by Ruby Comer
Congratulations! Hooray for you! You did it! We shout these words passionately at the riders of the AIDS/LifeCycle 9 closing ceremonies in L.A.’s Veterans Memorial Park. They’ve traveled on bikes for seven days from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Some are teary-eyed, some are dressed in drag, and some are singing as we cheer them on at the finishing line. There are riders in all shapes, sizes, and ages. This year the eldest was an eighty-one-year-young woman. The energy and atmosphere is charged. What really hits home for me is the riderless bike, which symbolizes the countless people who’ve died from this monster disease. We’re both happy we’re here.
By “we” I’m referring to my “sister” (he likes to be called that), Terry Ray. We’re both from the same hometown but we didn’t meet until we were both living in Los Angeles! Invariably cast as the “second banana,” Terry has been in show biz since he was six. He’s performed with such talents as Elaine Stritch, Matthew Perry, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Hilary Duff. A former acting student of the late, great Charles Nelson Reilly (there’s even a slight resemblance!), Terry is also a writer and a producer. One of his short films, Gaydar, was such a hit that he teamed with his brother Bret to create the Gaydar Gun, a toy for adults.
Stationed at “Gear Retrieval,” a huge parking lot where other volunteers have keenly set up the riders’ luggage and backpacks in alphabetical order, Terry and I chat while guiding riders to their gear.
Ruby Comer: God, there must be over a hundred volunteers here! I heard someone say there were about 2,500 riders and 500 roadies [on-site volunteers who assist the Riders during their journey].
Terry Ray: Oh, and I heard that they raised $10 million this year. YES! [Terry does a little sidestep shuffle through the rows of luggage.]
All right! Though you and I hang together pretty often, we’ve never really spoken about this epidemic. What comes to your mind when I say, “AIDS”?
War. An enemy that plays dirty and has no mercy. I remember when Doris Day appeared with Rock Hudson as he announced that he had AIDS. As a teenager I had interviewed Rock Hudson and I was devastated by how that handsome, smart, sexy man had wasted away. And I remember being extremely impressed with Doris Day, who stood by her friend.
“Que sera sera….” [I sing.] Doris Day was the sweetheart of America—still is and always will be. What impact has the epidemic had on you?
It has impacted my entire adult life, permanently fusing together the words “sex” and “danger.” Apart from my world, I’m impacted by the people who travel to places like Africa to volunteer in the battle against AIDS. The suffering there is haunting and those who go there to help are my heroes.
Have you lost anyone close to you from this disease?
A family friend who lived in San Francisco died before AIDS had a name and I lost a friend as recently as two years ago. My oldest first cousin, George—I called him Georgie—and I had a special bond because we were both gay and the only gays in our family. He was twelve years older than me so we didn’t talk about it when we were growing up but we both knew we were gay. Georgie tested positive for HIV as soon as they had a test, but he didn’t get sick for years. In the end he suffered a terrible death just three months before the cocktails came out. I always thought that if he had survived just a few more months he would be alive today. I did the William Hoffman AIDS play As Is shortly after Georgie died and I thought about him every night onstage and I cried.
Besides being here today, I know you’ve participated in, let’s see, AIDS Walks, AIDS awareness events, and attended many fundraisers. Did I leave anything out?
You know, doll, this question always embarrasses me. I’m such a blessed person and never feel like I give enough. But I have a strong connection to Project Angel Food, donating when I can. I so believe in what they do. I remember visiting a coworker who was very sick with AIDS and a Project Angel Food volunteer delivered a meal to him. Without those meals he would have had nothing to eat.
Oh, those kids at PAF provide such an invaluable service! Why do you care, Terry?
I care because I believe that, if enough people care, a cure can and will be found. Just think of the progress we’ve made in the last twenty-five years. I mentioned that I lost a friend as recently as two years ago. He died because he did not seek treatment. It was such a senseless waste, but that was his choice. There are so many people who don’t have a choice because they can’t afford treatment. To me, that’s a sin. As human beings, we must care.
You and I go back a bit; now I’m not calling us long in the tooth, but we were both young-er when the epidemic struck. How did that affect you back then?
I had just graduated from college and noticed my peers were getting sick. It was terrifying. No one was sure how you got it. I’d get up the nerve to kiss someone and then worry all night that I might have AIDS. I could never celebrate the joy of intimacy without the fear of AIDS.
That was rough, my dear. How do you deal with having sex today?
I do the same thing I’ve always done. I assume everyone I meet is HIV-positive and so I’m always safe.
Since I’m almost a married lady, tell me what it’s like in the dating pool these days?
There’s a pool?! Someone please tell me where I can get my feet wet!
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]
Ray Photo by Dwight Turner; Ride Photo by Susan Goldman