This year's list of sexual remembrances includes filmmakers and poets, performers and politicians, educators and activists. I started keeping this list in 2006, shortly after I came to About.com and began to notice how messed up the process of who we remember in public often is. It's inevitable, but the people who get remembered are often those who do things that are easy to wrap up in a familiar story. The people on this list share one thing in common: each of them had something valuable to say, something that requires us to bend our understanding toward the unfamiliar.
Very few of these people are remembered with obituaries in the mainstream media in the West. In some cases they are too queer, too radical, not white enough, or simply not interested enough in mainstream approval to garner the attention of the media of record. This is not to say that they won't be remembered. Their lives are celebrated and their absence deeply felt by many. Still, they may not be people you knew about, and I think they are people whose lives are worth knowing about. It's too late to meet any of them, but not to late to be amused, challenged, inspired, and touched by their lives, words, and work.
As in previous years, this list is presented in no particular order and without a lot of rules. In writing about them, I have chosen to use people's first names. I didn't know most of these people and hope that this familiarity doesn't sound like disrespect. Instead I use their names because the act of remembering, even someone you never knew, feels personal, and a more distant journalistic tone doesn't seem fitting to my purpose. If you knew someone who is listed here and would like to correct, clarify, or add something, please let me know.
Christopher Lee (September 4, 1964 - December 22, 2012)
I learned of Christopher Lee's passing a few days after I published the 2012 list of remembrances. It didn't feel appropriate to write something in haste, but I knew that we'd be starting this year's list with Christopher. Some people touch your life directly by being in it; their physical presence, phone calls, texts, or emails make your life better because of their concern, their humor, their insight. But we can also be touched by people who we never meet, people who make waves or mark their time on earth with tiny explosions that can't help but ripple out to others. This was my experience of Christopher, and I know I wasn't alone.
I first came across Christopher's work with Alley of the Tranny Boys, his first erotic feature and a groundbreaking work that, in representing bodies and desires completely absent from most sex films, meant so much to so many people who were either looking for themselves in culture, or looking to culture to help them figure out more of who they were. Christopher co-founded the world's first transgender film and arts festival, which 16 years later has grown into the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival. In 2002 he was the Community Grand Marshal of the SF Pride Parade, an appropriate recognition for the many ways, both public and private, he supported his communities.
The experience of loss is deeply personal, and no loss can be measured as greater or lesser than any other. Christopher took his own life, and while this is a decision we each get to make and there is no way of safeguarding against this entirely, when we lose someone who gave so much it feels like an appropriate response to think about how we can turn toward the problem instead of away from it.
Instead of thinking of this as a tragic loss that's over and done, it can keep us thinking about the ways we can make change in community and institutional systems of support, support that we all need, and that we all need in different ways. Christopher's chosen family is doing just that. They recently held a community event in Oakland and have put together Dragon's Blood Rising, a site that both honors Christopher's life and legacy and speaks to ways we can take action while taking care of ourselves and each other.
Read More: Dragon's Blood Rising: Remembering Christopher ; Memorials Sex for Trans Filmmaker Christopher Lee
Shivananda Khan (June 9, 1948 - May 20, 2013)
I owe a great thanks to Roy Wadia, the executive director of the Heroes Project (India), who told me about the passing of Aida Banaji last year and who this year emailed me to note the death of educator, organizer, and activist Shivananda Khan.
Born in India and raised in the UK, Shivananda helped found Shakti, one of the first social groups for gay and lesbian South Asians in the UK. He went on to create and run Naz Foundation International, an organization that developed peer-led outreach and advocacy for men who have sex with men (MSM). In 2005 Shivananda was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his work.
These many accomplishments (and the many more I haven't listed) aside, Shivananda is remembered for his nurturing of both people and organizations. His warmth, humour, and delight in life is clear to see in a great interview he gave about his life and work to Project Bolo, the Indian LGBT Oral History Project. From his experiences with sex work to the family meeting where his mother asked him to talk with all eight of his siblings about being a man who desires other men (the highlight was his six-year-old sister responding by simply asking for a cup of tea) to his first experience having sex with another Indian man which didn't happen until his 20s, Shivananda is able to be himself and share of himself, but do so in a way that at once welcomes us in and requires us to challenge whatever preconceptions we come to him with. He was relentless in his challenge of systemic racism and the daily influences of colonialism on people's ability to be who they are and access their basic rights. A great gift and a great loss.
