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Community Profile: Susan Jester, activist who founded AIDS Walk San Diego

SAN DIEGO -- Some of San Diego's oldest LGBT community organizations and events have been in existence for decades, so it has become far too easy for us to forget those who were there in the early days, serving as the pioneers of the organized community that is enjoyed today.

Many don't know that AIDS Walk & Run San Diego, which now attracts thousands of walkers and runners each year and raises nearly a half-million dollars for HIV/AIDS services, was founded in 1985 as the San Diego Walk for Life.

Susan Jester, a longtime community activist who recently returned to San Diego, humbly takes credit as the founder of those early walks, doing it simply because it needed to be done.

Similar walks had been organized in New York City and Los Angeles, and Jester believed that such an event was also needed in San Diego to raise money and public awareness about the disease. AIDS Walk events are held in just about every major city and region in the United States today with a cross-section of participants including school groups, politicians, scouting organizations, corporations and community groups. But Jester describes 1985 - just four years after the first AIDS cases were identified - as a much different time:

"It was quite a different atmosphere in 1985 and a much different feeling in the air. For those participants who were born post-1985 the best way I could describe those dark days is to say that AIDS in the '80s was the 'gay community’s 9/11' and we were at the center of ground zero. I make that comparison as someone who was witness to and lived through both.

The circumstances were very similar.

Without warning, a sudden and devastating attack from an unknown enemy was perpetrated on our community. It brought sure and often swift death. The AIDS virus was unstoppable and it destroyed an entire generation and brought our community to its knees. Like 9/11, when the smoke and ashes cleared, thousands of our friends had disappeared and the parade of memorials and funerals was unrelenting. Fear and panic around the “Gay Plague” was in the streets and UNLIKE the victims of 9/11, there was no sympathy, no compassion, no funding, no services, no Social Security Disability [Insurance] and no help from the outside world.

Jester said that because of the silence of government officials, leaders, the media and others, LGBT business and bar owners, along with community activists became the "first responders" to the tragedy that was being lived, recalling people like Chris Shaw, Lou and Carol Arco, Greg Vasic, Clint Johnson and Nicole Murray-Ramirez who stepped up to the plate and help her organize in those first years.

Thousands of dollars were raised to help meet the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS and AIDS Walk & Run continues today, now managed by The San Diego LGBT Community Center.

While helping fight the AIDS crisis, Jester was also very involved politically, and left San Diego in the early 1990s to pursue a number of different positions ranging from the national events manager at the Human Rights Campaign, to working on a number of campaigns, and for political organizations.

Jester returned to San Diego in early 2011 to care for her elderly mother, who is in the end stage of Alzheimer's disease.

As president of Stead and Associates, a political consulting firm, Jester is no stranger to politics, and has recently re-appeared on the San Diego political scene. A Republican, Jester has taken a lead role in revitalizing the San Diego Log Cabin Republicans chapter, which had been on hiatus for several months. Jester is no stranger to the Log Cabin Republicans organization, as she was president of the local chapter for five years in the 1980s, and was the only female member of the founding board of the national Log Cabin Republicans.

Jester, now 69, has a son, David Jester, who is gay and married to his partner of 17 years, Guy Foti. She has a fascinating history both in and out of San Diego. A former Ms. Gay San Diego (1983), Jester says "I was taken several times, that's why I'm single now!"

 photo gaysandiego_zps01a269c3.jpg
Susan in 1983 as Ms. Gay San Diego, with David Coppini.

Read about Jester's history, current projects, and more below:

What organization(s) do you volunteer for, and why?

- I volunteer with the Log Cabin Republicans of San Diego because I believe it is vital that LGBT Republicans have a voice;

- Being Alive because it's an organization that provides services to the most under-served HIV population in San Diego;

- GSDBA Foundation board, which is a worthy organization that provides scholarship funding to LGBT college students; and

- A dog rescue organization called the Barking Lot in El Cajon because I adore dogs, miss my GSD companion of 15 years and would do anything to help save and re-home abused, neglected and dumped doggies.

What are your plans for the Log Cabin Republicans of San Diego (LCRSD)?

My vision for the next year for the LCRSD is to help build an organization that is credible and viable in terms of supporting the election of Republicans at all levels in San Diego County, and to provide a forum for LGBT Republicans to share their views and values with the LGBT community. Additionally, I want to see a strong and visible LGBT Republican advocacy voice for LGBT issues at all levels of government so that issues like marriage equality can move forward with support on both sides of the aisle. Building the membership in LCR, providing campaign support, registering voters and providing LGBT Republican candidates are the immediate 12-month goals.

What motivates you to do the volunteer work you do?

I want to leave the world a better place.

What is something that many people do not know about you?

I was a violinist and musician. Also, for the past 20 years I lived in DC, NYC and New Jersey.

What would you like to see change in the LGBT community?

More diversity in the political arena, and more spirituality and tolerance for individual beliefs.

What do you like most about the local LGBT community?

It is the most fun and happy LGBT community in the USA!

What sorts of things do you do to enrich your social life other than volunteering?

Attend church and attend various LGBT events as well as an occasional night out with the gals. I don't have much of a social life, but I’m working on changing that!

If you could host a dinner party and invite three people (dead or alive), who would they be and why?

King David in the Old Testament to learn more about leadership and loving God; George Washington to learn more about courage under fire and how to be more inspirational to my fellow man; and Rosa Parks to learn more about the qualities of a quiet and determined strength that can change the course of history.

Anything else you’d like to say about yourself, your volunteer work, your work, or any special projects you’re involved with?

My special project for the last two years, and the reason I returned to San Diego, from my adopted home state of New Jersey, has been to be a caregiver to my 93-year-old mom who is in the end stage of Alzheimer's. Up until a few months ago that has been my mission, and through that journey I have learned a lot about Alzheimer’s disease, the challenges of being a dementia caregiver. Living with elderly parents at age 69 and dealing with curfews has been the biggest challenge ... lol.

Jester had a lot of photos to share and could not settle on just a few to showcase - and we couldn't either - so we have posted them in the album below:

Benny_Cartwright's Susan Jester album on Photobucket