While being openly gay throughout the Seventies was indeed a manifestation of activism, it was the AIDS crisis that fueled Kearns’ political instincts. While attaching himself as an actor and director to numerous projects “that mattered,” he says, it was the degree of rage that resulted in his articulate responses concerning the bigger political issues—specifically questions concerning AIDS in Hollywood—that foreshadowed a dramatic turning point. When Rock Hudson died, Kearns was interviewed for a number of news outlets, including Nightline. He did not hold back.
When Brad Davis, another accomplished Hollywood actor, died of AIDS six years later, Kearns appeared on NBC’s A Closer Look and chose to come out as HIV-positive, activating the controversy, casting a light on Hollywood’s insidious homophobia and AIDSphobia. That appearance was outdone the following night by the lead story on Entertainment Tonight which forever merged Kearns’ reputation as the first openly gay, publicly HIV-positive actor in Hollywood with his newfound spokesperson identity as someone determined to breakthrough the barriers that have perpetuated homophobia at all levels within of the entertainment industry for decades.
Activism equals leadership which Kearns has proven throughout his career, beginning with the creation of two organizations in the early Eighties that he formed with his artistic partner, James Carroll Pickett: Artists Confronting AIDS (which Kearns served as Artistic Director for ten years) and S.T.A.G.E. (the Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event), the longest running AIDS benefit on record which raised over $5 million during its thirty-three year run. Kearns’ resume as a community builder/activist includes a stellar season as Artistic Director at the Celebration Theatre (which included the world premiere of Robert Chesley’s Jerker), a decade as Artist-in-Residence at the Downtown Women’s Center, and the co-founder and Artistic Director of Space at Fountain’s End.