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Profiles of Compassion and Courage: Gary Virginia

stuGary Virginia, President of San Francisco Pride’s Board of Directors, says that he fell in love at first sight with San Francisco when he first moved to the city in the late 1980’s. That passion has helped to fuel years of activism and charitable efforts in our community. He is easy on the eyes too, having won Mr. SF Leather in 1996. In 1996, he co-created the annual Pride Brunch with Donna Sachet.

Born and raised north of Pittsburgh, PA, Gary attended Duquesne University, where he later worked before taking on a job at the University of Charleston. That experience led to a position at San Francisco State University, and he has been in our city ever since. We are so glad that he stayed!

SS: How did you become involved in your work?

GV: I come from a blue collar, tight-knit family and was taught from an early age to help other people. My extended family are the type of people who make cakes for colleagues’ birthdays, collect money for people in need, help others with repairs, make food for funerals, weddings, holidays and more. My love of food today stems from my mother and relatives who are excellent cooks and bakers. My father left my mother and our family when I was 14 years old and that had a lasting impact on me. My mother took on three full-time jobs to keep a roof over our heads and sustain us.

SS: Who have been your key mentors?

GV: It’s hard to name one mentor who inspires me for there have been so many. Charmaine Kanoza-Strong was Assistant Dean of Students at Duquesne University during my three years as a student there. The Dean and Associate Dean were a lesbian and gay man. The three of them were early mentors. Colleagues like Rich Mahoney at Duquesne, Kent Sumrall at SFSU and Michael Archer at Lahaina Galleries all taught me professional skills and ethics. I’ve been volunteering since my college days, so it’s a natural extension to keep it going. There will always be those in need, and service is its own reward. What you share, you strengthen, and I believe in building good karma. Other mentors have included spiritual ones like Rev. Matt Garrigan and healer George Melton, and leather community leaders like Lenny Broberg, Ray Tilton, Don Ho Tse and the late Alan Selby. My six years on the board of Positive Resource Center provided powerful mentors like Susan Fahey, Zoe Borkowski, Bob Emerson and Susan Christy. Currently I learn a lot from contemporaries like Tommi Avicolli-Mecca, Donna Sachet, Tom Ammiano, Patrik Gallineaux, Gypsy Love and Wanda Whitakker.

SS: If you could solve or fix a community problem, what would it be?

GV: While tempted to say providing housing as a fundamental right, the one problem I would want to fix in the Bay Area would be to find a cure for AIDS. I say this not only as a 25-year survivor, but also for the 16,000 survivors in San Francsico and the 1.1 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS. Globally, 35 million people have died of AIDS, and about 34 million people are living with HIV (end of 2011). Can you imagine what a cure would mean to the millions dependent on expensive life-saving drugs, to the global workforce and economy? I’m determined to “Be Here for the Cure” as the slogan read on t-shirts decades ago.

Gary Virginia

SS: What achievement are you most proud of?

GV: My proudest achievement is probably earning my college degree. I was the first in my extended families to earn a degree and it represented great sacrifice by my family. Growing up I was an insecure yet curious kid: tall, skinny, big ears, buck teeth, glasses by age six and braces for six years starting at age nine. I cut grass and cleaned my neighbor’s pool as a teen, and have been working legally since age 16. Even after having full-blown AIDS in 1995, I worked for a year until going on disability. Three months after that, I was back to working, non-paid for my community. That continues.

SS: What are your goals for the future?

GV: My future goals must include staying alive each day. While that might seem obvious, surviving AIDS requires daily prescription regimens, doctor visits and lab work, reducing stress, juggling insurance and finances, and keeping mentally healthy and spiritually nourished. I’m a metaphysical practitioner so I believe in having goals and imagining experiences on one’s future timeline.

I have a penchant for addressing emergency needs, which is partly why I founded Krewe de Kinque Mardi Gras club 10 years ago. One of our first efforts raised $18,500 for Katrina relief. Spearheaded by Gays Without Borders and the World Rainbow Fund, our community quickly raised $10,000 for gay Iraqis facing torture and murder in 2009. The 15th Annual Pride Brunch for Positive Resource Center, co-founded by Donna Sachet and I, netted $42,000 this year, which will impact many locals facing emergency needs. I just got elected to the board of SF Pride, an organization that I feel is facing a crisis of ethics and governance. I’m worried about my own ability to afford living and staying in San Francisco, so I’m seeking personal and community solutions through politics and non-profit agencies. As many of my friends say, “We can sleep when we’re dead!”

Stu Smith is board chair emeritus of Shanti Project, board chair of The Paratransit Coordinating Council, a member of the Castro Country Club Advisory Board and the LGBT Senior Task Force, and producer and host of the public access TV program “The Drag Show.” KQED has honored Stu as a 2013 LGBT Hero.