The LGBT community recently lost two leaders we will all miss, whether you knew them or not. I knew both of them because of my work on the Hill and specifically the congressional staff association for the LGBT community in the House of Representatives.
One was in the last few weeks, Chris Crowe, president of the recently reinvigorated and renamed LGBT Congressional Staff Association. A few months ago, Jeff Coudriet died after a long illness. Jeff was involved with the organization in its bronze age.
Both were wonderful friends to have and bigger-than-life individuals who touched so many people with charisma that set rooms on fire with their humor and their energy. They also had intense commitment to making people’s lives better. Beyond his work on the staff association, Chris devoted energy to the driving LGBT issues of the day such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. Once Jeff left the Hill, he went to work for our city, dedicated to making this place safer, healthier and more economically sound.
We all have lost something special with the passing of Jeff and Chris. And special people leave legacies of teachable moments. What can we take from their lives to improve our own and help others? I have been thinking a lot about this, and have learned several lessons from their lives.
We should love each other today — don’t wait until tomorrow. Life is fleeting. Jeff’s illness took time to take him. Many of us knew Chris had a medical issue, and that it had reemerged. But we knew he was a fighter and his passing seemed to happen in the blink of an eye, with his red eyelashes closed before we knew it. We should enjoy our family and friends each day in some way and always have them in our minds and hearts. Don’t let differences simmer, make amends now.
People in my Hill life young and old experienced Chris’s death with pain and sadness. It was our wonderful friend Diego Sanchez who embraced the younger ones and urged them to hold onto someone close. He observed that it probably would have been the first time most of them lost a close, contemporary friend. Always the wise man in our posse — our Yoda — Diego’s advice was so right.
But it brings up a sad time for many of us who live in the LGBT community and are older. In the scheme of history’s arc, it wasn’t too long ago but for many of us losing contemporary friends was not at all unique. Because of AIDS, losing friends became a cruel routine. Funeral after funeral after funeral, one by one they left us. The Blade was full of obituaries of men we lost, leaders, friends, lovers. For me the first to go was the assistant art director at the magazine I worked for in Philadelphia. Some years later, it was my best friend Van Sheets who had held my hand as I escaped the closet.
I referred to the AIDS-driven parade of death as ubiquitous and routine — so much so that we became somewhat immune to its sting. But when it was a best friend, a brother or a lover, it never felt that way. The pain was stabbing.
AIDS is still here, of course, but because of the battery of drugs that have been developed, people with HIV are living whole and long lives. But AIDS is now in the closet.
It is significant that people in their 20s and teens did not live through the relentless tragedy of AIDS. Dangerous, unsafe sex is back with a vengeance and it is not confined to the darkness of a closet. Men are unashamed and undaunted about unsafe sex. The potential of a rerun of this tragedy is all too scary and we cannot allow a routine of sickness and death to plague our community again. Just before Chris passed away, I posted to my Facebook page a list of 11 movies I thought every gay man should see. One of them was “Longtime Companion,” the first feature length film to put a human face on AIDS. One of the enduring images in the movie was the beaming face of a young Dermot Mulroney that his dwindling circle of friends constantly saw as a ghost after he died, the first to go. With the movie in mind, after Chris died, I fixed in my head a joyful image of him on a tubing adventure, which I wanted to remember when I thought about him.
Neither Chris nor Jeff had AIDS and I don’t want to marry the different kinds of pain we suffered. These thoughts have come from discussions with friends and stirrings in my own mind following Chris’s passing. A death can never be minimized. If, from loss, our lives and those of others can be more enriched, more loving, more informed and safer, then the legacies of the ones we lose are much more meaningful.