When It Came to the Epidemic, Randle Roper Tells A&U’s Dann Dulin He Felt He Was An Outsider, But He Soon Realized He Was in Common Waters
Randle Roper, one of the five founding Vacaya team members, is the first person to greet me, extending a steaming sanitized towelette, as I board the Emerald Destiny river cruise liner in Amsterdam. The two-week adventure includes gliding down the Rhine and the Danube, visiting six countries and sixteen cities that are absolutely bustling with their annual festive Christmas markets. There’s nothing on earth like a European Christmas market!
Randle’s instant charm, charisma, and class are captivating. His face glows, and his giant luminous hazel eyes look as though he stared at a solar eclipse without any shield—searing, diamond-cut, magical. His parents could have been Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise. At once, Randle is friendly and genuine, exhorting me to plunk my life stress at the dock and then shower myself in tranquility as I board this Vacaya journey.
Vacaya is a new LGBT+ concept in gay travel, bringing like-minded people together for an adventurous journey. This is their third sailing. The inaugural voyage was launched in August 2019 to Cape Cod. Their mission is to be all-inclusive. Indeed, on board the180-passenger ship, lesbians, moms, dads, grandparents, singles, marrieds, all join in the fun. Though most everybody is a stranger, it soon feels like family. The shipmates are encouraged to always sit with new people during meals or in the lounge.
This is Vacaya, and this is Randle, who’s an old hand at this, a pro. He’s been in hospitality and management most of his life, which includes working with Universal Studios (Studio Guide Supervisor), Atlantis Events (Director of Entertainment and Operations), Starwood Hotels and Resorts (Global Manager), and RSVP Vacations (President).
I also know a personal bit about Randle before I board. On the Vacaya website I read about his massive stroke at age twenty-seven—and his spirited comeback. After spending a year in rehab, Randle learned how to walk and talk again. I wondered how his positive force could help others who encountered such devastating circumstances. I was interested to learn more about his valiant courage.
His misfortune occurred in the mid-nineties. AIDS was still often considered a death sentence, though new meds were being discovered. (In 1999, WHO announced that AIDS was the fourth biggest cause of death worldwide. 14 million people had already died from AIDS and an estimated 33 million people were living with HIV.)
As we speak on deck, Randle inquires about what I do professionally, which lead to a discourse about the epidemic. “My relationship with HIV and AIDS,” he points out, “didn’t look at all like what I’d seen in Pose, And the Band Played On, Angels in America or in Longtime Companion.” He takes a significant inhale, “I’ve always felt removed from what so many in our community experienced first-hand, Dann. Was I lucky? I feel that way sometimes.”
Interrupted by arriving passengers, I would need to leave the cliffhanger…for now.
Next day we arrive in the old city of Cologne, where the Kölner Dom’s spiral towers seem to be scraping heaven, and the dynamic Hohenzollern Bridge is a wondrous site. The city has twelve Romanesque churches, medieval walls, and the Museum Ludwig houses some unsurpassed collections of modern art. Inlaid into the cobblestone streets throughout the city are gold-plated cubes with inscribed names of those who were killed in the Holocaust.
Nearly every day is a new port. Though as with any cruise, you choose your options, like staying in your cabin to read a book or venturing off on a day of exploration. After the towns of Rüdesheim and Wertheim, I have my doubts if Randle and I will get a chance to continue our dialogue.
Pinning him down is like trying to stop a speedboat. Randle is overseeing operations, orchestrating entertainment, organizing city tours, or tending to passengers’ needs. Then in Nuremberg, the halfway mark of the trip, Jacob, Randle’s partner of ten years (they married in 2016) joins the cruise for the final leg of the voyage to Budapest. Randle is highly visible throughout the entire journey—a big brother, if you will.
One early morning I espy him alone at breakfast in Reflections restaurant looking over some papers. I ask if I can join him. I gather my food from the buffet and settle in.
