On Sept. 14, 2010, longtime LGBT and HIV/AIDS community advocate Harriet Redic Bell, 62, passed away. A standing room-only service — with attendees spilling over into the church’s library and hallways — was held Sept. 19 at the Metropolitan Community Church of Charlotte. The service was attended by various community leaders and organizations, including Rev. Donna Stroud and Bishop Tonyia Rawls of Unity Fellowship Church of Charlotte.
Bell, a volunteer and safe-sex educator in the early days of the Metrolina AIDS Project, became a friend and mentor to many LGBT and HIV-positive Charlotteans. Her service to the community and its people was for years carried out with a big smile and open arms. Friends say she was vivacious and never let a moment go by without adding some sort of special signature to life’s odd, yet brilliant, panorama.
Even as she aged, Bell continued her service and commitment. In 2005, POZ magazine caught a glimpse of her at a reception held by the Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA), on the eve of its massive, national gathering in Washington, D.C.
“I came to C2EA to get more information on how to reach people,” she told the magazine. “I want to learn how to get funding and try to prevent this disease from infecting people in the future.”
At her funeral last month, friends and colleagues gathered to say goodbye, and remember and celebrate Bell’s legacy. There were hands waving. There was clapping. There was sadness and joy. But, more than anything, there was an outpouring of love and respect for one of the community’s most caring and loving leaders.
Harriet Redic: On the edge of 17
AIDS survivor celebrates another miraculous year
by David Stout :: Dec. 20, 2003
From the author: Charlotte’s LGBT and HIV/AIDS communities have lost a true angel of mercy with the recent passing of Harriet Redic Bell. This amazing woman, who had helped scores transition from this plane over the last two decades, made her own final journey Sept. 14 – my birthday, ironically enough. In the end, she succumbed to natural causes unrelated to her HIV-positive status, just as she predicted when I interviewed her seven years ago for a compelling biographical feature story. In Harriet’s honor, the piece is reprinted here in full, just as it appeared in the Dec. 20, 2003 issue of qnotes.
There are countless descriptives that can be used to characterize Harriet Redic — devout Christian, African-American, transgender woman and transplanted Charlottean being just a few — but one is drawing the lion’s share of the attention these days: longtime AIDS survivor.
Harriet, 55, just marked her 17th year with the disease. To better appreciate this milestone, consider that Harriet has lived with HIV so long that when she was first diagnosed the virus was just starting to be called that (it was previously known as HTLV-III), no president had ever mentioned AIDS in a public address (Ronald Reagan didn’t say the word until the following year), the first AIDS drug AZT was a year away and the red ribbon was still five years away.
Harriet found out she was HIV positive on Dec. 18, 1986. Further tests determined that her T-cell count was below 250 so she already had AIDS according to the medical standards of the time. She says it was like “receiving a death sentence” when the doctor dispassionately broke the news.
“The doctor who gave me the results said she was sorry to tell me that I was HIV positive. She said she hoped I had good insurance and wouldn’t wear out the emergency room. Then she walked out the door.”
In the aftermath, with little available counseling or support, Harriet tumbled into a crushing depression that culminated one fateful afternoon six months later.
“I lived about eight to 10 blocks from Independence Blvd., and I got out that day and started walking toward it. It was almost five o’clock rush hour and my intention was to continue right out into traffic and let it kill me.”
But just as Harriet was approaching the frenzied thoroughfare, she stopped. “I said to myself, ‘You fool, what if you walk out into traffic, get ran over, get all broken up, laying up in the hospital and don’t die?’ I thought about that and knew I didn’t want to suffer so I turned around and walked back to the house.”
She says that soon after this pivotal event she emerged from her period of grieving ready for battle: “I stood and looked AIDS in the face by virtue of a mirror, and I pointed my finger and said, ‘You may take me out of here, but you will say that you had a fight on your hands because I’m going to give you the fight of my life.’”
The new girl
Fighting adversity was commonplace for Harry S. Truman Burch, the second-youngest of nine siblings raised by a single mother in Ruby, S.C., during the segregated 1950s. It didn’t make things any easier that Harry knew he was supposed to be a girl and had the moxie to show it.
