Stories of Community

'We’d go up to a line of cops with tear gas grenades and horses and clubs.  And link arms and do a can-can. Really threw them off guard.'
- Kiyoshi Kuromiya
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Kiyoshi Kuromiya, 1943-2000
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by George Takei
Photo provided by Philadelphia FIGHT

Kiyoshi Kuromiya’s birth in 1943 in a Japanese-American internment camp, ironically called Heart Mountain, set the tone for a life of advocating for civil rights and against war.

He dedicated his life to educating and empowering people.  As a personal assistant to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Kuromiya, along with Dr. King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and James Forman, suffered attacks by the sheriff’s deputies and their volunteer crew on March 13, 1965, while leading a group of Black high-school students on a voter registration march to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. His head wounds required 20 stitches.

Soon thereafter, Kuromiya marched with Dr. King and was beaten during the Selma march of 1965, and later helped care for the King children in the week of Dr. King’s funeral.  That same year, he marched in the 1965 gay rights protest in Philadelphia.

In 1967, Kuromiya joined the Yippies, Alan Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman in a Vietnam war protest and headline-grabbing performance at the Pentagon where they used an ancient Aramaic chant in an attempt to levitate and exorcise demons from the Pentagon.  He was a founder of Gay Liberation Front-Philadelphia and brought a campy spin to protests and demonstrations.

“We’d go up to a line of cops with tear gas grenades and horses and clubs. And link arms and do a can-can. Really threw them off guard.”

Kuromiya was an openly-gay delegate to the 1970 Black Panther Constitutional Convention where he conducted a workshop on gay rights and where gay liberation was endorsed.    He edited ACT UP’s “Standard of Care” publication, the first of its kind to educate people living with HIV on how to care for themselves. He founded the Critical Care Project which provided free internet access and a24-hour hotline for people with HIV in the Philadelphia region and whose newsletter brought treatment information to thousands across the world.

Kuromiya advocated for treatment designed with community input, for the entire HIV/AIDS community, including people of color, IV drug users and women.  He sent newsletters to hundreds of incarcerated people to make sure they had up-to-date information on treatment of HIV and AIDS.  He participated in the successful lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act, ensuring that freedom of speech on the internet, including medical information related to AIDS, was preserved.  He was the lead plaintiff in Kuromiya v. The United States, a class action lawsuit seeking to legalize medical marijuana, including for use by AIDS patients.

A life begun in barbed wire incarceration and defined by the quest for freedom.  Kiyoshi Kuromiya died of complications from AIDS in the year 2000.

'If I didn't play any song that reminded anyone of AIDS, there would be no music to be played.'

DJing at Eagle Nest
Story by Jimmy Perigny

Here is a story I would like to share on World AIDS Day:

When I was hired as Friday Resident DJ at Eagle Nest NYC in ’94, I was forbidden to play any disco or Saint music by the owner, Jack Modica. One day, I sneaked the Main Event B Streisand Extended version on around midnight.

Jack ran into the booth and ripped the record off the turntable and proclaimed, “You are not not to play any disco, because it reminds people of the sad deaths from AIDS.”

I responded, “If I didn’t play any song that reminded anyone of AIDS, there would be no music to be played.”

He thought about it and later agreed. So, I struck a deal to play only one song after the bar stopped serving … the last song. Patrons mostly stayed to hear my last song, which was a tribute to the Saint and our friends we danced with that passed on.

I remember the quotes distinctly to this day.

'Mark not only shaped my adolescence, he shaped my ministry because I vowed to welcome all in the Church and celebrate that all — especially those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender — are created in God's image, because my friend Mark was created in God's image!'
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Mark Morgan, 1961-1993
Story & Recording by Rev. Dr. Ginny Brown Daniel

My friend Mark Morgan (1961-1993) died of “the flu.”  I miss him every day.

He gave me my first job when I was 15 years old in 1986. Mark owned Toomer’s Drug Store in Auburn, Alabama. This was his dream as a pharmacist and a huge Auburn football fan, because the drug store was where we all rolled the oak trees with toilet paper whenever we won a game.

I knew Mark was gay, but we never talked about it because it was the mid-80s in Alabama, and Mark was Southern Baptist. I grieve that I could never talk to him about being gay, but I saw how much he struggled with being a Christian and gay. I assumed that when he was ready, he would share.

Each year, Mark took a vacation to New England.  He would tell us about this area called Provincetown and share how much he loved it there. Even then, I knew in the marrow of my being that he went there so that for one week a year, he could truly be as God created him without judgment or shame.

Mark was an active leader in our church and when I was asked to preach the sermon on Youth Sunday, Mark helped me prepare my delivery. I vividly remember practicing my sermon in the sanctuary as he walked down the aisle giving me pointers.

I stopped working at Toomer’s in 1991 but often saw Mark until I heard at Christmas 1992 that he was sick. I really wanted to visit him to tell him my exciting news that I was going to seminary to be a minister. But his parents told me he was in the hospital and was too sick for anyone to visit him. When I asked what he had, they quickly told me and everyone else in town that he had a bad case of the flu.

