BY KAREN OCAMB | Herb Hamsher, the man beaming from the center of that California AIDS Ride photo, died of cancer late Wednesday afternoon at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Judith Light, whom Herb managed, finished her last performance in her Broadway show “All The Ways I Love You!” and flew home to be by Herb’s side with his husband Jonathan Stoller, Judith’s husband, actor/writer Robert Desiderio, and two of Herb’s young mentees.
Herb Hamsher was brilliant. His smile was brilliant. His insights were brilliant. Even his anger was transmuted into brilliant ideas upon which one could take action. The source of that brilliance, like a beam shooting into the night sky, was a heart as huge and full of love and spiritual gratitude as any a soulful Higher Power could create. And Herb didn’t take that brilliance for granted—he worked on it by sharing with others, especially the loves of his life—Jonathan Judith and Robert—but also young LGBT scholars at The Point Foundation and LGBT leaders such as David Mixner, L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, and longtime activist Torie Osborn. And me.
Jonathan shared the ups and downs of Herb’s medical progress in emails to friends. One poignant moment was when, after a 36-year honeymoon, Herb and Jonathan decided to get married. Though they’d discussed it for years, neither had been romantic about marriage—a societal tradition that specifically discriminated against gay people. But a few months ago, after the laws of the land changed to allow for marriage equality and before the cancer surfaced, Herb said he was ready to get married. Then life got in the way.
On Oct. 14, with life and time slipping away, Jonathan called upon close friends Sheila Kuehl and Torie Osborn to help create a mini-miracle, what Herb called “another manifestation of divine choreography,” to make the marriage ceremony happen quickly. “I love you,” the couple repeated to each other in their way.
And quietly, in a hospital room with Robert standing by and Judith present via Facetime, a longtime wrong had been righted, an injustice corrected and love prevailed for the gay couple. They were complete but could any moment have been more bitter-sweet?
I got to know Herb and Jonathan through Judith Light. Judith was ubiquitous during the height of the AIDS crisis, delivering the most uplifting of speeches, inspired by Herb, which I covered as a reporter with tears in my eyes. I first met Herb in 1991 at the first GLAAD/LA benefit at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, which Judith emceed. Borrowed Time author Paul Monette was accepting the Stephen F. Kolzak Award, named for Paul’s late lover and the TV casting director who cast Judith in “Who’s The Boss.”
Stevie died in 1990; Paul died in 1995. Both had become AIDS activists. Judith, Robert, Herb and Jonathan rode the entire 7-day, 545-mile California AIDS Ride to honor Paul, wearing buttons with Paul’s photo to bring him along.
They had actually ridden the last portion of the first AIDS Ride, greeting friend and AIDS Ride co-founder Dan Pallotta at the end in West Hollywood.
Jonathan and Robert rode the entire California AIDS Ride 4 in 1997 and were greeted by Herb and Judith when they arrived in Century City.
In April 2013, Judith explained in an interview with Frontiers magazine how they became AIDS activists in their own way, too, thanks to Herb.
“What was the turning point in your life? Were you decided you were going to work and align yourself with the LGBT community in such a passionate way? Was it through your friendship with AIDS activist and author Paul Monette? Or when you starred in The Ryan White Story?,” asked writer Michael Fairman.
“It started very early on, when my friends in the theater and the film community were dying,” Judith said. “I knew something was happening to people I love, and who I considered my family. I was not quite clear on what was going on. Then I did The Ryan White Story, and I heard Ryan giving an interview on set. He was talking about how people spit at him and called him a ‘fag.’ Almost in time lapse, and like pieces of a puzzle on a floor, they all coalesced together, and that is what happened in my psyche. I said, ‘Wait, this cannot be happening to my friends and my family, and I am not saying anything about it.’ They are not just calling Ryan a ‘fag,’ they are not just spitting on Ryan, and they are doing that to my family!
“Herb and I talked,” Judith said, “and he said, ‘We have to do something.’ I said, ‘If I ever get some kind of celebrity profile, I want to find a way to make a difference.’ He said, ‘I think this is what we need to be focusing on.’ That is when I started talking about the community, and talking about how much homophobia there was, and still is in this country. I felt compelled to speak out. Then I read Borrowed Time: an AIDS Memoir. It was his most important book to me at the time and the issue, and it was written by Paul Monette. I was reading it and I turned to my husband Robert and I said, ‘I have to find this Paul Monette.’ It turns out he was seeing the casting director of Cheers, Stephen Kolzak, who was a friend of mine. So I called up and said, ‘I am coming over for dinner, and I am bringing dinner.’ Paul and I met, and I fell completely in love with him. Later, as Paul lay dying, he was writing his last essays. Robert, Herb and his partner, Jonathan Stoller, and I would all sit on his bed. So we became family, and when we did the AIDS Ride in 1995, we did it for Paul. What I kept seeing was a community that was turning whatever anger it had, into things that were incredibly valuable. I said, ‘You inspire me. I want to be a part of what you are doing.’”
