The Daily Agenda for Wednesday, December 12
December 12th, 2012
TODAY IN HISTORY:
Danish Surgeon Dies Of Mysterious Disease: 1977. Dr. Margrethe P. Rask — her friends called her Grethe –was a indomitable woman who was as intense as she was relentless in the care that she gave to her patients in the remote Zairian villages near the Congo River basin. She had worked in Zaire in 1964, and she returned again in 1972, to a primitive rural hospital in northern Zaire delivering much-needed surgery to her patients amid appalling poverty and severe shortages. Everything was in short supply: syringes, antiseptics, even surgical gloves. Supplies were used and re-used until they wore out, and it wasn’t unusual for her to perform emergency surgeries with her bare hands. After putting together a simple jungle hospital in the remote village of Abumombaz and bringing it into operation, she took on a job as head surgeon at the Danish Red Cross Hospital in Kinshasa in 1975.
A fellow doctor and friend, Dr. Ib Bygbjerg, became worried over Gerthe’s weight loss. She was suffering from persistent diarrhea and fatigue since 1974, but given the host of often unknown tropical diseases which were common in northern Zaire, her condition was overlooked at first. But when standard treatments only temporarily alleviated the symptoms without actually restoring her health, Bygbjerg looked further and found that her lymph nodes, the glands that play an essential role on the body’s immune system, were completely out of whack. They had been swollen for nearly two years for no apparent reason.
In July 1977, Grethe took a vacation to South Africa to try to rest up from her constant fatigue, but her condition got worse. She became short of breath and was flown immediately back home to Denmark. Some of Denmark’s best doctors worked frantically to try to figure out what was wrong with her, but the more they looked, the mysteries surrounding her health only deepened. The inside of her mouth was covered with yeast infections, staph infections spread throughout her body, and blood tests showed that her T-cells, which are the main component of a body’s immune system, were completely gone. When that happens, the natural assumption was lymph cancer, but biopsies ruled out that as a cause for her immune system’s collapse. On December 12, her body finally gave out and she died.
An autopsy revealed that her lungs were filled with Pneumocystis carinii, a yeast-like fungus which causes a severe pneumonia. Because it is one of the easiest organisms for an immune system to fight off, it is extremely rare in healthy people. And even in the rare cases where people did catch it, it was usually treatable. It’s one of those diseases that nobody dies from, but Gerthe did. It was just one more conundrum added to a host of mysteries.
Five years later, gay men, Haitians, hemophiliacs, and intravenous drug uses also began to die in very large numbers of the same type of pneumonia that people almost never caught, let alone died from before. This time, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia became so common its acronym, PCP, entered into the lingo of the gay community along with KS (Kaposi’s sarcoma, a previously rare form of cancer), and AIDS. American epidemiologists were mostly looking at AIDS as an American disease however, and with most of the people coming down with AIDS coming from stigmatized populations, the disease itself was similarly stigmatized. It was, in the popular mind anyway, a “gay plague.” But in 1983, Dr. Bygbjerg recalled his colleague and friend, and had in mined a more likely source for the disease. He published Gerthe’s medical case history in the April 23, 1983 issue of The Lancet and concluded:
“During my stay in Zaire in 1976 I was impressed by the epidemiological and virological flying teams from the USA and Europe who quickly identified Ebola virus. Perhaps such teams should search for another African virus, albeit slow killing, and explore the possible connection between endemic and epidemic AIDS/KS in Africa and America.”
[Sources: Randy Shilts. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (New York: St. Martni's Press, 1987): 3-7.
Ib C. Bygbjerg. "AIDS in a Danish surgeon (Zaire, 1976)." Lancet 1, no. 8330 (April 23, 1983): 925.]
José Sarria: 1923. He was a real drag queen, one who had studied opera, could reach high C in his normal voice, and who always sang in his own voice whenever he performed. No lame karaoke for him. He began entertaining at San Francisco’s famed Black Cat in North Beach in 1946, shortly after leaving the Army after serving in World War II, and while he was studying to become a teacher. But an arrest at the men’s room at the St. Francis Hotel by a vice squad officer put the kibosh in his teaching aspirations. Sarria always maintained his innocence, noting that the arresting officer knew him personally. But But they had to make an example of somebody … I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Since he was now officially a homosexual — and, therefore, a “queen” — he decided to become “the best goddam queen that ever was!”
And he was, performing three or four shows a night at the Black Cat, where he was affectionately known as “the Nightingale of Montgomery Street.” He wrote much of his own material for his Black Cat performances, typically popular torch songs and arias. He re-worked Bizet’s Carmen, set in modern-day San Francisco with Carmon cruising in Union Square while dodging the vice squad. And he exhorted his audience to be as “out” as possible, telling them, “United we stand, divided they catch us one by one.” At closing time, he’d lead the crowd with a rousing rendition of “God Save Us Nelly Queens” — sometimes taking the crowd outside during the final verse to sing to the men in the jail across the street who had been arrested in raids earlier that night. When police often tried to harass and arrest drag queens, especially during the city’s famous Halloween parties, for violating an old city ordinance banning cross-dressing with an “intent to deceive,” Sarria had labels printed up for the queens to wear reading “I am a boy,” which prevented many a queen’s arrest.
