For younger Millenials out there, and older people as well, AIDS isn’t nearly the scary monster disease that it was for those of us who grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s. Back then, and for good reason, people were terrified of the disease to the point that people with the condition, despite the fact that it takes a lot of bodily fluid to be transferred from one person to the next, were shunned or isolated because people feared that they’d catch the disease from them. While the work people have done to reduce both the impact of the disease and the stigma surrounding it has been great, it’s also lowered people’s guards to the point that the disease has actually been on the rebound in recent years. So, with that in mind, let’s talk about some of the notable people who died from the disease in the hopes that people remember that while medication has greatly improved, the lifespan of those with either HIV or AIDS, it’s still a deadly disease. So, wrap it up people!
15. Emerson John Moore
Emerson John Moore was an ordained priest from Harlem that was the first African American elevated to rank of monsignor in the Catholic Church by the Pope and the first Black Catholic bishop in the State of New York (and sixth in the United States). Despite those accolades and a life of god, Emerson struggled with substance abuse for a lot of his life and while it’s not clear how he contracted the disease (he was diagnosed in the late 80’s) he clearly wasn’t following “God’s path” to a T. He entered treatment in Minnesota in 1994 at the age of 56 and by the next year he would die of AIDS. While the Catholic Church wasn’t exactly forthcoming with his cause of death (surprising, I know) it was his death that really helped turn the tide of stigma about the disease as a “gay-cancer” or gay only disease. Around that same time, Eazy-E died because which happened a couple years after the death of Tennis-Great Arthur Ashe and the diagnosis of Magic Johnson; it’s not coincidental that private donations for HIV/AIDS-related causes increased during the mid-to-late 90’s.
14. Denholm Elliot
You may not recognize his name but you will definitely recognize his face and body of work, as he was a very prominent actor in his day. Some of the movies he starred in are Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Trading Places and a Room With a View (a role for which he was nominated for an Academy Award). During his time he was considered a “scene stealer” thanks to his amazing acting abilities and considering he was always cast in supporting roles he was even called “a star among supporting players” by the New York Times. Elliot was married twice, but his second marriage which was to American actress Susan Robinson, was an open marriage because Elliot was (privately) bisexual. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, a little over a year after he was nominated for the Academy Award. While HIV/AIDS is responsible for your death, it’s not what technically kills you (as pretty much every other story on this list has proven) as it effectively ruins your immune system to the point that you can die from any number of maladies that you’d otherwise overcome. Elliot ended up dying from AIDS-related tuberculosis at his home in Ibiza, Spain in October of 1992 at the age of 70 and about five-years after his diagnosis.
13. Roy Cohn
Roy Cohn’s become a lot more famous over the course of the past two years, despite having passed away in 1986 (take that, Edgar Allen Poe!). That’s because of the ascension of Donald Trump from well known building namer/TV Personality to President of the United States (Which proves the theory that there are an infinite amount of parallel universes in which every single potential possibility occurs). Cohn was a mentor of sorts to Trump, which is ironic considering the anti-LGBTQ reputation Trump has and the fact that Cohn was an unabashed homosexual during a time where anti-gay rhetoric was at an all-time high after the discovery of AIDS (which previously was simply known as the “Gay Cancer”). Cohn was pretty much always surrounding himself with people that a lot of people dislike, as he rose to prominence after serving as chief counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy (Yes, that Joseph McCarthy, of “McCarthy-ism”) during the second “Red-Scare”. He specifically gained prominence during the McCarthy-Army hearings, which were a series of hearings held by the Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations between April 1954 and June 1955. They specifically investigated whether or not Cohn pressured the Army to give preferential treatment to G. David Schine, who was a former aide of McCarthy’s and a friend of Cohn’s as well. So, while you can essentially blame Cohn for the rise of Trump (as literally every aspect of Trump’s personality is patterned after Cohn’s) you can also thank him for ending McCarthy-ism as the McCarthy-Army hearings essentially ended McCarthy’s witch hunt(s). I don’t think there’s been many people that have been as influential as Cohn, considering, so maybe he should’ve been higher on this list!
