AIDS activist Allan Carpenter is still fighting to wipe out the stigma around the disease


When Allan Carpenter hears Gloria Gaynor promise “I Will Survive” or Diana Ross sing “I’m Coming Out,” these are not just tunes from a consummate Pride playlist. They transport him back to very particular emotional terrain.

“It was like a massage on your mind to hear a song that talked to you,” the hospitality industry vet elaborates. One of the city’s first HIV activists, who has also lived with the virus for decades, gives the long view. to town. A disease. An identity. “In the early ’80s my social group in Toronto did not talk about AIDS because of fear,” he says. “Additionally, we were still processing being homosexual, and being out in the community.”

Diagnosed during that time with the virus, he was one of the lucky ones. Unlike many who had to deal with neglect, abandonment and lack of medical help (he lost nine friends to the disease by 1998), Carpenter tells me, “I’ve been spoiled in the sense that I always had the opportunity to work with members of the medical community to find out what the hell was going on, because nobody knew anything. It was important to do your part.”

Carpenter is gearing up to do his part again, when he cooks for the awareness-raising event known as June’s HIV+ Eatery – a series of three sold-out dinners (June 14 to 16) in support of the ground-breaking AIDS hospice Casey House, on Isabella Street. An occasion that naturally brings a rush of memories.

“We knew that anybody who got sick would not last long,” he says of those powerful times. “And any friend, lover or individual who was taken to Casey House did not come out alive.” Carpenter, for one, benefited from Casey House when he returned to Canada after a long stay in New York. “They had a system where a nurse would come to your home every week and guide you through the month,” he says. “Even back then, they were thinking out of the box. I was one of the first respite-care patients, where instead of going into Casey House to die, they would spoil me and fatten me up… to help me continue my fight.”

He is not his disease

Who was the boy before his diagnosis? And is Carpenter still acquainted with him today? Growing up in a northern Ontario mining town, Carpenter remembers a life filled with sports. “Hockey in the winter,” he says, “and golf, jogging, hiking, fishing, camping and hunting in the summer.”

In his joint British and Italian household, eating, he says, was as much fun as winning a hockey game. “Those years were filled with so much love, compassion and family that it protected you from everything else,” he says. “That person is still in my soul. Live every day to the fullest – be happy, kind, and take care of one another.”

After surviving HIV (his status today, he says, is “undetectable”) at 60 he was diagnosed with throat cancer. I beat that, too. Where did he find the strength? “HIV and AIDS were a walk in the park compared to radiation and cancer,” he says, adding that his health-care team helped guide him through it. “I guess a lot of my fighting comes back to how I was brought up. My father would say when the sun came up, ‘Get out of bed. You’re sleeping your life away.’”

Making life count

Carpenter, who began a career in food with a gig in the catering department of the Sheraton Center on Queen Street – before eventually getting hired away by a Greek tycoon and his wife to open numerous restaurants in Manhattan over 12 years – maintains that his real mission remains helping to obliterate the lingering stigma around AIDS. “My journey is the hand of cards that I was given,” he says, “and I accepted it.”

Though he never met June Callwood – the late bona fide Toronto icon who founded Casey House – she remains a touchstone for him: “I’ve always remembered she said, ‘If any of you happen to see an injustice, you are no longer a spectator – you are a participant and you have an obligation to do something.’

“Great words from a strong woman and such compassion,” he continues. “Compassion – that should be Casey House’s middle name.”

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