Stories of Suffering
In Remembrance of Those Who Were Alone
Story & Recording by Cosgrove Norstadt
In 1981, I was living in Ohio and dating a man from New York City. Because of him, I became aware of a strange cancer striking gay men in New York and San Francisco. Unfortunately, in Ohio, no one was worried about AIDS because only people in NYC and San Francisco were at risk.
Four years later, I moved to NYC. I met the Reverend Bernard Lynch who was ministering to those afflicted with AIDS. I ask him how I could help. What could a naive youth from Ohio know about such a massive Holocaust? I wasn’t cut out for ACT UP and criticized for my lack of anger and outrage. I wasn’t angry. I was sad. Terribly sad. I was sad for all the men dying alone in the hospitals.
Bernard directed me to St. Clare’s Hospital to volunteer. They wanted me to wear masks and gloves and footies, but I couldn’t. If I was going to hold you in my arms as you died, I was going to let you touch me, cough phlem on me and cry on my shoulder. From a Christ-like point of of view, I could not do less than Christ himself.
Most men at St. Clare’s lasted two weeks, tops. I hadn’t lived in NYC long enough to make friends. My friends became short term and very deep with the men who were alone and dying. I met sex workers who taught me compassion. I met intravenous drug users who taught me to be accepting. Every two weeks, I lost my newest best friend. All of these men shared their most intimate secrets with me and, most of all, their love.
The number of men I held as they died is impossible to calculate, but as my life continues, I remember the patients of St. Clare’s Hospital. I remember how you were ostracized by friends and family. I remember how, as gay brothers, we loved one another unconditionally.
This is my tribute to those who were alone. They had no friends and no family. I was just a 22-year-old boy from Ohio, learning life lessons I wish never existed. I miss all of you, and I continue to remember you and love you.
Max Robinson, 1939-1988
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Don Lemon
Max Robinson was an inspirational figure for me when I decided to become a TV journalist and news anchor. I’m Don Lemon, and Max’s professional ascent to become, in 1978, the co-anchor of ABC World News Tonight on ABC News, alongside Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds, showed me that it was possible for a Black American to become a news anchor on a major network.
Many people aren’t aware that Max was the first to reach that height in our business, and was also a founder in 1975 of the National Association of Black Journalists. He mentored and supported other Black journalists and technicians trying to work their way up the ladder in a White-dominated news business. Sadly, however, Max struggled with alcohol, and died of AIDS on December 20, 1988, at the age of 49.
After growing up in segregated Richmond, Virginia, Max’s first news anchor job was for a Portsmouth, Virginia, TV news station where – and this seems unbelievable now – he had to recite the news from behind a screen, so that viewers didn’t know he was Black. One day, he pulled down the screen and the station was flooded with complaints, leading to his firing the next day.
But Max rebounded, and in 1966, he was hired as a reporter at Channel 4, the NBC affiliate in Washington, DC, and became a regular guest on Meet the Press. He won an Emmy award for the documentary series The Other Washington, portraying life in Anacostia, a Black section of Washington, DC known for crime and poverty, and showed how discriminatory laws perpetuated poverty and inequality in healthcare and education.
Max moved to Channel WTOP in 1969 and later moved up to co-anchor the nighttime newscasts at 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. But being the first Black man in his position at a series of jobs apparently took a toll on his mental health and self-esteem.
“I can remember walking down the halls and speaking to people who would look right through me,” Robinson is quoted as saying in the book Contemporary Authors. “It was hateful at times … I’ve been the first too often, quite frankly.”
Famed Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, who was ABC’s Washington bureau chief in 1980-1981, claimed that Max was deliberately excluded from any decision-making regarding the newscast he co-anchored. Max publicly complained about racism at the network, including at a Smith College speech in 1981.
