Sandra Thompson: Fierce and Fabulous

40

Ugh! What a time we’re in! The film festivals I wrote about earlier this month have both been postponed (The Women’s Film Festival will be in June and qFLIX will follow in July). This week’s portrait, Sandra Thompson, was supposed to have been honored at the Black Tie Gay Bingo event on the 23rd, but that too has been postponed. But at least we have a chance to honor her here. Thompson is a low key, behind the scenes type of honoree, not interested in the accolades, but agreed to be interviewed just to shed light on some of the causes and organizations she’s worked with over the years. It’s a long list that includes the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, Liberty City Democrats, the Center for Responsible Funding, and the LGBT Elder Initiative. She is being honored with the very first Fierce and Fabulous Award.

Ugh! What a time we’re in! The film festivals I wrote about earlier this month have both been postponed (The Women’s Film Festival will be in June and qFLIX will follow in July). This week’s portrait, Sandra Thompson, was supposed to have been honored at the Black Tie Gay Bingo event on the 23rd, but that too has been postponed. But at least we have a chance to honor her here. Thompson is a low key, behind the scenes type of honoree, not interested in the accolades, but she agreed to be interviewed just to shed light on some of the causes and organizations she’s worked with over the years. It’s a long list that includes the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, Liberty City Democrats, the Center for Responsible Funding and the LGBT Elder Initiative. She is being honored with the very first Fierce and Fabulous Award.

I know you’ve been involved with a lot of nonprofit and service-oriented organizations over the years. Who in your family inspired you?

I would probably say my mother and my brother. My brother has cerebral palsy and is severely disabled. My mother was a very strong advocate for services for him because when he was young, it was very hard to get an adequate education for him given his disability. 

Is he your only sibling?

No, I’m the oldest of four. I have another brother and a sister.

Tell me a little bit about the Thompson household. 

Well, our parents died when we were fairly young. My mother died when I was 13; my father died when I was 17. My brother, as I said, has cerebral palsy, and I had Guillain-Barré when I was 4. I was paralyzed for a year. Despite that, we were a fairly lively household until my mother got sick. When she died, we went to live with my grandmother. My father was not able to cope with my mother’s illness and wasn’t able to handle four children all under the age of 12.  

What was it that paralyzed you? 

Guillain-Barré, it’s a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. When I was first diagnosed, in 1954, they said I had polio, which was rampant in the country.

So it sounds like you were probably the responsible one in the family.

Yeah, I was. My grandmother was very old, so for a while, it was mainly just the four of us trying to get by. My father was around occasionally, but he had a very, very difficult time after the death of my mother. I believe my father died of a broken heart. He just never was able to get past her death. 

How did she die?

She had cancer, and he had a heart attack. 

And yet, with all that going on, you still managed to get yourself into school and get a degree? 

It took a while, but I did. It took 10 years to get my bachelor’s degree.

You just fought step by step. 

Yep. A course here and a course there. 

As a kid, were you a serious person as a result of having to take an adult role? And what kind of stuff were you into?

I was actually pretty easy going. We grew up in an old-fashioned neighborhood, where there were kids and families, moms and dads in the street. Kids today don’t play outside today, but that’s where we lived. That’s where all the entertainment was. You’d get up in the morning, have breakfast, get dressed and out the door you’d go. And you didn’t come back in until you were hungry again. I was the oldest one on the block. But I enjoyed playing baseball and football and riding my skateboard.

I’m impressed! I would only get on a skateboard if I was covered in pillows, and there were four people holding me.

[Laughing] Oh, at the time you would have. Everybody was on skateboards! 

Nope, not me. Skipping forward, you got your bachelor’s degree from Marywood University. Where’s that? 

It’s in Scranton. I got there through a friend who was one of the first men to be admitted to the school. He was friends with the director of admissions who gave me an interview. I finished my last two years of college there. 

With so many schools in Philadelphia, how’d you end up in Scranton? 

Well, I grew up in Erie, remember? [Laughing] Well, not remember since I don’t think I mentioned that yet. I’m from Erie, Pennsylvania. 

I don’t know much about Erie. 

Well, it was a very industrial town, though it isn’t anymore, you know, most of the industrial towns in the U.S. are gone. But at the time, it was the third-largest city in the state. Now it’s a relatively depressed area. But it was a nice place to grow up, a safe community. A very family-oriented community, and it was fun. I still go back once a month to help with my brother.

