Stories of Legacy
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.”
Gay Pride 1993
Story & Recording by Scott Fowler
TBT … NYC GAY PRIDE 1993. We were so young and innocent. Ok, we were young!
I look at this photo, and so many emotions come up for me. The obvious: We had fun! Yes, that’s my 26-year-old self in a latex wrestling outfit borrowed from Michael Arnold and holding a beer — which is an odd sight to see, considering I’m now sober over 15 years.
The not so obvious: We were fighting and marching for our lives and the lives we were losing at alarming rates right in front of our eyes at the time.
It was the best of times, the worst of times, and certainly scary times. We were young, hopeful, driven — but certainly not carefree.
We marched, fought, memorialized, fundraised and lived “full-out with feeling” in the hopes of finding a cure, equal rights, awareness and a better life for all of us to live.
Let’s celebrate and enjoy Pride, but let’s also remember why we have Pride and let’s certainly never forget those who lost the battle.
See and remember them @theaidsmemorial.
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, grave–like, 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.
Tony Richardson, 1928-1991
Story by Jessica Lange and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Jessica Lange
“I hated all authority,” said Tony Richardson to a magazine interviewer in 1963. So, he was a perfect fit to be a director. I’m Jessica Lange.
In 1991, Tony directed me in Blue Sky. Blue Sky was his final film. Tony died of AIDS on November 15 of that same year at the age of 60, never publicly revealing his bisexuality until he was diagnosed with HIV in 1990.
Although he may have hated authority, you wouldn’t know it from the way he talked with his actors as we collaborated in the art of movie-making. Tony was and will always be one of my very favorite directors. He taught me so much about filmmaking and acting.
Tony, an Englishman born in Yorkshire, directed 23 films. The first, written by John Osborne and starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, was Look Back in Anger, which Tony also directed as a stage play in London before it moved to Broadway and won the Drama Circle Critics Award. Other plays he directed and adapted into film were The Entertainers starring Sir Laurence Olivier and written by John Osborne, and A Taste of Honey about an inter-racial love affair.
His film adaptation of Tom Jones, starring Albert Finney, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Score and Best Director. Tony is credited with launching the careers of Finney as well as Alan Bates and Tom Courtenay.
Tony was among the directors associated with the British “New Wave” of filmmakers whose films in the late 1950s and early 1960s had a documentary style and often used real locations and untrained real people as background actors. Their social realism approach tended to focus on the lives of working-class people or challenged the dominance of the upper classes. They wanted to make films of substance, as a reaction against the lightweight comedies and horror films that characterized popular mainstream movies at the time.
In 1960, Richardson explained:
“It’s impossible to make films that appeal to everyone, and the only solution is to make them at a non-prohibitive cost, and to try to adhere to a strong, independent point of view that will appeal to at least one body of customers: the ones who want to be stimulated by provocative ideas.”
It was a great tragedy to lose Tony so early in his life. He was only 60 years old. We can only imagine the amount of work that he would have still done had he still survived, and the art he would have brought to all of us.
Tony was survived by daughters Natasha Richardson and Joely Richardson, from his marriage to actress Vanessa Redgrave, and his third daughter, Katherine Grimond. After her father’s death, Natasha joined the boards of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, known as amFAR, and God’s Love We Deliver, which provided meals for people with HIV and AIDS. She supported the organizations until she passed away in 2009.
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'
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.
Elizabeth Glaser, 1947–1994
Ariel Glaser, 1981-1988
Story & Recording by Jake Glaser
“My life had certainly not turned out the way that I expected, but while tomorrow would bring what it would, today was glorious.”
– Elizabeth Glaser, wife, sister, mom and angel
On a Los Angeles summer night, in a chance meeting at a stop light on Sunset Boulevard, Elizabeth Glaser, a second grade school teacher, and Paul Michael Glaser, a television star from Starsky & Hutch, rolled down their car windows and found one another on this spinning rock in the cosmos to create a family whose creation, passion, love, fear, tragedy and sacrifice would change the world.
It was in 1981 when my mother, Elizabeth Glaser, gave birth to our guardian angel, our guide in life, Ariel. While in labor at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, my mother hemorrhaged and lost seven pints of blood. In order to save her and her baby, a blood transfusion was necessary, one that would forever change the path of their lives. What began as new virus predominantly showing up in gay men, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus was spreading fast and amongst many communities, not just the homosexual community.
My sister Ariel became sick. She would sink into sickness one week and bounce back the next, signs of what most called an extreme flu, but became known soon after as the global health crisis we now know as AIDS.
It was soon after this that I was born, HIV positive and with an unknown future. After years of antibiotics, and medications never designed for the fragility of a child’s immune system, my sister’s HIV turned into AIDS and took my sister’s life at age 7.
A mother’s response to losing her child is like a crack of thunder across the world. My mother knew she lived with this same virus, and so did I. Her only choice was to do something about it. So she asked for help, used her skills of getting people to come together and work together, and applied it to the start of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, in an effort to raise essential funds for medical research into pediatric treatments for HIV.
She smashed down politicians’ doors, called Hollywood to action with my father, raised the funds, and built a team of interdisciplinary medical researchers to start asking questions to which we did not have the answers. She used every last bit of her energy to humanize this issue, speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, advocating in Washington, and telling her story to the world in hopes of bringing enough light to this dark place so our future could be bright.
In 1994 after witnessing the creation of the first antiretroviral medications and seeing a step in the right direction, her health declined and my mother passed away at the age of 46, when I was only 10 years old.
The spark that she ignited, lit up the world. Elizabeth Glaser and so many others sacrificed their lives to provide us the opportunity we have now, to create a world free of HIV, to make sure no one dies from this disease and to make sure no child is ever born HIV positive again.
Through the collaborative efforts of The Pediatric AIDS Foundation, a medication that was designed for a different use was applied to stop in-utero transmission of the virus from mother to child. The Pediatric AIDS Foundation has grown into a community health organization in 19 countries, with over 5,500 sites across the globe and over 30 million women reached to prevent the transmission of HIV to their babies.
Today we are not only an HIV-focused family, our programs support a variety of health issues, most recently being COVID-19.
The ripple that Elizabeth Glaser and Ariel Glaser left in this world will forever be reinforced by each and every one of us who choose to do something when we feel we can’t, who choose to run into our fears when we feel helpless and show each other that even when we feel all hope is lost, in the darkest moments in the darkest places in our lives, light will always prevail if we choose to turn the light on.
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.
Story & Recording by Danny Lee Wynter
“Christy Turlington’s legs are the bees knees” he said flicking through my mum’s copy of Vogue. I’d never seen anyone like him. Exquisitely dressed, Peter Grant, my mother’s childhood friend arrived in my life when I was 8. A time I was terrified of being me. I was aware of him throughout my childhood. I didn’t really know him but I knew how he made me feel. Awkward. Embarrassed. Brimful with self loathing. Peter was what kids today describe as a ‘femme queen.’ And every inch of him denoted his right to be so.
I heard little about Peter in the intervening years. Then one day I overheard my mum saying he had AIDS. The news paralysed me. At 11, it was something nobody in my surroundings was sympathetic to. I learnt of Peter’s death while in the midst of experiencing the routine humiliations of a young homosexual in high school. The skirting about the issue of why you don’t have a girlfriend. The shame of the changing rooms during games practice and feigning asthma attacks to be excused. When Peter died I was still denying the biggest part of me which only came to life in the art rooms or choir practice.
