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AIDS: Attorney John Hammell: He fought the good fight
by Erica Demarest, Windy City Times

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By the time he was 37 years old, John Hammell had accomplished more than most people do in a much longer lifetime.

The openly gay attorney and LGBT activist won numerous landmark civil rights cases, led the American Civil Liberties Union ( ACLU ) of Illinois's AIDS and Civil Liberties Project, and served in leadership roles at the Howard Brown Health Center and AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) .

"He was a trailblazer," ACLU Legal Director Harvey Grossman said. " [ John ] was very high-profile. There were a lot of lawyers in the closet in those days, and he was a very powerful role model for people."

Born in 1957, Hammell grew up in Detroit in a devout Catholic family. One of six children, Hammell was an active Boy Scout who rose to the rank of Eagle Scout. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in communication studies from Northwestern University, and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1982.

In the mid-1980s, Hammell worked for Chicago's Business and Professional People for the Public Interest ( BPI ) , where he litigated several major racial discrimination cases.

ACLU of Illinois Executive Director Colleen Connell recalled noticing Hammell as one of BPI's "bright young stars."

"Around that same time, in the early 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was raging," Connell said. "The ACLU of Illinois office was very active both legislatively and legally … . Our office was really in some ways ground central in Illinois for providing a legal response to the mistreatment of people on the basis of real or perceived HIV status."

By 1988, the ACLU of Illinois decided to bring on an additional lawyer to work exclusively on AIDS cases. Hammell was a natural choice; he became the first director of the ACLU's AIDS and Civil Liberties Project.

"He was a wonderful colleague and a really smart lawyer," Connell said. "John was the ultimate coalition builder. … He saw the connectivity of really so many of the issues that the ACLU worked on."

Hammell argued a number of precedent-setting cases including one that forced the Chicago Transit Authority to post AIDS-prevention ads on buses and trains; one that extended federal housing protection to HIV-infected patients; and one that declared a state law compelling HIV testing unconstitutional.

" [ Hammell ] picked up on a new area, which was discrimination against persons with HIV in seeking healthcare treatment," Grossman said. "There were doctors and dentists who would not treat [ HIV-positive people ] ."

Dentists were particularly hesitant to treat people with HIV, Grossman said, since bleeding is common in many dental procedures. The Centers for Disease Control ( CDC ) issued safety standards, but many medical professionals ignored them.

"It took a very, very long time for science to catch up with the individual psyches of Americans," Grossman said. "People with HIV were really discriminated against and stigmatized, and really spoken of in the foulest terms. … It was tough times for LGBT people. It was tough times for HIV-infected people, and [ Hammell ] himself was ill."

Hammell was HIV-positive. Though he was open about his diagnosis, he never focused on it.

"It wasn't how John defined himself, and it wasn't how he wanted to be defined," Connell said. Instead, he threw himself into his work. Colleagues described Hammell as smart, well spoken, and strategic.

Despite the serious nature of ACLU work, Hammell often made light of everyday situations.

"John was fun," Grossman said with a smile. "He had a very dry sense of humor. He was basically funny all the time."

Hammell was known for witty quips and impromptu songs, Connell said. She recounted an instance when Hammell enlisted ACLU co-workers to help her prepare for an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court appearance.

"It's the biggest moment in a lawyer's life," Connell said. "I come into work, and there on my office door frame is a poster with a contest that says 'Dress Colleen for her Supreme Court argument.'"

Hammell had pasted fashion cutouts from magazines on a large poster board. Outfits included a professional black suit, a chic red ensemble, Frederick's of Hollywood lingerie, and a baseball uniform ( "Hit a home run!" ) ; colleagues voted on their favorite.

"It was witty; it was clever," Connell said. "It's just completely laugh-out-loud funny because you can only wear the most lawyerly buttoned-down business suit in front of the Supreme Court."

The moment was made even funnier, Grossman said, by the fact that Hammell cared very little for fashion. He frequently made anti-fashion statements by wearing off-trend pieces such as his father's skinny ties, which were not in style at the time.

"He had a certain delight walking around with, what were in those days, very unusual ties," Grossman said. "Some of them, I have to say, were just ugly."

As AIDS law became more established in the early 1990s, Hammell began to focus his attention on LGBT-related legislation. He was appointed director of the ACLU of Illinois' Gay and Lesbian Rights Project.

"John was a leader in the LGBT community, particularly in the LGBT legal community," Connell said. "He brought the ACLU to the LGBT community, and vice versa, because he thought it was absolutely essential that civil rights organizations see LGBT rights as a fundamental right just like the First Amendment."

Nationally, Hammell served as the Illinois representative in Campaign for Military Service, which sought to end the ban on gays in the military. He co-founded the National Gay and Lesbian Rights Roundtable, which met to develop gay rights and HIV-related legal strategies.

Local victories included a case that bolstered same-sex couples' right to adopt children, and a lawsuit involving a would-be Boy Scouts Scoutmaster ( Keith Richardson ) who was denied employment because he was gay.

" [ Hammell ] was one of the first gay lawyers to dedicate himself to a full-time position of working to prevent discrimination against LGBT folks," Grossman said.

Hammell soon became an unofficial legal advisor to members of Chicago's LGBT community.

"The HIV and LGBT work is some of the most difficult work that we as civil liberties lawyers can do," Grossman said, "because in both of those instances, either the government is openly defending its discriminatory conduct, or society as a whole is trying to justify it."

Results were mixed, and losses often hit Hammell hard.

"John always knew he was right, so he always had that solace," Grossman said. "John wasn't a lawyer for money, who, at the end of the day, felt he had accomplished something because he could now go out and buy a BMW. What John had was living a life in principle, adhering to those principles, having the satisfaction of knowing that he was right, and knowing that what he was doing was making the world a better place every day."

A devout Catholic, Hammell turned to his faith during tough times.

" [ He had this ] quiet, polite insistence that members of the LGBT community be included in the broader religious community," Connell said. "The fact that John met resistance from the Catholic hierarchy in no way lessened his faith."

According to his biography for his Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame induction, "From 1985 to 1988, [ Hammell ] served on the Howard Brown Health Center board and co-chaired its Legal Assistance Program. He was on the board of the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago from 1988 to 1990, a member of the Service Providers Council and the Advocacy Committee of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago from 1988 to 1994, and Midwest regional representative to the National Gay and Lesbian Legal Rights Roundtable from 1988 to 1994. He received the 1993 Joseph Alongi Award from IMPACT, the Illinois gay and lesbian political action committee. He received other awards in 1992 from the Public Interest Law Initiative and in 1991 from the Illinois Human Rights Foundation and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force."

Hammell died of AIDS-related complications on Feb. 3, 1995, at the age of 37, leaving behind his partner John U. Baker. Though Hammell was very ill during the last few months of his life, he never resigned from the ACLU.

"He might have been too sick to come in and do [ his cases ] ," Grossman said, "but he was actively consulted and continued to have input."

Hammell's refusal to quit was telling.

"He was absolutely amazing in the last couple years of his life," Connell said. "I think that just shows his unbelievable dedication."

This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.

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