For seemingly every year since I can remember, people have speculated that more celebrities than usuall were dying... but 2016 feels different. Perhaps compounded by social media and therefore our ability to know anything and everything that goes on, and in an instant, and certainly aided and abetted by the unfortuitous deaths of quite a few undisputed icons between last January and this December, this feels like the cruelest year on record for the unexpected demises of household names, as well as the inevitable ends of people who had lived long, full lives, and yet seemed as if they'd never die.
What follows is a list of some of the biggest names to check out in 2016, preceded by a fresh reminder of some of the non-icons who nonetheless made a great impact on especially LGBTQ fans and admirers, and whose passing I thought could use some highlighting.
If this list interests or inspires you, please share it. If you have any names to add, please do not hesitate to let me know.
13 Notable LGBTQ & LGBTQ-Adjacent Deaths
Alexis Arquette (July 28, 1969—September 11, 2016)
Born into the acting family sired by director/The Waltons star Lewis Arquette, Alexis forged an acting career as a male over 15 years before coming out as trans. Following playing the wide-eyed child on an amusement park ride in the music video for “She's a Beauty” by the Tubes, Arquette fearlessly played trans in both Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and in a memorable role in 1989's Last Exit to Brooklyn, in spite of the stigma associated with playing LGBTQ characters at the time. Already HIV-positive by then, Arquette went on to work frequently in the '90s, including in the oustanding gay films Grief (1993) and I Think I Do (1997), the latter of which cast Arquette as a romantic (male) lead. She came out as trans in 2004, underwent SRS in 2006 (which was documented in the 2007 film Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother) and became a visible trans activist. At the end of her life, Arquette seemingly went off HIV meds, leading to her death from HIV-related cardiac arrest. Via her family, there were conflicting reports as to whether she had gone back to presenting as a male in her final days.
Hidden pleasures (Image via Pocket Books)
The Lady Chablis (March 11, 1957—September 8, 2016)
Described by author John Berendt as “everybody's favorite” real-life character from his sensationally successful 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the 1997 Clint Eastwood-directed film adaptation of the same name, The Lady Chablis became one of the first trans people to whom many Americans were exposed in popular culture. Her distinctive demeanor made her both funny and imposing, and what Berendt told The New York Times was her “great repartee” helped sell her memorable 1996 memoir, Hiding My Candy. A long-term HIV survivor, she died of pneumonia less than a month after her final club performance.
Bill Cunningham (March 13, 1929—June 25, 2016)
The ubiquitous man-on-the-street shooter of real-life fashion for The New York Times was a tireless chronicler of what people wore via his “On the Street” column. Noticed by the paper when he took a candid of Greta Garbo in 1978 — never realizing it was she, so focused was he on her fab nutria coat — Cunningham became a one-of-a-kind Manhattanite who haunted events as well as snapping people as they navigated NYC. In the fantastic 2010 doc Bill Cunningham New York, the photographer semi-addressed his presumed gay sexual orientation, stating, “That's probably why the family wanted to keep me out of the fashion world.” Warholian in the asexuality he projected, he also allowed in the documentary that he did have “body urges,” but that “you control them as best you can.” He worked right up until the stroke that put him out of commission and soon after killed him at age 87.
Joan Edwards (1928 or 1929—April 11, 2016)
I don't have much info on this attractive-looking lady, but she held the amazing position of being John Travolta's personal assistant from 1978 to 1994, a period when he was super hot and then cooling down and then super hot again. As such, she had unfettered access to the allegely closeted star, saying in 2012 (during his masseur sex scandal), “Of course I knew he was gay. It never bothered me.” Edwards went on the record confirming that Travolta had a long-term relationship with pilot Doug Gotterba. Oh, the stories that must've gone to the grave with her; she died after a battle with cancer at age 87.
Youree Dell Harris aka Miss Cleo (August 12, 1962—July 26, 2016)
You could hardly watch trash TV in the late '90s/early '00s without marveling at the blatant hucksterism embodied by Miss Cleo, who hawked pay-per-call psychic help. A young mother and failed playwright/actress, she took on the Miss Cleo persona to pay the bills, presenting herself as a Jamaican shaman. When her bosses were indicted, she was able to walk away, but did play the unforgettably cheesy character in a variety of other ads until being legally forced to stop. Not as widely known, Harris came out as a lesbian in 2006. I find her story interesting because it's a uniquely LGBTQ story of scrambling to stay afloat in a world where opportunity does not knock on as many doors as our culture pretends. She battled colon cancer in the final years of her life, succumbing in July.
