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In Honor of Danny Sotomayor

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"Of course I know he's not here," said Rick Garcia as he stood outside the mayor's office on the fifth floor of City Hall. He was wearing a dapper

black blazer, a CURE AIDS NOW button, and a new goatee. "But I'm going to go through with this anyway. I want to return my award; I need to return my award."

Surrounded by a small circle of press people and curious passersby, Garcia pulled from a Kinko's bag a framed wooden plaque he received from Mayor Daley two years ago commemorating his help in getting the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance passed. Before approaching the security desk, he read a passionate statement accusing the mayor of insensitivity on AIDS issues. He cited statistics from recent news reports on the health crisis. And then he choked a bit.

What prompted his move was the ceremony scheduled later in the day at which Daley would make a posthumous presentation of a similar award to AIDS activist Daniel Sotomayor. The recently deceased Sotomayor was an ardent critic of Daley's policies. "The Daley administration is using Daniel Sotomayor's name to rewrite its own abysmal history with AIDS," Garcia said. "We don't want cheap apologies, cheap luncheons, cheap flowers at our funerals. We want Daley to do something about the crisis." If he were alive, Garcia asserted, Sotomayor certainly would have turned down the mayoral award.

Having said that, Garcia took the plaque under his arm and marched into the mayor's reception area. "I'd like to see the mayor," he said. The security guard, who had already told Garcia the mayor was across the street at the State of Illinois building announcing the third-airport agreement, barely looked up. "You'll need an appointment," he said.

"Rick, why didn't you just leave your award?" asked a reporter as Garcia turned to leave, plaque still in hand.

Garcia's head spun. "I'm going to give it to that man in person," he said, the color of his face deepening. "I'm going to give it to him at the next opportunity."

The next opportunity was a mere hour later, when the mayor would present Sotomayor's award during the annual Commission on Human Relations luncheon at the Palmer House hotel. Garcia had been a friend of Sotomayor's. He had demonstrated and gotten arrested with him. And he just couldn't stomach the mayor's recent actions.

In the meantime, ACT UP, the civil disobedience group whose Chicago chapter was cofounded by Sotomayor, gathered a crowd to protest Mayor Daley's AIDS budget at Daley Plaza. Leather jackets were de rigueur, as were nose rings, multiple earrings, and brightly colored hair. In his long, tailored businessman's coat, Garcia almost seemed out of place.

Gritting his teeth, he stood out in the windy cold with the 30 other demonstrators, listening to Alderman Helen Shiller calling on the mayor to work with her for more AIDS funding. Behind Shiller, members of ACT UP's newest caucus, PISD (People with Immune System Deficiencies), held up a banner. PISD members were distinguished by white headbands with their acronym in black marker.

"Can you believe this? Can you believe this?" Garcia kept asking. He held up a screaming yellow ACT UP flier with a banner headline that read "Outrage!!!" in reference to Daley's award to Sotomayor. "Daley wouldn't talk to Danny while he was alive, wouldn't meet with him, wouldn't even acknowledge him at demonstrations, but now--now that Danny's dead--he comes to the wake, he's sending flowers, giving him awards."

Garcia stepped inside the Daley Center and rubbed his chilled hands together while looking out at the demonstrators through the large glass windows. "We want action now!" screamed a speaker. Protest signs with huge pink triangles proclaimed city AIDS statistics: "Cases of women with AIDS, up 97 percent"; "Children with AIDS up 100 percent." One read "Daley = Death."

When demonstrators strolled past the windows with a sign that said "Latinos and African American cases up 41 percent," a guffaw erupted from one of the sheriff's deputies on guard at the Daley Center. "Hey, there ain't no Latinos with AIDS," said a pudgy, dark deputy whose name tag read "Rodriguez." "It's just you white boys." The white deputies chuckled.

"You know," said one carrying a billy club on his belt, "if these people got up in the morning and led normal lives, it would do a lot to minimize their disease. But look at them--they automatically think that we should think they're right."

Garcia listened in disgust. "I'm furious," he said. "But I'm not going to lose it here, not here."

At noon at the Palmer House, well-heeled matrons and businessmen and activists and organizers sat at the more than 50 tables in the cavernous fourth-floor ballroom. Near the front, last year's inductees to the city's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame looked on somberly. Daniel Sotomayor's mother, Margaret, and his brother John sat up on the front tier of the dais with the other honored guests.

There were no reservations or seating arrangements made for playwright Scott McPherson, Daniel Sotomayor's longtime lover, who also has AIDS. In fact, no invitation was extended to him by the city's Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues, the Commission on Human Relations, its chairman, the mayor, or anybody even remotely connected with the luncheon. But McPherson and three of his friends wanted to attend to try to make a point. Garcia paid for their tickets.

Finally accommodated in the back of the ballroom, Garcia and the others began to plan their "zap." "I'll go first," Garcia offered. "I'll return my award and distract the crowd while you climb up on the balcony and unfurl the banner."

