Some people, living and dead, known in this life or only known of, come into our lives in a flash and leave an indelible mark on who we are.
A couple years ago I went to a movie and beforehand there was a trailer for a new documentary. Within a few seconds, I got a lump in my throat. But something in me didn’t want to go there, so my mind quickly swept it out. “Oh my god, it’s Gabe”. The doc is called ‘Strike a Pose’, about the male back-up dancers who performed with Madonna during her 1990 world tour, and their lives now. They had also been part of a documentary about the tour that came out back then, called ‘Truth or Dare’. They were having a rollicking good time in that one, lots of backstage antics, six of them were gay, one of them straight. I saw it in the theater when it came out, 25 years ago.
Then a few months later I came across a co-worker’s post on Facebook, about a new documentary he’d just seen on Netflix, ‘Strike a Pose’. Within seconds, that lump came back. “Oh Gabe. Someone has finally told your story, thank God”. I decided it was time to watch it. The doc shows the lives of Madonna’s back-up dancers now. She had picked each of them, only seven, out of thousands who auditioned. And the guy I was secretly in love and lust with in my junior year of high school was one of them. His name was Gabriel Trupin. We were both in the dance department at School of the Arts in San Francisco. I had switched high schools three times already (moving, chaos and being a teenager, the perfect storm) and when I arrived it was the spring semester of my Junior year.
I was a ballet dancer for the most part before this, had done some jazz, but this school’s program was much more contemporary. Lyrical modern and jazz were the focus, with a little hip hop thrown in. I was a loner and fairly miserable in my own skin, but this way of expressing myself was much more freeing and a welcome relief. When I stepped foot in that studio for class and then rehearsal, I immediately zeroed in on this beaming light of manly beauty and talent. Gabe was a vision to behold. He was so beautiful to look at, tall, lean but muscular, and dark, could have been a GQ model. That type had never done much for me, mainly because I had yet to encounter (from my teen angst and insecurity perspective) a guy who looked like that who would ever notice me, much less be real and nice. It wasn’t that he was so gorgeous to look at, nor his joy and natural skill when he danced. It was his essence; he was a beautiful human being. I came to see that he was humble, sweet and paid attention to the unpopular, awkward ones. He was the star, the teachers loved him, and he was all MAN. The girls got giddy and nervous in his presence, I was no exception. The other guys in class of course just wanted to be him.
We didn’t talk much in the brief time I knew him, but in all our interactions I felt seen, and dancing alongside him was like dancing with a flame. And he was kind and gentle. And he knew something. He was calm. He didn’t have to try, he was greatness already.
I found out years later that he had died of AIDS. I didn’t even know he was gay. Apparently nobody did, and he had a girlfriend in high school who loved him so much. Madonna refused to edit out the footage of him kissing another man, after he begged her to. He was outed on the big screen, then found out soon after that he had contracted AIDS. Tragedy can be such a horrendously beautiful thorn in the heart.
Last month I had a job working in the AIDS Memorial Grove, an annual fundraiser in Golden Gate Park. Gabe’s name is engraved there. The spiral path illuminates, the trees grow taller. My Mom’s best friend from childhood, a girl, was also named Gabriel. I’d always associated that name with goodness, with helping buds to blossom.
Recently I went to see ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the new film about Queen and Freddie Mercury. I cried tears of sadness and love and inspiration I hadn’t felt in a long time. When I think of Gabe I feel those same things. Both Gabe and Freddie gave me goosebumps and here I am writing about them. They are still being of service to me, telling me it’s ok to be more of who I really am. When they pop into my awareness, I remember them as doing the same thing, and there is a feeling of camaraderie in that. I’m not alone ever. I think of them and I remember.
Freddie Mercury’s wife loved him regardless. I recently made a new dear male friend. It’s not a romantic couple kind of love, but it’s not devoid of aliveness and excitement either. It’s that different kind of love that you can’t define. You meet someone, there’s an instant connection; more than just a friendship, it’s something else. They recognize you right away, they immediately love you for you, and very soon you realize you love them too.
Gabriel was that, is that. And so is Freddie. I feel them singing and dancing together in Heaven, and inside me. I love them for the gifts they were, but also as a presence I feel now, an inspiration that guides me and tells me secrets. My new special friend is that too. Angels never leave.