Stand by Your Dying Man: Leslie Jordan Relives the Early Days of AIDS

" I ask him how he felt on the inside when he realized that this disease was primarily affecting gay men and what his fears were..."
05/19/2017 04:04 pm ET Updated May 20, 2017

I am standing in the lobby of the W Hotel in midtown Atlanta waiting for the iconic Leslie Jordan to come meet with me. In my hands, there is a bouquet of beautiful flowers that I bought to celebrate his visit to the Peach State and show thanks for his decision to accept my request for an interview. My nerves are all aflutter because I am about to speak with a very funny man about something very sad, so I order French fries from the bartender to calm my stomach and manage not to anoint myself in grease or ketchup. The carb overload does not soften my edginess.

I worry that my floral gesture is inadequate; my friend’s suggestion that I procure a Tammy Wynette bobble head doll seemed much more perfect, but such a creature could not be found anywhere for purchase on the internet. I am also nervous because there is already a familiarity and intimacy with Leslie Jordan present in my mind and there is a chance I may be too forward, but I take solace in the fact that the rich, long vowels that spill out of his mouth are first cousins to mine. In his past, I figure there also must be tent revivals and roosters made out of pinto beans and peas and corn hung up on walls and eccentric relatives who adorn their yards with enough gourd birdhouses to get Tippi Hedren all flustered. I am hopeful that our shared Southernness and gayness will create a bond between us because the subject of our imminent discussion will be difficult. It is a long way from Chattanooga to Hollywood, and I wonder about how much California might have magnified the South inauthentically in him, how much celebrity might have effaced a natural inclination for grits and sweet tea and kindness.

In comes his manager first, a handsome gentleman named Don who facilitated our contact. He greets me warmly and lets me know his companion is on the way. There has been a problem. Leslie will be delayed. I ponder ordering more French fries and start studying the arrangement of sunflowers and hydrangeas and gerber daisies to calm myself. My mind starts to wander about the actor and his roles. Will he arrive in flowing robes, issuing hexes and imprecations? Will the wind return him from the balcony? Will I spy smudges of Brother Boy’s makeup on his brow?

I am biting my nails and counting petals when I see him finally coming towards me. He is sporting a bright green shirt that makes his blue eyes pop and sparkle. They are filled simultaneously with merriment and consternation. “I ran it into a tree!” he exclaims. Everything collapses around me and he immediately immerses me in narrative; stories follow Leslie Jordan and stick to him and suck everyone around him into the plot. Today, there had been a problem at the rental car company. He was planning to drive to Chattanooga after his show in Atlanta. There had been a big mess and mix up and the only car available was a big white Chevrolet Camaro. “I can barely look through the window! I backed it right into a tree!”

I grin and Don introduces me to him as Dr. Davis. He is affable, warm, friendly right away, and my apprehensions disappear. He fawns over his flowers, then takes me by the hand and asks me what it is that I do again. I tell him that I use my Ph.D. for outreach work in HIV education and care and that I am not a physician, but he hands me identity and tosses me through medical school and residency anyway with one swoop; “the doctor” I become. We head outside to the big pickup truck I have rented to transport him around the city and head just a few blocks down the street.

We pull onto the property of The Temple, the famous site that was bombed by extremists in the fifties, the same house of worship that Miss Daisy attended in the film. The members of the synagogue take their commitment to humankind quite seriously; the premises house a progressive playschool, a homeless shelter for couples, and the headquarters of the largest HIV service organization in the Southeast, AID Atlanta. Out of the latter spills a smiling entourage of good humans who meet us; they are selfless people who devote their lives to helping others. Their excitement about seeing Leslie momentarily masks their indubitable apprehension about the future and quality of the healthcare they are able to offer. Like many organizations similar to it, AID Atlanta has been pummeled by budget cuts and reductions, but although the staff has learned to manage assets and services adeptly, the number of clients who cross their threshold annually continues to expand. There is obvious worry among the employees; in the wake of unexpected further cuts that the Centers for Disease Control have inflicted on the agency, it is common knowledge that resources are disappearing, that donorship is dwindling, and the apprehension that there will be no more bread in the pantry lurks at the forefront of these caregivers’ minds.

