Real Heroes Say: "I Only Did What Had to Be Done"

These folks show that stepping up when it counts can change history itself.

Posted Feb 11, 2019

“We didn’t have a sense that what we were doing was part of a movement,” said Virginia “Ginny” Apuzzo, director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force at the start of the AIDS epidemic in 1981. “We were just going about our lives.”

But those lives, the women and men leading them, were marked by a strong belief that America’s promise of “equal justice under law” for all meant exactly what it said—that ‘equal’ meant equal, and ‘all’ meant all. Not just heterosexuals or white people. All.

That simple belief led people like Apuzzo to step up and show the rest of us what it means to be a hero—and gave us a legacy we can be proud of and standards we can aspire to.

Apuzzo was commenting after a talk I gave Thursday, February 7, at the Stonewall National Museum, in Wilton Manors, Florida, titled “Claim Our Heroic Legacy for Your Health and Our Community’s Sake.”

Ginny Apuzzo was one of four luminaries in my audience, each of them an example of someone who had stepped out of the comfortable and familiar to speak up and get involved when it mattered most.

At a time when the federal government wanted to ignore the growing HIV-AIDS crisis as long as possible, and gave as little money as possible to addressing it, Apuzzo demanded $100 million in her testimony before Congress. She understood well the physical and political risk to gay men in particular in an epidemic caused by a sexually transmitted virus that seemed to be singling them out, and with hysteria about AIDS growing daily.

She got the money—and the federal government had its first taste of gay America’s resolve not to keep quiet as thousands of our brothers suffered and died.

John-Manuel Andriote/photo
The author with Virginia "Ginny" Apuzzo and Dr. Lawrence D. Mass, at the Stonewall National Museum, Wilton Manors, FL.
Source: John-Manuel Andriote/photo

Another hero with me Thursday evening was Dr. Lawrence D. “Larry” Mass. As a physician, he was well-qualified to report on gay health issues for the New York Native in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Mass’s 1981 Native article “Cancer in the Gay Community” warned gay men that something terrible was unfolding, well before it even had a name. Months after the article appeared, Mass and five other gay men co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the first organization anywhere in the world to provide care and support services for people living with HIV-AIDS.

One of my own proudest moments was accompanying Larry Mass to visit the Newseum, in Washington, D.C., to see his article “Cancer in the Gay Community” on display in its permanent collection. Even the nation's museum honoring its news media recognized the article's historic importance.

Still another hero in my audience was Brian McNaught, whom the New York Times described as the “godfather of gay diversity training.” His activism in the corporate world, and as a leading educator on LGBT issues since 1974, has been undergirded by a strong spirituality he first wrote about publicly in a column (and book) titled “A Disturbed Peace.”

McNaught’s “radical” idea was that gay and lesbian people not only should be made to feel comfortable in the workplace, but actually add value to their employers’ business because of their/our unique qualities of cooperativeness, empathy, and acceptance of others’ diversity.

If these awesome folks weren’t enough, my audience also included the mayor of Ft. Lauderdale itself, my very own first cousin once-removed Dean Trantalis.

Besides qualifying for heroic status by his being the first openly gay mayor of a major southern city, and all the years of community service leading up to his election in 2018, Trantalis—because I know him outside of his official role—also shows our very best in the generous manner he has helped care for his nearly 98-year-old mom, my great-aunt. He regularly makes the 1000+ mile journey home to Connecticut to check in on her, take her to church, and enjoy the historic home he has owned in his (and my) hometown for years and restored to its 19th-century beauty.

Ginny Apuzzo, Larry Mass, Brian McNaught, and Dean Trantalis are bright lights in our pantheon of LGBT historical figures. Best of all is they are still burning brightly, still with us to help the rest of us find our way forward.

They are living examples of what it looks like to live a life of integrity and to have a strong enough sense of t own power that what the rest of us call “heroic” comes so naturally that Ginny Apuzzo could say, and mean, she and these other remarkable people were “just going about their lives.”