AS WE DO every year at this time, we remember some of the LGBT activists, writers, performers, educators, and artists who made a difference and who passed away over the past year. Their lifespans ranged from 24 to 87 years. Unless otherwise indicated, all dates are in 2019.
Writers and Educators
Ellis Avery (born Elisabeth Atwood), novelist, died on February 15th of cancer at age 46. Raised in Columbus, Ohio, and Princeton, New Jersey, she graduated from Bryn Mawr and Goddard College. She taught fiction writing at Columbia and at UC–Berkeley. She wrote about a dozen well-received novels, some of which were translated into a half-dozen languages. Her memoir, The Family Tooth: On Meeting and Cheating Death: A Memoir in Essays, was published in 2016. She received many literary accolades, including the American Library Association’s Stonewall Award for Fiction (twice). She is survived by her partner, literature professor Sharon Marcus.
Victor J. Banis, fiction writer, died of cancer on February 22nd at age 81. Born into an impoverished family in Depression-era Pennsylvania, he worked in sales and moved to L.A. in 1960, where he began to write, eventually becoming one of the most prolific gay pulp fiction writers of the 1960s, often writing pseudonymously. His first novel, a lesbian pulp, was The Affairs of Gloria (1964), for which he was indicted (later acquitted) for obscenity by a federal grand jury. Many of his novels, such as his “Man from C.A.M.P.” series, are now considered pulp classics. He also wrote science fiction, historical fiction, horror, and mystery. His 2004 memoir was Spine Intact, Some Creases: Remembrances of a Paperback Writer.
Donald Boisvert, scholar of religion and sexuality, died on June 19th at age 68. He was remembered by Steven Lapidus in the September-October issue.
Wayson Choy (born Choy Way Sun), writer and professor, died of a heart attack on April 28th at age 80. He was raised in a working-class home in Vancouver’s Chinatown. He received degrees from the University of British Columbia and taught at Humber College in Toronto. His books include the novels The Jade Peony (1995) and All That Matters (2007) and two memoirs, Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood (1999) and Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying (2009). His works have received numerous literary awards, culminating in his appointment to the Order of Canada, that nation’s highest civilian honor.
Douglas Crimp, art critic, author, and AIDS activist, died on July 5th at age 74. He was remembered in the November-December issue.
John Giorno, Beat poet, died of a heart attack on October 11th at age 82. Born in Brooklyn, he graduated from Columbia, where he met Allen Ginsburg. Known for his good looks and charm, he was a muse and sometime boyfriend to several artists, including Andy Warhol, starring in the latter’s five-hour film Sleep (1963). In 1965 he founded Giorno Poetry Systems and, in 1967, the free “Dial-A-Poem” project, still in existence today. The AIDS Treatment Project, which was funded in the early 1980s by a foundation that he financed, distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to AIDS sufferers. At around this time he formed the John Giorno Band, which played at CGBG. His memoir, Great Demon Kings, is forthcoming. He married and is survived by artist Ugo Rondinone.
Ellen Greenblatt, librarian and writer, died on July 4th at age 64. She graduated from University of Denver’s dual degree master’s program in library science and archival management. A pioneer in serving the LGBT community, she co-edited several books on the topic, including Serving LGBTIQ Library and Archives Users: Essays on Outreach, Service, Collections and Access (2010). She taught library science and was an associate dean at Auraria Library of the University of Colorado–Denver. She was married to and is survived by Laura Reiman.
George Hodgman, writer and editor, died by his own hand on July 20th at age 60. He received degrees from the University of Missouri and Boston College and was an editor at Vanity Fair, where he was described as beloved and noted for his wit. He was a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, Henry Holt, and Houghton Mifflin, and when he was downsized out of a job, he went home to Paris, Missouri, and wrote his best-selling memoir Bettyville (2015), about caring for his mother and growing up gay in the Midwest.
