Randy Pumphrey, Amplifying the Memories of Long-Term Survivors
As part of Whitman-Walker 40th anniversary, officially January 13, 2018, we’re sharing 40 stories to help tell the narrative of the Whitman-Walker community. Please meet Randy Pumphrey! Today, Randy is the Senior Director of Behavioral Health at Whitman-Walker. Randy shares his journey with sexuality, faith and loss as a DC resident and chaplain at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital at the height of the AIDS crisis. Randy reflects on how his interconnected history with the AIDS crisis and Whitman-Walker impacts the care he provides today.
Click the orange play button below to hear Randy’s 2018 oral history – a recorded interview with an individual having personal knowledge of past events.
Four Quotes from Randy’s Oral History
On the First Time He Heard about HIV:
“Yeah. So, it was – it was right – I started seminary in ’81 and the first signs of HIV were really hitting in New York and San Francisco and it hadn’t really appeared too much in DC, but I was still just emerging into the DC community. But a friend of mine who was a professor of mine at Towson [University] who I’d become really close with had gone on to get a PhD in Epidemiology and had written me a letter, and in the letter she – she was working on the first research around this new virus that they were seeing. And she wrote me a note and said, “Just be really careful. There’s something out there that can kill you,” and so, I knew that something was coming, and it wouldn’t be until I was in Boston for that semester and summer that I would start seeing more and more in the New York Native about HIV. And so, when I came back to the city – came back to Wesley [Theological Seminary], which was 1983, suddenly my friends started dying. I mean, the deaths started then for me in my world, meaning I came back and the guy who cut my hair died, then you know, another friend died, and another friend died and then somebody else got – people started getting diagnosed. So, it started accelerating and then it became this new reality. Like, it wasn’t just about being a gay man; it was about being a gay man living in a world where HIV existed, with this idea that, you know, all of my friends who were in their 20s – like, between 25 and 31 – were dying pretty quickly. And so, I began having this concept that there would not – this was all there would be. I wouldn’t ever live to be where I am today. I would never make it.”
On Sexual Freedom:
“So, I think – and this is kind of a funny example of what it meant. One of the things that I really loved as a young gay man coming out was this embracing of sexual freedom, and even to the point of going out to a gay nightclub and people pulling off – young men pulling off their shirts and dancing wildly through the night, how liberating that experience was of embracing ourselves and being proud of ourselves and loving each other and enjoying our sexuality. And suddenly, HIV hit and especially in a place like Washington, DC that at that time was far more conservative than it is now – kind of tied up with the federal government – what I realized is nobody took their shirts off anymore. That people kept their shirts on. Now, part of that was people were afraid that they might have a lesion on them or something would be discovered, that they were HIV or had, you know, lesions or something – some telltale sign of it. But the other part was there was a shutting down of what sex or sexuality looked like, and the message was, you know, condoms and safe sex and ‘How do you protect yourself?’ And there was this moment a couple years later. I remember many friends had died, but I was dancing in a nightclub with a friend of mine and I think I just had this moment of revelation as if it didn’t matter anymore. If I was going to die, I was going to die, but I was going to die this way. And I remember with my friend – I pulled off my shirt. No one else had their shirt off, but I remember pulling off my shirt and my friend who was dancing with me – he just started – he looked at me, like, his eyes, and he pulled his shirt off. And we were just dancing, and all of these guys were just looking at us like, ‘This is – you can’t do this.’ And then all of a sudden, it was like one by one, people started pulling their shirts off and I thought, ‘It’s happening. Like, we’re taking back our lives. This disease, this virus can’t take us away. It can’t abduct our lives. We can live despite it.’ And so, I think that’s – for me, that moment was a transformational moment of saying, ‘No, we’re going to embrace our sexual lives regardless.’”
On His Work as a Chaplain, Specifically with His Friend, Bruce:
“I was giving them – I was giving them a lot of my energy in order to die, but I was also learning from them. One of the experiences I had with my friend Bruce. Bruce would be my friend Tommy, who I came out with in college – his partner, who he would be with – he would start dating in college and afterwards, and Bruce would die at 27 of AIDS, and I would go and see Bruce after hours because I could get in as a chaplain and we would talk about dying. And the thing I said to him was, you know – I remember I said, ‘Is anybody talking to you about dying?’ He said, ‘No. Everybody’s afraid to,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ll talk to you about it, but I don’t know how to die, so you’re going to have to teach me. So, let’s do it together.’ But the one thing we did learn was – I was learning meditational practices at the time, so I was integrating them in the stuff that we were doing together in kind of early preparation of what we would do when he finally died, when he got to that place. Which, when I finally got the call that he was dying, we did, and we were able to gather his friends, have a death that was very sacred. It was funny, because I – well, not funny. There were two incredible moments. One was I had this dream – I had two dreams during this time with Bruce. One of the dreams was I – there was this, like, very large boa constrictor and it was winding itself around my body. And – and it was getting tighter and tighter, and it was just looking me right in the face. And I woke up, and I thought – I woke up and I couldn’t hardly breathe, and I just sat on the edge of the bed and thought, ‘It’s Bruce. I have to pray for Bruce.’ And so, when I went to the hospital the next day, I said, ‘Is everything okay?’ and he said, ‘Did you hear me last night?’ And I said, ‘What the hell was going on?’ and he said, ‘I woke up in the middle of the night and it was as if Death was a snake that was wrapping itself around me, and it was looking me right in the eyes and I was so afraid.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my God. That’s exactly what I saw. Like, and I knew it was you. I knew it was you.’”
On the Strength of Long-Term Survivors:
“I have a lot of empathy and feeling for the guys who are my age who are still alive who were told that they were going to die. I mean, they were 20-something-year-old men who were told that they would die in two years, and now they’re 60 – 55, 60, 65-year-old men who are still alive and they’re dealing – and they were the guys who were the guinea pigs of research, trying to figure out solutions, many of whom went through very toxic regimens trying to stay alive and wear the battle scars of that research – compared to sort of the advertising that says – which is true, you know, that now we have new treatments and simple regimens. But they survived the really hard days, so when I listen to them – and I have several clients who are long-terms survivors who really struggle with what it means to be turning 60 and wondering, you know, in a normal life, maybe they could live to be 80 but maybe with HIV they’re only going to live to be 70. So, possibly maybe this is another time where they’re being told – or at least the narrative is, ‘I don’t actually have as much time left as other people do because I’ve been living with this for such a long time.’”