Matt Irwin (February 10, 1980—May 5, 2016)
The effervescent celeb photographer shot everyone from Nicki Minaj to One Direction. Cute, talented, in-demand, he seemingly had it all, but after breaking up with his boyfriend in May, he took a lethal dose of the party drug GHB, ending his life. In his suicide note, Irwin wrote that he felt he was letting people down, which only serves to underscore the illogical scourge of depression that haunts the LGBTQ community more so than others. Everyone liked the guy, but he didn't like himself, an irony we should remember and honor and try to figure out to spare us the loss of more innovators and artists and just plain good people.
Lou Pearlman (June 19, 1954—August 19, 2016)
Like Bill Cunningham, Lou Pearlman was cagey about his sexuality. Like Miss Cleo, it didn't take a psychic to figure out he was not sincere. In my lengthy obit for the confoundingly affable, apparently amoral boy-band impresario, I wrote back in August, “Instead of outright accusations of indecency, there was just always this innuendo that while God must've spent a little more time on the girls *NSYNC was singing about, Lou probably spent a little too much time on at least one male member of each of his groups.” Tough stuff for a dude who'd just died in prison, but it was a remembrance, not a tribute, and while Pearlman was almost certainly gay, he was beyond the shadow of a doubt a terrible role model. Not only did he likely sexually entice a number of the young, sometimes too young, boys under contract to him (no charges were ever filed, very few specific, on-the-record accusations were ever made), he also robbed a ton of people blind, depleting their life savings. Lou's short life was more cautionary tale than story of a gay icon, but cautionary tales deserve to be told as well.
Jon Polito (December 29, 1950—September 1, 2016)
This prolific character actor and voice artist worked on the stage, in film and on TV for over 30 years, becoming most familiar for his roles on Homicide: Life on the Street, Crime Story, Seinfeld, five Coen brothers movies and as the crotchety closet-king rival of Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill) on Modern Family. In real life, Polito — who died of multiple myeloma — was anything but a closet-king: He married his longtime boyfriend, fellow performer Darryl Armbruster, in 2015.
David Frank Ray (?—December 28, 2016)
This longtime stylist and beauty expert, who had worked on the faces of everyone from Jaclyn Smith to the supermodels of the '70s and '80s, died unexpectedly last week after living with HIV for decades. Ray was unapologetically, outspokenly gay, and embraced flamboyance (his signature color was pink) and humor in a way that lit up the lives of all he encountered. At the time of his death, he was the EIC of an online magazine for women over 50, Irresistible Beauty, which also describes his own lasting impression. We corresponded on Facebook but, sadly, we never met in spite of living in the same town.
Matt Redman (1950—December 27, 2016)
This co-founder of the highly influential, life-saving org AIDS Project Los Angeles back in 1992 was an accomplished interior designer whose compromised T-cell count led to his death at 66 when an upper respiratory infection spread to his heart. “My friends and I were in New York in 1981, hearing stories among friends coming down with this mysterious disease. We realized that back home in L.A. there was no hotline, no medical care, and no one to turn to for emotional support,” Redman told The Advocate in 2001 about his journey as both an HIV/AIDS advocate and a survivor. Jim Vellequette, who served on APLA's Board of Directors, told ThePrideLA.com of Redman, “Let us not mourn a fake memory of Matt. Matt was a straight-up force of unbridled determination with a ‘my life and the lives of my friends are at risk son-of-a-bitch' [attitude] if you had to go up against him. Thankfully, he was our SOB and it is Matt Redman and the kindred rabble-rousing spirits from the generation just before mine that made it possible for so many of us to still be here and bid him a very respectful, well-earned, thank you. His fire will not soon fade from my memory.”
