In a time when everything is rapidly changing, even for the better, learning to fully embrace those changes can be more difficult than one would think. We as a community have been fighting a long hard fight for acceptance and equality for years. Icons in our community have been in the forefront of this fight for decades and have been steadily making the changes we all benefit from now. Some saving lives in hospitals as nurses, some starting and maintaining underground newspapers, serving on local and national level boards like HRC and various other platforms. Some help us in other vulnerable areas of life like purchasing our first homes as couples. Each of these positions involves relating to people who are in inherently fragile moments of their lives.
Sometimes though, the job is so well done that we fail to realize the progress that has been made for surpassing these obstacles to become a reality. One woman, Pam Schneider, has done all of these things. The former owner of Vital VOICE, she lives a life out of the limelight now; yet her name and her impact are undeniably profound in our community’s everyday happenings.
“People have asked how I do real estate from nursing,” Schneider says. “It’s not really that different. I’m taking care of somebody in an area where they feel exposed. They don’t know, so I help them. I live a very quiet life; I always have, even during the time when I had the paper. In some ways I think it could have been bigger had I had a larger visual presence, but that’s not me. I’m sort of like if you are looking at the deck of a house. I am one of the support beams, that’s just how I see myself. I don’t see myself as someone who has to be in the limelight.”
Becoming an Emergency Room Registered Nurse in 1978 had proved very rewarding, but Schneider felt the need for professional change in a decade’s time. Realty and a life of business were her new calling. She completed her master’s degree in business in 1988 and began the move into her new vocation. It was while making this transition she took an interesting twist purchasing The Pride Pages, a resource publication that highlighted LGBT businesses and businesses that support the community. Through the 90s, Schneider successfully managed both paths, publishing the Pages and building a successful career in real estate. Raising the bar for herself yet again, the newspaper came next.
The 1999 pending closing of the Lesbian and Gay News Telegraph, founded in 1981, sat heavy with Schneider. She approached News Telegraph co-founder and editor Jim Thomas about coming on board to start a new paper for one year. The Telegraph closed in January 2000 and in June 2000 the newly titled Vital VOICE newspaper was launched at PrideFest. To date, the Vital VOICE is the third oldest LGBT media outlet in circulation in the United States.
“When it came time to rename it, I thought about some of my favorite papers that I had ever seen,” Schneider continues. I go to New York three or four times a year and I love the Village Voice. I believe these papers to be vehicles. They are voices for people in a marginalized community. So I wanted ‘voice’ and I love alliteration. Next thought was it was ‘necessary’, so I opened up Word and used the thesaurus and found ‘Vital’. ‘Vital Voice, that’s it! That is what it is going to be called’. I believe I named it appropriately.”
Adamantly maintaining her ideal image for the newspaper, Vital VOICE newspaper quickly raised the standard for St. Louis LGBT journalism. In 2004, this image garnered the paper exclusive interviews with all nine of the democratic presidential candidates, including nominee Senator John Kerry. Schneider maintained the newspaper in the same manner for nearly a decade, raising its circulation to upwards of 15,000 copies. It was in 2009 that current owner Darin Slyman purchased the newspaper from Schneider and rebranded and reimaged it into the glossy print magazine format we enjoy today.
“Progress has to be made, and so the paper was a paper while it was a paper, now it’s a lifestyle magazine, which appeals to people in the 21st century. We have to move,” Schneider explains. “If we don’t move, what is there? I don’t know, but that’s certainly not the world I want to live in. I want to live in a world which progresses, and I pray to God, until I am six feet under, that I am progressing with it.”
Today, Schneider’s focus is primarily on her real estate business. Collecting skills and connections like treasure throughout her vast experience from nursing and her service to the community, she has strengthened a thriving business in her current partnership with Coldwell Banker as one of the lead real estate agents within the company. Still a large contributor to the Human Rights Campaign today, Schneider’s definition of progress is a lesson for all of us to pay attention to. With the closing of many of our beloved gay bars and gathering spaces, it leads us to wonder what is happening to our community. Is this progress? How and why are we evolving? Why do we not show up like we used to, why do fundraisers fail in comparison to years past, and why do we have a lack in funding or backing for many of our organizations here locally in our community? Pam’s view: it’s a good sign. It means we are closer to our end goal: the goal of equality.
