Ferd Eggan died on July 7, 2007 – as his friend Susan Forrest noted – he died at 7 minutes before 7am on the 7h day of the 7th month of 07. Ferd was surrounded by his friends and fellow AIDS activists Walt Senterfitt, Mary Lucey, and Nancy McNeil from Being Alive and Women Alive.
I wrote a piece entitled “The Importance of Being Ferd” about Ferd being honored by the LA City Council on June 20, 2007 shortly before his death. His state of grace was extraordinary. See for yourself in the video of the event following the story.
The Importance of Being Ferd
Ferd Eggan’s wonder-full life has been a quest for equality and a struggle for justice for the ill, impoverished, invisible and ignored.
That through-line, that strong chain with its links to the many cultures and historical events of our time, provides a singular clue to a life that otherwise resembles a more dramatic rendering of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of the Being Ernest” with its bevy of identities.
On June 20, the revolutionary cum bureaucrat was honored by the Los Angeles City Council for his service as the city’s AIDS Coordinator from 1993 to 2001. The respectful supporters surrounding and praising Eggan in the middle of the august council chamber hinted at his important legacy. City Councilmembers Bill Rosendahl, Tom LaBonge and Wendy Gruel presented an official proclamation; current AIDS Coordinator Stephen Simon talked about the office today; later City Attorney David Schulman remembered working with Eggan to fight HIV/AIDS discrimination.
And then there were the activists – the ACT UP survivors, the women, the people of color to whom Eggan represented things the way they could be: government and activists working together for the shared common goal of the betterment of community and humankind.
Eggan, who has been living with HIV since 1986, appreciated the honor and bore with dignity the ravages of the inoperable cancerous tumor eating away at his liver. The verve in his spirit belied the news that he has just weeks left to live.
When he first became the city’s AIDS Coordinator, Eggan told the council, the three things people with HIV/AIDS said they needed the most were “housing, housing, housing!” He applauded the city for creating the coordinator’s position and its continued support for the office’s innovative independence, free from the strict ties that come with federal grants.
But he also noted the “flagging enthusiasm” over HIV/AIDS issues in the United States, a casualty of “an inevitable
tendency to move on to the next more popular issue” and the circumstances of war. He urged the council to treat the city “as if it were at war,” to “do all the things that need to be done,” including supporting all people with AIDS regardless of their citizenship status.
Eggan’s concern about the plight of the “outsider” has informed his entire life. Born in 1946 in Albena, Michigan (population 12,000), he learned compassion at an early age as he struggled with who he was and wanted to be.
“I grew up in a mainline Christian family,” Eggan told IN. “The values of politeness and what used to be called good breeding played a role in my view of the way people were supposed to be. On the other hand, I was very rebellious – starting probably even before leaving home. For example, I was the youngest member of Michigan Democratic Caucus in support of JFK [John F. Kennedy]. But I soon left political work of that stripe and got more involved in radical things, pretty much around the same time as I left home and went away to college [on his 18th birthday in October 1964]. I got more radicalized by experiences at the University of Chicago, which is where I went to college – through the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.
“There’s a very gay window to all of this,” Eggan continued. “I first learned about being gay essentially by hanging out waiting for the orthodontist one day and reading books in the drug store…that made it clear to me that I was gay and that that made me different.” He felt frightened “because that imposes a whole lot of new oppressions on a person to not only have their feelings, but to hide their feelings, to protect their feelings. You have to work to make sure somebody is not going to steal them from you, that they’re not going to tell you that you don’t have a right to have those feelings.” But, he added, “I think I’m pretty ordinary in that sense” for someone growing up in the Baby Boom generation.
Eggan was shocked and relieved to find like-minded friends at college. “I was so in love with all these new friends,” he said, “so in love with all these guys in the dorm. It was such a thrill.” He also discovered that “rebelliousness was a value. It was something we cherished because we had it in common – that was the reward of being rebellious, actually. The other reward, of course, is feeling that maybe you’re helping somebody.”
Eggan said he came out in stages, starting with “little sex games” when young that always left him feeling ashamed. Then gradually “asking for it” and learning about masturbation around 12 “and that was pretty exciting and I shared it with a couple of guys.” But it wasn’t until college that Eggan took his clothes off to have sex.
Embracing that spirit of rebellion, Eggan burned his Vietnam draft card, dropped out of school and went to South Carolina to help register African American voters. His first “real adult sex” in an emotional relationship was with a black soldier. It was 1966 and he was run out of town for this inter-racial gay love.
“We were crossing a lot of boundaries that people didn’t want to see crossed,” Eggan said. “So the ‘powers that be’ in this littlie town arranged to talk to the more conservative members of the black civil rights movement and persuaded them that they’d be a lot safer if I were to leave town.”
