A US man’s moving tribute to one of his best friends, Bonnie Slater, has prompted an outpouring of comment online.
Beau Neal posted his words to The AIDS Memorial Instagram page.
The AIDS Memorial publishes photos and stories from friends, families and partners of those lost to HIV-related illness.
Neal’s posting is slightly different in that Slater was not lost to HIV. However, her life was still impacted by the virus.
Remembering Bonnie Slater
‘Bonnie Slater (1942 – 2018) didn’t have HIV but was greatly affected by it,’ Neal begins.
‘She was the first person I met when I moved to Key West. I was on the dancefloor and had come out of a bad relationship ready to meet the man of my dreams. I didn’t meet him that night but I met the best friend I ever had.
‘Bonnie came up to me and started dancing too. She said she thought I was the Marlboro Man because of my boots, tight jeans and Stetson.
‘After the disco closed, she invited me to Claire’s Restaurant for breakfast. We ate then she said she was going to take a taxi home. I had a car and drove her instead. We got to her place and I ended up staying for a year.
‘Bonnie grew up on the island and knew everyone. She wasn’t bashful and went up to everyone and introduced herself. She always referred to herself as, “The Welcome Wagon Lady.” Everyone else called her Ms B.
‘Bonnie was loved by the gay community. In return, she gave them a place to stay if needed, food if they were hungry and lots of motherly love. She was a proverbial matchmaker.’
San Francisco and the arrival of AIDS
‘Bonnie and I lived together for 10 years,’ continues Neal. ‘In 1980, she moved to San Francisco. I arrived six months later and she already knew half the men in the Castro. She had me a date on my first night in the city!
‘In 1981 the party stopped. Everyone was afraid. People were being seen around town gaunt or with purple lesions on their body.
‘Everyone was afraid to touch them. Bonnie was the exception. She never lost sight of the fact that a hug can mean more than anything else in the world and Bonnie had lots of hugs.
‘Bonnie watched a generation of men she loved disappear. She did all she could for her sick friends and would ultimately marry one, Lee Slater, putting him on her insurance and nursing him. When he died she returned to Florida.
‘We stayed in touch but I could tell Bonnie was hurting. She never recovered from the heartbreak of losing so many to AIDS. Her health deteriorated and she became reclusive.
‘Bonnie died last year. She was a true friend to the gay community and impacted by AIDS as much as as any person I know.’
‘What a beautiful soul’
The posting has prompted hundreds of comments. Most offer sympathy on Neal’s loss.
‘You’re so right,’ said @deevyjane. ‘There were many casualties of AIDS among people who never had the disease. Talk about PTSD. It’s hard to survive so many losses. Thank you for telling us about your kind, loving friend.’
Another, @jesseonthebrink, added, ‘So many of us wouldn’t have survived high school without our Bonnie’s, let alone the plague. Thank you for sharing, and thank you Ms B.’
‘What a beautiful soul … ‘I’m sure she is out in the heavens dancing with all of her friends now and will continue matchmaking,’ added @reachaladdin.
Neal told Gay Star News the response to the posting ‘deeply touched’ him.
‘I was happy so many people took the time to read the post and get to know a little about her. She was an amazing lady who gave so much of herself during a time of great need.
Neal says he turned 70 in March.
‘I was 27 when I met Bonnie. We didn’t always live close to one another but we always stayed in touch. I’m originally from East Tennessee and lived in various cities across the country. I lived in San Francisco throughout the 80s and transferred to Nashville in 1990 to be close to my parents and to escape endless memorial services in San Francisco.
‘In 1994 my dad died and I moved back to take care of my mom, who died in 2002. My partner and I have been together for 19 years in September. He moved to Clearwater, Florida for work and I will be moving there in the next year or so.’
Neal’s own life has also been deeply affected by the HIV epidemic. He was chair of the East Tennessee HIV Planning Council, which oversaw Ryan White Part B funds, for 13 years.
He still currently sits on the Tennessee Community Planning Group, which oversees HIV prevention funds in the state, and the Centers of Excellence Advisory Board, which designates HIV treatment facilities as a Center of Excellence within the state.
‘When I turned 70 I realized all but one of my long time friends have died. I became very reflective and realized I was the only one left to tell their stories.’