How did you get from Erie to Philadelphia?

I had accepted a job in Scranton, where I graduated. But the job was actually something I could have done without a degree, so at the encouragement of several friends, I moved to Philadelphia to look for a job.

What was your first job here? 

My first job was as a director of community living arrangements for Interact Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center.

What was your first impression of Philadelphia? 

I loved it. The first time I came down to visit, my friend took me down Ben Franklin Parkway. The flags were out, it was spring and I fell in love with the city.

I live in Brewerytown. Every time I come up the Ben Franklin Parkway, I shout out by myself in the car, “I love my city! It’s so pretty!” How did you get so involved with HIV and AIDS work? 

Actually, it was kind of by accident. I got a job with BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues). And that’s what started my work in HIV and AIDS. I had been working in developmental disabilities for about 20 years — doing work in the deinstitutionalization movement, moving people from institutions to community, working with people with disabilities, primarily mental retardation. And then I went to work for United Way, and from there, I went to the YWCA in Philadelphia. I was looking for something new, and someone suggested I come and talk to the folks at the BEBASHI. They were looking for some consultants.

Were you out at that point? 

Oh yeah, I didn’t have an official coming out. I guess I was quite never in. For me, I was always kind of a tomboy. The last time I had a dress on was May 30, 1976, when I graduated from college!

When did you meet your first partner?  

Rebecca, she’s the first and only; we’ve been together for 42 years. 

Wow. So you got that U-Haul from the start. Since you’ve been working in the HIV/AIDS field, what are some of the medical and social changes that you’ve seen over the years? 

I think the social aspects have been significant. There’s more acceptance. With the new drugs and education and changing attitudes, it’s not as difficult for people to talk about it. I mean, there are commercials on prime time television. Actually, there’s almost acceptance to the point of complacency, unfortunately. And on the same level, it’s meant fewer dollars from the community for the fight because people kind of think it’s over. It’s not. 

I remember stories of ambulance workers not wanting to transport patients, and people being denied burial. What was the most egregious thing that you remember from that time?

I was doing more organizing than direct service. I was working on a federal grant to work with groups in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia to organize nonprofits like BEBASHI to work with people of color. But our staff would go to visit someone in the hospital, and they’d have to wear full masks, gowns and gloves. People in their parents’ homes would have to eat off of paper plates and use paper cups because the family didn’t want them using the same silverware. People were alone because only a small number of folks would come to visit or would want to have anything to do with them. 

It was a rough time. You also worked at St. Mary’s Respite Center, providing respite care for HIV infected and affected infants and toddlers. Any stories from that time stand out? 

 We had a little girl in the program who was living with her family, and they decided to move her to a new program, but they didn’t want to tell anyone there about her HIV status. She had HIV medication that she needed to take, but they didn’t want the school to know. So she wasn’t taking it, and she got sick, so they brought her back to St. Mary’s. It was at a time when people didn’t want anyone to know that their kids were infected. 

I remember the whole Ryan White case. How did she thrive when she got back with you guys? 

She did fine. She stayed with us for about three years, all told. 

A happy ending. You’re working in fields that can be very heavy, I would imagine. So what do you do for self-care if things become overwhelming? 

I try not to bring work home. And I’ve been out of the field for a while now. 

What do you currently do?

I’m the interim director of grantmaking at the Bread and Roses Fund. 

That’s got to be fun!  

It is fun. I love giving away money. I loved it when I was with the Philadelphia Foundation, I loved it when I was with DVLF, and I love it now. As somebody who has spent a number of years begging for money for organizations, it’s great to be able to give it away. 

How much interaction do you have with the organizations once you give them money? Do you get to enjoy seeing them flourish? 

We get progress reports. But before we give away money, we do interviews, so we get to have folks come in and talk to us about what it is that they’re doing. And it’s really interesting. We just did some criminal justice grants and I’ve learned so much about the criminal justice system that I didn’t know. Folks that are organizing on behalf of people coming out of prison. So the work is very interesting. I’m learning a lot.

I’d imagine. Writing for the newspaper, I learn about different people and different jobs and causes all the time. Let me get to some totally random questions here. Have you been to Gay Bingo? 

Oh, God, yes. I was president of the board at the AIDS fund for several years. So we went to Gay Bingo all the time. I had the same seat every time I went! I love gay bingo. 

