Freddie didn’t announce publicly that he had AIDS until the day before he died in 1991. Although he was flamboyant onstage — an electric front man on par with Bowie and Jagger — he was an intensely private man offstage. But Freddie told me he had AIDS soon after he was diagnosed in 1987. I was devastated. I’d seen what the disease had done to so many of my other friends. I knew exactly what it was going to do to Freddie. As did he. He knew death, agonizing death, was coming. But Freddie was incredibly courageous. He kept up appearances, he kept performing with Queen, and he kept being the funny, outrageous, and profoundly generous person he had always been.
As Freddie deteriorated in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it was almost too much to bear. It broke my heart to see this absolute light unto the world ravaged by AIDS. By the end, his body was covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. He was almost blind. He was too weak to even stand.
By all rights, Freddie should have spent those final days concerned only with his own comfort. But that wasn’t who he was. He truly lived for others. Freddie had passed on November 24, 1991, and weeks after the funeral, I was still grieving. On Christmas Day, I learned that Freddie had left me one final testament to his selflessness. I was moping about when a friend unexpectedly showed up at my door and handed me something wrapped in a pillowcase. I opened it up, and inside was a painting by one of my favorite artists, the British painter Henry Scott Tuke. And there was a note from Freddie. Years before, Freddie and I had developed pet names for each other, our drag-queen alter egos. I was Sharon, and he was Melina. Freddie’s note read, “Dear Sharon, thought you’d like this. Love, Melina. Happy Christmas.”
I was overcome, forty-four years old at the time, crying like a child. Here was this beautiful man, dying from AIDS, and in his final days, he had somehow managed to find me a lovely Christmas present. As sad as that moment was, it’s often the one I think about when I remember Freddie, because it captures the character of the man. In death, he reminded me of what made him so special in life.
Freddie touched me in a way few people ever have, and his brave, private struggle with AIDS is something that inspires me to this day. But his illness, I’m ashamed to admit, wasn’t enough to spur me to greater action. I’ve railed against government and religious leaders who were indifferent to or who actively undermined the fight against AIDS. They deserve every bit of criticism I’m throwing their way. They could have done so much more.
I could have done so much more, too.