Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash

An Open Letter to the creators of POSE: Where is the acupuncture?

The Honorable Elizabeth Ropp


A popular show set in New York during the height of the AIDS epidemic should include acupuncture in order to reflect the time.

Dear POSE creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Steven Canals,

I have an unusual request, I know. Would you consider writing at least one scene that includes acupuncture. POSE is an important retelling of history. It gives much needed representation to trans people of color who were marginalized by society and struggling to make a life during the AIDS epidemic in New York. Please do not miss the opportunity to give a nod to marginalized areas of healthcare. Acupuncture, despite growing popularity, is still a marginalized medicine.

“Acupuncture,” writes Dr. Elizabeth Somers of the Boston Medical Center, “was one of a few approaches that could offer symptom relief and palliative care [for AIDS patients.]” Acupuncture was there before AZT and monotherapy, and is still used to manage the side effects of AIDS medications.

Acupuncture isn’t just for rich white ladies like Charlotte York from Sex in the City. Several organizations that served people living with HIV and AIDS in New York in the 1980s and 1990s offered acupuncture, including The Lincoln Detox, The Village Centers for Care, and Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC).

You may be asking why you should listen to a middle aged white lady in New Hampshire. Please let me explain. I saw acupuncture for the first time in 1994 on MTV’s The Real World, San Francisco. I was seventeen years old. Cast member and AIDS activist, Pedro Zamora, received acupuncture in a public health clinic. He passed away that same year. Like many American teenagers, I felt like I lost a friend.

Pedro Zamora’s panel on the AIDS Quilt Project Photo by Ted Eytan on Flckr

Inspired by Zamora, I participated in New York City AIDS Walks and I volunteered at the Special Events office of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). A decade later I enrolled in acupuncture school. Since then, I’ve trained with acupuncturists who served LGBTQ communities during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Acupuncture has a place in public health. It’s not just a luxury treatment for affluent people with great health insurance.

My former teacher, acupuncturist Susan Paul, describes the early days of her private practice in the mid-80s and 90s on the Michael Max’s Qilogical podcast. “At one time, I had 600 patients. Most of whom were gay men.” She treated patients out of her New York apartment and had an office less than two blocks from GMHC. Paul supplemented the acupuncture with Chinese Herbal formulas. The herbs reduced the number of antibiotics and other medications her patients had to take. “My patients never got pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. And I kept them out of the hospital.”

Paul learned about acupuncture from New York psychiatrist Dr. Mike Smith. Smith ran The Lincoln Detox, the first acupuncture-based outpatient chemical dependency program in the county. Black and Puerto Rican Revolutionaries brought acupuncture to Lincoln Detox. Smith took over the program in 1974 and ran it until it closed in 2011. He founded the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) in 1985. NADA trains and promotes a standardized 5-point ear acupuncture treatment for substance use disorder and behavioral health.

The GMHC produced a training video on the NADA 5-point acupuncture treatment featuring Dr. Mike Smith.

Points to Change on YouTube

My colleague and friend, acupuncturist and NADA trainer Laura Cooley, lived in Austin, Texas at the height of the AIDS epidemic. She apprenticed under acupuncturist Brian McKenna. Part of her training was volunteering at Austin’s HIV Wellness Center. By the time Cooley was a licensed acupuncturist, the HIV Wellness Center paid for acupuncture treatments with grant funding.

“Acupuncture saved my life,” says Martin Kosarik. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and has been living with AIDS for 33 years. Kosarik was a patient at the HIV Wellness Center when he lived in Austin. He continued to get acupuncture at GMHC in New York. The acupuncture gave him relief from chronic diarrhea and neuropathy. He has a lot of nostalgia for the free clinic offered by the HIV Wellness Center. “Those are some of the loveliest memories I have and those were some very dark days. People died every week.”

Over fifteen years, Cooley made several trips to the Bronx to train under Dr. Mike Smith. She insists that Lincoln Detox was the first clinic in the country to provide acupuncture services to patients living with HIV and AIDS. “Mike downplayed the full-body acupuncture offered at Lincoln. But it was there,” says Cooley. “His main goal was to promote NADA.”

There is overlap in organizations that provide services for people living with HIV and AIDS and services for people who misuse substances. The Harm Reduction Educators of Harlem have a holistic program that offers acupuncture. According to Vice News*, the program was part of a clean needle exchange started by ACT UP and other activists. Now, according to Kosarik, the GMHC primarily serves IV drug users.

Ed Butler was the director of the AIDS Care Program for the Village Centers for Care located in the West Village in the early 1980s. Their daycare, home care, and nursing care services included acupuncture. According to Butler, the daycare program extended its services to substance misusers. Butler served five terms in the New Hampshire Legislature. In 2017, he co-sponsored an Act Relative to Acupuncture Detoxification Specialists to make NADA treatments more accessible in the wake of the opioid and mental health epidemic.

Lincoln Detox was a mecca for accessible acupuncture and training in the South Bronx. Quan Yin Healing Arts Center was a mecca in San Francisco’s Mission District. Started in 1984, Quan Yin offered workshops and conferences specific to the treatment of AIDS, HIV, and Hepatitis. Today, they still offer acupuncture to anyone who wants it. The AIDS Care Project, also known as Pathways, in Boston was founded in 1988. Pathways provided over 80,000 acupuncture treatments before it closed in 2014.

As a POSE fan, I’ve read many articles about the icons who make the ball scenes what they are. An acupuncture scene needs an icon, too: Jewel Thais Williams. Jewel is the only acupuncturist I know with a square named after her. In the 1970s, same-sex dancing was against the law. She opened The Catch One nightclub, the first inclusive LGBTQ safe space in Los Angeles. In the 1980s, HIV and AIDS hit her community. She co-founded organizations, like the Minority AIDS Project, to provide services. In the late 1990s, she studied acupuncture and volunteered her skills at the AIDS Prevention Office. For the last two decades, Jewel ran the Village Health Foundation with a mission to never turn anyone away.

You already know that your award-winning show is perfect at telling untold stories. Please don’t leave out acupuncture.

*The full-length documentary, Dope is Death, by Mia Donovan is now on YouTube.



The Honorable Elizabeth Ropp

Articles about acupuncture and politics mixed in with some memoir and satire