What was one of your favorite themes? 

Oh, I don’t know, I can’t think of just one. It was just so much fun, every time. One of my favorite characters is Carlotta Tendant. She just keeps it popping!

For someone who’s never been, give us a description of how much fun it is and why it’s important. 

It’s a bunch of fun, lots of laughter, and it can get pretty wild. The language can be a little racy too. But it’s for a very serious issue, raising money for HIV and AIDS. Right now, we’re raising money to give emergency grants for people that may need help or grant money to buy a refrigerator or any number of emergency kinds of need.

 Let’s talk just a little bit more about the fact that for such a long time, HIV/AIDS was such a huge part of the zeitgeist, and now it seems to, as you said, have gotten pushed back out of people’s consciousness. Why is it important for folks, especially younger folks, to be aware of the situation and what the AIDS Fund is doing?

Well, one of the issues is that the rate of infection is slowly creeping back. There was a young man at BEBASHI, and I remember he said, I don’t know a world without AIDS. Using a condom and safer sex was just part of the way he grew up. But now with medication, people are tending to go away from safer sex because people are thinking it’s been cured, so there’s no risk. The work of organizations like the AIDS Fund is to make sure that it stays on the table for people to understand that it’s still very real and that they’re still at risk. 

What’s a memorable historic event that you’ve been to or one that you wished you’d gone to? 

I wish I had gone to the March on Washington. I was young, and it was around the time that my mother was quite ill.

What book would I find on your nightstand? 

I like Lisa Scottoline. Her books are set in Philadelphia, which is fun. I’m reading another book right now that I’m enjoying very much, “Long Bright River.” The author, Liz Moore, is also from Philadelphia. It’s about a police officer in Kensington, and her sister is an injection drug user, and it shows what they are going through. It’s close to home because I’m also on the board of Prevention Point. 

Are there any boards you’re not on!

Ha! It sounds like I’m on them all, doesn’t it!

Pet Peeve?

The current administration, they’re driving me crazy. I often find myself ranting. 

Favorite sport to watch?

Baseball. We’ve been Sunday Series holders for years. Go Phillies! 

Ugh! What a time we’re in! The film festivals I wrote about earlier this month have both been postponed (The Women’s Film Festival will be in June and qFLIX will follow in July). This week’s portrait, Sandra Thompson, was supposed to have been honored at the Black Tie Gay Bingo event on the 23rd, but that too has been postponed. But at least we have a chance to honor her here. Thompson is a low key, behind the scenes type of honoree, not interested in the accolades, but agreed to be interviewed just to shed light on some of the causes and organizations she’s worked with over the years. It’s a long list that includes the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, Liberty City Democrats, the Center for Responsible Funding, and the LGBT Elder Initiative. She is being honored with the very first Fierce and Fabulous Award.

I know you’ve been involved with a lot of non-profit and service oriented organizations over the years. Who in your family inspired you?

I would probably say, my mother and my brother. My brother has cerebral palsy and is severely disabled. My mother was a very strong advocate for services for him because when he was young it was very hard to get an adequate education for him given his disability. 

Is he your only sibling?

No, I’m the oldest of four. I have another brother and a sister.

Tell me a little bit about the Thompson household. 

Well, our parents died when we were fairly young. My mother died when I was 13, my father died when I was 17. My brother, as I said, has cerebral palsy and I had Guillain-Barré when I was 4, I was paralyzed for a year. Despite that, we were a fairly lively household until my mother got sick. When she died we went to live with my grandmother. My father was not able to cope with my mother’s illness, and wasn’t able to handle four children all under the age of 12.  

What was it that paralyzed you? 

Guillain-Barré, it’s a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. When I was first diagnosed, in 1954, they said I had polio which was rampant in the country.

My father had polio, and he then ended up getting Post Polio Syndrome, later in life. They originally told him it was in his head but later found that people who had polio when they were younger were experiencing new symptoms having to do with the muscle and nerve systems when they hit middle age. He ended up having to go out on disability again after years of working. 

Wow, I’ll have to go back and do some research on Guillain-Barré because I’m having some nerve problems in my back. I wonder if it’s similar. 

So it sounds like you were probably the responsible one in the family.

