Stories of Artistry

'Each moment I spent in the creative space with Howard Ashman remains with me every day of my life.'
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Howard Ashman, 1950-1991
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport and Alan Menken
Recording by Alan Menken

Howard Ashman was a masterful writer, lyricist and director, in my opinion the greatest of our generation, who died of AIDS on March 14, 1991, at the age of 40.  My name is Alan Menken.  In a collaboration that lasted 12 years, Howard and I wrote the stage and movie musical Little Shop of Horrors and won two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards and three Golden Globe Awards for Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.

We forged a collaboration that was intense, creative and supremely effective. Each moment I spent in the creative space with Howard Ashman remains with me every day of my life.

With our first project at Disney, Little Mermaid, some studio executives resisted using the song “Part of Your World,” for fear we would lose some of the younger audience members. But Howard insisted that our audience had to know what our little  mermaid Ariel wanted. She needed to have what he called an “I want” song.

I think that as a gay man, Howard grew up knowing what it felt like to be on the outside, wanting to be a part of the world that he saw around him but somehow not able to fully take part.

For two years, while Little Mermaid was being made, Howard knew he had HIV but he hid his illness from everyone on the movie, including me. We found out later that, during the press junket for Little Mermaid at Disney World in Orlando, Howard wore a catheter in his chest so that he could get medicine intravenously at night. When he saw the parade of Little Mermaid characters at the park, he burst into tears.

Later, those of us who worked with Howard realized why he cried: It was the idea that those characters would live on long after he was gone.

The night we both won our Oscars for Little Mermaid, Howard said he and I needed to have a serious talk, and after we got back to New York, Howard revealed to me that he was sick with AIDS. We had just reached the pinnacle of our careers in both theater and the movie business, and we had worked side-by-side for 11 years, yet my dear friend kept it a secret from everyone he worked with that he had an incurable fatal disease. That’s the kind of fear people lived with back then: fear of rejection, of death, of a fatal illness with no cure, and there was so much stigma and discrimination.

But Howard wouldn’t let AIDS keep him down. He was so determined to keep working, to keep creating magical song moments and unforgettable characters. I think AIDS spurred him on to work even harder because he knew he was living on borrowed time.

Howard and I were brought in to fix Beauty and the Beast while it was being developed. But Howard was too sick to commute back and forth to LA, so he finally had to tell Jeffrey Katzenberg that he had AIDS.  Katzenberg agreed that the production would travel from LA to meet with Howard and me in upstate New York.

At the same time, we were also working on Aladdin, which Howard had initially developed. Because of AIDS, Howard was suffering neuropathies, began losing feeling in his fingers, losing his voice and much of his eyesight, all the while we were collaborating on joyous, incredible songs. Howard was determined to keep working as long as he could.

Towards the end of his life, Howard and I wrote “Prince Ali” from his hospital bed. He was down to 80 pounds. He couldn’t see and could barely speak.

Howard and I won an Oscar for Best Song for Beauty and the Beast. And the movie was the first animated picture ever nominated for Best Picture. Howard had passed before ever experiencing the movie’s success.  The award was accepted by his companion of seven years, Bill Lauch.

'It’s fair to say that Paul Jabara wrote some major chapters of the Gay American Songbook.'
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Paul Jabara, 1948-1992
Story by Bruce Vilanch and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Bruce Vilanch

It’s fair to say that Paul Jabara wrote some major chapters of the Gay American Songbook.  Paul was the songwriter for mega-hits.

“Last dance, last chance …” — that’s Donna Summer.  He also wrote “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls — two girls who were in my weight class — and with his co-writer Bruce Roberts, “No More Tears,” (singing) “Enough is enough is enough); a duet by, yes, Donna Summer and uh, Barbra Streisand — that’s the woman.  Paul and Bruce Roberts also co-wrote “The Main Event” from the movie The Main Event starring Ryan O’Neal and uh, Barbra Streisand — yes, that’s the woman.

I am Bruce Vilanch.  Paul was a dear friend of mine for 25 years.  I met him … actually, I didn’t meet him the first time I met him.  The first time I met him was at the Billboard Theatre in New York.   He was in the original cast of Hair, and as part of the opening number “Aquarius,” he crawled from the stage over the seats.  He crawled the entire length of the orchestra, going – stepping on seats as he went, and people ducking and all of that, you know.  And he passed right over me, and he was wearing bell bottoms and no underwear.  And I was immediately interested in him as a performer … [lecherous laugh] … of course.

And some years later, he did a musical called Rachael Lily Rosenbloom and Don’t You Ever Forget It, and it was written for Bette Midler, who was a creative collaborator of mine of long-standingAnd she didn’t do it; Ellen Greene did it.   And it came to Broadway, but it never actually opened.  It was a way over-the-top disco musical.  It was insane.

Ellen was in it with André De Shields and Paul and a bunch of other people.  The producer was Robert Stigwood.  As it got closer and closer to opening night and previews, Stigwood decided it was never really going to happen.  And the word got out that he was going to close it on Saturday night.  So it was the must-see event of the season.

I was in New York with Bette and her piano player Barry Manilow — music director, I should say — and we went.  We got tickets and it was like going to the Academy Awards.  It was spectacular.  And the show was insane, ridiculous and awful — and Paul was brilliant.  And that was the second time.

And years later, a few years later, we were both in Hollywood, and we collaborated on a couple of musical projects that never happened, but we became very close friends.  And I remember having dinner at his house.  In the living room, he had a huge picture of himself.  It was a replica of Barbra Streisand’s first album, called My Name is Barbra, and her picture on the cover.  And instead of her, it was Paul, who had been photo-shopped in.  And above it, in the same font, it said My Name is Jbara — and he had removed the first a from his last name, as she had removed the middle a from her name — so it was My Name is Jbara.

And at the time, I said, “You know, Paul, you have proven my theory about every gay man in Hollywood: They either want to be Barbra Streisand or have dinner with Barbra Streisand.  And you have managed to do both.”

So for “The Last Dance,” the Donna Summer tune, Paul won a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues song, and an Academy Award — yes, he won the Oscar — and a Golden Globe — which, of course, is much more valuable — from the film Thank God It’s Friday.  You remember that one; it was set in a disco.  He wrote songs for other major artists, including Bette Midler, and Diana Ross, Billy Preston, Julio Iglesias — even Raquel Welch sang one of Paul’s songs.  Of course, no one heard her — they were too busy watching her lungs.

Paul was also an accomplished actor and singer.  He was one of the original cast members of Hair, as I mentioned, and Jesus Christ Superstar — two Tom O’Horgan shows.  He replaced Tim Curry in the role of Doctor Frank-N-Furter in the Los Angeles stage production of The Rocky Horror Show at the Roxy when Tim went to England to do the movie.

Paul and John Schlesinger were good pals, and he appeared in some hilarious roles in a few of John’s movies, including his Oscar-winning 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, in which Paul played a hippie handing out pills and asking partygoers if they wanted to go “up or down” — [laughs] an elevator operator!

In Schlesinger’s movie The Day of the Locust, Paul appeared in drag singing a cover of the Marlene Dietrich song “Hot Voo-Doo,” which you’ll remember is the one she sang dressed as a gorilla.  In 1981, Paul starred in another John Schlesinger film, the comedy Honky-Tonk Freeway, as a songwriter named T. J. Tupus whose day job was as a truck driver hauling lions and a rhino.  In the 1978 film Thank God It’s Friday, which featured “Last Dance,” he played Carl, the near-sighted disco patron blindly looking for love.  Paul also sang two tracks on the original soundtrack album. 

If you had to choose one of Paul’s songs to define his life, it might be his duet with Donna Summer, which is aptly entitled “Never Lose Your Sense of Humor.”  Paul may have lost his battle with AIDS in 1992 at age 44, but he left us with a treasure trove of hits that you still cannot help but hear at your local dance club or bar, especially if you stay until closing and shake your money-maker to “Last Dance” — which has become the anthem of closing time at every disco in the world.

If you look up one night and see a flash of light across the sky, no doubt it’s a reflection from Paul’s disco ball, up there in gay heaven.

'For me, there is a sweetness to remembering our close friendship of those early years and the extraordinary evolution of the pretty faced, slightly chubby blonde boy in the hideous blue velvet cape.'
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Leigh Bowery, 1961-1994
Story & Recording by Scarlett Cannon

I will always remember the moment when a pretty faced, slightly chubby blonde boy turned up at the door of The Cha Cha Club wearing a rather hideous blue velvet cape.  He told me his name was Leigh Bowery, followed by, “Graham sent me to you!”  It was late October 1981.

My friend Graham Parnham had met Leigh at Andrew Logan’s “Alternative Miss World” earlier that month.  Leigh didn’t know anybody on the club scene in London, so Graham had sent him along to my club, telling him that I would look after him.

