Stories of Loss

'This is my tribute to those who were alone. They had no friends and no family. I miss all of you, and I continue to remember you and love you.'
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In Remembrance of Those Who Were Alone
Story & Recording by Cosgrove Norstadt

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

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

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

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

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

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

'The death of a brother is like no other death. It is a unique event that can only be likened to an ending of the world.'
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Bryan Glen Henderson, 1959 – 1991
Story & Recording by Linda Henderson

In memory of Bryan Glen Henderson (September 7, 1959 – July 17, 1991).

There is a deep longing
Residing in my belly
Rising up in the hours of darkness
Tears swelling, seeking out
Arms of safety
To be held
In the love once known

The death of a brother is like no other death. It is a unique event that can only be likened to an ending of the world.

This year will mark 27 years since losing my brother to AIDS. The memory of this day is just as vivid and present as it was 27 years ago when I witnessed that final breath of life. A final breath that provided relief for a body ravaged with the symptoms of a disease that knew no boundaries. It stole life and dignity both in what it did to the physical body and its ability to tear at the heart of the human condition.

Its reputation as the gay disease portrayed by the Grim Reaper sowed fear into the social imaginary. The suffering inflicted by this disease was not enough: society felt it their right to judge and condemn those inflicted as having their just punishment for their sinful ways. The discrimination and judgement was harsh. My brother knew this all too well. I bore witness to the hatred he endured. But he was bigger than those who judged displaying love and kindness in return. This was my brother — a beautiful man — a beautiful soul.

Forever I will feel your absence in my life.
Forever I long to be held one last time in your arms. Forever I treasure your memory.
Forever a love for a brother that has me engaged in the melancholic work of mourning for a brother that is never done, can never be done, never finished.

'This was the first infant to die from AIDS in New York City.'

A Grave  on Hart Island
Story by
The AIDS Memorial

This grave on Hart Island, Bronx County, New York, is the only burial to have a personal marker. Ceremonies have not been conducted at the burial site since the 1950s, and no personal markers are set.

In 1985, a child was buried away in isolation from the other burial trenches in his/her own plot. This was the first infant to die from AIDS in New York City.

The stone is labelled “SC-B1 1985.”  SC standing for Special Child.  B1-standing for Baby Number 1.

Hart Island is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. Burials on the island began shortly after the American Civil War. In 1869, the city then began using it as a cemetery. Burials of unknowns were in single plots, and identified adults and children were buried in mass graves.

In 1913, adults and children-under-five were buried in separate mass graves. Unknowns are mostly adults. They are often disinterred when families are able to locate their relatives through photographs and fingerprints kept on file at the Office of the Medical Examiner.

Adults are buried in trenches with three sections of 48 individuals to make disinterment easier. Children, mostly infants, are rarely disinterred and are buried in trenches of 1,000.

Over 1,000,000 dead are buried on Hart Island. One third of them are infants and stillborn babies.

'The last time I saw [Jack] was at County Hospital when he was toward the end of his life.  It was a very sobering sight to see my good friend – who was so vibrant and funny and full of life – fading away.'
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Jack Foster
Story & Recording by Sandra Bernhard

I met Jack Foster in the summer of 1974, waiting in line to see The Rocky Horror Show up on Sunset at the Roxy Theatre.

He and his whole crew from the San Gabriel Valley were fun, irreverent, crazy and gay as you can be.  Jack and I hit it off and started hanging out all the time.  We’d go dancing at Studio One, and raise the roof off the joint.  He became a bartender and worked at clubs all over Los Angeles, so we could get in for free.

We went to see Tina Turner in 1980, when she struck out on her own after leaving Ike.  It was one of the most memorable concerts I have ever seen, and Jack and I bonded over that like nobody else possibly could.

When he first got sick in 1986, he said the doctor told him “Yeah, I can’t eat hotdogs or be anywhere near birdshit.”  He goes, “What does that mean?”

