Stories of Dedication
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.
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
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.
Ron Woodroof, 1950-1992
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Matthew McConaughey
Photo © The Dallas Morning News
Ron Woodroof was an unlikely hero, but he rose to the occasion and became a lifeline for many people with AIDS in the Dallas area. Ron created the Dallas Buyers Club in 1988 to get HIV and AIDS medication to those in need who couldn’t legally get it from doctors and pharmacies.
I’m Matthew McConaughey. I had the privilege of portraying Ron in the 2013 movie Dallas Buyers Club, for which I was honored with the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Ron, a feisty, foul-mouthed electrician who lived in Oak Lawn, Texas, tested positive for HIV in the mid-80s and was given only a few months to live. Soon after, his third marriage ended in divorce. When the FDA-approved drug AZT failed to help his condition and caused significant side effects, Ron researched and bought drugs from outside the U.S. that were not approved by the U.S. government. They helped lessen his symptoms and prolong his life, but the FDA wouldn’t allow Americans to bring more than a three-months supply of unapproved drugs into the U.S., and clearly many people didn’t have the money to travel abroad to buy medicine.
With the help of his doctor and a fellow patient, he began importing, or obtaining from underground chemists in the U.S., different drugs, nutritional supplements and treatments through The Dallas Buyers Club for use by others suffering from HIV and AIDS. Eventually, the club imported over 100 different treatments. Clubs would often test samples of new drugs at a friendly laboratory to make sure they had the right quality and potency.
According to a Dallas Morning News article in 1992, Ron, who often dressed as a priest or a doctor in a white lab coat, made over 300 trips across the U.S./Mexico border, smuggling as many as half a million pills in the trunk of his Lincoln Continental, tricked out with heavy duty air shocks so that the car wouldn’t sag with all the extra weight. Ron and others who worked at or bought drugs from the buyers’ club risked arrest and death by importing and taking unapproved medications, but when your disease is a death sentence, is it really such a big risk?
As Ron put it, “Dammit … I don’t see how anything can be more toxic than HIV itself. I have taken chances that have almost killed me and I will keep on taking them. I have nothing to lose.”
Many buyers’ club operators and customers accused the big pharma companies and their FDA regulators of conspiring to keep drug prices high and to keep new competing drugs out of the hands of patients. Certainly, the slow pace of FDA drug approval was no help to terminally ill people on death’s doorstep.
Ron took an experimental drug called peptide T, which was used to treat AIDS-related dementia, but when the U.S. government intervened and stopped his supplier in Denmark from shipping out the drug, Ron sued the Food & Drug Administration.
“I have no choice with peptide T,” Ron said. “It is the only line I have to staying alive. When I stop it, I start dragging my leg. I urinate on myself. I can’t speak. I slobber all over the damn place.”
A judge ruled against Ron, saying that although there was no Constitutional right to import unapproved drugs, he personally thought that terminally ill people should be able to buy them. Ron managed to strike a deal that allowed him to get the drug and report his results to the FDA.
Ron died in 1992, six years after his HIV diagnosis.
As Ron said in a documentary released that year, “Let me try anything I can get my hands on. Because if it kills me, at least I died trying.”
Jim Brumbaugh, 1948-1991
Story & Recording by Ellen Matzer
One of the bravest men and patients I remember. They were all brave, but Jim Brumbaugh (1948-1991) faced this illness with a calm and realism we didn’t see often.
He was in and out of the Hospital many times. He had a multitude of opportunistic infections throughout the year he was ill. He had a wonderfully supportive partner and family that was also rare back then.
I remember one of the times, Jim knew he was close to the end. I went into see him. He was sorting out imperial topaz gem stones. I had never heard of that stone before and he explained to me that it was one of the most beautiful topaz stones there was. He was sorting out the stones to give them to all his nieces after he passed.
I remember sitting with this wasted yet still handsome man, looking at each stone and talking to his partner about which family member should get which stone. It was as if Jim was having a normal conversation about anything. I remember thinking, how can he do this so matter of factly? His partner had also known that my 2-year-old son liked elephants. The next day, he came in with a bandana that had elephants on it. I still have it.
Jim, I miss our talks. I miss you, how brave you faced every speed bump, every obstacle. There were so many we lost back then. I try to remember everyone’s face, something special about them. Most of them, I do.
