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Jack Dowling left a mark on his art and LGBTQ communities before he died of COVID-19


Over the past months, we've been remembering the lives of some of the people who have died from COVID-19. Jack Dowling was one of them. He was 89 years old. Jeffrey Solomon, a playwright and a director based in Los Angeles, was a longtime friend of Dowling.

JEFFREY SOLOMON: There was no wasted life or wasted time with Jack.


Dowling was a painter, writer and supporter of the LGBTQ community. He had a summer home on Fire Island in New York.

SOLOMON: When I was 22 in the summer of 1989, I really wanted to live out on Fire Island.

CHANG: Jeffrey Solomon says Fire Island looked like a safe place for the gay community, somewhere he could write his first play. So he posted signs offering to clean and cook in exchange for somewhere to stay.

SOLOMON: I would say it was false advertising (laughter). I just really wanted to be out there. And I only got one call, and it was from Jack and his partner, Wally.

SHAPIRO: Well, they gave Solomon a room to stay in but quickly discovered that his cleaning and cooking left a lot to be desired.

SOLOMON: I think Wally wanted me gone (laughter) because, you know, I was just taking up space. But Jack was profoundly moved by the fact that every day I went to the beach and I wrote all day long, this play. And he persuaded Wally to let me stay.

SHAPIRO: And that was the beginning of a 32-year-long friendship.

SOLOMON: To be able to have a friend like Jack, who was many decades older, who came out in the 1950s, was just extraordinary.

CHANG: Jack Dowling also supported his communities outside his home. He became involved in SAGE, an organization dedicated to helping LGBTQ elders, and left a big gift in his will. Here's Michael Adams, their CEO.

MICHAEL ADAMS: He was very thoughtful and left his home to SAGE.

SHAPIRO: He hoped that would honor the memory of his friend, the trans activist Marsha P. Johnson. Adams says the two met at the Chelsea Piers in the 1970s. That was a spot in New York City where queer people hung out.

ADAMS: Marsha P. Johnson was at the center of that kind of cauldron of creativity happening on the Piers. And Jack was a part of that and knew her and admired her and cared very much about her. And so it was his hope that we would do something with the support he was providing SAGE to honor her or her legacy.

CHANG: SAGE sold Jack Dowling's house, and that money will be used to fund services and programs specifically for transgender and nonbinary elders.

ADAMS: Those young trans people who back in the day with Marsha P. Johnson were doing so much work to build our community - they're now our elders.

SHAPIRO: Jack Dowling died from COVID-19 and other complications on February 4 of this year. His legacy and gift will ripple out for years to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRA STRELISKI'S "PLUS TOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.