When John Baird was young, the only gay bar close to his hometown in northern Mississippi was burned to the ground. Since then, he has dedicated his life to finding and building LGBTQ community.
Raised in Appalachia during the Cold War, John felt isolated from his peers and family members because of his effeminate mannerisms. John left the South in the mid-1980s and moved to California during some of the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. Unable to find affordable housing, John lived in The Hollywood Spa, a gay bath house. He turned to sex work to survive, which led to an IV drug addiction. Determined to get clean, John struggled for a year before he was able to find the community and activist work that set him on a better path.
During his early years in California, John was struck by how ostracized he felt. He had expected to walk into the arms of a welcoming and loving community but was saddened to find prevalent racism and misogyny.
“This shocked me because I had never thought there was discrimination among LGBT people,” John remembers.
This early understanding of the discrimination within the LGBTQ community and his own HIV diagnosis led John to a life of activism. After fighting his addiction, John joined ACT UP in its formative years, working to bring recognition and resources to people living with HIV/AIDS. A few years later, John joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and has served the LGBTQ community as Sister Penny Coastal for almost thirty years.
John explains her work as Sister Penny Coastal with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as centering community outreach about Sexually Transmitted Diseases and promoting Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). “I do this outreach in a non-judgmental fashion using humor to get people to think and be responsible for not only their own lives.” She also created youth fashion shows that empower young trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming members of the Bay Area to be themselves and build community.
John’s work with the Bay Area’s LGBTQ community spans decades, but she knows there is still more to do. Graduating from San Francisco State University this May, John is already looking forward to graduate school. He will graduate with a BS in Public Health and hopes to further statistical health research in the LGBTQ community. “While writing research papers about our community, I was shocked at the lack of statistics on us…this is unacceptable and left a burr in my bear paw.”
John is exemplary of LGBTQ leaders who found their calling because homophobia and transphobia prevented them from following the usual path to success. As a soon-to-be Point Scholar college graduate in his late fifties, John asks us to remember: “It’s never too late to be the person you always knew you were.”