Tributes Pour in for AIDS Fighter Rodger McFarlane

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday May 19, 2009

GLBT leaders poured out their praise and sorrow for longtime AIDS activist Rodger McFarlane, who died in New Mexico on May 15.

A May 19 Associated Press article reported that, according to Gill Foundation president Tim Sweeney, McFarlane, 54, had committed suicide.

McFarlane had previously worked as the executive director of the Gill Foundation, a Denver-based GLBT equality group established by software magnate Tim Gill.

The AP article and a May 18 item at the both recounted how McFarlane had been active early on in the AIDS crisis, helping to create ACT UP and eventually taking the lead at the AIDS advocacy group Gay Men's Health Crisis.

In the early 1990s, McFarlane was also the executive director of the AIDS charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which still raises money for HIV/AIDS causes.

Many remembered McFarlane as a champion of equality, and as a mentor for a new generation of activists.

Said the current CEO of Gay Men's Health Crisis, Dr. Marjorie J. Hill, "He was a mentor, a guide, agitator, and friend.

"Rodger changed the culture of HIV awareness, funding, and pragmatism," added Hill. "He left an indelible mark on GMHC.

"The world is a greater place because of him."

In a May 18 press release, Gay Men's Health Crisis recalled McFarlane as "an AIDS warrior, immediately responding to the fight with our founders before there was a name to the disease.

"In 1981, he set up the world's first HIV/AIDS hotline with his own phone and answering machine," the release noted.

"Over 100 calls were recorded the first night."

The release recalled McFarlane's commitment to the cause of equality. "Rodger fiercely led GMHC's pioneering work to oppose discrimination against people with AIDS, while empowering the agency in its early years of developing client services, educational programs and advocacy on a local and national level."

Friends and family of McFarlane composed a statement in which they wrote, "A pioneer and legend in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights and HIV/AIDS movements, Rodger took his own life in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico last Friday."

The statement disclosed that McFarlane had left word as to why he had chosen to end his life. "In a letter found with his remains, Rodger explained that he was unwilling to allow compounding heart and back problems to become even worse and result in total debilitation.

"We know that Rodger was in a great deal of pain. Already disabled in his own mind, he could no longer work out or do all the outdoor activities he so loved."

The statement said that McFarlane was also concerned about his ability to work. "He was also now faced with the realization that he could literally not travel, making employment increasingly difficult."

Read the statement, "As his friends and family, we thought it was important that we communicate to the world that it has lost an amazingly wonderful individual who contributed so mightily to our humanity."

Part of the statement was incorporated into a media release that read, "Rodger approached every aspect of his life with boundless passion and vigor. While many people go their entire lives wanting to be good at just one thing, Rodger excelled at virtually everything he did. Brilliant activist and strategist, decorated veteran, accomplished athlete, best-selling author, and humanitarian are just a few of the accolades that could be used to describe our friend.

"To know Rodger was to love an irreverent, wise-cracking Southerner who hardly completed a sentence that didn't include some kind of four-letter expletive.

"He fought the right fight every day, was intolerant of silence, and organized whole communities of people to advocate for justice.

"These were traits that endeared him to us and are traits that make his legacy incredibly rich and powerful."

As much showman as advocate, McFarlane was also involved in Broadway productions, and served as a co-producer to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Larry Kramer's "The Destiny of Me."

"Rodger was a very great man," The Advocate Online quoted Kramer as saying.

"He did more for the gay world than any person has ever done. His loss to us all is inestimable."

Added Kramer, "He was also my best friend. And his loss to me is inestimable too."

Referring to McFarlane's reported suicide, Kramer said, "It is hard for me to understand why he did it this way, but in true Rodger fashion he did what he wanted to do, which is how he lived his whole life, true to what he felt he had to do.

"People like Rodger don't come around very often. I don't think the gay world knew or knows how great he was and how much he did for us and how much we need him still and how much we will miss him," Kramer added.

In a May 18 article in The New York Times, Kramer recalled McFarlane's contributions to the fledgling GMHC.

Recounted Kramer, "Nobody wanted us. We had no money, no office space, and single-handedly Rodger took this struggling ragtag group of really frightened and mostly young men, found us an office and set up all the programs."

Those programs continue to serve people living with HIV today, said Kramer, offering the services of "crisis counseling, legal aid, volunteers, the buddy system, social workers."

The Times article recounted how McFarlane was over six and a half feet tall, making him a larger than life figure literally as well as in the world of civil rights activism.

The article quoted from an earlier item the paper had run on McFarlane. In a 1983 interview, McFarlane said, "AIDS pointed up the inequitable status of gays.

"We were forced to take care of ourselves because we learned that if you have certain diseases, certain lifestyles, you can't expect the same services as other parts of society."

The GLBT political group Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Leadership Institute, Denis Dison, issued a statement on McFarlane's death in which the organization's president, Chuck Wolfe, was quoted as saying, "Rodger's energy, enthusiasm and fearlessness drove him to achieve extraordinary things, and he will be remembered as one of the great heroes of both the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the fight for equality for LGBT people."

Wolfe praised McFarlane's initiative, saying, "Like most leaders, Rodger was impatient with roadblocks, but he was never content just to find a way around them.

"He worked to remove them altogether so that those who came after him wouldn't have to find their own way around. He was a game-changer--someone who asked the tough, impolite questions that moved a project forward."

Noted Wolfe, "Because of Rodger, LGBT movement organizations are working together in ways they hadn't before he took the reins at the Gill Foundation.

"The successes we see today are partly a result of his insistence that stubborn turf battles end, and that each organization's work should complement the others' and add to an overarching vision of our path to full equality."

"We are much, much further down that path today because of Rodger McFarlane."

The president of the Human Rights Campaign, Joe Solmonese, echoed that sentiment, stating that McFarlane would "always be remembered as a tireless leader who, throughout his career, set the LGBT movement on a straighter path to full equality."

Added Solmonese, "In the darkest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Rodger emerged as a hopeful leader who never backed down from a difficult struggle.

"His intense advocacy was only matched by his wit and good humor and our community will for generations be the beneficiary of his talents and dedication."

Openly gay New York state Senator Thomas K. Duane also issued a statement, in which Duane lamented the loss of "a relentless advocate, a nimble mind and an extraordinary human being."

Duane attributed his own success, in part, to McFarlane, saying, "his dedication to his work is one of the reasons that I am a State Senator today.

Added Duane, "I am grateful to Rodger for all that he gave and the long legacy he leaves."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.