I first knew Danny Sotomayor before he became "Danny Sotomayor." I’d been cast in my first show in Chicago and promoted from the chorus to a featured role in Wonderful Town at the National Jewish Theatre in Skokie. I was new to Chicago and terrified of life. My father had just died. The musical cost me my day job. As the show ran, I was broke and on the verge of homelessness. I was struggling with coming out and into a community that was beginning to die all around me.
Because of the stress of a sudden life of uncertainty, for a very, very long time I was a radioactive person, very hard to be around. Most people avoided me.
Danny was kind.
The Chicago Stories: The Outrage of Danny Sotomayor tells the story of the man I knew OF, but only hints at the man I knew. The Danny I knew was sweet. And a flirt. He was funnier than his comics allowed. And even before his activism he was a force to be reckoned with. Danny was in the ensemble, and although several years older than I was, costumed to play a boy. He went with it, but he didn’t like it. We had a bit of business where I ruffled his hair. Off stage, and for as long as I knew him, whenever he saw me, he'd ruffle my hair. I towered over him, but it was appropriate. I was still a child, and he'd become a man.
During the run of the show, somehow word got out that the chorus members were being paid a flat rate, a pittance but still a princely sum for a non-union production. It might have been a hundred dollars for the entire rehearsal period of four weeks and then a four-week run. But as a featured player, I was bumped up to sixty dollars a week. This was my only income, and every penny was desperately needed. I wasn’t the one who shared the information with Danny, but when he found out, he demanded the producers stand in front of the cast and explain the disparity. The truth was the ensemble worked their asses off. I sang one song. I was not the target, and he never held it against me. It was the principle, and he rightfully took a stand.
Just a few short months later, AIDS took hold of the city. I was working at Ann Sather’s on Belmont, which was ground zero for all things LGBTQ+. I think it was on Thursday nights, I was in the kitchen packing up meals to be distributed to AIDS patients throughout the city who were receiving no support. That, and distributing condoms to the bars on Halsted were my primary contributions to the fight. I was filled with anger, maybe more than Danny. But I wasn't focused the way he was. He instinctively new how to harnass that anger and make it productive. He was fearless, when he had everything to fear, and I was fearful when I had so much less to fear. I was merely a witness to the horrors that were rolling up and down Halsted. Danny was a target.
Like Joan of Arc, Danny rose through it all. I didn’t see much of him. We traveled in vastly different social circles. But when I did see him, it was always sweet. He was always kind. He always had time for me, when no one else did.
At the end of the documentary are a few pictures of Danny at the end. It was the way I saw him the last time a week or so before he died. He came into Ann Sather’s and we sat for about ten minutes and chatted. He knew. I knew. And he was still kind to me.
History will remember what he did for Chicago. I remember what he did for me. He made it OK to be gay. He made it OK to be angry at the way being gay empowered some people to treat us. And in spite of all that, it made it OK to still be kind.