Of all the women I have known she was one of the most remarkable. Not flawless but remarkable. She had a warmth, and a gentle acceptance. Her parents had owned a bar and she had learned a “Cheers” attitude of always being a place where your name was known and you could feel as though you were home. People enjoyed to be in her company.
When I came to Phoenix Project, a non-profit working with HIV/AIDS folks, she was the director. She had been concerned about me as a hire because of a professional relationship I had with her boss, my ministerial background, and other things. It took three phone interviews before I was hired. But once there she embraced me although probably with eyes wide open.
The next five years would be some of the most intense of our lives. As we struggled with the stigma of AIDS, lack of resources, death of clients and friends, I brought to the mix a spirituality grown in the test tube of leftist Christian religion and she the hard realities of life itself. Her mother had died in a car crash. Brandie had been in the vehicle with her and always felt guilt about surviving and sadness seeing her mother die. Every year at the anniversary of her mother’s death she would go into a depression. This in some ways became a spiritual turning point. It may not have been immediately available to the eye but she was determined to give back to the world in honor of her mother. So we made an unlikely pair. I was the over churched and her a person when asked to speak at a church asked for directions, only to find out the church was literally across the street to her home obstructing the view out her living room window. A fact I have yet to let her forget.
She had married young and had gone to a local community college. She had worked at the homeless shelter for women and children as a case manager. The job at Phoenix Project had come open after the first director had apparently absconded with money and was fired. She had basically inherited a mess but would quickly find this was the time and place for her. I was hired in part to bring stability and experience to the program.
Brandie’s charisma began to catch on in the community. People wanted to work with her and for her. At least most. One of the first things we decided was to have an annual Walk for Life to raise awareness and money for HIV|AIDS community. Now in a southern city such as Savannah there was not much marching and walking going on. We had no Gay Pride Parade. And as a rule no protest marches had happened since the seventies. Plus there was the stigma of AIDS, gays, drug use, etc. The Walk was a novel and interesting idea among the Savannah Community. No one thought it could happen in a significant way. But she and I by default were determined to see it through. She and I went to the gay bars recruiting. Bar life was her domain not so much mine but our\her table became the “It” table at the bar. Now this was a challenge for her in a gay man community that was a little biased against women, especially straight women. I had corrected more than once our gay men in the housing over calling women fish pieces, a derogatory term gay men used for women. And I will never forget Jeffery who slipped and use the term for her in a conversation with her. I always credit the fact that he lived through the incidence by my presence as she “held back” a term I use loosely here. He looked at me for help and I shrugged my shoulders and said I warned you. The beauty of Brandie was she could totally dress down someone and in the end have them eating out of her hand. As was the case with Jeffery.
The male gay bars were not totally free of these prejudices. In fact one of our middle aged leather pants clad major donors challenged her at the bar. He stated that he “did not like having a woman in charge of Phoenix Project. And that he felt she would fail and the march also.” Brandie showed considerable restraint and won the day by saying he should be hoping for Phoenix Project and Walk for Life’s success because it was best for the gay community and that was what she was concerned most about. A cadre of gay men surrounded her protectively and he faded away. She was becoming part of the community.
We not only went to the bars. We went to the churches especially the AIDS Interfaith Network I helped form. We went even to the St. Vincent’s High School AIDS committee, a group of young women who did fundraisers for us at the local girl’s Catholic school. Actually I do not think there was a door we did not go through. The media especially Sherrie Jackson of WSAV covered us in full. But we had one group who had not completely signed on-- the local and historic First City Network (a gay advocacy and social group). They had informally agreed and offered their support but had not given a board vote approval. This was to be a brief problem.
Two days before the walk we had been approached by two FCN members who asked for a meeting. We knew they were not coming to offer us a vote of confidence. I watched through the glass doors of the lobby as they approached. They were two women dressed in biker leather on motorcycles with the short haircuts lesbians sometimes wear. They were attempting to look as menacing as possible. I knew this was going to be interesting. They greeted me with a growl as we went to Brandie’s office. Other staff looked quizzically. I shut the door and they sat in the two chairs I offered. No sooner had they sat down when they said, “You need to call off the Walk.” Now Brandie or I had never in all the doors we went through seen either one of these women before. “Why,” I asked. Brandie interrupted and said “who are you.” Oh shit I thought Brandie is out for bear. “We represent not all but some of the FCN board.” Now we knew most of the FCN board had committed to the Walk. “They claimed we had not done due diligence in reaching out to the Gay community.” This infuriated Brandie. She was not so warm and fuzzy now. Rising out of her seat with a least a desk between them Brandie stated, “We have every gay bar behind us. We have several members of the FCN board who have helped organize the event. We have done our due diligence. You would come two days before the event to make this demand. Do you know how many churches, healthcare workers, HIV\AIDS folks have committed to this Walk.” They looked a little taken aback by her aggressiveness as was I. “This Walk will be a failure. No one will come,” they proclaimed. Brandie came around her desk; they stood up almost in self -defense. I thought Oh God I am about to be in a cat fight and I am going to lose. Brandie reached for her door, opened it and said in a cordial voice, “Thanks for your input. Hope to see you Saturday.” and then motioned for them to leave. They were too stunned and probably relieved to resist and left with a huff.
After they were gone Brandie smiled at me. It was then that I found new respect for her. She would write successful grants for the program. We would be nationally recognized for our programs. We would cry over many deaths. She would take a sabbatical to work out her old and new grief. But it was at that moment that I realized what the term Steel Magnolia meant. She was huggy but she was a momma bear when needed.
The Walk was by Savannah standards a huge success. The crowd was pushing five hundred. It became a joyous occasion with a hint of a Gay Pride March through downtown Savannah. It ended in a Square with an after-party at Club One, the gay bar, where the Famous Lady Chablis performed.
And we earned more money than we thought possible.