12. Stewart McKinney
Stewart McKinney was a Republican congressman that represented the Fourth congressional district of Connecticut in the House of Representatives from 1971 until he died of AIDS in 1987. While he may not be very well known, one of the phrases he coined, “too big to fail” ended up becoming one of the more important phrases in the history of the United States in 2008 when many banks that were considered “too big to fail” and started doing exactly that (we’re looking at you, AIG). McKinney served on the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs committee when he coined that phrase and he was most well known for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1986 which provided federal money for shelter programs as the United States saw the largest increase of homelessness since the Great Depression thanks to gigantic cuts by then President Ronald Reagan (Not getting political, just stating the facts!). While McKinney was known by his friends to be bisexual, they adamantly deny that that’s how he contracted the disease, instead blaming it on a blood transfusion he had during open heart surgery at the end of the 70’s. Either way, after his death, Congress renamed the Salt Meadow National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge which was a nice gesture for what seemed to be a compassionate man.
11. Robert Reed
Sadly, Robert Reed had to keep his sexuality a secret to protect his career and while it worked, as he was cast as the father of the Brady Bunch clan, he was never really allowed to show his true self in any of his roles. He did such a great job protecting his “secret” that many people to this day don’t know that he was a homosexual or that he died of AIDS. That’s because he actually died from colon cancer which was complicated by his AIDS diagnosis. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in November of 1991 and after that he only allowed his daughter and his two closest friends, Anne Haney and Josh Miller, to visit him (Anne Haney was an actress). Haney said of his friend “He came from the old school, where people had a sense of decorum. He went the way he wanted to, without publicity.” Part of the confusion surrounding his death is that it was announced that he died solely of colon cancer, that was until his death certificate was leaked to the public (so much for that decorum) which stated not only that he was HIV positive but that it created “significant conditions that contributed to death”. So, while he didn’t technically die of AIDS he makes this list especially because HIV’s side effects can still cause death even before your T-Cell count drops below the level needed for your HIV to be considered AIDS.
10. Gia Carangi
Gia Carangi was immortalized in the Angelina Jolie film Gia (which is not the only HBO Film’s production on this list) in 1998. She was an American fashion model during the late 70’s and early 80’s and outside of what Janice Dickinson will tell you, it was Carangi that was actually considered to be the first supermodel ever. She was featured on countless magazine covers and advertising campaigns for some of the top fashion houses of all-time like Armani, Versace and Christian Dior. Despite her status as a legend, the end of her life was a pretty sad state of affairs after she got involved in drugs and ended up leaving the modeling industry for menial jobs (her final being in the cafeteria at an old folk’s home). It was the heavy drug use that caused her to contract AIDS, and unlike a lot of people on this list she was still very, very young when she was both diagnosed and killed by the disease. She was only 26 years old and while scores of young people were dying from the disease it was the fact that she was also a woman that made her story unique. One of the first famous females to die of the disease, her story helped show people that AIDS wasn’t just a gay man’s disease and if there’s ever a silver lining to anyone dying, it’s that.
9. Isaac Asimov
That’s right, Isaac Asimov, the guy who is responsible for the ‘Super Quiz’ in many of the Nation’s newspapers was famous and sadly, died from AIDS (No, that won’t be on the quiz). Asimov was a famous writer, mostly known for his science fiction work. He wrote and edited over 500 books (and 9,000 letters or postcards). Despite the fact that he was really well known for science fiction (see above) he actually was an entirely prolific writer (not just in quantity) as his books have been published in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification. Despite that though, his bread and butter was science fiction, a genre in which he was considered one of the “big three” during his lifetime (alongside Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein). He was also the vice-president of Mensa, even if he thought that a lot of members were “aggressive about their IQs.” By all accounts on this list, the mid-to-late 70’s were a bad time to have a heart attack. Many members of this list died because they had a blood transfusion during bypass surgery and Asimov was a unfortunately one of them. His doctors let me know that the anti-AIDS stigma would most likely extend to members of his family and because of that he had his family lie about his condition both before and after his death, and his real cause of death wasn’t announced until over a decade after, showing you just how strong that stigma really was.
