Stars That Went Out Last Year

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IN KEEPING WITH our annual custom, we remember some people who left us during the past year—activists, writers, performers, educators, and artists who made a significant contribution to the LGBT community. They left this mortal coil at ages ranging from 28 to 94. All dates are in 2021 unless otherwise indicated.

 

Activists

Marcia Freedman, activist, died on September 21st at age 83. Raised in West Orange, NJ, her self-described “leftist upbringing” influenced her later career. While a doctoral student in philosophy at Stanford, she was invited to teach at the University of Haifa, Israel, where she remained for fourteen years. There she became involved in Israel’s nascent feminist movement and joined a political party that focused on civil rights. When it won three seats in 1977, she was asked to take one, and served for four years in the Knesset, where she was the first open lesbian. She returned to the U.S. in 1981, moving to Berkeley, where she organized for LGBT and women’s rights and established the Lesbian and Gay Aging Issues Network. Her memoir Exile in the Promised Land was published in 1990. She is survived by her daughter and granddaughter.

 

Sally Miller Gearhart, activist and writer, died on July 14th at age 90. She was remembered by this writer in the November-December 2021 issue.

 

James Hormel, ambassador, died on August 13th at age 88. Born in Austin, Minnesota, he was the grandson of the founder of Hormel Foods. He majored in history at Swarthmore and earned a law degree from the U. of Chicago, where he later became dean of students and established a program to encourage law students to enter public service. He held numerous political and philanthropic posts, supporting the arts and both hiv/aids and breast cancer efforts. He funded the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Library and served on the board of the Human Rights Campaign. Bill Clinton’s 1999 appointment of Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg made him the first openly gay ambassador in U.S. history. He is survived by his husband, Michael P. N. Araque Hormel.

 

Lois Johnson died on October 31, 2020, at age 89. Born in Stoneham, Mass., she took a master’s degree in journalism at Boston University and produced educational programs at WGBH-Boston in the early 1960s. She was president of the Boston chapter of Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) and was active in Boston’s LGBT Aging Project, among other LGBT causes. At the time of her death, she was working on a book chronicling the lives of lesbians in the DOB. She is survived by her life-long partner and wife, Sheri Barden. Both were featured in the 2010 documentary Gen Silent.

 

Kay Tobin Lahusen, activist and photojournalist, died on May 26th at age 91. She was remembered by this writer in the November-December 2021 issue.

 

Hoover Lee, activist and champion of global LGBT human rights, died on February 11th at age 83. He was a founding member of the Association of Lesbian and Gay Asians and an early organizer of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, where he mentored new members. He also helped found or coordinate numerous progressive political campaigns and causes in the Bay Area. Beloved by many, he was known as a bridge-builder. He was employed for much of his life by the city of San Francisco as a transit manager with the municipal railway. He was the recipient of many local awards from both the LGBT and straight communities. He is survived by his life-long partner.

 

Colin Robinson, writer and activist, died on March 4th at age 58. Raised in a small town in Trinidad, he lived for a time as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., going on to receive degrees in anthropology and management from NYU and The New School. In the 1990s, he cofounded the Audre Lorde Project and Caribbean Pride, both based in Brooklyn. In 2009, he founded and was the executive director of the Coalition Advocating for the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation: Sex and Gender Justice, serving Trinidad and Tobago. In 2000, he was selected Grand Marshal of the Brooklyn Pride Parade. His 2016 poetry collection was titled You Have You Father Hard Head. His work was published widely in Caribbean-focused literary journals. One obit stated that his LGBT work in Trinidad was “herculean, long-lasting, and transformative.”

 

Joseph Sonnabend, AIDS researcher, died on January 24th at age 88. Born in Johannesburg, he was educated in South Africa and Edinburgh, beginning his training at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. He moved to New York in the early 1970s to continue research begun in London on interferon. By 1978, he was volunteering at the Gay Men’s Health Project in Greenwich Village, and started his own clinic to treat sexually transmitted infections. An openly gay man, he was scientific advisor to Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, who wrote the first book on safer sex, in 1983, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic. Among the organizations he founded or cofounded were AIDS Medical Foundation (later known as amfAR) and Community Research Initiative, serving as its medical director for almost a decade. When he retired, he returned to London, the home of several family members who survive him.