After Frank Reynolds died in 1983, Robinson was a no-show at the funeral where he was supposed to sit next to First Lady Nancy Reagan. He claimed he had had too many drinks, couldn’t sleep, took some prescription drugs, and didn’t wake up on time the next morning. Soon thereafter, Peter Jennings was named the sole anchor of World News Tonight, and Max was moved into a weekend anchor position.
The next year, Max left ABC to become anchor at a local NBC-owned station in Chicago, but often failed to show up at work, entered rehab for alcohol abuse, and retired in 1985. The autobiography he was writing with the help of Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page was never finished.
My CNN colleague Bernard Shaw observed: “Max, at the time of his death, had more arms around him than he had when he was fighting lonely battles fighting racism in the industry, fighting the things all of us deal with in our personal lives.”
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.
Anthony Kabungo, 1948-1992
Story & Recording by Joan Dellavalle
This day, the 21st of August 1992, we received the sad news of your passing. We all knew the day will come as each passing day you become more and more frail. You would be in and out of hospital sharing a room with other sick patients, everyone fighting for their life as doctors tried to find out what AIDS was.
When we came to visit you, we observed some patients sleeping on the floor because families could not afford beds for them or the hospital didn’t have enough beds. Those days were hard to witness. I still have visions of grown men crying in pain. I still have visions of you crying in pain in silence and singing “All to Jesus, I surrender.”
In the early 1990s. AIDS was not mentioned — they would call it TB. Watching you go through pain
everyday was heartbreaking. Most third-world countries had no access to medicine, then the only
thing they had was prayer and hope.
You lost your job as soon as they found out you had “that disease” as they called it. Oh, I remember how everything changed for us in a second. I remember how quickly gravity pulled us down. I also remember how you found strength to instill wisdom in me.
I am so grateful to have had you as a father.
1992 feels like only yesterday when you took you last breath to another journey. AIDS took you so quick, like the speed of light. I know you are not in pain and this gives me hope that all those amazing
people out there trying to find a cure of what took you so fast that one day will find a cure.
I advocate for you, my sister and many loved ones we have lost from this cruel disease. I continue to advocate for loved ones living with HIV/AIDS. I advocate to give strength to families and friends watching loved ones fight this battle. I am grateful to have found new friends at The AIDS Memorial that can feel this pain like I do.
Today, I sing our favourite songs. “All to Jesus, I surrender. Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me
It doesn’t matter whether it has been weeks, months or years, the pain of losing you always pinches
me like lightning for a lifetime.
Dad, you fought a good battle.
Pride Tirade 2021
Story and Recording by John Kelly
Happy as I limp my wrist in pride for us — the outcast, the maligned, the persecuted, the entrapped, the murdered, the sweated, the followed, the avoided, the violated, the blackmailed, the serial-tattooed, the sneered, the ostracized, the erased, the hated, the invisible, the raped, the tolerated, the patronized, the parodied, the joke, the denigrated, the evicted, the diminished, the emasculated, the de-promed, the expelled, the therapized, the shock-treated, the lobotomized, the numbed and the drugged, the lost, the dead, the erased, the removed from tangible history, the persistent dwellers in blessed proximity, the survivors, the warriors, the steadfast, the persistent, the inclusive, the non-ageist, the color blind, the expansive, the essential, the imaginative, the true, the warriors, the activists both stewing and shout spewing, the long term survivors demanding to be honored, the generational glue that is gold, the striving and striding toward our place in the sun that demands to be respected, and the imperative that we acknowledge that the AIDS pandemic ruptured our inter-generational dialogue, and our personal, systemic, collective and more generally cadenced growth.
This/MY generation of artists — and OUR audiences — disappeared.
YOU are standing on our generational, grave–like, culturally curtailed, and tribally intrinsic sinkhole. You may be afloat and faring ok on the gravitas of a vast family of ghosts and heart shattering loss, of dead young unresolved spirits. Advance, as we had done, in your own way and manner, and as you continue to grow and transform the world, please aim to bless the ground on which you re-trace our analog step.
WE walk the very same path.
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.
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.
