Activist Peter Rodriguez Is as Indefatigable as the Bird That Rises from the Ashes
by Hank Trout
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
We’ve all heard the old adage, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.”
If you’re living in Phoenix, Arizona, these days and you want something done in the LGBTQ community, particularly in the HIV/AIDS community, you might start with, say, the Vice Chairman of the Joshua Tree Feeding Program, a food bank and nutritional program for community members living with HIV/AIDS. Or you could approach the Event Manager for Aunt Rita’s Foundation, the center for HIV/AIDS awareness, education and support in the Phoenix area, dedicated to the elimination of HIV and AIDS. You might also turn to the Founder and Co-Chair for the Phoenix AIDS Candlelight Vigil (PACV) Steering Committee, which held its third annual vigil and march on December 1, 2016, World AIDS Day.
And best of all? You can reach all three with one phone call to one man, Peter Rodriguez, who just might be the busiest LGBTQ activist and advocate in the entire Southwest. But then, he has a busy history as an activist stretching back more than thirty years.
Born in 1964 in Brooklyn, New York, Peter became a homeless runaway at age sixteen in 1980. He was taken in by an older man named Jeff Cates, who “became like a father to me.” Peter was diagnosed with “GRID,” as it was called, in 1982, and then with AIDS in 1986, spending extended periods in hospital. “It was gruesome. I lost thirty pounds in a week and a half. The doctors told me I had maybe six months to live.
“Every time I went into the hospital, I went in thinking, this is it. When Jeff and I starting taking care of friends who were dying of AIDS complications, I always wondered if that was the way I would die.”
Determined that he was not going to go the way of so many friends, Peter turned to activism and community involvement for sustenance. In 1986, with a friend named Hector who also had AIDS, Peter started one of the first support groups for PLWHA in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn. From an initial group of twelve members in 1986, the group grew to over 125 and in 1989 moved from Hector’s apartment to the Sheepshead Bay Methodist Church. By that time, Peter says, “I had lost over 100 friends to AIDS and I was the only surviving member of our original group.”
Peter’s response? To throw himself even more fully into community activism. Over the next four years, he served as an HIV/AIDS educator, peer counselor and support group facilitator for the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force; as an educator and outreach director for the Hispanic AIDS Forum; as a peer counselor and safer-sex educator for the Men of Color Task Force. In 1990, he founded and became President of Gays and Lesbians of Brooklyn and Everywhere (GLOBE); he became a Board Member of the Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Rights where he worked on New York’s domestic partnership bill; a member of Mayor David Dinkins’ LGBT Advisory Board; and a member of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s LGBT Advisory Council; and was active in the Stonewall Democratic Club of NYC and in ACT-UP NY.
And then, in 1991, he crashed.
On November 23, 1991, Peter lost his partner Paul Defranco to AIDS; on December 13, 1991, he lost his best friend, Jeff, who had taken him in years earlier.
“After seeing so many of my friends pass away, and especially losing Paul and Jeff so close together, I just stepped down and walked away from everything that had to do with AIDS. I couldn’t do it anymore. I walked away from my work and just waited to die.”
Luckily, in 1992 he met and fell in love with Glen Malcolm, whom Peter calls “My saving grace! My savior! My blessing!” On May 15, 1994, Peter and Glen were united in the very first gay wedding acknowledged by the Episcopal Church at St. Ann Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights. Internationally acclaimed photographer Thomas McGovern immortalized the exuberance of the ceremony in one of the photographs in his book and archive, “Bearing Witness (to AIDS)” [Gallery, November 2016]. Peter and Glen were also among the first couples to register as domestic partners in New York City.
Peter’s painful but necessary withdrawal from HIV/AIDS activism continued for some fifteen years. In 2007, Peter and Glen moved from Brooklyn to Phoenix when Glen’s job transferred him there. Unfortunately, the job fell through after a while, and Peter and Glen found themselves in a city without the support system they had helped to create in NYC. Peter knew to turn to the people he knew he could count on—his community.
