Stories of Compassion

'The mom sat down next to him and they began to talk. After a few hours, she left but she returned the next day and the day after that.'
00:00

Life & Death in the AIDS Ward
Story & Recording by Ed Wolf

I remember a patient on the AIDS unit whose mother arrived too late.  She was traveling by bus, because she was afraid of planes. But he died before she could get to San Francisco.

We put a sign on his door, “See Nurse Before Entering!” When she arrived, a doctor took her into the room and sat with her and the body.  We could hear her crying.

Afterwards, she walked down to the visitor’s lounge. Ricky, homeless and only 18, was on the couch watching television. He was the youngest patient with AIDS I’d ever met.

The mom sat down next to him and they began to talk. After a few hours, she left — but she returned the next day, and the day after that.

By the end of the week, funds had been raised for two airline tickets. Ricky had assured her that flying was safe, and she was taking him home.

'That interview saved my life. My mother always had PTL on and I was 12 when I heard your interview ... I suddenly knew that I could be gay and Christian, and I didn't have to kill myself.'
00:00

Rev. Dr. Stephen Pieters:  Survivor & Trailblazer
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Jessica  Chastain

The Rev. Dr. A. Stephen Pieters is an AIDS survivor, an AIDS activist and a pastor who ministered to people with AIDS from the earliest years of the AIDS epidemic.  Steve received his Master of Divinity Degree from McCormick Theological Seminary in 1979 and became pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Hartford, Connecticut.

In 1982, Steve resigned his position as pastor in Hartford and moved to Los Angeles.  A series of severe illnesses in 1982 and 1983 eventually led to a diagnosis in 1984 of AIDS, Kaposi’s Sarcoma and stage four lymphoma.  One doctor predicted he would not survive to see 1985.

And yet, 1985 proved to be a watershed year for Rev. Pieters.  He became “patient number 1” on suramin, the first anti-viral drug trial for HIV which led to a complete remission of his lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma.  Unfortunately, suramin was found to be extremely toxic, and it came close to killing him twice.

Also in 1985, during his suramin treatments, he appeared via satellite as a guest on Tammy Faye Bakker’s talk show, Tammy’s House Party, on the Bakkers’ PTL Christian network.  Tammy Faye took a huge risk with her evangelical Christian audience by inviting Pieters on the program and advocating for compassion and love for gay people and people with AIDS.

I’m Jessica Chastain, and portraying Tammy Faye in her interview with Rev. Steve Pieters was one of the highlights of my role in the 2021 film The Eyes of Tammy Faye.  The interview was done via satellite because of fears that the PTL crew would not be comfortable with an in-person interview.

Steve told People magazine that: “She wanted to be the first televangelist to interview a gay man with AIDS.  It was a very scary time and there was still a lot of fear about AIDS and about being around a person with AIDS.  And I thought the opportunity to reach an audience that I would never otherwise reach was too valuable to pass by.  I’ve had people come up to me in restaurants and tell me, ‘That interview saved my life. My mother always had PTL on, and I was 12 when I heard your interview, and I suddenly knew that I could be gay and Christian, and I didn’t have to kill myself.'”

Tammy Faye’s support for people with AIDS and the gay and lesbian community continued.  Bringing
along her two children, she visited AIDS hospices and hospitals, went to LGBT-friendly churches, and
participated in gay pride parades.

When the Bakkers’ PTL network and Christian amusement park were embroiled in scandal and she became the subject of jokes and Saturday Night Live skits, she said in her last interview, “When we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that.”

Tammy Faye passed away from cancer in 2007, but Rev. Pieters continues to thrive both personally and professionally.  He has served on numerous boards, councils, and task forces related to AIDS and
ministering to those with AIDS, and his series of articles about living with AIDS was collected into the
book I’m Still Dancing.  For many years, Pieters served as a chaplain at the Chris Brownlie Hospice,
where he discovered a gift for helping people heal into their deaths.

Pieters was one of twelve invited guests at the first AIDS Prayer Breakfast at the White House with U.S. President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and the National AIDS Policy Coordinator in connection with World AIDS Day 1993, and President Clinton spoke about Rev. Pieters in his World AIDS Day speech on December 1, 1993.

Pieters has been a featured speaker for AIDS Project Los Angeles and his story is told in the
books Surviving AIDS by Michael Callen, Voices That Care by Neal Hitchens, and Don’t Be Afraid Anymore by Rev. Troy D. Perry.  He has received many awards for his ministry in the AIDS crisis from
church organizations, the Stonewall Democratic Club in Los Angeles, and the West Hollywood City
Council.