Peter’s funeral took place where he died, the London Lighthouse. I was asked to sing at the service. Hesitant at first, I made the connection as to why I’d been so scared of him. I felt I owed him an apology, so I sang Barbra Streisand’s ‘The Way We Were’ accompanied by the piano. There surrounded by his lover, family, friends and the staff who cared for him, I encountered for the first time a tribe unlike any I’d ever come into contact. I was 13. At one point my mum points to a severely handsome man sat holding his boyfriend’s hand. He was as ‘masculine’ as any man I grew up with. ‘That’s Guy!’ my mother’s friend whispered, ‘I wish he was my Guy!’ mum replied, my tiny frightened childish mind blown.
Years later I would come to experience the gay community’s own deep and complex relationship with the performance of masculinity and the chastising of those deemed ‘too femme’ or too much like Peter! I think back to the scared little boy who met him and now know you can’t ever be too much of yourself. Peter taught me that.
Steve Rubell, 1943-1989
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport and Matt Tyrnauer
Recording by Matt Tyrnauer
Steve Rubell was the guy you had to impress with your looks, your style, or your celebrity if you wanted to get through the door at Studio 54, the most famous nightclub of the disco era. I’m Matt Tyrnauer and I directed the documentary film Studio 54.
In April 1977, Rubell and his longtime friend Ian Schrager opened Studio 54 in a former opera house turned CBS studio on 54th Street in Manhattan where TV shows such as What’s My Line?, The $64,000 Question, and Captain Kangaroo had been produced.
Studio 54 was a theatrical extravaganza, using its theater and TV studio roots to create movable sets and lighting. The furniture was modular, for maximum flexibility in creating the mood for the moment.
The club was a who’s-who pageant and a playpen of debauchery, where the biggest stars of film, TV, stage, music, fashion, art, politics, and sports would dance, do drugs, and even have sex in the shadows. Studio 54 defined the emerging age of celebrity. But signs of trouble emerged early. Only one month after opening, the club was temporarily closed by the state liquor authority, because the owners only had only daily catering permits.
Rubell’s flair for self-promotion became his downfall when he bragged in print about the $7 million the club had made in its first year. Studio 54’s tax returns told a different story. Rubell and Schrager were convicted for tax evasion following an IRS raid in which a second set of books were found hidden in the ceiling tiles of their office.
A final party in February of 1980 included Diana Ross and Liza Minelli singing a tribute to Rubell and Schrager, while guests such as Jack Nicholson, Richard Gere, Farrah Fawcett, Bianca Jagger, and Mariel Hemingway looked on. Rubell and Schrager went to prison and suddenly, it seemed, the glory days of disco were over.
After serving most of the 3½ year sentence and living in a halfway house for a few months, Rubell and Schrager next moved into the hotel business, and again, had spectacular success, opening Morgans on Madison Avenue, the Royalton on West 44th Street, and the Paramount near Times Square. They also opened a new club, Palladium, where the art of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf adorned the walls.
Rubell — whose sexuality was an open secret but who never publicly came out as gay — tested positive for HIV in 1985. He died in 1989 at the age of 45.
- Randy Shilts
Randy Shilts, 1951–1994
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Dustin Lance Black
So said Randy Shilts, in his 1987 book And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic.
The book chronicled the first five years of AIDS in the U.S., was nominated for a National Book Award and was adapted into a 1994 HBO movie starring Richard Gere, Matthew Modine and Angelica Huston. Randy began researching the book and reporting on AIDS while working for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was one of the first openly-gay journalists at a major U.S. newspaper and worked for 13 years.
I’m Dustin Lance Black. Randy’s first book, The Mayor of Castro Street: the Life and Times of Harvey Milk, was critical research for my Oscar-winning screenplay for the movie Milk, in which Sean Penn played openly-gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone.
Randy’s reporting and positions were sometimes controversial within segments the gay community. Some criticized his suggestion that gay bathhouses were responsible for the spread of AIDS and his opposition to outing closeted and prominent gays and lesbians.
Randy delayed getting get his own HIV test results until he had completed the writing of And the Band Played On, because he didn’t want his test result — positive or negative — to affect his objectivity as a journalist. According to his New York Times obituary, Randy found out he was HIV positive in March 1987 on the same day he submitted the manuscript to his publisher.
In 1992, Randy contracted pneumocystis pneumonia, and later that year, suffered a collapsed lung. In 1993, he was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma. Although mostly confined to his home and on oxygen, he managed to attend the Los Angeles screening of the HBO film version of And the Band Played On in August 1993.
Randy’s last book was Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. Published in 1993, not long before the announcement of the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy by the Clinton administration, the book explored the mistreatment and weeding out of lesbians and gays in the US military, and was finished from his hospital bed.
In the spring of 1993, Randy told a New York Times reporter, “HIV is certainly character-building. It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.”
Randy Shilts died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 42 in Guerneville, California. He was included in the inaugural honorees of the Rainbow Honor Walk in the Castro district of San Francisco, and he was among the first 50 inducted into the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the national monument in New York City’s Stonewall Inn.
Paul Monette, 1945-1995
Story & Recording by David Roman
Paul Monette was my mentor. We met in 1990 when I first moved to Los Angeles. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and PauI was one of the era’s most insightful and accomplished voices. I was just beginning my academic career. Mutual friends in the arts and AIDS activist communities introduced us. While we were a generation apart we were kindred spirits and forged a quick and easy friendship that lasted until his death in 1995.
I was the first scholar to take his work seriously, something that came easy to me given the beauty and power of Love Alone: 18 Elegies for Rog and Borrowed Time: an AIDS Memoir, his late 1980s masterpieces, books I would teach in my undergraduate courses and write about in academic journals.
Here’s an excerpt from his memoir Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, which he wrote during the AIDS years. It gives you a sense of his passion and purpose:
“But the fevers are on me now, the virus mad to ravage my last 50 T-cells.
It’s hard to keep the memory at full dazzle with so much loss to mock it.
Roger gone, Craig gone, Cesar gone, Stevie gone.
And this feeling that I’m the last one left in a world where only the ghosts still laugh.
But at least they’re the ghosts of full-grown men,
proof that all of us got that far, free of the traps and the lies.
And at that moment on the brink of summer’s end,
no one would ever tell me again that men like me couldn’t love.”
Paul was full of passion and immensely loyal to those he befriended. He was drawn to my commitment to his legacy and to AIDS awareness in general, and grateful for my efforts to make his work accessible to a younger queer generation. He was funny, smart, gossipy, flirtatious, curious, fully present in the moment — which is to say that he was fully alive except, of course, that he was living with AIDS. He looked out for me, affirming my life choices in ways I very much needed at the time. I saw him as a tribal elder, some full of wisdom, experience and generosity.
His triumphant moment, when his memoir Becoming a Man won the 1992 National Book Award, remains a milestone in LGBTQ history. I will always remember the joy the recognition offered him and the pride he felt for the various communities he was honored to represent.
We had a very tender inter-generational dynamic, made all the more immediate given his health challenges.
Were we friends? I wasn’t inner-circle by any means, but we spent time together during his final years. He single-handedly took it upon himself to help me get hired at Yale University, his alma mater, for the first-ever LGBT studies position through The Larry Kramer Initiative. He advocated for me with letters and phone calls that almost certainly were the reasons I got the job. I owe him everything for that alone.
He died the first year I was teaching at Yale. Along with David Groff, his editor and friend, I organized his New York City memorial, which we hosted at the Public Theater. It was essential for us to gather together and celebrate Paul’s life and legacy.