“You’ll like him,” Graham had told me.  “He’s Australian and a bit bonkers.”

Graham was right.  I liked Leigh immediately.  He had a generous spirit and sharp wit, was extremely polite and charming.  I told him I’d be glad to let him in to the club so long as he promised me that he would never wear that velvet cape again. We laughed, the first of many laughs that we were to have.

It would be two or three years before Leigh started creating looks and dressing in his extraordinary and very outrageous style.  Back in 1982 and 1983, he wanted to be a fashion designer and would create 1940s-inspired pyjama suits for me, Trojan (1966 – 1986) and himself.

He’d make me dresses to wear to the club, shrewdly knowing that they would be photographed aplenty.  He’d hand write labels with indelible laundry marker and stitch them into his creations.  I would look forward to the Tuesday afternoons when Leigh would arrive with something new to wear out that night.

The world quite rightly remembers #LeighBowery as the brilliant and unique performance artist that he became.  Though we remained friends throughout his life, for me there is a sweetness to remembering our close friendship of those early years and the extraordinary evolution of the pretty faced, slightly chubby blonde boy in the hideous blue velvet cape.

We lost Graham Parnham to AIDS in the Spring of 1994.

We lost Leigh the same year, on New Year’s Eve.

Happy birthday, my friend.

'Tony was and will always be one of my very favorite directors. He taught me so much about filmmaking and acting.'
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Tony Richardson, 1928-1991
Story by Jessica Lange and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Jessica Lange

“I hated all authority,” said Tony Richardson to a magazine interviewer in 1963.  So, he was a perfect fit to be a director.  I’m Jessica Lange.

In 1991, Tony directed me in Blue Sky. Blue Sky was his final film. Tony died of AIDS on November 15 of that same year at the age of 60, never publicly revealing his bisexuality until he was diagnosed with HIV in 1990.

Although he may have hated authority, you wouldn’t know it from the way he talked with his actors as we collaborated in the art of movie-making.  Tony was and will always be one of my very favorite directors. He taught me so much about filmmaking and acting.

Tony, an Englishman born in Yorkshire, directed 23 films.  The first, written by John Osborne and starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, was Look Back in Anger, which Tony also directed as a stage play in London before it moved to Broadway and won the Drama Circle Critics Award.  Other plays he directed and adapted into film were The Entertainers starring Sir Laurence Olivier and written by John Osborne, and A Taste of Honey about an inter-racial love affair.

His film adaptation of Tom Jones, starring Albert Finney, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Score and Best Director.  Tony is credited with launching the careers of Finney as well as Alan Bates and Tom Courtenay.

Tony was among the directors associated with the British “New Wave” of filmmakers whose films in the late 1950s and early 1960s had a documentary style and often used real locations and untrained real people as background actors.  Their social realism approach tended to focus on the lives of working-class people or challenged the dominance of the upper classes.  They wanted to make films of substance, as a reaction against the lightweight comedies and horror films that characterized popular mainstream movies at the time.

In 1960, Richardson explained:

“It’s impossible to make films that appeal to everyone, and the only solution is to make them at a non-prohibitive cost, and to try to adhere to a strong, independent point of view that will appeal to at least one body of customers: the ones who want to be stimulated by provocative ideas.”

It was a great tragedy to lose Tony so early in his life. He was only 60 years old. We can only imagine the amount of work that he would have still done had he still survived, and the art he would have brought to all of us.

Tony was survived by daughters Natasha Richardson and Joely Richardson, from his marriage to actress Vanessa Redgrave, and his third daughter, Katherine Grimond.  After her father’s death, Natasha joined the boards of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, known as amFAR, and God’s Love We Deliver, which provided meals for people with HIV and AIDS.  She supported the organizations until she passed away in 2009.

'The character Paul was based on Dante’s own experiences growing up poor, lonely, and ridiculed because he was gay.'
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Nicholas Dante, 1941-1991
Story by @The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Steven Canals

Nicholas Dante was a dancer and writer who is best known for co-writing the book for the smash-hit Broadway musical A Chorus Line.  Born Conrado Morales in New York City, he intended to study journalism but dropped out of high school at age 14 because of the homophobia he faced. 

He told journalist Jimmy Breslin: “I grew up in the ’40s, a Puerto Rican kid on 125th and Broadway, and obviously gay.  Nobody would hang out with me.  I was terrified to go out where anybody could see me.”

He worked as a drag queen and began studying dance. He landed parts as dancer in the choruses of musicals including Applause, Ambassador and Smith.

Dante wrote the book for the smash-hit Broadway musical A Chorus Line, along with playwright James Kirkwood Jr.  The show opened in 1975 and was directed and co-choreographed by Michael Bennett, who started developing the musical.

Bennett invited Dante to attend sessions in which Broadway dancers would tell stories about their lives.  Bennett chose Dante, along with Kirkwood, to write the story about seventeen so-called Broadway “gypsies” auditioning for eight spots in a chorus line performing behind the lead actors of a Broadway show.  The character “Paul” was based on Dante’s own experiences growing up poor, lonely, and ridiculed because he was gay.  

I’m Steven Canals, co-creator, executive producer, writer and director of the FX drama series Pose.  I grew up as a poor Afro-Puerto Rican queer kid in the Bronx, so I can relate.

The music for A Chorus Line was by Marvin Hamlisch, with lyrics by Edward Kleban.  The musical was revived on Broadway in 2006 and on the West End in London in 2013. 

Dante and Kirkwood won a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical in 1975, and the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1976.  At the time of Dante’s death, A Chorus Line was the longest running show in Broadway history.

During a tap-dance number, the character Paul falls and injures one of his knees on which he had recently had surgery. Paul is carried off to the hospital, and the remaining dancers see how fragile their careers are, they can come to an end without warning.

Nicholas Dante, who based the character of Paul on his own life, died of AIDS in New York City in 1991 at age 49.  Director Michael Bennett also died of AIDS in 1987.

As a prelude to the song “What I Did for Love,” a dancer character named Zach asks the rest of the dancers what they will do when they can no longer dance.  Their answer is that whatever happens, they won’t have any regrets.

When the eight dancers chosen for the chorus line appear on stage to take their final bow, the audience can hardly tell one apart from the other.  They have become the nearly faceless background singers of a chorus line.

Nicholas Dante never again attained the success he had as a writer of A Chorus Line, but hopefully he, like those dancers, had no regrets and will forever stand out from the crowd.

'I'll soon be turning,
round the corner now
Outside the dawn is breaking
But inside in the dark
I'm aching to be free
The show must go on'
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Freddie Mercury, 1946-1991
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Adam Lambert

Hi, I am Adam Lambert, and I am so honored to tell Freddie’s story and to bring the music of Queen to audiences around the world.

Rock legend Freddie Mercury was a singer, songwriter and pianist who is best known as the front man for the band Queen. Freddie was born in Zanzibar on September 5, 1946. He grew up in India and moved to the UK in 1964.

Early in his music career, he sold second-hand clothing and was an airport baggage handler while singing with a series of bands until forming Queen in 1970 with guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor.

Praised by Roger Daltry, lead singer of The Who, as “the best virtuoso rock ‘n roll singer of all time,” Freddie Mercury was known for his flamboyant stage persona and four-octave vocal
range. As a songwriter, he wrote 10 of the 17 songs on the band’s Greatest Hits album, including “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Somebody to Love,” the rock anthem “We Are the Champions,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and the rockabilly hit “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”  Other Queen hits include “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Under Pressure,” a collaboration with David Bowie.

The band was famous for its live concerts, including an unforgettable performance at Live Aid in 1985, and broke records with the size of its audiences.  Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003. The band sold over 300 million records.

The citation for Queen in the Rock Hall of Fame proclaims that, “In the golden era of glam rock and gorgeously hyper-produced theatrical extravaganzas that defined one branch of ’70s rock, no group came close in either concept or execution to Queen.”

Freddie publicly admitted to having gay sexual experiences and had a series of romantic relationships with both men and women, and described himself as bi-sexual. His larger-than-life stage persona contrasted with a shy, sensitive personality when not performing.  And he rarely granted interviews.

Rumors that Mercury was sick with AIDS began in 1986 and dogged him for the rest of his life, although his HIV positive diagnosis was actually in 1987. He became increasingly thin, and the band stopped touring. His final performance with Queen was in 1986, and his last public performance was in Barcelona in 1988.

In 1990, the band was in Switzerland recording Innuendo, their last album with Freddie. Freddie was committed to recording as many vocal tracks as possible while he still had the energy to do so – an incredible feat of creativity and powerful vocals, even as his body was failing.

In an interview with Express, Brian May recalled Freddie’s recording of the song “The Show Must Go On”:

“When I gave him the final version to sing, it was like taking the lid off a bottle that was about to explode.”

