I first came across Kathy Ottersten’s name while researching the history of harm reduction, a framework developed in the 1980s that advocated for safer drug use as opposed to criminalization or abstinence-only models. At the time, one in two people in New York City who used intravenous drugs was HIV-positive. New York state law expedited contagion by making the unauthorized possession or distribution of syringes illegal, forcing people to reuse and share supplies. In response, ACT UP—a queer-led, grassroots group organizing to end the AIDS crisis—arranged a coordinated action where Ottersten and nine other activists were arrested for illegally possessing sterile syringes. The arrests were meant to spur a trial that might legalize needle exchange in New York. Ottersten and their peers risked jail time, but eventually won their case when a judge ruled that the activists couldn’t be punished because they were directly saving lives.
After the verdict, members of the ACT UP needle exchange committee founded the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center (LESHRC). Since its founding, the center has expanded, continuing its needle exchange, and also offering broader support, including overdose prevention programs and limited medical services. In my four years volunteering at the LESHRC, I learned about the activists who risked imprisonment to make the center possible. In 2021 Ottersten reached out to me after I published an article on New York’s history of needle exchange. They’ve been an important mentor to me ever since.
Ottersten’s activism extends far beyond a single trial. In the ’80s, they were active in both ACT UP (where they were the only out trans person) as well as the pacifist Catholic movement Pax Christi. In that time, they courted arrest, coordinated a soup kitchen, and organized peer groups for trans youth. In 2018, Ottersten ran for Fairbanks City Council, becoming the second openly intersex person elected to public office in the United States, and the first ever in the state of Alaska. I talked to Ottersten about transphobia within ACT UP, the importance of visibility, and how risk-taking can be a form of care.
Hannah Gold: You got involved with both Pax Christi and ACT UP around the same time. How did that happen?
Kathy Ottersten: I joined Pax Christi when I started at Fordham University in 1985, and very quickly I was a coordinator for a soup kitchen in the South Bronx. It was a wonderful introduction to the idea that running a soup kitchen is just as much direct action as protesting in the streets or handcuffing yourself to a building. And I did all of those things within my first year at Fordham. In the spring of ’86, I found myself handcuffed to the front of a building with [anti-war activist and Jesuit priest] Daniel Berrigan right next to me. That was my first arrest.
Because I was a peace and justice activist, and out in New York, I was aware of ACT UP. The first thing I did in ACT UP was join the media committee. In 1985, a Presbyterian minister who worked with the [South African anti-apartheid party] African National Congress told me that “the best thing you can learn to do is to be able to speak your own words and not somebody else’s.” That stuck with me. I used to refer to myself as a “lesbian transsexual” because we didn’t have better words. At the time, doctors declared that trans women were heterosexual, and I was not. Joining the media committee was my way of learning to effectively communicate, to speak what I knew to be true.
HG: You once said to me that you think visibility is a cornerstone of activism. What did this mean to you as a trans person in ACT UP?
KO: When I came out as trans, I didn’t know any other trans people. If you happened to bump into another trans person in a room and you didn’t both arrive there on purpose . . . well, you should have bought a lottery ticket instead. According to medical knowledge at the time, we just did not exist.
So when I went to my first ACT UP meeting, which was the same month I started hormones, I wanted to make sure I was seen. I would wear tight, sleeveless t-shirts, relatively revealing jeans or daisy dukes, and sneakers. The outfit was androgynous, but on me it looked outrageous because I was growing my breasts in at the time. I transitioned on the floor of ACT UP, and I cannot tell you how many times people came up to me over the course of the first couple years and said, “You’re just a self-hating faggot. You can’t accept being a gay man so you’d rather cut yourself apart.” I chose to stimulate that discussion as often as I could. I wanted to be asked questions, that was part of my activism. By transitioning in that space, I was also trying to show that trans people are whole people the entire way through the process, and that I wasn’t ashamed of, or defined by, my transition.