This is part of the reason that Leslie Jordan has come. He has arrived to show his support for HIV outreach and to place his commitment to this fight in a historical context. He gets a tour of the agency and pauses for multiple pictures. Perhaps some wealthy fan of Sordid Lives may see the images of him at the organization and toss an extra bit of money into the collection plate. Maybe a Will and Grace aficionado will consider a contribution. Some empathetic older souls just might sadly ponder the damage currently being inflicted on the medical safety of persons of low to average income and contemplate the bleak prospect of a second wave of the AIDS crisis. In my mind, I jump back to the late seventies and envision handsome mustachioed men in bell bottom pants wriggling to toss thousands of dollars at the feet of my companion who is clad in the most shimmering and resplendent gown, wearing platform shoes so tall that he bangs his head on a disco ball, lip synching expertly to Gloria Gaynor shrieking her musical promise of perseverance to a throng of young gay men who are about to die, who tragically will not survive. In this context, I pose my first question to him about whether he remembered where he was and what he was doing when he first learned about AIDS.

LJ: You’re talking to someone who has only been sober twenty years! I’ve been in recovery…so it’s a little muddled! I do remember in 1982, I stepped off a bus. I had a degree in theater from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I had $1,200 that Mama sewed into my underpants and I had a suitcase and a little dream…and West Hollywood was where I ended up. That’s the main reason I wanted to come to California was to get there. There were just queers hanging from the trees, and it was a city in crisis. Even in ‘82, because I tell people, combine Ebola, Zika, and a little shameful gay sex involved and that’s what is was. And it was…even within the community, you know, you would see people you hadn’t seen in a while, and they were gaunt. And you knew…you didn’t know what to say…and that’s what we did from the eighties until the early nineties. We attended memorial services and I marked names out of my phone book...and I buried an entire phone book. And so I think there’s a responsibility for those that are left, you know. There’s nothing that they did that I didn’t do! You know what I mean? And I’m healthy and I’m alive and so we have a responsibility. But I can remember how shameful it was. Lovers turned their backs and left…you know, family, friends…people were dying all alone…all alone…and the only AIDS ward was L.A. County…and we ended up, a group of us…and I don’t know who thought of this, but it was great, and we had banana popsicles. And we’d just wander the halls and ask, you know, do you want a popsicle? And a lot of the early medications really dried out people’s mouths. And what better than a banana popsicle? And we would just sit, you know, and I’m a big talker, but I learned to zip it, because they didn’t want to hear about it, but, and yet, then we were still at the bars…every night. I loved that book called “And the Band Played On.” Cause in more ways than one, you know what I mean, the band played on.

I remember watching the film about the book about which he is talking, and I pause in remembrance. The banana popsicles either chill my heart or stab it, and I think back on the despair of that era, about how this simple gesture fused compassion and desperation into a singular act of humanity. People could only rely on the curative powers of kindness in the early days. Out of habit, the tropical frozen treats become symbols to me; I remember how AIDS constantly caused us to spin metaphors out of the mundane. I know the self-imposed silence that he is describing only too well. Being openly gay made persons into pariahs, but AIDS piled additional, inescapable layers of ostracism and unwelcome on them. I recall how I felt that HIV was already inside me in the 7th grade, that I, like many gay men, was doomed to infection, that my nascent sensuality and sexuality would be forever imbued with condemnation and lethality. I ask him how he felt on the inside when he realized that this disease was primarily affecting gay men and what his fears were.

