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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,088

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This is the grave of Jim Graham.

Born in 1945 in Wishaw, Scotland (I know the gravestone says 1944 but everywhere else it says 1945 so I don’t know), Graham grew up in Michigan after his parents immigrated to the U.S. Postwar Britain was no fun and his father got a job in the automobile industry. He went to Michigan State University for his undergraduate work, becoming student body president one year, and then got a law degree from the University of Michigan and then a MML from Georgetown. He became a clerk for Earl Warren and this was a rising star in the legal field. At this point, he was a Goldwater Republican. His parents were hardcore conservatives and when you raise your children to be radicals, they tend to become radicals. So he was jazzed by Goldwater’s run and worked hard for the extremist in 1964.

Graham however had a secret. He was gay. In the 1960s and 70s, this was death to any kind of political career. He was in the closet for awhile and he thrived, later working for Abraham Ribicoff as a staff attorney for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Still, there was room for a gay lawyer and he managed to continue to have a good career after coming out, despite the very real discrimination out there. He practiced in a number of fields and also taught a bit on the side at Georgetown and George Washington. He was in the closet for awhile of course and was married for a time to a woman. All of this was an extremely common path. Not surprisingly, he also drank heavily in these years and it was after he came out that he also was able to get treatment for the alcoholism. He also abandoned his right-wing politics and joined the Democratic Party. He did have an interesting story as well about this. He later claimed that his move away from the Republicans came in a strange way. He was part of a group of national student leaders that got to meet with Dean Rusk in 1967. Rusk was LBJ’s Secretary of State. Graham asked about the people dying in Vietnam and Rusk just brushed him off with complete indifference. This led Graham to oppose the Vietnam War and even though this came against a Democratic administration, his disgust about the war led him to rethink his entire politics.

Graham became highly involved in providing social and legal services for the Washington gay community. Many of these people were receiving no support from their families and were often quite poor and running away from home to anyone who would accept them. In 1979, he joined the board of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which is a community health center focusing on treating gay patients. It had just been founded the year before and like lots of these community initiatives, was hanging on by a thread, with the lack of money a real problem. Graham took over fixing those problems, was good at it, and in 1982 became its head.

At the same time Graham headed up this pioneering gay health clinic, the AIDS epidemic was spreading like wildfire through the gay community. Many doctors did not even want to treat these patients, the Reagan administration was openly cheering for AIDS to wipe out the gays, and men were just dying alone in great pain. It was so terrible. Graham helped fill that void of care. The Whitman-Walker Clinic became one of the nation’s most important AIDS treatment centers through the 80s and the 90s. He personally took over, in 1984, legal counsel for the patients there if they wanted it. As he noted, they were just being completely ignored by the legal establishment at a moment when they needed to get their end of life business in order, not to mention other legal issues they may have around equal rights. One thing Graham was very good at was making connections with allies, especially in Hollywood. In fact, the Whitman-Walker Clinic has one facility named after Elizabeth Taylor, because Graham convinced her to give a large donation to help them expand AIDS services to D.C. residents. It’s really impossible to overestimate how critical Graham’s work was in this era. He’s one of the unsung heroes of the gay rights movement in the very dark and horrifying days of the 1980s.

In 1998, Graham decided to take his advocacy into elected politics and ran for a seat on the Washington Council, the city government. He won that seat and then was reelected four times before losing his seat in a 2014 primary. He became the second openly gay person elected to the Washington Council. He was a fine councilman by and large but by the end there were some scandals and accusations. For one, he was accused of being centrally involved in the gentrification in Black neighborhoods such as Shaw and U Street that were driving Black businesses out. Of course that did happen and the former Chocolate City increasingly went vanilla as prices rose. The extent to which one single person, even a city councilman, really can make a difference in that process, I do not know. Hard to blame it all on him though. But his chief of staff also got busted taking bribes, which is not good. What ties both of these things together is that we know absolutely that Graham was deeply involved in the city’s many real estate projects and got caught using political influence for and against various contractors. Well, none of this really cuts too far against his overall very positive legacy, but it must be noted. Also, he was noted for launching investigations into violations of tenant rights in his district, which was a very common plague, especially when these neighborhoods were still pretty run down. So he was at least an effective advocate for his constituents.

Unfortunately, Graham was a heavy smoker. It killed him. He died in 2017 of COPD combined with a bad reaction to antibiotics. He was 71 years old.

Jim Graham is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other figures in the gay rights movement, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. This is harder than it would seem because a) a lot of these people are still alive and b) many of those who are not were cremated, especially in the era of AIDS when their families often abandoned them to their deaths. However, some graves do exist. Randy Shilts is in Guerneville, California and Richard Isay is in Brooklyn. I will also again note that I am heading South in a few days to keep this series going and will be visiting a lot of musicians, civil rights legends, and terrible white people. So help keep this craziness going! Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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