Social activist Shawn M. Lang, a fixture at the State Capitol, dies suddenly at 65

Photo of Ken Dixon

Shawn M. Lang, a feisty, formidable HIV-AIDS activist and advocate for the LGBTQ community, has died suddenly, sparking shock in those communities and sparking an outpouring of tributes from state officials whom she lobbied for decades.

Lang, who had recently turned 65, was the former longtime deputy director of AIDS Connecticut and was a fixture in the state Capitol for at least three decades, advocating for clean needles to stop the spread of HIV, the virus among drug users, and pushing for civil rights for same-sex couples.

She also sought housing opportunities for the homeless and was engaged in helping drug abusers, including the promotion of wider access to naloxone, which when administered by medical professionals or even bystanders can counteract opioid overdoses.

“Shawn Lang’s passion and courage were boundless, and her impact endless, as a leader and advocate for fundamental human rights,” said U.S. Sen Richard Blumenthal. “She stood up and spoke out unstintingly and ceaselessly for so many who are demeaned or disregarded, inspiring others to do the same. She was a true fighter for LGBTQ+ rights, advocating for those with AIDS and HIV, and people impacted by opioid addiction. I am proud to have called her my friend, and like so many other public officials, I valued her sage advice.”

Short in stature but indefatigable in a variety of social-activist arenas, Lang was often seen in the state Capitol complex, testifying at hearings and button-holing lawmakers in the names of those with little political influence.

“There is no doubt that Shawn Lang has made a lasting impact on Connecticut,” said Gov. Ned Lamont. “She dedicated her life toward giving a voice for the underrepresented and those in marginalized communities, and I am confident that generations to come will benefit from her advocacy. While her passing comes with incredible sadness, I am thankful that Connecticut has had someone as passionate and dedicated as her working to make our state more welcoming and more accessible for everyone.”

Third-term state Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, recalled that when he joined the General Assembly in 2015, as he watched and learned the daily details of the House of Representatives, it was plain that Lang was one of the Capitol’s power players.

“It’s a cliche to say she was small but mighty, but it’s true,” said Currey, stressing that the passion she had for her causes, seemed to remain with her over the years. In 2019, Currey worked with Lang in creating a health and human services network for the LGBTQ community, including interventions for stopping the spread of HIV by allowing drug-using youth access to clean syringes.

Currey recalled standing outside a meeting room with Lang, watching her explain the importance of the legislation to skeptical Republicans.

“She was a compassionate, charismatic warrior,” said John Merz, executive director of AIDS CT, which Lang recently left after 30 years. “She was definitely focused and was always a champion of the underdog. She was 5-2, maybe, but she was a presence and did not shy away from a fight if a fight was necessary for the folks she was advocating for.”

A hugger, an accomplished cook and a Boston sports fan who never lost her Massachusetts accent, Merz said she was easy to befriend if someone was “on the right side of her moral compass.” Merz recalled she was very comfortable behind a podium, shouting “End AIDS...End AIDS,” along with an enthralled crowd.

“Her fingerprints were on a lot of things,” Merz said. “Some we know about and others we may never know.” A regular participant at legislative hearings, Lang would annually argue for the need to retain HIV/AIDS programming. “She was pretty humble and would say that we do things for the result, not the accolades. That epitomizes humility.”

In 2016, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy nominated Lang to become one of 10 White House Champions of Change for Advancing Prevention, Treatment and Recovery. She also served on the National AIDS Housing Coalition.

“Shawn was just a delightful, wonderful, sparkling human being,” Malloy said Monday from Maine, where he is chancellor of the state university system. “She was outstanding and committed on equal rights, gender equality, people defining their own relationships, criminal justice reforms. We’re interested in a lot of the same things.”

State Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, who was first elected to the House in 2008, remembered when Lang worked at the Middletown Health Center, “She was just about everywhere,” Lesser said. “She was a larger-than-life character, and there was one consistent thing: She fought for people who needed an advocate, whether it was housing for people living with AIDS, battered women, insurance privacy. We worked on a million bills together.”

Patrick Dunn, executive director of the New Haven Pride Center, said that unlike many community leaders in various towns and cities, Lang’s work was statewide in scope and sweeping in its history of HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ activism.

“I woke up this morning and was shocked,” Dunn said of the news of her death via social media. “She was my go-to person.” He wishes he had started an oral history of the last 30 years of public health and social activism. “She was a change-making pioneer. Now, the success of any movement is how the next generation moves it forward.” Twitter: @KenDixonCT