Stories of Sacrifice

"I have taken chances that have almost killed me, and I will keep on taking them.  I have nothing to lose.”
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Ron Woodroof, 1950-1992
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Matthew McConaughey

Photo © The Dallas Morning News

Ron Woodroof was an unlikely hero, but he rose to the occasion and became a lifeline for many people with AIDS in the Dallas area. Ron created the Dallas Buyers Club in 1988 to get HIV and AIDS medication to those in need who couldn’t legally get it from doctors and pharmacies.

I’m Matthew McConaughey. I had the privilege of portraying Ron in the 2013 movie Dallas Buyers Club, for which I was honored with the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Ron, a feisty, foul-mouthed electrician who lived in Oak Lawn, Texas, tested positive for HIV in the mid-80s and was given only a few months to live.  Soon after, his third marriage ended in divorce. When the FDA-approved drug AZT failed to help his condition and caused significant side effects, Ron researched and bought drugs from outside the U.S. that were not approved by the U.S. government. They helped lessen his symptoms and prolong his life, but the FDA wouldn’t allow Americans to bring more than a three-months supply of unapproved drugs into the U.S., and clearly many people didn’t have the money to travel abroad to buy medicine.

With the help of his doctor and a fellow patient, he began importing, or obtaining from underground chemists in the U.S., different drugs, nutritional supplements and treatments through The Dallas Buyers Club for use by others suffering from HIV and AIDS.  Eventually, the club imported over 100 different treatments. Clubs would often test samples of new drugs at a friendly laboratory to make sure they had the right quality and potency.

According to a Dallas Morning News article in 1992, Ron, who often dressed as a priest or a doctor in a white lab coat, made over 300 trips across the U.S./Mexico border, smuggling as many as half a million pills in the trunk of his Lincoln Continental, tricked out with heavy duty air shocks so that the car wouldn’t sag with all the extra weight.  Ron and others who worked at or bought drugs from the buyers’ club risked arrest and death by importing and taking unapproved medications, but when your disease is a death sentence, is it really such a big risk?

As Ron put it, “Dammit … I don’t see how anything can be more toxic than HIV itself.  I have taken chances that have almost killed me and I will keep on taking them.  I have nothing to lose.”

Many buyers’ club operators and customers accused the big pharma companies and their FDA regulators of conspiring to keep drug prices high and to keep new competing drugs out of the hands of patients.  Certainly, the slow pace of FDA drug approval was no help to terminally ill people on death’s doorstep.

Ron took an experimental drug called peptide T, which was used to treat AIDS-related dementia, but when the U.S. government intervened and stopped his supplier in Denmark from shipping out the drug, Ron sued the Food & Drug Administration.

“I have no choice with peptide T,” Ron said. “It is the only line I have to staying alive.  When I stop it, I start dragging my leg.  I urinate on myself. I can’t speak.  I slobber all over the damn place.”

A judge ruled against Ron, saying that although there was no Constitutional right to import unapproved drugs, he personally thought that terminally ill people should be able to buy them.  Ron managed to strike a deal that allowed him to get the drug and report his results to the FDA.

Ron died in 1992, six years after his HIV diagnosis.

As Ron said in a documentary released that year, “Let me try anything I can get my hands on. Because if it kills me, at least I died trying.”

'(Glenn) Burke, who played for the Dodgers and Athletics, was the first and only MLB player to come out as gay during his career and the first to acknowledge it publicly.'
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Glenn Burke, 1952-1995
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Read by Sterling K. Brown

Glenn Burke (November 16, 1952 – May 30, 1995) was a Major League Baseball player who died of AIDS in San Leandro, California. He was 42 years old.

Burke, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics, was the first and only Major League player to come out as gay to teammates and owners during his career and the first to acknowledge his sexuality publicly.

In 1978, having been open about his homosexuality with his Dodgers teammates and management, Burke was traded to the A’s for the veteran Bill North.

