“Please don’t get me sent to jail,” says David Mixner, the leading gay activist and former adviser to Bill Clinton, laughing nervously.
It is the morning after. We are speaking about Mixner’s emotional on-stage confession—unelicited by anyone but himself—Monday night to the assisted suicides he oversaw of friends dying of AIDS in the 1980s. As Mixner bluntly revealed during Oh Hell No!, his one-man autobiographical stage show: “I killed eight.” One of those eight was his beloved partner Peter Scott, who—along with the seven others—was in the debilitating final stages of the disease and had asked Mixner to help him die.
Mixner revealed that he had been part of an underground euthanasia network, aided by medical professionals, who were now “all gone” and could therefore not be punished professionally or prosecuted. Mixner, whose activism spans 40 intense years, himself consulted lawyers before confessing on stage and says he feels a legal prosecution is “unlikely. I am not worried, and what I did was right. In the end I wanted people to know about these decisions I had to take in my 30s that no one should have to take in their 30s.”
Mixner vividly sketched the era—the late 1980s, when so many were dying in great physical pain without access to the combination therapies that would come later, without access to proper medical care, and against a backdrop of horrendous ignorance, prejudice, rejection, and government inaction.
He told the story of the mercy killings, he says, because “today’s generation must know about the struggles that came before, that got us here. Without a knowledge of history, there is a lack of substance, dignity, and nobility that rightly belong to the victories we have won. I lost 300 friends, 29 out of 30 close friends. I delivered 90 eulogies in two years.”
In this, the second autobiographical stage show the 68-year-old Mixner has performed, he led the audience through the early gay rights battles of the 1970s he participated in, through the dark era of AIDS, and then the political brinkmanship around President Clinton’s flirtation with gay rights—and the bizarrely anti-gay results that flowed from it, like the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the enshrinement of the Defense of Marriage Act; and how Mixner himself had finally been deemed persona non grata in the Clinton administration when he decried “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” even getting arrested at a demonstration at the White House.
Testimonies in the program for the event, and the guests there, showed Mixner’s sphere of influence and friends in almost 50 years of activism and campaigning: Clinton, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former British prime minister Gordon Brown, Alan Cumming, equality heroine Edie Windsor, Jane Clementi (mother of Tyler Clementi), and the actress and advocate Judith Light. The audience was chock-full of the influential and influencers.
The evening, which was a ritzy benefit for the Point Foundation, which funds young LGBT scholars through college, was hosted by, among others, Light, who said she considered Mixner, who had first been active as an anti-Vietnam War activist, a brother. His story was not the history of the LGBT rights movement, Light said; it was his story alone—she said she hoped “thousands” of others would contribute theirs. On stage, the smartly suited Mixner was both very funny and very serious, and he cried after confessing the mercy killings. A singer who sang a beautiful song afterward placed a kind, supportive hand on Mixner’s shoulder as he wept. Mixner wasn’t expecting it, and his body briefly jolted in surprise.
The next day an “exhausted” Mixner—“It’s a long time to be standing up there”—told me he had never told those closest to him about participating in the mercy killings until the days leading up to the performance. “I didn’t want them to feel like they were reacting to it in a public forum. Not one of them was disgusted with the decision I took. They all understood it. I only got love in return. The younger ones were struck by what I said about the darkness of those times, and having to make a decision like that for themselves.”
Mixner and Scott were together for 12 years, before Scott’s death in 1989. Mixner doesn’t sugarcoat it; he doesn’t sugarcoat anything. “It was a complex, stormy relationship,” he says. “We were in and out of it. At that time, there was no talk or chance of us having families of our own. We were sexually liberated, but yes, this was the man I loved most in my life.”
“AIDS was such a horrendous death,” says Mixner. “It was slow, painful, you’d waste away, starve, be covered in lesions. Some of those with it knew they did not want to live beyond a certain point. Out of a desire for dignity and honor, they asked their friends to help them die.”
Into this network, says Mixner, came medical professionals—“nurses and doctors, heavily into the epidemic”—who saw what AIDS did to their patients and the lack of effective medicine to lessen their suffering, and who wanted to provide death with dignity.
“I would only do it when I was 100 percent sure that there was no hope,” Mixner tells me. “When I felt there was no hope, that all had been done for them, then I would do it. Some of the patients got angry. They’d say, ‘We want to die now.’ But I could only help to do it when it felt right to me.”
