For many, however, AZT would come too late to make a difference. That was tragically the case for Ryan White, asit was for one of my very closest friends, a man whom I loved dearly, and a man who was loved by millions ofpeople around the world: Freddie Mercury.
Freddie didn’t announce publicly that he had AIDS until the day before he died in 1991. Although he wasflamboyant onstage — an electric front man on par with Bowie and Jagger — he was an intensely private manoffstage. But Freddie told me he had AIDS soon after he was diagnosed in 1987. I was devastated. I’d seen what thedisease had done to so many of my other friends. I knew exactly what it was going to do to Freddie. As did he. Heknew death, agonizing death, was coming. But Freddie was incredibly courageous. He kept up appearances, he keptperforming with Queen, and he kept being the funny, outrageous, and profoundly generous person he had alwaysbeen.
As Freddie deteriorated in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it was almost too much to bear. It broke my heart to seethis absolute light unto the world ravaged by AIDS. By the end, his body was covered with Kaposi’s sarcomalesions. He was almost blind. He was too weak to even stand.
By all rights, Freddie should have spent those final days concerned only with his own comfort. But that wasn’t whohe was. He truly lived for others. Freddie had passed on November 24, 1991, and weeks after the funeral, I was stillgrieving. On Christmas Day, I learned that Freddie had left me one final testament to his selflessness. I was mopingabout when a friend unexpectedly showed up at my door and handed me something wrapped in a pillowcase. Iopened it up, and inside was a painting by one of my favorite artists, the British painter Henry Scott Tuke. And therewas a note from Freddie. Years before, Freddie and I had developed pet names for each other, our drag-queen alteregos. I was Sharon, and he was Melina. Freddie’s note read, “Dear Sharon, thought you’d like this. Love, Melina.Happy Christmas.”
I was overcome, forty-four years old at the time, crying like a child. Here was this beautiful man, dying from AIDS,and in his final days, he had somehow managed to find me a lovely Christmas present. As sad as that moment was,it’s often the one I think about when I remember Freddie, because it captures the character of the man. In death, hereminded me of what made him so special in life.
Freddie touched me in a way few people ever have, and his brave, private struggle with AIDS is something thatinspires me to this day. But his illness, I’m ashamed to admit, wasn’t enough to spur me to greater action. I’ve railedagainst government and religious leaders who were indifferent to or who actively undermined the fight againstAIDS. They deserve every bit of criticism I’m throwing their way. They could have done so much more.
I could have done so much more, too.