Victor Pond

Pond, Victor 2017

Victor Pond was born on August 13 (to January 15, 2015). He was a passionate HIV/AIDS advocate and educator, activist, devout Christian, and singer.

Pond was born in Panama, as a self-described bicultural and bilingual Latino of West Indian and African descent. He attended the Instituto Fermin Naudeau (Class of 1971) and the National University of Panama, where he graduated with an MA in Psychology.

While visiting a friend in the Bronx in the summer of 1982, Pond recalled watching the evening news and getting a glimpse of the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis. “The anchorman, with some alarm in his voice, walked us through some disturbing images of intravenous drug users and gay white men who were believed to be the primary carriers of some new disease,” wrote Pond. “There was no shortage of ‘expert’ opinions from men in lab coats trying hard to disguise their lack of real understanding of what all this meant. We then witnessed a resurgence of every sexphobic and homophobic belief that permeates this post-Victorian culture.”

When the crisis came to the African American community, Pond said he could no longer think of the problem as one that afflicted only whites. “HIV and AIDS swept through our communities like Hurricane Katrina, leaving a trail of drowned hopes, shattered lives, and homeless dreams,” he wrote. “Single-handedly, AIDS forced us to ask questions that for the most part remained securely hidden in the dungeons and attics of our minds.”

From 2003 until 2006, Pond was the Project Director of the MOCHA Project, an HIV prevention projected funded by the Congressional Black Caucus to implement innovative interventions focused on African American and Latino MSM (Men who have Sex with Men).

While he was Development Director of the South Side Help Center in Chicago, Illinois, Pond wrote in the winter of 2005-2006 about his identifying as more Black than Latino. “I had never felt welcome in Latino communities, although I did have Latino friends,” Pond said. “People always seemed surprised that I spoke Spanish fluently or that I identified as Black first. And there was an assumption of unquestioning cultural allegiance because of a shared language. I was not prepared to make that concession. I simply grew weary of negotiating identity politics.”

As an alumnus of the American Society on Aging’s New Ventures in Leadership, Pond designed and implemented “The First National Convening of POC LGBT Aging,” which he described as a collective declaration of the urgent need to re-frame and transform the conventional “aging” health care landscape as it directly impacts POC LGBT elders.

In addition to serving as a Senior Public Health Educator with the NYC Department of Health, Pond was Director of Policy, Research and Community Health at GRIOT Circle in Brooklyn, New York, from 2010 to 2012. He was also a consultant and Special Projects Coordinator with the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America (ACRIA).

Hospitalized with pneumonia in 2013, Pond spent the rest of his life in and out of medical facilities and with his family in Virginia. On January 15, 2015, Pond died from AIDS complications.

Friend Verania Kenton remembers Pond as a trained lyrical tenor and talented chef and pastry artist. Most of all, she recalled, he was “passionate about his work in the HIV community and was determined to spread the word about the recent medical advancements. He sought to educate the community and inform them about the services available to anyone affected with the disease.”

“The greatest ‘contribution’ of AIDS has been to place a magnifying glass to society, revealing the hypocrisy of moralists whose mission in life appears to be creating a world ruled by monolithic, monochromatic thinking,” said Pond. “AIDS has given us enough evidence to take these enemies of humanity and diversity to the high courts of heaven where they will have to give an account for the many lives they’ve ruined. They will have to explain how eliminating homosexuals would solve world hunger, end domestic violence, end the abuse and neglect of children, save heterosexual marriages, bring world peace, eliminate race wars and institute social justice for all.”

“We have to love each other through the pain,” Pond added, “and experience each other’s touch as reinforcement of a bond that not even HIV/AIDS can sever.”

We remember Victor Pond for his selfless contributions to HIV/AIDS advocacy and education, and for his support of our community.

Latasha Byears

Byears, Latasha 2017
Photo: LA Times

Latasha Byears was born August 12, 1973. She is a celebrated former American professional women’s basketball player who played power forward for several franchises of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), including the Sacramento Monarchs, the Los Angeles Sparks, the Washington Mystics, and the Houston Comets.

Latasha Nashay Byears was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but grew up in Millington, Tennessee; she attended high school in nearby Arlington. After playing two years in Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, she transferred to Chicago’s DePaul University. It was there during the 1995-1996 season that Byears earned her a first team All-American by averaging nearly 23 points and 12 rebounds per game.

Although Byears wasn’t selected in the WNBA draft, the Sacramento Monarchs invited her to their training camp in 1997, and she played for them for four seasons. Byears was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks following the 2000 season, and contributed to the team’s championship run during the early 2000s.

Following a Sparks game on June 5, 2003, Byears learned that she and three other men were being investigated for the alleged rape of a WNBA player. Byears was cut by the team, even though criminal proceedings against her were closed in 2005 due to insufficient evidence. Byears’ filed a lawsuit against the Lakers, alleging gender and sexual orientation discrimination, and the fact she was not given the same treatment as Kobe Bryant (who played for the Los Angeles Lakers, owners of the Sparks at the time) when he had rape allegations leveled against him. The lawsuit was eventually settled, but not before Byears missed two years of playing.

She finished out her career playing for teams that included the Washington Mystics, the Bulgarian team CSKA Sofia, the Houston Comets, and Leszno in Poland.

We thank Latasha Byears for her contributions to the world of basketball, and for her support of our community.

Miss Cleo

Miss Cleo 2017 Lilly EcheverriaMiamiHeraldMCTGettyImages
Photo: Lilly Echeverria/Miami Herald/MCT/Getty Images

Youree Dell Cleomill Harris was born on August 12, 1962 (to July 26, 2016). Better known as Miss Cleo, she was a self-proclaimed psychic and alleged shaman who achieved television fame as a spokeswoman for a pay-per-call psychic service from 1997 to 2003.

