When the AIDS epidemic first hit Baltimore in the mid-1980s, few people outside the gay and medical communities paid much attention to victims of the disease or to the need for expanded public health services to cope with the ever-growing number of people at risk of becoming infected with the killer virus. Since then, there has been a revolution in public awareness of AIDS, and much of the credit locally must go to John T. Stuban, the vocal and tireless AIDS activist who died last week at the age of 38 after a nearly decade-long personal struggle against the disease.
Mr. Stuban was a founder of ACT UP Baltimore, part of a national network of groups that uses civil disobedience to press for greater efforts to combat acquired immune deficiency syndrome. ACT UP was widely criticized for its confrontational, in-your-face tactics, especially during the early years of the epidemic when virtually the entire country was in a state of denial and simply wished the problem would just go away.
In the face of such indifference, Mr. Stuban felt called upon to openly challenge the medical and political establishments in order to force them to respond to the reality and magnitude of the threat. He did so with courage, perseverance and wit, and by his example inspired countless others to stand up and demand their rights as well.
"He was somehow capable of showing us how to abandon our own fears and follow him," said Mark Shaw, another founding member of ACT UP Baltimore. "He had one of the most delicious political minds and a truly God-inspired fearlessness fueled by compassion and moral outrage."
Mr. Stuban, who came to Baltimore from New York in 1987, had no illusions about what he and other HIV-infected people were up against. He possessed a broad knowledge of AIDS and the politics of funding AIDS research. But he also believed passionately that progress would come only if people like himself became directly involved in fighting the official indifference of government agencies and medical institutions. For example, Mr. Stuban once chained himself to the doors of the city Health Department to protest job vacancies in Baltimore's AIDS surveillance program.
By now, society has begun to realize that the AIDS epidemic may elude easy answers or quick solutions for the foreseeable future. That awareness was in large part hastened by the efforts of advocates like Mr. Stuban. His death leaves a void that will not be easily filled.