In 2019, his work in AIDS Ministry, including his Tammy Faye Bakker interview, became part of the LGBT collection in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.  Pieters left his position with UFMCC AIDS Ministry in 1997, earned a masters’ degree in clinical psychology, and worked as a psychotherapist at Alternatives, an LGBT drug and alcohol treatment center in Glendale, California.

Now retired, Pieters is busier than ever with speaking engagements, interviews, and finishing up his memoir, My Journey Through AIDS (I Keep on Dancing).  He has been a proud, singing member of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles since 1994.

'I met Aaron when he was 9 months old and cared for him until he died at the age of 18 months. This photograph was taken on his first and only birthday.'
00:00

Baby Aaron
Story & Recording by Raymond Black

In the late 1980s and early 90s, I volunteered with an organization that placed volunteers in hospitals and group homes to work with children with HIV/AIDS.

I met Aaron when he was 9 months old and cared for him until he died at the age of 18 months. This photograph was taken on his first and only birthday.

The women who were full-time caregivers at the home used to call me Aaron’s father because of our bond. Both his parents had already died. The women used to say he seemed jealous if he saw me holding another child.

Aaron was very sick. His lungs filled constantly with mucus. I was often asked to gently pat him on the back while he was given medication through a nebulizer. I could tell how much stress it caused his tiny body. Seeing him suffer was not easy.

When I spoke, Aaron would put his little hand against my jaw as if he was feeling the words as they formed in my mouth. On his first birthday, I brought him some presents and we had a little party on the ward. He was healthier than he had ever been before. He didn’t need to remain attached to tubes. I was told I could take him up to the rooftop garden.

I walked Aaron around the garden, holding him like I am in this photo. Just him and I, alone outside under a beautiful blue sky. An airplane flew overhead and he looked up. I told him about airplanes. I showed him flowers, rubbed them against his cheek so he could feel them. I just kept talking to him. He held my jaw as I spoke the entire time, feeling the words as they formed.

When Aaron died months later, the women at the home told me that was the only day of his life that he went outside other than for trips to the hospital.

Aaron was moved to a hospital for his last few days and placed in an oxygen tent. I went every day after work. While I was not present when he died late one night, I leaned in under the tent whenever I was there and never stopped talking to him.

Aaron was one of the reasons that I joined ACT UP. His memory fueled my activism. We lost so much in this epidemic. So much suffering. So much death of those far too young to die.

'It's taken me a long time to find forgiveness for them, to not view their deaths as them abandoning me to live with HIV on my own. But in my darkest moments of living with HIV, I've found compassion for them in ways I never thought I would.'
00:00

Legacy of Survival
Story & Recording by Brenda Goodrow

When I was 6 years old, my adoptive mother told me I was born HIV-positive. That same year, in 2003, my biological father passed away from AIDS-related complications. His family still believes that it was non-AIDS related cancer, but my childhood nurse, who also took care of him at the adult clinic, told me that he refused his antiretroviral treatment until he died. Suicide by AIDS. I grew up telling people it was a drug overdose.

When my birth mom, who everyone expected to pass away from AIDS sooner than later, died when I was in high school in 2009, I was finally able to tell people one truth about my parents: My mom was a homeless drug addict who died of hypothermia outside of a hospital in the dead of winter. I always left out the part about her being HIV positive, though. It was easier to keep my secret that way.

It’s taken me a long time to find forgiveness for them; to not view their deaths as them abandoning me to live with HIV on my own. But in my darkest moments of living with HIV, I found compassion for them in ways I never thought I would. I realized they were just humans who were hurting, too, and if they felt anything close to what I have then I understand why my mom kept choosing drugs and my dad chose to not fight for his life.

Ever since going public with my status and sharing my story, I’ve found so much healing in the amount of love, compassion, and understanding people have extended to me.

In my short-term experience with activism, I’ve heard a lot of talk about the term “Long-Term Survivors,” and how that encompasses way more than just our HIV statuses. People living with HIV are also often survivors of abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness, and so many other things.

Despite everything, both of my parents were fighters until they died, in more ways than one. I am their surviving story and I’m proud of that. I like to think they are, too.

'His leadership served as a beacon of light to those of us lost in the sea of dying faces we could not save. Bernard took up a fight of which many other men shied away.'
00:00

Rev. Bernárd Lynch: A Priest on Trial
Story & Recording by Cosgrove Norstadt
Photo © Life Through a Lens Photography

With so many tributes to loved ones who fell victim to HIV and AIDS, I want to pay tribute to one man who has devoted his life to caring for those with HIV and AIDS.  This one person has made such a positive impact on the LGBTQIA community and has literally ministered to thousands of men who were alone and lost. This man is Reverend Bernárd Lynch.