The song includes these haunting lyrics:

“I’ll soon be turning, round the corner now
Outside the dawn is breaking
But inside in the dark I’m aching to be free
The show must go on
The show must go on
Inside my heart is breaking
My makeup may be flaking
But my smile, still, stays on.”

On November 23, 1991, he issued his first public admission of his illness:

“Following the enormous conjecture in the press over the last two weeks, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private to date to protect the privacy of those around me. However, the time has come now for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth and I hope that everyone will join with me, my doctors
and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.”

Freddie Mercury died the very next day, at age 45.

'We decided to keep Brad’s diagnosis secret so Brad could work as long as possible. It had been hard enough for him to resurrect his career ... He refused to get any medical care for fear of discovery.'
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Brad Davis, 1949–1991
Story & Recording by Susan Bluestein

Brad Davis shot to instant stardom one night in 1979 in the south of France at the Palais theater.  It was the night the movie Midnight Express premiered at Cannes International Film Festival.  Before that, Brad had worked as an actor in some prestigious TV shows like Sybill with Sally Field and the mini-series Roots.  But, that night before the premiere, no one knew who Brad Davis was.

I’m Susan Bluestein; I was Brad’s wife.  I realized then that the experience of a five-minute standing ovation and the commotion that followed would be forever etched in my memory.  It was shocking and thrilling to see this short, skinny kid from Tallahassee, Florida and this middle-class Jewish girl from New York frozen in time amongst the movie elite.  It was like a dream, not real or tangible, but wonderful.  Brad won a Golden Globe award for that performance.

However, around the same time, Brad’s life changed in a very different way, and it wasn’t like a wonderful dream.  Brad had just finished a movie, A Small Circle of Friends.  His IV drug use and alcohol addiction were at their height.  After that movie, he went to visit a friend on the set of the film Heaven’s Gate.  He came down with the worst case of shingles and swollen lymph nodes the doctor had ever seen.

Today, they probably would have tested him for HIV immediately, but no one knew this in 1979-1980.  Through a miracle and much hard work, Brad got sober in 1981 and tried very hard to repair his reputation in the industry.  We were overjoyed to have our baby, Alex, in 1983.

In 1985, Brad went to Cedars Sinai hospital to donate blood, as he always did after Alex was born.  He had gotten an acting job in Italy for a few months.  Cedars Sinai sent a letter to the house informing him that he was HIV positive.  Brad had just finished starring in Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart at the Public Theater in New York.  This, of course, turned out to be very prophetic.

At first we didn’t really believe it or know what to think. We had so many questions. Was I infected? Was Alex? What should we do and how should we live going forward?

Fortunately, Alex and I tested negative.  We decided to keep Brad’s diagnosis secret so Brad could work as long as possible.  It had been hard enough for him to resurrect his career.  We didn’t think much about it at the time.  Brad looked and felt good, but a light had gone out of him, carrying this burden of his past.  By then, he had been infected at least five years, maybe more.

He refused to get any medical care for fear of discovery.  But in 1989, he wasn’t feeling well and knew he needed help from a doctor. Luckily, he was able to reach out to his friends Larry Kramer and Rodger McFarlane.  By then they were major AIDS activists in New York.  They sent him to a wonderful doctor, who agreed to see him in secret along with many other actors we found out later.

After his last job, A Habitation of Dragons, he picked up a parasite and couldn’t recover.  It was 1991.  He didn’t want Alex, who was 8 years old, to see him die a horrible death.  He took his own life while he was still able, on September 8, 1991.

Brad’s death shocked Hollywood.  Brad had wanted to tell the truth of how he died and what he had been through hiding the truth that he had AIDS.  There were many differing opinions as to whether he would have been hired if producers and directors had known.

The truth is he did some of his best work during that time, a mini-series, Robert Kennedy and His Times, being his favorite.  He loved that show and felt it was his first really adult role.  Brad wrote a proposal exposing the fear and discrimination at the time in the Hollywood Industry about anything related to AIDS.  It later became a book.

We made the most of the years we had together with Brad.  There was always music, lots of laughter and wonderful friends.

Brad’s motto was always “Don’t postpone joy.”  He never did!

'Not a day goes by that I don't think of you, my creative brother from another mother. Peace. You went too soon but you left a legacy.'
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Michael Carmine, 1959–1989
Story & Recording by Timothy Dean Lee

My friend Michael Carmine (March 6, 1959 – October 14, 1989) was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn. His mother was the daughter of a Portuguese sales clerk at Tiffany’s on 5th Avenue and her mother was Jamaican. Michael’s father was a blond Northern Italian. He took on the stage name of Michael Carmine while he attended the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan

Being light skinned, Michael found himself being cast as Puerto Rican. He became involved with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater company. His big break was a national Levi’s commercial and then guest starred in shows such as MASH, Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice. He also appeared on screen in films including Scarface, Turk 182, Batteries Not Included and Leviathan.

Michael’s last appearance was in the film Longtime Companion, where he played Alberto, a home-bound AIDS patient. The film was completed not long before he passed. The interesting part about that scene was that it was rewritten to reflect the argument Michael and I had only the day before.

Michael and I had met right after he had completed Band in the Hand. We were introduced by Keith Haring at Paradise Garage. We hit it off immediately. Although I was a struggling artist, he hired me as his personal assistant, so that I could create and paint with a bit more ease. He got me involved with La Familia Theater Company, where I directed him in two plays.

We did a great deal of work with the late poet/playwright Miguel Pinero. In fact, Michael would be playing the narrator (a part based on Pinero) in Reinaldo Povod’s play Cuba and His Teddy Bear and playing opposite actors including Robert De Niro, Burt Young and Ralph Macchio. It was at this time, Michael Mann approached him and I about an idea and he wanted me to shadow Pinero for six months to write a script for a film. The project never came to fruition because of Michael’s deteriorating health.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you, my creative brother from another mother. Peace. You went too soon but you left a legacy.

'HIV is certainly character-building. It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.'
- Randy Shilts
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Randy Shilts, 1951–1994
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Dustin Lance Black

So said Randy Shilts, in his 1987 book And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic.

The book chronicled the first five years of AIDS in the U.S., was nominated for a National Book Award and was adapted into a 1994 HBO movie starring Richard Gere, Matthew Modine and Angelica Huston.  Randy began researching the book and reporting on AIDS while working for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was one of the first openly-gay journalists at a major U.S. newspaper and worked for 13 years.

I’m Dustin Lance Black.  Randy’s first book, The Mayor of Castro Street: the Life and Times of Harvey Milk, was critical research for my Oscar-winning screenplay for the movie Milk, in which Sean Penn played openly-gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.  Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone.

Randy’s reporting and positions were sometimes controversial within segments the gay community.  Some criticized his suggestion that gay bathhouses were responsible for the spread of AIDS and his opposition to outing closeted and prominent gays and lesbians.

Randy delayed getting get his own HIV test results until he had completed the writing of And the Band Played On, because he didn’t want his test result — positive or negative — to affect his objectivity as a journalist.  According to his New York Times obituary, Randy found out he was HIV positive in March 1987 on the same day he submitted the manuscript to his publisher.

In 1992, Randy contracted pneumocystis pneumonia, and later that year, suffered a collapsed lung.  In 1993, he was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma.  Although mostly confined to his home and on oxygen, he managed to attend the Los Angeles screening of the HBO film version of And the Band Played On in August 1993.

Randy’s last book was Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf.  Published in 1993, not long before the announcement of the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy by the Clinton administration, the book explored the mistreatment and weeding out of lesbians and gays in the US military, and was finished from his hospital bed.

In the spring of 1993, Randy told a New York Times reporter, “HIV is certainly character-building.  It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity.  Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.”

Randy Shilts died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 42 in Guerneville, California.  He was included in the inaugural honorees of the Rainbow Honor Walk in the Castro district of San Francisco, and he was among the first 50 inducted into the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the national monument in New York City’s Stonewall Inn.

'Vito would captivate audiences with his wit and his joyful, ferocious personality ... Not only was Vito opening our minds, educating us, entertaining us, and motivating us to act, he was building our community.'
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Vitto Russo, 1946–1990
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport and Rob Epstein
Recording by Rob Epstein

Vito Russo was a film historian who did pioneering work about the portrayal of LGBT people in film, television, and other media.

Vito was the author of the landmark 1981 book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality and the Movies, which was adapted, after his death, into a documentary directed and written by me, Rob Epstein, and my co-director/co-writer Jeffrey Freedman, along with co-writers Armistead Maupin and Sharon Wood.

The narrator of the film is Lily Tomlin, who helped us raise money for the project by headlining a fundraising show at the Castro Theater, along with Robin Williams, Harvey Fierstein and drag performer Lypsinka. After years of trying to get the project off the ground, Lily, who was a good friend of Vito’s, pushed HBO to get behind the film, and when they finally did, we had a movie.