LJ: It was so scary because even today, you know, as a gay man, you get a cold or something, you say, “Oh my God! I better run get tested” – But back then it was a death sentence and it was really, really, really scary. And there were a lot of us who didn’t get tested…I didn’t get tested for a really long time. You just wouldn’t tell anybody. I wasn’t about to. I mean, I planned to.... You know I knew… I remember one time I had the flu or something, that it was the end. I made decisions like, am I going to tell my mom? You know, it was a really scary thing. It is today! Even though we’ve reached a point as a community where, even now, people say, “Well, it’s manageable.” Well, I had a friend that used to go to high schools and say “Uh huh…here’s the way in which I manage it” and start pulling out medicines and say “Now this one makes me crap myself…sometimes in public…” but, you know, la la la… We went through that too…and then there were just internal struggles with all of us: “We should close the bathhouses and nobody should do this!” “Oh no, we’re gay, we’re this, we’re that” and it was just tumultuous in the beginning.

The frenzy he describes was chronicled all too well in the media. I think back on how many gay men refused to get tested out of worry that their demise would be confirmed, how healthcare providers were turning their backs on patients out of fear, how shame and regret and depression and terror were normal praxis for HIV-infected persons until ACT-UP arrived on the scene and began to insist that these negative emotions be funneled into action. There was power and hope ultimately in achieving unity of purpose, that is, the demand that pharmaceutical companies and the government take active part in the battle, but as I sit here multiple years later looking into Leslie Jordan’s big, warm eyes, I realize that we all came to the epidemic from different places, from different backgrounds, and I wonder what his touchstone had been. At what point was his innocence shattered, and when did the epidemic become personal to him? He tells me about his first encounter with the first person who told him he was HIV+.

LJ: It was my best friend…and we had been in Sunday school together. It’s so odd the way it happened. We were the two little queers in Sunday school in Chattanooga, Tennessee who found one another. And then he did this route where he got married. He married the wealthiest doctor in town. He was married for about four years and then he went to hairdresser school. (He cackles). He left his wife and ended up in California and we never heard a word from him. He just literally disappeared. And then I hear “Oh, he does Goldie Hawn’s hair, he does Betty White’s hair…he’s rich” and I’m walking down the street in West Hollywood and there he was years later. And he is the first one to have told me. And you know it was so hard because…something happened on his deathbed. I’ve written about this in a book that I wrote. He would ask me…he began to go in and out of sanity. He just wandered mentally, he wandered. And oh one day I said “Well, how are you honey?” and he said, “Well, I’ve been on the runway with Calvin Klein all day” and no he hadn’t, but you know, he had been wandering. He would ask me constantly, “Do you think I’m being punished?” And I said, “No, this is not a moral disease; they’re saying it’s a virus.” And “Am I being punished, am I being punished?” and the night that he died, he said to me…I haven’t told this story in a really long time, but he said to me, “I spoke to God last night,” and you know, I was so out of it at the time…I let him smoke cigarettes and he was on oxygen…he could’ve blown the place up…I’d light them for him back in the bathroom and people would say “Oh, you’re such a martyr, you sit with him all night long,” and I’d say “What else do I have to do?” but he made me listen and he said, “I did, I spoke to God. And he said, first of all…and this was an L.A. party boy, this was not some deep-thinking person…and I don’t know where this came from, “First and foremost, the soul has no gender.” Where did that come from?” He said, “The soul has no gender, and when it’s all said and done, Leslie, it doesn’t matter whom we love. The important part is that we love.” So that was my introduction. So am I diligent? Yeah. Do I feel I have to be thankful? Yes…because he…his name was Ace Davis, and I think it was like ‘87 when he died.”