Mark died on January 5, 1993.  I have never said this out loud, but I will say it here in this holy ground of @theaidsmemorial:  My friend, Mark Morgan, died from complications of AIDS.

Mark not only shaped my adolescence, he shaped my ministry because I vowed to welcome all in the Church and celebrate that all — especially those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender — are created in God’s image because my friend Mark was created in God’s image!

'Ed had a secret that he kept from his friends: He was in the United States illegally ... This explained why he never sought medical attention after being diagnosed with AIDS.'
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Ed Junior, 1982-2015
Story & Recording by Dave Coleman

Ed Junior had the voice of an angel, but only those of us involved in the karaoke scene of southern California got to hear it.  Affectionately known by his friends as Rihanna, he could match the best singers of our time like @WhitneyHouston, @CelineDion, @Siamusic and Freddie Mercury.

But Ed had a secret that he kept from his friends: He was in the United States illegally.  This explained why he never had a good job that lasted for long and why he never had a bank account.  It also explained why he never sought medical attention after being diagnosed with AIDS.  He didn’t have medical insurance, and thought he’d be deported back to Mexico and outed to his family.

Ed was too afraid to enter a hospital until the disease deteriorated his body so badly that he was collapsing and couldn’t hide it any longer.  Friends admitted him into the hospital.  He wasn’t deported.  He never left the hospital.  A few weeks later, he was dead.

As Ed laid on the hospital bed dying from AIDS, I would play his favorite songs for him, like Rihanna, “Shine bright like a diamond / Find light in the beautiful sea / I choose to be happy.”

Ed’s family came to the United States to claim his body.  A celebration of Ed was held at his favorite gay bar to raise money for funeral expenses, where we all tried to sing in his memory.  His family came and met all of Ed’s friends.  They shed tears for the loss of their child, but also happy tears for the amount of love this tight knit community had for this angelic human being.

Ed’s voice and kindness touched all of our lives.  He will be remembered always.  He shone bright like a diamond in our sky.

'My fairy godfathers may be gone, but their rainbow-colored fairy dust flows in my veins forever.'
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Lulu & Her Fairy Godfathers
Story & Recording by Lulu from San Francisco

When I was a little girl, we rented out a room in our large Haight-Ashbury flat to generate extra income. It was always rented to a young gay man, probably because my mum, a single parent, felt it was the safest and most sensible option.

Their room was right next to mine in the front of the house and included a sitting room that we called the “library,” because it had floor to ceiling bookcases, big puffy pillows on the floor and comfy nooks to settle in for reading or taking a nap. It was a common area in the house, but was mainly for our renter’s use, though I could often be found perched on the big overstuffed chair, peering out the window to observe the view of the always entertaining corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets.

If I wasn’t daydreaming, I had my nose buried in a book; such is the life of an only child in a household with no TV. Inevitably, our housemate would slide open the French doors that divided their room to the library and slowly, gently, tenderly, carefully, our friendship would unfold.

The men who lived with us all referred to themselves as my “fairy godfathers” – their term, not mine. As a child, I didn’t understand the tongue in cheek we’re-taking-our-power-back meaning. Once I did, I both grimaced and grinned.

We had about five young men live with us over the years. This was in the late ’70s – early ’80s, before gay people could easily adopt kids or were even really allowed to think, dream about becoming parents in some cases. I was the only child in their circle of friends and was often invited to tag along to their ever so glamorous soirées, Oscar parties, holiday fêtes, and any other over-the-top event that might just really be a Tuesday night but always seemed like so much more. These outings gave my mum nights off from mum-ing and me, adventures to be fondly remembered decades later.

I often found myself sitting crossed-leg in the middle of one of their friend’s exquisitely decorated antique-filled living rooms in the Castro district on a priceless oriental rug, beading necklaces or playing with antique paper dolls (theirs, not mine), Judy blasting in the background, watching a group of lively young men gossip and flirt and dance and share stories about their hopes, dreams, and fears.

I heard them talk about how they had escaped to San Francisco from places like Iowa, Kentucky, Texas, so that they could live and love freely. They had all been disowned by their families for being gay. They had to create their own families, and I was privileged to play the role of the little sister, niece, cousin they had to leave behind or, on an even deeper level, the child they never believed they would ever be able to have. It was from them that I learned my lifelong mantra: Friends are the family we choose for ourselves. And love is love.

Sorry, Lin, but they said it first.

Of course, I was much too young to really understand the implications of all of this, but what I did know was that I felt so grown up and cherished in their presence.

I knew there was something special about these men.  To me they were worldly and fancy and sparkly and they knew a little something about everything. And most importantly, they taught me what they knew.

From them, I learned about music and fashion and art and literature and Broadway and why black and white movies of the ’40s were the best movies and that you must always bake with butter, never margarine and that cookie dough is calorie-free and the power of the LBD and that one must always dress up when going downtown and the difference between Barbra Streisand and Barbara Stanwick, Bette Davis and Bette Midler, Oscar the Grouch and THE Oscars, and the importance of wearing sunglasses, even in the fog, to prevent wrinkles, darling.