And we laughed about it.  He kept his spirits high all during his fight against HIV and AIDS.  We talked all the time; he’d moved back home and lived with his parents back in the San Gabriel Valley.

The last time I saw him was at County Hospital when he was toward the end of his life.  It was a very sobering sight to see my good friend – who was so vibrant and funny and full of life – fading away.  I’ll never forget that.

I miss Jack, and he left me a vinyl Tina Turner record that his parents gave to me after he left us.  I still have it, and I still miss him to this day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will miss her forever.

'Lenny, Carlos, Jeffrey, Andrew, Eddie and many others are all heroes ... They pushed on, being injected, prodded, biopsied, examined, humiliated, ostracised and judged.'
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American Love in Paris, 1986
Story & Recording by Dom Denny

I was driving home the other night, when the late Rose Laurens’ 1986 hit “American Love” came on my playlist.  Instantly, I was back:  a rainy night in Paris.  After supper, Lenny and I went to a small club in the Marais.  We drank beer, peppermint schnapps, got a little crazy, danced for hours.  I watched Carlos dancing and sweating, his shirt off, his perfect body gyrating under the lights, not a care in the world.  It was a wonderful night.

There is a sadness in the melody of the track that evokes a kind of unexplainable pain.

There was a cohort of American boys there, many I knew, including Lenny’s little brother Jeffrey. All in their early twenties, courageous and hopeful that time in Paris may mean they had their lives ahead of them. Sadly, none did. Each of those boys died of AIDS within three years.

Their courage and willingness to participate in drug trials at the Pasteur Institute was critical in the development of the medications we now take for granted. The toxicity of the drugs was grotesque at times. I can still see Lenny heaving and sweating, his tolerance to new combinations lessened as his immune system just broke down, constantly trying to fight vile opportunistic infections but never once willing to pack in and go home to Miami.

I loved that boy deeply and to spend that time with him as his life ebbed away was a privilege. He is in my heart forever, and it is amazing how the power of a song can rip open your soul again, 30 years after he died.

Lenny, Carlos, Jeffrey, Andrew, Eddie and many others are all heroes. They literally lay down their lives for us. Knowing as we did that there was no cure, they pushed on, being injected, prodded, biopsied, examined, humiliated, ostracised and judged.

It was a bizarre time. For me, it redefined the word loss. God love them and thank them for their selflessness.

I miss Lenny and will love him forever. This is our history.  It is as painful as any chapter recording marginalized minority groups who have experienced adversity, exclusion and the mass loss of a generation of young men.

'A mother's response to losing her child is like a crack of thunder across the world.'
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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.

'We must honor all these brave men and women. We must never forget they were here.'
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Jim Brumbaugh, 1948-1991
Story & Recording by Ellen Matzer

One of the bravest men and patients I remember. They were all brave, but Jim Brumbaugh (1948-1991) faced this illness with a calm and realism we didn’t see often.

He was in and out of the Hospital many times. He had a multitude of opportunistic infections throughout the year he was ill. He had a wonderfully supportive partner and family that was also rare back then.

I remember one of the times, Jim knew he was close to the end. I went into see him. He was sorting out imperial topaz gem stones. I had never heard of that stone before and he explained to me that it was one of the most beautiful topaz stones there was. He was sorting out the stones to give them to all his nieces after he passed.

I remember sitting with this wasted yet still handsome man, looking at each stone and talking to his partner about which family member should get which stone. It was as if Jim was having a normal conversation about anything. I remember thinking, how can he do this so matter of factly? His partner had also known that my 2-year-old son liked elephants. The next day, he came in with a bandana that had elephants on it. I still have it.

Jim, I miss our talks. I miss you, how brave you faced every speed bump, every obstacle. There were so many we lost back then. I try to remember everyone’s face, something special about them. Most of them, I do.

Valery Hughes and I wrote the book Nurses on the Inside, Stories of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in NYC to remember this generation lost. To warn against it happening again.

We must know the history of the awful epidemic. There are too many people that don’t remember, were too young or not even born yet. It was a holocaust. We must honor all these brave men and women. We must never forget they were here.