“When I came out in college in 1989, I viewed being gay as a death sentence. Would I get bashed walking down the street? Would I contract HIV? Every sexual encounter was a bit like playing Russian roulette,” reveals Randle, gripping his coffee cup. He tears away at three Splenda packets, emptying them into his cup, along with French Vanilla creamer, admitting, he likes it sweet.
“As a forty-nine-year-old gay man, I came to terms with my sexuality in the mid-to late-eighties, when AIDS was ravaging our community. But I didn’t grow up in New York or Los Angeles,” Randle explains, his voice splashed with urgency. “I didn’t have a circle of gay friends who’d fallen from the disease, who’d all bond around their dying friends in their last moments of life. I didn’t have any gay friends at all. I grew up in small-town Louisiana, twenty-five miles outside of New Orleans and a world away from the devastating scenes I’d come to know through Hollywood’s depiction of the epidemic.”
“I hear stories of what so many people my age went through and my heart aches for them,” he says as he winces, taking a pause. “At times it almost feels like I was I cheated out of the largest collective experience our community has ever faced. But then I think about that word…‘cheated.’ Cheated from what? Cheated from being crushed by a prolonged sense of loss? That seems like such a strange thing to feel, but nonetheless I feel it. Deeply.”
“‘Spared’ seems like a much better and more positive way to view my situation,” he says. “But in my mind ‘spared’ has always seemed like it would be accompanied by endless amounts of guilt.”
A staff member comes by to ask a question about last night’s Ugly Christmas Sweater Sing-Along. Vacaya holds these wacky theme festivities throughout the cruise. Another is the Bathrobe Ball (yes, participants are in their bedtime robes) and another event is the Onesies. What is a onesie?! I know, I didn’t know either. It’s one piece of clothing, like overalls, pajamas, long johns, or, as one passenger donned, a Grinch costume.
The staff member exits and Randle returns to our talk. Randle explains that his life navigation course changed—and so did his point of view. Hired in 2003 by Atlantis Events, an all-gay cruise company (first as a volunteer then as Executive Producer), exposed Randle to a new and diverse tribe —men living with HIV. This was his first interface with this section of the community. Ever.
“For the first time in my life I was meeting people regularly who were living with, and in some cases, still dying from the disease.” His passionate tone is penetrable. “Not all were dying, of course, but a far higher number than I’d ever been exposed to before.” Randle adjusts his position in his chair, taking a sip of coffee. “The conversations I was having with HIV-positive people from all over the world led to a more profound and infinitely more personal understanding of the disease,” he recounts then adds, “Certainly more than I’d ever gotten from a Hollywood film.”
Some of the guys Randle met over those years would die. With others he noticed a definite shift. “I’d see people one year who didn’t seem to have much time left then the next year they’d return seemingly in good health. The medical advances our community had been hoping for were finally showing results.” There’s a heavy pause. “I came to understand HIV and AIDS in a much deeper way.”
An announcement comes on for the usual morning town trek. Randle is off to oversee another city tour. I finish my scrambled eggs.
Today, in Melk, Austria, we tour the stunning Benedictine Melk Abby, perched atop a rocky mount. It was founded in 1089, when Leopold II gave one of his castles to the monks. The abbey houses frescoes, and the library is a breathtaking encounter. (Umberto Eco based the library in his novel, The Name of the Rose, on this gem.) It contains countless medieval manuscripts.
After the entertainment that evening, I catch a quiet personal moment with Randle in the Horizon deck lounge. He sits in a white leather swivel chair, and being late, he seems looser, like a dropped marionette.
Though Randle had heard about the epidemic on the news, it never really anchored in his thoughts. It wasn’t until he had a sexual encounter with a fellow musical cast performer that he had an epiphany. “He wanted to put on two condoms!” Randle exclaims excitedly. “I’d never heard of such a thing. He explained the devastation of HIV to me in that moment. That night, in that moment, it really hit home as something truly…REAL.” (Wearing two condoms, by the way, increases the risk of transmitting/acquiring HIV.)
