Accidents & Calculations

The Emergence of Three AIDS HospicesTensho David Schneider

ISSAN DORSEY, who died of AIDS two years ago in San Francisco at the Zen temple/hospice he had founded, was an unlikely bodhisattva. His journey had not taken him through a series of serene Asian monasteries but through American bars, clubs, back rooms, and communes. By the time he became the abbot of One Mountain Temple (also called the Hartford Street Zen Center), Dorsey had practiced Zen meditation only slightly longer than he had worked in show business—mostly on stage as a female impersonator.

Born Tommy Dorsey in 1933 to a working-class family in Santa Barbara, Dorsey says, "My parents had no idea what they were doing. They were about twenty-one when I was born. They were expecting a macho little boy, and they got a sissy." Instead of going out for baseball or joining the scouts, Dorsey studied dance and piano to advance his dream of becoming an entertainer. He scuttled the plans for the priesthood, that the local nuns held for him, but he also found attending the local junior college unbearable. Feeling the pressures of his nascent homosexuality, Dorsey ran away and joined the Navy. This got him out of his parents' house and into the world of men. The Navy also offered him the opportunity to work as an entertainer, and he took it, performing in shows on the base and on television specials in Los Angeles.

Dorsey soon found a lover. And both were soon expelled from the service and flown home from the Korean War for "failing to ask permission to be a Navy couple." They were discharged in San Francisco, as were hundreds of gay men over the years. After some bitterly frustrating years trying to fit in "straight" jobs downtown, Dorsey found employment in a North Beach bar, first as a waiter, then as a host, and finally as a performer in the drag revue. He turned out to be an enormous crowd pleaser—so good, in fact, that he was invited to join a traveling road show called The Party of Four.

Eileen O'Leary

In the sleazy nightclub world of the late 1950s, female impersonators often performed additional services, functioning as bar-girls (encouraging customers to keep drinking) or as outright prostitutes. Hard drugs also exacted a toll in this lifestyle. When Dorsey returned to San Francisco in the mid-1960s, he was a self-described "mess." The city itself, however, was bubbling with new energy, which would soon blossom in the Haight Ashbury section in the form of Flower Children, the summer of love, the San Francisco sound, and "human be-ins."

Dorsey cleaned up his drug habits, founded the first San Francisco urban commune, and managed a rock band. The commune supported itself handsomely by selling the softer drugs of psychedelia, but for a serious junkie like Dorsey, this seemed a step in a positive direction. Surrounded by the happy melange of altered states and spirituality that prevailed at the time, Dorsey found himself practicing Zen meditation one morning, under the guidance of Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.

Twenty-one arduous years after he had showed up for morning meditation with "long hair, barefoot, dirty, high, and wearing beads—the whole mess," Dorsey became a Zen master in his own right. Suzuki Roshi's senior disciple Richard Baker Roshi certified Dorsey, now called Issan, as an authentic teacher and living representative of Buddha's lineage. Issan assumed the abbotship of the Hartford Street Zen Center in 1989. He had nurtured this group from its earliest meetings as the Gay Buddhist Club into a full-fledged Zen outfit, complete with temple and residence in San Francisco's Castro district.

Gigi Carroll Sims

At the same time, he had been paying close attention to developments in the gay community and began volunteering time at Coming Home Hospice. The AIDS problem was so severe, he felt that everyone would have to do something. Consequently, when one of his Zen students manifested advanced symptoms of AIDS, Issan installed him in a room in temple quarters. Unofficially, Maitri Hospice was born.

An inveterate finagler, Issan calculated that with the young man's SSI allowance and his allotted hours of attendant care from the county, it would be just as easy to house two disenfranchised AIDS sufferers as one, pooling the hours of attendant care. When a soft-spoken, HIV-infected Haitian man named Bernie joined the temple population, Issan could no longer pretend he wasn't running a hospice.

Though socially and religiously laudable, the hospice overlay on temple life disturbed many members. Nearly all the residents were gay men, each one struggling already with the ineluctable question of AIDS and what his relationship with it might be. For many, inviting AIDS into the living room brought it too close. They'd bargained for a Zen center—they'd planned, and fund-raised, and built a Zen center—not a hospice. By the time Issan convinced his old friend Steve Allen to help, all but one temple resident had moved out.

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