Rod Sorge, one of New York’s most articulate, knowledgeable, and empathic voices on harm reduction for drug users, died last Thursday from complications of AIDS. Only 30, Rod had already had an enormous influence on how people think about drug use and AIDS, taking the groundbreaking position that addicts have rights. “The message to drug users cannot be ‘abstain or die,’ ” he explained in one of his many articles on the subject. Users, he said and wrote and tirelessly chanted at demos, should be helped without judgment.
Though providing IV drug users with clean needles has been shown to decrease the spread of AIDS, it was illegal to do so in New York until 1992. Rod helped bring that change about. He cofounded the ACT UP needle exchange, the first in New York, ran the then underground needle exchange programs in Harlem and the Bronx, and later headed the first state-authorized needle exchange program. Rod was also arrested for handing out clean needles in Jersey City (he was the first to do this in the state).
As a gay man who came to New York expressly to devote himself to AIDS activism, Rod was involved in countless demonstrations on behalf of people with AIDS. He was one of those jailed during ACT UP’s famed Stop the Church action on Saint Patrick’s cathedral. When singer Diamanda Galas testified to his character at the trial, she dubbed him Saint Rod.
Rod, who dropped out of college and read constantly, was known for his sharp intellect and follow-through. “He led in terms of doing the work,” says close friend and former ACT UP colleague Lei Chou. “If we needed a press release, he was the one to write it. If research needed to be done, he did it.” His intellectual precision earned Rod respect at all levels of the AIDS world. After he testified in support of a law that would have allowed pharmacies to sell hypodermic needles without prescriptions, state assemblymember Richard Gottfried commented, “There are probably several state agencies it would be useful to turn over to you.”
Yet Rod didn’t bow to— or even seem to recognize— the world’s hierarchy. He had little interest in self-promotion, refusing raises and eschewing material possessions. “His pants were so old, the street kids used to make fun of him,” remembers Edith Springer, a friend who, with Rod, coordinated HIV prevention with youth involved in crack use and prostitution. Despite his own humble style, Rod was accepting of all who shared his goals. “He even had compassion for us poor bureaucrats,” says
Diane Rudnick, director of the substance abuse section of the AIDS Institute.
Still, Rod’s passion was for helping people directly, so whatever he gleaned from the intellectual world was quickly put into action. When AIDS researchers suggested tagging needles so that they could be tracked, Rod immediately bought enamel paint and began what became a Friday night ritual of painting needles and assembling bleach kits at his apartment. (The event would sometimes run right into Saturday morning distribution with no sleep in between.)
In his journey to the heart of the problem, Rod also began the “walkabout” program at the Lower East Side needle exchange. “He would fill his shopping cart with needles and just walk through the neighborhood,” says friend and coworker Angela Echevarria. “Being that he was Caucasian, everybody was like, ‘Police! Police!’ But he would explain to them with like 50 different ID cards that he wasn’t police and then he would show them how to clean their works.”
Rod was a private person. Only a few of his friends had heard him make even a passing reference to his childhood in Chicago, an unhappy time spent as a sensitive, gay boy growing up in an unaccepting and poor family. And few of his friends were aware, at least at first, of his own drug use or his illness. But gradually Rod became more public about both shooting heroin and having AIDS, which in his case was diagnosed at a late stage and didn’t respond to combination therapy.
In an article in the zine Junkphood, Rod declared that he planned to deliberately overdose rather than die the object of someone else’s pity. His suicide, he predicted, would “be the act of an empowered, purposeful human being committed to gaining ultimate control over his life and death.”
But Rod did not take his life. Instead he struggled in his final years to find doctors who would treat his pneumonia, TB meningitis, and other infections while accepting his drug use, which he believed helped him to manage his depression. The medical response was profoundly disappointing to him. As he detailed in a painful article, called “one junky’s odyssey,” his doctors often treated him as a “dysfunctional fuck-up.” They refused to see AIDS— rather than drugs— as his problem.
“All those years I spent advocating for other drug users . . . did not prepare me for the treatment I would also receive as a heroin injector with AIDS,” he wrote. Because he was taking rifampin for his TB, a drug that made him process methadone quickly, he regularly went into withdrawal even while taking doses of methadone that would stabilize others. And he repeatedly checked out of the hospital against medical advice.
True to his principles, Rod did not use the connections he had made as an advocate to get special treatment, even during this last period, when it might have saved his life— or made it more bearable. “He had so many friends and admirers throughout the AIDS system. If he had used his contacts, he would have gotten the best care,” says Chou. “But he detested privilege. He wanted to be treated like everybody else.”
A memorial for Rod Sorge will be held at 743 East 9th Street (at Avenue D) on Saturday, February 20, at 4:30.