Lori Cannon, a flamboyant redhead who had been Sotomayor's best friend, had brought the "Daley, Tell the Truth About AIDS" banner that Sotomayor had once hung from a balcony at City Hall. "You don't think they'll notice me?" she asked, laughing. Then, pointing to McPherson's wheelchair, she added, "You know, they never stop wheelchairs."

Not far from the ballroom, Mayor Daley and his press secretary, Avis LaVelle, were greeting special guests in a separate reception area. Daley, fresh from his third-airport announcement, was buoyant. He shrugged when he was told that Sotomayor's friends were going to disrupt his speech.

"So what else is new?" Daley asked. "Danny used to yell at me all the time. The bottom line is, there's no money for AIDS. Everybody's for [Helen Shiller's resolution], but where's the money supposed to come from? Maybe they want me to lay off 1,000 or 2,000 more people to get the money, is that it?"

"People don't understand that we're not honoring Danny; we're honoring his efforts," explained LaVelle as she and the mayor were escorted into the ballroom. "Look, we don't expect to gain politically from this. You can't please everybody and sometimes you can't please anybody, but you just have to do what you think is right. Just a few days ago we got more money for AIDS from the Ryan White Fund. All right, it's not city money, but federal dollars are spent in the same ways as local dollars."

Once introduced, the mayor had barely adjusted the microphone at the podium when Garcia shot through the crowd. "Mr. Mayor, Mr. Mayor," he shouted, waving his plaque in the air. "I have come to return my award."

Cannon, now standing no more than 10 feet from the mayor, unfurled Sotomayor's banner. "Tell the truth about AIDS," she said. Daley interrupted his speech, but refused to look at her. No one in the gigantic room said a word. "How dare you offer a posthumous award to our hero?" Cannon asked.

By now, McPherson had been wheeled up to the front of the room by his friend Mark Schoofs. "If you want to honor Danny," he said, "increase the AIDS budget. Pass Helen Shiller's resolution."

Daley tried to continue. "People die while you do nothing," Garcia shouted, his award still up in the air.

And indeed, Daley did nothing. In fact, no one moved. Finally, businesswoman Phyllis Applebaum, another honoree, hissed at Cannon, "You should be ashamed of yourself."

Cannon didn't get a chance to respond before another person yelled out "Hypocrite!"

"What are you doing about AIDS except passing out awards?" McPherson asked. But Daley remained silent.

Finally, hotel security guards grabbed Garcia and tossed him out in the hallway. Other guards gathered around McPherson and Schoofs, who were now chanting "Fewer awards, more money." As they were escorted by the gay hall of fame table, most of the members looked away, refusing to acknowledge them.

Outside in the hallway, the demonstrators assessed their actions. "Scott was running out of slogans," Schoofs said. "Yeah, I was thinking, 'When are they going to arrest me already?'" Garcia added. "And I still have my award!"

"You know, whenever there's a chance to do this--even though I'm going to have to look at Daley's grotesque face--I'm going to do it," Cannon said with determination.

"You know," said McPherson, "I went to a lot of demonstrations with Danny but I always felt a little hesitant. These things are really not my style; I'm too polite. But I think this is the closest I've ever felt to Danny. This was really in his spirit."

After Daley's speech, the mayor and his entourage filed out a side stairway. The clump of TV cameras that had recorded the demonstrations followed him out. "Why are you running away?" asked a reporter. Daley continued down the stairs, not saying a word. "What does your silence say?" asked another reporter.

Although Daley kept quiet, Margaret Sotomayor refused to follow his example. Back in the ballroom, Larry McKeon, the newly hired executive director of the city's gay and lesbian council, announced the award and explained that Daniel Sotomayor had been a critic of the Bush administration and "the Chicago administration." He mentioned McPherson as Sotomayor's "very special personal friend," then left the podium and wound around to where Margaret and John Sotomayor were seated.

"I want to speak," Margaret Sotomayor said softly. Shy, dark, and terrified, she came up to McKeon's chest. McKeon looked stunned. "I'm going to speak," she asserted.

Taking his mother's hand, John Sotomayor elbowed past McKeon and led her up to the microphone. Once more, the room was absolutely still. In the back of the ballroom, two Chicago policemen watched the proceedings. A hotel security guard stood just a few feet from Garcia, who had returned to his table.

Margaret Sotomayor's voice cracked when she finally began to speak. "No parent wants to see their child in protests or demonstrations, being dragged by his legs, arms, and hair, at times kicked and bruised and put behind bars, spit on, called queer, freak, fag," she said. "Please reach out and help. Cure AIDS now. Save someone. Remember Daniel died fighting AIDS."

When she finished the room was so stunned that applause came slow, then thundered. One of the gay hall of fame inductees, with tears running down her face, held up an ACT UP poster protesting Daley's AIDS policies.

Outside in the hallway, David Sotomayor, another of Daniel's brothers, grinned broadly. "Man, Danny would have loved this," he said. "His friends, his mother, the mayor getting disrupted--he would have just loved it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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