Valery Hughes and I wrote the book Nurses on the Inside, Stories of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in NYC to remember this generation lost. To warn against it happening again.
We must know the history of the awful epidemic. There are too many people that don’t remember, were too young or not even born yet. It was a holocaust. We must honor all these brave men and women. We must never forget they were here.
Joan Baker, 1966-1993
Story & Recording by Judith Cohen
My friend, Joan Baker was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and died on September 3, 1993. She was a tireless and outspoken activist who unfortunately had to deal with ignorance and misunderstanding from her own (lesbian) community … ergo, she would often say:
“It doesn’t matter how I got it, it’s that I have been diagnosed and I am coming out as a women with AIDS because a lot of lesbians still think that they cannot get AIDS and I’m here to say that this can and did happen.”
In early October 1993, members of San Francisco Lesbian Avengers and ACT UP held a public funeral demonstration and march that went from from Dolores Park to Market and Castro and was covered on television news that night. This would end up being likely the only public funeral for a lesbian with AIDS anywhere, ever.
The images of the demo/funeral posters of Joan which were carried that day are now held at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco.
We love you and we miss you incredibly, Joan. Thank you for your inspiration, your contribution, your life and love.
Keeston Lowery, 1949-1993
Story & Recording by Shane Hensinger
Keeston Lowery was an aide to Portland, Oregon City Commissioner Mike Lindberg in the ’80s and ’90s, at a time where very few LGBT people were out and open in politics. He helped start Right to Privacy PAC, the forerunner to today’s Basic Rights Oregon, one of the earliest political action committees dedicated to fighting for equality for LGBT people.
Keeston acted as a mentor to me when I was a young guy interested in politics in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He encouraged me to be my best. He wrote the recommendation letter which got me the scholarship that helped me get to college, and he was always there with a sound piece of advice for me. He listened patiently to my boy problems and teenage drama, and never failed to calm me down after a break up — which I’m sure was pretty exhausting.
Keeston also went to bat for The City nightclub, an underage LGBT gathering place that was relentlessly persecuted by Portland’s then -homophobic political establishment and police force. He knew how important it was for LGBT kids to have a safe place where we could be ourselves.
He died in 1993 and everyone in politics attended his funeral – Governor Barbara Roberts, Mayor Vera Katz – the list went on and on. I miss him all the time. He was a father figure to me, and I wish he was around today, laughing his infectious laugh and giving me a shoulder to lean on.
One thing AIDS took from us was a generation of gay men with decades of collective wisdom and historic memory. Sometimes, I think that’s the cruelest part of the epidemic — the loss of elders who could have acted as a steadying hand for our community.
Keeston would have relished that role.
No on 64
Story & Recording by Torie Osborn
I’m Torie Osborn, telling the story of the “No on 64” campaign against the heinous 1986 proposition to quarantine people with AIDS, put on the California ballot by right-winger Lyndon LaRouche.
Remember, that was during the dark time when AIDS was still new, all the urban gay and bi-men were at risk, there was zero treatment, and the general population still thought it was transmitted in the air, if not by mosquitos. Early polling showed a potential big win for Prop 64 – largely due to the fear and misinformation out there. Seventy percent of the electorate was undecided. But our community rallied, and in four short months, we won the day.
Our campaign consultant was David Mixner – the best in the biz in our world. He’d headed up the “No on 6” campaign in 1978 against the Briggs Initiative to fire gay teachers. I was Southern California Campaign Coordinator for “No on 64,” and Dick Pabich (R.I.P) was my counterpart up north. Co-chairs of the campaign were Harry Britt and Diane Abbitt. So many who are now gone were key spokespeople, such as Rob Eichberg, Randy Klose, Duke Comegys, Bruce Decker, Peter Scott, Jean O’Leary.
We’d learned from Prop 6 that to win, we needed both the volunteer-driven, grassroots mobilization arm and the paid professional campaign, so “Stop LaRouche” worked alongside “No on 64” campaign — we were tightly coordinated. It was run by Ivy Bottini, Lee Werbel, Phill Wilson, and others.
AIDS phobia was so widespread that at the start of the campaign, no mainstream liberal groups – except the docs and nurses — were with us, except the Southern California ACLU chapter, and a few random Hollywood straight types, like Paul Newman. But we mobilized like crazy.
In four short months, we raised over $2 million, 90% of which came from our own community, and mounted a professional, bi-partisan campaign that ended up winning 71% of the vote in November.