Küçük İskender (born Derman İskender Öven), poet, died of cancer in Istanbul on July 2nd at age 55. He had begun to study medicine at Istanbul University, later changing to sociology, but left to pursue his literary passions, eventually publishing 22 books of poetry as well as articles, novels, and essays. He was one of the few openly gay poets in Turkey and faced ongoing discrimination, but he won major awards in Turkey for his poetry.
Kanani Kauka, writer and editor, died of cancer at age 52 on November 10, 2018. Born in Honolulu, she and her mother moved to Boston when she was young, and she graduated from Dartmouth. She worked for Lambda Rising Bookstore in Washington, D.C., contributed to numerous anthologies, and was one of the first staffers for the Lambda Book Report (now the website Lambda Literary). She worked most recently at the Kaiser Family Foundation. She is survived by Laura Thomas, whom she married on four separate occasions, each as a specific political act.
Kevin Killian, poet, novelist, and playwright, died of cancer on June 16th at age 66. Someone whose sexuality “defied description,” according to one obituary, he played a major part in San Francisco’s “New Narrative” movement. He received degrees from Fordham and SUNY-Stony Brook, and later moved to San Francisco. He taught in the MFA program at the California College of the Arts and wrote fifty plays for the San Francisco Poets Theater. Among his many writings, standouts include his 1989 novel Bedrooms Have Windows and a collection of short stories titled Impossible Princess (2009). For nearly 25 years, he edited the literary and art journal Mirage. His wife, the writer Dodie Bellamy, who survives him, described their life together in an article for The Village Voice in June 2000 titled “My Mixed Marriage.”
Mary Oliver, award-winning poet, died on January 17th at age 83. She was remembered in the May-June issue.
Michael Rumaker, Beat poet and writer, died on June 3rd at age 87. Born in South Philadelphia into a destitute family, he graduated from Black Mountain College, which he had attended on scholarship, and Columbia University. He taught at a variety of colleges and wrote dozens of books—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Perhaps the most notable was A Day and a Night at the Baths (1979), based on his visits to the Everard Baths. His memoirs spanned from 1962’s thinly fictionalized The Butterfly to 2003’s Black Mountain Days.
L. Craig Schoonmaker died on December 21st, 2018, at age 74. He was editor of the publication HI! / Homosexuals Intransigent, which began in the late 1960s as a student organization at City College of CUNY, and which received its charter in April 1969, just before the events of Stonewall. He was on record as adamantly opposed to the inclusion of lesbians in any gay organizations.
Patricia Nell Warren, author of The Front Runner, died on February 9th at age 82. She was remembered by Richard Schneider Jr. in the July-August issue.
Alistair Williamson, writer and co-literary editor of this magazine in the 1990s, died on January 2nd at age 56. He was remembered in the July-August issue.
Artists and Performers
Ricardo Barber, actor, died on December 17th, 2018, at age 81. Educated at Universidad de La Habana, he had established his career as an actor in Havana but was interned in a forced-labor camp for being gay. While incarcerated, he managed to form a theater company and put on a play critical of the regime. He was able to leave Cuba in the mid-1970s, going first to Spain and then to New York, where he became a member of the Off-Broadway, Spanish-language troupe Repertorio Español. He was known as a “beloved fixture” of the company until his retirement several years ago.
David Beitzel, artist and art dealer, died on January 20th at age 61, after a cardiac arrest. Born in Philadelphia, he graduated from the University of Vermont, received his MFA from Bennington College, and moved to New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic. He was involved in many charities, notably the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the U.S.’s first LGBT Youth Services organization, and worked as a consultant to private collectors and institutions. He is survived by his partner, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.
Steven Cadwell, performance artist, psychoanalyst, and writer, died of cancer on August 29th at age 69. Raised in rural Vermont, he received a doctorate in social work from Smith College. His psychoanalytic practice focused on the LGBT community, and he co-edited and contributed to Therapists on the Front Line: Psychotherapy with Gay Men in the Age of AIDS (1994), one of the first books on this topic. As a performance artist, he was known for his autobiographical “Wild and Precious.” He is survived by his partner, Joseph Levine.