Yeah, I was. My grandmother was very old so, for a while it was mainly just the four of us trying to get by. My father was around occasionally, but he had a very, very difficult time after the death of my mother. I believe my father died of a broken heart. He just never was able to get past her death. 

How did she die?

She had cancer and he had a heart attack. 

And yet, with all that going on you still managed to get yourself into school and get a degree? 

It took a while, but I did. It took 10 years to get my bachelor’s degree.

You just fought step by step. 

Yep. A course here and a course there. 

As a kid, were you a serious person as a result of having to take an adult role? And what kind of stuff were you into?

I was actually pretty easy going. We grew up in an old fashioned neighborhood, where there were kids and families, moms and dads in the street. Kids today don’t play outside today, but that’s where we lived. That’s where all the entertainment was. You’d get up in the morning, have breakfast, get dressed and out the door you’d go. And you didn’t come back in until you were hungry again. I was the oldest one on the block. But I enjoyed playing baseball and football and riding my skateboard.

I’m impressed! I would only get on a skateboard if I was covered in pillows and there were four people holding me.

[Laughing] Oh, at the time you would have. Everybody was on skateboards! 

Nope, not me. Skipping forward, you got your bachelor’s degree from Marywood University. Where’s that? 

It’s in Scranton. I got there through a friend who was one of the first men to be admitted to the school. He was friends with the director of admissions who gave me an interview, I finished my last two years of college there. 

With so many schools in Philadelphia, how’d you end up in Scranton? 

Well, I grew up in Erie, remember? [Laughing] Well, not remember since I don’t think I mentioned that yet. I’m from Erie, Pennsylvania. 

I don’t know much about Erie. 

Well, it was a very industrial town, though it isn’t anymore, you know, most of the industrial towns in the US are gone. But at the time it was the third largest city in the state. Now it’s a relatively depressed area. But it was a nice place to grow up, a safe community. A very family oriented community and it was fun. I still go back once a month to help with my brother.

How did you get from Erie to Philadelphia?

I had accepted a job in Scranton where I graduated. But the job was actually something I could have done without a degree so at the encouragement of several friends, I moved to Philadelphia to look for a job.

What was your first job here? 

My first job was as a director of community living arrangements for Interact Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation center.

What was your first impression of Philadelphia? 

I loved it. The first time I came down to visit, my friend took me down Ben Franklin Parkway. The flags were out, it was spring and I fell in love with the city.

I live in Brewerytown. Every time I come up the Ben Franklin Parkway I shout out by myself in the car, “I love my city! It’s so pretty!” How did you get so involved with HIV and AIDS work? 

Actually it was kind of by accident. I got a job with BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues). And that’s what started my work in HIV and AIDS. I had been working in developmental disabilities for about 20 years. Doing work in the deinstitutionalization movement, moving people from institutions to community, working with people with disabilities, primarily mental retardation. And then I went to work for United Way, and from there, I went to the YWCA in Philadelphia. I was looking for something new and someone suggested I come and talk to the folks at the BEBASHI. They were looking for some consultants.

Were you out at that point? 

Oh yeah, I didn’t have an official coming out. I guess I was quite never in. For me, I was always kind of a tomboy. The last time I had a dress on was May 30th, 1976, when I graduated from college!

[Laughing] I think my last time was when I was a teen at my grandparents 50th anniversary and I cried the whole time because my mother made me wear a velvet skirt with a big plaid bow on it! 

Oh, my God! 

I think I may have worn one or two dresses since then, but that sticks out. 

I’m sure. 

When did you meet your first partner?  

Rebecca, she’s the first and only, we’ve been together for 42 years. 

Wow. So you got that U-Haul from the start. Since you’ve been working in the HIV/AIDS field, what are some of the medical and social changes that you’ve seen over the years? 

I think the social aspects have been significant. There’s more acceptance. With the new drugs and education and changing attitudes, it’s not as difficult for people to talk about it. I mean, there are commercials on prime time television. Actually, there’s almost acceptance to the point of complacency, unfortunately. And on the same level, it’s meant fewer dollars from the community for the fight because people kind of think it’s over. It’s not. 

I remember stories of ambulance workers not wanting to transport patients, and people being denied burial. What was the most egregious thing that you remember from that time?

