los Angeles. He was one of the founders of ACT UP Chicago.
Eggan was born to Frederick I. Eggan and Bette Anne (Richey) Eggan in Alpena, Mich., in 1946, the oldest of three boys. A life-long activist, he was a veteran of the “new left,” civil rights, gay liberation, and student movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. He entered the University of Chicago in 1964 to study English and History, but eventually dropped out and burned his draft card. In 1965 he worked in a project organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.) in Manning, South Carolina, helping African American citizens register to vote. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was active in the Gay Liberation Front in Chicago, and in Join Hands and the June 28th Union in San Francisco, as well as numerous anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and social justice movements. In 1975-6 he received his B.A and M.A. in U.S. History from California State University at Hayward.
Between 1975 and 1990, he worked as a teacher of primary, middle-school, and high school students in Evanston and Chicago. From 1979 to 1990, he taught history and served as principal at Escuela Superior Puertorriqueña Pedro Albizu Campos (Pedro Albizu Campos High School). The high school, a project of the Don Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Humboldt Park, is part of the Alternative Schools Network, whose goal is to offer quality education with a specific emphasis on inner-city children, youth and adults.
During these years, he traveled extensively in Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean, and became fluent in Spanish. In Chicago, he participated in political and cultural actions against U.S. intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador, such as Artist’s Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, and in solidarity with Puerto Rican people’s struggles against colonialism. He marched in the annual Gay Pride Parade with small contingents of queer leftists to express the link between struggles for freedom across the world and for queer liberation.
In 1987, a small group of gays and lesbians met in Ferd’s apartment to launch DAGMAR (Dykes And Gay Men Against Racism/Repression/the Right Wing/Reagan, etc.), the first activist group on HIV/AIDS issues in Chicago. DAGMAR’s first public action was a 24-hour vigil at Governor Thompson’s residence in August 1987. As a member of DAGMAR and later of CFAR (Chicago for AIDS Rights) and ACT-UP/Chicago, Ferd participated in and led other significant local and national actions: the “Bermuda Triangle” action, the first AIDS demonstration in the Loop in April, 1988, targeting the city of Chicago, Cook County, and the state of Illinois; the illegal public sale of pentamidine at Lyphomed’s headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois, on May 7, 1988, to protest pharmaceutical profiteering from the exorbitant cost of AIDS drugs; the “Target CTA” action in May 1989, when members of ACT UP risked arrest by attempting to put up accurate, informative, sex-positive AIDS educational posters on city buses and trains; and the marches, vigils, and civil disobedience protests at the National Actions for Healthcare in Chicago in April 1990, which resulted in the opening of the AIDS ward at Cook County Hospital to women. He was a key co-founder of the national ACT UP PISD Caucus (People with Immune System Disorders).
In 1990, Ferd moved to Los Angeles and became Executive Director of Being Alive, an organization for people living with HIV/AIDS, and was active in ACT UP/L.A. From 1993 to 2001 he was the AIDS Coordinator for the City of Los Angeles. In that position Ferd opened doors for the funding of self-organized programs for women with AIDS, city authorization of and funding for needle exchanges, housing for people with AIDS who might still be active drug users, and a landmark study and intervention program for gay men using crystal meth. He continued to work between the activist “outside” and service-provider “inside” of the AIDS communities.
Eggan “was the first person in a public position in Los Angeles to call attention to the crystal meth problem among gay men and its impact in amplifying AIDS transmission,” said Walt Senterfitt, an epidemiologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and chairman of Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project.
Eggan retired on disability in 2001, when he began to concentrate more on his writing, video art, and travel abroad.
A brilliant thinker and rhetorician, Eggan’s creative output included experimental films, audio CDs, and prolific writing – poetry, fiction, journalism, social policy analysis, film scripts, translation, music lyrics, texts in collaborative multimedia projects, criticism, and, most recently, experiments with prose forms and web publishing. He published numerous journal articles, essays, poetry, and fiction, including two books, Your LIFE Story by someone else and Pornography.
In 1970-1972, with Carel Rowe, he co-wrote, co-produced, and performed in the Video Free America production, The Continuing Story of Carel and Ferd (dir. Arthur Ginsberg and Skip Sweeney, 1970-1972), which was exhibited as a multi-channel video installation at The Kitchen in New York in 1971, and broadcast on PBS between 1971-1973. This avant-garde experiment with video verité has been described by scholar and historian Gene Youngblood as the “first reality TV series,” and inspiration for the better-known An American Family in 1973. Your life story by someone else, which received high praise from critics and writers in the U.S. gay press, was published by Editorial el Coquí in Chicago 1989.
From 2003 to 2005, Eggan wrote and published a serial “e-novel” called “The Continuing Story…” Every week or two, a new “chapter” was posted to his web-site, and sent to an email list of interested readers, who were invited to share comments, criticism, rants, or praise on an accompanying blog. The “novel” is a genre-mash of philosophical musings, political critique, psychoanalytic accounts, literary winks and inside jokes, parody, puns, recipes, and extended footnotes – addressing globalization, terrorism, sexual exploits (or the lack thereof), utopian literature, Buddhism, drug lore, hallucinations, jazz, and the “red thread blues” – a pastiche of a quotes from famous marxists and anarchists.
In the past few years, he created the video-blogs “Communiqués from the Cranky PWA”, and “Revolution is an Eternal Dream,”. Recently, he wrote about his early days of queer activism in Fags and Dykes Want Everything: Dreaming with the Gay Liberation Front, published in That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, Soft Skull Press, 2007, ed. Matt Bernstein Sycamore.
On April 29, 2007, Ferd was invited by Lori Cannon to speak at the opening of “Unrelentingly Drawn: The Editorial Cartoons of Danny Sotomayor” at the Gerber Hart Library in Chicago. In a biographical note written for the occasion, he wrote: “…my own struggles with queerness, AIDS, and depression have led me down many paths, both light and dark… now I am researching the philosophical and neuro-chemical bases for both discontent and social transformation.”
Ferd Eggan is survived by two brothers, Andy and Eric; two sisters-in-law, Linda and Jean; two nieces, Julie and Kelly; one nephew, Bryan; and countless dear friends and colleagues. A memorial service was held in Los Angeles on Sunday, July 29 at 3 PM, at The Village at Ed Gould Plaza of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. A celebration of Ferd Eggan’s life and times will be held in Chicago in the near future.