Rodger McFarlane, AIDS, Gay Community Builder, Dead at 54

Rodger McFarlane — whose organization-building roles at groups from Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) in the early 1980s to the Gill Foundation in the new century put him at the center of AIDS and gay philanthropic and political activity for more than 25 years — has died at age 54.

Dr. Howard Grossman, a leading AIDS physician in New York during the epidemic's first two decades, recalled McFarlane's gifts as a caregiver — indeed, in 1998, he wrote “The Complete Bedside Companion: No Nonsense Advice on Caring for the Seriously Ill” — and said, “As a practitioner, my work would have been almost impossible without what he set up at GMHC.” Grossman said what distinguished McFarlane from the many other committed AIDS activists from the period was that “he was a truth-teller.”

Despite McFarlane's work in making sure that tens of thousands of New Yorkers living with or dying from AIDS had access to services, care, and social support, he died alone, on May 15, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, in a park outside the spa town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, where he had been living for the past several months, after his departure as executive director of Gill late last year.

According to a statement released by family members and friends, McFarlane, whose body was found by a biker, left a note explaining he was unwilling to allow what one friend termed “excruciating” back pain and a worsening heart condition to lead to “total debilitation.” The statement from family and friends read, “Already disabled in his own mind, he could no longer work out or do all the outdoor activities he so loved. He was also now faced with the realization that he could literally not travel, making employment increasingly difficult.”

The New Mexico State Police concluded that the cause of death “was a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head.” A call to the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator (placed after the police conclusion was released on May 22) to determine if its investigation had been completed was not immediately returned.

McFarlane, born on February 25, 1955, traveled far from his youth on a farm in Theodore, Alabama. He never graduated from college, joined the Navy in 1974, where he saw service on a nuclear submarine, and moved to New York by the late 1970s, working as a respiratory therapist. Randy Shilts, in his history of the early AIDS epidemic, “And the Band Played On,” described McFarlane, prior to 1981, as a young man enjoying New York's vibrant gay scene who did not feel discrimination due to his homosexuality and could not understand the radicalism of political activists around him.

“It wasn't just me,” he told Gay City News in a 2007 interview. “There was a whole generation of us who were politicized by AIDS. People laying in the emergency room and dying untreated was the reason. I kept saying to Larry Kramer early on, 'Some of these people have been working in civil rights for hundreds of years'… None of us were involved in that. We were at the party.”

Kramer, the playwright and screenwriter who was also among the co-founders of GMHC and went on to sound the call that resulted in ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, in an email message, said of McFarlane, “He was the best fucking friend anyone could ever have.” He also wrote, “He became the most brilliant of strategists… He made GMHC, he made B'way Cares, he made the Gill Foundation. These are magnificent achievements.”

McFarlane in 1982 became the volunteer head of GMHC and served as its first paid executive director from 1983-85. From 1989 through 1994, he was the founding executive director of Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, the theater industry group that has raised millions to support HIV/AIDS service organizations. McFarlane served as executive director of the Gill Foundation, the philanthropic organization founded by gay Denver software entrepreneur Tim Gill, from 2004 through late 2008. He was also instrumental in launching Gill Action, the political lobbying affiliate of the Foundation. At his death, McFarlane was president emeritus of Bailey House, an organization dating to the 1980s that provides supportive housing to homeless New Yorkers living with HIV.

McFarlane's job description as GMHC's executive director reads a lot more formal than the chaos of the time entailed.

“One-hundred twenty-five scared people. And fucked-up people,” he recalled of the first night that he opened the GMHC hotline out of his own apartment. “I mean they were sitting in shit in Mount Sinai and NYU. We had a patient set on fire. This stuff was surreal. We had people literally beaten up with bats and thrown out of their apartments. You can't make this shit up.”

Despite his lifelong friendship with Kramer, the two most decidedly had their ups and downs, particularly after Kramer broke with GMHC (eventually moving toward the direct action approach of ACT UP), dismissing the group as a bunch of “Florence Nightingales.” McFarlane remembered thinking, perhaps even saying, “Don't call me Florence Nightingale, bitch. And you call me in the night when you're sick. You know who you're going to call and you call me whenever one of your friends is sick.”

According to the press statement issued by McFarlane's family and friends — including Kramer, Grossman, Tim Sweeney, who succeeded him as head of Gill, Patrick Guerriero, who runs Gill Action, Tom Viola, executive director of Broadway Cares, and longtime lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the Arcus Foundation — “Rodger had a reputation as a hard-ass. That reputation didn't do him justice.” The statement went on to review McFarlane's legacy as a caregiver.

But Sweeney also noted that McFarlane could come on very strong. “He was very smart and very fast, and did not tolerate fools,” he said, emphasizing his predecessor's irreverence and fondness for colorful language sprinkled with four-letter words. Asked how McFarlane played among the button-down big money crowd, gay and straight, that he courted at Gill, Sweeney said, “I think people really enjoy having characters in their life. Rodger had a ribald sense of humor. People often think you gotta watch that, but many, it turns out, welcome that. Rodger forced essential arguments that were engaging and worth having.”

In 2007, McFarlane was withering in his assessment of how the administration of Mayor Ed Koch failed the city's gay men in those years.

