Excerpts from a speech recorded at The Academy.
My deep relationship with the gay community starts in Stockton. Oh God, how many of us were there? I was living there, I went to school there by some mistake and it took me forever to get out of that town. I always had dreams of living in San Francisco.
I went to college, got married, got divorced very quickly. Straight men. Had a beautiful daughter and she got outta dodge fast. She quit high school and got the hell outta Stockton. She came to San Francisco and lived with her father. And one fine day in June, I was with her eating brunch at the Cafe Flore in the early '80s and suddenly there's all this racket, and I’m like, "What the hell's going on?" It's a pride parade, who knew? Dykes on bikes, tits on Harley's, holy shit, was it exciting. I couldn't believe it.
In those days, the Pride parade started in the Castro and went down Market Street. There wasn't that many people at the parade so we got front row seats. As the parade progressed, I was more and more impressed. I mean, we have gay guys in little outfits square dancing. We have queens on flatbed trucks throwing jewelry in these amazing outfits. We have Sistah Boom, this lesbian drum and bugle corps. Oh my God, "A bum, bum, bum, ba, ba, ba, bum." Oh wow, I wanted to join.
As I received the full brunt of that parade, my heart just flew open and I thought, "Oh my God, in San Francisco, you can be who you are. You can be who you are." I was just astounded.
Living in Stockton, college was okay. It was pretty conservative but then I got more and more isolated. I was a child who grew up with a lot of abuse, so my self-worth and my value were bashed to shit. I'm an artist but I had very little. I had parts of me that were really fabulous and other parts that were soaked in shadow and lost and then really sad.
I am a seeker so I was always reading, I was always trying to find my way through. I was always reading psychology and spirituality and all the New Age wonderful things that were coming about. I heard about the Whole Life Expo so I got in my car and I drove to the Moscone Center. New Age has just come into the fore so you've got Birkenstocks and you've got pictures of your aura and you've got crystals and wheat grass juice.
But in the midst of all of this stuff, I looked to my left and there is a gold lamé tent with pink azaleas around the outside. I thought, "What in the hell is that?" I looked inside and there was a TV screen and you could sit there in a chair and listen. It was a black and white video of this guy named Matt Garrigan, and he had a gay ministry in San Francisco.
I listened to that video and something just clicked. The next Sunday after the conference was Easter Sunday and I drove from Stockton to San Francisco to be in the city for the Sunday celebration. This straight woman from Stockton walked into a congregation of 200 gay men. I was absolutely hooked, I was so well received and what a celebration it was.
We did meditation. But then there was disco music, dancing, singing, hugging, embracing, joy. I was absolutely flabbergasted and blown away and so received, I was so received. So of course, I started coming straight away. I was crossing the Altamont at 7:30 on Sunday morning because I was gonna be here on time.
About three weeks in, I was invited to a wonderful party. At this party, this wonderful, beautiful young gay man came up to me, oh God, he was a dream and he said, "Girlfriend, we've gotta do something with that hair. It's mousy, it ages you, you're over it."
I loved Stan immediately, I trusted him implicitly. He cut my hair, ah, he set me free. Oh my God, I was fabulous. And I started feeling more in my body, I started feeling more alive. He was my first heartthrob and my first wonderful gay man that I met. And I'm still looking for my next Stan, I got mousy again.
As time went by, I became a prayer counselor and I joined their healing circle. I did it for many reasons, mainly for myself. I was starting to wake up and starting to feel, "Oh my God, I'm valuable too? I have something to offer." We worked it together and we loved each other and we supported each other. We also celebrated. Man, did we celebrate. Halloween, my first Halloween, oh my God.
Oh my God, who was teaching me? My beautiful gay men. That's where I was learning to love myself. That's where my compassion was opening. I was coming alive, I was starting to be who I am. And we were so fully alive, so full of celebration and love. At the same time, the specter of death was all around us and death was getting bigger and bigger. It makes me think of Charles Dickens, "The best of times, the worst of times," and that's exactly what it was. But it was so dynamic. It was the most alive I've ever been because it was the most joy and the most grief and you had it all in one moment. The only way you made it was to open your heart, to let your heart break and to let more and more space for the shadow, for the horror, for the terror, for all the parts to come so you could somehow begin to embrace them.
AIDS was showing it's an ugly face. You'd look at guys, it's like if this certain little vein started to pop out by your eyes, like, "Oh shit, maybe he's got it." Or you get a little thin, it's like, "Oh God, is he sick?" My dear friend Stan was getting sick and to me, the most terrifying part was the wasting syndrome. Watching guys, young guys, guys in their 20s, guys in their 30s, guys who are just barely becoming alive and who they were, starting to die and go away.
Stan got the wasting illness and he had a long, long, long death. He was my first friend who died. It was really hard. There were times when it was almost impossible to be with him because it was so much. When he was progressing along, at one point, this gorgeous man with blond hair, so cute, so sexy, was becoming a skeleton.
He had grown up in Kentucky and his family had totally disowned him. He had a number of brothers and sisters and they were so poor they used to all sleep in the same bed. And he was so scared, he said, "Karen, I'm so afraid. I miss sleeping with my sister because I used to play with her hair and that would help me fall asleep. Would you sleep with me?" I said, "Of course." So I climbed into bed with my skeletal friend and let him play with my hair. Those kinds of gifts of sharing, they're treasures beyond anything you can even imagine.
I was still living in Stockton and I was sleeping around the Castro because guys would say, "Don't go home, stay with me." As time progressed, I would meet parents who would come from Vermont and they had just found out their son was sick. They didn't even know he was gay for God's sake. They’d show up, "My son's gay, he's got AIDS and he's dead two days later?" Or gay guys were so terrified with the threat of AIDS, so terrified to come out to their family, and I found by some gift of God, that I was one who could listen, I was one who could hold their hand. I was one who could be there and say, "There's love here even if it doesn't come from your mom, please grab hold of what's here."
In those days, we worked hard, we told the truth, we opened our hearts, we hugged each other, we celebrated, we danced, we sang, we held hands, we cried, we wailed, we mourned. We did it all, we did it all together. Love was real, love was tangible. So many people were dying, I swear the veil between heaven and Earth was fragile, there was hardly any veil left, so many people were going back and forth that it was open.
I went back to Stockton after visiting Stan in hospice and I was really tired so I got in the bathtub just to relax. As I was in the tub, suddenly this ball of light was spinning in front of me and I heard Stan's voice, "Karen, if I'd known it was like this I would not have been so scared." I looked at the clock and that was exactly when he died. the gift of that was death no longer had a stain, death no longer had fear. I was set free. My parents died later and I was so prepared to be with my parents, so prepared to be with my other friends that died. Stan was a major gift and I swear I never have found as good a hairdresser.
The gift of the gay community, for me, has been practical, spiritual, emotional, social, it's touched every part of my life. I feel like we walked through the fire with our sequins on. I walked through my own personal fire. I walked with others. I feel like I got my life, I feel like my heart was opened, I feel like I learned love for myself and others and I was finally free. I thank all of you for all your legacies and all your hearts and I am so profoundly grateful for being part of the gay community in San Francisco. Thank you.