 

Carmen Vázquez, activist, died on January 27th at age 72. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Harlem, she was expelled from high school for kissing another girl. She went on to earn a master’s degree in education from CUNY. In 1975, she became the founding director of the Women’s Building in San Francisco, later helping to establish the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center and the LGBT Health and Human Services Network. She also helped bring lesbians of color to the forefront of San Francisco’s politics in the 1980s and ’90s. When she returned to New York, she became the first director of public policy for the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, and in 2020 she received a SAGE Award for her leadership in LGBT aging.

 

Artists and Performers

Carl Bean, singer, preacher, and AIDS activist, died on September 7th at age 77. Born in Baltimore, he was heavily involved in his church, and openly gay, from his earliest years. He moved to New York in his teens and later to L.A., recording gospel songs. Motown, which had acquired the rights to the 1975 disco song I Was Born This Way, asked him to cover it. It was the first time that a major record label had released a gay-themed single. It inspired him to seek ordination in 1982, and in 1985 he founded L.A.’s Unity Fellowship Church. The church’s focus was welcoming people and groups who’d felt unwanted in mainstream churches. His memoir, written with David Ritz, was titled I Was Born This Way: A Gay Preacher’s Journey Through Gospel Music, Disco Stardom, and a Ministry in Christ (2010).

 

Noah Creshevsky (born Gary Cohen), composer, died on December 3, 2020, at age 75. Born in Rochester, New York, into a nonmusical family, he changed his last name to honor his grandparents. He began to play the piano at age six and attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. He worked as a pianist at bars and restaurants, eventually taking degrees at SUNY-Buffalo and Juilliard. He founded the New York Improvisation Ensemble, a thirteen-piece jazz group that debuted in New York’s Judson Hall in 1967. But he preferred to work in the studio, cutting and splicing magnetic tape, later using samplers and digital audio and ambient sounds, often exaggerated and with humor. He taught at several institutions, including Brooklyn College. He is survived by his husband, David Sachs.

 

Alix Dobkin, folksinger–activist who coined the term “women’s music,” died on May 19th at age eighty. She was born in New York and grew up in Philadelphia, where she graduated from Temple U. She began gigging in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and became an activist in 1970. Her 1973 debut LP, Lavender Jane Loves Women, was one of the first lesbian albums ever recorded. To produce it, she formed her own company, Women’s Wax Works. She continued as a music producer into the 1990s. She was a board member and co-director of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC). Her last of several memoirs was titled My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement (2009). She is survived by her daughter and her family.

 

Louise Fishman, painter, died on July 26th at age 82. Born in Philadelphia, where both her mother and aunt were artists, she studied art intensely first at Temple and later at the U. of Illinois, where she studied painting and printmaking. She later moved to New York. In a 2016 interview, she recalled that she felt Abstract Expressionism to be “an appropriate language for me as a queer.” In her “Angry” series in the 1970s, she worked to display anger felt by women in her consciousness-raising group and gave each canvas the name of a well-known woman who’d been wronged. She is survived by her spouse, Ingrid Nyeboe.

 

Ari Gold, dancer and musician who also performed under the names Sir Ari and GoldNation, died on February 14th at age 47. He grew up in the Bronx with Orthodox Jewish parents who were never able to accept him as gay. After a career as a child singer and actor, he graduated from NYU. Later mentored by RuPaul, he released many albums and singles over the past twenty years, several of which, including Where the Music Takes You, charted on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs. He performed with Cyndi Lauper and Diana Ross and collaborated with Boy George. Gold described himself as an “out and proud gay pop music artist at a time when many feared that being open about their sexuality would ruin their careers.”

