A Fresh Hole in My Heart

The world is a sadder, emptier place today.

My uncle Fred passed away yesterday afternoon, after a relatively short battle with liver cancer.

Fred was no ordinary man, though. Fred was a freaking medical miracle, and a damn fine human being.

My earliest memories of Fred date back to our apartment in Bensonhurst, where we lived from 1968 to 1971. I remember jumping up and down while Fred made the appropriate sound effects. Later, he would occasionally draw cartoons for my brothers and me, which would feature “Super Hippo” (who looked suspiciously like Fred, right down to the mustache) and his three hippo nephews, who were always having fun together. It was only later on that I found out that Super Hippo also appeared in the publication Gay Activist as “Lambda Lad.”

Fred first came to our house on Long Island (where we moved in 1971) with a girl friend (I seem to remember her name as “Peggy”), but he later started bringing along his new boyfriend, R. Paul Martin, who had helped him to come out of the closet. Fred and Paul both were involved with the Gay Activists Alliance, and were very active in the gay rights movement. I remember Paul as very strong-willed and always ready to do battle for his beliefs. His button-filled jacket was years ahead of that fad. They were also involved in the Gay Media Alliance.

Fred and Paul were instrumental in my love of reading, and of science fiction in particular. Oh, did I mention that Fred was an English teacher by trade for much of his career? Fred enjoyed sharing his love of reading, of discovery and of music. When he found out that I was interested in reading science fiction, he decided that he would support that and get me as many science fiction books (GOOD science fiction books) as possible. As Paul was a fan of SF, he helped Fred in selecting books for me. I remember them bringing boxes of great classic SF books for me to read. I’ve still got them.

In 1982, Fred and Paul were involved in the founding meeting of the National Association of Lesbian/Gay Pride Coordinators (NAL/GPC), a group that evolved into InterPride, one of few international LGBT entities in operation continuously since the 1980s.

For 17 years, Fred taught English at George Wingate High School in the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. It was a tough school, suffering from overcrowding and violence. Still, a respect for his students earned Fred their respect. I saw this in late 1984, when visiting a hospital where my grandmother (Fred’s mother) lay dying. A seemingly never-ending stream of his students would appear to check in with Fred and see how he was doing, to let him know that they cared about how he was doing. The mental image of this string of tough black kids from the ‘hood going out of their way to pay their respects to their soft-spoken white teacher remains with me.

The next year, Fred would combine his love of teaching and his gay activism in becoming the first (and, at the time, only) teacher at the Harvey Milk School, an alternative high school for gay youths who had dropped out of their high schools due to harassment and violence against them (by both classmates and teachers, and sometimes even their parents) because of their sexual orientation. Founded in 1985, the school was their school of last resort, where they found support and rediscovered their love of learning. Fred’s groundbreaking work at the school was written up in Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the Sunday New York Times magazine.

After his medical condition forced him to leave teaching, he completed additional training and became a New York Civil Court mediator at the Manhattan and Brooklyn Mediation Centers and a peer mediator at Bailey House.

Oh, did I mention that he sang baritone with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus for nearly 30 years until his final days. In later years, it became his lifeline, as it gave him something to look forward to each day. He recently began singing with a new group, as well. Fred would often start singing a song appropriate to the discussion at hand, as singing was an integral part of his personality.

Fred loved his family, even those who did not reciprocate the affection. He cared about all of his grand-nieces and grand-nephews, and was always interested in hearing what was going on with them. He loved to encourage learning, discovery and music for each of them, as well.

In 2004, Fred was asked to be one of the Grand Marshalls of the NYC Gay Pride March (officially The 35th Annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender PRIDE March) as they honored the surviving Stonewall-era veterans and early activists.

As far as we can tell, Fred contracted HIV at least as far back as March 1982, and perhaps earlier than that. Back then, it was still called “the gay flu” or “GRID” (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). It wasn’t until later that year before they started calling it AIDS. His 40th birthday party in 1987 was a tremendous event, as nobody was really sure if he would see that birthday. He celebrated 23 more birthdays after that, which is something of a medical miracle.

Fred was written off as dead multiple times, yet he had always found the strength to bounce back, even after testing with a white blood cell count of zero at one point. Over the years, he accumulated a host of other illnesses and conditions, including diabetes, retinopathy, cataracts, and emphysema. And yet, he still kept a positive attitude and kept doing everything he could to contribute to the world until his final days.

Fred was the subject of a CBS News story in 2008 about elderly people living with AIDS. In it, Fred’s dignity still showed through as he battled to keep his poise despite his health struggles.

Also in 2008, Fred was cited by the City University of New York as one of 109 examples of “Distinguished CUNY Alumni’s Commitment to Freedom.” Among others cited alongside Fred are such luminaries as Bella Abzug, Bill Baird, Barbara Boxer, Shirley Chisholm, Ruby Dee, Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter, Colin Powell, Jonas Salk, and many more. Pretty impressive company, no?

He outlived two “husbands,” one lost to AIDS-related cancer, one to a severe asthma attack. He’s survived by his latest husband, who took wonderful care of him in his final days.

Fred was a diminutive, soft-spoken man who fiercely wanted to do right, and who wanted to help everyone that he could. He did all of this while fighting one of the most fearsome diseases in the world today, and eventually dying of another horrible killer. In many ways, he is a true hero. His life is one that we all should wish that we were worthy of. And I will miss him terribly.

Rest in peace, Fred. You’ve earned it. We’ll take it from here.

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