We had hundreds of House Parties and a thousand volunteers who spoke at every civic club and community group and Dem Club around the state. By the last month, every single slate card, every labor union, everyone was with us. And every voter in California – including every Republican! – received a strong “NO on 64” mailer.
That 71% victory belonged to our entire LGBTQ+ community that rose up en masse to forge a victory out of the agony of AIDS, and, in the course of it, firmly established ourselves, alongside medical experts, as trusted spokespeople on the issue of HIV and AIDS.
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.
- Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011
Story by Sharon Stone and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Sharon Stone
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation
Elizabeth Taylor was one of the preeminent film actresses of all time: the winner of two Academy Awards for Best Actress, a five-time Oscar nominee, as well as the recipient of the French Legion of Honor, the Presidential Citizens Medal and the 1993 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences.
Married eight times, including twice to Welsh actor and frequent co-star Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor was the first actress to be paid $1 million for a movie role, assembled one of the world’s most valuable private collections of jewelry, and amassed a fortune in the fragrance business.
Some of her best-known films include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Butterfield 8, Cleopatra, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, National Velvet, A Place in the Sun and Suddenly Last Summer (both with friend Montgomery Clift), and Giant, in which she formed a lasting friendship with co-star Ruck Hudson. Both Clift and Hudson were gay but had never publicly acknowledged their homosexuality.
In 1985, Elizabeth leveraged her super-stardom to raise money for and garner attention to the cause of AIDS research, education and advocacy. 1985 was the year in which Rock Hudson died of AIDS and her former daughter-in-law, Aileen Getty, was diagnosed with HIV. In that same year, Elizabeth served as Chair of AIDS Project Los Angeles’ Commitment to Life fundraiser, which raised over $1 million. But the fundraising didn’t come easy and lots of her friends refused to lend support.
Recalling that effort, she said: “I realized … that this town — of all towns — was basically homophobic, even though without homosexuals there would be no Hollywood, no show business! Yet the industry was turning its back on what it considered a gay disease.”
In the same year, she and Hudson’s doctor, Michael Gottlieb, formed the National AIDS Research Foundation with $250,000 in initial funding from Rock Hudson’s estate. Later that year, it merged with Dr. Mathilde Krim’s AIDS organization to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research, known as amfAR. She served as its Founding National Chairman and leading spokesperson, bringing worldwide attention to the fight against AIDS, expanding its reach from American to international efforts, and raising huge sums of money for the cause.
Appearing in the American capital to advocate for expanded federal funding for research about HIV and AIDS, the famously outspoken Elizabeth pulled no punches: “I’m not here in Washington to make people like me. I’m here to speak about a national scandal, a scandal of neglect, indifference and abandonment.”
In 1991, the same year her personal secretary took his own life after receiving an AIDS diagnosis, she created The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to fund direct AIDS services.
I’m Sharon Stone. When Elizabeth was unable to attend an event in 1995 for amfAR, little did I know that it would be the start of a decades-long commitment to follow in her footsteps and carry on the fight for education, treatments and a cure to HIV and AIDS.
She famously quipped, “It’s bad enough that people are dying of AIDS, but no one should die of ignorance.”
My friend Elizabeth died in 2011. Former President Bill Clinton observed: “Elizabeth’s legacy will live on in many people around the world whose lives will be longer and better because of her work and the ongoing efforts of those she inspired.”
Coretta Scott King, 1927-2006
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Carmen Ejogo
Coretta Scott King spoke out in favor of equal rights for the LGBTQ community when she could have damaged her position in her church and community. Her support was lambasted by some African-American pastors, but she was defiant and called her critics “misinformed” and said that Martin Luther King Jr.’s message was one of equality and inclusion.
I’m Carmen Ejogo, and I had the honor of portraying Coretta Scott King twice, in the television movie Boycott and in the feature film Selma.
Following her husband’s death, she founded and developed programs for The King Center in Atlanta, which trains people in Dr. King’s philosophy and methods, and contains the largest archive of documents from the U.S. civil rights movement. She led the enormous lobbying and education effort that led to the federal holiday on the birthday of Dr. King. She was a strong anti-war advocate and a leader in campaigning on behalf of poor people and economic justice.
King’s first public foray into the gay rights movement happened during her leadership of the 20th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. She pledged her support for amending the Civil Rights Act to protect lesbians and gays as a protected class of people.