My name is David Roman. Paul Monette was an important figure in my life and the lives of so many others. I loved him for his passion and authenticity and I remember him for his deep love for queer people everywhere, especially those living with HIV.
Rudolf Nureyev, 1938-1993
Story & Recording by Christopher Wheeldon
The great male ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev arrived in this world with a grand cinematic gesture on a train speeding across the Soviet Union, and departed having changed what it is to be a man in a female-dominated art form.
His onstage presence personified a marriage of masculinity and femininity combined. A panther and an exotic rose, magnetic and indisputably singular. In 1961 and already an established young star in Russia, Nureyev risked his life in a stand off with the KGB and French authorities at Paris’ Orly Airport. This defection to the West from the USSR made him a subject of world television news, and perhaps the first internationally-renowned name in ballet. His subsequent relationship with London’s Royal Ballet and his famed partnership with Margot Fonteyn, who was remarkably 20 years his senior, further cemented Nureyev as an almost godlike figure on the international stages of the ballet world.
Rudolf Nureyev’s life and career were wrapped in a blanket of excess and luxury, often reflected in his unique stagings of classical ballets, largely for the Paris Opera, where he served as Artistic Director until his death in 1993.
His voracious sexual appetite for young men was renowned, and tightly woven through the more permanent romantic relationships of his life. Ex-lovers putting up with short-lived dalliances with men understanding that even this fueled his artistic creativity and translated into the stage creature that his audiences adored.
When I was a young ballet student at The Royal Ballet School, Nureyev was at the top of my list of influences. Never feeling particularly unique as a dancer myself, I marveled at his ability to transcend technique and exist onstage in a cloud of sensual perfume.
It was 1989, I was 16 and at lunch break, I was passing the company canteen. I glanced in and to my surprise there sat Rudolf Nureyev alone. He signaled for me to come in. I got closer and he spoke to me in an accent still rich with his homeland.
“Carry me to studio, boy.” That’s all he said.
I recall thinking at the time that I wasn’t the strongest of young men, a bit of a late developer, but there was no way I wasn’t going to oblige him. Wrapped around my shoulders, cradled like a baby and weak with the AIDS virus that was draining away the life force from this indisputable poet of movement, I carried the great Nureyev up to the Covent Garden Studio. Three flights of stairs, praying that my knees wouldn’t buckle.
At this very moment in time, I was struggling to come to terms with my own sexuality. So afraid to come out to my parents who would fear my contracting the very illness that was already raging through this great man’s body. I left him in a chair at the front of the studio and said goodbye.
Three or four days later, he performed the role of Mercutio in a gala performance celebrating the 70th birthday of his most famous onstage partner Dame Margot Fonteyn. His performance somewhat diminished, but still there were Tartarian flashes of the fire that had ignited the world stages.
Four years later, he would be carried once again. This time out onto the stage of The Palais Garnier in Paris to receive rapturous applause on the opening of his sumptuous production of La Bayadere and to receive France’s highest cultural honor, Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. This was his final curtain call.
Every young man in ballet for future generations will be indebted to the mark that Rudolf Nureyev made on the art form. He has shaped the way we will craft our art forever.
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.
Battling the Stigma
Story & Recording by Hernando Umana
This is by far the most important, scary, liberating post of my life. Here we go — 10 years ago, at a young, young age of 20, I was diagnosed with HIV.
I’ll never forget the moment they told me. It wasn’t possible — I had only slept with three people in my life! This can’t be true.
The first words out of my mouth were, “How long do I have to live?”
That’s how uneducated I was about. it. It had been drilled in my head that gay people get HIV because of wrong-doings and they deservingly die from it. Well, I’m here to shut that shit down.
There is nothing wrong with me, and I am healthier than I’ve ever been. In the last 10 years, I’ve met countless of HIV-positive men. Some of these men are so affected by the stigma that they don’t tell a soul about their status, even go as far as not taking their medication.
In our extremely privileged community, the stigma is more dangerous than the disease. We still have a lot of fighting to do for the people who don’t have the privilege of cost-effective medication.
So I stand on the shoulders of people like @staleypr, who risked his life for us. I stand on the shoulders of the millions of people who had to suffer and die from this disease. I stand on the shoulders of the gay men who were forced out of the closet in such a scary time. These men and women fought and died to get to where we’re at now: To take a pill at night and never have to worry about dying. To get the disease to a point where it is impossible to transmit (undetectable).
How can I be ashamed of this? I honor their legacy by telling my story. So let’s talk about it. Let’s ask questions. Take your PrEP. Use condoms. Be safe. Let’s end this stigma forever and eventually end HIV forever!
To those who have questions: Don’t feel dumb asking anything about it. It’s not your fault there’s such a lack of education out there.
To those who are afraid to talk about their status: You’ve got at least one guy right here 🙂 You are loved. You are beautiful, and there is nothing wrong with you.
I, Hernando Umana, am a proud gay man LIVING with HIV. Fuck, that feels good to say.
Manolo Serrallonga, 1956-1991
Story & Recording by Eric Ulloa
Manolo Serrallonga (February 19, 1956 – June 8, 1991). I know only through my mother’s stories of him. I know, like me, he moved to Manhattan from Miami. I know at this point, I am older than he was when he died.
I know Manolo was my mother’s boyfriend and Quinceañera partner when she was 15 years old. But, I guess the story I know that breaks my heart the most, happened when I was around 9 years old.
My mother started to receive phone calls that would start in silence and then she would hear the song “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” start to play through the receiver. Since this was before Caller ID or any of that, there was no way to identify who was calling. These calls happened a few more times, and eventually stopped. A year later, my mother found out that Manolo had passed away due to complications from AIDS and the mystery finally found its answer.
“Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” was the song they danced to at my mother’s quince, and a song that Manolo himself had helped her pick.
I don’t know why Manolo never decided to speak and say his “goodbye” personally to her but my heart shatters to think it was due to the embarrassment and stigma that surrounded AIDS at that time especially in the Latino community.
My mom always talked about the incredible smile Manolo had. I like to think he looks down and smiles at a whole new generation that are living their lives loud and proud and open and who fight for the day that AIDS is relegated to the history books.
Angie Xtravaganza, 1964-1993
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Dominique Jackson
Angie Xtravaganza was a Puerto Rican trans performer and the Mother of the House of Xtravaganza.
Her birth family was Catholic, had 13 children, and lived in the South Bronx. Beginning when she was 13 years old, Angie started taking care of other kids who had been rejected by their birth families. Those kids lived and gathered in Times Square and on the Christopher Street Piers where Angie met Hector “Xtravaganza” Valle.
She started doing drag and performing at Harlem drag balls in 1980 when she was 16. She and Hector Valle founded the House of Xtravaganza in 1982 when she was 18 years old. It was the first house in the New York ball scene that was primarily Latino and was formed in part because of discrimination against Latino performers in that era.
I am Dominique Jackson, and I played the role of Elektra Abundance in the award-winning television series “Pose” which chronicled the New York drag ball scene.
Timmy Dean Lee recalled, “I miss seeing Angie at the Garage. We took a liking to each other right away when we first met. My friend Big Lou would introduce us because Angie had admired some of my hand-painted clothing. It was because of that introduction that I was soon painting clothes for many of the Xtravaganzas, attending the Balls and, on occasion, honored to be asked to be a judge. The kind, loving but tough Mother Angie.”
Angie, who was known for her keen sense of fashion, was featured in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning about the drag balls and the houses that fiercely competed to win the trophies. The film won its own trophies: the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, and awards at international film festivals in Berlin, Toronto, San Francisco and Seattle, along with Best Documentary Awards from film critics in New York, Los Angeles and from the National Film Critics Circle.
