This Is Peta: The Gender Rebel and Heart Of Compassion During The AIDS Crisis
In 2014, Time Magazine published an article to mark World AIDS day. It was titled “The Photo That Changed The Face of AIDS” and detailed the heartbreaking events that led up to a young photographer, Therese Frare, capturing the tragic portraits of David Kirby as he lay on his deathbed. Kirby was straddling the threshold between life and death, slowly succumbing to the effects of AIDS in a time when it was largely ignored. Frare’s photos shocked the nation and gave access to an otherwise oblivious public to the devastating effects of the epidemic. This was in 1990, before the the internet, before targeted education and intervention, before the collective awareness that would lead the movement to prevent it.
In the article, however, was something else incredible that the world seemed to miss entirely. It was something far more personal and powerful than the images alone; Frare’s journey alongside the enigmatic Peta.
Peta was a half white, half Native American individual who Frare described as “…A person who rode the line between genders and one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.”
Peta was a volunteer at the Pater Noster House, an AIDS hospice in Columbus, Ohio when Frare joined the volunteer staff herself. They forged a unique friendship as Frare began taking photos from a perspective that few had ever seen until now- from directly within the eye of the hyper-politicized storm that was HIV/AIDS. The very word carried with it an intense, palpable fear, as early activists watched it cripple their communities and lawmakers patently refused to acknowledge it.
On the day Frare captured the image of Kirby that would shake the world from its foundation of ignorance and indifference, she was there visiting Peta.
Alongside Kirby’s parents, Bill and Kay, Peta assumed the role of his caregiver. As Kirby transitioned through the stages of death, Peta would hold his hand, speak to him and console him as he withered away from the agonizing disease. Yet, Peta was not just a volunteer. He* was also a patient at the hospice. Like Kirby, Peta was HIV positive in a time when it was a death sentence.
As I read through all the information I could find regarding Peta, this profoundly touched me. Peta knew, as he tended to Kirby, that his fate would also, one day soon, be his own.
In the two years following Kirby’s death at just 32, Frare and Peta would travel to Peta’s home reservation of Pine Ridge in South Dakota where Frare would continue photographing him*.
There is a beautiful significance to Frare’s documentation of her adventures with the free-spirited Peta, who she’d capture lounging on a bedside in a negligee, a cigarette dangling from his* fingertips. It was the first time someone who unapologetically broke gender norms- before the words ‘Gender nonconforming’ were even uttered- had been shown in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which had been aggressively touted by religious extremists and bigoted politicians as a gay disease.
As Peta grew more ill, he* returned to the hospice in Ohio and found himself* being cared for by the very Parents whose son he* had cared for just a couple of years prior. Bill and Kay Kirby, along with Frare, were companions in Peta’s final days in a stunning act of unconditional love and human compassion. Kay Kirby said in an interview with Time, “I made up my mind. When David was dying and Peta was helping to care for him, that when Peta’s time came… and we all knew it would come… that we could care for him. There was never any question. We were going to take care of Peta. That was that.”
Rarely has a photographer captured such an incredible, soulful story as it unfolded during this dark and tumultuous time in our not-so-distant history. With the Kirby family, Peta and the backdrop of the budding revolution that would ultimately change the way we view HIV/AIDS and inevitably save millions of lives, these photos, these people, represent more than just the beginning of change.
This is the rawness of the bonds that developed between those caught in the maelstrom- between the tragedies that lie before change, and the hope that comes after. These photos portray the fearlessness of people undivided by sexuality or gender identity in a time when fear dictated our very capacity to love.
And if love could ever be personified in an image; A single visual for the world to behold, it lays undisturbed in Frare’s collection. For me, it was the photo of David Kirby’s Father, Bill Kirby, two years after the loss of his son. He is with Peta now, in his final days, caring for Peta just as Peta cared for his child.
Therese Frare told TIME magazine;
“In the end, the picture of David became the one image that was seen around the world, but there was so much more that I had tried to document with Peta, and the Kirbys and the other people at Pater Noster. And all of that sort of got lost, and forgotten."
Peta and David Kirby may be gone, but thanks to Frare, their stories will never be forgotten again.
— *With respect to Peta, who lived in an era where biological gender pronouns were written in stone, I’m following the lead of people close to Peta, including Frare, who referred to them using the masculine pronoun He/Him/His. Although Peta presented female in many of Frare’s photos