8. John Holmes
Outside of perhaps Ron Jeremy, there is no bigger (pun?) Male “Adult” film-star than John Holmes. If there is such a thing as the “Golden Age” of Adult-Movies, it was during Holmes’ era. He starred in almost 3,000 films and has even had two Hollywood films made about him (Wonderland and Boogie Nights). Despite the fact that he had the job that many men consider to be a dream come true, Holmes’ life was an utter-nightmare. Not only did he die of one of the most excruciating diseases at it’s apex, but he was also heavily addicted to drugs and had a role in the death of four people in what was called the ‘Wonderland Murders’ after four people were shot and killed at the Wonderland House, which was essentially a drughouse that was robbed with Holmes’ assistance after he became indebted to the wrong people. He was arrested and questioned multiple times about the deaths, and eventually was tried for all four deaths. The ironic thing about it was that his trial is remembered as the first to utilize video-tape as evidence. After being found not-guilty, he quickly returned to his career but found that because of the advent of videotape he was no longer being paid as much as he was when he was making “feature films”. He ended up filming the last two movies of his career while HIV positive but not telling his multiple co-stars of his condition (and not wearing a condom), which makes him an objectively terrible person and the anti-thesis of many on this list. He died at the age of 43 in 1988 and considering he was most likely responsible for the deaths of multiple people, it was probably about time.
7. Anthony Perkins
Anthony Perkins starred in one of the most famous (at it’s time) and controversial films of all time in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The film was so successful and his performance so compelling that he was essentially type-cast for the rest of his career. That film overshadowed everything else that he did which actually included an Academy Award nomination for only his second role (in film) in a movie called Friendly Persuasion. Perkins was actually a descendent of one of the Pilgrim’s that came over on the Mayflower, and while he did star in nearly 60 films, he ended up having a pretty sad life (or at least a sad ending for him and his wife). While he was in what has been described as “exclusively same-sex relationships” up until his 30’s (including with another member of this list, Rock Hudson), he was married when he died in 1992 (whilst filming Psycho IV). While that’s sad on it’s own, it reaches down right depressing territory when you learn that his wife ended up dying in the September, 11th 2001 attacks. Yikes. Kinda makes you understand the famous line from Psycho, “We all go a little mad sometimes.”
6. Arthur Ashe
The only athlete (depending on what you classify John Holmes as) on this list, Arthur Ashe was a world-class tennis player who dominated the hardtop back in the late 60’s and early-to-mid 70’s. The first black tennis player to accomplish a number of feats, he won three Grand Slam titles and was selected to the Davis Cup team. He also was the number one ranked tennis player in the world in 1968 (according to some) and also peaked as the number two player in the world according to ATP computer rankings (which are what is used for rankings to this day). Like a surprising number of people on this list, Ashe is thought to have contracted AIDS from a blood-transfusion that he received during open heart surgery in 1980. Because of that he died at the age of 49, right when he would’ve been in his prime (for the seniors tour). While he died in 1993, well after the initial panic over AIDS over a decade earlier, his death was still essentially one of the big-three straight HIV/AIDS stories from the early to mid-90’s that helped show people that AIDS wasn’t just the disease of the gay and drug addicted. Along with the diagnosis of Magic Johnson and the death of Eazy-E, Ashe’s death was an important turning point, especially in the African American communities that were rocked by the disease and have been historically fervently homophobic. What was also astounding was that while he was thought to have contracted the disease in the early 80’s, he didn’t die until 1993; while many who contracted the disease around the same time, from similar methods, died much, much earlier. So, his death from the disease helped show just how much diversity exists within the disease as well, which was a huge part of lowering stigma.