The foursome showed up at many AIDS and LGBT fundraisers, lending their names and walking the walk.
They were constant reminders to Hollywood of both success and the inequality loving gay couples experienced.
Herb was not only Judith’s manager and best friend, but something of a challenging guru, too. He’s the one who convinced her to go to Broadway, where she has won so many accolades, including a Tony.
“Back in 1999, as the story goes,” Judith told Fairman, “I had finished Who’s the Boss. I had been doing other sitcoms and other television projects, finally my manager, Herb Hamscher, said to me at one point, ‘You know, you really have got to go back to the theatre. You have to change your life. You have gotten comfortable and not in a good way.’ I pooh-poohed him, and I said, ‘What do you know?’ [Laughs] Then, I got this audition to play an aging sitcom star. [Laughs] It was beautiful part and I said to Herb, ‘You know, I don’t think I should be playing an aging sitcom star.’ He said, ‘Oh, I think it would be perfect for you.’ And I go, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ Herb said, ‘You are just afraid.’
“He was absolutely right,” Judith continued. “I was completely terrified! At the same time, I had been going around the country and giving a lot of talks about how much homophobia was in this country, and how much the gay community inspires me because of the way they have been dealing with the enormity of the AIDS pandemic, and the courage of coming out and telling their families (not only that they are sick, and most likely dying, because those were the years of it) but that they are gay and this is who they are. I am watching the gay community rise like the phoenix from the ashes. I am saying these things about how they inspire me, and then I came to Herb and his partner and I said, ‘I am saying all these things, and I am talking the talk, but I am not walking the walk!’ I am terrified to audition for a play? Not good, and not who I want to be.
“So, I said the next thing that comes to me to audition for, I am going to do it. I don’t care what it is or where it is,” Judith said. “The next thing we get a call from Bernie Telsey from MCC. He said would I come to New York to audition to take over the role played by Kathleen Chalfant in the play Wit. Now, you must be aware, that in this role you have to be bald and do full-frontal nudity, and go on the national tour. So, I would have to be bald for like a year, and travel around the country, after I had done it in New York and faced the New York critics. Now if you want to talk about fear and terror? But I said, I wanted to change my life and I wanted to listen to the guidance that Herb was giving me, because he has given me the best guidance of anyone ever in my life. I knew I had to do it. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I didn’t think they were going to give it to me!”
Last year, in an interview with The Advocate about her role in the Golden Globe winning Amazon series, “Transparent,” Judith said she met Herb in 1979 when she was “teetering on leaving the business” and wondering “What difference is my life making?” Judith credited Herb and Jonathan with guiding her career “in a remarkable way.” In her interview with Frontiers, Judith gave a deeper insight into the constant process of reinvention, encouraged by her managers.
“When you have had the course of a career that I have had, where you do things like a soap opera, and a sitcom, and you have to reinvent yourself, you have to find another way to relate in the world,” she said. “If you are ever going to show people what you can do, and how much the theater means to you, you have to mean it and have to work your tail off to prove yourself to people. It is not expected that a person whose career has gone to those places would be a person who would end up winning the Tony! This is my way of saying to you, I did not expect it.”
Herb prodded us all, with justice and spiritual transformation at his core, smiling brilliantly and slicing through crap like a laser.
“Herb was a master teacher. A mentor’s mentor. Saw and spoke and wrote truth. Used laser insight to nudge, cajole, inspire a cadre of key LGBT leaders and allies,” Torie said in an email after Herb’s passing Wednesday night. “He was restless about the pace of the world’s change. Believed in spiritual transformation. Made us all try to be our higher selves. It was never easy to please Herb because he saw in us our potential and prodded it forward. I loved my deep talks with him a few times a year for nearly 30 years.”
Herb was especially invested in The Point Foundation, www.pointfoundation.org a scholarship program for LGBT youth with scholastic aptitude but no money to go to college.
In 2007, Herb wrote an essay for his friend David Mixer’s blog.
David (pictured with friend Jeremy Bernard) introduced Herb, noting his strength as a producer and manager with Jonathan, by saying: “One of the truly remarkable and legendary figures in the battle for LGBT rights and against HIV/AIDS is today’s guest writer. Herb Hamsher is simply a great leader. He is a person from whom I seek advice, go to for healing and respect as a very special teacher. Herb sees like with unique clarity – he can go to the heart of a matter and bring the truth out of it. Today, he writes about the importance of the Point Foundation where he serves on the Board of Directors. The foundation is one of his great passions. He believes it is our moral obligation to not only mentor our LGBT youth for tomorrow but to make sure that they understand their history.”