 

Lenn Keller, photographer and filmmaker, died on December 16, 2020, at age 69. Born in Evanston, Illinois, she moved to New York after high school, and fell in with artists and radicals in the African-American community. Moving to the Bay Area in 1975, she discovered photography and filmmaking, and received a visual arts degree from Mills College in Oakland. Self-described as “a proud butch lesbian,” she started the Bay Area Lesbian Archives (BALA), which at first was an informal, personal collection of mostly ephemera from local bars, but is now seen as the largest lesbian archive on the West Coast. She is survived by her daughter and by her former partner, Elizabeth Summers.

 

Patrick O’Connell, founding director of Visual AIDS, died on March 23rd at age 67. Born in Manhattan, he majored in history at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. A few years later he became director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo. In 1989 he developed the “Day Without Art” campaign, a yearly event when galleries and museums covered their artworks to honor lives lost to hiv/aids. In 1991, he initiated the wearing of red ribbons and helped organize “ribbon bees” for their production and distribution. The U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp in 1993.

 

John O’Reilly, collage artist, died on May 20th at age 91. Growing up in Red Bank, NJ, he knew he was gay from an early age and aspired to be a priest. He received an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, later working part-time for almost thirty years as an art therapist at the Worcester [Mass.] State Hospital. He credited the psychiatric patients there with giving him insights for his artwork, which he made in near obscurity for most of his life. Everything changed when he was chosen to be featured in the 1995 Whitney Biennial. His art, which he called montages, was done entirely by hand, without digital assistance, and involved cutting, tearing, and pasting images related to gay porn, art history, and the use of found photos from many sources. He is survived by his husband, sculptor James Tellin.

 

Lois Kahaner Sasson, artist and philanthropist, died on December 30, 2020, at age eighty. Born in Brooklyn to a financially comfortable family, she attended NYU and worked as a jewelry designer, selling her creations to high-end department stores and exhibiting in art galleries. Bracelet designs included some that spelled out “Sisterhood Is Global.” In late 1992, she designed the lapel pin depicting the AIDS ribbon, with proceeds going to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. She was a philanthropist and behind-the-scenes advocate for feminism, gay rights, and reproductive rights. She was predeceased by her partner, 1960s pop singer Lesley Gore.

 

Frederick Weston, artist, died on October 21st at age 73. Growing up in Detroit with his mother and grandparents, he graduated from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI. He moved to New York, hoping to become a fashion critic, but settled for marginal employment in gay clubs and baths. His first “art commission” was wallpapering the gay bar Trix with erotic collages. He went on to create collages using magazines, fabrics, photos, and discards from photocopy shops. Overlooked until discovered later in life by Visual AIDS, he said in a 2008 interview that “being Black and male in this world colors my every dream.”

 

Sophie Xeon, producer and musician, died on January 30th at age 34. Born in Glasgow, her father started taking her to raves as a child, and she began to create her music. She worked with some of the biggest names in the music business, including Lady Gaga and Nile Rogers, moving to L.A. in 2015. She was nominated for a Grammy in 2018 for her LP Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, and she came out in the same year. Revered as a trans icon and known for her innovation and creativity, her “high-intensity electronic productions pushed the boundaries of 21st-century pop,” in one critic’s words.

 

Playwrights, Directors, and Producers

Bob Avian, choreographer, director, and producer, died on January 21st at age 83. Born in Manhattan to Armenian immigrants, he started dancing as a pre-teen, attended the College of Fine Arts at Boston U., and studied at the Boston Ballet School. In 1960, he was cast for an international tour of West Side Story, where he met choreographer Michael Bennett, with whom he would become a close collaborator. They shared Tony Awards for choreography for A Chorus Line (1975) and Ballroom (1978). Avian was the lead producer of Dreamgirls and involved in many Broadway hits. His memoir Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer’s Journey, was published in 2020. He is survived by his husband Peter Pileski.

