Based in Cleveland, Ohio, Nightsweats & T-cells is a groundbreaking clothing and screenprinting business staffed by gay men with HIV.
The business dates back to the darkest days of the HIV epidemic. The idea came about from three friends in 1990. Gil Kudrin, who is its Director of Development, joined a few months after its inception. He remains the company’s public face.
In a phone conversation with GSN, he explained the company’s background and why its services are still very much needed – even if fewer people in the US now die from HIV-related illness.
‘That should be on a T-shirt’
The idea for the company came from the writer and poet Paul Monette [Becoming A Man], his best friend Victor Brown, and a radical social worker who went by the nickname of Honey.
Both Paul and Victor were HIV positive, while Honey, through her work, had been alarmed by the number of people she had witnessed wiped out by AIDS.
The three would quip, ‘That should be on a T-shirt’ after someone said something memorable or empowering. It’s where the idea for a clothing company first came about.
It was whilst Honey was helping organize a HIV-related fundraiser in her home city of Cleveland, and needed T-shirts, that Nightsweats & T-cells went from an idea to a reality.
She turned to Cleveland screen printer and designer, Michael. She told him about her friends concept for the company and he was excited by the notion. Nightsweats & T-cells was born.
Honey helped launch the business but stepped away from the day-to-day running. Gil, who had just started dating Michael, came on board soon after. Michael has requested we don’t use his surname.
Both Gil and Michael are long-term survivors of HIV. Paul and Victor, who were based in Los Angeles, both went on to die from AIDS.
‘I met Michael about six months after they started, and I became his partner in life and took on the role of being the spokesperson. It was dangerous to be open about your HIV status at that time in Cleveland,’ says Gil.
‘But somebody had to do the job, and we decided that if I died somebody else would have to take it on. I just never died,’ he says with some amazement in his voice.
‘Our friends were literally having to choose between buying food and buying AZT’
The core team is now Gil, Michael and Gordy, another long-term survivor. Other staff join them on a semi-regular, temporary basis.
‘Gordy is actually in the shop today working. He became very ill in the 80s and returned to Cleveland so his family could take care of him, but he never died either. He was a friend of ours and ended up working with us.’
The aim of Nightsweats & T-cells was two-fold. Firstly, to put empowering messages about AIDS and HIV on clothing to confront stigma and raise awareness around the virus.
Secondly, to provide employment for people with HIV, some of whom struggled to work and pay for medication.
‘We started recruiting people with HIV because in the early days our friends were literally having to choose between buying food and buying AZT.
‘Honey, the social worker, said “Gordy’s at home. He’s not dying of AIDS: he’s dying of boredom. He’s sick five days a week but can work two days a week. Maybe we can get him in here and draw a pay cheque?”
‘This was an opportunity for people to remain creative and productive on the days they were healthy enough to do that.’
In the early days, the business produced its own-label designs. It went on to eschew its own fashion line to concentrate on screen printing for others. It works primarily with non-profits and charitable causes.
Nightsweats is the printer of choice when organizations such as Broadway Cares want to produce T-shirts to sell at events to raise money. Last year, the production team of hit musical Hamilton turned to Nightsweats & T-cells when it wanted to produce fundraising T-shirts in memory of those killed in the Pulse massacre.
‘Nobody wanted to deal with AIDS anymore’
Gil can remember quite clearly when the company shifted from producing its own clothing with HIV slogans to high-quality screenprinting for others.
‘That was in 1996, after the new drugs came out. Nobody wanted to deal with AIDS anymore. “Why would I wear an AIDS T-shirt?” was the attitude. That was the start of a real shift in the community.’
Some might be surprised that Nightsweats & T-cells has persisted given the changes in the HIV landscape, but Gil says there is still very much a need for its services.
‘The stigma has not changed,’ he says. ‘Michael and I were together for a long time as a couple. Ten years ago we split up. We still see each other every day, but we had a relationship as partners, and then for the first time in 20 years, I had to date again. And in the gay community, on profiles, they still put that they’re “clean”. They still regard people with HIV as dirty.
‘I became infected, as far as I can tell, in 1978, from the first man I dated. I was 20 years old. We didn’t know HIV existed!’
‘Yes, it’s changed a great deal in that many of us are healthier. I’m a long-term survivor and have been on medication since 1987. I’m 58. I take probably 42 pills a day. So while I work very strenuously and hard, there are times that I’m ill, but I won’t ever lose my job or position here.’
‘Having people remain creative is the core of who we are’
He says the company still continues to employ people who struggle to find work elsewhere: young people with HIV and no qualifications or employment history, or people who have been in jail.
‘Having people remain creative is the core of who we are. People ask “What do you do,” very quickly in conversations, and if you’re on disability and living at home, they want to know why,’ says Gil.
‘We had a guy working here who had been incarcerated for decades. He’d had a drug problem and had full-blown AIDS. Who was going to hire him? We gave him a job.’
Instead of there being less reason for Nightsweats’ continued existence, Gil’s current concern is that there may be even greater purpose in the coming years.
Although the media has been concentrating on President Trump’s plans to cancel Obamacare, he says that the Ryan White CARE Act is more immediately in danger.
‘They can dismantle Obamacare and Medicaid, but it will take some time. The Ryan White Act is something that needs to be re-authorised by Congress every so often. In 2013, the Republicans said, “No, we’ll keep it in the budget but we’re not reauthorising it,” which means it could be got rid of at any time.
‘Around 200,000 of the 600,000 people on treatment in the US get their medication or insurance premiums or assistance through the Ryan White program. That’s one third of the people in the US, and no-one’s talking about it, and it’s much more vulnerable.’
‘Where are the heroes that are going to protect me?’
Gil is concerned that in contrast to the early days of AIDS, members of the LGBTI community have now largely lost the habit of protesting for their rights.
‘Here in Ohio, we had cuts in a treatment assistance program a few years back,’ says Gil. ‘They cut 300 people from the medication program in one day. And you know, we couldn’t even get 50 people in a room for a meeting. They were like, “Well, I don’t want people to know I’m positive.”
‘I wonder where our voices have gone. Where are the heroes that are going to protect me? Who’s going to lay down in the street beside me now? Are we going to have to do that again, and who will have the courage to do that today?’
Whoever it is, chances are they will be wearing a Nightsweats & T-Cells T-shirt.