Hold Tight Gently

Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS

The Lambda Literary Award–winning biography of two men fighting for their lives in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, from the celebrated historian

“A meticulously researched, nuanced, empathic and insightful portrait of two important artistic and political figures.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Winner, 2015 Lambda Literary Award for LGBT nonfiction
Honor Book, 2015 Stonewall Book Awards
Finalist, Publishing Triangle's 2015 Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction

In December 1995, the U.S. Food and Drug administration approved the release of protease inhibitors, the first effective treatment for AIDS. For countless people, the drug offered a reprieve from what had been a death sentence; for others, it was too late. In the United States alone, more than 318,000 people had already died from AIDS-related complications—among them the singer Michael Callen and the poet Essex Hemphill.

“Relevant and heartbreaking” (Bay Area Reporter), “incisive, passionate, and poetic” (New York Journal of Books), and “powerful” (Kirkus Reviews), Hold Tight Gently is Martin Duberman’s poignant memorial to two of the great unsung heroes of the early years of the epidemic. Callen, the author of How to have Sex in an Epidemic, was a leading figure in the fight against AIDS in the face of willful denial under the Reagan administration. Hemphill, a passionate activist and the author of the celebrated Ceremonies, was a critically acclaimed, openly gay African American poet of searing intensity and introspection.

A profound exploration of the intersection of race, sexuality, class, and identity, Hold Tight Gently captures both a generation struggling to cope with the deadly disease and the extraordinary refusal of two men to give in to despair.


“A dynamic people’s history of AIDS that must be read, debated, critiqued, and applauded. Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and other visionaries are revealed as complex individuals who made change but did not benefit from it. Throughout, Duberman confronts the racism at the core of the AIDS movement that became the global crisis of access to treatment. A bold work for a community that wants to understand itself.”
—Sarah Schulman, author of Israel/Palestine and the Queer International
“We are always in danger of forgetting the past, and the huge advances we have made against HIV/AIDS often obscure the pain and the politics of the early years of the epidemic. In Hold Tight Gently, Martin Duberman has brilliantly re-created this tumultuous era. Tracing these two lives through poetry and activism, Duberman captures the pain, despair, panic, heroism, and moral bravery that defined the generation of women and men who first faced this modern plague. Daringly imagined and beautifully written, Hold Tight Gently is a major work of modern history that chills us to the bone even as it moves us to tears.”
—Michael Bronski, Professor of Practice in Activism and Media Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Harvard University
“Through his probing and insightful chronicle of the lives of two very different gay men who were early voices in the fight against AIDS, Martin Duberman has again brought light to shine in a personal way on the role of progressives in LGBT struggles and the importance of addressing how race, class, and gender impact this epidemic and who survives it. Sadly, these perspectives are still urgently needed in today’s world, where those facing the devastation of AIDS are often invisible to mainstream politics. A poignant and politically potent tribute to those who have died from AIDS and who fought to make a difference even as their lives were cut short.”
—Charlotte Bunch, Distinguished Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University
“Martin Duberman’s profoundly moving reconsideration of Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill is much needed now, as AIDS continues to ravage so much of our world. This marvelous book, filled with surprising connections, will be read by activists everywhere and empower the future.”
—Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt
“Insightful. . . . A vivid, complex snapshot.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“An important and, unfortunately, still timely book.”
“Incisive, passionate, and poetic.”
New York Journal of Books
“Martin Duberman’s work has been a continuing rescue mission to make sure that vital, but forgotten, stories from the past remain alive in our memory. With Hold Tight Gently, he has done it again and magnificently so. Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill come back to life in these pages. Funny and moving, enlightening and thoughtful, inspiring and enraging, this dual biography reveals the heartbreaking losses caused by the epidemic as well as the many ways people fought back. It can teach those who weren’t there what that first decade of AIDS was like and remind those of us who were how intense those years were. And all this through the life stories of two compelling individuals.”
—John D’Emilio, professor of gender and women’s studies and history, University of Illinois at Chicago
“Seldom has a biographer been able to honor the doomed courage of his subjects with such redeeming insightfulness. Martin Duberman’s Hold Tight Gently is an unflinching masterpiece.”
—David Levering Lewis, university professor, emeritus, New York University, and Pulitzer Prize winner for biography
Hold Tight Gently is a deeply moving work of largely hidden history. Martin Duberman brilliantly chronicles not only grassroots AIDS organizing in the early days of the epidemic but also the vibrant black lesbian and gay political and cultural movement that flowered during the same period. Through the lives of two remarkable men, Hold Tight Gently illuminates how race and class are inextricably linked to the struggle for sexual freedom and that against all odds people can fight for justice every day. A wonderful and important book.”
—Barbara Smith, author of The Truth That Never Hurts and co-founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press
Hold Tight Gently is an absorbing read. It’s a necessary introduction to the uninitiated and a profound challenge to the collective amnesia concerning the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, one that shimmers with insights and lessons about race, sexuality, and class. Duberman’s take on these seminal figures illuminates their singular and collective triumphs and struggles and how the pandemic profoundly impacted political and social organizing by gays in the ’80s and ’90s. The biographer renders Hemphill and Callen with respect and grace—just the way they should be.”
—Steven G. Fullwood, co-editor of Black Gay Genius
“Duberman’s history, with its battlefield metaphors, is as relevant and heartbreaking today as it was thirty years ago.”
Bay Area Reporter
“A powerful book that displays both the malice and the nobility of our species.”
Kirkus Reviews
“A meticulously researched, nuanced, empathic and insightful portrait of two important artistic and political figures who came to prominence in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide

News and Reviews

The Bay Area Reporter

The Bay Area Reporter calls Hold Tight Gently "relevant and heartbreaking"

A&U Magazine

A&U Magazine interviews Martin Duberman and takes a closer look at Hold Tight Gently

Lambda Literary1

Lambda Literary reviews Hold Tight Gently


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Goodreads Reviews