'He drank Diet Dr. Pepper in glass bottles ... used plastic milk containers filled with water as weights ... listened to the Village People’s In the Navy as he combed my hair.'
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Robert Michael Painter, 1949-1983
Story & Recording by Ryan Michael Painter

I never knew my father in a way that makes writing about him easy.  He is enigmatic, a man of masks. An ever changing follower of fashion.  Mythical, Mormon, gay, incongruent.  Contradictory.  A gentle someone who cried the only time he spanked me.

Robert Michael Painter — Mike to his friends and Dad to me — was the first person in Utah to be diagnosed with AIDS.  It was the summer of ‘83.  I had just turned seven years old.

My parents divorced before I knew they were together.  Mom didn’t know he was gay; he didn’t say. Still, she kept him close to us.  She was afraid that someday all the world’s cruel nouns and adjectives would convince me to push him away.

Dad and I watched Dallas in the warm glow of his den.  He set an alarm so I would never miss The Smurfs on Saturday mornings.  He drank Diet Dr. Pepper in glass bottles.  Used plastic milk containers filled with water as weights.  He tanned in the bathroom.  Listened to the Village People’s “In the Navy” as he combed my hair.

He knew people with personality.  He went to a party dressed in a diaper; his boyfriend Bryan was dressed as a nurse.  I smelled coffee for the first time in the basement apartment of one of his friends.  Watched, but didn’t understand, Star Trek: The Motion Picture with him and someone forgotten on a date.

We appeared in a print and television Father’s Day ad campaign for a local mall.  I saw the commercial once.  He talked about land he had purchased in Montana. Said we’d go there someday.  He left out that it was part of a polygamy compound.

I loved riding in his Mercades convertible with the top down and the sun on my face.

I’ve completely forgotten the sound of his voice.

He died on September 19, 1983, but his grass marker only reads “Robert Michael Painter 1949-1983.” His parents feared that if they included exact dates, someone would know that it wasn’t just pneumonia that killed him.  I was still seven years old.

I remember missing him more than I remember him.  So I wrote a book for him, Mom, and me called @theunexpectedson.  It’s unbelievable and completely true. There’s just not enough of him in it.

Dad, I love you.

'I want you to know that I’m still here and fighting. I am well and able to love in a way I couldn’t have imagined back then.'
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Tom Rolfing, 1949-1990
Story & Recording by Ralph Bruneau

Dear Tom Rolfing,

It has been such a long time since you’ve been gone. I honor your life, death and the years we spent together. You were my first real love and biggest loss. I am forever in your debt. So much of who I have become is due to our time together.

We were: Summers on Fire Island, cocaine and Scotch, Upper West Side and West Village, sexy boys, quaaludes, Cartier roll rings, Studio 54, ordering in Chinese food, Levis and white tees.

Then AIDS came and we were: Kaposi’s sarcoma, doctors and hospitals, ACT UP, funerals, terror, wheelchairs and hospital beds — and then you were gone.

I want you to know that I’m still here and fighting. I am well and able to love in a way I couldn’t have imagined back then. You are still in my thoughts and in my heart. I think, I hope, that you would be proud of me.

I remember you. I remember us. I love you.

'It doesn’t matter whether it has been weeks, months or years. The pain of losing you always pinches me like lightning for a lifetime.'
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Anthony Kabungo, 1948-1992
Story & Recording by Joan Dellavalle

Dear Dad,

This day, the 21st of August 1992, we received the sad news of your passing.  We all knew the day will come as each passing day you become more and more frail.  You would be in and out of hospital sharing a room with other sick patients, everyone fighting for their life as doctors tried to find out what AIDS was.

When we came to visit you, we observed some patients sleeping on the floor because families could not afford beds for them or the hospital didn’t have enough beds.  Those days were hard to witness.  I still have visions of grown men crying in pain.  I still have visions of you crying in pain in silence and singing “All to Jesus, I surrender.”