Randle attended Webster University and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he studied Musical Theater. “Pretty much everyone slept with everyone in our department,” he titters, clicking his tongue. “But none of us was HIV-positive at the time and somehow we all lucked out in never contracting the [virus], even though we never wore condoms. We got through the late-eighties and early-nineties untouched. Were we invincible? Hardly. We were just damn lucky. But that luck somehow created a distance from all the suffering so many experienced.”
Randle took his first HIV test in 1990. “I’d been having a lot of unsafe sex and it was time,” he persists. His doctor in St. Louis performed the test, and it was a psycho blower for Randle. It was also an ordeal of endless paperwork about confidentiality and circumstances if he should test positive. “It was beyond scary…,” he recalls, his voice breathy and rising. “The wait for the results was excruciating. Would this be the time it happened? The mental anguish I put myself through was crippling, but somehow, I survived.
In the late 2000s, he was given the opportunity to join an early clinical trial of the drugs that would later become PrEP. “For over ten years, I’ve had a layer of protection against HIV that many my age would have killed for in the mid-eighties,” he laments. “So once again, I’ve been lucky.” He cranes his neck over his shoulder as a passenger says, “Goodnight.”
He continues: “Yes, PrEP has given HIV-negative men a level of freedom I’m guessing they haven’t felt since the seventies.” He takes a beat. “Of course there are mixed feelings about PrEP in our community and I can only speak from my perspective, but I can say without a shadow of a doubt I’m grateful we have the option—an option that didn’t exist for so many.”
Randle gazes out the ceiling-to-floor window at the passing homes slowly fleeting by, some decorated with holiday lights. It’s rather dreamy watching the calm waves trickle away from the ship, while both sides of the lounge pass lush forests, homes, and castles.
Randle suddenly looks directly at me, steely focused. “It’s inspiring to see how we as a community united around a cause and have never given up the fight.” His timbre is deferential. Randle wrinkles his brow, juts out his chin, and rhapsodizes, “My connections to the epidemic may not be the same as many, but they’re no less real. They’re my story and I proudly own them.”
He takes a sip of Diet Coke, admitting he drinks too much of it. “As one of the founders of VACAYA, the first and only large-scale vacation company on the planet built for the entire LGBT+ community, my relationship with HIV and AIDS organizations continues to evolve,” notes Randle. Through VACAYA’s ReachOUT initiatives they partner with local organizations at their destinations.
For the next upcoming trips to Mexico Resort holiday at UNICO 20°87° October 4–10, 2020 and Caribbean Cruise to Puerto Rico February 13–20, 2021, they will partner with RCD Foundation (a civic association that helps improve living conditions of people with limited resources through social development, education, and health programs) as well as the Nuevo Noh-Bec and Juarez Community Schools.
Due to the devastation that San Juan and Puerto Rico have gone through, with Hurricane Maria and recent earthquakes, the opportunities to help are endless. Vacaya will be collecting items from passengers such as clothes, supplies, toys, etcetera, focusing mainly on providing recovery funds to the organizations. Guests will have the opportunity to donate to the Caribbean Tourism Fund and the Tides Foundation, which will assist LGBT+ community members not only in Puerto Rico but in all ports of call across the Caribbean.
“We want to leave these places a little better off than when we arrived…,” says Randle, who beseeches others to join in. “Collectively, we’re able to transform the way our world sees our community. It’s one less about fear, and more about love. And that is a story worthy of a happy ending.” Randle’s eyes sparkle—and widen even larger than usual.
IN A HEARTBEAT
Travel back to July 1998. Burbank, California. 7 a.m. Randle’s alarm buzzes, like every other morning. He tries to climb out of bed but collapses to the floor. It was at that moment he realized something was wrong. For Randle, it was a full on out of body experience. A disconnect. Reality vanished.
His partner, Gregory, called 911. The ambulance rushed Randle to St. Joseph’s Medical Center. There, they told him he had suffered a stroke while sleeping. He lost his ability to walk, talk, and write. Randle lay there stupefied, not believing what just happened. He had been in the best physical shape ever and he worked hard at attaining that. Now, he thought he would die.