5. Perry Ellis
Perry Ellis is the oft-rapped about American Fashion Designer who was very, very well known for his sportswear that was thought to have created a “huge turning point” in the industry thanks to the new patterns and “proportions” he introduced that ran up against more traditional men’s clothing that dominated the industry before he rose to prominence. Like many on this list, Ellis contracted the disease before there was any real form of treatment available and because of that his death was a pretty quick, and awful affair. Rumors began to circulate that he had the disease after his Fall fashion show in 1985, where he had lost a considerable amount of weight and had appeared to had have aged about a decade in the past year. The fashion industry, unlike others on this list (especially the entertainment industry) was one where different sexual orientations weren’t blackballed and because of that Ellis was an open homosexual who lived with his partner Laughlin Barker. During the Fall fashion show, Barker was also undergoing chemotherapy for Kaposi’s sarcoma, which is an AIDS-related cancer (mostly of the skin) that had spread to his lungs at that point. Like many others on this list as well, Ellis denied that he was sick at this point in time, but his health continued to decline and ended up rapidly doing so after Barker died of lung cancer. While he did initially deny that he was sick, he did insist on attending his fashion shows even while his disease progressed despite even losing the feeling/motion on one side of his face thanks to encephalitis. When he died, his death was actually blamed on encephalitis solely and that’s why a lot of famous people ended up blaming their sicknesses on other diseases as it’s not the AIDS that kills, it’s AIDS that lowers your immune system while another condition actually kills you. So, while Ellis never publicly admitted he had the disease, his death was still hugely influential just like his work was. He had only worked in the fashion industry for a little under ten years at the time of his death. Despite that, his fashion-house is still going strong to this day and that’s a testament to what a visionary he was.
4. Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson was known as a heartthrob during the Golden Age of Hollywood Cinema and won many awards for his work including “Star of the Year” (which in the Golden Age of Movies, was saying something) and he was also nominated for an Oscar for his work in Giant. He appeared in nearly 70 films and several TV shows over the course of his four-decade long career. While Hudson definitely was a household name, especially in the 80’s when he died, he also ranks high on this list because he was the first celebrity to die of AIDS during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s. Considering the era he worked in, he obviously attempted to keep his sexual orientation a secret and had to sink to pretty crummy levels to do so (not that it was his fault!). In order to keep certain tabloids from publishing stories about his lifestyle, he would often give them dirt on his co-stars or friends as a trade-off, which sounds awful but was more blackmail than anything else and showed just how awful it must’ve been to be a homosexual (not that it’s a walk in the park now). Hudson also was married for three years, to a woman who was widely believed to be a lesbian (to shield both from negativity in their professional lives). He was diagnosed with HIV on June 5th of 1984, just three years after scientists “discovered” it. Unlike many on this list, he didn’t take his diagnosis as a death sentence and attempted to find a cure while still working. He did, like many others though, attempt to hide his condition and after people became concerned because of his gaunt appearance and incoherent speech at a press conference, he and his publicist blamed everything on “liver cancer”. After traveling to Paris for treatment (and collapsing in his hotel room), his French publicist did confirm that he had AIDS, however, but denied that he was a homosexual and blamed the infection on a tainted blood transfusion. While flying back to the United States, he ended up becoming too weak to leave the plane himself and after another round of treatment at the hospital in July ended up going home to receive hospice care. He died in November of that year and his death was a major turning point in regard to how the public viewed the disease as, again, he was the first person “of note” that died from the disease. While no life is worth more than the next, his death did increase the amount of funding to AIDs-related causes and eventually helped lower stigma towards the disease (especially after a panic was created in Hollywood regarding “open-mouthed kissing scenes” after Hudson had filmed a kissing scene on the television show Dynasty).