“It was not that they dropped the ball,” he said. “It was more aggressive than that. It's not that they didn't get it. They didn't want to get it. We were in the middle of an economic recovery of New York. The '70s had been horrible here. And they had just turned that corner… It was all about commerce and tourism and corporate headquarters coming back… They dug their heels in.”

Grossman acknowledged that, in the early days of the epidemic, “There were others that yelled as much,” but said McFarlane “managed to dominate a room” — through his combination of intelligence, Southern charm, and a commanding six-foot-six, lean physique.

Grossman believes McFarlane's direct, even domineering style and his talents for offering support and care for others “were of a piece.” Overwhelmed at times by the enormity of the crisis he faced as a physician, Grossman said he would turn for support to McFarlane, who always offered him “a safe place” to discuss his anxieties. Still, “he never let me bullshit him,” he recalled.

In his most recent career endeavor, Sweeney said, McFarlane “really helped Gill sharpen its focus,” moving the organization largely toward a focus on changing policies and laws at the state level, and directing efforts to allow the organization, through its Gill Action affiliate, to have a direct role in lobbying for change.

“The aligning of politics and philanthropy was very important to LGBT donors,” Sweeney said.

McFarlane's passion, though, was in “laying out strategy,” Sweeney explained. “He was a very tough guy to work for and he didn't particularly like managing people.” By late last year, he was ready for a hand-off to a successor. “He felt that he had made his contribution,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney identified another characteristic of McFarlane related to his hobbies as an avid outdoor enthusiast and competitor in extreme sports, and his frequent off-road jeep jaunts — his love of periodic isolation.

“He was just a really complicated man,” Sweeney said. “Brilliant and difficult and accomplished. As you know, he would suck the air out of the room in a meeting and then he would disappear on his own in the desert for several weeks.”

By the time he left Gill, McFarlane had for roughly a year been living with intense back pain that followed major surgery. Sweeney said that McFarlane's height, in particular, made his frequent air travel nearly unbearable. According to Grossman, mitigating that pain would have involved additional major surgery, and in the meanwhile McFarlane learned he had significant heart problems that demanded bypass surgery. Kramer said McFarlane “did not tell anyone about the heart stuff.” Grossman, who was scheduled to take an off-road jeep vacation with him near Las Vegas in the next several weeks, only learned about the heart problems when McFarlane was in New York at the beginning of the month to speak at a Tribeca Film Festival panel held in conjunction with the premiere of “Outrage,” a film about closeted politicians.

McFarlane spent the past several months in Truth or Consequences, happy, according to Grossman, to have a found an artsy small town with a number of ex-New Yorkers and accommodations that cost him only $100 a week. If he was, throughout this period, contemplating suicide as a response to his health challenges, it did not surprise Grossman that he decided to go it alone. Recalling that McFarlane's brother David, who was also gay, died of AIDS in 2002 refusing to take medications that might have kept him alive, Grossman said, “For them, being a patient wasn't something they wanted to do.” He recalled that McFarlane had “always talked about taking himself out if he got sick.” Sweeney said, “I know that he was petrified that he would have a major heart episode and be paralyzed.”

Kramer and his lover David Webster had dinner alone with McFarlane, at his request, in New York the evening after the Tribeca “Outrage” event. “Nowhere did he indicate anything,” Kramer said of their conversation on that occasion, though he added that McFarlane had prepaid his cremation prior to traveling to New York.

Still, Kramer seemed dubious about a Denver Post report that McFarlane had been steadily giving away possessions from the time he left Gill, saying he did not own much beyond paintings, clothing, “his beloved jeep,” and a gun and a rifle. In fact, four years before, McFarlane had gone through a bankruptcy occasioned by roughly $300,000 owed to the IRS and New York State in back taxes.

Sweeney, Kramer, and Grossman all dismissed speculation that McFarlane was wrestling with depression or any other mental health issue that contributed to his decision to take his life. Acknowledging that they were first and foremost work colleagues, Sweeney said he did what he could to keep tabs on McFarlane's health as his pain increased and never had the sense that he was depressed.

Still, Sweeney seems at a loss to fully understand McFarlane's action. “I have no small amount of anger about the tragedy of someone who in his life gave such tender care-taking to those whose bodies were deteriorating not allowing himself that same journey. I am frustrated that he did not want a circle of people to be around him. It makes me feel that in some ways I never really knew this man.”

Grossman and Kramer, intimates of McFarlane going back longer, were more direct in rejecting depression as an explanation of events. Kramer wrote that McFarlane's health problems were “very definitely” intractable. “In his letter to me, he said emphatically that he was not depressed and that we should not feel that there was something that we could have done.” He added, “He refused to become a patient or an invalid.”

According to Grossman, who had helped McFarlane recover from his back surgery 18 months ago, the suicide “was a rationally-made decision.” Asked why someone living with extreme pain and presumably easy access to narcotic pain relievers would choose to shoot himself, he said McFarlane had become intolerant of pills, unable to keep down even anti-nausea medication. “His biggest fear was waking up and finding that he had become a patient,” Grossman said.

“I'm not mad at him,” Grossman concluded. “I am just going to miss him.”

In addition to his many friends, McFarlane is survived by his brothers, John and Robert, and a first cousin, Lulu McFarlane Crawford. Plans for a memorial service have not been finalized.