Wayne Turner remembers crying on the first day of school — although it was law school at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law and he was 40 years old that day in 2005.
“The founding professor, Edgar Cahn, was there telling us in this big orientation that their mission was to take bad-ass activists and unleash them on the world,” Turner says. “He said, ‘You’re not just here alone, you’re on the shoulders of everyone who’s come through here before.’ It was about seven years since my partner had died and I thought, ‘Yes, I have found my home.’ The tears just started streaming down my face so there I was, crying on the first day of school.”
Turner and his late partner, Steve Michael, who died of AIDS at age 42 in 1998 (Turner took Michael’s body to the White House as a gesture of protest), had what Turner calls a “roller coaster” seven-year relationship in which they dedicated themselves solely to activism and lived “a very hand-to-mouth existence. We were always changing residences, changing phone numbers. We lived a very mission-focused life and it was just like, ‘We gotta do this stuff.’ It was an issue nobody wanted to deal with.” Turner was a founding member of the AIDS advocacy and protest group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
Turner, a Culver City, Calif., native, went to college in Portland, spent time in Europe, then lived in Seattle for about five years where he met Michael. They moved to Washington in 1993 with the express goal of “keeping Bill Clinton accountable” for his AIDS-related campaign promises.
Turner, who remains HIV negative, says going to law school — he earned full scholarships and graduated with honors — was perfect for him.
“I think of it as activism on steroids,” he says. “You gain so much clarity of how things work and how things are supposed to work. I highly recommend it to anyone who is active and involved. It’s like opening up a clock and saying, ‘Oh, that’s how that works.’”
Turner says he now has “his dream job” as a staff attorney at the National Health Law Program focusing on health care quality and access for low-income and disabled individuals enrolled in Medicaid.
He’s single, lives on the H Street corridor in Northeast Washington and enjoys camping and hiking with his dog, Mister, in and around Shenandoah National Park. (Blade photo by Michael Key)
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
After the first year of college, my high school friend Robert and I came out to each other. We were just stating what was plainly obvious to each of us (and everyone else), but we had never talked about it before.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
My late partner Steve and the other amazing frontline AIDS activists, living and dead, who struggle and sacrifice so that others might live.
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
Otter Crossing at the DC Eagle.
Describe your dream wedding.
One where DOMA has been overturned by the Supreme Court so that same-sex marriages are legally recognized by the federal government and in all 50 states.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
Single payer health care. It means getting better care for less money from cradle to grave — what’s not to like about that?
What historical outcome would you change?
I wish Mario Cuomo went to New Hampshire in 1992. He would have won the primary, won the Democratic nomination and won the White House. We wouldn’t have had the disaster known as the Clinton administration with DOMA, DADT and the HIV immigration ban and travel restrictions. We might even have seen a Manhattan Project for AIDS, and could very well have a cure by now.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
Probably when Tinky Winky came out. I mean, we all knew, what with that red purse and all.
On what do you insist?
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
“YES WE CAN!” celebrating the Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare. It is a huge victory, particularly for people with HIV who can qualify for Medicaid without having to wait for an AIDS diagnosis, and can’t be denied health coverage because of a pre-existing condition.
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“Fasten your seatbelts,” because it has been one bumpy ride.
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
Find Ben Cohen.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
There’s something besides the physical world? I’ll believe it when I see it.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Too many so-called leaders seem to mistake photo-ops and cocktail party receptions for actual accomplishments. On-the-ground activists are providing the real leadership. Look at marriage equality — activists in Massachusetts propelled that issue forward in 2001 with Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health. The national groups have been playing catch up ever since.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
Nothing. I have nice feet.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
Victimhood. It perpetuates the perception that we are weak. Pity is no substitute for demanding respect and dignity.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
“Carrie,” the original with Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. It shows us that the best way to deal with high school bullies is to turn a fire hose on them.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
Saying “bless you” when someone sneezes. (See “physical world” response above).
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
That Apple stock would have been a really good idea.
Sometimes at night I walk the dog around the Capitol. I’ll sit on the West steps and look out over the city, with stars and the moon and the Mall and the monuments and the glistening city lights, and I think “this view, at this moment almost makes up for the excruciating summer heat and humidity.” Almost. Actually, I really love D.C. I just wish I had a couple of senators and a representative.