Lawrence Baker Wilkins, 1962 -1994
Story & Recording by Richard Phibbs
Lawrence Baker Wilkins, born November 10, 1962, died July 12, 1994
I have wanted to write this for years, but remembering brings back so much pain that it often seems unbearable. I must do this, though, for my beloved friends who endured so much physical and emotional suffering. Baker Wilkins was my best pal from our 20s into our 30s. He became my brother. We were both new to New York, curious and excited to be away from our small hometowns.
I was terrified of HIV and its mystery. This was New York City in the early 90’s, and it was almost impossible not to equate sex and intimacy with a dark horrible death. Baker was not full of fear the way I was, and that worried me.
We met for lunch one day, and he revealed to me he had tested positive. We held each other and wept. To us, the diagnosis meant that within three to six months, he’d likely be gone. I was devastated, but held myself together for him and hoped. From there it went downhill.
A red spot showed up on his nose. I said, let’s go to the makeup counter and get a cover-up. The woman at the counter sold us a concealer and told Baker to stay out of the sun. She had no idea the spot was Kaposi’s Sarcoma. The cover-up worked for a week until the KS began to take over Baker’s body. He declined rapidly. My most handsome friend was now covered in KS lesions and had wasting syndrome.
He had to have a shunt put in his chest as his veins could no longer stand up to the IV medications. He went home to North Carolina to see his family, and the local massage therapist refused to touch him.
My heart broke for my beloved friend. His courage was remarkable and he wanted to live, so with the help of his longtime partner Rolf Iversen, we investigated everything.
Shark cartilage was said to have healing properties. We tried that. Urine therapy — drinking one’s own urine — was said to stimulate the immune system. He tried that. He tried to live his life as normally as he could. He even went out to Fire Island, but when his skinny, KS-purpled body entered the pool, everyone else got out. My heart broke again.
The next phase came when they had to amputate his foot because the KS had spread. In the hospital,
I held his hand as the excruciating “phantom pains” took over his body.
Baker died. My best friend and my brother was gone at 32. He was a remarkable man.
Selling art was his passion; collecting art was his dream. He was kind to everyone. He was so handsome that everyone wanted to talk to him, and he would spend time with each person that did. Most of them were strangers and he would make them feel heard and important.
After Baker died, Rolf died too, then Bill, then John, then Jose, then 12 other friends. Then my boss, my dentist, and then my doctor. All dead.
I was overwhelmed with sadness, then guilt that I was still alive. Depression set in. I got myself to a therapist and onto an antidepressant. I knew that, as sad as I felt, the gift of life was mine. Seeing Baker fight so hard for his life was a reminder that I had to fight for mine.
Then came a medical miracle. If Baker could only have held on for six more months, he could have received antiretroviral treatment and still be with us. At the time I didn’t believe they would find something. I just couldn’t believe it. I think about Baker everyday. I think about Rolf and all the rest. Sometimes I think I still have PTSD from all the losses.
Sometimes I still equate sex with death, though I remind myself this is a different time. I still weep when I walk by the new condominiums that have gone up where St. Vincent’s stood. I look up and remember those cinder block cells of rooms and the hallways packed with the gurneys of young men with skeletal bodies and KS lesions. I walk by the nearby New York City AIDS Memorial hoping to feel something. I don’t, except a sadness that the names one sees on other war monuments aren’t displayed here, the names of the lost.
Before I go to sleep and when I wake up, I see this photograph of Baker, and somehow this comforts me.
I love you, my dear brother. You fought hard and with such dignity. You were so kind and sweet to everyone. You were brave until the end. I am so sorry the world was not kinder to you.
Story & Recording by Ed Wolf
A friend says 2020 is the year that won’t stop taking, and I feel it too, a deep sadness.
When I worked on the AIDS Ward at San Francisco General Hospital in the mid-1980s, I had a constant heaviness in the center of my chest. It was always there and difficult to know what to do, what to say, where to go.
