Andy Vélez, an internationally prominent AIDS activist whose three decades of advocacy work resulted in improved drug access and civil rights for people living with HIV, especially in the Latinx community, died on May 14 at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. He was 80.
His sons, Ben and Abe Vélez, said the cause of death was complications from a severe fall in his Greenwich Village building last month.
Despite other health challenges, Vélez had remained active in the AIDS and social justice communities until his recent accident, taking part in ACT UP and Rise and Resist protests. Vélez joined ACT UP in 1987, its first year of activity, and played a prominent role in its most noteworthy demonstrations over the past 32 years.
Vélez was born on March 9, 1939 in the Bronx to Ramon Vélez and the former Dorothy Solomon. The family soon relocated to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, where they lived several years before returning to the Bronx. Graduating from high school at 16 in 1955, Vélez attended City College for a brief time, but interrupted his studies when he left home. Years later, after attending night school, he earned his bachelor’s degree.
Vélez went on to receive a master’s degree in psychoanalysis in 1976 and worked with the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies under Dr. Phyllis Meadow in the Village. He maintained his own therapy practice for two decades. Vélez had initially explored psychoanalysis for personal reasons, suspecting that he was gay. In 1964, he was entrapped by an undercover policeman in a Park Avenue South bar. Vélez spent the night in the Tombs in Lower Manhattan, a traumatizing experience that would provide the impetus for his activism. The arrest, which resulted in a suspended sentence of six months, caused him to lose his job at the Housing Authority. With the assistance of a progressive attorney, however, Vélez had his conviction overturned.
Psychotherapy was only one of Vélez’s professional pursuits. He had initially hoped to become an actor, and he appeared in several Off-Broadway productions in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. During 16 years in book publishing beginning in 1969, he worked his way up to become president of the prominent Frederick Ungar Publishing, managing the company until it was sold in 1985. Notable among his literary projects was a 1984 collaboration with Marlene Dietrich in updating her 1962 bestseller “Marlene Dietrich’s ABC.”
After a marriage to a woman that ended in divorce, Vélez began to make active connections within the LGBTQ community. For three years in the mid-1980s, he served as a leader for the Gay Circles Consciousness Raising Group. One evening in 1987, after his group’s meeting ended, Vélez walked through the first gathering of what became the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power at the LGBT Community Center. He was intrigued by what he witnessed and quickly became involved in several ACT UP committees, including the Media Committee and Actions Committee. In high-profile demonstrations and civil disobedience actions, Vélez threw himself into the group’s signature street theater activism — at one point, chaining himself in the office of a pharmaceutical company; at another, covering himself in fake blood to symbolize the lives lost to AIDS because of government negligence.
Vélez especially found his niche with the ACT UP’s Latino Caucus, which focused on the raging but neglected epidemic in the Latinx community. He and his colleagues traveled to Puerto Rico to help organize a local ACT UP chapter there.
In 1990, he was also a founding member of Queer Nation in New York.
Vélez was involved in many AIDS educational and service organizations over the years, serving as an administrator and bilingual educator for AIDSM
Vélez was a prominent advocate on the international AIDS scene for more than two decades, working with the organizers of International Conferences on AIDS to guarantee the active participation of people with HIV and serving as the official liaison to the activist community. He was also a consultant to the Latino Commission on AIDS and did guest speaking on HIV/ AIDS at high schools and colleges across America.
From the 1990s through the 2010s, Vélez returned to his first love of theater by covering that scene for several LGBTQ magazines, as well as by conducting interviews with musical greats for All About Jazz and the New York City Jazz Record. He also penned liner notes for the CD reissues of several Broadway musical classics, such as “Finian’s Rainbow,” “The Pajama Game,” and “Saratoga,” as well as for vocal collections by legends such as Doris Day, Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, and Artie Shaw. In courses on musical theater that he taught at the New School in the 1990s, he hosted in-class guests including Barbara Cook, Sheldon Harnick, Elaine Stritch, and John Kander and Fred Ebb.
Years ago, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Vélez replied, “As someone who was able to help.”
In addition to his sons Ben and Abe, both of Brooklyn, Vélez is survived by his daughter-in-law Sarah, his granddaughter, his younger brother Gene of Alamo, California, as well as thousands of comrades in the global AIDS and LGBTQ activist communities.
Funeral services will be private. A public memorial service will be held this summer. Donations in Vélez’s memory may be made to ACT UP New York, Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, and the Latino Commission on AIDS.
Andy Vélez, presente y pa’lante!