The Bravest Girl I Know

One person's courage in the ninth grade taught me more about fighting AIDS than school did

by John Francis Leonard

Photo by Alina Oswald

I’ve had the joy of knowing some incredible people in my life. One of the gutsiest, most unique women I’ve known was at a very tender age. We were freshmen in a small high school in a small Ohio town together in 1984. As a young man, I was pretty much terrified of everything. Harassed at school for being different and with an abysmal home life due to an abusive stepfather, I do not recall my teenage years fondly.

One saving grace was my friend Tiffany and her circle of friends.

They were the popular girls; not just popular, they were unique and they saw something unique in me. We listened to the trendiest music, wore the trendiest clothes, and were way ahead of the times in what was essentially a small farming community. Even in this crowd, Tiffany stood out. She was the ultimate preppy with a penchant for the cutting edge of pop music. She was fearless. A high achiever, there was one thing that everyone understood about her; whatever she would go on to do in her life, she would be a huge success. All the popular girls loved me, but they weren’t afraid to love me because of her. Their football-playing boyfriends couldn’t, or were just too cool to, dance at the school dances and house parties that our social lives revolved around, but I could and I did. My favorite partner was Tiffany. She didn’t often have a boyfriend. Something about her was too good for these small town boys. They thought small and Tiffany only thought big. We would spend hours in her bedroom poring over the latest issues of Interview and Vanity Fair magazines, planning our future lives in Manhattan. We would share a loft in SoHo and spent much time planning how we would decorate it. We talked about the clubs where we would dance, the theater we would see, and the top restaurants where we would dine.

But Tiffany wasn’t all style. She was a brilliant student who was politically very aware. She was a die-hard Democrat and a constant critic of Reagan in a state, and town, that was very conservative. She stood up for what was right and came to my defense constantly when I was being marginalized and tormented by the bullies of our school. Because of her, I had the sworn, if reluctant, protection of every jock in our high school. This made navigating what was a battlefield for me so much easier during my freshman year and the first semester of my sophomore year (my family, at that time relocated out-of-state).

It was a Social Studies class report, however, that would really show this girl’s true mettle. It was to be on a current event and Tiffany took on the extra credit from presenting her project orally. Painfully shy myself, I thought this alone was remarkably brave. But it would be her choice of topic that would really show what Tiffany was made of and what she stood for.

I had heard the disturbing reports in the media myself although they were hardly considered worthy of being front-page news at the time. There was a mysterious disease killing the gay men of cities like New York and San Francisco. These stories gave me chills. It was even less noted in our small community because it was “their problem, not ours,” and the consensus was that the victims of this disease fully deserved what they got. Both the disease and the public’s disdainful response troubled me greatly, but it infuriated young Tiffany. This was 1984, before the death of Rock Hudson and long before anyone on the national stage but the remarkable Elizabeth Taylor was calling attention to the issue.

Well, Elizabeth and Tiffany that is.

She decided, with both barrels loaded, to make this tragic disease the subject of her oral report, a gutsy move for a small-town girl in Ohio that year. Luckily, we had a very liberal and open-minded Social Studies teacher who somehow agreed, at much risk to his job, to let Tiffany proceed. AIDS had a name now, and she was determined to explain its horrors to a completely clueless bunch of ninth graders. Looking back, I marvel at the courage and the sheer guts this took. In the environment we lived in, at this time, this disease was simply not discussed. As I said, when it was it was more with derision for its victims than any shred of compassion. I’d heard as much at home myself, “That a bunch of queers and drug addicts well deserved what they got!” was my father’s two cents.

Tiffany wasn’t one to go into something poorly prepared. At a time when real information about the plague was still scarce, she dissimilated the most current and factual information. She didn’t at any time blame this problem on its victims but spoke to the fact that it was in the realm of possibility that the disease could spread and affect many more.

I think the other thing that amazes me looking back now, is the fact that there wasn’t more fallout from Tiffany’s report. If any outraged parents called the school to protest, we didn’t hear of it. Tiffany had something in that small community. Some would call it popularity, but Tiffany saw what she had as more of a platform, a platform she saw as both a privilege and a responsibility. I’ve often wondered over the years as to what great things she went on to do. Whatever she did, I’m certain that she continued to stand up for what is right and never once took the easier path in any matter of importance.

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.