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Donald Suggs Recalled Fondly From All Walks of Life

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Donald Suggs and his longtime partner Jeremy Hess.

Donald M. Suggs, Jr., the famously gregarious and fierce defender of civil rights causes, died from complications of a heart condition in New York City on October 5. He was 51.

A native of St. Louis, Suggs was a long-time East Village resident who, at points in his career, was a senior editor at the Village Voice, an associate director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and a program director at the Harlem United Community AIDS Center. His advocacy work included LGBT, youth, and people of color issues and focused largely on community building.

As a writer, Suggs may be remembered most for his May 1988 Village Voice article “Venus Envy: The Drag Balls of Harlem.” The article was the first major media attention paid to the inner world of the House of Xtravaganza, a group of African-American and Latino “impossible beauties,” as the transgender “fem queens” were known. It was Suggs’ work that introduced to the world the likes of Angie Xtravaganza and Venus Xtravaganza, stars of the Harlem ballroom scene. The article caught the eye of filmmaker Jennie Livingston, who chronicled the scene in her legendary, award-winning 1990 film “Paris is Burning.”

Livingston said of Suggs’ passing, “He was a beautiful man. A kind person. An endless storyteller. One of the first out queers I ever met –– as a teenager at Yale. Very funny. Relentlessly outspoken, about all the important things.”

Chi Chi Valenti, a writer at Details magazine while Suggs was at the Voice, said they were both researching the drag ball scene during the same period –– a situation in which “some writers would have been weird, shady, or competitive. Donald instead became a fast friend and one of my favorite East Village sightings for the next 25 years.”

The St. Louis American, where Suggs’ father, Donald, Sr., is publisher and executive editor, quoted Jennifer Steinhauer, a writer for the New York Times who interned at the Village Voice while Suggs was an editor, saying “Donald was a beautiful person who brought light into the lives of all comers. While not religious per se, he was the most ministering person I know, keeping faith and fellowship with the fancy and the forgotten, the establishment stars and those whom life and circumstances had kicked aside. All had a home with Donald, and his big belly laugh, his charming scolds, his eclectic evenings.”

Lesbian activist Maria Ettinger, a longtime friend, noted on Facebook that Suggs was a pioneering force in his undergraduate days at Yale: “When Donald came out, he found the rigid confines of the gay status quo were not for him. Donald helped mobilize a group of students, diverse in gender, race, and sexual orientation who forged ties of common purpose and friendship among Yale’s marginalized populations. Donald’s confidence and pride as an African American and as a gay man, his innate and infallible feminism, and his infectious sense of joy elevated him into a highly visible leader of the cultural evolution unfolding at Yale.”

Even as a young man, Suggs was a bold standout. Childhood friend Alexandra Alger wrote, also on Facebook, that during a high school year abroad program in France she was “blown away by a short story he wrote –– he was an amazing writer, even then. When I saw him at Yale the next year, he was wearing purple eye shadow. He looked great. He was one of the most inspirational people there. It seems he inspired people throughout his life.”

Suggs was a founder of People Using Media to Do Prevention, or the PUMP project, which taught young people from neighborhoods devastated by HIV how to produce prevention videos. Better World Advertising, which manages HIV messaging campaigns targeting LGBT and people of color communities, grew out of the PUMP effort. Suggs also worked on prevention education projects internationally –– from Puebla, Mexico to Santo Domingo and Bani in the Dominican Republic.

As a journalist, Suggs was also a contributor to the New York Times and the Advocate, among other publications. As a board member at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, he was instrumental in bringing “Gay USA” into the fold there.

Suggs’ fedora hats, hundreds of pairs of shoes, love of vintage eyeglasses, and bigger than life laugh made him one of the most popular faces to walk the streets of Alphabet City. Many people referred to him as “the Mayor of the East Village.” Amanda Pelham, a friend, commented on Facebook that a chance encounter on the streets always led to “the best conversations... his storytelling, insight, fierce fighting spirit, and that HUGE laugh... would stay with me, for days.

In addition to his father, he is survived by his partner Jeremy Hess, son Luis Ramirez, mother Betty, sisters Dawn and Dina, niece Delali Maxine, and grandmother Elnora.

A memorial service for Donald Suggs will be held on December 8 at 1 p.m. at St. Mark's Church, 131 East Tenth Street at Second Avenue. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to Grassroots Leadership, P.O. Box 36006, Charlotte, NC 28236, or to the One Iowa Education Fund, 419 SW Eighth Street, Des Moines, IA 50309.

 

 

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

Donna Red Wing says:
Oh, Donald, we do miss you so much. My friend, my NYC mentor and teacher, a man whose laugh just filled a room - you are loved. Blessings and strength to Jeremy. Donna
Oct. 31, 2012, 10:39 am
Jennie Livingston says:
Hi there, Donald was a friend of mine. We were Yale undergraduates together. I knew him from 1980 until his death and I love him and miss him. I can't be in the East Village without thinking of Donald, remembering him, and respecting him and his very singular, brilliant, funny, and loving way of being in the world. I attended three events in his honor, and if there were more, would be likely to attend those too. I wanted to correct an error in the article above. The genesis of my film Paris is Burning was that one day in the summer of 1985 I met some voguers in Washington Square Park. I photographed them with a still camera, and their suggestion that if I wanted to see more voguing I should go to a ball set me on a journey of meeting many people and going many places, and years later, in 1991, completing a film. A year or two after I'd begun the film project, Donald went to a ball with me: most likely during a shoot; he'd never been to one and was curious and excited. He wanted to write a piece, and, because he was a professional journalist, and a friend, asked if I minded if he "scooped" me (while I was in the middle of making the film and raising money to complete the film) by writing and publishing an article about the ball world. This was delicate in that I was in the middle of making a film that very possibly would never be completed if we couldn't raise completion funds. And he worked for a magazine, the Voice, that would publish his work. Of course, I didn't feel I owned the ball world just because I was trying to make a film about it. I felt like Donald's writing about the ball world was great: For one, that there would be an intelligent well-written article about the ball world would be valuable in and of itself, and secondarily, it would also help my efforts to finish the film to have a writer from a legitimate publication describe the phenomenon and the people who created it. It was cool that he asked, though, because Donald's question, "are you okay if I write about this?" had nothing to do with our personal relationships to the ball world, or with his being a black gay man and with my being a white gay woman, (both of us from outside of NYC) but with a sense of journalistic ethics, that if you learn about something from a colleague, and are interested in telling that story as part of your professional work, that colleague and that colleague's work deserve your respect. The piece above suggests I saw the article, learned about the ball world, and made the film. Just to be clear: in May 1988, when the article was published, it had been almost 3 years since I'd attended my first ball, and almost a year since we'd shot most of Paris is Burning with the support of WNYC-TV. Although the first shoot with film was in February of 1986, the majority of the footage was shot in the summer of 1987. The film wasn't completed until 1991 because it took that long to raise completion funding and to edit the film. I'm not sure why anyone would suggest my film stems from Donald's writing. If that were the case, I'd be thrilled to acknowledge it -- but it wasn't. He's thanked in the credits because he was a supportive friend who attended a ball with me, and then wrote an article that was worth reaading on its own, and, in the context of figuring out who makes it into your film credits, helped the film on its way. Not sure why the piece above has that error, but wanted to be clear, even though it's now some time since it was published. Jennie Livingston March 2014
March 17, 2014, 2:28 pm

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