Michael Fesco, nightclub entrepreneur, died on April 11th at age 84. Born in Seattle, he moved to New York to study ballet and made his Broadway debut in 1958 as a dancer in the Agnes de Mille-choreographed musical comedy Goldilocks, later appearing in several other shows, including New Faces of 1962. In 1970, he opened the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove and, several years later, at the Flamingo in SoHo. Later, he founded a gay cruise company called Sea Tea, which is still in business.
Kevin Fret, musician, was shot to death on January 10th at age 24 while riding his motorcycle in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was the first openly gay artist in the genre “Latin trap,” a music style influenced by Latin and Southern hip-hop that emerged several years ago. Calling himself “the reincarnation of Frida Kahlo,” he was known for his gender-bending dress and makeup. His breakout single, in 2018, was “Soy Así” (“I Am Like This”), and he was a frequent target of homophobia.
Barbara Hammer, pioneering filmmaker, died of cancer on March 16th at age 79. Over a forty-year career, she made over 75 films and videos, notably the short film “Dyketactics” (1974) and the documentary Nitrate Kisses (1992). Her most recent museum retrospective was Evidentiary Bodies (2017) at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York. Born in L.A., she received two master’s degrees from what is now San Francisco State University. Her memoir Hammer!: Making Movies out of Life and Sex was published in 2010. She is survived by her partner Florrie Burke.
Jackie Shane, rhythm-and-blues singer, died on February 21st at age 78. Born in Nashville, she said in interviews that she began to identify as female when a young teenager. She moved to Toronto in the late 1950s to escape violence towards African-Americans. In 1963 she charted as Number 2 in Canada with her cover of William Bell’s “Any Other Way.” Retiring in 1971, she lived with her mother in L.A. and Nashville, but late in life she recorded the 2018 Grammy-nominated album Any Other Way. She was the subject of several essays in Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer (2017).
Sanford Sylvan, opera baritone, died on January 29th at age 65. Born in New York City, he graduated from the Manhattan School of Music and moved to Boston early in his career. He collaborated with Peter Sellars and starred in his production of Nixon in China in 1987 and The Death of Klinghoffer in 1991. He debuted John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser, with words from Walt Whitman’s writings in 1989, which garnered one of his five Grammy nominations. Later in his career, he distinguished himself as a recital singer. He taught at many colleges and was chair of the voice faculty at Juilliard.
Mel A. Tomlinson, ballet dancer, died of cancer on February 5th at age 65. Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, he was offered free ballet classes after his athletic abilities were spotted in high school. He studied at North Carolina School of the Arts, where he was noticed by Agnes de Mille, who hired him for her Heritage Dance Theater. He had starring roles at the Dance Theater of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and New York City Ballet, where his 1981 debut of Agon was described as “electrifying.” He was at that time the company’s only African-American dancer. His memoir Beyond My Dreams was published in 2018.
Hector Xtravaganza (born Hector Crespo), an influential figure in New York’s ball scene, died of cancer on December 30th, 2018, at age 53. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Jersey City, he took ballet lessons as a child. As a teenager he skipped school to hang out at the Christopher Street piers in Greenwich Village and was thrown out of his home as a high school freshman. Eventually he became a fashion designer and a community activist. He was considered the “house father” of the House of Xtravaganza, which gained national prominence in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning and in the current TV series Pose. The day of his memorial service was designated “Hector Xtravaganza Day” by Mayor de Blasio.
Nancy Ruth Davis, pioneering activist, died on February 15th at age 82. Born in Loveland, Colorado, she started out as a cryptographer for the U.S. Foreign Service, later becoming a travel writer for magazines and an LGBT activist. She worked for the Whitman-Walker Health Center in Washington, D.C., and helped found the Black Education Against AIDS Task Force, an empowerment group for people living with AIDS. She is survived by her partner, activist Lilli Vincenz, with whom she was invited to a White House reception hosted by President Barack Obama to celebrate LGBT Pride Month in June 2014.
