Boardmember/activist Ron Gilmer Talks About Why TAB Still Matters

For Telluride AIDS Benefit supporters, this is the Big Weekend, the culmination of the efforts of a small army of activists determined to raise the bar on prevention through awareness and to help those affected and infected by the seemingly irrepressible pandemic.

Twenty-five years ago, since  a faceless, nameless virus was announced in this country,
AIDS victims and their families have flocked like moths to flames of hope – a miracle cure whispered here, a sudden recovery talked about there. The pot of gold everyone is seeking at the end of the rainbow is a vaccine – but so far, nada: AIDS has resisted medications through mutation.

Although the number of AIDS-related deaths has tumbled since the advent of a more potent class of HIV drugs in the mid-90s, the rate of new infections in the U.S. has remained unchanged: about 53,000 – 55,000 cases a year.

As people have watched friends cut down in the prime of life, they have tried to make sense of the scourge by channeling their experience into ways to help. The Telluride AIDS Benefit evolved from that impetus. In 1994, the fledging event was all about helping a friend and local, Robert Presley, battle the disease and pay mounting medical bills. But what Presley wanted was to help others. To date, TAB has raised about $1.5 million in support of educational initiatives and a growing list of beneficiaries, including one in Manzini, Swaziland, and another in Ethiopia.

Who was Robert to have inspired such a change-making nonprofit? In a word: an enfant terrible with a heart of gold and talent to burn.

Robert was the only boy among four siblings. From the get-go, he kept crossing that Mason Dixon line between boys and girls. For Robert, clothes were never gender specific.

At 17, Robert was kicked out of his home for refusing to stop dating men. From that point on, he walked a crooked line. He worked as a maid, cooking, cleaning and sewing in a house of medievalists. He got discharged from the Navy. He experimented with drugs, sex and rock 'n roll to the point of total dissipation and desolution, culminating in in 1987 with a diagnosis he was HIV positive.

In Boca Raton, Florida, Robert designed costumes and performed in slapstick drag clubs all over South Florida. Bartending there, he met his life partner, Ron Gilmer.

In 1990, Robert visited Telluride, where he met Susan Beraza Boling and Angela Cavins Watkins of The Telluride Repertory Theatre and began designing costumes for their productions. After Ron graduated from cooking school in San Francisco, the couple returned to town for good.  His odyssey over, Robert decided he was content to live  in Telluride and sew for the rest of his life.

At the 1997 TAB fashion show, Presley told his story to a rapt audience. He spoke about how he had been made to pay for hanging out with a biker gang in San Francisco. He described losing friends to AIDS, being shunned by his family, becoming a guinea pig for drugs, being dismissed as a "faggot" and "whore." Then he donned a tiara and sash emblazoned with the words "Miss AIDS 1997" and strutted his stuff down the runway, a parasol completing his mint green ensemble. The crowd went wild – as it will Saturday night, February 28, for the 2009 TAB Fashion Show.

To hear more about Robert and why TAB still matters, watch Ron's videocast.

[double click to view in larger format]

Comments are closed.