I see Leslie’s body tense and quiver as he speaks these words about the boundlessness of love, about the loss of his friend. It is at this point in this interview that I begin to become unraveled. We are both clearly trying to hold some ancient tears at bay; his stories of loss mirror my own, and I realize that the familiarity that I had anticipated and feared with him before I met him was not rash or premature. There is a common grief between us…a sorrow written by deaths that involved apathy, scorn, deprecation, despondence, agony. There is something recognizable on the faces of persons of my generation and older who lived through the AIDS crisis. It is akin to PTSD, if not in fact a sophisticated iteration of PTSD itself, and its long-term effects have only just begun to be studied by psychologists. I am reminded again of how our community took part jointly and bravely in the fight against both the virus and the homophobia that had underscored it back in the eighties and early nineties, and I ask my companion about what his recollections were about what motivated the community to connect and how it came together.

LJ: I think the turning point was when there was a disease called the Legionnaires’ disease, and 14 straight people died in this hotel, and all of a sudden, the Reagan administration was just like coming out of the walls! “You know, what are we going to do about this?” And we’re over there going “Fifty thousand dead…hello!!!???” And I think we realized as a community we have to take care of our own. I was around for the beginning, you know, PLA, buddy systems, this and that, and you know I was fired from Project Angel as a volunteer because I couldn’t get the food there because…some of these people…I had four meals I had to deliver, and I was supposed to deliver it and keep moving, but I was the only person they saw. Sometimes I would sit and I would talk and they’d say, “They’re not getting their food until 4!” so they let me go from that, and I’ll tell this story really fast, there was a lady named Cassandra Christianson who in 1983 or 4…2, 3, or 4…was walking through Miami airport and bumped into Mother Teresa…literally bumped into her and she said, … “Oh, Mother Teresa, I’m a groupie…you don’t know what a groupie is, but rock stars have groupies. I’m a Mother Teresa groupie. And I’m a transition nurse with cancer patients and I’ve studied with Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying…and we all try to keep people alive, but how do you allow sometime to die and die with dignity?” And Mother Teresa said to her, “Have you heard of AIDS?” And Cassandra said, “Well, my thrust is cancer.” And the woman said, “Well, we’re going to need a lot of work in this arena.” And she came back and she started this organization called Project Night Light and I was one of the twelve founding members. It was me and this wonderful actor named Dan Butler who’s used all of this in a one person show…made a fortune…(laughs)…but anyway, he and I, Dan Butler, he was on Frasier, and he’s gay, but he played a straight man…he played Bulldog, the sports commentator, so he would go to big gay events, saying, “I’m not a straight man, but I play one on TV!” with a big sign. But anyway, Dan Butler…and we jumped in. And that’s when we started combing the halls with banana popsicles and sitting with people. And you know, I’ve personally held 18 men in my arms…that had no family, no friends there when they drew their last breath on the earth… Oh, can I go home now?

His mourning and my bereavement collide; his leaks out on his face and I lose my voice briefly, wrecked by the image of these multiple pietas in which Leslie is embracing dying young men. This discussion is tough for both of us, almost unbearable, and I promise him I will let him go shortly. We are both overcome by the beauty of his perspective, by his history, by the palpable sadness that hangs between us. In the present, in the days of the availability of effective antiretroviral drugs in industrialized countries, the threat of HIV and its pernicious evils now seems ephemeral, as if what both of us and others remembered and experienced never took place. It is this fear of erasure and forgetfulness that makes me inquire about what he would tell his fans both old and young, his fans who are and will be infected with HIV about how to get involved in the conversation about the virus now.