Angie was diagnosed with AIDS in 1991. Despite her illness, she took care of her kids.
Frank Xtravaganza told Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham: “The last time she went out, it was St. Valentine’s Day. I’d had a date, but he stood me up, and I was bummed out about it. Angie was really sick by then, but she said, ‘Miss Thing, we’re going out.’ She put on make-up and her wig. She wore jeans and a top that showed her belly button, which was about the only place by then that didn’t have KS lesions. She teased up her wig, sprayed it, and we went to the Sound Factory Bar.”
After she died alone in the hospital in 1993, her ashes were sent back to her family in the South Bronx who buried her with her birth name, Angel Segarra, on the plaque.
In April 1993, Angie’s death and the deaths of others featured in the Paris is Burning documentary were written about in a New York Times article titled “Paris Has Burned” featuring Mother Angie on the front page of the Sunday Style section.
In 1995, Michael Cunningham published an article “The Slap of Love” about Angie and about drag performer and house mother Dorian Corey.
As Hector Xtravaganza said to Cunningham: “She believed in me when I didn’t believe in me. We all felt that way. She believed in us. She was my gay mother, my friend. She put so much shit in my head, just the slap of love. And it woke me up.”
Vitto Russo, 1946–1990
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport and Rob Epstein
Recording by Rob Epstein
Vito Russo was a film historian who did pioneering work about the portrayal of LGBT people in film, television, and other media.
Vito was the author of the landmark 1981 book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality and the Movies, which was adapted, after his death, into a documentary directed and written by me, Rob Epstein, and my co-director/co-writer Jeffrey Freedman, along with co-writers Armistead Maupin and Sharon Wood.
The narrator of the film is Lily Tomlin, who helped us raise money for the project by headlining a fundraising show at the Castro Theater, along with Robin Williams, Harvey Fierstein and drag performer Lypsinka. After years of trying to get the project off the ground, Lily, who was a good friend of Vito’s, pushed HBO to get behind the film, and when they finally did, we had a movie.
Released in 1995 it was nominated for four Emmy awards, won one for directing, as well a Peabody Award and the Freedom of Expression award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Vito’s book and our documentary were based on lectures and clip presentations that Vito would give at universities and theaters around the world for about ten years before the book was published. At these events, several of which I attended, Vito would captivate audiences with his wit and his joyful, ferocious personality. These were community gatherings, like an LGBTQ church, at a time when we had few opportunities to gather collectively. Not only was Vito opening our minds, educating us, entertaining us, and motivating us to act, he was building our community.
As a friend, there was no one more loyal, more caring, or more generous. When I was struggling to get my film project about Harvey Milk launched back in the early 1980s, Vito hosted a fundraiser at community hall in New York City. He filled the room, hundreds us sitting on the floor, as he showed clips from his bootleg Judy Garland collection, regaling us with stories. This was the very first fundraiser for what became the Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk.
Vito wrote some of his book at my flat in San Francisco, escaping New York winters. With each visit we looked forward to the night Vito made his famous lasagna dinner; he was Italian after all, from New Jersey. He had a laugh always at the ready, smoked Marlboroughs, never shaved his moustache, and was everyone’s best friend.
In 1985, in response to the New York Post’s homophobic and sensational reporting about AIDS, Vito and others founded the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, known as GLAAD. GLAAD organized protests, campaigns, and showdowns with media executives. In 1994 it became a national organization.
Gradually, newspapers, magazines, movie studios and TV networks paid attention. Coverage of LGBT-related news changed, and LGBT stories emerged from the margins of our culture and into the mainstream. The annual GLAAD Media Awards honors the films, TV shows and other productions that portray LGBT people in a fair, balanced, and diverse way.
Vito was also won of the founders of ACT UP, the activist group that changed the course of HIV/AIDS history by demanding the government and medical establishment pay attention.
Vito died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 40. At Vito’s request, by his bedside in his hospital room was the Oscar for our film Common Threads: Stories from Quilt, in which he was featured.
In 2019, Vito was one of 50 listed on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall National Museum in New York City at the Stonewall Inn. In his honor, GLAAD bestows the annual Vito Russo Award to an LGBT person who works to fight against homophobia in the media.
Vito Russo: a true pioneer, a hero, and a dear friend.
Rolling Through the Pain and Loss
Story & Recording by Marna Deitch
I’m Marna Deitch. In 1980, I lost my parents and grandparents from different illnesses within two months. I was a stage actor in New York City, and I relied on my friends to replace the roots that were just ripped out from me.
We were all young actor/dancer/singers, hanging out at the piano bar with each other and dreaming of accepting our Tony Awards. One of my co-workers at the restaurant I worked at got very ill. I think it was 1981. At first, they didn’t know what it was that was making him waste away. And then they attached a name to it: GRID. Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.
They couldn’t help him. He died. It was a mystery.
The next year, they changed the diagnosis name to AIDS. More and more of my close friends were developing symptoms. Some died quickly, within a few months of diagnosis, and some lingered in a long painful fight. It wiped out the theater community in New York in the early ‘80s, and I lost most of my closest friends.
My high school in Long Island had a big theater department, where a lot of students felt comfortable with coming out, but we stayed friends after graduation. Paul and Steve were together in a monogamous relationship. One night they decided explore opening up their relationship, and they did, only that one night. I can’t remember who died first, but they both died within two years of that one night … and because of that one night.
Of all these losses, one of the most painful was that of Gene, one of my closest friends who disappeared for six weeks and was subsequently found floating in the Hudson River down by the World Trade Towers. George had been Gene’s lover of six years and our friendship went back to high school, where he was my date to prom.
Shortly after Gene’s death, George said to me, “You’re moving to California, aren’t you?” and he asked if he could come with me. I immediately said yes.
“How’d you like to go by motorcycle?” he asked.
I thought he was crazy. Neither one of us had even been a passenger on a bike! But I thought, what the hell, let’s do it. We were empty from all the losses. We had to do something dangerous to bring life back into us.
We took a few lessons and somehow passed our motorcycle road tests. The next day, we bought bikes, packed up and left New York City six weeks later. We left, even though George’s best friend from elementary school, Andy, was battling AIDS. And once we were on the road, I noticed that George wasn’t doing well. He was always tired.
We had planned to camp out on the road, but now he wanted to stay in motels. When we reached Texas, George decided he would head back to New York. I decided to go on to California by myself. And I got to California. By that summer, I turned around to ride back to New York. I wanted to see Andy before he passed, knowing that he was getting bad. But I didn’t make it, he died when I was in Colorado.
And then, soon after, I lost my very closest friend, Kenny. The AIDS went to his brain, causing him to become paranoid. To this day, Kenny’s death was the hardest for me, even harder than the deaths of my parents. It was Kenny who got me through my parents’ funerals and the grief that followed. And now he was gone.
At the March on Washington, D.C. in 1987, I was there for the unfurling of the Names Project and found the quilts for friends who I had lost touch with and were now dead. I left California for a six-week motorcycle road trip and returned home to discover that I lost more friends from AIDS, men who weren’t even sick when I had left.
What I didn’t know on first that cross-country motorcycle trip from New York to California was that George was HIV positive. He had only two or three more years to live. I still have that motorcycle and I had George’s initials painted onto the tank.
But I feel like that motorcycle was their last gift to me. My parents, George, Gene, Kenny, Steve, Paul — it’s like they all said that they weren’t going to be here with me to share my life, so they were going to give me this incredible life to live.