“Simply put, this is evolution, this is what we do,” Schneider says. “If you fight for the cause to have equality, you don’t have to be separated anymore. That is what equality means. It’s evolution and we have to be willing to walk into our future. Some of us go into our future kicking and screaming. If we’re not going to walk into our future, then why fight? What is it about? So I think that what creates the whole notion of a utopia, which doesn’t really exist, is for us to all be one in some way. I see what we have done as immense progress.”
“We as a community really have to embrace it, progress, and I don’t think we completely do,” Schneider continues. “In our community we have the factions of those who have and those who have not. We all have the same rights now; money didn’t buy that, progress has brought those rights to all of us. We as a community just have to start looking at it differently.”
Pam Schneider created a foundation on this platform of progress. It is a stage from which we stand from as a community today and look forward. We see where we have been, but more importantly, we are able to see where we are going. Like the homes she helps us transition into today, we must continuously work for a better future but also recognize how beautiful our present truly is. What was a struggle yesterday is no longer.
“Say it today, don’t say it from yesterday,” Schneider says.
New struggles are of a dissimilar variety. Schneider insists a different mindset has to be adhered to. We need to focus on the future. What we do now, what we have to say, is important to us as a community. We have to continue to walk forward together. Remaining in the past is hindering our overall mission.
“I don’t believe, I never did, that I have to be this out personality,” Schneider explains. “I support what I support and I don’t back down. One of the things I said when I took over the paper is that I have always been mainstream. No one knows who or what I am unless I tell them and over the course of time I just don’t hide those things anymore. What I lead with is me. You just think about that.”
Like the community she embodies, Schneider refuses to stop evolving.
“I loved what I did, I love what I do,” Schneider says. “Whatever I do will always be a relationship business. It has always been about the relationship of something.” V
WRITTEN BY KARLA TEMPLETON
PHOTOGRAPHED AT MITCHELL GOLD + BOB WILLIAMS
To this day, EFA co-founder Daniel Flier can’t revisit the early years of the AIDS crisis without breaking down.
In 1985, his friend Mark came back from Texas and it all began. Because Flier was the popular drag queen Vanessa Vincent, Miss Gay Missouri 1982, Mark implored him to warn the community.
“There’s something horrible going on, and gay men are dying,” Mark explained. “You have the capability of picking up the mic and getting people to listen.”
“I heard him but I didn’t hear him. It didn’t really stick,” Flier recalls. “Then, a few months later a customer called and asked that I cut her brother Eddy’s hair, who was back from Houston. She said it would have to be at night, when nobody else was there, and he was sick, so I’d need to wear gloves. I thought it was all very odd, but said okay.”
Flier knew Eddy as an attractive man, and was horrified by what had become of him: “His sister brought him in and he looked like an animal with its skin torn off. He had lesions and herpes sores all over his face. He fell into my arms and I exclaimed, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ I just couldn’t believe it.”
After the haircut, Flier asked Eddy what he could do for him, and Eddy replied: “Here’s what I want from you, Sugarbug. I want you to tell people.”
After Eddy and his sister left, Flier sat shell-shocked.
“I knew I had to do something,” Flier explained. “I went to see my friend John Allen, who managed a gay bar called Monte’s, to tell him what was happening. I’m an emotional person and was hysterical. He grabbed my face and said: ‘We will figure it out.’”
The two made contact with bar owners and managers initially, and then all these fabulous people began showing up.
“I’m not a religious person,” Flier said, “but they were amazing, spiritual human beings.”
Several names for the new organization were debated, and Flier proposed St. Louis Effort for AIDS.
“Some argued it should be Effort Against AIDS, but I said that sounded negative.”
In the beginning, Flier explained, 100 percent of the money raised came from drag fundraisers.
“We had a budget of five or six thousand dollars, and with that we fed people and helped them with bills.”