Watch Project Bolo: An Interview with Shivananda Khan ; Read Gay Star News: South Asia Gay Community Mourns Death of Shivananda Khan
Cheryl Marie Wade (March 4, 1948 - August 21, 2013)
Poet, playwright, filmmaker, and disability rights activist Cheryl Marie Wade's work was many things: insightful, sarcastic, aggressive, welcoming, funny, warm, scary, dangerous…I could go on. I never met her (we had a brief email exchange) and I first found out about Cheryl when someone told me about this great disability rights and culture email list called Gnarly Bone, which was moderated by Cheryl. I quickly dug around as much as I could and came across her essay "It Ain't Exactly Sexy" in the disability rights magazine The Ragged Edge (formerly The Disability Rag). The piece is about bodies, disabled bodies, and offers a challenge to the ways that shame and silence are perpetuated inside disability communities.
In her work, Cheryl took shit from no one, even when shit was what she was talking about. In an obituary for Cheryl published in New Mobility, poet and friend Leroy Moore describes how Cheryl brought disabled people together and produced a sense of pride and culture through art. Cheryl was a part of a movement of disability culture and disability rights production in the 1980s. In 1985 she founded a theater group for disabled women called Wry Crips and in 1994 she created and performed a one woman show called "Sassy Girl: Memoirs of a Poster Child Gone Awry." While some people make sexuality a separate issue, a site of specific activism or art, in Cheryl's work sexuality and gender was always there because Cheryl brought her whole self to her art. Esther Ehrlich, who interviewed Cheryl for the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement Oral History Project describes her experience interviewing Cheryl over three days in 2003 this way:
Throughout our interview I was struck by Cheryl Marie Wade's engaged, direct, and sometimes brutally honest style. Her sharp mind was constantly synthesizing new ideas, making new connections, even while her words flowed gracefully on. At times during the interview, I found myself literally holding my breath, while Ms. Wade narrated a pain-filled story. At other times, Wade's quirky sense of humor left me trying to control my laughter so that it wouldn't disrupt the audio recording.
Carlos Batts (April 7, 1973 - October 22, 2013)
If you're going to die, going quick is probably the way to go. But for those of us left behind the shock of a sudden loss is a pain unlike any other. When award winning artist, photographer, and director Carlos Batts died suddenly this year, the space he left behind was felt and expressed by many in the art and sex communities where he and his artistic and life partner April Flores made their home.
If you haven't heard of Carlos, his body of work, including four large format book collections of photography, several book and album covers, and a dozen adult films, offer a powerful and singular statement about who he was and what he believed as an artist, as a sexual being, and as a human. He is remembered by many friends and colleagues as someone who either brought an artistic sensibility to porn or a porn sensibility to art. In truth, which came first hardly matters since his lack of pretension about art and his lack of shame around sex allowed him to approach each project and professional collaboration with a warm and open heart, and an eager sexual mind.
In a tribute reprinted in Adult Video News, the academic Mireille Miller-Young describes the particular loss that Carlos' passing is for
"the black porn community. He was one of the few black men directing and the only one who had training as a filmmaker. Importantly [he] saw himself as a feminist pornographer, and he was conscious of what it means to be a man and a feminist. He spoke out about the need for more porn that is made in a way that is ethically made as a kind of collaboration with workers, that represents racial and body type diversity, and that pushes back against the formulaic market for porn for men and straight couples to explore instead a range of desires, identities, and pleasures for women, men, and trans people."
By most accounts Carlos was proudest and most excited by his collaboration and work with April Flores, his wife, partner, and muse. Their most recent collaboration, Fat Girl, is part journal, part art work, part manifesto, while also being a complete celebration of, and a challenge to contemporary notions of what it is to be sexy, to be powerful, to be in love, to be beautiful. Reading comments from friends, family, and those he worked with, it's clear that he was both a keen admirer of beauty, and someone who made the world a more beautiful place in his own right. There are so many remembrances online about Carlos, but here I'll share something from Carlos himself, a quote from an interview on The Rumpus that has been cited many times since his passing.
“Art is the strongest form of activism. Art encompasses everything. It encompasses the queer movement, fat activism, racism, all the “isms”—that’s our job. We’re not supposed to be total consumers…even though I want to be rich and have a million dollar boat, but my motivation is to cross boundaries and create a dialogue, and that’s what I’ve done it for since I was a kid.”