 

Gregory Barrios, playwright, died on August 17th at age 80. Born in Victoria, Texas, he joined the Air Force and later majored in English at the U. of Texas at Austin. He spent a short time with Andy Warhol in 1967, making an experimental film, BONY (Boys of New York), which captures a day in the life of the Factory. His multifaceted career included stints as a journalist and an activist. His plays include Rancho Pancho, about Pancho Rodriguez, Tennessee Williams’ lover in the late 1940s. (Rodriguez may have served as the model for Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.) An activist in Latinx causes, he taught in L.A. in the 1980s and ’90s and was on the executive board of the National Book Critics Circle. His collection My Life: The Poem I Never Wrote, New and Selected Poetry 1968-2021, is expected to be published posthumously.

 

Douglas Cramer, television producer and cofounder of the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art, died on June 4th at age 89. Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, he made his way to New York and started working as a production assistant at Radio City Music Hall. After taking degrees in English from the U. of Cincinnati and Columbia, he tried his hand at playwriting but switched to arts management, going on to become head of Paramount Television. Alone or in partnerships, he produced such hits as The Odd Couple, Dynasty, and The Love Boat. (Andy Warhol’s portrait of Cramer led to Warhol’s guest appearance on a 1985 Love Boat episode.) He is survived by his husband, artist Hubert Bush.

 

Mitch Douglas, literary agent, died on November 5, 2020, at age 78. Born in Murphysboro, Kentucky, he received a bachelor’s degree in theater from the University of Kentucky. He went on to became the general manager at the Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. Beginning in the mailroom of ICM talent agency, he quickly climbed the ladder of success, working there for thirty years as a literary agent before starting his own company. He represented Tennessee Williams, Manuel Puig, and Lanford Wilson, among many other familiar names. He is survived by his partner, Leonardo Rendon.

 

Roger Englander, music producer and director, died on February 8th at age 94. Born in Cleveland, he knew from his early years that he wanted to be a conductor. After studying drama, composition, and theory at the U. of Chicago, he took a job as stage manager for the debut of Leonard Bernstein’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at Tanglewood. He was working at CBS in 1958 when he and Bernstein began collaborating on the Young People’s Concerts, which he directed for many years, winning the Emmy Award in 1965 for directorial achievement. He is survived by his companion, Michael Dupré.

 

Wakefield Poole, film director, died on October 27 at age 85. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, he studied dance and toured worldwide in the 1950s with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and worked as a dancer, choreographer, and director in New York in the ’60s. Inspired by the poor quality of gay porn available in 1971, he created a higher-quality film set on Fire Island titled The Boys in the Sand, which drew crowds when it was shown in New York. After directing a number of other erotic films, he switched careers and attended the French Culinary Institute, becoming a corporate chef in Florida. His 2000 memoir, expanded in 2011, was titled Dirty Poole: The Autobiography of a Gay Porn Pioneer. He was the subject of the documentary “I Always Said Yes”: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole (2010).

 

Jean-Claude van Itallie, playwright, director, and performer, died on September 9th at age 85. Born in Brussels, he and his family escaped the Nazi invasion in 1940 and settled on Long Island. While at Harvard he studied theater and wrote his first plays. After graduation, he moved to Greenwich Village, where he adapted and wrote scripts for early TV. He began writing and directing for experimental theaters in NYC, such as La MaMa E.T.C. His trio of one-act plays, America Hurrah, ran for over 600 performances in 1966 and caused a sensation when it opened at the Pocket Theater on Third Avenue. His works were staged throughout Europe and the U.S., where they were occasionally shut down by censors. He wrote and starred in the one-man play, War, Sex and Dreams, about his childhood, sudden fame, and being gay.

 

Writers and Educators

Madeline Davis, historian and activist, died on April 28th at age eighty. She was remembered by this writer in the November-December 2021 issue.

 

Michael Downing, writer and educator, died on February 9th at age 62. Born and raised in Pittsfield, Mass., he graduated from Harvard and lived in Cambridge, teaching creative writing at a number of colleges, most recently at Tufts U. He wrote nine novels, several of which received awards. Breakfast with Scot (1999) became a feature film in 2007. It was the first gay-themed movie to receive NHL approval to use official team logos and uniforms. His most recent novel was Still in Love (2019). He wrote a number of plays, nonfiction works, and articles for a variety of magazines. He is survived by his partner, Peter Bryant.