As Vanessa Vincent, he worked his heels off raising money, building awareness and preaching safe sex. After one of his shows, a handsome doctor approached him and asked for a hug.
“I could get up and talk until me head explodes but they wouldn’t listen,” he said. “They listen to you, and you’ve probably saved at least a third of them.”
The primary focus of EFA was to ensure that people were taken care of at the end of their lives, and that they died with dignity. This was a challenge, because AIDS patients were only receiving the most minimal care in the hospitals. Basically, they were being stored until they died. Hospital staff wouldn’t even carry their food in the room, much less bathe them.
“Often when I went to see someone, they’d ask that I not touch them, but [breaks down], I couldn’t stand seeing my friends lying in their own shit,” Flier paused to compose himself. “I’d put on my gloves and get to work cleaning them. ‘Please don’t do this,’ they’d say, but I had just decided if this was how I got it, this was how I got it.”
In those first two years, Flier saw nearly thirty friends die of the disease. Millennials who want to understand what it was like should look around at their favorite bar, or look at their Facebook feed, and then contemplate what it would be like if half of those people passed away within five years, he suggested.
Looking back on thirty years of the organization he cofounded, Flier is proud of all they’ve accomplished, and the great organizations that have partnered with or spun off from EFA, including PAWS, Doorways and Food Outreach.
Reflecting on those first couple of years when EFA and the AIDS crisis consumed his life, Flier says: “It was simultaneously the most beautiful, rewarding, draining and horrific experience of my lifetime.”
1985: A group of volunteers formed EFA, received not-for-profit status and moved into a donated room in the basement of MCC on Dolman St. The annual budget was $6,000.
1986: First paid staff person hired.
1987: Frontline, the EFA newsletter, was established. EFA moved to a new location at the Red Cross.
1988: Doorways formed to provide housing assistance, and Food Outreach opened.
1989: Case management began. First grant received from the St. Louis City Health Department as well as the first funds from the United Way.
1990: EFA again outgrew their space, and moved to Delmar Blvd. Accepted for United Way membership.
1991: EFA receives Ryan White Care Act funds to provide case management.
1992: EFA hosts Mardi Gras event, raising $23,000, and “Dinner for Friends,” netting $20,000.
1993: Mary Hizer resigns as Executive Director.
1994: First year of Dining Out For Life.
1995: Agency budget approaches one million dollars. EFA moved to Hampton Ave.
1996: EFA provides office space to PAWS, the Names Project and ACT UP. Protease Inhibitors become available, dramatically increasing the life span of PLWH.
1997: Involvement in legislative issues related to HIV issues is expanded.
1998: Website launched, satellite office opens in North St. Louis.
1999: Financial strain as corporate and event revenues decline.
2000: Emphasis is placed on ensuring the agency reaches those most impacted by the disease.
2001: Agency moves to Choteau Building. PAWS merges with EFA.
2002: Additional funding from the Health Department allow agency to expand case management staff.
2003: Mobile Testing Unit purchased. 10th Dining Out For Life revenue tops one million dollars.
2004: $100,000 grant from the MO Foundation for Heath allows for expansion of Treatment Education Program.
2005: A $49,000 grant from MO Foundation for Health allows agency to expand the mental health program and upgrade the phone system. EFA celebrates 20 years.
2006: EFA’s co-located case management program, which began at Dr. Park’s office, expanded to include Southampton Healthcare & University Club Medical.
2007: Cheryl Oliver becomes Executive Director.
2008: Dining Out For Life moves to April to align with international events.
2009: Logo and website updated.
2010: EFA’s BEACON project was one of ten nationwide selected as a grantee by AIDS United under their Access to Care program.
2011: CDC awarded EFA a Syphilis Elimination Grant.
2012: Dining Out For Life raised a record $267,000.
2013: The ACCESS project received a grant from Missouri Foundation of Health to enroll underserves and/or uninsured individuals in the marketplace.
2014: EFA’s prevention team received funding to begin providing free STI treatment.
2015: EFA Celebrates 30 years.
WRITTEN BY CHRIS ANDOE