Jack Morin (April 13, 1946 - June 14, 2013)
Psychotherapist, sex therapist, educator, professor, and author, Jack Morin was, in the words of his friend and colleague Carol Queen, one of sexology's quiet giants. I first came across Jack's work in the context of disability. It was the 80s and I was searching everywhere for positive representations of disability and sexuality. Jack's first book, a photo essay of sorts called Men Loving Themselves, was both simple and radical. It included a disabled model among the half dozen or so men who allowed Jack to document their self-loving. By then Jack had already written the first of two seminal texts he authored, Anal Pleasure and Health. This book carefully and thoroughly unpacked the taboo around anal pleasure, addressing psychology and emotion as much as mechanics. It was one of the earliest sex positive guides to reach out beyond gay or queer communities and address all adults seeking to expand their sexual horizons and better know their sexual selves.
Jack's third book may be his most important though. The Erotic Mind continues to be an essential text for professionals working around sexuality, and remains alone among sex self-help books written for a general audience. After working for more than 20 years in sex shops, and personally selling hundreds of copies of the book to individuals and couples, I can think of no other text that I'm able to so easily and eagerly recommend to people from all backgrounds and experiences who are either struggling with some aspect of their sexual selves or looking to delve into their own sexual psyches. Like many sexuality professionals of his generation, it was a winding road that brought Jack to writing and working around sexuality in San Francisco.
He was born and raised in Detroit and received a Masters of Divinity, having a brief life as a Methodist minister and 60s activist, before he moved to California in 1972 and settled into life as a psychotherapist. In her remembrance of Jack, Queen ties the power of his work to his ability to listen deeply to his clients as they shared their own sexual desires and fears, and to sit with them without judgement and with a sense of the possible.
Read More: Good Vibes Magazine: RIP Jack Morin, PhD 1946 - 2013
Erica Andrews (September 30, 1969 - March 11, 2013)
Born in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Erica lived for much of her adult life in Texas, and had only recently moved to Indiana to be with her partner when she passed away. The Houston Chronicle called her "one of the most decorated queens on the pageant circuit" winning among other titles Miss Gay Texas 1997, Miss Gay USofA 1999, Miss International Queen 2006 and Entertainer of the Year 2006. Erica also appeared on television, in film, and acted in Jesus Alonzo's play Miss America: A Mexicanito Fairy's Tale (as a fairy godmother to a nine-year-old boy who dreams of becoming Miss America).
Reading through remembrances from friends, fans, and collaborators, one gets a sense not only of Erica's passion and love for performing (she was known for among other things her Jessica Rabbit, complete with very sparkly carrot clutch, and Joan Crawford via Shirley Bassey, although I'm partial to her Superstar) but also for her desire to connect with people and use the attention she received for positive social ends.
She was the first model for Jorge Rivas' Faces of Life Project, and was remembered by Ronald Radwanski (who collaborated with Rivas and painted Andrews for the project) as someone whose warmth and spirit didn't stop when she left the stage: "She was a delight to be with - always doing something to help people. She used her art to perform and make a difference…she didn't turn off her heart when she turned on her charm."
San Antonia writer and artist Anel Flores offers a beautiful remembrance of meeting Erica for the first time when Erica was working at the MAC counter in a mall. Flores offered to buy her lunch and the two shared stories of discrimination and survival. Flores writes:
"When I walked her back to work and watched her walk off to her spot behind the color-lined black counter, I saw the ugly faces the other women in the store gave her and even spotted one pointing at her while whispering to a customer. Her majesty and strength to walk through all of those bullets awed me, taught me that we must stand tall (even in tacones) if we are to survive and thrive in this world."
Cory L. Richards (1948 - April 4, 2013)
At the time of his death Cory was the executive vice president and vice president for public policy of Tthe Guttmacher Institute, the world's leading think tank and public policy advocacy organization dedicated to sexual and reproductive health and rights. He joined the Guttmacher Institute in 1975 and was remembered by colleagues there and elsewhere for his tenacity, enthusiasm, and warmth, working in an area that all too often leaves people burnt out and cynical. In remembering Cory and his career, the Guttmacher staff and board highlight his role in the 1994 report Uneven and Unequal, which turned attention to the gaps in insurance coverage for birth control and how these gaps disproportionately impact women living in poverty. He also founded the Guttmacher Policy Review, a quarterly journal aimed at turning research and policy analysis into action.
Cory's commitment to social justice ran in his family. His aunt was Tillie Olsen, a writer and political activist who worked as a meat trimmer and was arrested while trying to organize a packing house workers' union. As a writer Tillie, drew attention to the way that women, and particularly women living in poverty, were systematically excluded from the world of publishing. Cory volunteered his time as mentor to many who moved through Guttmacher as well as with like minded organizations, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Abortion Federation, and the Sex Information and Education Council of the US.