 

Joan Drury, writer, publisher, and bookseller, died on November 9, 2020, at age 75. Raised in suburban Minneapolis, she majored in women’s studies at the U. of Minnesota. She wrote or co-authored a half-dozen books, the most recent being Those Jordan Girls (2000). A well-known philanthropist in feminist and lesbian circles, she acquired the venerable lesbian-feminist publishing house Spinsters Ink in 1992. Under her leadership, about forty books were published, including some by noted writers JoAnn Loulan and Val McDermid. She sold the press in 2001 and opened a bookstore. She was also the sponsor and supporter of the now-defunct Norcroft: A Writing Retreat for Women, in Minnesota. She is survived by her children and grandchildren.

 

Paul Fasana, archivist, died on April 1st at age 87. He served in the Korean War and received his master’s degree in library science from UC-Berkeley, serving in library administration at the New York Public and Columbia U. Library. After retirement, he began volunteering at the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Ft. Lauderdale, where he served as chief archivist for twenty years, starting from scratch and implementing state-of-the-art procedures to house their extensive collections. He was a major philanthropist, establishing a scholarship at his alma mater for research in any aspect of LGBTQ studies. He was predeceased by his partner, Robert Graham.

 

Jamie James, writer, died on February 9, 2020, at age seventy. He was remembered by Henry Rector in the May-June 2021 issue.

 

Richard McCann, writer, poet, and educator, died on January 25th at age 71. Growing up in Kensington, Maryland, he received his doctorate in American Studies from the University of Iowa. In the early 1980s, he taught film history, film theory, and American literature in the U. of Maryland’s European Division. He went on to teach literature at American U. in Washington, D.C., where he served as the director of the MFA Program, and was involved for many years with the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He won numerous literary awards as well as an NEA fellowship and a Guggenheim. His most recent book was the semi-autobiographical collection of stories about growing up gay in Maryland, Mother of Sorrows (2006).

 

Deb Price, journalist, died on November 20, 2020, at age 62. Born in Texas, her parents divorced when she was a teenager and she moved to Maryland with her mother. She received an MA in English from Stanford and went on to write the first nationally syndicated column on LGBT issues in mainstream newspapers. The first appeared in The Detroit News in 1992 and was carried in major outlets nationwide. In 2009 she was inducted into the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s Hall of Fame. At the time of her death, she was the senior business editor at the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. She is survived by her wife, Joyce Murdoch. Together they wrote And Say Hi to Joyce: The Life and Chronicles of a Lesbian Couple (1996) and Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court (2001).

 

Anthony Veasna So, writer, died on December 8, 2020, at age 28. A first-generation Khmer-American, he was born in Stockton, California, to parents who had survived Cambodia’s killing fields and met after being resettled in the U.S. After graduating from Stanford, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse U., winning a number of awards for his writing. The author of Afterparties (2021), a collection of nine short stories set in the Cambodian-American communities in the Central Valley, he was also a visual artist, specializing in collage. Prior to his death, he was working on a novel, Straight Thru Cambotown, about three Khmer-American cousins, one of whom is a pansexual rapper. He is survived by his partner, Alex Torres.

 

Dean P. Wrzeszcz, writer, died on April 3, 2020, at age 62. Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, he was active in theater at his high school, and at Mercyhurst U. in Erie, where he studied ballet, tap, jazz dance, and voice. He worked in summer stock as stage manager for the Ohio Kenley Players and later moved to New York, where he studied acting and worked Off-Broadway and in TV, using the more pronounceable name “Dean Resh.” After being diagnosed with AIDS, he moved to San Francisco where he lived for most of the 1980s. He later returned to New York, writing for Gay City News, freelancing (including three book reviews for this magazine), and performing. At the time of his death, he was working on a collection of short stories.

 

 

Martha E. Stone is the literary editor of this magazine.

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