Stories of Love

'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.

'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.

'He was Tanya Ransom, a drag queen. He was Michael Norman, an artist, educator and playwright. And he was a patient. And he was my father.'
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Michael Norman
Story & Recording by Elsa Sjunneson

I don’t remember being told my father was dying. I must have been too young when I internalized this information. I always knew he was sick and since my dad was an AIDS educator, it wasn’t like I didn’t know what the disease did.

It was the ‘90s. We were only beginning to know what AIDS was and, at 8 years old, I only understood what it had done to my father. My memories of these days are so scattered. I try to pick up the pieces. I’m still missing some of the pieces. I have letters written to him and written from him to others. I have his artwork. I have his writing. I have the play he wrote about his disease. People tell me I look like him. I have been told that I dance like him. But I cannot draw like my father and our writing styles are vastly different.

As a child, I remember that I clung to the idea of his physical remains – his ashes, because they were the only reminder I had that he had been there at all. I don’t have a gravesite but I do have physical touchstones. I didn’t know that my father could read German or that his artwork wasn’t always abstract and that the things I love in art are influenced by the work he did when I was around him.

I remember going with him to teach AIDS education classes to adults. I have letters thanking him for his teaching and these are the things I choose to carry with me.

It happened to me, it has happened to others: their parents die from AIDS but instead of everyone understanding it like they would cancer or another terminal illness, the sideways glances of misunderstanding cloud their faces. The politics of sex education and gay rights muddle the story of my past and I am forced to politicize the very nature of my identity.

The teddy bear gay pin sits in my jewelry box. The ACT UP pin sits next to it. The photos of drag queens and letters from family sit in my office, and I need to find a way to synthesize the historical image of my father with the reality.

He was Tanya Ransom, a drag queen. He was Michael Norman, an artist, educator and playwright. And he was a patient. And he was my father.

'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.

'When the father stepped out of the room and saw me, he hugged me and cried and cried and cried. He was as tall as me and his grief was so vast ... He kept saying his boy was gone.'
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Bearing Witness to Transformation
Story & Recording by Ed Wolf

I met a young gay man on the AIDS Unit at San Francisco General Hospital when I worked there in the ’80s.

He had just been diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions in his lungs and was told he had a short time to live. The medical team contacted his parents, who lived far away, and they came immediately.

During a five-minute meeting with the doctor, they found out their son was dying and also that he was gay. When I met the father, he told me it was harder for him to find out his son was a “fag” than to hear that he would be dead soon.

It took almost three weeks for their son to die.  Every day, his parents watched as the nurses — primarily lesbians and gay men, some with AIDS themselves — continued to care for him, clean him and lessen his pain as much as possible.

I was there the morning he died.

When the father stepped out of the room and saw me, he hugged me and cried and cried and cried. He was as tall as me, and his grief was so vast. I remember thinking we were both going to fall down.

He kept saying his boy was gone.

The next day, the parents returned to say good-bye. They thanked everyone for their love and care of their son. The mom took me aside and said she was going to miss me.  She said, smiling, that she and her husband had talked and wished they could adopt me and bring me home with them.

I kept in touch with them for a while.  They started a support group for Parents of Children with AIDS in their community.

'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

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

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

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

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

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

'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.

'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.

'Love doesnʼt end based on a test result.'

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.

'Jeff taught me many things. But most importantly, he gave me my defiance. It saved my life.'
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Jeff Moreland
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.

'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.

'Ed had a secret that he kept from his friends: He was in the United States illegally ... This explained why he never sought medical attention after being diagnosed with AIDS.'
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Ed Junior, 1982-2015
Story & Recording by Dave Coleman

Ed Junior had the voice of an angel, but only those of us involved in the karaoke scene of southern California got to hear it.  Affectionately known by his friends as Rihanna, he could match the best singers of our time like @WhitneyHouston, @CelineDion, @Siamusic and Freddie Mercury.

But Ed had a secret that he kept from his friends: He was in the United States illegally.  This explained why he never had a good job that lasted for long and why he never had a bank account.  It also explained why he never sought medical attention after being diagnosed with AIDS.  He didn’t have medical insurance, and thought he’d be deported back to Mexico and outed to his family.

Ed was too afraid to enter a hospital until the disease deteriorated his body so badly that he was collapsing and couldn’t hide it any longer.  Friends admitted him into the hospital.  He wasn’t deported.  He never left the hospital.  A few weeks later, he was dead.

As Ed laid on the hospital bed dying from AIDS, I would play his favorite songs for him, like Rihanna, “Shine bright like a diamond / Find light in the beautiful sea / I choose to be happy.”

Ed’s family came to the United States to claim his body.  A celebration of Ed was held at his favorite gay bar to raise money for funeral expenses, where we all tried to sing in his memory.  His family came and met all of Ed’s friends.  They shed tears for the loss of their child, but also happy tears for the amount of love this tight knit community had for this angelic human being.

Ed’s voice and kindness touched all of our lives.  He will be remembered always.  He shone bright like a diamond in our sky.

'... 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 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.'
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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.

'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.

'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.