Read More: The Guttmacher Institute: Cory L. Richards
Vina Mazumdar (March 28, 1927 - May 30, 2013)
Vina was a central figure in both women's rights and women's studies in India. Among her many contributions was a blurring of those very categories, always combining academic and activist perspectives, voices, and priorities, as she fought to expand Indian women's access to their basic rights. Where white Western feminists of the same time often compartmentalized issues (for example prioritizing equal pay and ignoring issues of child care) and approaches (to this day, organizations and conferences are often for academics or activists, but rarely both) Vina insisted on a more inclusive approach, one that would make use of academic and political knowledge and strategy without leaving out the everyday concerns of the actual people who are most marginalized by systemic oppression and violence.
In a lovingly detailed remembrance of her life and work, CP Sujaya described Vina-di (as she was widely known) in action. In her role as secretary of the Committee on the Status of Women in India she was involved in the production of the first report on the condition of women in the country called Towards Equality. The report documented the rise in poverty among women, the chronic lack of access to education among poor women in India, and the troubling decline in the sex ratio of women to men. But for Vina-di, the writing and dissemination of the report was only the beginning. She rallied women and men to not only read the report, but to act on it, embedding its findings into policy documents for decades to come. Not one to mince words in person or in writing, she began a 1986 policy document titled Education for Women's Equality by stating clearly that
"Education will be used as an agent of basic change in the status of women…In order to neutralise the accumulated distortions of the past…the National Education system will play a positive interventionist role in the empowerment of women."
In 2010 she published her memoir, Memories of a Rolling Stone. Around that time she was interviewed about her role as a leading feminist in India, and was asked about what she would wish for women today, her response is characteristic of how she is often described, an irrepressible combination of humility and forthrightness. She responded:
"Why should I ask for anything? It is for young women to speak out on what they need. I refuse to be their spokesperson. I am in my mid-80s my dear. Unfortunately, I am increasingly unhappy with the middle-class educated women. They are selfish. They don't want to shoulder any collective responsibility."
Arpad Mikos (September 11, 1967 - February 3, 2013)
Best known as an award winning actor in gay porn, Arpad was discovered by famed porn director Kristen Bjorn when he was working as a chemical engineer in Hungary. He switched careers and went on to star in 60 films as well as working as an escort in New York City. In 2010 Arpad was one of several models who agreed to participate in a unique fundraiser for the Ali Forney Center, an organization that provides temporary housing and support services for street involved LGBTQ youth. Arpad's image was printed on beach towels designed by BUTT Magazine and produced and sold by American Apparel. Online friends and colleagues remember this as only one of many examples of Arpad's desire to support LGBTQ causes and communities. In 2012 he was featured in the music video for Perfume Genius' "Hood".
Fellow actor Colby Keller wrote a sweet tribute to Arpad (remembering him not only for his professionalism and sexual energy, but also for his love of cheese) on his own site. Reflecting on Arpad's suicide and it's relationship to his profession, Keller writes:
"Like any physically-demanding, socially-vexed form of labor, sex work isn't easy work-- not least because of the stigma and meager income. You give a lot of yourself for what can seem like very little in return. It can take its toll emotionally. The naked body is a vulnerable body after-all. We should remember to celebrate Arpad, the sexy man behind the scenes and in front of the camera who gave so much of himself for our desire, and not condemn a choice privately considered and personally significant enough to result in such extreme measures."
Joan Benesch (1925 - June 28, 2013)
It can be easy to feel pessimistic about sex education in the U.S. There's the patchwork approach to educating young people that leaves little hope for a truly comprehensive and coordinated effort, and there's the highly conflicted cultural messages that we are all influenced by, where sex is a desirable commodity on the one hand and a shameful stain on the other. And then you learn about people who in ways large and small are trying to make things better. Even though I spend most of my time in sex education, I still meet people every year who I never knew existed, doing work I never imagined was being done.
This year I learned about Joan Benesch from a small obituary in the Washington Post. Joan was a sex education advocate who got an early start in her activism, volunteering with the League of Women Voters in Pittsburgh before she moved to the Washington, DC area where she lived most of her adult life and made the greatest difference in school based sex education. It was in DC that she co-founded the Sex Education Coalition of Metropolitan Washington, an organization that offered training to teachers and staff around teen sexuality. One of the Coalitions focuses was on promoting better teaching materials, especially audio visual materials, which they did first through a catalog and later a media fair devoted to sex education.
In addition to her work with the Coalition Joan worked with Planned Parenthood in Washington and Baltimore, and was the coordinator for their Justice Fund that helps subsidize safe and legal abortions, a crucial service that is often the last avenue of hope for those who can't afford to access safe abortions.
