Pictured: Jeff with friends and family for the 1993 AIDS Walk: Back row left to right: Lynda Richardson, Rich Meislin, Jeff Schmalz, Roy Finamore Michael Wilde; front row left to right: Ben Kushner, David Dunlap, Hendrik Uyttendaele, Wendy Schmalz
Few people remember the journalistic work of Jeff Schmalz, but he worked at the New York Times in the 1970s and '80s. As is explained on the Kickstarter page for a new documentary project, Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz, while there, Schmalz was struggling with his identity as a gay man.
"He kept his sexual orientation secret from the newsroom management, the people who had control over his professional life. Under the executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, the Times newsroom of the 1970s and 80s was a homophobic place, and journalists known to be gay or lesbian were stalled or even demoted in their careers.
"Then, one day in December 1990, Jeff collapsed in the newsroom with a brain seizure. It was the first evidence that he had full-blown AIDS -- a death sentence in these years before drug cocktails were available to victims of the disease. With AIDS, Jeff was endangered and he was outed. Yet he was also cracked wide open in positive ways. He found his calling in writing about HIV and AIDS, doing memorable portraits of Magic Johnson, Mary Fisher, and Harold Brodkey, among others, and chronicling his own experience reporting on the most personal beat imaginable. As Jeff himself said at the time, having AIDS stirred an empathy in him that he had long obscured beneath a witty, cynical, hard-driven exterior. "Who Jeff was and what he did deeply changed The New York Times, sensitizing it as never before to the humanity of gay people. The Times of today -- publishing same-sex wedding announcements, editorializing in favor of marriage equality -- is the fruition of changes that Jeff helped set into motion but never lived long enough to fully see.
"And now, 22 years after Jeff died at age 39, his contributions have been largely forgotten. Dying Words will restore his name and work to the annals of gay history and journalistic history. "