In the early 1990s. AIDS was not mentioned — they would call it TB.  Watching you go through pain
everyday was heartbreaking.  Most third-world countries had no access to medicine, then the only
thing they had was prayer and hope.

You lost your job as soon as they found out you had “that disease” as they called it.  Oh, I remember how everything changed for us in a second.  I remember how quickly gravity pulled us down.  I also remember how you found strength to instill wisdom in me.

I am so grateful to have had you as a father.

1992 feels like only yesterday when you took you last breath to another journey. AIDS took you so quick, like the speed of light.  I know you are not in pain and this gives me hope that all those amazing
people out there trying to find a cure of what took you so fast that one day will find a cure.

I advocate for you, my sister and many loved ones we have lost from this cruel disease.  I continue to advocate for loved ones living with HIV/AIDS.  I advocate to give strength to families and friends watching loved ones fight this battle.  I am grateful to have found new friends at The AIDS Memorial that can feel this pain like I do.

Today, I sing our favourite songs.  “All to Jesus, I surrender.  Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me
Home.”

It doesn’t matter whether it has been weeks, months or years, the pain of losing you always pinches
me like lightning for a lifetime.

Dad, you fought a good battle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'... Evening settles in this exile of senses for our surrender,
one more friend’s death has clocked the day like a tolling bell.'
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Assotto Saint, 1957-1994
Story by The AIDS Memorial
Recording by Sheryl Lee Ralph

Assotto Saint (October 2, 1957 – June 29, 1994) was a poet, publisher and performance artist who died of AIDS in New York City. He was 36 years old.

Born in Les Cayes, Haiti as Yves François Lubin, he moved to New York in 1970 and adopted the name Assotto Saint — choosing “Assotto” which is a ceremonial drum used in Haitian Voodoo rituals and “Saint” after Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture.

In 1974, Assotto graduated from Jamaica High School, Queens before attending Queens College. During the late 1970s, he performed as a dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company but stopped after an injury.

In 1980, Assotto met his life partner of 13 years, Swedish born composer Jan Holmgren, pictured right. They collaborated on a number of projects, with Holmgren writing songs for all of Assotto’s theatre pieces. They also formed in a “techno pop duo band,” Xotika.

After they were both diagnosed HIV positive, Assotto became an AIDS activist and appeared in Marlon Riggs’ film No Regrets (1993). He was also a mentor to Riggs, Essex Hemphill and Melvin Dixon, who would all succumb to AIDS.

Holmgren died of AIDS on March 29, 1993 in New York. He was 53 years old. The couple are buried alongside each other at the Cemetery of the Evergreens, Brooklyn.

“Life-Partners” is a poem Saint wrote for Holmgren, when Holmgren was dying:

Between solitudes of illness & beatitudes our lips utter,
evening settles in this exile of senses for our surrender,
one more friend’s death has clocked the day like a tolling bell.
Biding time, we are shadows also shrinking early into destiny,
Let us gather our pills & swallow all regrets with a kiss,
cover each other, then weave dreams of another day to come.

'The mom sat down next to him and they began to talk. After a few hours, she left but she returned the next day and the day after that.'
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Life & Death in the AIDS Ward
Story & Recording by Ed Wolf

When I worked on the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital in the mid-1980s, I remember a patient whose mother arrived too late.  She was traveling by bus — she was afraid of planes — but he died before she could get to San Francisco.

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

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

The mom sat down next to him and they began to talk. After a few hours, she left — but she returned the next day and the day after that. By the end of the week, funds had been raised for two airline tickets. Ricky had assured her that flying was safe and she was taking him home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry, Lin, but they said it first.

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

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

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

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

 – Going to the “Nutcracker” every Christmas Eve

Having high tea at Liberty House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Lulu

'Jaime was the only man I ever fell in love with. He was insanely beautiful, inside and out.'
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Jaime Jesus Jimenez, 1963-1995
Story & Recording by Guy Berube

Jaime Jesus Jimenez (May 18, 1963 – October 27, 1995). That’s us in 1990, Jaime in front, in Little Rickie’s photo-booth, madly in love.

