By Barbara Hood
In the swirling emotional chaos of the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about my old friend Doug. Early during the pandemic hunker-down, I pulled three decades of collected cards and letters from the guest room closet and began to sort and toss. Many were from him. I stacked them in a little pile that I can’t seem to part with.
Doug was the first person I met at law school in Berkeley. I was nervous walking up the steps of the grand old house where an orientation reception for our class was taking place. Straight out of Fairbanks, never before in California, I was wearing clothes that I was sure were wrong for the occasion and a new bad haircut. But immediately a skinny fellow student approached me, arms wide and grinning.
“Hey, I’m Doug,” he proclaimed in the thickest southern drawl I’d ever heard.
He took my elbow and ushered me inside like I was the honored guest. A talker like me, he and I quickly shared our life stories and our plans. My nerves relaxed and I felt at home, despite the crowd of strangers. Doug surveyed the room, then pointed to a baby-faced man on a sofa, holding court in a circle of laughter.
“That sweetheart over there is my lover, Ken,” he said.
At that time – 1980 – it struck me as brave to bring his gay lover to a law school orientation, even in the Bay Area. But Doug was forthright, honest, and comfortable with the person he was, and he had been advocating for gay civil rights too long to hide his life from anyone.
Over the next three years, we became fast friends. He was funny, thoughtful and unfailingly generous, the friend who always remembered my birthday and showed up when I needed support. He was also a volcano of energy, a tireless advocate for the causes he cared about.
When AIDS first struck in 1981, we were in our second year, and the disease cast an uneasy pall over our lives, especially the knowledge that its main victims were gay men. San Francisco – just across the bay – was an early epicenter. Doug and I spoke about it only in whispers. We were incensed that some dismissed it as “the gay plague,” and that many communities were slow to respond.
After graduation in 1983, I returned to Alaska and Doug moved to Austin, Texas. Soon, he was drawn to the crisis the AIDS epidemic had become. In 1984, he helped found the Austin AIDS Project, where he set up key programs for patients and their families. Eventually, he served on the city’s Human Rights Commission and the county’s HIV Commission.
“The AIDS quilt will be in Austin,” he wrote to me during this time, “and I was asked to be a reader. It will be very emotional.”
By the late 1980’s, Doug’s letters revealed the sad news I had long feared: his own health had taken a turn for the worse.
“I got some blood tests back and found out I have only about 1/3 of my immune system left,” he wrote. “I try to stay busy and not be obsessed with it. However, AIDS is always the ‘background music’ in my life.”
Despite his own health struggles and demanding full-time jobs, Doug continued to devote his time and enthusiasm to AIDS relief. Most notably, he helped found Project Transitions, a nonprofit devoted to creating the first residential hospice facility in Central Texas, where those dying of AIDS could spend their final weeks in a caring and compassionate environment. Doug had asked all of his friends, including me, to donate.
“Many thanks for the contribution,” he wrote after the hospice opened in 1989. “All the board members sent out letters, but MY friends were the most responsive! Guess I know how to pick ‘em!”
Despite that high note, Doug’s news was more typically bad: “My health is deteriorating…I’ve lost 15 pounds since January,” he wrote in a letter dated April 1990, “but I’m trying to be in good spirits.”
In his effort to “think positively,” he bought a house and invested $400 in perennials for his flower garden. “Can’t die and let all that work go down the drain!” he wrote.
In August 1990, Doug sent a form letter to his friends, apologizing that he found it too exhausting to write everyone personally: “If you pray, remember me in your prayers; if you are into meditation, project positive energy my way; if you are out partying, drink a beer for me! I’ll appreciate any help I can get!”
By December 1990, he had to quit his job. “My health continues to deteriorate,” he wrote, “but maybe now that I’m not working I’ll have the energy to start getting better.”
But Doug never lost sight of those suffering around him, and didn’t know how to scale back. Instead of conserving what little energy he had left, he devoted more time to his advocacy and activism.
“I’ve adjusted to retirement by doing more volunteer work,” he wrote in February 1991. “I rationalize that Social Security and Blue Cross are paying me to be a full-time do-gooder.”
Holding his letters today, I choke up at my friend’s stubborn hope. In the early 1990’s – before the drugs that have made HIV/AIDS a more manageable condition – AIDS was almost always a death sentence. Doug certainly knew this. But he chose to keep going, and keep giving, even as he faced his final days. His sadness and suffering are plain on every page, but what brings tears to my eyes is the enduring fire in his heart.
Doug devoted his life to advancing equal rights for LGBTQ people, but he would not live to see the breakthroughs of the modern era, both in cultural acceptance and legal protection. He lost his battle against AIDS in September 1991. Three days later, the Project Transitions board voted to name its hospice facility “Doug’s House.”
“Without Doug, there would be no Project Transitions,” the board said. Three decades after his death, Doug’s House continues to serve the community he loved, and has helped hundreds of people face the challenge of AIDS with dignity.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a landmark decision, that discrimination against LGBTQ people is illegal discrimination based on sex. Doug would certainly be celebrating. But no doubt he would also point out that the court’s decision is late in coming, and is not the final word because it applies only to employment. I can almost hear his emphatic drawl, demanding that LGBTQ people not suffer any discrimination for being who they are.
Today, Doug would be urging us to pass laws at the local and state levels to ensure full and equal LGBTQ rights in all areas of life, including housing, education, and public accommodations. He would enlist our support for the Equality Act, now before Congress, which would enact consistent non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people across our nation. And he would give the battle every ounce of his strength.
As I gather Doug’s letters and cards for safekeeping, I’m filled with pride in my friend for all he achieved in his too-short life. I’m humbled by the difference he made in advancing LGBTQ rights and a humane response to AIDS; by his courage and grit and indomitable spirit; by his kindness and unwavering friendship. Remembering him today, I take great comfort in knowing that his hardiest perennials were those he planted in the garden of humanity, and they’re still blooming.