Here is an excerpt from that essay, “The Point Foundation and Our Future:”
“At Point, we often talk of an observation made many years ago by my partner, Jonathan Stoller, that the LGBT community is a distinctive minority. We are perhaps the only example of a minority born into a family that does not share our identity. If one is a member of an ethnic minority, one looks around the family and sees everyone else just like you. As you mature, your family understands what you experience in the world and teaches you how to navigate not only the challenges but the opportunities. Many of us in the LGBT community, however, grow up thinking we are the only one like us who exists in the world. And it is often the family and our religions, the “normal” sources of support and nurturing, who teach us that we are sick and/or sinful.
Point Scholars are not only given financial support; they are also given hope, leadership training to support them realizing their potential, as well as individualized mentoring. Each is assigned at least one “older person” who can serve as a source of support, guidance, and encouragement.
The discovery that comes from being a part of Point is that putting one’s resources and energy into developing the potential of our youth leads to the realization that we have at least as much emotional connection to the community of our identity as we have for our biological families, for some – even more. In fact, being a part of actively building a community that spans generations and has not only a past but a future, inspires the kind of passion and pride that some of us have not experienced since we linked arms with our brothers and sisters and stood up to a hostile and condemning government, and country, that turned their backs on us when we were struck by the tragedy of the AIDS pandemic.”
I last saw Herb at David Mixner’s one-man play, “Oh, Hell No!” last year. He was happy.
I think it’s fitting that Herb has the last word, through an essay he wrote three years ago about being a mentor (Herb is pictured here with Judith and Point scholars Isaias Guzman and Adrienne Adams):
“Those who know me are familiar with my experience since childhood that being gay is a blessing and also with my absolute and concrete conviction that this community exists for a purpose, in the “cosmic sense of asking the Universe” some form of “why I am here?” / “what I am supposed to do with my life?”
My explanation of both of these points typically begins with my explanation that, in my view, “coming out” is not in fact so much about saying “I am gay”, as it is an existential moment in which you realize that quite literally ALL of the forces of the Universe are pushing you to be something/someone you are not. “All of the forces of the Universe” needs to be taken literally, albeit restricted to the human, social level. It includes religion, law, education, family, peer pressure, ……… ad infinitum (literally). To me, “coming out” is the act of standing up to those forces and saying, “Actually, that is not my experience. And my experience is between God and me and no one else. If someone has difficulty with who I am and how I have been created, I can actually understand that. After all, I am aware of the direction and intensity of all the forces in the Universe; I experience them! Therefore, I can both understand and have compassion for the difficulties experienced by people, obviously starting with my wonderful family who has always been very loving. They have the intention of expressing that love to me, including actually through pressuring me to be someone I am not. I recognize they have no education, experience, or training in relating to what I have come to a place of clarity about. Therefore I am willing to be their teacher and to, in essence, lead them to discover what is literally another way to be in the world: a way that is literally functionally autonomous and in which one discovers one’s experience and values not from the outside but from the inside and through experience and connection with the literal Universe.”
For the most recent era of my life, one of the things that has been particularly central for me has been Point Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to finding stellar young people in our community with potential to become significant leaders, not only within their own lives, but within our community and in the process of our community leading the larger one to “another way to be in the world.” Point operates by not only providing some degree of financial assistance to those who need it, but also by providing individual and collective mentoring both in the specific educational and professional sense and in the sense of providing guidance about anything and everything in life. We operate from the observation that our community and our lives are highly distinctive in the sense that we “are born into families that (typically) do not share our identity.” Most humans grow up in situations and families who understand the challenges of growing up and support them in navigating the obstacles – some of which are, in fact, specific to identity and “minority status.” GLBT people literally have typically over my lifetime both felt they were totally alone in their experience of discovering they “are different” and they had to “make it up out of nothing” in becoming who they were becoming.
Point provides perhaps the first viable actual “intergenerational community” in which younger people can both relate in very open and “normal” ways with older people but also learn, openly, from the experiences the previous generations have had. What, for example, other minorities go through with their Jewish, African American, Muslim, Korean, Hispanic, etc. families, our Scholars experience with their mentors and our Point community. And, incidentally, it should be made clear that what one gets from an intergenerational Point community does not replace what one gets from one’s “other” family(s) but, in fact, adds to it and deepens it. What we in Point discover, in fact, is that being a Point Scholar often results in our Scholars having vastly closer and more authentic relationships with their families of origin.
What is relevant, however, to this discussion is what our Point applicants and Scholars have taught us about identity and naming. We have discovered over the years that we have continually needed to expand the options we provide for identifying both one’s “sexual orientation” and one’s “gender identity.” Young people keep teaching us how limited we are in our thinking. The ultimate value of mentoring is that it flows in both directions. That is why, although I appreciate people’s resistance to our seemingly endless addition of letters in designating our community, I say let’s follow our young, embrace their inspiring leadership in inclusion and just find a way to language it. Perhaps, ‘Leg- BIT-Que-A Community’. Knowing our young people, they will ultimately lead us even beyond this, but we are determined to keep up with them!”