January 15, 2014

Salutogenesis Factor #2c: My Gay and AA Families, Part 2

On Monday, I wrote about my life before becoming openly gay (October, 1977) and acknowledging my alcoholism (March, 1978). Those decisions transformed my life. Talk about salutogenesis -- the origin of health!

Before that, everything had centered around family, job, and drinking pals. Luckily, I didn't lose any of those. In addition to my personal liberation, I gained two new families: my gay friends and AA pals.

My Guide into the New World
Those two new families overlapped; many new friends were, like me, both gay and alcoholic. Today, I want to pay homage to one in particular who became my best friend and treasured mentor.

Tinsley Halter Cunningham
Easily the "most unforgettable character I've known," he was inevitably called something other than Tinsley. Dusty it was.

We met at an AA meeting in my Palisades neighborhood. His story soon became my story, as I began to follow his lead. I often felt like a small boat being tugged along by the Queen Mary-Dusty..

Dusty and St. John's Church
Dusty was an active member of St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square. I was a lapsed Catholic, somewhere between agnostic and atheist. With everything that was now going on in my life, I figured my spirituality could stand strengthening. So I followed Dusty into St. John's . . . and into a camel suit! For several years, he and I played the camel in the church's Christmas pageant for children. As usual in our relationship, I brought up the rear.

Dusty gave me this Christmas present in 1980:

Dusty and the Gay World
As I recall, Dusty had gone through seven husbands, and he remained good friends with six. I haven't accumulated that many, but there's still time.

Dusty enjoyed country-western dancing and trips to Fire Island. I didn't follow him onto the dance floor, but for several summers, we shared a rented house in Provincetown for a few weeks with a couple other gay friends.

At age forty, he discovered motorcycle riding and became an active member of the Silver Spurs, a gay bikers club. He spent several weeks riding through Europe with his pal Gary, whom he dubbed "Little Egypt" for some reason. Dusty was always renaming his friends; I became "the Widow Schappi."

Dusty carried a string of pearls in the vest pocket of his motorcycle suit, so he could be "dressed appropriately for any occasion." Not your stereotypical biker type, Dusty saw the humor in life and shared it with all his friends.

But he wasn't all fun and games.

Dusty and AA
Dusty had a gift for listening, for clearly seeing other people's real issues, and for offering practical suggestions. He had a reputation in AA for helping newly sober people find the key to making AA work for them. He was in demand as a sponsor for AA newbies, known in the program as "pigeons." When his coop got too crowded, he'd turn candidates over to me.

Hundreds of people sent cards and letters when Dusty was dying. Here's one from a woman in AA:
Dear Dusty, This is a love letter, pure and simple. You probably don't remember who I am, but it does not matter. When I first came into AA on Capitol Hill five years ago, your example and the things you shared gave me the hope and direction that I needed to stay sober. To this day, the things that you said are still with me. For that I will always love you. 
Dusty and Whitman-Walker Clinic
Dusty's AA involvement led to his starting the Alcoholic Services unit at the Whitman-Walker Clinic, founded in 1973 as a center for gay men and lesbians. Ever his follower, I succeeded him as chair of the Alcoholism Services when he left in 1984 to become president of the Clinic's board of directors.

During my last visit with Dusty as he was dying of AIDS, I mentioned how he'd been leading me along through the years, step by step. He replied, "And I ain't done with you yet." He died in 1988, and I served as president of the Clinic's board the next year.

During Dusty's board presidency (1984-86), he and the Clinic's executive director Jim Graham worked (and fought) together, transforming the Clinic into one of the nation's premiere organizations combating AIDS.
In 1984, Whitman-Walker opened its AIDS Evaluation Unit, the first gay, community-based medical facility in the nation devoted exclusively to diagnosing and evaluating patients who thought they had AIDS.

It also started the first support group for people with AIDS (PWAs). In 1985, it opened two residential houses for PWAs. The second house -- a big Victorian just off now-fashionable Logan Circle -- was owned by a "pigeon" of mine. When his roommates there learned he had AIDS, they all moved out . . . an example of the paranoia that characterized the epidemic's early years. When the Clinic turned his place into a residence for PWAs, my friend benefited financially from the arrangement, and was able to stay in his home.

