Leon Lord


Leon was a dear friend. He was born in Baltimore in 1941. He was a musician in the US Navy from 1959-1963. Somewhere along the way, probably at a gay dive bar in Baltimore in the 1960s (actually, almost definitely at a gay dive bar in Baltimore), he met my uncle, John Yantis, and they became life-long friends. On Thursday, Leon died in the San Francisco house he shared with my uncle for decades. Leon is the most memorable of characters. He was always the tallest guy in the room, 6’2” in flats and 6’7” in heels, not that I ever saw that, but I can imagine. He was the funniest person in the room too, and sometimes he was the drunkest, or the highest, until he decided to do something different. That’s the thing about Leon—he just decided what to do and then he did it, always without help. When he retired from the GSA in 2003, he made a lot of decisions. He decided not to smoke, not to drink, to be organic, then vegetarian, then vegan, then not. He decided to become a long-distance runner in his late 60s, so for the last many years of his life he collected ribbons and medals and rows and rows of running shoes. Tony and I ran with him once, a 5K for charity, and he lapped us. Bay to Breakers was his favorite.

Leon decided to live life to the fullest after retirement for a reason—you see, COVID-19 was not his first pandemic. There is one other current pandemic, HIV/AIDS, and it has killed 32 million people so far. Leon and John lived in San Francisco in 1981 at the beginning of that pandemic and it was as personal and cruel as it could have been, killing over the course of years nearly everyone they knew. Imagine that. Leon was never infected, so his long life was a gift in many ways, but it meant he lived with death for the better part of 20 years—not just through personal loss, but as a caregiver who helped his friends transition from living to dying, one after another, including my uncle who Leon cared for until the end. These are not easy things to do. So after my uncle died and Leon retired, he just decided. He decided to do what he wanted when he wanted and that’s the precise extent of what he did. I’ve never met another human being who got to live so many years doing only what he wanted, to an annoying fault.

COVID-19 was cruel to Leon in its own way, the same way it is cruel to so many older folks. It left him at home alone out of caution. It should feel indescribably tragic that he died alone in his house, cause not known at this time, but that’s actually exactly what he wanted. Leon didn’t fear death; he talked about death with the same casualness someone else might talk about a hangnail. Leon feared having to be taken care of, because he saw what that looked like. It’s just that more lunches and more hugs these last months would have been better. And less Trump. He would want nothing more than to see the approaching blue wave.

I think it was Leon and my uncle, and that house on Capital Avenue above Ocean Avenue, that purple house with the rainbow flag, and the whole of San Francisco really, maybe more Castro Street specifically, and Folsom and Market Street on Gay Pride, and the hilarious stories of Leon and my uncle and their friends staying up all night in the 70s and then trying to maneuver the flower shop’s van to the Flower Mart for the good picks on an early Sunday morning – yes, these things that gave me a sense of who I am and where I came from, in part. I learned from Leon that it is out of our commonality and our shared fight for equal rights that we gay men and women and others in our community have an expansive definition of family. Leon was family, much loved family. But what he’d really want you to know is this … that on nearly every single one of the thousands of days he spent caring for his lush, postage-stamp-sized garden he could smell the Pacific Ocean, even hear the roar of the waves on some days. Indeed, Leon left his house open to let the fog roll in, like every true San Franciscan. 


a short fictional account

Pop was Pop to his granddaughter Anna, who even at three listened to his every word as a doctor would a heartbeat, but decades earlier Pop was Sargent Ledford leading soldiers through rice paddies and jungles in search of an invisible enemy. For Sargent Ledford, the mission was to keep his men alive. “Leddy,” as they called him with affection, was 24 years old when atop a levee in the Mekong Delta a bullet exploded through the atmosphere not inches from his ear. Three of his men were hit before Sargent Ledford could turn around. The platoon dove for cover under heavy fire, but Sargent Ledford readied his weapon and rushed back up the muddy bank to pull the three fallen soldiers down the hill. This he did without hesitation, and although his tour was full of many such acts, it was after this incident that his soldiers’ eyes glistened when they saluted him or shook his hands, which they did often.

Anna was born just as Pop retired, and with her parents crisscrossing the country for conferences and symposiums, Anna and Pop spent many years together. Anna’s laughter was Pop’s medicine, but when Anna’s silliness turned to curiosity and attentiveness, Pop came to see himself in Anna more so than he ever saw himself in his academic-minded son. And it was this that gave Pop comfort in bringing Anna with him during his home visits as a volunteer hospice worker in Durham, North Carolina. Through doors left ajar, Anna watched Pop at work. She noticed the words he used, his touch, his calm demeanor. Pop always emerged from these darkened rooms and picked Anna up and carried her to the car. It was during these many car rides that Anna listened to Pop talk about being a soldier, the war, his career in the army, and life and death. He told Anna his hospice work gave him a sense of purpose, like he had in the military.

Pop died when Anna was eight. She ran to his car, jumped inside, and refused to get out. But Anna’s young heart healed quickly and Pop faded from her memory. Anna finished school and then college, but with the vigor of an assembly line worker clocking in and clocking out, day after day—ever hounded by her parents to do more with her life. But Anna was content. After college she started work as a manager at a supermarket in Raleigh. She became the general manager after a few years and lived a comfortable life. She dreamed of little more than evenings at home in her apartment and holidays with her parents and extended family. Anna enjoyed the opportunity to talk to her family, now scattered around the country, but she had become adept at steering conversations away from her life.

Anna was 34 when she reached for a bottle of aspirin at work just as it exploded off the shelf. And then a bottle of Tylenol, and then a bottle of Advil, and then Anna hit the ground. Through half-closed eyes she saw others on the ground too, not moving, some moaning, some in growing pools of red. Her fear was secondary to her sense of helplessness. She had to wait. When the silence came, Anna crawled to each pool to do whatever she could do. Anna’s parents were concerned that she would feel guilty for surviving when so many had not. But Anna felt something totally different. Within two years, Anna became a nurse. Within weeks, she developed a reputation for facing the most challenging situations at the hospital.

When the 2020 pandemic hit, Anna volunteered to work double shifts. In April, Anna tuned out the clanging and clapping as she left the hospital for the night, determined to sleep well so she could return early in the morning. By December, her hospital was overwhelmed. In the ICU, Anna watched as Pop after Pop died with only the comfort of her touch. For the first time, Anna was overwhelmed. It was not just the long hours and the endless suffering, but the reemergence of her childhood side by side with Pop. On the curb by the hospital entrance, Anna put her wet face into her hands as Pop came back to her. Anna knew what she had to do. She got up, wiped her face, put her combat gear back on, and returned to the battlefield to tend to the living and the dying.

At home late that night Anna read about the Mekong Delta, words she had just remembered. She learned that it is a place of beauty and life like no other place in the world, a sanctuary for thousands of newly discovered species. She would visit Vietnam a year later and spend three weeks taking in its beauty and history.