Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer
Hello mates. I…love…cruising! The seafaring kind, not the flirtation kind, though that can be stimulating as well. I’m presently in the South Pacific aboard Holland-America’s Volendam sailing from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia. Today we are at sea and I’m sitting on deck reading Sachi Parker’s juicy “Mommie Dearest” tome, Lucky Me, about her mother Shirley MacLaine. Oo-la-la!
Being aboard this mid-size ship for over a week now, I must say that, compared to the many other cruises I’ve taken, it’s a knot or two above others in the way of personal touches. The Old World charm of this cruiser trumps the dispassionate elaborate monstrosities they are building today. The Volendam has laundromats (yes!), the elevator carpet is changed daily and it’s imprinted with the day of the week (if you’ve cruised you know how easy it is to forget), and, after every evening meal, the head chef greets each table, inquiring if they are enjoying the food. They also have the group “Friends of Dorothy,” which is a daily mixer for LGBTs. Holland-America is involved with several charities, and, a couple of days ago, even held a breast cancer 5K walk around the deck. They are globally known for their community giving, focusing on organizations that support the environment, health, the arts, or maritime causes. Just recently, the Volendam donated 200 blankets to the Auckland City Mission.
This morning at breakfast in the Lido, I met another humanitarian, Paul Gauthier, from Toronto. This gentleman retired after a nearly forty-year stint as an In-Charge Flight Attendant, the last seven years flying with Air Canada. Early on, Paul stepped up to the “bow” to help others in the AIDS epidemic, having lost over twenty friends and many more acquaintances, including a partner to the disease. Recently he’s had his own serious health issues, but with his lively, uplifting personality, one would never know.
While my beau, Rudy, plays volleyball, which was organized by the ship’s extremely competent “lifestylist,” Jeremy Hales, Paul and I lie back on the deck chairs, reading, relaxing, and relating.
Ruby Comer: Do you happen to remember how you first heard about the pandemic?
Paul Gauthier: I read about a “gay plague” while living in Toronto. I was involved in my union and Patient Zero was a flight attendant who was represented by my union.
Oh, yes, of course, Gaëtan Dugas, who allegedly brought HIV to the continent—which was total
nonsense. He was just a scapegoat.
I knew Gaëtan and he was a great, funny person, full of life and always smiling.
In the pictures I’ve seen of him he certainly had a beaming smile. You said you were involved at the beginning of AIDS.
I trained as a peer support volunteer with the AIDS Committee of Toronto in 1985. The following year, along with two other bowlers, we organized the first Bowl-a-Thon for AIDS. Being involved in my union [Canadian Airline Flight Attendants’ Association, CALFAA] and trained in HIV/AIDS, I was appointed co-chair of our union’s new AIDS Education Committee.
Three cheers for your union!
It was then suggested I make a presentation to the Ontario Federation of Labour [OFL] for the development of a policy on education and prevention of discrimination in the workplace, a motion that was carried unanimously. The OFL invited me to speak to different unions on the issue. Through this involvement, I was also asked to be a speaker at the Ontario Ministry of Health’s OPEPA [Ontario Public Education Panel on AIDS] about HIV/AIDS in the workplace. As such, I was invited to speak to different groups, from medical students to healthcare workers in the correctional system. I was always accompanied, at my request, by a professional healthcare worker—doctor or nurse—well-versed in the issue.
I am impressed, Paul.
I am also proud to say that my union was the first in North America, if not in the world, to file a grievance of discrimination because of HIV/AIDS in the workplace. While the grievor passed away during the process, the arbitrator first ruled that the grievance still “lived” because of my union’s policy, and the arbitrator ruled in our favor. In short, a captain had kicked a flight attendant off the aircraft because he had heard that the attendant had AIDS and he was afraid of being infected. The arbitrator’s view was that as a highly trained professional, the pilot, under Canada’s labor laws, had the right to remove himself from the workplace if he feared for his safety. Furthermore, with all the evidence we presented, the arbitrator ruled there was no danger for infection in the workplace.
Hear, hear. You mentioned at breakfast that you had a partner who died of AIDS. Can you elaborate?
Bill was my first big love. That was 1968 and, over the years [after we parted], we became close friends. I visited him in Australia where he had moved and as time went on, we became each other’s soul mates. He told me in the mid-nineties that he had been diagnosed HIV-positive a few years before. In October 2001, he was not feeling his best and when I returned to Cairns in March 2002, his health began deteriorating. My employer granted me a leave of absence for four weeks and Bill passed away just twenty-six hours after I left his side, when I was back in Canada.
How heart-wrenching, Paul.
Paul and I part, and I join Rudy at the Wajang Theatre for some spirited afternoon bingo. Afterwards we head to The GreenHouse Spa for some steam and Jacuzzi, and then we stretch out on the ever-cozy heated ceramic loungers that mold to your body (they’re heavenly!), as we peer out the floor-to-ceiling windows and watch the dramatic sunset over the calm waters. We then gussie up and meet up with Paul for dinner at Le Cirque. Yes, a branch of the famous, and infamous, restaurant is on board!
[We sit in the elegant dining room sipping wine, snacking on caviar, smoked salmon, and pâté de foie gras.] What’s your overall take on AIDS?
It’s a medical issue—a chronic, manageable disease. Nothing else.
And have you been tested?
I didn’t get tested until the early nineties. I guess I was scared about the possible results. I always—yes, 100 percent of the time!—believed in safer sexual activities and never participated in unprotected sexual penetration activities. The test results were negative, a status I still maintain to this day. There must have been a guardian angel watching over me. I still sometimes have guilty feelings over it, though.
[I lap up the remains of my orgasmic Butternut squash soup with huckleberries. Yum!] Paul, you told me that in 1996 you were diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Yes. I opted for radiation therapy in early 1997. In September 2003, I was told that I needed more treatments, as my PSA levels were climbing. I was accepted for a study treatment called photo-dynamic treatment (PDT), which consisted of ultra-violet fiber optic lights being inserted around the tumors, the injection of a drug activated when the lights were turned on. The results showed positive results, but a year and a half later, as my PSA levels were going up again in 2006, I was accepted as the first person to be re-treated. Unfortunately, that did not work and so in January 2007 I started hormonal therapy. This procedure is not easy to accept, as this was chemical castration, but I would rather watch flowers grow than push them up! [He giggles, his eyebrow arches, and he shoots a wide grin.] I have been on this treatment ever since, which consists of an injection every twelve weeks.
Oh, Paul, you’ve been through the mill. Are you still active in the Toronto AIDS community?
I resigned as chair of the Committee in 1995 and have not been involved at all except as a regular donor to Casey House’s home care program, an AIDS hospice.
So it seems you are enjoying your retirement. [The waiter brings our dessert, the chocolate soufflé, which is eighty-five percent chocolate. It’s a lava flow of chocolate.]
To celebrate my retirement, a friend and I went on a twenty-eight day cruise from Vancouver to Auckland. I also travel to Australia twice a
year as I consider it my second home. I’ve done three Panama Canal cruises, one around the Caribbean, and a Mediterranean cruise with a friend and former co-worker. Later this year a long-time friend and I are doing a twenty-one day cruise from England to the Baltic and the Norwegian fjords.
How awesomely wonderful!
After spending my working life at 35,000 feet, Ruby, I have now learned the pleasures of cruising—on a ship that is! [He flashes that infectious grin once again…]
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]
Read the article in the April 2013 digital issue by clicking here.