Because of their gift, I have now traveled cross country five times by motorcycle, twice up to the Arctic circle and back, and flew to Hawaii where I rented a bike and road around the Big Island, in order to finally say I have rode my bike through all 50 states.
I have gotten so much recognition because of the motorcycle, which only came into my life because of this pain and loss. I miss them all greatly. But I also know this life I live is because of them and a tribute to them.
Paul Jabara, 1948-1992
Story by Bruce Vilanch and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Bruce Vilanch
Photo by Theo Juliet
It’s fair to say that Paul Jabara wrote some major chapters of the Gay American Songbook. Paul was the songwriter for mega-hits.
“Last dance, last chance …” — that’s Donna Summer. He also wrote “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls — two girls who were in my weight class — and with his co-writer Bruce Roberts, “No More Tears,” (singing) “Enough is enough is enough); a duet by, yes, Donna Summer and uh, Barbra Streisand — that’s the woman. Paul and Bruce Roberts also co-wrote “The Main Event” from the movie The Main Event starring Ryan O’Neal and uh, Barbra Streisand — yes, that’s the woman.
I am Bruce Vilanch. Paul was a dear friend of mine for 25 years. I met him … actually, I didn’t meet him the first time I met him. The first time I met him was at the Billboard Theatre in New York. He was in the original cast of Hair, and as part of the opening number “Aquarius,” he crawled from the stage over the seats. He crawled the entire length of the orchestra, going – stepping on seats as he went, and people ducking and all of that, you know. And he passed right over me, and he was wearing bell bottoms and no underwear. And I was immediately interested in him as a performer … [lecherous laugh] … of course.
And some years later, he did a musical called Rachael Lily Rosenbloom and Don’t You Ever Forget It, and it was written for Bette Midler, who was a creative collaborator of mine of long-standing. And she didn’t do it; Ellen Greene did it. And it came to Broadway, but it never actually opened. It was a way over-the-top disco musical. It was insane.
Ellen was in it with André De Shields and Paul and a bunch of other people. The producer was Robert Stigwood. As it got closer and closer to opening night and previews, Stigwood decided it was never really going to happen. And the word got out that he was going to close it on Saturday night. So it was the must-see event of the season.
I was in New York with Bette and her piano player Barry Manilow — music director, I should say — and we went. We got tickets and it was like going to the Academy Awards. It was spectacular. And the show was insane, ridiculous and awful — and Paul was brilliant. And that was the second time.
And years later, a few years later, we were both in Hollywood, and we collaborated on a couple of musical projects that never happened, but we became very close friends. And I remember having dinner at his house. In the living room, he had a huge picture of himself. It was a replica of Barbra Streisand’s first album, called My Name is Barbra, and her picture on the cover. And instead of her, it was Paul, who had been photo-shopped in. And above it, in the same font, it said My Name is Jbara — and he had removed the first a from his last name, as she had removed the middle a from her name — so it was My Name is Jbara.
And at the time, I said, “You know, Paul, you have proven my theory about every gay man in Hollywood: They either want to be Barbra Streisand or have dinner with Barbra Streisand. And you have managed to do both.”
So for “The Last Dance,” the Donna Summer tune, Paul won a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues song, and an Academy Award — yes, he won the Oscar — and a Golden Globe — which, of course, is much more valuable — from the film Thank God It’s Friday. You remember that one; it was set in a disco. He wrote songs for other major artists, including Bette Midler, and Diana Ross, Billy Preston, Julio Iglesias — even Raquel Welch sang one of Paul’s songs. Of course, no one heard her — they were too busy watching her lungs.
Paul was also an accomplished actor and singer. He was one of the original cast members of Hair, as I mentioned, and Jesus Christ Superstar — two Tom O’Horgan shows. He replaced Tim Curry in the role of Doctor Frank-N-Furter in the Los Angeles stage production of The Rocky Horror Show at the Roxy when Tim went to England to do the movie.
Paul and John Schlesinger were good pals, and he appeared in some hilarious roles in a few of John’s movies, including his Oscar-winning 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, in which Paul played a hippie handing out pills and asking partygoers if they wanted to go “up or down” — [laughs] an elevator operator!
In Schlesinger’s movie The Day of the Locust, Paul appeared in drag singing a cover of the Marlene Dietrich song “Hot Voo-Doo,” which you’ll remember is the one she sang dressed as a gorilla. In 1981, Paul starred in another John Schlesinger film, the comedy Honky-Tonk Freeway, as a songwriter named T. J. Tupus whose day job was as a truck driver hauling lions and a rhino. In the 1978 film Thank God It’s Friday, which featured “Last Dance,” he played Carl, the near-sighted disco patron blindly looking for love. Paul also sang two tracks on the original soundtrack album.
If you had to choose one of Paul’s songs to define his life, it might be his duet with Donna Summer, which is aptly entitled “Never Lose Your Sense of Humor.” Paul may have lost his battle with AIDS in 1992 at age 44, but he left us with a treasure trove of hits that you still cannot help but hear at your local dance club or bar, especially if you stay until closing and shake your money-maker to “Last Dance” — which has become the anthem of closing time at every disco in the world.
If you look up one night and see a flash of light across the sky, no doubt it’s a reflection from Paul’s disco ball, up there in gay heaven.
Michael Bennett, 1943-1987
Story & Recording by Justin Ross Cohen
Hello. I’m Justin Ross Cohen, and it is my honor to share with you a bit about the life of the great director/choreographer, Michael Bennett. Not only did he change the course of the Broadway musical with his production of A Chorus Line, but the course of my life as well by, in 1976, casting me as Greg in the original Broadway production.
An out and proud bisexual, Michael championed sexual freedom in his work. Greg is one of three gay characters in A Chorus Line, remarkable at a time when homosexuality was still listed as a disease in the medical journals.
On the first day of rehearsals, he whispered in my ear, “Greg is a king, not a queen,” giving me a roadmap not only for the character, but for my life as well.
Born Michael DiFiglia in 1943 in Buffalo, New York, he left high school shortly before graduating to join a company of West Side Story, directed by Jerome Robbins, and was soon dancing in the chorus of numerous Broadway shows.
His choreographic career began while he was a featured dancer on the NBC pop-music series Hullabaloo. As a 10-year-old aspiring dancer, I watched Hullabaloo religiously. Filmed just two blocks from where I grew up in Brooklyn, I would walk by the closed-set studio and stare endlessly into the loading dock area, where they stored the pyramid of block letters spelling out the show’s title. I used to fantasize about dancing on those blocks one day. Ten years later, I was working with the man whose own dancing on them had inspired me so.
Michael Bennett received Tony award nominations for every musical with which he was associated, and won eight.
In 1985, Michael gave the first public indication that he was ill when he withdrew from the British production of the musical Chess. Due to the stigma of AIDS, he withheld the nature of his illness from all but his closest associates, telling others he had a heart ailment. He retreated from the public eye and spent his remaining months in Tucson, Arizona, where in 1986, he died from AIDS-related lymphoma at the age of 44.
Michael once said, “Broadway dance is what I know, what I was, and what I am.”
He dedicated A Chorus Line to — and I quote — “anyone who has ever danced in a chorus, or has marched in step … anywhere.”
Thank you, Michael. You, sir, were one singular sensation.
Lou Graydon Sullivan, 1951-1991
Story by The AIDS Memorial
Recording by Rizi Timane
Lou Graydon Sullivan (June 16, 1951 – March 2, 1991) was an author and activist who became the first transman to die of AIDS. He was 39 years old.
