My standard of beauty at the time was some white guy. Seeing James, a well-built Asian man with a bald head and full lips made my head spin. He challenged my concept of beauty.
He was a waiter when I met him, and we became fast friends. Everyone who met him was immediately taken with his gentleness and warmth. He started volunteering for the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team, a place where I’d worked since 1993. James was eventually hired as a Community Health Outreach Worker.
In the 1990’s (and even today), it was hard finding HIV positive Asians to speak to an Asian audience about their condition. When I asked him if he’d do a radio show geared toward Asian Americans, talking about having AIDS, he readily agreed. I don’t know how many people he’d touched that day. Afterward, the host and sound engineer were obviously touched by his story, particularly when James spoke of his father, a stern Japanese American man, thought it was natural that his gay son would get infected with HIV.
It took courage for him to live openly about his status in a community not used to talking about sex or disease or condoms. When he died, I thought it was unfair…and I still do. He was 36 when he transitioned. I was 27. Now, I’m 43.
Sometimes, on a slow day, I’ll sit in the James Sakakura Family room, named after our first staff person to have died from AIDS, and just remember him. Just sit there and think of him.
In 1993, I was only the fourth person ever hired. There was only five of us. We’re an agency of 30 people now, and we’re preparing to open our own clinic. In the plans for our new building, I asked where the new James Sakakura Family Room will be placed. In the blue prints, I was shown which room would grace his name. It’s larger than the room we have now.
We’ve had a complete turn over in staff since James died. All of the people I currently work with at APAIT have never met James Sakakura. He was my friend, I tell them, I recruited him to work here. Then we go back to work and never mention it again.
What they don’t know –and it’s not pertinent to their work, so I don’t tell them—is that I loved James so very, very much. I loved him like he was a piece of me. And when he died, a little piece of me died, too. When I saw him in his coffin, I wanted to go screaming from the room. There are still moments in a staff meeting where I’ll look at his picture and feel an incredible sadness. Then the staff meeting ends…and I go back to work again.
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