Released in 1995 it was nominated for four Emmy awards, won one for directing, as well a Peabody Award and the Freedom of Expression award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Vito’s book and our documentary were based on lectures and clip presentations that Vito would give at universities and theaters around the world for about ten years before the book was published.  At these events, several of which I attended, Vito would captivate audiences with his wit and his joyful, ferocious personality.  These were community gatherings, like an LGBTQ church, at a time when we had few opportunities to gather collectively. Not only was Vito opening our minds, educating us, entertaining us, and motivating us to act, he was building our community.

As a friend, there was no one more loyal, more caring, or more generous.  When I was struggling to get my film project about Harvey Milk launched back in the early 1980s, Vito hosted a fundraiser at community hall in New York City.  He filled the room, hundreds us sitting on the floor, as he showed clips from his bootleg Judy Garland collection, regaling us with stories.  This was the very first fundraiser for what became the Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk.

Vito wrote some of his book at my flat in San Francisco, escaping New York winters.  With each visit we looked forward to the night Vito made his famous lasagna dinner; he was Italian after all, from New Jersey. He had a laugh always at the ready, smoked Marlboroughs, never shaved his moustache, and was everyone’s best friend.

In 1985, in response to the New York Post’s homophobic and sensational reporting about AIDS, Vito and others founded the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, known as GLAAD.  GLAAD organized protests, campaigns, and showdowns with media executives. In 1994 it became a national organization.

Gradually, newspapers, magazines, movie studios and TV networks paid attention. Coverage of LGBT-related news changed, and LGBT stories emerged from the margins of our culture and into the mainstream. The annual GLAAD Media Awards honors the films, TV shows and other productions that portray LGBT people in a fair, balanced, and diverse way.

Vito was also won of the founders of ACT UP, the activist group that changed the course of HIV/AIDS history by demanding the government and medical establishment pay attention.

Vito died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 40.  At Vito’s request, by his bedside in his hospital room was the Oscar for our film Common Threads: Stories from Quilt, in which he was featured.

In 2019, Vito was one of 50 listed on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall National Museum in New York City at the Stonewall Inn. In his honor, GLAAD bestows the annual Vito Russo Award to an LGBT person who works to fight against homophobia in the media.

Vito Russo: a true pioneer, a hero, and a dear friend.

'... Evening settles in this exile of senses for our surrender,
one more friend’s death has clocked the day like a tolling bell.'
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Assotto Saint, 1957-1994
Story by The AIDS Memorial
Recording by Sheryl Lee Ralph

Assotto Saint (October 2, 1957 – June 29, 1994) was a poet, publisher and performance artist who died of AIDS in New York City. He was 36 years old.

Born in Les Cayes, Haiti as Yves François Lubin, he moved to New York in 1970 and adopted the name Assotto Saint — choosing “Assotto” which is a ceremonial drum used in Haitian Voodoo rituals and “Saint” after Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture.

In 1974, Assotto graduated from Jamaica High School, Queens before attending Queens College. During the late 1970s, he performed as a dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company but stopped after an injury.

In 1980, Assotto met his life partner of 13 years, Swedish born composer Jan Holmgren, pictured right. They collaborated on a number of projects, with Holmgren writing songs for all of Assotto’s theatre pieces. They also formed in a “techno pop duo band,” Xotika.

After they were both diagnosed HIV positive, Assotto became an AIDS activist and appeared in Marlon Riggs’ film No Regrets (1993). He was also a mentor to Riggs, Essex Hemphill and Melvin Dixon, who would all succumb to AIDS.

Holmgren died of AIDS on March 29, 1993 in New York. He was 53 years old. The couple are buried alongside each other at the Cemetery of the Evergreens, Brooklyn.

“Life-Partners” is a poem Saint wrote for Holmgren, when Holmgren was dying:

Between solitudes of illness & beatitudes our lips utter,
evening settles in this exile of senses for our surrender,
one more friend’s death has clocked the day like a tolling bell.
Biding time, we are shadows also shrinking early into destiny,
Let us gather our pills & swallow all regrets with a kiss,
cover each other, then weave dreams of another day to come.

'I really miss Demian desperately, and I also miss dancing the Bill T. Jones master work, D-Man in the Waters. It was a tribute to Demian and to so many of the other people we lost.'
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Demian Acquavella, 1958-1990
Story & Recording by Seán Curran

My name is Seán Curran, and back in the 1980s, my last best friend Demian Acquavella and I were dancers in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance company.  One day out on the road, we were rehearsing in a gymnasium, and at the end of that long rehearsal, Demian and I decided to go and take showers before the van came to pick us up to take us out for dinner.

We were in the shower together, and Demian very nonchalantly picked up his left arm and pointed to a big splotch on his inner bicep and said, “Hey, Seán, what do you think this is?”

I knew exactly what it was – it was a Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion.  But I took a deep breath and said, “Wow, Demian, I don’t know, it looks like a bruise … Did somebody grab your arm or were you doing a duet with somebody?”

We got dressed and went out to wait for the van, but I said, “I think I forgot something.”

I ran back into the gym, I found a pay phone and I called Arnie Zane back in New York, collect, and I told Arnie that Demian had just shown me his first KS lesion. Arnie sprung into action and made a couple of appointments with doctors for Demian for when we returned back from the tour.

But then when I went back outside to wait with the dancers for the van to go to dinner, I noticed the other dancers were standing around talking, but that Demian had laid down on the very cold marble steps of this gymnasium building and he had fallen fast asleep. I thought to myself, there’s kind of a fork in the road for Demian and me today. And I don’t know why, but I took out my Instamatic camera that I had in my dance bag and I took a photograph of Demian asleep on the steps. After I got it developed, I put it in a frame and it’s been in my bedroom ever since and it’s a tribute to Demian and it’s a way for me to remember him.

I really miss Demian desperately and I also miss dancing the Bill T. Jones master work, D-Man in the Waters.  It was a tribute to Demian and to so many of the other people we lost.

The epigram for Bill T. Jones’ piece is a truism by artist Jenny Holzer: “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were filled with joy.”

'Not only did he change the course of the Broadway musical with his production of A Chorus Line, but the course of my life as well.'
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Michael Bennett, 1943-1987
Story & Recording by Justin Ross Cohen

Hello. I’m Justin Ross Cohen, and it is my honor to share with you a bit about the life of the great director/choreographer, Michael Bennett. Not only did he change the course of the Broadway musical with his production of A Chorus Line, but the course of my life as well by, in 1976, casting me as Greg in the original Broadway production.

An out and proud bisexual, Michael championed sexual freedom in his work. Greg is one of three gay characters in A Chorus Line, remarkable at a time when homosexuality was still listed as a disease in the medical journals.

On the first day of rehearsals, he whispered in my ear, “Greg is a king, not a queen,” giving me a roadmap not only for the character, but for my life as well.

Born Michael DiFiglia in 1943 in Buffalo, New York, he left high school shortly before graduating to join a company of West Side Story, directed by Jerome Robbins, and was soon dancing in the chorus of numerous Broadway shows.

His choreographic career began while he was a featured dancer on the NBC pop-music series Hullabaloo. As a 10-year-old aspiring dancer, I watched Hullabaloo religiously. Filmed just two blocks from where I grew up in Brooklyn, I would walk by the closed-set studio and stare endlessly into the loading dock area, where they stored the pyramid of block letters spelling out the show’s title. I used to fantasize about dancing on those blocks one day. Ten years later, I was working with the man whose own dancing on them had inspired me so.

Michael Bennett received Tony award nominations for every musical with which he was associated, and won eight.

In 1985, Michael gave the first public indication that he was ill when he withdrew from the British production of the musical Chess.  Due to the stigma of AIDS, he withheld the nature of his illness from all but his closest associates, telling others he had a heart ailment. He retreated from the public eye and spent his remaining months in Tucson, Arizona, where in 1986, he died from AIDS-related lymphoma at the age of 44.

Michael once said, “Broadway dance is what I know, what I was, and what I am.”

He dedicated A Chorus Line to — and I quote — “anyone who has ever danced in a chorus, or has marched in step … anywhere.”

Thank you, Michael. You, sir, were one singular sensation.

'We were all walking on thin ice.'
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Renée Williams & the Ice Around Us
Story & Recording by John Hanning

In 1981, I was going to school in Memphis.  I started listening to music by the B-52’s, Blondie, The Go-Go’s and Joan Jett.  It was as if my disco ball was slowly being shattered.

On weekends, I would go George’s Disco.  Here were drag shows, and my favorite drag queen was Renée Williams.  The DJ would announce her name and the lights of the club were turned off.  In the darkness, someone would lay a sheet of clear mylar on the stage floor.  Yoko Ono’s Walking on Thin Ice would begin to play and the disco ball would be lit by a single spot light.