Eggan didn’t need convincing. Earlier he had been attacked trying to integrate a movie theatre. “I was beaten up with ax handles and kicked from one side of the theater to the other. It became a civil rights case for a brief period of time in terms of the US Attorney – but then they dropped it because I was too little fish.”
Eggan moved around from New York City (leaving on the second night of the Stonewall riots), to San Francisco in its hippie Flower Power hey-day where he befriended the Coquettes and had an Andy Warhol-like filmed marriage to Carel Rowe (which ended after a brief stint in the suburbs of Evanston, Illinois), to Chicago were he joined the Gay Liberation Front and co-founded ACT UP/Chicago, and then to Los Angeles in 1990.
Through it all, Eggan felt the importance of “being part of a movement willing to fight for the rights of all people. I was motivated by my own oppression as a gay man and not being a person of color. I was able to learn enough and identify enough with those impulses to sustain work against racism, and against injustice for most of my life. Specifically, I worked for 11 years at the Puerto Rican High School in Chicago educating young gang kids deep within the community. The fact that they would open the community to let me be part of it, that is something I’m very proud of.
“With the AIDS work,” Eggan said, “the high point was this demonstration we did in Chicago just as I was getting ready to move back to L.A. We did this national action with ACT Ups from [around the country] that tied all the issues together – who was really being discriminated against in the AIDS epidemic and who was really hurting from the AIDS epidemic. For some people some of this stuff is inescapable because it’s been a history of racism for the 200 years the United States has been around. Some of it is symptomatic of larger problems…and we were able to fight against that, in ACT UP and the Gay Liberation Front and other organizations I’ve been involved with.”
In 1993, after the successful leadership of Dave Johnson and Phill Wilson as the first two L.A. City AIDS Coordinators, AIDS activists felt Eggan was perfect for the job. Looking back he modestly selected three high points of achievement: taking the first steps to empower women with HIV; convincing Republican Mayor Richard Riordan to repeatedly declare a state of emergency to circumvent state law to allow needle exchange programs to work; and creating a model for housing called “Safe House” that “took into account what real oppression does to people through drugs and alcohol” and how a healthy living situation can help people rebuild their lives.
Eggan sees an even greater role for the LGBT community ahead. “We’re going to have to take responsibility for each other and I don’t just mean gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people taking care of each other,” he said. “We have a role to play and have always been some of the leaders in pushing for healthcare as something everybody is entitled to.
“We’re human beings and we want all the things that human beings want and if we just limit ourselves to a few crumbs in the civic arena, then we’re not being true to ourselves. We’re just being the same boring people that we didn’t want to grow up to be,” Eggan said. “We don’t need to pre-negotiate and make ourselves nice for the politicians. They’re the ones who are chasing us and I think we should take that role on in a much more serious way again –where we can justifiably be proud of ourselves for thinking not just about our rights but how our rights connect so intrinsically with the way the United States needs to work, or else we won’t have a United States. I think we can have a better world and I hope everybody is able to direct their steps in that direction.”
About his own impending death, Eggan half-joked, “I’m fine with being dead – as long as it doesn’t hurt. I want it to be a departure, not a capitulation – then I feel pretty OK.” Though he’s not religious, Eggan said he has “renewed confidence that however the universe wants to utilize my chemicals, that’s fine with me.”
Meanwhile, that rebelliousness persists. Mary Lucey, a PWA, AIDS policy analyst and one of Eggan’s closest friends, told IN stories about Eggan’s “dark” sense of humor. One time, Lucey took him to a cancer center for chemotherapy treatments that required him to stay in bed for six hours or he would bleed to death. After a nurse found him in the bathroom smoking, he promised to stay in bed. She returned to find him in bed – smoking. He got kicked out
Lucey laughed, noting that she was his medical durable power of attorney and they had talked for hours about every facet of his care. As he left the hospital guards at the curb, Eggan got into Lucey’s car and lit up a cigarette. He paused and said, “We didn’t anticipate this in-patient thing very well.”
“Ferd recognized and helped amplify voices in the AIDS community that were once not listened to, such as women, transgenders, crystal meth and other active drug users,” Eggan’s friend Walt Senterfitt, L.A. County epidemiologist and National Board Chair of Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, told IN. “But in helping these disparate communities gain a place at the table, he encouraged us to all to rise above simply advocating for our own communities, to also find and strengthen our common strengths in order to overcome our common enemies.
“We would not be where we are today if it had not been for people like Ferd,” Dr. Michael Gottlieb told IN. “During his tenure with the City he was a voice of sanity at a very chaotic time. Ferd was a diligent advocate for people living with the virus. Part of the founding generation of AIDS activists, he has been involved with AIDS for the life of the epidemic. Even if there were activist leaders waiting in the wings – and regrettably there aren’t – Ferd Eggan would be irreplaceable.”