Stories of Isolation

'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.

'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 am grateful for how hard she fought to live long enough to help me grow into the almost-woman I was when she died. I will miss her forever.'
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Debbie Lynn Kellner, 1964 – 2004
Story & Recording by Crystal Gamet

My Mama, Debbie Lynn Kellner, August 2, 1964 – January 20, 2004.

My beautiful mama, who never knew she was beautiful and never got that message from this world.

I wish that I could tell her how beautiful she was. Losing my mother was like losing part of my own body. I compiled some pictures to share a little bit about who she was.

She was a woman who was born into extreme poverty to a family of ten. She was blessed to be a twin and have that incredibly deep connection in this world.

My mom could not read or write, and she suffered more physical violence than I can ever bring myself to describe — but she survived longer than the men who tried to kill her. She fought to graduate from high school, despite the incredible bullying she experienced for being in the special education program.

My mom contracted HIV at 21 and was convinced she would never have access to romantic love again in her life.  This was partially true.

So when she met Tom, he had just been released from prison and he was homeless, so he immediately moved in with us. Even though that got us kicked out of public housing, my mom was willing to overlook that, because at least she had someone who loved her.

Her ashes are buried with him, and I still find this fact sickening.

She survived to the age of 39. She survived the early years of the AIDS epidemic, despite chronic poverty, domestic violence, stigma and depression.

She loved all of my friends. and to the friends who were brave enough to show her love at the end when they knew she had AIDS, I will never forget. I am grateful for how hard to she fought to live long enough to help me grow into the almost-woman I was when she died.

I will miss her forever.

'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.'
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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.

'Ryan White was a teenager from Kokomo, Indiana, who was expelled from his school due to his HIV status. He died when he was 18 years old.'
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Ryan White, 1971-1990
Story by The AIDS Memorial
Recording by Jim Parsons

Ryan White (December 6, 1971 – April 8, 1990) was a teenager from Kokomo, Indiana, who was expelled from his school due to his HIV status. He died when he was 18 years old.

White is buried in Cicero, close to the former home of his mother. In 1991, his grave was vandalized on four occasions.

White, a hemophiliac, contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. He was diagnosed in December 1984 and told that he had only 6 months left to live.

Doctors said that White posed no risk to other pupils. However, when he attempted to return to school, parents and teachers protested against his attendance, scared that he could transmit HIV through casual contact.

The dispute made news headlines around the world and turned White into an advocate for AIDS research and education. Although he lived 5 years longer than predicted, he sadly died just one month before his high school graduation.

Over 1,500 people attended White’s funeral on April 11, 1990 at the Second Presbyterian Church on Meridian Street, Indianapolis. His pallbearers included Sir Elton John AIDS Fundation and Phil Donahue. His funeral was also attended by @MichaelJackson.

Sir @EltonJohn performed a song he wrote in 1969, Skyline Pigeon, at the funeral. White also inspired him to create @ejaf.

On the day of the funeral, former President Ronald Reagan wrote a tribute to White that appeared in The Washington Post. This was seen as an indication of how White had helped change the public’s view of HIV AIDS, especially when considering Reagan’s indifference to the virus. By the time he finally addressed the epidemic in 1987, nearly 23,000 Americans had already perished.

'I felt like I was in a horrible car accident where the car rolls over and over and all you hear is the sound of metal against metal, then silence .... Physically, you have survived, not even a scratch, but the world as you see it is no longer the same.'
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Tested
Story & Recording by River Huston

 

I’m River Huston and this is my HIV story, which I call “Tested.” 

Claude taught people how to sing. He was charming and sweet. We started to hang out. We did not have sex. But we did make out a lot. 

One day he asked me if I would be willing to go with him to take an HIV test. It was in a flirty way, like if we take this step together, we would be making some kind of weird commitment. 