Renee would walk out onto the stage — slowly pick up the mylar and eventually fall to the floor under the mylar.  It was like she was drowning as she fell through the ice.  As she rolled around the floor, wrapping herself in the mylar, she extended her arms gesturing for help.

It was around this time I heard of a “gay cancer” that was spreading in New York.  A friend told me not to do poppers while having sex.  Renée was featured in the documentary What Sex Am I (1985) – subsequently dying of AIDS.

We were all walking on thin ice.

'Sylvester was a pioneer in the gay community. And during a time when most gay entertainers were in the closet, he wasn't. Sylvester was proudly out, and he paved the way in so many ways.'
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Sylvester, 1947-1988
Story by Dave Marez and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Billy Porter

Sylvester, sometimes known as the Queen of Disco, was famous for an androgynous look and a fierce falsetto voice.  Born in the Watts section of Los Angeles on September 6, 1947, he grew up singing in a Pentecostal church but left the church at age 13 and soon after left home after being shunned by the congregation and his mother for being gay.

Refusing to bow to pressure to conform, for his high school graduation photo Sylvester wore a blue chiffon prom dress and his hair in a beehive.  He moved to San Francisco in 1970, where he performed for a couple of years with the infamous group of drag performers “The Cockettes.”

He released in a solo album in 1977, performed regularly in gay bars in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, and was cast in a cameo singing role in the Bette Midler film, The Rose.  It wasn’t until his third album in 1978 that Sylvester found success including his best-known hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”.  That album, with background vocals from the Two Tons of Fun, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, went gold, topped the dance charts in the U.S., and led to major talk show performances and promo tours in the US.

On March 11, 1979, while Sylvester recorded his Living Proof live album in a sold-out show at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein awarded him the key to the City and proclaimed it “Sylvester Day.”

Never forgetting his community roots, Sylvester performed at gay pride festivals that year in San Francisco and London.  Another dance hit, “Do You Wanna Funk,” released in 1982, was co-written with Sylvester’s frequent collaborator, writer-producer Patrick Cowley, who died of AIDS that year when the disease was still known as GRID.

Sylvester, along with Joan Rivers and Charles Nelson Reilly, did the first-ever AIDS fundraiser at Los Angeles’ Studio One nightclub in 1982.  He called his 1983 song “Trouble in Paradise,” an AIDS message to San Francisco, and performed benefit concerts to raise awareness and money about the epidemic.

Sylvester’s boyfriend at the time died of AIDS in 1987, and Sylvester’s own health began to decline later that year.  In the spring of 1988, Sylvester was hospitalized with pneumonia but managed to attend the Gay Freedom Parade in June in a wheelchair.

The Castro Street Fair in October of that year was dubbed “A Tribute to Sylvester.”  Although he was too ill to attend, he heard crowds schanting his name from his bedroom and continued to give press interviews, openly stating that he was dying of AIDS and trying to highlight the impact of the disease on African-Americans.

Sylvester James, Jr., died on December 16, 1988 at age 41.  At his direction, his body was dressed in a red kimono in an open casket.  In his will, he bequeathed all future royalties to two AIDS charities.

In 2005, Sylvester was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame and in 2019 the Library of Congress chose “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” to be preserved in the National Recording Registry.

'Everywhere he went, he’d have his chalk, of course, in his pocket ...  All of the sudden, he’d just get down and just start drawing, and instantly there would be a crowd around him.'
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Keith Haring, 1958-1990
Introduction by Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Kenny Scharf

Introduction:

Keith Haring’s art is immediately recognizable.  Keith was inspired by cartoons, and by the graffiti and murals on the streets and in the subways of New York City, where he moved in the late 1970s.  His work is known for the thick lines that define his crawling, dancing or barking figures and by clear messages about universal topics such as love, birth and death, sex, drugs, and war. 

Keith’s career took off in the early 1980s and became known worldwide, visible in major museums, in over 100 solo and group shows, and in public art in dozens of cities across the globe.  There’s the “Crack is Whack” mural on FDR Drive in Manhattan, the mural for the Statue of Liberty’s 100th anniversary, a mural on the western side of the Berlin Wall just a few years before the wall came down, and even the interior of the Palladium nightclub. 

Keith made his art more accessible and available to the public by opening the Pop Shop, a retail shop in SoHo that sold merchandise displaying Keith’s art.  The whole inside of the shop was a giant mural he painted.

He loved to create art in public, like a public performance, often with hip-hop playing as he painted.  He could watch his audience and their reactions.  He created art for regular people, not for the critics, and so when prices for his art sky-rocketed, Keith wanted regular people to be able to own his art, even if it was just on a t-shirt.

Keith found out he had AIDS in 1988 when he was only 29.  I’m Irwin Rappaport, chair of the Board of Directors for the Foundation for The AIDS Monument.

The following is taken from an interview with artist Kenny Scharf, who met Keith in art school and quickly became one of Keith’s best friends:

I met Keith in 1978.  I had just arrived from LA to New York, and I was at the School of Visual Arts.  

I remember feeling a little let down that my idea of what New York City art school students would be like.  Oh, they look the same, kind of suburban kids just like back here … and then I heard some Devo music blasting, and I’m following it.  And I come to this room, and there’s Keith, alone, painting himself in — literally — into a corner. 

And I just sat there and looked at him, and I thought, “Oh, well, that’s what I was looking for when I wanted to meet artists in New York City.”

Well, you know, we didn’t have him for very long, so luckily, at that moment, we became instant friends.  And we hung out quite a bit, and we ended up actually being roommates for some time, which was also a quite amazing moment in his career, when he started doing his drawings — his chalk drawings — in the street. 

We shared a loft near Times Square, so he used to go down in the subway on 42nd Street.  You would instantly be hit by his magic.  And he had this amazing drive and ability to get himself out there.  And I remember he irked a lot of the other students, because they would say, “Oh, he’s so self-promoting” — like it’s a bad thing.  And we were like, “Yeah, he’s self-promoting. That’s the idea!”  There’s nothing shameful about it, when you have a message. 

So, it was amazing how he did that, and how it caught on so quick when he found that niche — which was basically every single black paper in the subways of New York City before they got an ad on them.  It’s pretty amazing and ingenious, you know?

His ability to draw and his language that he made up – basically, his symbols are language.  So, he created his own language and a universal language … he crossed boundaries and barriers.  Every stroke is there for a reason, and there’s no waste.

I used to call him the Mayor — he should be the Mayor of New York City – because everywhere he went, he’d have his chalk, of course, in his pocket.  And it wasn’t only for drawing on the subways, he would draw all the time on the sidewalk.  All of the sudden, he’d just get down and just start drawing, and instantly there would be a crowd around him.  And then he would give out all his buttons to all the crowd.  Everyone loved him.

And so when I heard about these symptoms of the swollen glands, I [long pause and exhale] I immediately thought of the time probably four years prior, his neck was like that and we had no idea what it was.  And all of the sudden he got better and he was back, he was Keith.

It was around the time that Klaus Nomi died, before AIDS had a name, they were starting to talk about some of the things, the signs that meant, you know, you were carrying this.  But we didn’t really talk about it, because it was so scary as a subject.  

Believe it or not, way before AIDS existed, way before he had that swollen gland, he used to say to me that he was going to die young.  He had that urgency way before any, any of that existed and that’s part of it.  Like, there was something he knew.  He was like a flaming star.

What really was hard was, well, around the time he came out – which was so brave — about his diagnosis in Rolling Stone magazine, and nobody was doing that — there was such a stigma of shame — and I just thought, “Wow.”  He was so brave.

And then sadly, a lot of the invitations dried up, parties and things like that that he was so into, and what was left was, you know, people that, you know, really cared.

Everything he did had meaning behind it.  He wasn’t just taking the rage and, you know, internalizing it and make a crazy Rashomon.  He would spend his money and make a stack of posters and be giving them out with the buttons.  Not dogmatic at all.  He was full of life and art and generosity, you know, of giving to people.

He created this language now that everybody reads — that’s huge.  All over the world, everyone knows those images, and it’s just kind of amazing.  The way he went about himself as an artist in the public, in so many ways, he was way ahead of his time.  He didn’t get to see the whole explosion of social media, but I can imagine he would’ve taken it to a level that we don’t understand and that we’ll never know.

He was a very important person in my life – still is, obviously.  The generosity that he had of himself was pretty inspiring.  So, I try to keep that up.

The last thing I said to him, I basically told him that I would do what I can to help him keep his legacy alive.  And I do whatever I can, so I’m happy to do this.