Randle spent six months in speech therapy learning how to pronounce words again. At one point he had severe paraphasia—a condition where words are jumbled or the incorrect word is chosen. For example, instead of saying, “Please hand me my jacket,” he’d say “Please hand me my soup.” Later on it provided levity for Randle and his friends!
Randle spent one year in physical therapy working out the mechanics of bodily movements. Sometimes he was around other stroke victims and he quickly realized how blessed he was. Though Randle retrieved most of his motor skills, even today, at times, he suffers with balance issues.
Though he had some extremely bumpy days during this time, he never contemplated suicide. In fact, he did the opposite. He did everything to LIVE! When therapy was fraught with challenges, Randle eyed these obstacles as an incentive to drive harder, like a racecar driver in the Indy 500. The harder it became, the harder he worked.
He began making deals with friends, with God, with himself. The wanderlust in him aspired to see the world (he had not traveled far from New Orleans) and that was a titanic motivator. He bargained with himself that by the age of forty, he would visit one hundred countries.
One monumental inspiration for Randle during his rehabilitation was his partner at the time, Gregory, and a core group of friends, as well.
While no definitive cause was given for Randle’s stroke, it was believed to be diabetic-related, since he was had been Type 1 Diabetic since he was a teenager. Early on in rehab, he was told that the likelihood of future strokes was exponentially higher for him.
But after Randle finished therapy, he got his passport and hit the road! Today, he’s been to all seven continents and 123 countries. On one of those trips, to Asia in 2010, Randle met his soul mate, Jacob, who works for the U.S. Army. They later got hitched and now live in Washington D.C., with their two dogs, Nola and Mari. When asked to describe himself in one word Randle replies, “Fiery.” Touché, the man beat death!
AT THE HELM: REVVING RANDLE
How would you handle being HIV-positive? That’s a great question and one I’m not sure how to answer. How can anyone really know how they’d react? Being a Type 1 diabetic, my whole life is regimented around care. So I’d imagine HIV care would be a relatively easy treatment to fold into my routine.
Who do you look up to? President Barack Obama. I’m constantly inspired by his intelligence, kindness, coolness, and grace.
What AIDS events have you participated in? I did several AIDSWalks and have been to more rallies and benefits than I can count. Through the years, I’ve always supported friends who participated in AIDS Life/Cycle and BroadwayCares.
Name one of your major anxieties. Dying in my sleep. Nearly every diabetic in my family has died in their sleep.
If you could bring someone back from the dead, who would it be, and why? My dad. He died in 2012 at the age of sixty-five after a twelve-year on and off battle with cancer. He fought so valiantly. I miss him every day.
If you wrote a book today, what would the title be? Postcards to Myself. When I had my stroke, I lost some key life memories. My brain was able to rewire itself quite a bit as people would recount those memories, but I’m sure I lost a lot. When I began my post-stroke travels, I didn’t want to create all these new memories only to lose them again later if I had another stroke. So I sent a postcard to myself from every place I visited. It was a living journal——a recount of all my favorite things I experienced. Things I never wanted to forget. Those postcards are my most valuable possession in life.
ABANDON SHIP:REVEALING RANDLE
What’s your go-to music? Typically, Broadway Cast Recordings. Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen are top on my list.
What was your worst summer job? Cleaning out stables, shoveling horseshit.
Who was your first teen celebrity crush? Scott Baio.
Name a film you could watch over and over. Titanic.
Thoughts about turning fifty next year? Having gone through all the health challenges I have, I never thought I’d make it to thirty, much less fifty. I’m…THRILLED!
Who was your favorite celebrity to work with, and why? I’ve got two. First is Patti LuPone. I had my very own Patti moment where she laid into me. She was very apologetic after the fact, though, and invited me to her room for coffee and an apology. It was very sweet. The other is Kathy Najimy. She’s also a diabetic so we’d have long talks about caring for ourselves.
Has anyone ever ribbed you about your last name being the same as characters on the TV sitcom, Three’s Company? …my entire childhood.
Dann Dulin, Senior Editor, interviewed advocate Esther Kim for the June 2020 issue.