I had just ‘landed’ in New York in 1989 — illegally — and got a gig as bouncer and bar back at The Bar, an infamous queer hangout in the East Village where some scenes of “Cruising” where shot with Al Pacino. I met Jaime on my first shift. It was instant, our connection.

Jamie was the first to make a move on me. That fuckin smile did it.

“Hey Babe, when do you get off work?” he says.

“Wait in line, Buttercup,” I replied.

That ride lasted five crazy years. Jaime was the only man I ever fell in love with. He was insanely beautiful, inside and out. The stories are endless but one that I cannot erase is bathing Jamie at his weakest in the last stages of his illness. That very moment, looking at each other, knowing this was it. I felt something shift in my chest. It was my heart literally aching.

Fuck I miss him.

'My dad was in the hospital on the brink of death when we discovered he'd been living a double life ... and that he was infected with AIDS. Three weeks later, we found out he’d infected my mother.'
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Roger Bessey
Story & Recording by Diana Keough

My father, Roger Bessey and my mother, Christine, lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  My dad was in the hospital on the brink of death when, on January 7, 1988, we discovered he’d been living a double life for 27 of the 37 years he’d been married to my mom and that he was infected with AIDS.

Three weeks later, we found out he’d infected my mother. He told me later, he had a strong suspicion he was infected with AIDS and was hoping he’d die without anyone finding out.

My world came crashing down. Not only did my five other siblings and I have to deal with my father’s double life, but we also had to get our minds around the fact that both of my parents were dying of AIDS during a time period where there was so much fear and misinformation about how it was spread and how you got it.

The rumors, the threats of blackmailing were so overwhelming, we had to move my dad out of town and change his name.  We quickly sold the home they had lived in for 25 years and moved my mother to other side of town.  My parents never spoke again.

Friends would come into my home and not eat or drink anything; many were afraid to touch me, afraid that they could get it from me.  One friend even told me she couldn’t be my friend anymore because I “didn’t come from a nice family.”

My parents’ lives and deaths still make me so sad sometimes. My dad could never be who he truly was, afraid of what others would think.

'I got here for Lawrence. He wanted me to thrive, not just survive ... I didn’t get here by forgetting. I came here by way of remembering, too.'
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Lawrence Buckley, 1957 -1995
Story & Recording by Chris Creegan

In July 1995, my partner of 10 years, Lawrence, left me. He’d been leaving for a while. First his body and then, in the last few months, his mind. Not a sudden parting, more an ebbing away. Like a lingering tide, occasionally he would threaten to come back. But the pull was unstoppable. He had to go.

Every year, I take a brief sojourn from the routine of life to relive his last weekend. A little melancholy, but comforting too, perhaps because I’ve been going for 23 years. Some years it approaches like a hazard warning light. Others it seems to catch me unawares. But it always comes. And I always go.

It can’t be said often enough that grief is not something you get over or move on from. The intensity doesn’t change, only the frequency. It can be random, sparked off by the mention of a book, a place or a piece of music. But there’s nothing random about this weekend. It comes round again. Right on time.

A friend in the throes of very new grief asked me recently how I got from Lawrence’s death to the joyousness of my marriage to Allan last year. Almost an exam question, that. Hard to answer, no matter how well you’ve revised. My stumbling response was that I got here for Lawrence. He wanted me to thrive, not just survive.

But as I came away, I thought of something else. I didn’t get here by forgetting. I came here by way of remembering, too.

'My grandmother was a woman beyond her years.'
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Carlota Vazquez de Gonzalez, 1890-1984
Story & Recording by Miguel Gonzalez

My grandmother, Carlota Vazquez de Gonzalez was born June 12, 1890. She was the youngest female of 12 siblings and was named after Queen Carlota of Mexico during the reign of Maximilian I.

She was a strong woman who faced adversity all her life. She was small in stature but commanded a room. She gave birth to her six children in her home with the help from my grandfather. She lost all of her children through illness and violence, including my grandfather. Only my father survived.