With Sarria being the most famous homosexual in all of San Francisco, it would only be natural that he would become involved with LGBT advocacy early on. In 1960, he founded the League for Civil Education as a support group for gay men facing public discrimination, ostracism, and police arrests. In 1961, he became the first openly gay person to run for the city’s Board of Supervisors (see Nov 11). He lost the race, but garnered some 6,000 votes, proving to the political establishment that there was a real gay voting bloc worth noticing. In 1962, he, along with several bar owners and employees, formed the Tavern Guild, the country’s first gay business association. In 1963 as the Black Cat was finally going out of business (see Aug 28), Saria helped to found the Society for Individual Rights, which provided both social outlets and a venue for political organizing.
In 1964, the Tavern Guild crowned Sarria the Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball, which prompted Sarria to state that he was already a queen, so he proclaimed himself, “Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton.” That “Widow Norton” part recalled a 19th century San Francisco eccentric who had declared himself Joshua Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. San Francisco’s newspapers amused themselves by treating Norton with all the deference due an emperor — or at least as San Francisco’s most colorful character. Sarria decided to take that page from history and found the Imperial Court System, both as a outlet for gays to make fun of themselves, and as a network of non-profit charitable organizations.
Sarria’s colorful form of activism preceded the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence by some fifteen years. In 1995, Sarria and members of his court appeared in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, as judges for the film’s opening “Drag Queen of the Year Contest” scene. In 2005, he was honored with the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee’s Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal Award, and the city of San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street in the Castro to José Sarria Court. In 2007, he finally abdicated the throne of the Imperial Court, turning it over to the Empress Nicole the Great, Queen Mother of the Americas (a.k.a Nicole Murray-Ramirez, a San Diego-based transgender/gay activist). Sarria donated most of his papers and memorabilia, along with some of his costumes, to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. He currently lives a presumably more quiet life in New Mexico.
Brandon Teena: 1972. Today would be a big milestone for Brandon: he’d be turning forty, if it weren’t for the fact that on December 31, 1993, Marvin Thomas Nissen and John L. Lotter, angry over Brandon’s transgender identity and the fact that he reported them to the sheriff for raping him a week earlier, tracked him down and murdered him.
Much of Brandon’s life was difficult. He began identifying as a male in high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, an identity which his mother rejected. His school was no help either. He was constantly in trouble with his Catholic high school for violating the school’s dress code by dressing as a male. He was expelled three days before graduation. He tried to volunteer for the Army, but he was rejected for identifying as a male. After high school, the pressures mounted. He entered a mental health facility for three days on suicide watch, diagnosed with having a severe “sexual identity crisis,” whatever that was supposed to mean.
Om 1993, he tried to start over anew by moving to Fall City, Nebraska, where he was known only as a man. He began dating Lana Tisdel, but also began associating with Nissen and Lotter, both of whom were ex-cons. In December, he was arrested for forging checks and placed in the female section of the jail. Lana learned that he was transgender when she came to bail him out.
Brandon’s arrest was in the local papers, under his birth name, and that led to that fateful Christmas Eve Party at Nissen’s home, where Nissen and Lotter grabbed him and forced him to drop his pants to prove to Lana that Brandon was a “girl.” They then force Brandon into a car, drove him to a meat-packing plan, and assaulted and raped him. After they returned to Nissen’s home, Brandon escaped through a bathroom window and went to Tisdel’s house. He called the police and went to the emergency room. The sheriff interviewed him about the rape, but seemed more interested in Brandon’s gender than the crime. The sheriff later questioned Nissen and Lotter but declined to arrest them due to lack of evidence when Brandon’s rape kit was lost.
Early in the morning of December 31, Nissen and Lotter went to the home of Lisa Lambert, Brandon’s roommate, and demanded to know where Brandon was. Lambert refused to tell them, but they found Brandon under a blanket on the floor. Nissen and Lotter rounded up all the adults in the house — Brandon, Lisa and Philip DeVine — and shot them in front of Lisa’s 8 month old son. When they saw Brandon twitching, Nissen stabbed him to finish him off.
Nissen and Lotter were arrested later that afternoon. The trial proved to be just about as convoluted as the events leading up to Brandon’s death. Nissen accused Lotter of committing the murders, and in exchange for testifying against Lotter, Nissen was sentenced to life imprisonment — even though Nissen delivered Brandon’s coup ‘de grâce, as it were. Lotter received the death penalty. Nissen later recanted his testimony against Lotter, and Lotter tried to use that to appeal his sentence. But the Nebraska Supreme Court rejected that appeal, saying that because they were both guilty of murder, the specific identities were irrelevant. Lotter remains on death row.
Brandon’s story became the subject of a 1998 documentary The Brandon Teena Story, and a 1999 award winning biopic, Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena and Chloë Sevigny as Lana Tisdel. Swank won an Academy Award for her performance. When she accepted the award, Swank referred to Brandon Teena using his preferred name and male pronouns, which solicited an angry response from his mother. “That set me off,” said JoAnn Brandon. “She should not stand up there and thank my child. I get tired of people taking credit for what they don’t know.” In a final indignity, Brandon was buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery under his birth name and this epitaph: “Daughter, Sister, & Friend.”
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