During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s, Bernárd was a tireless voice in the New York City community and traversed the difficult road of illness and death.  His leadership served as a beacon of light to those of us lost in the sea of dying faces we could not save.  Bernárd took up a fight of which many other men shied away. This man used every ounce of his being to provide care to those who died and to those of us living and blindsided by AIDS.  Bernárd’s faith in God never wavered.

Bernárd is an out and proud Roman Catholic priest who has marched in the Gay Pride parades of New York and London for the past 30 years.  He has touched the hearts of gay men and lesbian women from the shores of the United States to England to his homeland of Ireland.  Few men living can be called icons, but I certainly would call Bernárd an icon.

Bernárd’s list of accomplishments is long and varied.  He has worked for the betterment of the LGBT community worldwide.

Father Lynch first came to notice in New York City in 1982 when he formed the first AIDS ministry in New York City with the Catholic group Dignity.  It was this same year that he was drafted to work with the then-New York City Mayor Koch’s Task Force on AIDS.

In 1984, Father Lynch publicly backed Executive Order 50 in New York, which forbade discrimination from employers who did business with the city or received business funding.  At the height of the AIDS pandemic in 1986, he used his voice to publicly speak up against Cardinal O’Connor in New York City Council chambers for Intro 2, that guaranteed lesbian and gay New Yorkers the right to work and housing without prejudice against their sexual orientation.

Accusations of sexual abuse were lodged against Rev. Lynch in a criminal case in 1989, in which
he was found not guilty and acquitted.  Some, including Rev. Lynch, believe that the prosecution
was part of a smear campaign against him by Cardinal O’Connor and his allies in the church and
government.  A 2019 civil lawsuit against the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, in which Rev.
Lynch was accused of sexual abuse, was dismissed for lack of evidence.

His work related to HIV and AIDS and his persecution in New York were profiled by Channel 4 in
three documentaries: AIDS: A Priest’s Testament, Soul Survivor, and Priest on Trial.  He
received the AIDS National Interfaith Network Award for Outstanding Contribution to HIV and AIDS
Ministries in 1990.  In 1992, Father Lynch was the first priest of any denomination to march in
London’s LGBT parade dressed as a priest.  In 1993, he founded a support group for priests who
are gay.

His autobiography, A Priest on Trial, was published in 1993.  In 1996, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence canonized Father Lynch outside Westminster Cathedral in London.  In 2006, Father Lynch became the first legally married and legally valid priest in the world to have a civil partnership with his partner and husband, Billy Desmond.

In 1986, he received the Magnus Hirschfeld Award for outstanding services to the cause of Irish LGBT freedom.  Father Lynch was welcomed in 1995 to the Palace of the President of Ireland by her Excellency President Mary Robinson.

Never in my life have I met, or been privileged to know, a man who represents the LGBT community so well.

'This is my tribute to those who were alone. They had no friends and no family. I miss all of you, and I continue to remember you and love you.'
00:00

In Remembrance of Those Who Were Alone
Story & Recording by Cosgrove Norstadt

In 1981, I was living in Ohio and dating a man from New York City. Because of him, I became aware of a strange cancer striking gay men in New York and San Francisco. Unfortunately, in Ohio, no one was worried about AIDS because only people in NYC and San Francisco were at risk.

Four years later, I moved to NYC. I met the Reverend Bernard Lynch who was ministering to those afflicted with AIDS. I ask him how I could help. What could a naive youth from Ohio know about such a massive Holocaust? I wasn’t cut out for ACT UP and criticized for my lack of anger and outrage. I wasn’t angry. I was sad. Terribly sad. I was sad for all the men dying alone in the hospitals.

Bernard directed me to St. Clare’s Hospital to volunteer. They wanted me to wear masks and gloves and footies, but I couldn’t. If I was going to hold you in my arms as you died, I was going to let you touch me, cough phlem on me and cry on my shoulder. From a Christ-like point of of view, I could not do less than Christ himself.

Most men at St. Clare’s lasted two weeks, tops. I hadn’t lived in NYC long enough to make friends. My friends became short term and very deep with the men who were alone and dying. I met sex workers who taught me compassion. I met intravenous drug users who taught me to be accepting. Every two weeks, I lost my newest best friend. All of these men shared their most intimate secrets with me and, most of all, their love.

The number of men I held as they died is impossible to calculate, but as my life continues, I remember the patients of St. Clare’s Hospital. I remember how you were ostracized by friends and family. I remember how, as gay brothers, we loved one another unconditionally.

This is my tribute to those who were alone. They had no friends and no family. I was just a 22-year-old boy from Ohio, learning life lessons I wish never existed. I miss all of you, and I continue to remember you and love you.