My grandmother was a woman beyond her years. She loved a cigarette and her daily ‘vitamin shot’ (whiskey) in the morning. She would tell me stories about the family, who we were and where we came from. She was very proud of her roots as I am but she was a realist and she knew that life was never easy. She was a woman of strong convictions and believed that faith/religion was personal and not to be shared with others.

My grandmother contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion during hip surgery. After her surgery, she became ill and we could never figure out why. Her doctors at the time would dismiss her illnesses due to her age. It was not until one visit that the nurse turned back her blanket that I noticed the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on her legs. I recognized them, because I had seen the exact same lesions on my friends fighting this horrible disease. My grandmother died on Thursday, July 5, 1984. I was 20 years old.

My grandmother was my strength and my protector. She knew about me before I knew what gay was. She told me that she knew I was never going to marry a woman. All she wanted was a child so that the family line would continue. I miss her more than life itself. The wound is still fresh for me. Maybe one day, I can stop crying for her.

'I really miss Demian desperately, and I also miss dancing the Bill T. Jones master work, D-Man in the Waters. It was a tribute to Demian and to so many of the other people we lost.'
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Demian Acquavella, 1958-1990
Story & Recording by Seán Curran

My name is Seán Curran, and back in the 1980s, my last best friend Demian Acquavella and I were dancers in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance company.  One day out on the road, we were rehearsing in a gymnasium, and at the end of that long rehearsal, Demian and I decided to go and take showers before the van came to pick us up to take us out for dinner.

We were in the shower together, and Demian very nonchalantly picked up his left arm and pointed to a big splotch on his inner bicep and said, “Hey, Seán, what do you think this is?”

I knew exactly what it was – it was a Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion.  But I took a deep breath and said, “Wow, Demian, I don’t know, it looks like a bruise … Did somebody grab your arm or were you doing a duet with somebody?”

We got dressed and went out to wait for the van, but I said, “I think I forgot something.”

I ran back into the gym, I found a pay phone and I called Arnie Zane back in New York, collect, and I told Arnie that Demian had just shown me his first KS lesion. Arnie sprung into action and made a couple of appointments with doctors for Demian for when we returned back from the tour.

But then when I went back outside to wait with the dancers for the van to go to dinner, I noticed the other dancers were standing around talking, but that Demian had laid down on the very cold marble steps of this gymnasium building and he had fallen fast asleep. I thought to myself, there’s kind of a fork in the road for Demian and me today. And I don’t know why, but I took out my Instamatic camera that I had in my dance bag and I took a photograph of Demian asleep on the steps. After I got it developed, I put it in a frame and it’s been in my bedroom ever since and it’s a tribute to Demian and it’s a way for me to remember him.

I really miss Demian desperately and I also miss dancing the Bill T. Jones master work, D-Man in the Waters.  It was a tribute to Demian and to so many of the other people we lost.

The epigram for Bill T. Jones’ piece is a truism by artist Jenny Holzer: “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were filled with joy.”

'She was dying of a terminal illness, already a year into her death march.'
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Christine Bessey, 1927-1994
Story & Recording by Diana Keough

It wasn’t your usual family gathering. My mom had summoned all six of her children home, so she could go from room to room, assigning us her possessions. She was dying of a terminal illness, already a year into her death march. One down, three to go, it turned out.

She told one of my brothers, “I think this will look nice in your front hall,” her hand resting on a chest of drawers.

And so it went, on and on. A macabre ritual demanded by our well-organized matriarch, able to square off against Death in the realm of the mundane, but unable to face the broken and stressed out relationships looking right back at her.

“And I don’t want any fighting about any of this after I’m gone,” she said. This was my mom at her finest: in control of both her possessions and our fragile feelings. We were her obedient children once more, as well as contestants in her game show of random kindness.