Sullivan was the first transgender man to be publicly known to identify as gay. His activism is considered to be one of the primary reasons for our current understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as separate, unrelated concepts.
In 1986, Sullivan had reconstruction surgery but was diagnosed with HIV afterwards and informed that he had 10 months to live. It is speculated that he contacted HIV in 1980 just after his chest surgery.
He wrote, “I took a certain pleasure in informing the gender clinic that even though their program told me I could not live as a gay man, it looks like I’m going to die like one.”
In 1973, Sullivan grew up in Milwaukee, born into a Catholic family, and identified as a “female transvestite.” By 1975, he identified as a “FTM transsexual.” Later that same year, he relocated to San Francisco where began working as a woman but cross-dressed as a man.
Sullivan founded female-to-male (FTM) International, one of the first organizations specifically for FTM individuals, helping them obtain peer-support, counselling, endocrinological services and reconstructive surgery outside of gender dysphoria clinics.
Although Sullivan lived as an out gay man, he was repeatedly denied sex reassignment surgery because of his sexual orientation and the view held by the medical establishment that transgender people should adopt “stereotypical heterosexual opposite-sex gender roles.”
Sullivan campaigned to remove homosexuality from the list of conditions that served as a reason to withhold SRS from prospective patients. In 1979, he was finally able to find doctors and therapists who would accept his sexuality, began taking testosterone and underwent a double mastectomy.
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.”
Melvin Boozer, 1945–1987
Story & Recording by Gil Gerald
Melvin Boozer, you deserve far more recognition that you have ever received.
I recall your memorable speech before the Democratic National Convention in 1980, as you became the first African American and first gay man to be placed in nomination for the Vice Presidency of the United States from the floor of the convention.
We were both activists in Washington in the late 1970s. Melvin was at my home to come to meetings of the DC Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, but he was mostly committed to other efforts, including the Langston Hughes-Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club. I hosted a meeting at my home, between the Black lesbian and gay community and the then National Lesbian and Gay Task Force’s Executive Director, Virginia Apuzzo, after he was fired and replaced by Jeff Levy.
In April 1983, Melvin was among those present at my home, when I showed the Black gay men gathered there the CDC’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” with information indicating that Black folks were identified as 20% of AIDS cases. We were only 12% of the United States’ population. Most of the men gathered there that day, like Melvin, are no longer alive due to AIDS.
Melvin was simply brilliant, really good with words, a good speaker, with evident critical thinking ability. There is far much more to be said about Melvin …
Norm and Louis and the Chelsea Gym
Story & Recording by Ken Gault
On August 9, 1987, Norman Rathweg died of AIDS.
Somewhere in the 1980s, gay bars — especially in the Village — were going out of business. Perhaps it was the dying clientele, perhaps it was part of the global growth of health-culture, but the bar was being replaced by the gym as the place to meet, to hook up, or both.
Norm and his partner, Louis, were catching this wave of change. They opened the Chelsea Gym at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 17th Street, the middle of the new gayborhood. The entrance was on 17th Street, lockers on the ground floor, showers and steam room downstairs, weights, machines and mirrors upstairs overlooking Eighth Avenue.
We came to the gyms to gain, lose, socialize or lurk. For some, it was a competition to look fabulous and ‘get’ whatever there was to be ‘gotten,’ especially if it meant themselves. The buff-bodies paid little attention to me. Or if they did I was oblivious. Like everyone else, with or without the virus, I battled my own feelings of inadequacy.
There was something else going on with these men and their bodies. Those pounds of muscle said to the world that this bad-ass body does not, cannot, will not have AIDS. That might happen to someone else, but not to me, not to this body.
And there was something deeper and even more subtle. These walls of muscle were built for protection, to keep others out and most painfully, to keep feelings from getting in. The intimacy that was nearly impossible in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, became deadly in the ’80s. Perhaps the paths are clearer now, but even so, but still its difficult to navigate physical and emotional intimacy.
For some, they are one in the same. Physical intimacy equals emotional intimacy. For others, sex cannot and should not coexist with emotion. Sex is, well, just sex. For most, the grey area remains unambiguously grey. What is true for one is not necessarily true for the other. What is true in one moment, may not be true in the next.
Maybe its easier now, and men are more successful at it. Writing on intimacy will take time and will likely make me very unpopular. Stay tuned.
In the end, having a great body is its own reward, the by-product of a healthy life-style, feeling alive, working out the frustrations of the day with iron plates or a stair-master and modulating those endorphins.
In any event, Norm and Louis were there, on the second floor overlooking the iron plates, the cables, machines and sweating bodies. Aside from the leather jackets and Harleys, they looked to me like any other men running a successful business. Had they been straight, they might have been in the Lions Club.
I found out much later that Norm was more than a successful businessman. Earlier in his career, he designed two of the most iconic holy grails of sex, drugs and Rock ’n Roll that brought gay men to New York in the first place.
In City Boy, Edmund White says this:
“Norm … ‘a part-time beau’ … designed the St. Mark’s Baths and ‘the Hindenburg of discos,’ The Saint. Seemingly a prototype of the muscular gay males who would come to rule Chelsea, he grew up a bookish nerd in Florida, where his invalid father ‘would lie in bed drinking and insulting his big, fearful, skulking son, calling him a creep and a faggot.’”
Who knew? I guess everyone knew, except me.
The last time I saw them, I was in line to board the ferry to Fire Island. They were resting from the 20-foot walk from the boat. I went to say hello.
Norm looked up. His face was blank and poorly shaven. He tried to speak but all that came out was a raspy groan. Louis smiled and did the talking.
In a moment, I was back in line to the ferry. Louis was helping Norm into a medical transport van.
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.
Richard Dominguez, 1954-2008
Story & Recording by Patrick Johnson
My uncle Richard Dominguez was born in Los Angeles, California and resided in Las Vegas, Nevada with his partner Herbert (Burt) Earl Synder for eight years prior to his passing.
Uncle Richard was a graduate of the University of Southern California. He was in management at AT&T and retired after becoming disabled due to AIDS. He was an animal lover and was dad to his beloved terriers, Cagney and Lacey.
I never really knew my Uncle Richard personally. He was sort of the distant relative that I knew existed and seen a few times here and there but never really knew untill I turned 16 in 2003. I came out to my Mom and Dad, and I was very fortunate because I was given love and acceptance. My Dad (Uncle Richard’s brother) told me that he loved me for who I am.
I don’t remember how long after I told them that my Dad woke me up one weekend and said to get ready. He didn’t tell me where we were going. We drove for hours. My Dad, who is a man of few words, still wouldn’t tell me where we were going after I inquired. After hours of driving, we finally pulled up to a random house, and that’s when he told me we were visiting my Uncle Richard and Burt.
We sat around, talked, had dinner. Then my Uncle Richard said he wanted to talk with me privately. We went to his office and the first thing he said to me was: “Your Dad brought you here, because he loves you.”
I instantly broke down crying. My Uncle told me that there was no shame in who I was, that yes, life will be hard but that it’s okay to be who I am. To stand tall as a gay man. He told me his life, much of which I have forgot after all these years. He taught me the importance of safe sex. He said when I get married, he wanted to be there.
Sadly, I never saw my Uncle Richard again after that day. But we spoke on the phone a few times through the years.
When he died, I felt a certain heartbreak that I hadn’t felt before, or since. How I wish he was here today; there’s so much I would love to talk with him about. Funny though, to this day, he’s one of the greatest influences of my life.
