In 1986, his father died of AIDS, a fact the family did not openly discuss with the world. In 1996, he found out that he himself was infected with HIV, a fact he did not then openly discuss with the world. In 2006, he’s a living, thriving example of an openly HIV-positive Black gay man, sharing his talents and his truth with the world.
Today, Duane Cramer is a successful San Francisco-based freelance photographer deeply involved with community events and organizations. He was a founding member on the board of directors of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, and a board member emeritus for the NAMES Project Foundation AIDS Memorial Quilt. He was also co-chair for the Millennium March on Washington for Equality in 2000. Through his photography and his personal life, Cramer is now a tireless activist in his community and a passionate advocate of HIV/AIDS awareness and education. He had the pleasure of escorting Vice President Al Gore and Tipper Gore through the AIDS quilt in Washington, D.C., and he donates significant time to the Black AIDS Institute, which is all to say that he’s come a long way from a man who was once silent when it came to the subject of AIDS.
“At first, my sisters and I were fighting shame,” says Cramer of his father’s death in the early days of the pandemic. “We told people he died of cancer, not AIDS.”
Joe J. Cramer, Jr., died of AIDS-related complications in 1986 in Washington, D.C. At the time, he was associate dean of the Business School at Howard University in the same city. He had previously been a professor at Penn State and at the University of Southern California. The elder Cramer was also a faculty Fellow at Arthur Andersen & Co. world headquarters in Chicago.
“I also had a cousin die of AIDS,” says the younger Cramer, “and I began thinking: if this virus was affecting my family, it’s affecting other African American families, it’s ravaging Black people all over the world, and we needed to help save lives, especially the young.”
Thus began the transformation from silence to activist.
In 1998 his employer at that time, Xerox Corporation, awarded Cramer a one-year social service leave to dedicate himself to the AIDS Memorial Project’s National School Quilt Program. His focus was on taking the quilt to schools with high populations of African Americans and Latinos to educate students on HIV/AIDS and prevention. Cramer traveled with sections of the quilt to cities large and small (like Loachapoka, Alabama), where he spoke to elementary and high school students about the disease. Often he took his father’s 12×12 quilt panel (AIDS Quilt Block number 4680) and spoke about his father’s death as well as his own personal experiences living with HIV.
Cramer also conducted and facilitated extensive outreach to NAMES project chapters in communities of color and collaborated with the AIDS service organization, The Balm in Gilead, to utilize the quilt in the African American church. Currently he volunteers a significant amount of time and resources to produce images for the Black AIDS Institute’s “I’m Committed” and “Got AIDS?” public service announcement campaigns. A few notables already captured by Cramer’s lens for the PSAs include NAACP Chair Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson, Sr., Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Iyanla Vansant, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and actress and AIDS activist Sheryl Lee Ralph.
But it was speaking publicly about AIDS that first compelled Cramer to eventually be honest about his own HIV status.
“By my being open, people have told me they’ve made decisions to come out to their family as living with AIDS,” says Cramer, who’s proud to energize a whole new generation of activists. “An activist doesn’t have to talk in front of thousands. An activist can be one person talking about AIDS, writing a check, volunteering for an AIDS service organization. That’s important work that affects people’s lives.”
Born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1962, Cramer earned a degree in Finance and Marketing from the University of Southern California in 1984. His career with Xerox Corporation lasted for 18 years before ending in 2003. During his years with the company, he held numerous sales and management positions within the organization.
Cramer’s photography is often compared to the late Herb Ritts for his elegant black and white photographs and the embodiment of Gordon Parks for his photo-journalism work. Profiles on Cramer and his work have been published in Arise Magazine, Blue (Australia), Männer Aktuell (Germany), Mate (Europe), Venus Magazine, Out, the Advocate, the Bay Area Reporter, the Spectrum, the Bay Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. In addition, he has appeared on ABC World News Now, C-SPAN, MSNBC and VH-1.
As part of his efforts in the struggle, Cramr has created the photography for several high profile (and often controversial) HIV/AIDS prevention print campaigns, including “HIV (Not Fabulous),” “HIV is a Gay Disease” and “HIV Disclosure.”
“Black people can become extinct if we don’t take big, dramatic steps now,” says Cramer. “We need to mobilize and march on Washington around AIDS. We need to march on every city in the country. We need to get tested and take steps to protect our families.”
Strong words from a man who was once in denial. Now, Duane Cramer vows to continue doing the necessary work through his art and his activism.
“Fighting HIV/AIDS is part of my mission in life. AIDS is a Black disease and I am the face of AIDS. I’m just being myself; this is what I’m supposed to do. I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to end AIDS in Black America. My mantra: be open, talk about it with everyone, turn something that’s gonna end your life into something that’s gonna start your life.”