World AIDS Day, Sylvester and HIV Stigma

A tribute to a true original and queer icon. Fight HIV/AIDS, not people with HIV/AIDS. #WAD2019 #EndHIVStigma #AIDS

On the first day of December, 1988, the very first World AIDS day was held. A little more than two weeks later, AIDS had taken the life of one the most innovative queer icons in history, Sylvester.

Cover on the Fantasy Records 12″ single for Dance (Disco Heat) and You Make Me Feel Mighty Real. Both songs would chart separately on the Billboard Top 40 and both would reach #1 on the Dance Chart.

Sylvester James was born on the 6th of September, 1947, to a middle-class family in Watts, yes, Watts, a primarily black neighborhood in Los Angeles. Raised in the church but realizing he was gay at a very early age, he dared to be free, open, out and fabulous in the pre-Stonewall era, a risky venture even in so-called “liberal” Los Angeles, as cross-dressing in public was actually illegal at the time. He eventually left the City of Angels for northern California, to San Francisco in 1970, a place at the time known for truly leftist politics and an anything goes attitude.

After a stint with a drag troupe called the Cockettes and releasing two rock albums with a group called the Hot Band in the early 1970’s, Sylvester truly hit his stride beginning with the Disco era, becoming the first openly gay artist to hit the Billboard Top 40 on multiple occasions.

“I’ve never been a crusader, but I’ve always been honest…I’ve never believed in lying or denying what I am to anyone.”

Sylvester to Connie johnson of the L.a. times, SEPTEMBER 10TH, 1988.

By the early 1980’s, Disco had fallen out of favor but supplanted by a new wave of Disco-inspired music, called Hi-NRG. Patrick Cowley, Sylvester’s collaborator and producer of his biggest Disco hits, formed a new dance-oriented label, and he and Sylvester crafted several well-received Dance albums in this new sub-genre.

Sylvester’s last proper studio while he was alive came out in 1986, when he found out he was infected with HIV disease. In his will, Sylvester gave any and all future royalties from his recordings to two San Francisco AIDS charities, AIDS Emergency Fund, which helps provide rental assistance services and Project Open Hand, which operates a food bank.

Sylvester, undated. Photo by Mick Hicks, courtesy of the Bay Area Reporter.

In an interview given to the Los Angeles Times in September of 1988, Sylvester openly wondered why Blacks were becoming infected at a higher rate than others, and openly revealed his diagnosis to encourage others to not be afraid.

Though Blacks in the U.S. account for about 13% of the entire population, they accounted for 43% of all new HIV infections, according to Centers for Disease Control 2017 data, the most recent available. In this same report, Latinos accounted for 26% of all new infections. Women also made up 19% of all new infections. And, Trans persons, some of whom are a part of these other groups, also face higher rates of new infection than that of non-Trans persons, especially in the Southern U.S. These groups of people have long been ignored due to a variety of factors, with racism, Transphobia, homophobia, access to affordable healthcare and HIV stigma being primary among them.

The cover of Bazaar, 1974, Sylvester and the Hot Band. Courtesy of Blue Thumb Recordings.

And for any white people who might feel left out, guess what: new HIV rates for whites in rural areas of the U.S. have skyrocketed in the last several years, much of this due to the attitude that HIV is a disease as something only gays can get. To all of you, remember these very sobering things the next time you support someone at the ballot box who is anti-HIV education, anti-science or anti-affordable healthcare. Because guess what: HIV disease has no enemies, and is an equal opportunity destroyer.

First Part

  • Do You Wanna Funk (Hi-NRG mix), 1982, All I Need
  • You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) (single mix), 1978, Step II
  • Over and Over, 1977, Sylvester
  • Taking Love Into My Own Hands, 1984, M-1015
  • On Your Knees, 1974, Bazaar (Sylvester and the Hot Band)

Second Part

  • Dance (Disco Heat) (album version), 1978, Step II
  • Stars (album version), 1979, Stars


  • Sharing Something Perfect Between Ourselves (live), 1979, Living Proof
  • You Are My Friend (live), 1979, Living Proof

Love to you all.

Ben “Daddy Ben Bear” Brown Jr. 
Host, Producer, Webmaster, Audio Engineer, Researcher and Writer

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