Al Campanis, the Dodgers’ vice president, even offered him bonus money if he married.  “I guess you mean to a woman?” Burke replied.

Burke had a strained relationship with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, allegedly because Lasorda’s son, Tom Lasorda Jr., was gay and became friendly with Burke.  Lasorda Jr. died of AIDS in 1991.

Although Burke started regularly in the outfield for the A’s, a pinched nerve kept him off the field. Refusing to take cortisone shots, he quit the team. However, he returned the next spring.

Former Burke teammate Claudell Washington has said that when A’s manager Billy Martin introduced the new players to the team, Martin said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot.”

A knee injury led Burke to the minor leagues. Living as a gay man, he believed that his dream of starring in the major leagues was unlikely, so he walked away. In The New York Times, Burke was quoted saying, “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn’t changing.” 

In his autobiography Burke said, “Prejudice just won out.”

Burke would later star in gay baseball and softball leagues and won medals at the Gay Games. In 1987, he was hit by a car, leading to a downward spiral of drugs, homelessness and crime. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to theft and possession of a controlled substance and served time in prison. By 1994, he had discovered that he was HIV positive.

Burke’s sister Lutha, knowing he would die soon, searched for him on the streets of San Francisco. After finding her brother, she brought him home to Oakland to care for him in his final days.  In December 2020, 25 years after his death, Burke was honored with the opening of the Glenn Burke Wellness Clinic at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center.

'Each moment I spent in the creative space with Howard Ashman remains with me every day of my life.'
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Howard Ashman, 1950-1991
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport and Alan Menken
Recording by Alan Menken

Howard Ashman was a masterful writer, lyricist and director, in my opinion the greatest of our generation, who died of AIDS on March 14, 1991, at the age of 40.  My name is Alan Menken.  In a collaboration that lasted 12 years, Howard and I wrote the stage and movie musical Little Shop of Horrors and won two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards and three Golden Globe Awards for Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.

We forged a collaboration that was intense, creative and supremely effective. Each moment I spent in the creative space with Howard Ashman remains with me every day of my life.

With our first project at Disney, Little Mermaid, some studio executives resisted using the song “Part of Your World,” for fear we would lose some of the younger audience members. But Howard insisted that our audience had to know what our little  mermaid Ariel wanted. She needed to have what he called an “I want” song.

I think that as a gay man, Howard grew up knowing what it felt like to be on the outside, wanting to be a part of the world that he saw around him but somehow not able to fully take part.

For two years, while Little Mermaid was being made, Howard knew he had HIV but he hid his illness from everyone on the movie, including me. We found out later that, during the press junket for Little Mermaid at Disney World in Orlando, Howard wore a catheter in his chest so that he could get medicine intravenously at night. When he saw the parade of Little Mermaid characters at the park, he burst into tears.

Later, those of us who worked with Howard realized why he cried: It was the idea that those characters would live on long after he was gone.

The night we both won our Oscars for Little Mermaid, Howard said he and I needed to have a serious talk, and after we got back to New York, Howard revealed to me that he was sick with AIDS. We had just reached the pinnacle of our careers in both theater and the movie business, and we had worked side-by-side for 11 years, yet my dear friend kept it a secret from everyone he worked with that he had an incurable fatal disease. That’s the kind of fear people lived with back then: fear of rejection, of death, of a fatal illness with no cure, and there was so much stigma and discrimination.

But Howard wouldn’t let AIDS keep him down. He was so determined to keep working, to keep creating magical song moments and unforgettable characters. I think AIDS spurred him on to work even harder because he knew he was living on borrowed time.

Howard and I were brought in to fix Beauty and the Beast while it was being developed. But Howard was too sick to commute back and forth to LA, so he finally had to tell Jeffrey Katzenberg that he had AIDS.  Katzenberg agreed that the production would travel from LA to meet with Howard and me in upstate New York.