She quoted her late husband who said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and she advocated for inclusion and a broad coalition of civil rights causes:
“I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people. Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Georgia and St. Augustine, Florida, and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions.”
Ms. King spoke out against a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and reminded the public that “gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil unions.”
In the 1980s, King comforted gay friends with AIDS and with help from her assistant Lynn Cothren, an openly gay man, she created a welcoming environment at The King Center and used their resources to educate the local community about the disease.
In a 1999 speech to launch an AIDS Memorial Quilt initiative for historically black colleges and universities, she named AIDS as “one of the most deadly killers of African-Americans. And I think anyone who sincerely cares about the future of Black America had better be speaking out.”
She reminded audiences that AIDS was far from only a disease afflicting gay people. King spoke at both the U.S. Conference on AIDS and HIV Prevention Leadership Summit. When one of her close gay friends died, she hosted his family and friends for a day of sewing stitches on a panel that would become part of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Coretta Scott King passed away in 2006. As a fitting tribute to her advocacy for justice, respect and love for all people, the crypt where she is buried at The King Center is inscribed with this passage from Corinthians 13:13:
“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Pedro Zamora, 1972-1994
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Wilson Cruz
Photo © MTV
Pedro Zamora’s bravery and commitment to AIDS advocacy engaged and educated TV audiences around the world. Pedro was a cast member on Real World: San Francisco from 1993 to 1994. I’m Wilson Cruz, and hardly a day goes by that I don’t remember Pedro’s courage and dedication.
On Real World: San Francisco, Pedro was one of the first openly gay people with AIDS that many people ever saw on TV. Simultaneously, on My So Called Life, I was the first openly gay actor playing an openly gay character in a series regular role on American TV. And to this day, Pedro still inspires me as an actor, as a man, and as an activist.
Pedro Zamora was the youngest of eight children living in Havana, Cuba when his parents decided to emigrate to Florida as part of the highly-publicized Mariel Boat Lift in 1980. Pedro was an honor student, captain of the cross-country team and President of the Science Club at his high school where he was voted Best All Around and Most Intellectual. But at 17 years old, Pedro learned he was HIV positive after donating blood at a blood drive.
His HIV-positive diagnosis propelled him to become a full-time AIDS educator, so that other young people could learn what he was never taught. This led to hundreds of speaking engagements; a front page article about him in the Wall Street Journal; appearances on major talk shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue; and testimony before the U.S. Congress on AIDS education.
Producers of the Real World wanted to cast an HIV-positive person. Being cast on the series gave Pedro his biggest platform for AIDS education and won him fans all over the world. Audiences watched how his HIV status affected his relationships with housemates and his health. They celebrated his commitment ceremony with partner Sean Sasser, which was the first such ceremony in the history of television.
But about midway through the taping of the series, Pedro’s health began to decline, but he told producers that he wanted them to tell his story until the end. When the stress from his conflict with a homophobic housemate, Puck Rainey, led Pedro to want to move out of the Real World house, his other housemates instead voted to evict Rainey. Time magazine ranked that episode #7 of the top 32 most epic episodes in reality TV history.
In late June 1994, the Real World: San Francisco began to air on MTV. At a cast reunion party only two months later in August, Pedro’s progressing illness was evident. He was diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, a disease that causes brain lesions, and also a rare and often fatal virus that causes inflammation of the brain. Doctors estimated that he had 3-4 months to live.
In September 1994, he was transferred to a hospital in Miami near his family. With the help of the U.S. government, the remainder of his family was allowed to move to the U.S., so that they could be with Pedro before he died. MTV paid for his medical costs, because Pedro was unable to get health insurance due to having a pre-existing condition.
Pedro Zamora died of AIDS at age 22, the morning after the final episode of the show was broadcast.
A memorial fund, youth clinic, a public policy fellowship, a youth scholarship fund and a street in Miami are named in Pedro’s honor. He was one of the 50 people first included on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor as part of the Stonewall National Monument, the first national monument in the U.S. dedicated to LGBTQ history.
Reflecting on Pedro’s death, President Clinton reminded us, “We must remember what Pedro taught us: One person can change the world — and whether or not we are living with HIV or know someone who is, we all have a responsibility as global citizens to do whatever we can. Life is short enough as it is. No one should die from a disease that is both preventable and treatable.”
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.
- Kiyoshi Kuromiya
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.
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
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.