We talk to an activist whose drive to raise awareness has personal roots that stem from the epidemic’s early issues.
As our HIV Heroes series continues, we talk to activist Will Harrell. Some of his motivation to raise funds and awareness for HIV-related causes comes from being part of the gay community, but some comes from being affected by HIV in a different way.
“My dad, Bob Harrell, was an awesome dad,” remembers Harrell. “He had hemophilia, which is a blood clotting disorder. He didn’t let hemophilia stop him and was very active in my life: running my Cub Scout troop, timing my swim team events, helping me with school work and just being very hands-on.” Harrell recalls his Dad “was limited physically, due to damage to his joints” from years of bleeding as a child, but that he found ways to remain active.
Bob went through painful and lengthy treatments to control his hemophilia bleeds until the advent of Factor 8, a treatment made up of plasma from thousands of donors. Factor 8 quickly revolutionized the lives of people living with hemophilia. However, it was not screened for HIV early on, and when Bob was treated for a brain hemorrhage in the winter of 1988, he also emerged from treatment positive for HIV. Bob Harrell died on Memorial Day, 1991.
“Being a gay man, I realized this was something that is constantly hitting both my community and my family,” Harrell says. “I came to realize if I could share my story, I could take something that for years caused me anger and fear and turn that into empowerment — both for myself and for others.”
About 21 years ago, Harrell began performing in drag as Candy Samples at an AIDS benefit drag pageant in Atlanta. “I was just 19 at the time and some friends from my community theater talked me into participating,” he remembers. “Well, I did and I won the crown!”
“The first real taste of using my talents, being a drag queen to help raise money really came seven or eight years ago when I started my Sunday Services show in New Orleans during Southern Decadence,” says Harrell. The show started out as a “mini-concert in a small bar for about 50 people and has grown to a full-on 90-minute show of my original music, stories of my life,” he says, “including my father’s experience — to packed venues all around the French Quarter.” This year his performances will benefit New Orleans AIDS Task Force’s Food For Friends program (noaidstaskforce.org) .
Today, Harrell is an activist both in and out of drag. “But folks seem to gravitate and really shell out donations when Candy is involved,” Harrell explains. “So I do find myself in drag quite a lot — rallying the troops, using my music shows to really push the importance of doing work in the community, talking about testing, knowing one’s status. Also, just to give a simple message about loving yourself and getting away from fear.”
Harrell’s other efforts include starting an AIDS Walk Team (that raised $47,002 in 2016 alone) and being hands-on as a crew member for the Braking AIDS Ride (brakingaidsride.org) which benefits Housing Works (housingworks.org).
Harrell’s great hope is to see an end to the stigma surrounding HIV. “I used to let fear rule my life. It doesn’t anymore. I have set that free,” he says. “I’ve come to terms with my father’s passing and embrace his life and use his story to help other people.”
Last modified: September 17, 2019