Mixner describes how he helped those eight to die. A doctor would leave a morphine drip at the patient’s property for him. Mixner would insert it via an IV and hold his friend until the drip was completed. He would call that person’s friends and loved ones and tell them they should come and say goodbye. Before they arrived, he would remove the evidence, and when they did arrive he would leave and let the patient and their loved ones be alone to share those final moments. The effects of the morphine “could take four hours, it could take 12 hours.”
Mixner would wonder why he was having to make those decisions, he says, “but this was a society that had turned its back on us.” I ask if he had any moral querulousness about it. “Of course, I’m a very religious person. I love Pope Francis.” He’s Catholic? “I was. I’m an old school liberation theologist. To me, what I was doing was helping them to die with dignity and love. No one will ever convince me that it is in God’s plan for us to die in extreme pain and suffering.”
Scott had asked Mixner to help him die. In their last moments together, Mixner held Scott and talked to him. On stage and when we speak later, Mixner remembers how much Scott had loved for his feet to be massaged, which Mixner did all through Scott’s illness, right up until the end.
Mixner grew up in New Jersey, in a family of storytellers: As a young boy, every Sunday would see him on his or another family’s porch listening to the patriarchs of the family tell tales. “Someone had always wrestled a bear to the ground to save the family or fought in the Revolutionary Wars—all of that.” One 100-year-old neighbor told stories of being in the Civil War.
The stage’s first backdrop was facsimiles of letters exchanged between mother and son when Mixner came out in 1976, at age 30. Hers is a dark response to his beautifully written coming out that invokes vultures in imagining the world he is entering. It was three years after the American Psychiatric Association had declassified homosexuality as a mental illness but still a time, Mixner says, when gay people were receiving lobotomies to be “cured.”
“It was a tough time,” Mixner recalls. His colleagues in the peace movement and Democratic Party “turned their backs” on him, he says. His father never accepted his son’s sexuality; his mother did before she died. For three years he didn’t return home. He doesn’t condemn his parents for their ignorance. “It had taken me 30 years to find a peace with it,” he says. “How could I expect them to be OK in three seconds?”
Mixner, both passionate and pragmatic, found a focus in his activism. He mobilized lesbians and gay men in California in 1978 to defeat the Briggs Initiative, which proposed banning lesbians and gay men, and anyone supporting gay rights, from working in Californian schools. Mixner had helped set up the first LGBT political PAC, MECLA (Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles), to raise money to fight the initiative; he helped set up a network of fundraisers, including one run by two straight friends who only told their guests what the party was for when they shut their gates. Donations flooded in, recalled Mixner, including “from John Travolta, mm-hmm…” Gayle Wilson, a phenomenally successful lesbian realtor in Los Angeles, made sure the once dilapidated and scuzzy campaign office looked fabulous. “That’s how gays should work,” she told Mixner when the makeover was complete.
Mixner himself went to then California Gov. Ronald Reagan to seek his support in nixing the Briggs Amendment. Reagan—“one of the most gracious men I ever met in politics”—wasn’t receptive, until Mixner convinced him that, if law, “you’d have anarchy in the classrooms, with pupils informing on teachers they thought were gay.” The notion of anarchy so appalled the conservative Reagan, he came out against Briggs, and it was defeated.
I ask Mixner why Reagan did nothing about AIDS until it was too late. “The religious right was around him,” says Mixner. “I was baffled. He and Nancy knew lots of gay people, but I do know 22,000 of us had died before he said the word ‘AIDS,’ and 200,000 of us had to die before Bill Clinton appointed an ‘AIDS czar.’ Four people have died of Ebola and that already has a ‘czar.’ And the politicians can’t stop talking about it.” He recalled one fundraising dinner where he and a fellow AIDS activist were served on paper plates with paper forks.
With me, Mixner laughs as he recalls protesting the Reagan administration’s shameful disregard of AIDS in 1986, outside the White House. As the protectively clothed cops arrested them, the demonstrators shouted: “Your gloves don’t match your shoes.”
Gallows humor has always served him and other activists well; it had to in such dark times. There was a California ballot initiative that came within two votes of passing, which would have seen gay people interned in camps. Mixner has written movingly about living through AIDS.