At the same time, we were also working on Aladdin, which Howard had initially developed. Because of AIDS, Howard was suffering neuropathies, began losing feeling in his fingers, losing his voice and much of his eyesight, all the while we were collaborating on joyous, incredible songs. Howard was determined to keep working as long as he could.

Towards the end of his life, Howard and I wrote “Prince Ali” from his hospital bed. He was down to 80 pounds. He couldn’t see and could barely speak.

Howard and I won an Oscar for Best Song for Beauty and the Beast. And the movie was the first animated picture ever nominated for Best Picture. Howard had passed before ever experiencing the movie’s success.  The award was accepted by his companion of seven years, Bill Lauch.

'About midway through the taping of the series, Pedro’s health began to decline, but he told producers that he wanted them to tell his story until the end.'
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Pedro Zamora, 1972-1994
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Wilson Cruz
Photo © MTV

Pedro Zamora’s bravery and commitment to AIDS advocacy engaged and educated TV audiences around the world.  Pedro was a cast member on Real World: San Francisco from 1993 to 1994.  I’m Wilson Cruz, and hardly a day goes by that I don’t remember Pedro’s courage and dedication.

On Real World: San Francisco, Pedro was one of the first openly gay people with AIDS that many people ever saw on TV.  Simultaneously, on My So Called Life, I was the first openly gay actor playing an openly gay character in a series regular role on American TV.  And to this day, Pedro still inspires me as an actor, as a man, and as an activist.

Pedro Zamora was the youngest of eight children living in Havana, Cuba when his parents decided to emigrate to Florida as part of the highly-publicized Mariel Boat Lift in 1980.  Pedro was an honor student, captain of the cross-country team and President of the Science Club at his high school where he was voted Best All Around and Most Intellectual.  But at 17 years old, Pedro learned he was HIV positive after donating blood at a blood drive.

His HIV-positive diagnosis propelled him to become a full-time AIDS educator, so that other young people could learn what he was never taught.  This led to hundreds of speaking engagements; a front page article about him in the Wall Street Journal; appearances on major talk shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue; and testimony before the U.S. Congress on AIDS education.

Producers of the Real World wanted to cast an HIV-positive person.  Being cast on the series gave Pedro his biggest platform for AIDS education and won him fans all over the world.  Audiences watched how his HIV status affected his relationships with housemates and his health.  They celebrated his commitment ceremony with partner Sean Sasser, which was the first such ceremony in the history of television.

But about midway through the taping of the series, Pedro’s health began to decline, but he told producers that he wanted them to tell his story until the end.  When the stress from his conflict with a homophobic housemate, Puck Rainey, led Pedro to want to move out of the Real World house, his other housemates instead voted to evict Rainey.  Time magazine ranked that episode #7 of the top 32 most epic episodes in reality TV history.

In late June 1994, the Real World: San Francisco began to air on MTV.  At a cast reunion party only two months later in August, Pedro’s progressing illness was evident.  He was diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, a disease that causes brain lesions, and also a rare and often fatal virus that causes inflammation of the brain.  Doctors estimated that he had 3-4 months to live.

In September 1994, he was transferred to a hospital in Miami near his family.  With the help of the U.S. government, the remainder of his family was allowed to move to the U.S., so that they could be with Pedro before he died.  MTV paid for his medical costs, because Pedro was unable to get health insurance due to having a pre-existing condition.

Pedro Zamora died of AIDS at age 22, the morning after the final episode of the show was broadcast.

A memorial fund, youth clinic, a public policy fellowship, a youth scholarship fund and a street in Miami are named in Pedro’s honor.  He was one of the 50 people first included on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor as part of the Stonewall National Monument, the first national monument in the U.S. dedicated to LGBTQ history.

Reflecting on Pedro’s death, President Clinton reminded us, “We must remember what Pedro taught us:  One person can change the world — and whether or not we are living with HIV or know someone who is, we all have a responsibility as global citizens to do whatever we can.  Life is short enough as it is.  No one should die from a disease that is both preventable and treatable.”

'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.