I didn’t know anything about HIV, but I couldn’t possibly have it. At the time, I’d been clean and sober five years. I could run eight miles without any effort. I did yoga every day and ate brown rice. I knew what AIDS looked like from the guys in the Village. I saw the emaciated men, covered in sores, walking with canes and toting oxygen tanks. I knew people from Narcotics Anonymous who had had AIDS, but it was a secret thing. No one talked about it. I had never heard of a woman who had AIDS.

I said yes. It was May 1990. We went to the Department of Health and had our blood drawn. We joked and were relaxed. They told us to come back for our test results in ten days. 

I sent up a few prayers to cover my bases. I had struggled with God most my life. I had grown up agnostic. I made up a God that I called Harry when I was a child. He was useful for when I was in trouble. I decided there was no God when I started using drugs at 12. It was simpler that way.

Later, in recovery programs, they talked about a higher power. I never understood it. It was silly to believe with such abandon in what seemed to be a fairy tale. But I needed something to hold onto. I made a decision to just have faith. I didn’t believe in anything specific, but I had faith there was something.

The 10 days preceding our test results were filled with a simple prayer, “Please do not let this test be positive.” I hummed it silently like a mantra.  And as Claude and I headed up to Harlem on the A train to the Department of Health, I hummed, “Please do not let this test be positive.” 

We were excited and nervous. I was ready to go further with Claude than with anyone else I had met. He seemed real. He was not an addict, had a loving family. He was normal. I was almost normal, or I could appear normal. I worked, I went to college, tried to learn social skills, participate in society.

I had spent most my life living on the edges of civilization, not exactly legal, but not hurting anyone. I grew weed in the ’70s in Humboldt County, I lived in a van, played music in the streets. I roamed the country, selling my body along the way since I was 15. I made the leap into the world of conformity when I got sober at 25. I often felt like an interloper in the so-called real world.

We took our seats in the clinic. The testing had been anonymous. I fingered the piece of paper with my number on it as if it was a winning lottery ticket. We were the only ones in the waiting room. 

They called his number first. I waved, “Bye, honey.” Then it was my turn, and I followed the doctor into a small room. 

She smiled at me, but looked tense, almost scared. I sat down. She was sitting across from me staring at the folder. Finally, she looked at me and said, “Your test came back positive.”

I couldn’t quite grasp this.

“Is this good?”  Knowing it wasn’t.

She said “no” and explained to me that I was HIV-positive.

Then my denial kicked in. My voice trembled when I said, “They make mistakes, right? We should take another test. I’m sure this is mistake.”

She explained they had done both the Western Blot and the Eliza test. “You have this virus in your bloodstream.”

I felt like I was in a horrible car accident where the car rolls over and over and all you hear is the sound of metal against metal, then silence. And somehow, you get out of the car.  Physically, you have survived, not even a scratch, but the world as you see it is no longer the same. I couldn’t hear a word she was saying. I stared out the window at broken glass that littered the asphalt beneath an empty swing set. 

“Why did you ever think it would get better?  You don’t deserve anything.  You’re a piece of shit, and you’ll always be a piece of shit. Damaged goods, garbage, a pariah.”

These thoughts paraded along with, “You will never have children, you’re going to die alone, diseased and untouchable. I fucking hate you, you stupid piece of shit.” 

The doctor broke through my barrage of self-loathing when she said, “Listen, according to everything you told me in the last visit, you have a good few years left.” 

I started to cry. I cried the way you do when you can’t stop. After a few minutes, I looked up. She handed me a box of tissue with a sad face. I felt dizzy and sick. The walls seemed to close in on me. I couldn’t stand to be in that room another second. 

I pulled on my sunglasses and I walked out without another word. Walked right past Claude. I couldn’t even look at him, I felt so ashamed and dirty. I headed for the door, went down the stairs to the street, and started to run. 

I cut through the kids on the sidewalk that were getting out of school and the moms with their baby carriages. I just wanted to get to the train. I wanted to go home, I wanted to hide under the covers. I wanted to forget this day ever happened. I finally reached the train as it pulled into the station. I got on and the doors slid shut. I stared straight ahead, shaking, numb, nauseous. I felt someone slide next to me. I turned my head, and it was Claude. 