'Studio 54 defined the emerging age of celebrity.'
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Steve Rubell, 1943-1989
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport and Matt Tyrnauer
Recording by Matt Tyrnauer

Steve Rubell was the guy you had to impress with your looks, your style, or your celebrity if you wanted to get through the door at Studio 54, the most famous nightclub of the disco era.  I’m Matt Tyrnauer and I directed the documentary film Studio 54.

In April 1977, Rubell and his longtime friend Ian Schrager opened Studio 54 in a former opera house turned CBS studio on 54th Street in Manhattan where TV shows such as What’s My Line?, The $64,000 Question, and Captain Kangaroo had been produced.  

Studio 54 was a theatrical extravaganza, using its theater and TV studio roots to create movable sets and lighting. The furniture was modular, for maximum flexibility in creating the mood for the moment.

The club was a who’s-who pageant and a playpen of debauchery, where the biggest stars of film, TV, stage, music, fashion, art, politics, and sports would dance, do drugs, and even have sex in the shadows.  Studio 54 defined the emerging age of celebrity.  But signs of trouble emerged early.  Only one month after opening, the club was temporarily closed by the state liquor authority, because the owners only had only daily catering permits. 

Rubell’s flair for self-promotion became his downfall when he bragged in print about the $7 million the club had made in its first year. Studio 54’s tax returns told a different story.  Rubell and Schrager were convicted for tax evasion following an IRS raid in which a second set of books were found hidden in the ceiling tiles of their office. 

A final party in February of 1980 included Diana Ross and Liza Minelli singing a tribute to Rubell and Schrager, while guests such as Jack Nicholson, Richard Gere, Farrah Fawcett, Bianca Jagger, and Mariel Hemingway looked on.  Rubell and Schrager went to prison and suddenly, it seemed, the glory days of disco were over. 

After serving most of the 3½ year sentence and living in a halfway house for a few months, Rubell and Schrager next moved into the hotel business, and again, had spectacular success, opening Morgans on Madison Avenue, the Royalton on West 44th Street, and the Paramount near Times Square. They also opened a new club, Palladium, where the art of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf adorned the walls.

Rubell — whose sexuality was an open secret but who never publicly came out as gay — tested positive for HIV in 1985.  He died in 1989 at the age of 45.

'When The Brady Bunch first aired in 1969, hiring an openly gay actor as the perfect father of the perfect TV family would not have been possible.'
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Robert Reed, 1932-1992
Story by Irwin Rappaport and The AIDS Memorial 
Recording by Eric McCormack

Robert Reed, the actor best known for his role as Mr. Brady on the long-running TV series The Brady Bunch, kept his homosexuality a secret from the public.  According to his fellow cast members, leading a double life wasn’t easy for him.

Florence Henderson, who played his on-screen wife Carol Brady, recalled in an interview with ABC News:  “He was an unhappy person … I think had Bob not been forced to live this double life, I think it would have dissipated a lot of that anger and frustration.”

I’m Eric McCormack.  Things were different when Will & Grace entered America’s living rooms.  The culture in the U.S. was more accepting of gay actors and gay roles.

But when The Brady Bunch first aired in 1969, hiring an openly gay actor as the perfect father of the perfect TV family would not have been possible.  Even Carol Brady’s backstory had to be changed from a divorcée to a widow in order to placate nervous TV executives. 

The series, which lasted five seasons, led to TV specials, a spin-off series and feature film adaptations, and is still in re-runs today, which is great, but Reed had been trained as a Shakespearean actor.  He had moved to LA to do a TV adaptation of Neil Simon’s Broadway hit, Barefoot in the Park, in which Reed had succeeded Robert Redford as the star.  So a TV sitcom wasn’t what he’d envisioned for his career.  Rather than revel in the success of the show, he was unhappy and felt stuck in a long-running show he didn’t like. 

Nonetheless, the cast became close, according to show creator Sherwood Schwartz who told ABC News: “They were a family.  They became a family.  They became very attached to each other … Even Bob Reed, who was a personal pain to me, loved the kids and they loved him.”

Reed is reported to have personally paid for a trip for his television kids to New York and London.

After The Brady Bunch, Reed was able to get some of the more serious roles he coveted, and was recognized for that work.  He was nominated for Emmy awards for his roles in the mini-series Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man and for the TV series Medical CenterAt the end of his life, he finally found the work that he felt was most fulfilling: teaching Shakespeare at UCLA.

Said a friend, “It was the happiest he ever was.  He just loved it.”

Robert Reed died in 1992 at age 59.  His death certificate listed as cancer as the cause of death, but also showed that he was HIV positive.

'Paul was full of passion and immensely loyal to those he befriended ... He was funny, smart, gossipy, flirtatious, curious, fully present in the moment -- which is to say that he was fully alive except, of course, that he was living with AIDS.'
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Paul Monette, 1945-1995
Story & Recording by David Roman

Paul Monette was my mentor. We met in 1990 when I first moved to Los Angeles.  It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and PauI was one of the era’s most insightful and accomplished voices. I was just beginning my academic career.  Mutual friends in the arts and AIDS activist communities introduced us.  While we were a generation apart we were kindred spirits and forged a quick and easy friendship that lasted until his death in 1995.

I was the first scholar to take his work seriously, something that came easy to me given the beauty and power of Love Alone: 18 Elegies for Rog and Borrowed Time: an AIDS Memoir, his late 1980s masterpieces, books I would teach in my undergraduate courses and write about in academic journals.

Here’s an excerpt from his memoir Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, which he wrote during the AIDS years.  It gives you a sense of his passion and purpose:

“But the fevers are on me now, the virus mad to ravage my last 50 T-cells.
It’s hard to keep the memory at full dazzle with so much loss to mock it.
Roger gone, Craig gone, Cesar gone, Stevie gone.
And this feeling that I’m the last one left in a world where only the ghosts still laugh.
But at least they’re the ghosts of full-grown men,
proof that all of us got that far, free of the traps and the lies.
And at that moment on the brink of summer’s end,
no one would ever tell me again that men like me couldn’t love.”

Paul was full of passion and immensely loyal to those he befriended.  He was drawn to my commitment to his legacy and to AIDS awareness in general, and grateful for my efforts to make his work accessible to a younger queer generation.  He was funny, smart, gossipy, flirtatious, curious, fully present in the moment — which is to say that he was fully alive except, of course, that he was living with AIDS.  He looked out for me, affirming my life choices in ways I very much needed at the time.  I saw him as a tribal elder, some full of wisdom, experience and generosity.

His triumphant moment, when his memoir Becoming a Man won the 1992 National Book Award, remains a milestone in LGBTQ history. I will always remember the joy the recognition offered him and the pride he felt for the various communities he was honored to represent.

We had a very tender inter-generational dynamic, made all the more immediate given his health challenges.

Were we friends? I wasn’t inner-circle by any means, but we spent time together during his final years.  He single-handedly took it upon himself to help me get hired at Yale University, his alma mater, for the first-ever LGBT studies position through The Larry Kramer Initiative.  He advocated for me with letters and phone calls that almost certainly were the reasons I got the job. I owe him everything for that alone.

He died the first year I was teaching at Yale.  Along with David Groff, his editor and friend, I organized his New York City memorial, which we hosted at the Public Theater.  It was essential for us to gather together and celebrate Paul’s life and legacy.

My name is David Roman. Paul Monette was an important figure in my life and the lives of so many others. I loved him for his passion and authenticity and I remember him for his deep love for queer people everywhere, especially those living with HIV.

'When he found out that he had HIV, I think I was one of the first people he told, and we just wept like babies.'
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Herb Ritts, 1952- 2002
Story and Recording by Richard Gere
with introduction by Erik Hyman
Photo © Mark McKenna

Herb Ritts’ photography began when he and his good friend Richard Gere — then an unknown actor — did a photo shoot in 1978 in front of a vintage jacked-up Buick.  That got both of them some attention and led to Herb’s October 1981 cover photo of Brooke Shields for Elle magazine, and the cover of Olivia Newton-John’s album, Physical, in 1981.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Herb photographed some of the biggest celebrities of those decades.  Madonna, Denzel Washington, Cher, Tom Hanks, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Johnny Depp, Courtney Love, Elizabeth Taylor, and many more. Herb directed 14 memorable music videos for major performers including Madonna, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Chris Isaak, Jon Bon Jovi and Mariah Carey, and won 2 MTV video awards.   I’m Erik Hyman, the President of the Herb Ritts Foundation and I was Herb’s partner when he died in 2002.  Here is Herb’s good friend Richard Gere with a tribute to Herb …

* * * * *

Oh, how do I even start with Herb Ritts?  Herb was one of my closest and dearest friends.

I met him in L.A … Hollywood. We had mutual friends and Herb was just the nicest human being. He was sweet, and he was generous and curious and didn’t have a mean bone in his body.  He was kind of extraordinary that way.  He really stood out.

