Stories of Pride

'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

'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.'
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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.

'Sylvester was a pioneer in the gay community. And during a time when most gay entertainers were in the closet, he wasn't. Sylvester was proudly out, and he paved the way in so many ways.'
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Sylvester, 1947-1988
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.

'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.'
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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.

'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.

'[Alexis] was ahead of her time. Despite her career suffering… she taught us to stay true to ourselves and fought for us to see a world that we had just not caught up to yet.'
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Alexis Arquette, 1969-2016
Story & Recording by Patricia, Richmond, David, and Rosanna Arquette
Photo by John Roecker

Patricia Arquette:

We are honored to be asked to memorialize our sister Alexis Arquette.  You’ll first be hearing me, Patricia, then our brother Richmond, then David, then our sister Rosanna.

I would like to highlight what an incredible artist Alexis Arquette was.  As an award-winning actor, her works spanned the screen, theater and cabaret.  As a cabaret singer and M.C. performing at top-level nightclubs, Alexis was a powerhouse, often performing as her self-invented alter ego “Eva Destruction.”

On stage, she starred in Libra with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company for director John Malkovich.  Alexis received praise in VH1’s reality show The Surreal Life in 2005, embodying a strong trans role model at a time when transgender representation was literally non-existent.

Her long career in film began with her widely heralded performance as Georgette in Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn.  She continued with notable performances in Terminal Bliss, American Playhouse, Hollow Boy, Of Mice and Men, Threesome, Jumpin’ at the Boneyard, Grief, Jack Be Nimble, Pulp Fiction, The Wedding Singer, Bride of Chucky, Killer Drag Queens on Dope, and Wigstock, among many others.

Alexis studied Fine Arts at Otis Parsons.  Like her, her paintings are beautiful, evocative, strong, uninhibited, and spirited, encompassing diverse themes such as fantasy, other-worldliness, religious struggle, and erotic art.

Her series of video compilations from local television documented societal norms of the time, capturing blatant anti-LGBT bias.  These works also examine human sexuality, desire and desirability through her observing gaze.

When Alexis was dying, she said about her nephew’s work as an artist, “You signed your name on the tree of life.”  But I want to say, “Alexis, that you are Darling, you are Brave One, you signed your name on the tree of life, and you will never be forgotten.”

Richmond Arquette:

Alexis was an original, wildly creative, fun and funny, every bit her own person.  Her absence continues to be deeply felt.  The world is missing out and I wish she were still alive.

Alexis grew up with a president who refused to even mention AIDS by name, let alone take any measures to prevent its spread.  She heard the blowhards who judged, criticized and condemned her entire life.  I believe the insensitivity in our culture is part of what wore her down.

Death is often reduced to statistics, as if each number isn’t a complete life, intricately interwoven with the lives of those who love them.  The recent worldwide effort to address COVID begs the question, why is it not always this way?  Why are we not as a species more reverent of life?  

I promise you that humanity would be richer if Alexis were still around, and I’m sorry for those of you who never got to be around her.

David Arquette:

Alexis was always ahead of her time.  I shared a room growing up with Alexis.  He taught me everything I knew about art, Hollywood, fashion, music.  She would turn me on to bands years before they became popular.

I’m going to bounce back and forth between pronouns, because that’s what Alexis did.

She was a fighter, always standing up for herself and others.  Anyone who knew Alexis loved her.  The gangsters, the skaters, the club kids, the runaways.  She was a Pied Piper wherever she or he went.

When Alexis decided to live fully as a woman, she also decided to only play female or trans roles as an actress.  Again, she was ahead of her time.  Despite her career suffering because of that decision, she taught us to stay true to ourselves and fought for us to see a world that we had just not caught up to yet.

Rosanna Arquette:

Alexis passed away before we had today’s language around respectful gender identity.  There was no “They/Them” yet.

In this moment of reflection on who our sister was, I’m reminded of just one of the many moments with her where her individuality was crystalized for me.  It was a conversation we had in the hours before she left this life.   I asked Alexis what clothes she wanted to be dressed in before her cremation.  Alexis had every kind of outfit, every type of fluid expression.  Fashion was one of the many ways that she shared her creative voice.  And Alexis answered, “It doesn’t matter!  Me!  I’m just me!”  We didn’t have the pronouns “They/Them” yet, but that was her message in her final moment with me.