Harris was born in Los Angeles, California, to Caribbean Catholic parents who she says knew early on that she was a lesbian. “Nobody really talked about it,” she told “The Advocate.” “It was like the pink elephant in the room. I never felt bad, but I knew society didn’t accept me. This was the ’70s. Things were changing, but they weren’t all that changed. My first girlfriend was in high school. She had blond hair and blue eyes and was on the swim team. I thought she was the best thing since sliced bread. In the last months of our senior year we were found out by her father, and she was sent to a college out of state. I was heartbroken.”

By the age of 21, she had been married to a man, had a daughter, and got divorced. Later, Harris had two long-term relationships with women, and gave birth to a second daughter in her late 20s.

In 1996, Harris and her then-partner opened a production company which produced several of her plays, including the autobiographical “Women Only: A Celebration of Love, Life and Healing.” In the late 1990s, Harris began to work for the Psychic Readers Network as a paid television infomercial spokesperson. Although she didn’t own the company, Harris soon became its famous face as the psychic with a Jamaican accent who declared, “The cards never lie!”

Within five years, charges of deceptive advertising and fraud began circulating, and the Psychic Readers Network had been sued by several states and the Federal Communications Commission. Harris was not indicted when the Federal Trade Commission charged the Network’s promoters with deceptive advertising, billing, and collection practices. It also became known that Harris was, in fact, born in the United States, not in Trelawny, Jamaica as her employer’s website had stated.

In 2006, Harris came out as a lesbian in an interview with “The Advocate” after being inspired by her godson. “He and I started talking when he was concerned about coming out. He was 16. When he made the decision I told him I’d be there to support him 100%, and he embraced [coming out] wholeheartedly. It’s a different vibe than when I was his age, being raised Catholic in an all-girls boarding school. But he was afraid of nothing, and I thought, I can’t be a hypocrite. This boy is going to force me to put my money where my mouth is.”

Even after coming out, Harris was concerned about her future. “The reason it’s scary is because in my personal experience, Black cultures throughout the world have a more difficult time accepting homosexuality in their family,” Harris said. “I have family members who will be shocked; they don’t know. I have some family members who are very close to me, and they do know. But I’ve been afraid of the wrath, of the exile. When I came out to a number of friends in the late ’80s I had a number of friends who turned their backs on me and walked away. That was really intense. I really believed they were my friends.”

Using the name Cleomili Harris, she spoke about her experiences at the Psychic Readers Network in the 2004 documentary, “Hotline.” The following year, she appeared as Miss Cleo in a series of cereal advertisements, but they were pulled after the Psychic Readers Network claimed it owned the rights to the Miss Cleo character. Harris, who had been living in Miami Beach, eventually settled in Davie and Lake Worth, Florida.

On July 26, 2016, Harris died following a long illness at the age of 53. She had been battling colon cancer that had spread to other organs.

We remember Youree Dell Cleomill Harris as the iconic Miss Cleo, and her support for our community.

Charles M. Blow

Blow, Charles 2017 Beowolf Sheehan
Photo: Beowolf Sheehan

Charles M. Blow was born on August 11, 1970. He is a widely respected columnist for “The New York Times,” a knowledgeable political and social critic, and a CNN commentator. He has also appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, the BBC, Al Jazeera, and HBO.

Charles McRay Blow grew up the last of five brothers in rural and segregated Gibsland, a predominantly Black small town in northern Louisiana. At the age of seven, he was sexually molested by an older male cousin. In his later memoir, Blow would reveal the trauma and sexual identity confusion the molestation caused, and how he made plans to violently confront his abuser at the age of 20. He would also write about how his mostly absentee father, Spinner, would show up drunk on the family doorstep after a night of drinking, gambling, or cheating on his wife. Blow’s mother, Billie, was a teacher who would have to raise Blow and his siblings after she separated from her husband.

Blow was an athlete and star student growing up. He says that as a young boy, he visited the local newspaper and the staff allowed him and his classmates to typeset and print their names. From that point on, he was hooked on journalism. Blow founded his high school newspaper, and began writing regular letters to the editor at the “Shreveport Times” (where he would work part-time while in college). At Grambling State University, Blow was president of his college fraternity, and graduated magna cum laude in 1991 with a BA in mass communications.

Following graduation, Blow took a job as a graphic artist for “The Detroit News” before joining “The New York Times” in 1994 as a graphics editor and, eventually, graphics director. He became the paper’s design director for news before leaving in 2006 to work for “National Geographic” as an art director. He returned to the “Times” two years later as the paper’s first visual op-ed columnist.

In 2014, Blow came out publicly as bisexual in a memoir, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” At the time he revealed, “One thing the gay rights movement taught the world is the importance of being visible…This is how I felt all my life. It does not feel to me in any way transitory. It does not feel like it’s going to change. And I also wanted to say that there are people who may not fit what we conceive bisexuality to be.”

In an interview on SiriusXM Progress, Blow stated, “People can be bisexual and heteroamorous, meaning they can have sex with both men and women but only fall in love with people of the opposite sex. Or it can be the inverse. It can be people who fall in love with both, but only want to have sex with one. There’s a huge spectrum. Part of what my discomfort was, in the beginning, is that I wanted something that didn’t exist. I wanted something that was so singular, a label that was so singular for me. I was so special—I was so different from everybody else I was meeting. And that I wanted a different label. And I had to say, ‘Charles snap out of that. What are you talking about?’”

Blow has three grown children, including twins, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

We thank Charles M. Blow for his contributions to journalism, and for his support of our community.