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A Light During Darkest Days of AIDS: Hat Sister John Michael Gray Dies

From left: O'Connor and Gray

Gray and his husband, Tim O'Connor, graced Pride and charity events in outrageous hats and helped raise money for a variety of causes.

Massachusetts activist John Michael Gray, who appeared with his husband, Tim O'Connor, as the Hat Sisters at many gay and AIDS-related events in Boston and Provincetown, has died of cancer.

The two men had been creating and sporting fabulous hats since the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. They "joyously and generously entertained" others "in time of great social turbulence, profound illness, isolation and heartbreak in the gay community," notes a GoFundMe page set up to help cover Gray's medical expenses.

A 2011 article in One New England detailed the Hat Sisters' origin: "The Hat Sisters happened quite by accident. John Michael Gray was in Provincetown preparing for the second Provincetown Carnival in 1984. While talking with his significant other, Tim O'Connor, who was back home working in Boston, he spoke of all the costumes and parties he'd seen, and asked Tim what they should wear. Tim's busy schedule prompted him to leave that up to his hubby. 'I'll wear whatever you wear,' he said. With that, John Michael began to create, making two of everything, identical and colorful."

As the Hat Sisters' fame spread, they would appear at numerous gay events and charity fundraisers, benefiting the fights against AIDS, muscular dystrophy, homelessness, and more. They would sometimes have three events a day on their schedules, and they often donated their hats to charity auctions. And every June they would flip the switch to light the Pride Tree in Boston's South End, the Boston edition of Edge reports.

"No trip to P-Town was ever complete until the Hat Sisters appeared, always to loud acclaim from everyone in the room," adds blogger Joe Jervis at JoeMyGod.

In the late 1980s cartoonist Eric Orner made them recurring characters in his syndicated comic strip "The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green," which ran in LGBT publications around the U.S. until 2004, bringing the Hat Sisters national recognition. The strip was the basis for a 2005 movie of the same name, with Richard Riehle and Joel Brooks portraying the duo.

O'Connor survives.

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