Alan Fleishman, political organizer, died of cancer on August 27th at age 62. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he worked as a DJ and also in the office of the New York City comptroller. Through a Brooklyn group, Gay Friends & Neighbors, he became politicized. Called the “smartest political gay in Brooklyn,” he was president of the Lambda Independent Democrats (LID), an LGBT political club, twice a delegate to the Democratic Party’s convention, and the first out Democratic district leader elected in Brooklyn. In 1986, he was instrumental in getting New York City to add sexual orientation to its human rights law.
Rose Greene, LGBT advocate, died on July 11th at age 72. Born in L.A., she graduated from California State University, Northridge, taught photography, and became a financial planner. In 1994, she helped develop the first multi-day California AIDS Ride, making it the model for all similar fundraisers. She led one of the first LGBT capital campaigns to fund the L.A. LGBT Center, paving the way for similar campaigns throughout the country. She was married to and is survived by Helena Ruffin.
Gail Horowitz, attorney and political activist, died of cancer on May 1st at age 67. Raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, she graduated from Yale and began a career in banking before graduating from Harvard Law School. She was a founding chair of the trusts and estates section of the Massachusetts lgbtq Bar Association, but was best known for helping to craft a law to protect same-sex couples in Massachusetts from being denied MassHealth (Medicaid) benefits. She was married to and is survived by Susan Brand.
Jim Levin, activist, died on January 24th at age 78. He was born in Baltimore and began his academic career at Columbia Law School but later earned a doctorate in history and taught at City College. He developed one of the first gay studies courses and was president of the Gay Academic Union. Always active in Democratic politics, his efforts were a major factor in New York City’s adoption of a progressive gay rights law of 1986. His work was documented in the award-winning 1987 film Rights and Reactions: Lesbian and Gay Rights on Trial. He was a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, including The Gay Novel in America (1991). He is survived by his spouse, ballet dancer and teacher Leath Nunn.
Diane Olson, marriage equality activist, died of cancer on January 16th at age 65. Born in California, granddaughter of a California governor, she and comedian-activist Robin Tyler, who survives her, were the first plaintiffs in a lawsuit that paved the way for the California Supreme Court to rule in favor of marriage equality in 2008. They were one of the first same-sex couples to marry legally in L.A.
Barbra “Babs” Siperstein, trans activist, died of cancer on January 30th at age 76, two days after the Babs Siperstein Law went into effect granting New Jersey residents the right to amend the gender stated on their birth certificate without proof of surgery. Raised in Jersey City, an Army veteran with degrees from Rutgers and Pace, she became the first trans member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee. She helped persuade the DNC to include gender identity as a category of protected rights, and in 2016 was a delegate for Hillary Clinton at the Democratic Convention. On her death, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy ordered that flags be lowered to half staff in her honor. She is survived by her biological children and her partner, Dorothy Crouch.
Virginia Uribe, educator, died on March 30th at age 85. She had a doctorate in psychology and was a Fairfax (L.A.) High School science teacher and counselor when, in 1984, she founded Project 10, which laid the groundwork for glsen, the national network of high school gay-straight alliances. She was one of the first teachers in the L.A. Unified School District to come out as gay. She was married to and is survived by Gail Rolf.
Andy Vélez, AIDS activist, died in Manhattan on May 14th at age eighty. Born in the Bronx, he graduated from City College of New York and the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies, and had a psychoanalytic practice for two decades. He joined ACT UP as soon as it was formed in 1987 and was active in its Latino Caucus, helping to launch an ACT UP chapter in Puerto Rico. He was keenly interested in music and theater, having appeared Off-Broadway in his youth, and wrote extensively on jazz.
Martha Stone is the literary editor of this magazine.