McFarlane was born on February 25, 1955 in Mobile, Alabama and was raised on the family's soybean and chicken farm in Theodore, Alabama. The 6-foot, 7-inch McFarlane played football in high school, where he was "a monster, a legend", who was "big enough to get past the gay thing" playing football and could then "go jump rope with the girls." He attended the University of South Alabama. He enlisted in the United States Navy in 1974, serving on a submarine as a nuclear reactor technician. Following his military service, McFarlane moved to New York City, where he worked as a respiratory therapist.
In the early 1980s, McFarlane walked into the offices of Gay Men's Health Crisis, offering to serve as a volunteer. He began a crisis counseling hotline that originated on his own home telephone, which ultimately became one of the organization's most effective tools for sharing information about AIDS. Shortly thereafter, he was named as the first paid executive director of GMHC, helping create a more formal structure for the nascent organization, which had no funding or offices when he took on the role. Larry Kramer, the playwright and gay rights activist who was one of the six founders of Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982, became a friend of McFarlane's, describing that by the time of his death, "the G.M.H.C. is essentially what he started: crisis counseling, legal aid, volunteers, the buddy system, social workers" as part of an organization that serves more than 15,000 people affected by HIV and AIDS.
In December 1983, when GMHC was housed in rundown brownstone and served 250 people with AIDs, McFarlane lamented the inequitable treatment of gays by society at large, noting how "We were forced to take care of ourselves because we learned that if you have certain diseases, certain lifestyles, you can't expect the same services as other parts of society". McFarlane served as executive director until 1985.
McFarlane was one of the founding members of the New York branch of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).
He served as executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS from 1989 until 1994, an organization that uses the talents and resources of the theatre industry to raise funds and distribute grants for AIDS-related causes. He also served as president of Bailey House, a not-for-profit organization that provides shelter for homeless people with AIDS. McFarlane served as the executive director of the Gill Foundation from 2004 until 2008, an LGBT organization founded by Tim Gill and based in Denver that which provides grants and operating support for not-for-profit and community foundations.
McFarlane lived in Manhattan for many years with his brother David, helping take care of him before his death due to AIDS in 2002. Together with Philip Bashe, he wrote the 1998 book The Complete Bedside Companion: No-Nonsense Advice on Caring for the Seriously Ill, which was based on his personal experiences over more than two decades caring for his brother and other seriously ill friends and family members.
According to the dramaturgical information that Kramer passed out after performances of the 2011 revival of his 1985 work The Normal Heart (which was one of the first plays to address the HIV/AIDS crisis), that play's character named "Tommy" was based on McFarlane. Tommy was played by William DeAcutis in the 1985 original production and by Jim Parsons in the 2011 revival. Working together with Kramer, McFarlane was the co-producer of the 1993 production of The Destiny of Me, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play that was the sequel to The Normal Heart. Shortly before his death, McFarlane wrote the afterword for Kramer's book The Tragedy of Today's Gays.
A resident of Denver, Colorado, McFarlane committed suicide at age 54 on May 15, 2009 in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. McFarlane left a letter in which he indicated that he could no longer continue dealing with heart and back problems, which followed a broken back in 2002. He is survived by two brothers.
In an interview with The New York Times after McFarlane's death, Kramer spoke about his role at GMHC and described how "single-handedly Rodger took this struggling ragtag group of really frightened and mostly young men, found us an office and set up all the programs." Kramer told The Advocate that McFarlane "did more for the gay world than any person has ever done" and stated that "I don't think the gay world knew or knows how great he was and how much he did for us and how much we need him still and how much we will miss him."
Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America by John-Manuel Andriote
Hardcover: 494 pages
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (June 1, 1999)
Amazon: Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America
There is no question that AIDS has been, and continues to be, one of the most destructive diseases of the century, taking thousands of lives, devastating communities, and exposing prejudice and bigotry. But AIDS has also been a disease of transformation—it has fueled the national gay civil rights movement, altered medical research and federal drug testing, shaken up both federal and local politics, and inspired a vast cultural outpouring. Victory Deferred, the most comprehensive account of the epidemic in more than ten years, is the history of both the destruction and transformation wrought by AIDS.
John-Manuel Andriote chronicles the impact of the disease from the coming-out revelry of the 1970s to the post-AIDS gay community of the 1990s, showing how it has changed both individual lives and national organizations. He tells the truly remarkable story of how a health crisis pushed a disjointed jumble of local activists to become a nationally visible and politically powerful civil rights movement, a full-fledged minority group challenging the authority of some of the nation's most powerful institutions. Based on hundreds of interviews with those at the forefront of the medical, political, and cultural responses to the disease, Victory Deferred artfully blends personal narratives with institutional histories and organizational politics to show how AIDS forced gay men from their closets and ghettos into the hallways of power to lobby and into the streets to protest.
Andriote, who has been at the center of national advocacy and AIDS politics in Washington, is judicious without being uncritical, and his account of the political maturation of the gay community is one of the most stirring civil rights stories of our time.
Victory Deferred draws on hundreds of original interviews, including first-hand accounts from: Virginia Apuzzo, Reverend Carl Bean, Marcus Conant, M.D., John D'Emilio, Anthony Fauci, M.D, Fenton Johnson, Larry Kramer, Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., Armistead Maupin, Walt Odets, Torie Osborn, Eric Rofes, Urvashi Vaid, Timothy Westmoreland, and Reggie Williams.
The Tragedy of Today's Gays by Larry Kramer
Reading level: Ages 18 and up
Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Tarcher (April 21, 2005)
Amazon: The Tragedy of Today's Gays
With equal parts eloquence and urgency, common sense and patriotism, Kramer writes a concise history of AIDS and despairs that gays have become a tragic people: A lack of civic and political involvement even when faced with an increasingly powerful and hateful opposition. A sexual abandon so reckless that "we are murdering each other." A growing addiction to crystal-meth that defies logic. But Kramer offers gays a survival plan: "So many of Larry Kramer's messages to the younger generation are humanist messages, so old-fashioned in a callow age that we need Kramer to make them again," writes Naomi Wolf in her foreword. "Honor your dead. Take responsibility for yourselves. Grow up. Your lives have meaning-don't fuck and drug them away."
We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer by Lawrence D. Mass
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan; Reprint edition (June 17, 1999)
Amazon: We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer
Twenty-three writers join together to explore the life and work of Larry Kramer, pioneer AIDS activist and acclaimed author of The Normal Heart and Faggots, in this original collection. The Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, producer, novelist, playwright, and co-founder of GMHC and founder of ACT-UP is one of the few visible gay role models we have for young people today. This unique volume focuses on Kramer as activist, writer, and personality. A controversial figure in the worlds of activism and letters, Kramer embodies the phrase, "the personal is political." This collection proves the impossibility of separating the activist from the writer and why perceptions of Kramer run from genius to provocateur.
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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