In Memoriam: Sue and Richard

Since Katja first began her work on The Graying of AIDS in 2006, we have lost a number of the extraordinary people profiled in our project to a variety of AIDS- and/or aging-related illnesses. We are deeply saddened to report the recent passing of two more of our much-beloved participants: Sue Saunders (age 78) and Richard Kearns (age 60).

We are tremendously grateful to Sue, Richard, and all of those profiled in Graying for their generous storytelling, their vigorous activism, their commitment, and their humor. They will be sorely missed.

Sue Saunders, 1933 – 2012


In my last conversation with Sue, she expressed her frustration with not being able to go out to educate any longer – that those years of her life had irrevocably passed.  I had called to tell her about the latest publication that wanted to use her quotes and images, and reminded her that that her words and message were continuing to resonate with all the people who watched her Graying of AIDS video portrait.

Everyone I speak to about Sue’s story tells me how deeply affected they are by her candor and verve, and it was by no means an exaggeration to tell her that she continued to be out there, busy advocating, even if her back pains and the trouble she had relearning how to walk after breaking a hip kept her confined to the house more than she appreciated. It really cheered her up, and I was looking forward to telling her the great news that we were now able to make a short film solely focusing on women aging with HIV, and to ask if she wanted to do us the honor of being a part of that project.

She will be missed, but her example will guide and inspire this film in the making, just as her outspoken activism provided many with a much needed role model and cheerleader during a crucial time in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.

– Katja


Richard Kearns, 1951 – 2012


When I went out to visit my folks in Los Angeles a while back, Richard and I spent an afternoon together. I picked him up in my parents’ car and asked him what he wanted for lunch; he lived inland and depended on various bus lines to get around, and he wanted the ocean. We rolled the windows down and headed to Malibu.

Breathing in the sharp salty air and looking out over the Pacific, driving around LA, and walking the aisles at Safeway while picking up some groceries and other necessities, Richard graciously introduced me to the world through his eyes and his memories. We talked about the people he loved and missed, about remembering, and about dementia; about how damn hard it is to get to the doctor or the market when you are feeling weak and the buses rarely come; about care providers who had abused and marginalized outspoken patients and others who nurtured and supported those patients when their colleagues weren’t looking; about the many cracks in the system, and what it felt like to fall through them; and about the role of arts and activism in living a life of meaning and being your true self.

Richard was a poet and an activist: words were his weapon and his art, and he was quick and generous with them. With those words and the periods of silence that fell between them he shared his strength and his rage, his hope and his frustration, and he encouraged me to do the same, and to make it matter. He was fierce and beautiful, and his memory will continue to inflame and inspire.

– Naomi


Some time ago, Richard shared a poem with us to be integrated into a future on-line tool promoting the integration of the arts into HIV/AIDS education and training materials. We think it’s beautiful, and speaks for itself:

i miss kissing
a lot
i miss russ
i miss jeff
i miss
too too many more
i miss
your cradling arms
i miss
my head on
your chest
i miss
yours on mine
i miss your

i lived i
am alive i
persist in the
sunlight of
twenty plus
years with AIDS
fifty seven & wondering
if i might
make sixty
if i want to
make sixty
if i can

i used to remember
what the world was
like without AIDS
i have forgotten it
like jeff’s unmoustached
face, like russ’ blue eyelights &
his calloused hands &
the promise we will be
reunited in valhalla
makes their brief images
flick like autumn-shadow’d leaves
‘cross my inner fisheye
subliminal subluminal
insubstantial & perhaps

socrates was a faggot
in addition to being a
man, most mortal
he is my grandfather
bickering plato too
writing it all down
they are our gay
forbears their
persistence in pursuit
of wisdom — their love —
is a signature
of their gay passions
matured & winelike
we are gay because
we cannot live
unexamined lives & thus
betray ourselves to
truth’s call to action

i died & came back
as myself
my plumbing isn’t what
it used to be but my heart
works better than ever
kiss me deep & long &
today & taste my joy &
think of how to say

—richard kearns