I didn’t want her stuff, but then again, I did. For that was the yardstick of her love. She gave to her favorites, her favorite things, with no extra charge for her tangled web of strings attached. I was a little girl, again, and I hated it. I just wanted to hear her say how she loved me. But a family heirloom would have to suffice because it was the only love she knew how to give. When all of her earthly possessions were dispensed, she told us there was one more thing.

“I want you all to know,” she began slowly. “That when I feel the end of my life is near, and while I’m still able, I’m going to take my own life.”

She sat looking at us, with her hands folded tightly and placed demurely off to the side of her lap. Her spine was rigid and straight against the back of the chair. Her chin was raised high, her legs crossed at the ankles.

“My mother knew about two affairs but thought they were with women.  In spite of that, she stayed with him as long as she did because she was a “good Christian woman,” and was afraid of what other people would think. “It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and a second to destroy,” she often told us.  Fear killed them both.

One of my favorite memories of my dad — and I have many — is making Christmas cookies.  I have so many great memories of my mom but we had a difficult relationship.  Before she died, we healed a lot of our relationship and I was able to forgive her.

My dad always said he thought my mom looked like Grace Kelly and, I have to admit, I sort of agree with him.  She was beautiful, stylish and really smart.  In a different time, I think she would’ve been a successful entrepreneur.

My dad passed away in July, 1990, in an AIDS hospice in Cincinnati with me and three of my siblings by his side.

My mom passed away in a Catholic hospice in Milwaukee, her door plastered with bright red warning signs about her disease, with me and my oldest sister holding her hands.

They were both only 67 with a lot more life to live.  They never had a chance to watch me grow into the woman I’ve become.  My four sons never had a chance to get to know them or spend time with them, which is a damn shame. Their deaths — the deaths of anyone from AIDS is such a waster and so damn senseless.”

The physical pain she had feared so much, was controlled with medication and never came close to the emotional agony she twisted in prior to her terminal diagnosis.

“Life is such a precious gift from God,” she told me. “Don’t waste your life or any of the time that God gives to you. Promise me that, okay?”

We battled for so long, both of us feeling completely justified, and so full of pride and self-righteousness. The deadline of her death launched her on a soul trip and in taking me along, we were able to call a truce, leaving me to mourn what could have been, not the torment of what was.

I wonder if we would have been able to let go of our anger without the crescendo of her ticking body clock. All I know is what I saw: In the hospice, as she lay gasping for breath, holding my hand, looking right into my eyes, she asked, “This is the sickest I’ve been isn’t it?” I held her hand and thanked her for being the best mom she knew how to be. I thanked her for so many long talks and hugs and for not killing herself. She smiled and squeezed my hand back with all her might as she struggled to say, “I would’ve missed out on so much.”

Me too, mom. Me too.

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

Spared, Blessed and Fully Awake
Story by Alexandra Billings

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Does it really matter what disease you contracted or what you died of OR how pure your heart is and how deep you loved? They deserve respect and honor and I give them that till we meet again my angels. Love Big and Love Deep.'
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An Entire Family, Gone
Story & Recording by Cynthia Piña

My mother, father, sister, brother and uncle all succumbed to complications from HIV/AIDS.  My entire immediate family, gone!  By the age of eight, I said goodbye to my mother and then my father and so on.  But I’m here!  I’m here to say they matter, they were wonderful beings.  They will ALWAYS be remembered for who they were, NOT by what they died from.

They had names: my gorgeous music aficionado mother, Innocencia Caban, “Tita”; my artistic and strikingly handsome father, Amilcar Piña, “Al”; my beam of light baby sister, Cristina Marie Piña; my nautical ultra charismatic brother, Juan Pablo Barroso, “Pipo”; and my fun loving uncle, Angel Piña.

We all have a unique story and they do as well, and I wish I could share them with you – but for now just know this … they all left this earth way too soon and left a hole forever in my heart.

Does it really matter what disease you contracted or what you died of?  Or does it matter how pure your heart is and how deep you loved?  They deserve respect and honor and I give them that ’til we meet again, my angels. Love Big and Love Deep.

By Cynthia Piña