Coyle was a champion for the city’s poor
Forty-one years ago this month, the first in a succession of five young gay men walked into a Los Angeles hospital, where he was diagnosed with an unusual lung infection known as pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, or PCP. In June of 1981, medical researchers in California authored a report alerting the public to a strange outbreak of a mysterious malady that would later become known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.
While the novel coronavirus has roiled the American body politic for the past 18 months, its impact pales in comparison to AIDS, a scourge which has, over the course of 40 years, remapped the known world. It has sparked an international movement, redefined the way we view marriage and family, derailed South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, and claimed the lives of more than 32 million people worldwide.
If it is true, however, that a million deaths are a statistic while one is a tragedy, then AIDS’ toll on our consciousness and hearts can be summed up by the death 30 years ago of a charismatic, progressive Minneapolis city councilman named Brian Coyle.
Coyle was the first openly gay city council member in Minneapolis, an advocate for affordable housing and civil rights legislation. Many were unaware at the time that Coyle had contracted HIV in the mid 1980s and long before this writer had been assigned the city hall beat writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He had begun working covertly with a local magazine reporter on a story about his struggle with the virus that causes AIDS.
Coyle was an intellectual, a conservative fat kid turned liberal gadfly, a sharp-dresser and bon vivant. After unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate and Minneapolis mayor, he was elected to the Minneapolis City Council in 1983. In his three terms in office, he honed in on raising the standard of living for the city’s poor while fighting homophobia by organizing local Pride festivals and community campaigns.
He would invite me into his office and explain the city’s Sixth Ward to me, and the world, and when he laughed it was an experience in itself, somewhere between a howl and a cackle. Its sheer joy and freedom reminded me of my father’s baritone laughter.
In the months leading up to his death, some suspected he was sick, not because he looked ill or had been unusually absent from work, but because his behavior became slightly more erratic. On one occasion he berated a reporter in front of his staff for a story that he believed reflected the kind of knee-jerk liberalism that lost liberals elections.
Both in tone and content, it was most un-Brian-like. Nothing was said in response, but when he retreated back into his office, his secretary and the reporter exchanged worried, knowing looks.
Days before the magazine story was scheduled to appear in print, rumors began to circulate that Coyle was indeed ill, and he summoned me into his office one morning. The story was coming out because he knew he had not much longer to live, but he was concerned that it might make me—the Star Tribune’s young, Black city hall reporter—look bad if I got beat on the story revealing his illness.
So in one of the greatest acts of kindness ever shown to me, he gave me the whole story, had me accompany him to the Red Door clinic, talk to his doctor, sit next to him while he took breathing treatments to keep pneumonia at bay. After taking an exhalation from the plastic tube affixed to his face, he told an off-color joke. While telling it he laughed that demonic, gorgeous laugh of his, so loud and defiant and full of the Blues that I couldn’t help but join him.
We laughed like idiots as if the tube contained laughing gas that had cast a spell on the entire room. The doctor opened the door, shot us a damning look, then smiled and left.
My story on Brian’s illness was actually published before the magazine article by a day or two, and because Brian had given me so much information and access, it was at least as good. When he died a few months later, his sister called and left a message on my answering machine, saying that Brian had left her strict instructions to include me on the list of phone calls to be made.
I often think of Brian, but he’s been on my mind a lot in recent days as I contemplated the 40th anniversary of this dreaded disease that has cost the world so much in blood and treasure. Two years after his death, activists opened the Brian Coyle Neighborhood Center in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood to serve the “Ellis Island of the Midwest.”
The Center quickly became one the city’s busiest social service centers, its caseload disproportionately populated with immigrants from East Africa, Southeast Asia, Mexico and Central America and more native local African Americans.
Former state representative Karen Clark, who worked frequently with Coyle, said of him, “Everything he did in his life revolved somehow around economic justice.”
Jon Jeter is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, who has also served stints at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Washington Post, among others.