He had this look on his face. The fucking look I would come to dread for the next 30 years, the look of pity. He was out of breath from running.

He leaned over and said, “River, it’s going to be okay.” 

I wanted to scream. “It’s not okay, and it will never be okay, and okay is over.”

But I didn’t say anything. I stared straight ahead. The train stopped and went, and stopped and went. The wall I started to build around me was impenetrable. Claude lapsed into silence. We exited together at Union Square. We climbed the stairs to the street.

With a weak smile, he said, “If you need anything …”

He gave me a quick, awkward hug. He went his way, and I went mine. End of my relationship with Claude, beginning of my relationship with HIV. 

At 61, HIV has been the only constant in my life. I’ve done amazing things, wrote books, painted paintings, traveled the world, did a one-woman show. I also spent many years sick, in beds, in hospitals, poked and prodded, alone, depressed, in enormous physical and psychological pain.

I tried so hard to not define myself by HIV, even if the world continues to define me as diseased. I have walked this journey alone with as much kindness and love I can muster for myself. But mostly I’m just waiting to die.

'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!

'Max Robinson was an inspirational figure for me when I decided to become a TV journalist and news anchor.'
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Max Robinson, 1939-1988
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Don Lemon

Max Robinson was an inspirational figure for me when I decided to become a TV journalist and news anchor.  I’m Don Lemon, and Max’s professional ascent to become, in 1978, the co-anchor of ABC World News Tonight on ABC News, alongside Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds, showed me that it was possible for a Black American to become a news anchor on a major network.

Many people aren’t aware that Max was the first to reach that height in our business, and was also a founder in 1975 of the National Association of Black Journalists.   He mentored and supported other Black journalists and technicians trying to work their way up the ladder in a White-dominated news business. Sadly, however, Max struggled with alcohol, and died of AIDS on December 20, 1988, at the age of 49.

After growing up in segregated Richmond, Virginia, Max’s first news anchor job was for a Portsmouth, Virginia, TV news station where – and this seems unbelievable now – he had to recite the news from behind a screen, so that viewers didn’t know he was Black.  One day, he pulled down the screen and the station was flooded with complaints, leading to his firing the next day.

But Max rebounded, and in 1966, he was hired as a reporter at Channel 4, the NBC affiliate in Washington, DC, and became a regular guest on Meet the Press.  He won an Emmy award for the documentary series The Other Washington, portraying life in Anacostia, a Black section of Washington, DC known for crime and poverty, and showed how discriminatory laws perpetuated poverty and inequality in healthcare and education.

Max moved to Channel WTOP in 1969 and later moved up to co-anchor the nighttime newscasts at 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.  But being the first Black man in his position at a series of jobs apparently took a toll on his mental health and self-esteem.

“I can remember walking down the halls and speaking to people who would look right through me,” Robinson is quoted as saying in the book Contemporary Authors. “It was hateful at times … I’ve been the first too often, quite frankly.”

Famed Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, who was ABC’s Washington bureau chief in 1980-1981, claimed that Max was deliberately excluded from any decision-making regarding the newscast he co-anchored.  Max publicly complained about racism at the network, including at a Smith College speech in 1981.

After Frank Reynolds died in 1983, Robinson was a no-show at the funeral where he was supposed to sit next to First Lady Nancy Reagan.  He claimed he had had too many drinks, couldn’t sleep, took some prescription drugs, and didn’t wake up on time the next morning.  Soon thereafter, Peter Jennings was named the sole anchor of World News Tonight, and Max was moved into a weekend anchor position.

The next year, Max left ABC to become anchor at a local NBC-owned station in Chicago, but often failed to show up at work, entered rehab for alcohol abuse, and retired in 1985.  The autobiography he was writing with the help of Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page was never finished.

My CNN colleague Bernard Shaw observed:  “Max, at the time of his death, had more arms around him than he had when he was fighting lonely battles fighting racism in the industry, fighting the things all of us deal with in our personal lives.”

'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.