Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 49 / 7 December 2017
 

Pride AIDS contingent regroups 25 years later

NEWS


m.bajko@ebar.com

Harry Breaux, left, dressed as Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, led the Healing Circle contingent in the 1990 Pride parade. Photo: Courtesy Gregg Cassin
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Dressed as Dr. Frank-N-Furter from the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Harry Breaux marched up San Francisco's Market Street on the last Sunday in June 1990.

He had gone that day on his own to participate in the annual Pride parade. Along the route he ran into a group marching on behalf of the Healing Circle, which he had participated in, and joined the contingent.

"I decided I didn't want to watch the parade so I put the costume on," recalled Breaux, 70, who a decade prior while living in Houston had performed as the transsexual character from the stage show-turned-film. "I went down to the parade and started walking the route. When I was walking down the street I got to that group and hung out for quite a while."

A black and white photo of Breaux dressed in drag in front of the Healing Circle banner, with another banner reading "Love Heals" in the near background, ran in that week's Bay Area Reporter .

"It was fabulous. I just sort of sashayed down the street. Everybody loved it," recalled Breaux, who works two days a week in the administrative office for the Diamond Heights Shopping Center. "Straight girls shoved their boyfriends out in the street because they had to get their picture with Frank-N-Furter. Everybody recognized the iconic look."

To mark the 25th anniversary of that Pride appearance, Breaux will once again be donning a Dr. Frank-N-Furter outfit Sunday, June 28, and reuniting with the surviving members of the 1990 Healing Circle contingent to march in this year's parade.

It will be his fourth time taking part in the Pride parade. Last year he rode in a motorized cable car vehicle with the Shanti Project contingent.

"I am marching for those who can't," said Breaux. "Other than that I will just be celebrating the fact that gay people can be doing this without bother."

The Healing Circle, said organizer Gregg Cassin, was a support group for HIV-positive people and their friends and family. The members were all grappling with the death and despair brought on by the AIDS epidemic at a time before there were HIV drugs to treat the virus.

"We were coming together and building community at a time when everyone felt isolated and stigmatized," said Cassin, himself a long-term survivor of HIV.

Not only was it powerful for HIV-positive people to march in the parade, recalled Cassin, there also was a need to remind the people lining the parade route that love can be healing.

"It is a powerful message," he said. "And we don't often, I think, give ourselves credit, for we as human beings have a profound impact on one another."

He is making a new "Love Heals" banner to march behind Sunday.

Bringing together the men who marched 25 years ago to again walk the parade route this year will send another powerful message, said Cassin, who facilitates the Honoring Our Experience retreats and works at Shanti Project as an HIV health counselor for the agency's HIV LIFE program.

 

Breaking the isolation

The long-term survivors of the AIDS epidemic, said Cassin, "need to be brought together and need to join as a community. We need to break the isolation. So many guys feel like they won the booby prize because they lived but all of their friends died."

Breaux, who has lived in San Francisco off and on since 1972, today is living with AIDS. He contracted HIV in 1980, and first developed full-blown AIDS in 1996.

"I slutted around in the 1970s. I was here in the Castro from the beginning. I played heavy and hard and did all I could for gay freedom," recalled Breaux, who grew up in Morgan City, Louisiana on the banks of the Atchafalaya River. "So I wasn't surprised when they told me I was HIV-positive in 1984. That wasn't a big surprise; I expected to live a couple more years at most."

The surprise for Breaux has been his surviving into retirement age, especially after he collapsed in December 1996 and was told by doctors he was suffering from three diseases at once: Pneumocystis, Mycobacterium avium complex or MAC, and Cryptococcal meningitis.

"I kept waking up and living," marveled Breaux, who saw his HIV become undetectable once he began retroviral therapy.

Having retreated from being active with the city's AIDS community – "Basically, I didn't want to hear the word AIDS anymore," he said – Breaux began reconnecting three years ago when he joined the Billys, a social group for gay, bisexual, and transgender men. (See story in the Pride section, page 3).

"Someone said why not come to a gathering. I figured it was time to come out again rather than be sitting at home," said Breaux, who earlier this year joined the Billys board of directors. "I had my heart opened. I realized in my mind everyone had died but there I was standing there with people who were alive."

He now volunteers as a Castro ambassador, greeting visitors to the city's gayborhood, and also started attending the Honoring Our Experience retreats run by Cassin. It was at a recent retreat that Cassin showed Breaux the photo of him as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. The two started talking and decided to recreate the picture.

Their decision, said Breaux, recalled for him a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day ..."

"In other words, it rolls along the way it rolls along," said Breaux.

Anyone who also marched with the Healing Circle contingent in 1990, and would like to do so again this year, should email Cassin at mailto:gcassin@shanti.org.

 






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