LJ: What I would tell them… When I got sober, I was 43 years old. And you know, a lot of my excuses were: if you buried an entire phone directory, you’d drink too, you’d do drugs too. Well, you always have an excuse, you know, it’s the day after Saint Patrick’s Day, you know. But my excuse for many years, and when I got sober at 42, I had never voted. I had never voted…and I had so much shame about that. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Who knew we were to vote? And I can’t get out of bed! And I would say to the younger generations: I was of the generation that marched in the street, with hippies and ACT-UP and this and that…fine, march until the cows come home. It will get some interest in your cause. But the only real change is from within. You’ve got to get involved and you have to vote! You know, we’re pretty troubled right now. We are in trouble. And I think putting aside everything you could do compassion-wise and volunteer-wise and everything, get out of the bars and go and vote! Get involved! And then maybe we can…that’s what we finally figured out, I mean, look at the HRC and what they’ve been able to accomplish. Within the LGBT community, be a part of, you know what I mean? We’re such a diverse community now that you come out of the closet and you’ve got to find your tribe! (laughs) you know what I mean? I would go to one gay bar, and there was one gay bar in Chattanooga and they were all there! You know everybody. We had Marvin the Marvelous Masochist, he was the one leather queen that would come in, we had our one lesbian, she looked like an Elvis impersonator, and we had all of us under that one roof and that’s the way it was but it’s not like that now. So…I don’t know…I think you get involved…volunteer. You know, you’ve got time. That’s one thing that I learned is you do for others. And I’ve been to a lot of recovery and people come in and they’re “Oh my life is so me me me me me” and I’m like “GET UP AND GO DO SOMETHING! Go down to the hospice and tell them you’re having a bad day! See how much sympathy you’re going to get! Tell them your credit card’s maxed at Barney’s! You know?”

Of course, I want to ask more about Marvin the Marvelous Masochist because the alliteration is just too tempting, plus my mind has just clad the character from the Bugs Bunny cartoons who wants to destroy the Earth in a leather harness and a ball gag, but Leslie’s directives and calls to action to the LGBTQ community leave a stronger impression, and I am particularly interested in why he thinks we are in trouble. In the wake of the installation of demagoguery, mental instability, bigotry and the old evils of racism, sexism, homophobia in the White House, I mull over whether he specifically means that we can expect to encounter more difficulties because of 45. I try to connect dots and wonder if the words in his mouth will be the same as mine as I muse openly about what his concerns might be for the near future with HIV care, whether he might share any fears that we will see a repeat of the eighties and nineties and the height of the AIDS epidemic.

LJ: I try so hard not to get into the politics of things. And the only reason is that so many actors are on their soapboxes, but I also am in recovery. And we are taught in recovery that we cannot afford even righteous anger…and I’m angry, you know what I mean? I don’t know…I don’t know. I can’t. I just can’t. I’d blow up. I’d implode if I got on a rant! It’d be midnight for Mr. Jordan!

I know this powder keg to which he alludes. This topic is uncomfortable, so I move away respectfully from it. Nonetheless, I grasp through his expressions that we are on the same page regarding our concerns for the coming days, but he is a public figure and I am not. This encounter has been emotional for both of us, but I remove myself briefly from my bedazzlement and look again at these twinkling blue eyes in front of me that have been intermittently filled with liquid and laughter throughout this collective reliving of an era that neither of us wanted to happen and that was overwhelming for all persons who experienced it. Although we do not speak of it directly, Leslie Jordan and I comprehend the need to map the collective traumas wrought by HIV that pepper our history and to squeeze every bit of value out of remembrance that we can for the sake of posterity. Later that night, I will ultimately see him stomp onto a stage in the performance of his hilarious new show “Straight Outta Chattanooga.” He will entertain hundreds of persons. I will be in the audience holding my splitting sides and smiling. I will be one of many people coming to hear his show, and I will be obscured by the darkness and my voice muffled by the multiple guffaws around me, but right now, there is only me and this big hero in a small body. Talking about those painful days of hopelessness has hurt my soul, hurt his soul…but this interview leaves me with the certainty that his particular, peculiar, pensive brand of healing through honesty, comedy, and love will repair many more suffering spirits as we continue our combat against homophobia and AIDS.

Predictably, our interview ends in a hug. It is a deep, lingering, touching, loving embrace...imbued with grandmothers and four part harmonies and surprise parties. When Leslie Jordan puts his arms around me, I just feel better right away. My mouth goes cold, and I have the faint taste of bananas on my tongue.

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