Sometimes, when patients were feeling it too, we’d go upstairs to Labor and Delivery. We’d stand outside the nursery window and watch the new arrivals.
Years later, when AIDS finally came into my house and my friend Bob had only a few months left, my nephew Tommy was born.
I remember one day, we drove out to the East Bay so Bob could cradle Tommy in his arms. On the way home, Bob wept so deeply.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I wanted to hold someone,” he said, “who has just come from where I am going.”
A Life Shaped by HIV/AIDS
Story & Recording by Louis Buchhold
My name is Louis Buchhold, and I live in West Hollywood, California. My entire adult life has been shaped by HIV and the AIDS crisis. It has done things to me and for me I would have never chosen had I not been gay and HIV positive.
The early talk about a mysterious gay disease didn’t scare me. I was young and horny and full of wanderlust. I was one of those beautiful young men you may have encountered on Santa Monica Boulevard, a runaway from the Midwest, in a life resembling a John Rechy novel.
Before my young adulthood bloomed, I took a wild ride through a world that soon came apart around us. The generation of free love I grew up in had turned to free death. I watched everyone in my life fall to the disease and die.
I was a lucky one. I only had minor and treatable opportunistic infections.
I became an art director at Liberation Publications and oversaw the national bi-weekly magazine, The Advocate. It was a hot time for everyone trying to get the latest information about AIDS, what the government was doing or not doing about the epidemic, about support services, about hate crimes, and details on organizations like ACT UP and how they were making the world aware of what was happening to us.
I vividly recall the growing AIDS quilt photos and stories I laid out – probably the only information small-town gays saw. I felt I had an important function to our community at that time, and it pushed me forward.
At a point the terror on the streets was deafening, and things became so grim. Funerals and wakes were turned into parties set up by the deceased only weeks or days before their death, and strictly intended to be fun memories of and for our friends and lovers. It was too much to think about the corroded decimated shells the disease left behind.
One good friend, Wade, had been a clown, a very sensitive and happy man who believed in the power of laughter and loved nothing more than to make people smile, volunteering his time all over LA. He was a son of fame, born in LA privilege – the privileged family who threw him out, disowned him and left him to the streets, where he was eaten from the inside out by Candida, an opportunistic infection. It was a ghastly way to go. He went through it without family, in County Hospital, only loved by us AIDS outcasts. It was better for his high-profile parents if he died forgotten.
A week after Wade’s ugly demise, all his friends met at his memorial margarita party he arranged. I was loaded. I was so loaded in those days just to make it through. It took a lot to hold back my fear and hatred and agony from all the loss and death. I stood in front of Wade’s photo with my margarita, surrounded by his adoring friends, my friends. I fell apart at the seams, crashed onto my knees and couldn’t catch my breath.
How could such a thing happen to such a beautiful man? How could the world allow, or even sanction, the death of my entire generation of gay men?
All my friends were dead or dying. My youth was stolen. I couldn’t hold onto it. I saw my future: like so many of my kind, I would meet my end alone on the street.
Someone lifted me up and took me home, and the daily drinking continued without a pause. The world hurt too much. Eventually I received my diagnosis and death date, summer of 1997. And like others before me, I tried to drink myself away before the unthinkable happened. Unfortunately, I appear to have pickled myself instead – and wasn’t able to die. I only preserved eternal pain and woke up one day laying in the street in Cathedral City at 40.
Similar to Wade’s memorial, a man pulled me up and drove me to AA. It is there I re-started my life, having mostly no fond memories of my youth. But my health struggle didn’t stop with cleaning up. In 2008, I came home from the hospital to die from complications of HIV/AIDS. I didn’t want to die alone trapped in a hospital bed. I wasn’t expected to live past that week. Miraculously, I lived, my work apparently not completed.
I’m 22 years sober today and over 17 years undetectable on medication. I’m a psychologist in Counseling Psychology, and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I work in rehabilitative counseling and recovery.