Mervyn “White Eagle” Moore, 1951-1995
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport and The AIDS Memorial
Recording by Cheyenne Jackson
White Eagle, a Native American opera singer, was born September 6, 1951, with the name Mervyn Moore.
His mother was white and his father, a traveling Christian evangelist, was from the Rosebud Sioux tribe, a branch of the Lakota people. Mervyn changed his name to White Eagle in 1982 and went on to be regarded as a key figure for Native American youth.
According to a 1985 profile of him in People magazine, when Mervyn was watching TV at age five, living with his family in a trailer park in Rapid City, South Dakota, he was inspired by what felt to him like a magical performance of opera by Mario Lanza. He became the first American Indian to sing leading roles in both opera and American musical theater.
During his short career, White Eagle performed over 4,000 concerts. In 1989, he sang at the Inaugural Gala for President George H.W. Bush, accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In 1991, he again performed for President Bush at the golden anniversary of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. When his production schedule allowed it, White Eagle performed at fundraisers at a home his father ran for Indian orphans in South Dakota. He told People magazine that he was determined to be a role model for young native Americans.
“We can keep our heritage, we can keep our culture,” he said. “But we have to assimilate to survive. The kids look up to me, and they think maybe they can be artists, too.”
White Eagle developed AIDS-related dementia in 1994 and died of AIDS in Mission, South Dakota, on July 7, 1995. He was 43 years old.
Toward the end of his life, he said, “Existence is a circle. Death sweeps the person back from where he came. Death is not an end.”
Michael Carmine, 1959–1989
Story & Recording by Timothy Dean Lee
My friend Michael Carmine (March 6, 1959 – October 14, 1989) was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn. His mother was the daughter of a Portuguese sales clerk at Tiffany’s on 5th Avenue and her mother was Jamaican. Michael’s father was a blond Northern Italian. He took on the stage name of Michael Carmine while he attended the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan
Being light skinned, Michael found himself being cast as Puerto Rican. He became involved with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater company. His big break was a national Levi’s commercial and then guest starred in shows such as MASH, Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice. He also appeared on screen in films including Scarface, Turk 182, Batteries Not Included and Leviathan.
Michael’s last appearance was in the film Longtime Companion, where he played Alberto, a home-bound AIDS patient. The film was completed not long before he passed. The interesting part about that scene was that it was rewritten to reflect the argument Michael and I had only the day before.
Michael and I had met right after he had completed Band in the Hand. We were introduced by Keith Haring at Paradise Garage. We hit it off immediately. Although I was a struggling artist, he hired me as his personal assistant, so that I could create and paint with a bit more ease. He got me involved with La Familia Theater Company, where I directed him in two plays.
We did a great deal of work with the late poet/playwright Miguel Pinero. In fact, Michael would be playing the narrator (a part based on Pinero) in Reinaldo Povod’s play Cuba and His Teddy Bear and playing opposite actors including Robert De Niro, Burt Young and Ralph Macchio. It was at this time, Michael Mann approached him and I about an idea and he wanted me to shadow Pinero for six months to write a script for a film. The project never came to fruition because of Michael’s deteriorating health.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you, my creative brother from another mother. Peace. You went too soon but you left a legacy.
Keith Haring, 1958-1990
Introduction by Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Kenny Scharf
Keith Haring’s art is immediately recognizable. Keith was inspired by cartoons, and by the graffiti and murals on the streets and in the subways of New York City, where he moved in the late 1970s. His work is known for the thick lines that define his crawling, dancing or barking figures and by clear messages about universal topics such as love, birth and death, sex, drugs, and war.
Keith’s career took off in the early 1980s and became known worldwide, visible in major museums, in over 100 solo and group shows, and in public art in dozens of cities across the globe. There’s the “Crack is Whack” mural on FDR Drive in Manhattan, the mural for the Statue of Liberty’s 100th anniversary, a mural on the western side of the Berlin Wall just a few years before the wall came down, and even the interior of the Palladium nightclub.
Keith made his art more accessible and available to the public by opening the Pop Shop, a retail shop in SoHo that sold merchandise displaying Keith’s art. The whole inside of the shop was a giant mural he painted.
He loved to create art in public, like a public performance, often with hip-hop playing as he painted. He could watch his audience and their reactions. He created art for regular people, not for the critics, and so when prices for his art sky-rocketed, Keith wanted regular people to be able to own his art, even if it was just on a t-shirt.
Keith found out he had AIDS in 1988 when he was only 29. I’m Irwin Rappaport, chair of the Board of Directors for the Foundation for The AIDS Monument.
The following is taken from an interview with artist Kenny Scharf, who met Keith in art school and quickly became one of Keith’s best friends:
I met Keith in 1978. I had just arrived from LA to New York, and I was at the School of Visual Arts.
I remember feeling a little let down that my idea of what New York City art school students would be like. Oh, they look the same, kind of suburban kids just like back here … and then I heard some Devo music blasting, and I’m following it. And I come to this room, and there’s Keith, alone, painting himself in — literally — into a corner.
And I just sat there and looked at him, and I thought, “Oh, well, that’s what I was looking for when I wanted to meet artists in New York City.”
Well, you know, we didn’t have him for very long, so luckily, at that moment, we became instant friends. And we hung out quite a bit, and we ended up actually being roommates for some time, which was also a quite amazing moment in his career, when he started doing his drawings — his chalk drawings — in the street.
We shared a loft near Times Square, so he used to go down in the subway on 42nd Street. You would instantly be hit by his magic. And he had this amazing drive and ability to get himself out there. And I remember he irked a lot of the other students, because they would say, “Oh, he’s so self-promoting” — like it’s a bad thing. And we were like, “Yeah, he’s self-promoting. That’s the idea!” There’s nothing shameful about it, when you have a message.
So, it was amazing how he did that, and how it caught on so quick when he found that niche — which was basically every single black paper in the subways of New York City before they got an ad on them. It’s pretty amazing and ingenious, you know?
His ability to draw and his language that he made up – basically, his symbols are language. So, he created his own language and a universal language … he crossed boundaries and barriers. Every stroke is there for a reason, and there’s no waste.
I used to call him the Mayor — he should be the Mayor of New York City – because everywhere he went, he’d have his chalk, of course, in his pocket. And it wasn’t only for drawing on the subways, he would draw all the time on the sidewalk. All of the sudden, he’d just get down and just start drawing, and instantly there would be a crowd around him. And then he would give out all his buttons to all the crowd. Everyone loved him.
And so when I heard about these symptoms of the swollen glands, I [long pause and exhale] I immediately thought of the time probably four years prior, his neck was like that and we had no idea what it was. And all of the sudden he got better and he was back, he was Keith.
It was around the time that Klaus Nomi died, before AIDS had a name, they were starting to talk about some of the things, the signs that meant, you know, you were carrying this. But we didn’t really talk about it, because it was so scary as a subject.
Believe it or not, way before AIDS existed, way before he had that swollen gland, he used to say to me that he was going to die young. He had that urgency way before any, any of that existed and that’s part of it. Like, there was something he knew. He was like a flaming star.
What really was hard was, well, around the time he came out – which was so brave — about his diagnosis in Rolling Stone magazine, and nobody was doing that — there was such a stigma of shame — and I just thought, “Wow.” He was so brave.
And then sadly, a lot of the invitations dried up, parties and things like that that he was so into, and what was left was, you know, people that, you know, really cared.
Everything he did had meaning behind it. He wasn’t just taking the rage and, you know, internalizing it and make a crazy Rashomon. He would spend his money and make a stack of posters and be giving them out with the buttons. Not dogmatic at all. He was full of life and art and generosity, you know, of giving to people.