“In fifth grade I took one of my fourth-oldest sister’s outfits — shoes, dress, everything — to school in a bag and at recess went into the bathroom and put it on. When I came out nobody could believe it. My classmates tried to shame me; the teacher tried to shame me — she even went home and told my mom what had happened. It was very embarrassing for me but I knew it was something I wanted to do.”
Pressure at home and in the classroom kept Harry from further crossdressing at school but it didn’t stop his gender exploration in the home of his supportive, oldest sister. During weekend visits there he was allowed to live completely as a female — the happiest times of her young life Harriet recalls.
Harry moved from Ruby to Charlotte in 1964 but bounced back and forth for 10 years before finally settling in. Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s he trained and worked as a professional tailor but his leisure time was dominated by two main pursuits: indulging in the city’s gay nightlife and sharpening the skills needed to fully transition into Harriet — most of the time doing both at once and occasionally to hilarious results.
“I was out on the dancefloor and I had on a big bouffant wig. We were doing the Jerk and next thing you know my wig went rolling across the floor. Rather than stand there embarrassed, I kept dancing and worked my way over, picked it up and put it back on my head without stopping. I made it look like an act but I said then that this would never happen to me again. The next time I went dancing I made sure there were plenty of pins in my wig.”
A healing heart
After Harriet accepted her AIDS diagnosis she became heavily involved in the nascent prevention movement through Metrolina AIDS Project, an organization that had recently been started by six gay men in response to the growing health crisis. She began as a client but was soon volunteering as a safe-sex educator.
Thinking back over the scores of PWAs she met during those early years at MAP, Harriet — who began to live as a woman full-time during this period — says she isn’t “aware of a single one who’s still living. I cared for many of them through the end stages.”
One man that she helped to cross over into death left her with happy memories of a whirlwind courtship and a new last name.
“I first met Donald Redic at an HIV support meeting,” she recalls. “About two years later our paths crossed again when he was on his way to the hospital from the homeless shelter. When he got out I gave him a room because I couldn’t stand to see him without a place to live as ill as he was.”
Harriet’s offer was magnanimous but it pales in comparison to what she agreed to do a few days later.
“We were sitting there talking and Donald — who was only in his late 20s — said he knew that he wouldn’t get the chance to do the one thing he wanted to do before he died. I asked him what it was and he said, ‘I won’t have the chance to be married.’ I said, ‘Is it that important to you?’ and he told me that he didn’t want to die alone. I said, ‘I’ll marry you,’ and from that moment we started a sex-less relationship.”
The couple knew they were racing the clock so a two-month engagement was followed by a holy union ceremony. Harriet and Donald were joined Sept. 11, 1993, at MCC Charlotte surrounded by a host of family and friends. Sadly, these same people would gather at the same place just a month and a half later for Donald’s funeral. Harriet gave a sobering lesson in pragmatism when she arrived at the funeral in a black, slightly altered version of her white wedding dress and explained that she had selected the dressmaking pattern with both ceremonies in mind.
Keeping the faith
When questioned about her improbable longevity, Harriet steers the conversation toward the divine.
“My doctor always says that he can’t believe how great I’m doing. I tell him that I attribute my longevity to God and a positive attitude. When things get desperate I know that I need to go to the source from which all my help comes.”
Harriet nurtures her spirituality at MCC Charlotte, where she has been a member for nearly two decades and serves on the deacon staff. She loves to inject old-time gospel fervor into the worship services through her animated tambourine playing and singing.
One song that she performs regularly at the church has become something of a signature tune. It features the refrain, “The battle is not mine, it’s the Lord’s.” The lyrics reveal the evolution of Harriet’s understanding: once a woman fighting desperately to stay alive, today she is at peace — certain that a hedge of protection surrounds her.
Harriet says she believes this with such conviction that she is no longer concerned about dying from AIDS.
“After surviving this disease for 17 years, I’ve honestly come to believe that I’ll die of natural causes just like anybody else. When I remember all that God has brought me through in the past, I have no fears about the future.” : :