Remembering Bill McCallion

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Bill McCallion was many things — an architect, an activist, a lover, and sober — but above all, he was a survivor. On his death at 71, he was among the longest-term survivors of AIDS; the end came from what we might simply call “old AIDS,” a combination of maladies accruing from perhaps 10 years of HIV, then more than 25 years of the drugs to treat it.

Bill was my first partner. We met early in 1991 at a fundraiser for Tom Duane’s run for New York City Council, as the nation’s first openly HIV+ candidate. I was handing out volunteer cards; Bill was eating salty snack foods. I thought he was handsome, so we chatted. When I learned he was an architect working in commercial construction, he got even more interesting. In 1993, he moved into my place in Gramercy Park from his West 91st Street apartment (in a building whose construction he’d monitored for his job).

It was our bad luck that Bill began to get sick soon after, only in his early 40s. We came to expect I’d be widowed by the mid-1990s. Then the HIV drug combinations arrived, and he didn’t die. His survival for another 27 years reflects both advances in HIV treatment and his innate stubbornness. Ask anyone who knew Bill to describe him, and “stubborn” will crop up, as will “demanding.”

Without a doubt, Bill’s proudest accomplishment was more than four decades of sobriety. He got sober just before turning 30, and 12-Step members remained his largest community for the rest of his life. He chaired meetings, mentored numerous newly sober individuals, and became an icon for his enduring sobriety to hundreds of friends and acquaintances.

Well before that, though, Bill’s earliest community was the first activists fighting for what was then called gay liberation. Raised in Manhattan's Inwood neighborhood, he was in high school when he read about the June 1969 Stonewall Riots in the papers. After he turned 18, Bill saw an ad in The Village Voice for the Gay Activists Alliance.

When he ventured nervously down to the group's Firehouse in SoHo — then a semi-derelict neighborhood — he found his new home. Over 10 years of activism and exuberance, Bill took part in zaps, block parties, protests, political campaigns, and much more.

The GAA and others had kicked off the LGBTQ civil rights movement, and Bill was part of the first Gay Liberation March in June 1970. He met Michael Giavinco, his first lover, in Central Park after the march. They saw Bette Midler perform in Washington Square for the marchers in 1973. His grassroots experience meant he always supported my own activism 20 years later.

Then, suddenly, his friends began to get sick and die. By the turn of the century, Bill was a survivor from a generation where nine out of 10 friends in their address books had died within a decade, often before they turned 40. In Bill’s case, most were people with whom he got sober.

The vast death count of that epidemic, now all but forgotten, marked him forever. So did Giavinco’s death in February 1990; though they’d separated years before, Bill traveled to Boston every weekend to care for Giavinco in his last months. His momentary boyfriend and then best friend Barnaby Millard died on Labor Day 1994; the three of us shared their house in the Catskills.

After the 1996 HIV drug combinations saved his life, Bill had to reassess. Construction sites were increasingly dangerous for a man who couldn’t feel much below his ankles, so he’d gone on disability. He’d used savings to take “once in a lifetime” trips when he thought time was short. Our bright yellow Triumph TR-6 fulfilled his dream of a convertible sports car.

He showed me Venice, Florence, Siena, and Rome; I showed him London, and he took me to visit relations in Ireland. We survived being gay-bashed on a U.K. trip, though the scar on his chin and lip stayed with him for the rest of his life. But when medication unexpectedly offered him more time, we decided — together — it was better to separate.

Facing a new life he didn’t expect to have, Bill rejoined his longtime employer, Merritt & Harris. He bought an apartment in Fort Lauderdale to escape NYC winters, and a black Ford pickup truck he loved. The firm allowed him to work out of its Florida office during the cold months.

I was happy when Bill found his new life partner, Sam Piperato. It’s a mark of Bill’s tenacity that after encephalitis disabled Sam, Bill sold the Florida apartment and devoted himself to tending for Sam until his own health waned. After Sam went into permanent care, Bill visited him weekly, took him on walks, and cared for him in multiple ways.

Bill and I stayed friends until the day he died. He taught me a lot of life lessons during our partnership, and I could talk to him about things I couldn’t express to anyone else. I learned the hard truth that you have to talk about the tough stuff, something my family preferred not to do. I learned it was okay to cry, and that you shouldn’t go to sleep mad at the person next to you.

Bill will be missed by multitudes. He is survived by Sam Piperato; his brother Joey and wife Loretta (children Kristen, Andrew, and Lauren); his brother Mike and wife Bea (children Liam, Melissa, and Jennifer); his brother Francis and wife Betty; his sister Beth and husband Paul Coppinger (children Brittany, Brian, and Brendan); and seven great-nieces and great-nephews. He was predeceased by Michael Giavinco; they will have a lot of catching up to do.

Rest in Power, Bill.

WILLIAM CHARLES McCALLION: Jan. 2, 1952 – Nov 13, 2023


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