I was doing more organizing than direct service. I was working on a federal grant to work with groups in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia to organize non-profits like BEBASHI to work with people of color. But our staff would go to visit someone in the hospital and they’d have to wear full masks, gowns and gloves. People in their parents’ homes would have to eat off of paper plates and use paper cups because the family didn’t want them using the same silverware. People were alone because only a small number of folks would come to visit or would want to have anything to do with them. 

It was a rough time. You also worked at St. Mary’s Respite Center providing respite care for HIV infected and affected infants and toddlers. Any stories from that time standout? 

We had a little girl in the program who was living with her family and they decided to move her to a new program, but they didn’t want to tell anyone there about her HIV status. She had HIV medication that she needed to take, but they didn’t want the school to know. So she wasn’t taking it and she got sick so they brought her back to St. Mary’s. It was at a time when people didn’t want anyone to know that their kids were infected. 

I remember the whole Ryan White case. How did she thrive when she got back with you guys? 

She did fine. She stayed with us for about 3 years, all told. 

A happy ending. You’re working in fields that can be very heavy, I would imagine. So what do you do for self-care if things become overwhelming? 

I try not to bring work home. And I’ve been out of the field for a while now. 

What do you do currently?

I’m the interim director of grant making at the Bread and Roses Fund. 

That’s got to be fun!  

It is fun. I love giving away money. I loved it when I was with the Philadelphia Foundation, I loved it when I was with DVLF and I love it now. As somebody who has spent a number of years begging for money for organizations, it’s great to be able to give it away. 

That would be a dream job of mine. I always fantasize about being that guy who plays secret Santa and gives away a ton of cash at Christmas.

Yeah, it’s great.

How much interaction do you have with the organizations once you give them money? Do you get to enjoy seeing them flourish? 

We get progress reports. But before we give away money, we do interviews, so we get to have folks come in and talk to us about what it is that they’re doing. And it’s really interesting. We just did some criminal justice grants and I’ve learned so much about the criminal justice system that I didn’t know. Folks that are organizing on behalf of people coming out of prison. So the work is very interesting. I’m learning a lot.

I’d imagine. Writing for the newspaper, I learn about different people and different jobs and causes all the time. Let me get to some totally random questions here. Have you been to Gay Bingo? 

Oh, God, yes. I was president of the board at the AIDS fund for several years. So we went to Gay Bingo all the time. I had the same seat every time I went! I love gay bingo. 

What was one of your favorite themes? 

Oh, I don’t know, I can’t think of just one. It was just so much fun, every time. One of my favorite characters is Carlotta Tendant. She just keeps it popping!

For someone who’s never been, give us a description of how much fun it is and why it’s important. 

It’s a bunch of fun, lots of laughter and it can get pretty wild. The language can be a little racy too. But it’s for a very serious issue, raising money for HIV and AIDS. Right now, we’re raising money to give emergency grants for people that may need help or grant money to buy a refrigerator or any number of emergency kinds of need.

Let’s talk just a little bit more about the fact that for such a long time, HIV/AIDS was such a huge part of the zeitgeist, and now it seems to, as you said, have gotten pushed back out of people’s consciousness. Why is it important for folks, especially younger folks, to be aware of the situation and what the AIDS Fund is doing?

Well, one of the issues is that the rate of infection is slowly creeping back. There was a young man at BEBASHI and I remember he said, I don’t know a world without AIDS. Using a condom and safer sex was just part of the way he grew up. But now with medication, people are tending to go away from safer sex because people are thinking it’s been cured so there’s no risk. The work of organizations like the AIDS Funds to make sure that it stays on the table for people, to understand that it’s still very real, and that they’re still at risk. 

What’s a memorable historic event that you’ve been to or one that you wished you’d gone to? 

I wish I had gone to the March on Washington. I was young and it was around the time that my mother was quite ill.

What book would I find on your night stand? 

I like Lisa Scottoline. Her books are set in Philadelphia which is fun. I’m reading another book right now that I’m enjoying very much, “Long Bright River”. The author, Liz Moore, is also from Philadelphia. It’s about a police officer in Kensington and her sister is an injection drug user and it shows what they are going through. It’s close to home because I’m also on the board of Prevention Point. 

Are there any boards you’re not on!

Ha! It sounds like I’m on them all doesn’t it!

Pet Peeve?

The current administration, they’re driving me crazy. I often find myself ranting. 

Favorite sport to watch?

Baseball. We’ve been Sunday Series holders for years. Go Phillies!