By Jillian A. Bogater
Five years ago, local queer/fat activist Heather MacAllister left Detroit to make her dream of starting a big girls burlesque troupe a reality in San Francisco.
At Heather’s going away party, I handed her a framed photo of us taken years earlier at a gay pride march in Lansing.
“I looked a lot better back then,” I said, rubbing my much-larger belly. Suddenly aware of Heather’s fat acceptance activism, I wanted to grab my words as they sat in the air.
Instead, Heather smiled brightly and pulled me in for a deep hug.
“I think you look sexy as hell the way you are now,” she whispered in her trademark raspy voice. “I like you better with some weight on you.”
MacAllister, a Metro Detroit native and self-described “Fat/Social Justice Activist and Cultural Raconteur,” died last week after a three-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was 38.
Heather was diagnosed shortly after relocating to San Francisco, but it never stopped her from performing with Big Burlesque and the Fat Bottom Revue (which was featured in a photography book by actor Leonard Nimoy) and speaking out at conferences nationwide. Her impact as a RevaLucian-ary size acceptance activist reaches far and wide. Memorials are scheduled this weekend across the country, from New York to San Francisco, with many of them on Feb. 25 (her birthday).
Heather and I met as students at Plymouth Christian Academy. I was in sixth grade, in the same class as Heather’s little sister, Hope. I remember during sleepover parties at Hope’s house, I would often wander to Heather’s room fascinated by her fierce big-sister energy.
I only lasted at PCA for a couple months, but over the years we would run into each other at parties in high school. We ran in similar punk groups. She always had a smile, and a laugh about how we met.
In 1990, I marched in the Lansing gay pride parade for the first time. At the steps of the capitol, I heard someone calling out my name. And there she was. Wearing a neon-colored mesh shirt, her pierced nipples visible, Heather ran up for a hug. We didn’t have words; I could feel her unconditional love as she held me amid rally cries.
The rules for the Temple of Ishtar were simple: consensual, safe sex.
It was the summer of 1996 at Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and Heather had just handed me a flier asking me to meet her in the Twilight Zone. After trekking through the woods, I saw Heather at the temple (a grand two-entrance family tent she decorated with colorful scarves). She quickly dubbed me the Safe Sex Slave and handed me a bag filled with lube, gloves and dental dams.
I dutifully watched a frenzy of fun sexual encounters in the temple, occasionally providing safe sex supplies.
As the first magical night wound down, Heather sat down next to me and we relished the sex-positive atmosphere. She lovingly fed me mango, giggling as a bit dripped down my chin. I closed my eyes as she kissed the juice away.
That fall, I took a job as administrator for Eastern Michigan University’s gay office. To my serendipitous surprise, and relief, Heather was assigned as my student aide. A wicked team we certainly made. The office was officially named the LGBSSO (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Student Support Office). Heather was quick to point out that any transgender reference was missing. Trans issues were just rising, and Heather’s activist passion pushed her to the forefront. Heather worked with the Transgender Menace activist group and regularly spoke with trans activist Leslie Feinberg to help increase trans visibility. She also helped create the Queer Summit at EMU, a radical conference that continues to this day.
Mid-semester, I experienced a devastating sexual identity issue and almost took my life. When I woke in University of Michigan Hospital, Heather was at my side. She visited me every day, bringing me color pencils and flowers, lending me her strength until I could stand on my own again.
In my darkest hour, Heather did not judge me. Instead she showered me with long talks and all the love she could muster. From that point forward, there was no doubt in my mind that Heather’s spirit was eternally tattooed on my soul.
Last March I made a personal pilgrimage to Egypt to see a full eclipse. It was important to me because it was part of the same seros cycle of the eclipse I was born during 36 years earlier. Heather had mentioned to me that she always wanted to travel to Egypt. Before flying out, I called a special hotline her Lovetroopers had set up (she was unable to regularly take phone calls at this point) to tell her about the trip.
On the last day of my travels, I spotted a woman at my hotel in Giza who set off my Gaydar. Feeling a bit overconfident, I walked up and asked if she was American. When she said yes, I asked if she had ever been to Michigan, hoping she’d pick up on the code word for our state’s lesbian-oriented music festival. She smiled and said it had been years, as she lived near San Francisco now. I mentioned I had a fat activist friend who lived out there, and she quickly asked who it was.
“Heather MacAllister,” I proudly told her.
The woman started laughing, and said they were very close friends. We ended up hailing a taxi together and exchanged Heather stories on the way to Cairo airport. I was shocked to meet such an intimate friend of Heather’s in Egypt, but not exactly surprised. I never doubted Heather’s global impact.
Heather MacAllister was never one for talk. This fierce lady was all about action.
Yes, she philosophized with the best of us, but Heather always took it the extra step to live in her truth. As a queer/fat sex-positive activist who fought race and class issues, Heather was a warrior who pushed boundaries and inspired thousands to confront internal issues and embrace their bodies.
There’s no perfect time to find out about a death. News came to me Thursday as I was lecturing on LGBT issues in the media at Central Michigan University. I’m sure Heather played a part in that delivery.
Later that evening, as I addressed the university’s Gay Straight Alliance, I mentioned Heather’s death. A few of the students gasped, acknowledging how Heather’s work had inspired them to take on activism at such a young age. Others asked about the Metro Detroit vigil, and offered to start a carpool to drive down from Mount Pleasant.
I thought back to my time in the hospital, when I didn’t have the strength to live in my truth, realizing Heather bridged that gap for me. And while this brilliant goddess of a woman has left our world, her fighting spirit will continue to guide us.