As this list has shown, countless men had to hide their true selves from the world if they were indeed homosexual. While that’s awful and really just something that we’re now getting away from, one has to admire the guts that Liberace had. Sure, he also denied that he was gay for his entire life, as to not “let down” his (mostly female) fans, but he also didn’t hide any other aspects of his life and was probably the most flamboyant person… Ever. Not flamboyant in the stereotypical sense but just in terms of the outfits and jewelry, the dude knew how to ball out! I suppose that when you’re forced to live in the closet by an intolerant society, it’s better to have nice things in there! Liberace acquired those nice things by being a world-class piano player, but by also successfully suing the tabloids who reported that he was gay or dating certain men. Thanks to the book Behind the Candelabra which was recently made into a TV Movie by HBO, we got to see a very intimate look into his final days thanks to his former lover. We also got to see how he struggled with the world learning his secret and the almost self-hate level of guilt he felt for contracting AIDS as a gay-man. At one point he cries and says that he doesn’t want to be remembered as some “old queen who died of AIDS”. And really, while that’s part of his story. it’s most definitely not what most people remember Liberace for (just ask the plethora of rappers who compare themselves to him).
2. Eazy E
While terrible and untimely, the death of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, along with the diagnosis of fellow Los Angeles area celebrity, Magic Johnson (and a few others on this list), helped really transition AIDS as a “gay/drug-user only” disease into a disease that can affect basically everyone in the early 90’s. It’s because of that, that it was so important (and also, sadly, still denied by some of his family members or conspiracy theorists who don’t really understand how the disease works). The Godfather of Gangsta Rap, Wright was known as a ladies man who had seven children by six different women and was at the forefront of the explosion of hip-hop into the mainstream thanks to his role as the owner of Ruthless Records and “head” MC in the rap super-group N.W.A. Things were difficult towards the end of his life because both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre had left the group and his record label was losing a ton of money. While he was responsible for discovering another rap super group in Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, their classic debut album was released after his death from AIDS n 1995. Like the number one person on this list, Freddie Mercury, the gap between Wright’s announcement to the public that he did in fact have AIDS and his death was very short, which is also part of the reason that there have been so many theories surrounding his death. But the reality is that he waited for a very, very long time before admitting himself to the hospital as he was under the impression that he just either had a chest cold or asthma. So, after he collapsed in the studio and was brought to the hospital for testing, he was already in the advanced stages of the disease. He was admitted to the hospital on February 24th and never left, dying on March 26th. While short it was a short time, that did allow him time to make amends with both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre (and Snoop Dogg, who was dragged into the feud as Dre’s new artists on his new label, Death Row Records) and also pen a letter to fans about the disease which, again, was invaluable to the AIDS community as a teachable moment to those who thought that the disease was something that only gay men and drug addicts dealt with.
1. Freddie Mercury
While Freddie Mercury’s HIV status was the story of countless rumors, especially in the tabloids (especially in his home country of Great Britain), he did attempt to keep his illness quiet and private pretty much until the end of his death. Which you’d think would be his right, but when you mix the fact that he was famous with the stigma around the disease at the time, you’ve got a lot of prying beforehand and a lot of judgement afterwards. People thought that he should’ve done “more” to fight the stigma by speaking out earlier about his fight, which, while he did have that power (as the lead singer of one of the biggest rock bands of all-time), it is no one’s right to judge as end of life decisions are extremely difficult and everyone handles things differently. Regardless, Mercury finally did release a statement to the press about his health (as he was too sick to leave his bed and at that point had lost his eyesight), which confirmed the rumors about his illness and he ended up dying less that 24 hours later; this was a double shock to his fans. Despite criticism from those who said he should’ve done more to get the word out about the disease, he was the first rock star to die from the disease and is his death is thought to be an important milestone in the diseases history. For example, the remaining members of his band, Queen, put together a tribute concert at London’s Wembley Stadium that had some of the most famous musicians in the world also in attendance. It is estimated that over 1 billion people watched that concert, which also raised countless millions for AIDS research and brought AIDS to the forefront of popular culture like it never had before.