Read More: Washington Post: Joan S. Benesch, Sex Education Advocate
Rituparno Ghosh (August 31, 1963 - May 30, 2013)
Award winning Bengali director, actor, and LGBT icon Rituparno Ghosh died at the age of 49, just as he saw himself moving into a new phase of his prolific career. In a remembrance for PopMatters, Farisa Khalid compared Rituparno's place in Indian cinema to that of Paul Thomas Anderson in America, noting that throughout his career Ghosh was often compared to another Bengali director, Satyajit Ray. Khalid writes:
Ghosh in turn reinvigorated and reinvented the Ray canon of Bengali cinema. He took Ray’s early material, stage and literary adaptations of the great 19th century Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, and breathed new life into them by focusing on the psychological complexities of women’s lives in colonial India.
Ghosh's skill at conveying complex women characters was often understood as being connected to his own always developing sexual and gender identity. He was openly gay, but in the last few years before he died he also began to talk about his fluid gender identity, using his own profile to push for greater acceptance of LGBT communities inside India. As an actor he played both gay and trans characters with depth and complexity. He directed over 20 films (most in Bengali, two in Hindi, and two in English) and won over 12 National Film Awards in India as well as awards from the Berlin and Chicago International Film Festivals.
Read More: PopMatters: Farewell, Maestro: Rituparno Ghosh ; dna: Rituparno Ghosh, an Icon for LGBT Community
José Sarria (December 12, 1922 or 1923 - August 19, 2013)
He's been called the first great queer activist, he took on the title of Empress José I, the Widow Norton, he was most likely the first openly gay man to run for political office, and for a while he was the Nightingale of Montgomery Street; at the age of 89 or 90 (the most fabulous among us never reveal our real age) José Sarria passed away this summer.
As an organizer, activist, and drag performer extrodinaire, José message was, in the words of Carol Queen, "proto-'Gay Is Good,' advocating freedom from shame and harassment." Queen goes on to explain that "Sarria was free to come out specifically because of police harassment — he’d been arrested for solicitation during a sting at the St. Francis Hotel, which meant that he would not be able to pursue his original career path, teaching. Hence his trenchant quip during Black Cat shows: “United we stand — divided, they catch us one by one.”
José served in the US army during World War II and stayed in Berlin after the war, returning to San Francisco in 1947. He ended up working at the Black Cat in San Francisco and it's there, Queen suggests, that he began his life as an activist, witnessing the daily discrimination gays were exposed to, as well as the violence from both police and others. He co-founded the League for Civil Education and The Society for Individual Rights, and inspired the creation of the Imperial Court System (now known as the International Court System), a non-profit GLBT organization centered around drag balls, royal title elections, and doing good works in their communities (they have 68 chapters across the United States, Canada, and Mexico).
An obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle described "a funeral fit for an empress" and noted that the cortege which led from Nob Hill through the city to Colma was escorted by "two dozen San Francisco police motorcycle officers, from the same force that used to round up gays."
Read More: Good Vibrations Blog: A Reverent Farewell to the Widow Norton: José Sarria Has Died
PJ Torokvei (March 19, 1951 - July 3, 2013)
I had no idea who PJ Torokvei was when I started reading to compile this year's list of remembrances. I only clicked on a link with her name in it because it referenced her work as producer and head writer of WKRP in Cincinnati, a show that had a profound influence on me (Jennifer Marlowe was the reason I wanted to grow up to be a receptionist) and I sometimes still draw on dialogue from the show when I'm at a loss of what to say.
So I didn't know that during her long career, which in addition to WKRP included stints with Second City and SCTV, as well as co-writing four feature films, she was living as Peter Torokvei. PJ didn't leave much public writing about her experience of gender, but some of her story was shared in a tribute to her by her friend, producer Stan Brooks. Stan remembered PJ to the Hollywood Reporter shortly after her death, and shared his experience of PJ disclosing her gender identity to him and her other friends in a letter in 2001.
It's a funny and honest tribute that doesn't ignore the way that many people around PJ turned their backs on her after her disclosure. The headline to the piece is unnecessary and misleading. PJ wasn't a trailblazer, at least not as a trans woman. And that is actually one of the main reasons I chose to include her in this list: Living your life in a way that feels honest is hard enough, and it's made all the more difficult when that honesty disrupts other people's expectations about sex, gender, and sexuality. It does not need to be 'newsworthy' to be an act worth remembering.
Read More: The Hollywood Reporter: Remembering PJ Torokvei: Comedy Genius Behind 'WKRP' Was Transgender Trailblazer