The Memphis LGBT community lost a hero and pioneer of the Memphis gay rights movement Saturday Aug. 3. Allen Cook was one of a handful of gay activists in Memphis back in the 1980s who formed the Memphis Gay Coalition, and later the Aid to End Aids Committee (ATEAC) which became Friends for Life. He published the Memphis Gay Community's newspaper, GAZE, which became Triangle Journal News for over 20 years.
Many people have shared the ways Allen touched their lives, including those who called the Memphis Gay Switchboard, which Allen often manned from his home. Allen was the first person many talked to when they came out and called the switchboard. He helped organize to fight AIDS and care for the victims of the 80s plague that was ignored by Ronald Reagan. He helped create and establish Friends for Life to feed and care for people with AIDS in the midsouth. He touched hundreds, perhaps thousands, of peoples lives.
His later years were spent mainly in the quiet of his home which he shared with his partner of 30 years, John Stillwell. John had a stroke about 10 years ago and lost the ability to speak, and was partially disabled. Allen cared for John on limited economic means. After being laid off he and John survived only on Allen's meager Social Security benefits. A journal he left behind tells of the economic and emotional strain he endured, and left detailed instructions on how to care for John.
I met Allen when I moved to Memphis to go to graduate school what was then Memphis State University in 1984. I came to Memphis right out of Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas after coming out to myself and my family, to work on my master's degree in sociology at MSU. When I arrived at MSU the gay student group, GALA (Students for Gay and Lesbian Awareness) was defunct. I and a few gay students restarted the group, and Allen was very supportive of us.
In the 1990s, I organized the Memphis Lesbian and Gay Coalition for Justice (LGCJ) and once again Allen supported our efforts by allowing me to write articles in the Triangle Journal News. In the 2000s Allen allowed me to write a regular column, Queer Notes, and I helped deliver the TJN for $50 a month, which was probably most of his profit from the paper. When the Bush recession hit in 2006 he decided to turn the TJN over to the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center. It was around that time that John had a stroke and Allen was laid off from his job.
Sadly, I lost touch with Allen for many years, and like many did not know about the economic hardships they faced. We were reunited on Facebook a few weeks before his death. Allen began posting about his health and after going to the doctor was hit with the bad news, he had last stage inoperable lung cancer. No cure, no treatment to stop it. He posted about difficulties getting around, driving, etc. and I began to realize that he needed my help even though he did not want to ask for it.
After Allen posted a message on Facebook saying that John had a seizure and was taken to the hospital, I went to check on him fearing he was home all alone. Allen was very ill and almost bed ridden. He knew he was running out of time for get John's SSI set up so he could be taken care of. He was worried about John more than himself. I found out that Allen had been cooking for John even while his health was making it very difficult for him to do so.
I began posting messages to friends on his condition and many of his friends came together to form a support group. We set up a meal program and got legal help to get John's disability insurance.
Realizing the difficulties we faced providing him care at home, Allen moved into Methodist Residential Hospice care the last week of July. Many of Allen's friends got to visit with him and we did all we could to comfort him in his last hours. Allen kept a sense of humor even to the end of his life. He got irritated when people asked him how he was doing, "I'm dying!" he would tell them.
When I went to visit him on Saturday Aug. 3 I knew it would probably be his last day. I wanted to be by his side, and I watched him slowly drift into a deep sleep and held his hand as he stopped breathing. It was my first experience sitting with someone as they passed away, and one of the greatest moments of my life.
I regret losing touch with Allen and John for so many years, but will work with others to take care of John for Allen, and to remind the next generation of LGBT youth of what Allen Cook did to make their lives better in Memphis.