It’s important to recognize and memorialize when any artist breaks new ground.  Our sister Alexis Arquette was a pioneer.  She was compelling, hypnotic, she drew you in.  And she knew she had this power, whether with an individual friend or an endless audience of strangers.  She could instantly hold you in the palm of her hand.  And when she did, she showed you, me, us, all how to live a life fully self-expressed.  She showed us where our own power resides.

Alexis challenged me to be who I am in every moment that I live with fearlessness and pride.  In this moment of reflection on who was Alexis Arquette, they were a bad-ass!

'Vito would captivate audiences with his wit and his joyful, ferocious personality ... Not only was Vito opening our minds, educating us, entertaining us, and motivating us to act, he was building our community.'
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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.

'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.'
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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.

'I think back to the scared little boy who met Peter and now know you can’t ever be too much of yourself. Peter taught me that.'
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Peter Grant
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.

'As a Black trans woman who has been living with HIV for over 10 years, I just want to say it is okay to be nervous and overwhelmed. But dig deep and find that determination and tenacity to survive and thrive.'
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My HIV Story
Story and Recording by Mallery Jenna Robinson

Hi! My name is Mallery Jenna Robinson.  My pronouns are she/her/hers, I identify as an AfraCaribbean Trans woman who has been empowered in her truth for 16 years as a trans woman and over 10 years as a trans woman living with undetectable HIV. 

On May 2, 2011, I was living in Montgomery, Alabama, a junior in college and in a monogamous romantic and sexual relationship with a cisgendered male when I became violently ill and collapsed while working as a server at a local restaurant.  I was rushed to the emergency room, where a panel of tests were run including blood work.

I received a phone call from the Montgomery County Health Department on May 21, 2011 to come into the health department to receive an update regarding my recent blood work. The medical provider walked inside the door to the office where I was waiting anxiously, and informed me I was HIV positive. He then referred me to the Copeland Care Clinic, also known as The Montgomery AIDS Outreach, where I would be linked into care at the Ryan White Program to receive HIV care and management.

I was completely nervous and overwhelmed as a then 21-year-old Black trans woman who was working on my Double Bachelor’s in Biology and History, but nonetheless I was determined to not let this diagnosis deter me from living my best life. I arrived at the Copeland Care Clinic and received training on best practices to ensure I would become and remain undetectable.  I met my amazing medical provider at the time, Dr. B, and he also recognized that I had no access to hormone replacement therapy, so he also prescribed that along with my anti-retroviral medication. 

Despite my medical diagnosis, I was tenacious and determined to continue to live an amazing life and not let HIV define my existence.  I was diligent about taking my medication and, as a result, I went from lab work twice a month to lab work once every six months.

I went on to graduate with my double Bachelor’s in biology and history in May 2014.  I began teaching as a middle school science and history teacher in Duval County, Florida from August 2014 until June 2019.  I traveled to Paris, France and London, England, and finally worked up the gumption to move to Los Angeles, California.  After moving to Los Angeles, I began receiving medical care at the Los Angeles LGBT Center under Dr. V.

Since moving to Los Angeles, I have become a transgender and HIV healthcare advocate, raising awareness to promote accessibility, visibility, and equity for all trans identities.  I work to destigmatize HIV by professionally speaking about my own journey surrounding HIV as a Black trans woman.  I’m a member of the City of West Hollywood’s Transgender Advisory Board, and work as Engagement Specialist and Service Navigator for The Transgender Health Department at the LGBT Center of Long Beach up until 2021.  I now work as the Community Advisory Board coordinator for “We Can Stop STDs LA” with Coachman Moore & Associates.

I participate in outreach efforts with other community leaders and partners to ensure that trans women of color and all trans identities in our community are being tested, and getting linked to care and remaining in care.  Far too often, individuals hear the letters H-I-V and instantly think of it as a death sentence, but it is not. You can successfully live with HIV as long as you are willing to take your medicines and practice other health and wellness strategies to ensure you are maintaining an undetectable status.

As a Black trans woman who has been living with HIV for over 10 years, I just want to say it is okay to be nervous and overwhelmed.  But dig deep and find that determination and tenacity to survive and thrive, so you, too, can motivate and inspire others to stay undetectable by staying in care.  Also, if you’re negative, PrEP and PeP services are also available, along with regular HIV testing.

'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.