Paul Kawata’s Fashion

This week we were to gather for the 2021 United States Conference on HIV/AIDS. While it was right to pivot to a virtual meeting, I’m still disappointed that we don’t get to see each other. Back in May, NMAC was very confident that we could meet in the fall, but the Delta variant kicked our ass. Hopefully we can meet in the Spring of 2022 (look for an announcement).

It would seem disingenuous to not state the obvious: with no in-person USCHA there’s no Paul Kawata fashion, no gaudy over the top jackets that can be spotted across the room. In the early days, there was a method to my madness. I used fashion to stand out from the crowd. DC has a very strict dress code of blue or grey suits. Everyone looks the same and very heterosexual. My clothes screamed “gay” and, back in the ‘80s, that was radical.

Because of my work in the movement, I was lucky to sit at the feet of one of the last great social doyennes of New York, Mrs. Judith Peabody. Judy committed her life to taking care of her friends who were dying of AIDS. With her Peabody pedigree and old family money, she forced open the doors of “social” New York. Her world did not want to talk about HIV. Judy’s actions raised a lot of concerns because “women of a certain social standing” did not hang with people like me. We bonded over too many friends who died too soon.

Judy showed me how fashion was more than pretty clothes. Her outfits sent messages of love and acceptance. She didn’t just wear Bill Blass to the Met Ball, she also wore Bill to Harlem where she volunteered at Harlem House. She wore Bill to her HIV support group for care givers at GMHC. Her fashion made people smile. The designer clothes, jewelry, and big hair brought joy and beauty everywhere she went and to everyone she touched. Judy once told me, “I am who I am wherever I am. I dress this way to go to the ballet and to Harlem.” Judy was my Auntie Mama. She introduced me to a world that was larger than I could have imaged. My over-the-top jackets are an homage to Mrs. Peabody.

Hopefully, this story made you smile. There really was a time when I was fun. I know it seems impossible now, but I swear to you, I used to be fun! I saw myself as an Asian Joan Crawford. If you don’t know who she is, look it up and get out of my face. Can you tell I’ve been watching and re-watching RuPaul’s Drag Race?

Missing people is hard. When I say I’m a little gutted, I mean it. I worry that COVID makes our work impossible. Okay, I said it. We are falling behind and our efforts to end HIV have stalled. It’s not our fault. Who could have foreseen COVID? While I understand the need to prioritize, I worry that HIV, STDs, and Hepatitis are going unchecked. It’s time to figure out how to live with COVID while ending multiple epidemics.

The Biden/Harris Plan to End the HIV/AIDS epidemic will be released around World AIDS Day. While NMAC has not seen the plan, our hope is that it will lead with race. I’m looking for a plan/challenge that is bigger than I am, something that will take teams of experts and community working together to solve, to be excited about the future and our work to end HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Back in the day, it was scandalous when I wore a purple jacket and no tie to meet President Obama. In a sea of uniformity, I stood out like the flower I am. Due to COVID I’ve not been shopping in a long time. In fact, I’m living in sweatpants. I don’t think I will ever wear slacks again, let alone over the top jackets. Recently I purchased my first pair of comfortable shoes that are not cute. They look like grandpa shoes, but I guess I am getting to that age. Thanks to the filters, I look young and refreshed on my zoom calls. The reality is far less attractive. Please be kind the next time you see me.

While not in-person, I look forward to seeing everyone virtually at the 2021 United States Conference on HIV/AIDS. There is still time to register. What else do you have to do? This year’s meeting directly follows the release of new EHE plans. It will be an important time to restart our efforts to end the epidemics of HIV, STD, and Hepatitis and to fight like hell for the living while never forgetting the shoulders we stand on.

Yours in the Struggle,










Paul Kawata
*This picture of me and Judy was taken at a dinner that we hosted at the Library of Congress. The HIV community came together to celebrate the election of President Bill Clinton. Larry Kramer would protest at the dinner, but that story is saved for later.