He decided to become a photographer and, through very hard work, he became one of the top fashion photographers in the world.  I was just looking through his stuff.  I mean, it is amazing.  It is classic.  He always wanted to be classic, he didn’t want to be a flavor of this month or year, he really wanted something that lasted.  I think those of us who were photographed by him felt that, that he was he was looking for something real and authentic.

And he was a warm photographer who people relaxed around, he made everyone look great.  I look at his photographs and I see where a lot of them came from, but they have his creativity, and his eye and his heart in them.

When he found out that he had HIV, I think I was one of the first people he told, and we just wept like babies.  He had the best healthcare one could get, but he just weakened.  He was having trouble, but I still remember how shocked I was when I got that call December 26, 2002, that he had passed away, it just didn’t seem possible.

Herb, up to the last moment, really helped a lot of people.  AMFAR … he and I worked on a couple of off-shoots from AMFAR, fast-track kind of scientific medical explorations.  He was always donating his time, energy and photographs to help.  He donated cameras to Africans who were going through this to document what they were experiencing with HIV and AIDS.  And his foundation is very focused on that.

So I think besides his own human legacy to his friends and the people who loved his art, I think his brothers and sisters who succumb to HIV have benefited so much from his willingness to put himself out there and embracing everyone who was touched by this disease that fractured all of us.

Herb was the best!

'I have a vision of Emile reunited with all the dancers we’ve lost to AIDS and dancers we’ve lost over the eons, and I think to myself, my goodness, what a gorgeous performance that would make.'

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Emile Ardolino, 1943-1993
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Whoopi Goldberg

Photo of Emile Ardolino with Whoopi Goldberg © Touchstone Pictures (all rights reserved)

Hey, I’m Whoopi Goldberg.  Did you know that Emile Ardolino directed me in Sister Act?  You remember that movie where I play a nightclub singer who witnesses a murder, hides from the mob in a convent, and turns the dreary choir into singing and dancing sensation.  You know the movie, it was released in 1992 and was a huge hit.  At the 1993 Golden Globe awards, I was nominated for best actress, and the picture was nominated for best comedy or musical.  But in November of that same year, Emile Ardolino passed away from AIDS at the age of 50.

It’s really interesting, no one on the set knew Emile was ill so his passing came as a shock.  And if you’ve ever been on a set and you watch actors and directors talk about what they think needs to happen, it can be very animated and sometimes it seems a little combative.  And so I had to really wrack my brain to see if I had, you know, exacerbated everything, I don’t think I did. But I have to tell you, we did a good film, we made a good film, he was really a good director.

Making movies about dancing, however, was Emile’s passion.  Dirty Dancing, starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, was perhaps Emile’s best-known picture featuring dance.  But it was for his documentary He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ about ballet dancer Jacques D’Amboise’s work with children that he won an Academy Award, two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award in 1983.

According to his New York Times obituary, he loved capturing dance on film because when you’re watching dance on television, “you can be in five seats at the same time — every time you change an angle.”

Emile produced and often directed the acclaimed television series Dance in America from 1975 to 1983.  For that series, he received a Director’s Guild award and three DGA nominations, and won another Emmy award.  Over the course of his career, Emile was nominated for over a dozen Emmys.  His documentary of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker was released just days after his death.

The other films directed by Emile include Chances Are, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Cybil Shepherd, and Three Men and a Little Lady, starring Tom Selleck, Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg.  His last picture, Gypsy, starring Bette Midler, was released after his passing.  He won an Emmy as best director, the picture was nominated for best TV movie or mini-series, and Bette won the Emmy for best actress.

The thing about Emile was, he was a gentle soul, he was a gentle soul who loved the idea of being able to move your arms, and move your feet, and to bring joy.  I have a vision of Emile reunited with all the dancers we’ve lost to AIDS and dancers we’ve lost over the eons, and I think to myself, my goodness, what a gorgeous performance that would make.  I’m in no rush to see it now, but maybe just thinking about it is enough.

'Every young man in ballet for future generations will be indebted to the mark that Rudolf Nureyev made on the art form. He has shaped the way we will craft our art forever.'
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Rudolf Nureyev, 1938-1993
Story & Recording by Christopher Wheeldon

The great male ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev arrived in this world with a grand cinematic gesture on a train speeding across the Soviet Union, and departed having changed what it is to be a man in a female-dominated art form.

His onstage presence personified a marriage of masculinity and femininity combined. A panther and an exotic rose, magnetic and indisputably singular.  In 1961 and already an established young star in Russia, Nureyev risked his life in a stand off with the KGB and French authorities at Paris’ Orly Airport. This defection to the West from the USSR made him a subject of world television news, and perhaps the first internationally-renowned name in ballet. His subsequent relationship with London’s Royal Ballet and his famed partnership with Margot Fonteyn, who was remarkably 20 years his senior, further cemented Nureyev as an almost godlike figure on the international stages of the ballet world. 

Rudolf Nureyev’s life and career were wrapped in a blanket of excess and luxury, often reflected in his unique stagings of classical ballets, largely for the Paris Opera, where he served as Artistic Director until his death in 1993. 

His voracious sexual appetite for young men was renowned, and tightly woven through the more permanent romantic relationships of his life.  Ex-lovers putting up with short-lived dalliances with men understanding that even this fueled his artistic creativity and translated into the stage creature that his audiences adored. 

When I was a young ballet student at The Royal Ballet School, Nureyev was at the top of my list of influences. Never feeling particularly unique as a dancer myself, I marveled at his ability to transcend technique and exist onstage in a cloud of sensual perfume.

It was 1989, I was 16 and at lunch break, I was passing the company canteen. I glanced in and to my surprise there sat Rudolf Nureyev alone.  He signaled for me to come in.  I got closer and he spoke to me in an accent still rich with his homeland. 

“Carry me to studio, boy.”  That’s all he said. 

I recall thinking at the time that I wasn’t the strongest of young men, a bit of a late developer, but there was no way I wasn’t going to oblige him. Wrapped around my shoulders, cradled like a baby and weak with the AIDS virus that was draining away the life force from this indisputable poet of movement, I carried the great Nureyev up to the Covent Garden Studio. Three flights of stairs, praying that my knees wouldn’t buckle.

At this very moment in time, I was struggling to come to terms with my own sexuality. So afraid to come out to my parents who would fear my contracting the very illness that was already raging through this great man’s body. I left him in a chair at the front of the studio and said goodbye.

Three or four days later, he performed the role of Mercutio in a gala performance celebrating the 70th birthday of his most famous onstage partner Dame Margot Fonteyn.  His performance somewhat diminished, but still there were Tartarian flashes of the fire that had ignited the world stages.

Four years later, he would be carried once again. This time out onto the stage of The Palais Garnier in Paris to receive rapturous applause on the opening of his sumptuous production of La Bayadere and to receive France’s highest cultural honor, Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.  This was his final curtain call. 

Every young man in ballet for future generations will be indebted to the mark that Rudolf Nureyev made on the art form. He has shaped the way we will craft our art forever.

'Angie, who was known for her keen sense of fashion, was featured in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris is Burning about the drag balls and the houses that fiercely competed to win the trophies.'
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Angie Xtravaganza, 1964-1993
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Dominique Jackson

Angie Xtravaganza was a Puerto Rican trans performer and the Mother of the House of Xtravaganza.

Her birth family was Catholic, had 13 children, and lived in the South Bronx. Beginning when she was 13 years old, Angie started taking care of other kids who had been rejected by their birth families.  Those kids lived and gathered in Times Square and on the Christopher Street Piers where Angie met Hector “Xtravaganza” Valle.

She started doing drag and performing at Harlem drag balls in 1980 when she was 16.  She and Hector Valle founded the House of Xtravaganza in 1982 when she was 18 years old. It was the first house in the New York ball scene that was primarily Latino and was formed in part because of discrimination against Latino performers in that era.

I am Dominique Jackson, and I played the role of Elektra Abundance in the award-winning television series “Pose” which chronicled the New York drag ball scene.

Timmy Dean Lee recalled, “I miss seeing Angie at the Garage. We took a liking to each other right away when we first met.  My friend Big Lou would introduce us because Angie had admired some of my hand-painted clothing.  It was because of that introduction that I was soon painting clothes for many of the Xtravaganzas, attending the Balls and, on occasion, honored to be asked to be a judge.  The kind, loving but tough Mother Angie.”

Angie, who was known for her keen sense of fashion, was featured in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning about the drag balls and the houses that fiercely competed to win the trophies.  The film won its own trophies: the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, and awards at international film festivals in Berlin, Toronto, San Francisco and Seattle, along with Best Documentary Awards from film critics in New York, Los Angeles and from the National Film Critics Circle.

Angie was diagnosed with AIDS in 1991.  Despite her illness, she took care of her kids.