He turned first to the Joshua Tree Feeding Program, a store-modeled food bank that allows PLWHA to “shop” for groceries for free, the only free food bank for PLWHA in western Arizona. The program, which is funded entirely by private donations and staffed entirely by volunteers, also sponsors four community meals per year, celebrating and nourishing the HIV community of Maricopa County. Peter’s path led him from client to volunteer to Member of the Board in 2011; since 2013, he has been the Vice-Chairman for Joshua Tree.
With his long history of AIDS-related activism, it seems only natural that Peter eventually gravitated toward the Phoenix community’s commemoration of World AIDS Day. In 2014, he founded the Phoenix AIDS Candlelight Vigil and has just served his third term as its Co-Chairman. More than 200 participants took part in the Vigil this past December 1. “The Vigil is so important,” Peter told me, “in so many ways. We have to remember our history, how did we get here, and remember that AIDS is not over—people are still dying from it.” Peter sees stigma attached to being HIV-positive as the greatest hindrance to combating the disease. “Change will come only if we come out of the HIV closet! Don’t be ashamed!” He remembers that even at the first Vigil, some participants were reluctant to wear a “FIGH+ER” t-shirt for fear of being identified as HIV-positive. “We have to be authentic. We don’t have time to hide!”
In conjunction with the Vigil, and under his duties as Event Manager at Aunt Rita’s Foundation, Peter was involved in planning several activities as part of a two-week commemoration of World AIDS Day. The Foundation arranged for a display of fifteen panels from the NAMES Project, AIDS Memorial Quilt, from November 29 thru December 8. The panels on display represent members of the Phoenix community lost to the epidemic; community members who requested specific friends’ panels were asked to read the names of their loved ones at the beginning of the vigil. Peter and the folks at Aunt Rita’s also arranged for fourteen “Embers of Light Discussions,” panels hosted and moderated by various ASOs in the area, on topics including aging with HIV, substance abuse, mental health, and nutrition. Simultaneously, the Foundation hosted artwork displays, called “AIDS through the Eyes of Art,” and poetry readings.
Aunt Rita’s Foundation has long served the LGBT community in the Phoenix area. The non-profit was founded near the beginning of the epidemic by three friends (Randy Schrock, Gary Mangum and Skip O’Neill) who “set [out] on a humble quest to raise money in annual bake sales to provide relief for those living with, and dying from, AIDS,” according to the Foundation’s website. The three “saw in the mid-eighties a lack of resources and recognized something needed to be done, as they watched close friends die from the disease with nowhere to turn.” Since 2005, Aunt Rita’s has donated more than $1.5 million to sixteen local HIV/AIDS Service Agencies. The World AIDS Day Commemoration is just one of the Foundation’s many activities, one of its most successful.
A genuine highlight of this year’s commemoration was a performance at the Foundation of the AIDS Quilt Songbook, a benefit for Joshua Tree Feeding Program. The performances featured songs by and about people facing HIV, on a broad range of related struggles, triumphs, stigmas, medical treatments, survival, grief and transcendence, throughout the thirty-five-year history of AIDS. One of the evening’s songs, “My Mask,” was one of Peter’s poems set to music by Drew Nichols, performed by Mario Vazquez Morillas. Peter described the experience as “overwhelming to hear my poem, set to music, and sung in an operatic style, by such amazing performers.” He continued, “It is my understanding that another of my poems is also being turned into a song. It was not ready for this year but will be performed next year.”
The World AIDS Day commemoration culminated with the Aunt Rita’s Foundation Red Brunch, under the guidance of—you guessed it—indefatigable Peter Rodriquez. The Red Brunch is an annual event at which Aunt Rita’s Foundation awards grant monies to the sixteen HIV/AIDS service organizations they fund. Approximately 800 people attended this year’s RED Brunch where the Foundation distributed approximately $7,000 to each of the agencies.
As for the future, don’t expect busy Mr. Rodriguez to slow down any time soon. He wants, he says, to work with various parties in the Phoenix area to improve services specifically for long-term HIV survivors. He wants those services to include education in a “self-care first” approach and confronting stigma. Can he get it done?
“I’m way too stubborn to go away!” Peter laughed.
His record would suggest he’s right.
For information on the Joshua Tree Feeding Program, log on to: www.jtfp.org. For information on Aunt Rita’s Foundation, visit: www.auntritas.org.
Hank Trout writes the bimonthly For the Long Run column for A&U.