In November 1990, a gaunt, dying man appeared in the pages of LIFE magazine.
That man, David Kirby, had already made a name for himself as an HIV/AIDS activist in the 1980s, and was in the final stages of the disease in March 1990, when journalism student Therese Frare began photographing Kirby’s own battle with the virus.
The following month, Frare captured Kirby on his deathbed surrounded by his family. He died soon after it was taken, and his family’s grief came through the haunting black-and-white still frame.
The photo took on a life of its own after being published, and the story surrounding it is as moving as the image itself.
David Kirby The Activist
David Kirby was born in 1957 and raised in a small town in Ohio. As a gay teenager in the 1970s, he found life in the Midwest difficult.
After finding out about his orientation, Kirby’s family reacted the way most did then: negatively. With his personal relationships strained and no obvious way forward for him, Kirby set off for the West Coast and settled into life in the (still partly underground) gay scene in Los Angeles. He fit in well there and soon became a gay activist.
In the 1970s and ’80s, homosexual behavior was still illegal in most states. Normal adult relationships for gays carried the risk of arrest and prosecution as sex offenders.
In California, in 1978, the so-called Briggs Initiative, for example, had sought to ban openly gay residents from working near children in a public school. Activists had been crucial in the initiative’s narrow defeat, and Kirby began attending rallies and protests to widen gay rights in the state and nationwide.
As activists tend to do, Kirby built up a network of contacts who would later help him raise awareness of the disease that was stalking his community.