This "humorous" reminder of the paranoia from that time hangs on the wall in my den:

The Clinic (now Whitman-Walker Health) remains a leader in HIV/AIDS education, prevention, diagnosis and treatment. At the epidemic's peak, Whitman-Walker had over 1,200 volunteers. In 1997, its annual AIDS Walk was the most profitable ever, with about 25,000 people helping to raise $1.7 million. In 1993, WWC built the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center, named after the actress, an early AIDS activist. She attended the buildings's opening ceremonies. My photo shows Elizabeth with Jim Graham and DC's Mayor at the time, Sharon Pratt Kelly. Jim was president of the WWC board in 1981 but turned the job over to Dusty when Jim assumed the newly-created position of executive director. Jim held that post until 1998, when he was elected to the Council of the District of Columbia. He serves there still.

The AIDS Quilt
Finally, I want to share a few of the many photos I've taken of the AIDS quilt when it's been displayed on the Washington Mall. The AIDS Memorial Quilt was conceived in 1985 by long-time San Francisco gay rights activist Cleve Jones, and it quickly became a sensation.

Today the quilt is a powerful visual reminder of the AIDS pandemic. More than 48,000 individual 3-by-6-foot memorial panels -- most commemorating the life of someone who died of AIDS -- have been sewn together by friends, lovers and family members.

On October 11, 1987, the quilt was displayed for the first time on the Mall during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It covered a space larger than a football field and included 1,920 panels. Half a million people came to see the quilt that weekend.

That overwhelming response led to a four-month, 20-city national "tour" for the quilt in the spring of 1988, which raised nearly $500,000 for hundreds of AIDS service organizations.

By 1992, the AIDS Memorial Quilt included panels from all 50 states and 28 countries. In October 1992, the quilt returned to Washington. In January 1993, The NAMES Project was invited to march in President Clinton’s inaugural parade.
Frank Kameny
1925 -2011 
The last display of the entire AIDS Memorial Quilt came in October 1996, when it covered the entire National Mall.

During one of my visits to see it, I took this picture, which shows Frank Kameny -- blue jacket, holding his glasses -- looking at one of the panels. I recognized him because he lived in my neighborhood, and I'd see him at our local Safeway.

Frank is considered one of the most significant figures in the American gay rights movement. In 1957, he was dismissed from his position as an astronomer in the U.S. Army's Map Service because he was gay. So began Frank's herculean struggle with the establishment, a personal battle that helped pave the way for the the militant gay rights movement of the 1960s.

Kameny protested his firing by the U.S. Civil Service because he was gay, and argued his case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. Although the court denied his petition, it was the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation.

The Positive Impact of AIDS
Pundits today comment on the general acceptance of gays and lesbians, and on the sharply growing support for same-gender marriage. The talking heads usually overlook a key element in that dramatic change in public opinion -- AIDS. 

 Here's an example from the AIDS Memorial Quilt:

Before AIDS, the majority of gays stayed hidden from public view. What we did see was the occasional stereotype of the effeminate gay on TV and in the movies. 

With AIDS, people learned that the nice, virile young man next door was gay. We discovered that macho leading man Rock Hudson was gay. AIDS has "outed" hundreds of thousands of Americans -- all loved by millions of family members and friends. It's no wonder that public perception of gay people has changed for the better.

That's why coming out is so important. I'm glad I finally did my bit.

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: Eulogy delivered at the memorial service for Dusty at St. Johns Church by his brother Bruce, and a tribute submitted by David B. in connection with Dusty's quilt.

1 comment:

@Panger2013 said...

John, I was just thinking about Dusty - well, I always think about Dusty, I still keep a photo in my bookcase of him posing with Santa for an AT&T photo shot we did - and for some reason, looked up his name and found this.

Oh, man, I loved that man with my heart. Thank you for the wonderful remembrance.

I hear him all the time: "Say please in the morning, and thank you at night."

Happy new year.

Lynn Pounian