He created this language now that everybody reads — that’s huge. All over the world, everyone knows those images, and it’s just kind of amazing. The way he went about himself as an artist in the public, in so many ways, he was way ahead of his time. He didn’t get to see the whole explosion of social media, but I can imagine he would’ve taken it to a level that we don’t understand and that we’ll never know.
He was a very important person in my life – still is, obviously. The generosity that he had of himself was pretty inspiring. So, I try to keep that up.
The last thing I said to him, I basically told him that I would do what I can to help him keep his legacy alive. And I do whatever I can, so I’m happy to do this.
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.
Richard Lawrence Reed, 1956-1995
Story & Recording by Michael Martin
Richard Lawrence Reed (February 28, 1956 – November 11, 1995) was a beautiful soul, a kind man and my first partner. We met serendipitously. It was August 1984 and I was supposed to be meeting a co-worker, but the plans fell through and I decided to go to another local bar.
As my favorite song of the moment — “My Heartʼs Divided” by Shannon — started playing, I boldly walked up to a man near the dance floor and asked him if he would dance. He agreed, and we became inseparable from that moment on for over 11 years.
I had just turned 19 and was smitten with this lovely man 9 years my senior. Iʼd never had anyone look at me the way Rick did. His blue eyes pierced my very soul. He was gentle, caring, selfless, humorous and had a way of making me feel as if I were floating on a cloud. He loved life, friends, family, the beach, plants, animals and the experiences that went with them all.
Like most relationships ours evolved and deepened after the initial stages of attraction, sex and lust. We become true lovers and friends and began to build a life for ourselves. Neither of us were rich or highly educated, but we were employed and did alright.
Rick always made me feel adored, loved and supported. He never let me down. We had fun learning each others’ idiosyncrasies, going out dancing, and nesting together.
Within a short period of time, Rick started saying he didnʼt feel quite right. It was never anything serious, a cold or a flu, and he would recuperate quickly. At the same time, we were just beginning to hear about the new mysterious “gay illness,” and he decided he wanted to get tested. We tested together sometime in mid-1985. Rick tested positive and I tested negative.
Our relationship was still in its infancy and there seemed no way it could be true, but it was. Rick learned what information was available and soon had a specialist doctor, the only one in the area.
There was never any question in my mind about leaving the man I loved because of a test result or its ramifications. At that moment, Rick was healthy and we were happy. Love doesnʼt end based on a test result.
For a while Rick’s health was fine and he was simply monitored. We proceeded with life as normal, with the exception of keeping his status a secret. Times were different then; there was so much misunderstanding, stigma and ignorance.
Slowly, Rick’s health deteriorated but not in the usual manner associated with AIDS. He never contracted pneumonia or sarcoma. It began with thrush and a gradual decline in his T-cell counts.
There was only one medication available — AZT — and Rick was put on it. Its side effects only made him feel worse. He began to have back problems, neuropathy and a general weakness. As his health got progressively worse, he was forced to stop working and go on disability.
Rick also decided to tell his parents about his status and illness. He was close to them and things were becoming more evident. I told no one, not my family, co-workers, supervisors or friends.
Gradually, due to the stigma surrounding the disease and our own fear, we withdrew from friends we knew would never understand or accept it. Outside of a few close friends, we were isolated but we made our life as pleasant and normal as we could.
Any benefits from AZT quickly stopped and Rick’s viral load kept increasing. We lived in a populated area of South Florida, and as the crisis was finally being acknowledged and funded, opportunities were presented for him to be a test subject for trial medications. I donʼt remember any of their names, but there were many. Rick tried whatever was available over the years, suffering their side effects and reaping little benefit.
Rick deteriorated both physically and mentally. It was gradual, painful and unstoppable. We did as much as we could together, whether it was household things or taking short trips to Disney, historical places, the mountains or visiting family.
In early 1995 on what was to be our last trip together, Rick became rapidly disoriented and argumentative. There had been signs of dementia prior to this, but this was a sudden onslaught. I cut the vacation short and headed home.
Rick was hospitalized upon our return and given what treatments were available. They helped very little. He had exhausted every available HIV medication and nothing could stop the degeneration of his body and mind. His spirit was depleted and he was tired of fighting. We returned home and hospice took over.
It was time to tell my employer about our situation, as I would be requesting time off and juggling caregiving with work. They were very supportive, and between that support and the help of hospice, our last month or so together was a little easier.
We remained deeply in love over the years through this ordeal and that love never wavered, not once — not even as Rick lay dying in a hospital bed in our guest room. He gave up on living, but never on us.
In fact, I think his love for me somehow gave him the courage to face death.
I had no encouraging words and no way to save Rick. All I could do was love him, touch him, and make him comfortable. At this stage, when someone you love is dying before your eyes, there are no words that can properly convey the experience.
Rick died in my arms around 5:00 a.m. on November 11, 1995.
Later, I would find notes Rick wrote to me when he knew the dementia was taking hold and he might not be able to say what he wanted to say. He made a scrapbook of memories of us filled with love notes, cards, an odd memento or just a written account of special moments of our life and love. He left me a book of writings, drawings, stories and poems he had worked on over the years.
Rick was not a famous actor or designer, but he was a loving example of all those whose lives were taken too soon. He made an impact and touched many lives, none more so than mine. He was my world. Although my world was forever changed and my heart ripped apart, the most important thing he left me was a feeling of love, never-ending love.
Rick was special and one of the most giving and loving men I have ever known. All these years later, I still I keep that love safe in a place in my heart for when we someday meet again.
- 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.”
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.
Story & Recording by Lee Raines
Jeff Moreland was my first boyfriend. We met in college. He was a year younger than me, but much wiser and more worldly. He was brilliant and talented and funny and very intense, and I was sheltered and shy. He was also openly, defiantly gay, and I wasn’t sure what I was. All I knew was I had fallen in love, “all at once and much, much too completely.” I was Mad About the Boy.
Jeff quickly grew tired of my dithering about coming out of the closet. He’d shout, “YOU SAY YOU LOVE ME BUT YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SEEN WITH ME IN PUBLIC? YOU DIDN’T SEEM SO NERVOUS BACK IN THE BEDROOM!”
He had a point.
Jeff took me to my first gay bar, the Georgetown Grill, in Washington, D.C. I found it grim, furtive and joyless, and swore I’d never go back. Undaunted, he talked me into a weekend trip to New York City “to see some shows” and steered me onto Christopher Street.
I’d never been to Greenwich Village. I was self-conscious, fretful, wondering if I’d been duped somehow, when Jeff suddenly grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go. I tried to yank my hand away but his grip was strong and I was too embarrassed to make a scene. He leaned in, whispered, “You have to be defiant at first,” and pulled me down the sidewalk.
Panic-stricken, I bumped into a humpy guy with a mustache wearing a leather vest. He eased around me with a comical, nasal, “Careful, Mary!” Someone shouted, “HEY, GIRLS!” It wasn’t directed at us but it sounded like encouragement.
As we walked, I noticed locals on their stoops smiling at us. I realized I was on Christopher Street holding hands with a boy I loved with all my heart and started to enjoy the sensation. By the time we reached Seventh Avenue, I was walking on air, joyous and giddy with gay liberation.
Jeff dragged me out of the closet that afternoon. He taught me many things. But most importantly, he gave me my defiance. It saved my life.
Jeff died during the plague early on, but I still feel his hand in mine. He pulls me forward and whispers, “Be Defiant!”
Light a candle for those we have lost to AIDS. But remember also to be defiant.