Bill Clinton courted Mixner and his expertise at the outset of his run for president. With Mixner’s encouragement, Clinton’s promises of delivering equality flowed easily, and he delivered stirring, historic speeches. But it took the threat of a walkout of Democratic National Convention delegates to get Clinton to put the word “gay” into a speech outlining the minorities whose rights he, as president, would fight for. In office came “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and DOMA, which Clinton—in 2013—argued should be overturned.
For Mixner, Clinton’s moves were all about political expediency: At the time of DOMA’s passing, he boasted about it in advertisements played in the South.
After doing so much to place gay issues at the heart of a seemingly receptive administration, Mixner was cast out of the Clinton inner circle when he spoke out against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” This clearly hurt, and Mixner’s professional life suffered.
He and Clinton remained cordial, though the former president never apologized for his tactical shadow play around gay rights: “We’ll agree to differ,” he told Mixner. Didn’t that infuriate Mixner? “I’m very careful that I what I put out there doesn’t contribute to anger and division,” he says (more than once). “I’m a devoted follower of Gandhi and [Martin Luther] King. I can only be responsible for my actions and values.”
On stage, Mixner had laughed as he imagined the confirmation hearing he would have undergone had he ever been appointed to an office. That seemed to imply a spicy sex life, I say to him the next day. “I’m a sexual liberationist,” Mixner says. “One of my ways to be a role model is to not operate with my sexuality out of shame or fear of judgment. I love sexuality, I have an adventurous sexuality. I would have been delighted to shock any confirmation hearing with explicit and shocking stories. I’ve tried everything at least four times—at least to make sure.”
Mixner doesn’t see the Clintons now. He endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, “which I don’t think made them happy.” He hopes Hillary Clinton will be elected the next president. “I’ll do what I can do for her to be elected.” He was impressed by her landmark 2011 Human Rights Day speech linking fighting for gay rights to American foreign policy.
Mixner agrees with marriage equality lawyer Ted Olson that “the point of no return” has been reached in the fight for same-sex marriage, “though it’s still legal to fire gay people in 30 states, we’re still getting gay-bashed. The other day I was walking down the street and someone called me a faggot and said I was going to hell. We’re on the historic cusp of greatness, but there is still a lot of work to do. None of us can rest. There are still a dozen countries where you can be executed for being gay. Never say, ‘We got ours, we can forget about the others.’”
The gay rights movement—indeed, any minority movement—is at its worst when it’s at its most self-righteous or judgmental and angry. “We need to try and get those who disagree with us to join us, not tell them off for not agreeing with us,” he says. “They’re our neighbors.”
Mixner almost died in February, after his lower intestine got twisted, leaving him with gangrene in his heart and lungs. “It didn’t look good,” he says. “I was in intensive care for 17 days. A priest read me the last rites.” On stage he joked: “I’m not going to die until they [gays] can get married in Utah.”
Did he think he was going to die? “No I didn’t. My work isn’t done,” he says, laughing softly, although he has asked for euthanasia if he reaches that point where “all hope has gone.” He has had 11 surgeries, and seven stays in intensive care, in the last five years—suffering perilously from an African tick fever and growths in his throat.
Since Scott, Mixner has had one two-year relationship that was “lovely, but it’s intensely difficult to lose so many, as many of us did, and then enter into relationships.” He is presently single. “I have never had a life without love,” he says. “Love is the underlying principle of my life. I don’t want to be bitter or a hater. I have extraordinarily loving friends who have been there for me in the last few years when I have needed them.”
Mixner loves aging, he says, and is appalled at the “waste of expertise” a youth-obsessed society presides over as its aging members “are put out to pasture. My mind feels like I’m 21, it’s only my legs that don’t.” Knowledge should be added to, daily, all the time, not fixed, he says. Be open to seeing the world differently, or having your opinions and views widened, he recommends. “Truth is a very evasive animal,” he says.
He lives in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, has lots of friends, reads, volunteers, and fights to save animals: “Just yesterday before the show I was helping with plans to save cheetahs in Namibia. I would love to have someone special in my life,” he says, laughing. “I just can’t imagine anyone wanting to be in my life. A partner would want me home on Sunday mornings, not talking about saving cheetahs.”
Then, just as he said at the beginning of our conversation, Mixner asks, with a soft laugh, that I not get him arrested—although I think part of him would relish the almighty fight, popping of flashbulbs, and brouhaha that would come from that.