James Sheldon (November 12, 1920—March 12, 2016)
Jim was a friend of mine, one I only had the pleasure of knowing from October 12, 2015 until his death on March 12 of the following year. In those five months, he became a close buddy, and knowing him such a short time truly made me realize how much I'd missed by not bumping into him sooner. We met at a screening of Tab Hunter Confidential — how much gayer can you get? Jim beckoned me to sit by him in the front row and squeezed my knee. He was 94 and had no shame in his game, but was the least sleazy player you could ever meet. When he talked about sex or attempted to get you to have it with him, he did it with kid-like zeal. He still had so much curiosity and passion, and in spite of what was an impressive dance card that dated back to the '30s, he was as boy-crazy as I am. I found his sexuality inspiring because he had been basically bisexual for much of his life (he had been married and had kids), divorced and came out to his family in the '60s and never made any bones about being with whomever he liked. He talked with me about sex after 70, 80, and 90, something gay men almost never discuss. His stories about directing over 1,000 episodes of TV (Twilight Zone among them) — and being the only person to direct James Dean twice (“No, I never slept with him.”) — were absolutely fascinating, stacked with technical details, the office politics of Hollywood and plenty of cheerfully salacious asides (“Troy Donahue may have been homophobic, but he sure didn't mind having his dick sucked.”). Jim was a consummate professional in his craft and remained 100% engaged in the arts right up until cancer crept up on him and killed him weeks after it was detected. I never knew him not to have an appointment on any given day, and that included going to see movies at the DGA screening room, the latest Broadway plays (he had apprentice-directed Bus Stop and had been to the opening nights of most of the classics of American theater) and yet he was the most down-to-earth person I've ever met and quite a fan himself of the Golden Age greats as well as new talent. I'll miss him, and I hope to be as much like him as I can be at this late date.
Janet Reno (July 21, 1938—November 7, 2016)
Just two days before her boss's wife would unexpectedly lose the presidential election — and miss out on becoming the first woman president — trailblazer Janet Reno died of Parkinson's disease. She had never come out publicly as a lesbian, but the never-married Reno was not exactly trying to pass as straight; her butch appearance made her fodder for countless comics during her tenure as the first female Attorney General of the United States, as if her mannishness were the lede, as opposed to her glass-ceiling-breaking position. Serving under Bill Clinton from 1993 until 2001, she weathered some excruciating controversies, including the siege at Waco, the capture of the Unabomber and the return of Elián González to Cuba. Her dignity and work ethic were admirable — why shouldn't we claim her as one of our own, even if she decided against declaring herself while alive? Liberace never came out either.
Will X. Walters (1981—December 13, 2016)
This San Diego man was arrested and charged with public nudity — the only person ever arrested for that reason in his city's history — for wearing a loincloth over underwear at a Gay Pride celebration. He spent years fighting the obviously ridiculous arrest, racking up $1M in legal fees, only to lose his case. He was found dead December 28, an apparent suicide. He was last seen on December 13, when he learned he had lost his case.
Noteworthy Names Who Died in 2016
Norman Abbott, prolific TV director, creator of Sugar Babies & nephew of Bud Abbott
Colonel Abrams, house music singer
Ken Adam, Oscar-winning James Bond production designer
Richard Adams, author of Watership Down
Kathryn Adams, last surviving cast member of 1939's The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Caroline Aherne, British TV writer/actress
Joe Alaskey, took over voicing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck from Mel Blanc
Edward Albee, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? playwright
Giorgio Albertazzi, acclaimed Italian actor
Jean Alexander, Coronation Street actress
Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest” boxing icon
Kathryn Reed Altman, widow of Robert Altman
Sylvia Anderson, Thunderbirds co-creator
René Angélil, producer/husband of Céline Dion
Eddie Applegate, The Patty Duke Show actor
Alice Arlen, Silkwood screen writer
Frank Armitage, Disney illustrator
Héctor Babenco, Kiss of the Spider Woman director
Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting author
Jimmy Bain, Scottish rocker
Kenny Baker, R2-D2 in the first six Star Wars films
Robert Balser, Yellow Submarine animation artist
Gato Barbieri, jazz saxophonist
Lita Baron, actress & nightclub performer, I Love Lucy guest star
MORE AFTER THE JUMP ...