Your Heart Is True
Betty White & the Golden Girls Kept Me and My Friends Sane During the Early AIDS Pandemic
by John Francis Leonard
I was scrolling through Twitter (is that how the kids say it?) the day of New Year’s Eve when I read what I thought was simply a living tribute to the great Betty White. I’m rather slow on the uptake at times, much like Rose, White’s most beloved character, and simply saw it as just that; a loving tribute to one of a beleaguered nation’s most loved comedians, actresses, and all around great people. Suffice it to say, what we had in her went far beyond mere celebrity; it was indeed special. I thought at the time that it might be her birthday when I first started noticing other glowing accolades and it quickly occurred to me that these honorifics, if you will, were in fact memorials. Very quickly, in my own defense, but still a bit late to the event, I realized that at ninety-nine, she had passed.
These tributes began what became a flood of appreciation and praise by her countless fans and persons whose lives she had touched in ways that might have seemed simple and only natural to her, but had lasting impact. She always stood up for the marginalized, at times to some personal cost, when her position offended less generous, but widely held, views. As were millions of us, I was saddened, but quickly acknowledged what a great blessing it was to have lived a life so long while touching the lives of so many. She had meaningful impact and left our world a better place than she found it in ways both large and small.
My thoughts soon turned to the fact that through her most celebrated role, among an ensemble of brilliant women, she provided much comfort to my community in a time and place in which we were sorely tested. My formative years, and the varied years of so many, were defined by an earlier plague, AIDS, and of all that it robbed us. I arrived in New York City in 1987 and soon after found work in a popular Lower East Side gay bar that was central to the ACT UP movement. I found, when I arrived, that the community of gay men to which I had always dreamed of belonging was reeling with loss and numb with grief. The brave young people of ACT UP turned that loss, that grief, to righteous anger and effected change, but many were simply shell-shocked and longing for solace. In every New York City gay bar with a TV, Saturday night was Golden Girls night, and in bars such as the legendary West Village watering hole, Uncle Charlie’s, men gathered in front of the television to laugh and smile. In both bars and their homes, gay men gathered and watched forgetting, if only for a moment, the darkness that surrounded them. In 1990 the show tackled AIDS head on in an episode that saw White’s character being notified of a possible exposure to HIV in a medical procedure.
My late teens and early twenties found me a member of a group of friends who were gay men who were my elders and taught me so much about navigating life as a gay man. Almost every one had AIDS and, while still working as bartenders, they had to in order to survive, each was facing what would soon be the final years of their lives. We were obsessed with The Golden Girls and each of us was referred to by the others by the moniker of the character they most resembled. I was most often called Blanche because of my many sexual conquests. I was a young gay man exploring his sexual freedom and admittedly, could be a bit vain. At other times I was White’s character, Rose, because of my naiveté.
Most often, my friend Don held that title, however. He was a sexy, masculine-appearing, butch clone of the late seventies/early eighties and had quite a line of men at his station at the bar of a busy evening. He was a simple man of working-class tastes, who my boss, and his best friend (David, who was definitely Dorothy) said moved to New York because of the sex, not the culture. We spent many afternoons at his place getting stoned and watching repeats of the show, which had just been syndicated.
I treasure my memories of those afternoons with Don. Yes, he was a simple man, but he was filled with kindness, warmth, and good humor. It was a privilege to spend that time with him in what were his last good years. He was slowing down and any distraction, anything that brought a good laugh and joy into his life, was a welcome distraction indeed.
White was part of an ensemble of comedic actresses in that show, all of them with solid credentials, but she had certainly had the most impressive résumé of the group. She had begun her career in television’s early years and been a familiar presence in our country’s homes since the fifties. Melanie Griffith, a child of a movie star, and one herself, once said that it wasn’t until her relationship with Don Johnson that she realized just how enormous television fame was. Betty White had that level of fame. When someone is on TV, especially during the time before cable, video, and streaming, they are in our homes. We feel as if we really know them. When you add to that mix someone who was so filled with love and respect for their fellow beings, it’s a powerful thing. Great comedy isn’t just a funny turn of phrase; a good deal of it is in the delivery, the timing, and White had a natural gift for timing. In any conversation on a talk show or in an interview, it’s patently obvious. There was no one better.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t honor specifically White’s complete and very personal commitment to, and support of, the LGBT community. I, of course, never knew Ms. White, but I’m certain that, as all the golden girls were, she was generous financially both in her lifetime and in her last wishes, but her support went far beyond the pecuniary. White was of a time when a generous view of anyone seen as different, most especially the LGBT community was rare; anyone with HIV/AIDS was in the wrong both morally and spiritually to begin with. Those not inclined to be prejudiced, such as herself, were even rarer and of a simple code. Some folks are different; it’s not a big deal. Their own moral code gave them the surety that tolerance and acceptance best served others, themselves, and the greater good. Yes, she put her money where her mouth was, but she gave as generously of herself as she did her money. She was an advocate for so many causes; early on tackling civil rights and turning a love of animals into a lifetime’s work on their behalf. A life lived as well as she lived hers is one of great meaning and accomplishment. It’s comforting to think that Rue, Bea, Estelle, and now, Betty, are united once again, trading barbs and keeping an eye on us all.
Betty, wherever you are, thank you.
Thank you for the laughter and joy when it was in such short supply. Thank you on the behalf of not only my community, but on behalf of a grateful nation. Laughter can be so healing, it provides succor to a hungry soul. So, thank you, Betty White, thank you for being a friend. May God rest your soul and your memory be a blessing.
John Francis Leonard writes the Bright Lights, Small City column for A&U.