Frank Xtravaganza told Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham: “The last time she went out, it was St. Valentine’s Day. I’d had a date, but he stood me up, and I was bummed out about it. Angie was really sick by then, but she said, ‘Miss Thing, we’re going out.’ She put on make-up and her wig. She wore jeans and a top that showed her belly button, which was about the only place by then that didn’t have KS lesions. She teased up her wig, sprayed it, and we went to the Sound Factory Bar.”

After she died alone in the hospital in 1993, her ashes were sent back to her family in the South Bronx who buried her with her birth name, Angel Segarra, on the plaque.

In April 1993, Angie’s death and the deaths of others featured in the Paris is Burning documentary were written about in a New York Times article titled “Paris Has Burned” featuring Mother Angie on the front page of the Sunday Style section.

In 1995, Michael Cunningham published an article “The Slap of Love” about Angie and about drag performer and house mother Dorian Corey.

As Hector Xtravaganza said to Cunningham:  “She believed in me when I didn’t believe in me.  We all felt that way.  She believed in us.  She was my gay mother, my friend.  She put so much shit in my head, just the slap of love.  And it woke me up.”

'Existence is a circle. Death sweeps the person back from where he came. Death is not an end.'
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Mervyn “White Eagle” Moore, 1951-1995
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport and The AIDS Memorial
Recording by Cheyenne Jackson

White Eagle, a Native American opera singer, was born September 6, 1951, with the name Mervyn Moore.

His mother was white and his father, a traveling Christian evangelist, was from the Rosebud Sioux tribe, a branch of the Lakota people. Mervyn changed his name to White Eagle in 1982 and went on to be regarded as a key figure for Native American youth.

According to a 1985 profile of him in People magazine, when Mervyn was watching TV at age five, living with his family in a trailer park in Rapid City, South Dakota, he was inspired by what felt to him like a magical performance of opera by Mario Lanza. He became the first American Indian to sing leading roles in both opera and American musical theater. 

During his short career, White Eagle performed over 4,000 concerts. In 1989, he sang at the Inaugural Gala for President George H.W. Bush, accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In 1991, he again performed for President Bush at the golden anniversary of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. When his production schedule allowed it, White Eagle performed at fundraisers at a home his father ran for Indian orphans in South Dakota. He told People magazine that he was determined to be a role model for young native Americans.

“We can keep our heritage, we can keep our culture,” he said. “But we have to assimilate to survive. The kids look up to me, and they think maybe they can be artists, too.”

White Eagle developed AIDS-related dementia in 1994 and died of AIDS in Mission, South Dakota, on July 7, 1995.  He was 43 years old.

Toward the end of his life, he said, “Existence is a circle. Death sweeps the person back from where he came. Death is not an end.”

'This/MY generation of artists — and OUR audiences — disappeared. You are standing on our generational, grave like, culturally curtailed, and tribally intrinsic sinkhole.'
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Pride Tirade 2021
Story and Recording by John Kelly

Happy as I limp my wrist in pride for us — the outcast, the maligned, the persecuted, the entrapped, the murdered, the sweated, the followed, the avoided, the violated, the blackmailed, the serial-tattooed, the sneered, the ostracized, the erased, the hated, the invisible, the raped, the tolerated, the patronized, the parodied, the joke, the denigrated, the evicted, the diminished, the emasculated, the de-promed, the expelled, the therapized, the shock-treated, the lobotomized, the numbed and the drugged, the lost, the dead, the erased, the removed from tangible history, the persistent dwellers in blessed proximity, the survivors, the warriors, the steadfast, the persistent, the inclusive, the non-ageist, the color blind, the expansive, the essential, the imaginative, the true, the warriors, the activists both stewing and shout spewing, the long term survivors demanding to be honored, the generational glue that is gold, the striving and striding toward our place in the sun that demands to be respected, and the imperative that we acknowledge that the AIDS pandemic ruptured our inter-generational dialogue, and our personal, systemic, collective and more generally cadenced growth. 

This/MY generation of artists — and OUR audiences — disappeared.

YOU are standing on our generational, gravelike, culturally curtailed, and tribally intrinsic sinkhole. You may be afloat and faring ok on the gravitas of a vast family of ghosts and heart shattering loss, of dead young unresolved spirits.  Advance, as we had done, in your own way and manner, and as you continue to grow and transform the world, please aim to bless the ground on which you re-trace our analog step.

WE walk the very same path.

'[Alexis] was ahead of her time. Despite her career suffering… she taught us to stay true to ourselves and fought for us to see a world that we had just not caught up to yet.'
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Alexis Arquette, 1969-2016
Story & Recording by Patricia, Richmond, David, and Rosanna Arquette
Photo by John Roecker

Patricia Arquette:

We are honored to be asked to memorialize our sister Alexis Arquette.  You’ll first be hearing me, Patricia, then our brother Richmond, then David, then our sister Rosanna.

I would like to highlight what an incredible artist Alexis Arquette was.  As an award-winning actor, her works spanned the screen, theater and cabaret.  As a cabaret singer and M.C. performing at top-level nightclubs, Alexis was a powerhouse, often performing as her self-invented alter ego “Eva Destruction.”

On stage, she starred in Libra with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company for director John Malkovich.  Alexis received praise in VH1’s reality show The Surreal Life in 2005, embodying a strong trans role model at a time when transgender representation was literally non-existent.

Her long career in film began with her widely heralded performance as Georgette in Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn.  She continued with notable performances in Terminal Bliss, American Playhouse, Hollow Boy, Of Mice and Men, Threesome, Jumpin’ at the Boneyard, Grief, Jack Be Nimble, Pulp Fiction, The Wedding Singer, Bride of Chucky, Killer Drag Queens on Dope, and Wigstock, among many others.

Alexis studied Fine Arts at Otis Parsons.  Like her, her paintings are beautiful, evocative, strong, uninhibited, and spirited, encompassing diverse themes such as fantasy, other-worldliness, religious struggle, and erotic art.

Her series of video compilations from local television documented societal norms of the time, capturing blatant anti-LGBT bias.  These works also examine human sexuality, desire and desirability through her observing gaze.

When Alexis was dying, she said about her nephew’s work as an artist, “You signed your name on the tree of life.”  But I want to say, “Alexis, that you are Darling, you are Brave One, you signed your name on the tree of life, and you will never be forgotten.”

Richmond Arquette:

Alexis was an original, wildly creative, fun and funny, every bit her own person.  Her absence continues to be deeply felt.  The world is missing out and I wish she were still alive.

Alexis grew up with a president who refused to even mention AIDS by name, let alone take any measures to prevent its spread.  She heard the blowhards who judged, criticized and condemned her entire life.  I believe the insensitivity in our culture is part of what wore her down.

Death is often reduced to statistics, as if each number isn’t a complete life, intricately interwoven with the lives of those who love them.  The recent worldwide effort to address COVID begs the question, why is it not always this way?  Why are we not as a species more reverent of life?  

I promise you that humanity would be richer if Alexis were still around, and I’m sorry for those of you who never got to be around her.

David Arquette:

Alexis was always ahead of her time.  I shared a room growing up with Alexis.  He taught me everything I knew about art, Hollywood, fashion, music.  She would turn me on to bands years before they became popular.

I’m going to bounce back and forth between pronouns, because that’s what Alexis did.

She was a fighter, always standing up for herself and others.  Anyone who knew Alexis loved her.  The gangsters, the skaters, the club kids, the runaways.  She was a Pied Piper wherever she or he went.

When Alexis decided to live fully as a woman, she also decided to only play female or trans roles as an actress.  Again, she was ahead of her time.  Despite her career suffering because of that decision, she taught us to stay true to ourselves and fought for us to see a world that we had just not caught up to yet.

Rosanna Arquette:

Alexis passed away before we had today’s language around respectful gender identity.  There was no “They/Them” yet.

In this moment of reflection on who our sister was, I’m reminded of just one of the many moments with her where her individuality was crystalized for me.  It was a conversation we had in the hours before she left this life.   I asked Alexis what clothes she wanted to be dressed in before her cremation.  Alexis had every kind of outfit, every type of fluid expression.  Fashion was one of the many ways that she shared her creative voice.  And Alexis answered, “It doesn’t matter!  Me!  I’m just me!”  We didn’t have the pronouns “They/Them” yet, but that was her message in her final moment with me.

It’s important to recognize and memorialize when any artist breaks new ground.  Our sister Alexis Arquette was a pioneer.  She was compelling, hypnotic, she drew you in.  And she knew she had this power, whether with an individual friend or an endless audience of strangers.  She could instantly hold you in the palm of her hand.  And when she did, she showed you, me, us, all how to live a life fully self-expressed.  She showed us where our own power resides.

Alexis challenged me to be who I am in every moment that I live with fearlessness and pride.  In this moment of reflection on who was Alexis Arquette, they were a bad-ass!