They were men of great style, class, elegance, intellect, wit, charm, creativity, beauty and fun. They were incredibly cultured and had exquisite taste. My memories of my time with them run deep:

 – Going to the “Nutcracker” every Christmas Eve

Having high tea at Liberty House

– Lip syncing and dancing to the Andrew Sisters “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (I know all the words still, to this day)

– Taking in the Christmas decorations downtown at Macy’s and I.Magnin’s, and ending the day with a cable car ride to Ghirardelli Square for hot chocolate with extra cherries and whipped cream

– Lengthy sermons on the essential need for dust ruffles and monogrammed stationery and silk dressing gowns

To a young child, these experiences leave a mark, a permanent flourish of rainbow-colored glitter sprinkled on her soul.

To my child’s eye, mind and heart, these men were magical. They were my playmates, the most delightful big brothers to a shy, often sad and lonely little girl. They were fun and silly and played dress up and always let me be Cher to their Sonny – a major sacrifice on their part, to be sure!

They told me I was a glittering gem and that I was “fabulous” and they meant it in a REAL way, not a “hey girl hey” way, though we had those moments, too.

They treated me with respect. They didn’t patronize or pander to me. They expected me to keep up my end of the conversation, regardless of the topic or my lack of knowledge about it. Local politics or Best Dressed at the Oscars, my opinion mattered to them.

They didn’t baby me. They treated me like an equal. But that didn’t mean that they didn’t spoil and coddle me. They made me feel special and valued and respected. Perhaps because society didn’t offer them the same respect as gay men, they felt compelled to make sure I was always treated as a whole person.

For a young girl of color, this went far in developing my sense of self and worth and pride in being who I was.

They also showered me with gifts, some that I still have to this day:

– A beautiful hand-woven throw made on an old-fashioned loom

– A hand-beaded necklace with an antique tiny bell at its center (too tiny now for my adult neck but still cherished)

– A beautiful white cake stand from Tiffany’s, an odd gift for a 10-year-old girl, you might think, but as the gift giver said when he handed me the HUGE blue box, “Sweetie, if I’ve taught you nothing else, please remember this: The light blue box is always the BEST box!”

I still have those treasures, but I no longer have my fairy godfathers.

They all eventually succumbed to AIDS. They were all in long-term relationships. Their partners died, too. By the early ’90s, they were all gone.

These men were the first and most prominent adult male figures in my young life; in truth, the only father figures I had growing up. I know for a fact that it is because of my time with them that I am the person, the woman, the friend, the activist, I am today.

They didn’t live to see the many strides and advances that the LGBTQ community has made. If they were still alive today, they would be at the front of the line continuing to fight the good fight for the strides still to be made.

But they aren’t, so I do it for them. It is the least I can do to honor their legacy and repay them for all they have given me.

My description of these men might seem almost disrespectful in its seemingly stereotypical depiction of gay men, but these were the men I knew, as I knew them, when I knew them. This was who they were, at a time when the gay community in San Francisco was thriving and carefree, when the pulse of the disco beat of the day seemed to ring in sync with the beat of the cultural awakening that was taking the world by gloriously gay rainbow storm on the streets of San Francisco.

I am so lucky that I spent my formative years as their fairy goddaughter, wrapped up in the glow of this historical time. But my golden carriage turned into a pumpkin well before midnight of my young adulthood dawned and my fairy god-fathers vanished with it.

I am a better human being because I knew them. THIS, I know for sure.

My fairy godfathers may be gone, but their rainbow-colored fairy dust flows in my veins forever.

They had their Pride. And they gave me mine, too.

Love,

Lulu

'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.

'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.

'I am here and I am present and I am fully awake. And I love my life and I am married to the greatest human on the planet and I have spirits around me that bathe me in light.'

Spared, Blessed and Fully Awake
Story by Alexandra Billings

When it happened it was not a surprise. It was not out of left field and it was not unexpected. When it happened it was happening to everyone. Everyone I knew. Everyone around me. A black curtain had been thrown over the heads of us all and smothered us all in a cloud of decaying flesh and bloodied foot prints.

And the stench of the AIDS virus infiltrated the inside of my being and it is still potent. It is still thriving. Because I still have AIDS.

And I have outlived most everyone I knew, and we were in our 20s and we were in our 30s and we were still young and still having sex and still doing drugs and still running and jumping and skipping and singing and being queer. And yet one by one, we were being ticked off like ducks at a carnival. In the heart. In the brain. In the limbs.

And for some unknown reason . . . some of us were spared. And it is daily. And it is not gone. And it is getting worse. And it is still potent and it is still fresh. And it still lives in me and one day it will kill me. I know that.

But I am here and I am present and I am fully awake. And I love my life and I am married to the greatest human on the planet and I have spirits around me that bathe me in light.

And so I am truly blessed. Not that I have this disease, but that I learn from it. I remember very well when it happened. Because it seems like it happened yesterday.