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West Hollywood cheerleaders made it through the dark years of AIDS and are still bringing cheer

The West Hollywood Cheerleaders, celebrating their 30th year, formed in 1986 when 13 gay men began dressing up as cheerleaders to visit people in hospitals dying of AIDS. Even as their own friends died, they believed it was OK to smile.

Nicklaus Fox hadn't spent much time around gay people. He grew up on a Montana cattle ranch, learned in a one-room schoolhouse — and shocked his parents when he came out of the closet.

"You're going to die of AIDS," he recalled them saying.

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It was the early 1990s, and all Fox knew about homosexuality was what he heard on the news: there was a deadly "gay cancer," and there seemed to be a lot of gays in California.

So, he hightailed it to the West Coast, where a friend dragged him to the Long Beach Pride parade. And that's when he saw them: Huge hair. Gaudy makeup. Sass. Glitter.

They were the West Hollywood Cheerleaders, drag queens raising money for AIDS — and, of all things, making people laugh.

"These guys were just so comfortable with who they were, dressed in drag with these crazy wigs," Fox said. "I thought, 'Oh my god, I want to be a cheerleader.'"

For Fox — a veterinarian fighting years of internalized homophobia — the path to self acceptance came with a pair of pompoms and a public spotlight.

The West Hollywood Cheerleaders formed in 1986 when 13 gay men began dressing up as cheerleaders to visit people in hospitals dying of AIDS. Even as their own friends died, they believed it was OK to smile.

Life in West Hollywood — and in the gay community as a whole — has changed radically since those dark days. The AIDS crisis has lessened, and acceptance of gays in larger society has increased greatly.

But the cheerleaders remain a fixture of local LGBT life, 30 years after the group formed, though their role has changed. Now, they offer a history lesson to younger people about the struggles of the past.

The members go by cheeky drag names like CoCo Dependent, Ivy Rockafella and Ida Slapter.

One man, Phil Rodriguez, goes by Sissy Pantz. He was called "sissy" as a kid. So he embroidered the word on the back of his cheer uniform.

Fox took the name Helen Back. As in 'to hell and back.'

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Tim Peterson came out at age 18 in 1985 — the same year actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS and President Ronald Reagan first mentioned the disease publicly.

Peterson moved to West Hollywood, he said, because he knew he'd find gay people there. He'd go out to the bars, and the nights often would be interrupted by the WeHo Cheerleaders, bursting in, causing a ruckus. Soon, he wanted in.

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"I was nervous as heck," he said. "But they took me."

A technology director for a healthcare company, Peterson drives more than 200 miles round-trip from his Palm Springs home every week to coach cheer practices in West Hollywood Park. On a recent, chilly spring night, he stood before the men in T-shirts and athletic shorts practicing a perky routine to the 1983 hit "The Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats.

His blond hair tied back in a low bun, Peterson led them like a conductor, waving his arms and punctuating the beat.

"It has to look really cute!" he said. "It has to have that cheerleader punch. Swing! And pull. Swing! And pull. Focus on sharp arm movements!"

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By 2008, Fox had been a cheerleader for several years. But he was estranged from his family and, deep down, still deeply ashamed that he was gay.

He was depressed, broke and hooked on drugs. He injected a whole vial of insulin into his leg, hoping it would kill him. As he faded, he sent a garbled text message to one of his veterinary clients, asking her to care for his pets. She sensed something was wrong. When paramedics found him, Fox was in a coma.

We’re seeing a generation of youth becoming infected because they don’t have the history to fall back on, with people dying from HIV.


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West Hollywood Cheerleader Nicklaus Fox marches down Santa Monica Blvd during the Gay Pride parade in West Hollywood.
West Hollywood Cheerleader Nicklaus Fox marches down Santa Monica Blvd during the Gay Pride parade in West Hollywood. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

He spent several weeks in a psychiatric ward, checked in to rehab and got sober — then tested positive for HIV.

At the height of his addictions, Fox had drifted away from the cheerleaders. But suddenly the HIV awareness messages he'd been promoting as Helen Back, cheerleader, became personal.

In recent years, HIV diagnoses have increased among young gay and bisexual men, fueled in part by drug use, inadequate safe-sex education and a low perception of risk by a generation with no memory of the AIDS epidemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We're seeing a generation of youth becoming infected because they don't have the history to fall back on, with people dying from HIV," Fox said. "They think, 'Oh, I can just take a pill; it's not that big a deal.' "

He wants to convince them to make better decisions than he did.

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William Smith sat at a picnic table at the Glendale Sports Complex, a veritable arsenal of makeup spread in front of him. He'd worked a 4 a.m. barista shift at an Apple Valley Starbucks and had to do "speed drag" to become the cheerleader Patty Cakes.

It was the day of the Drag Queen World Series, the cheerleaders' annual AIDS fundraising softball game against their rivals in rouge, the Los Angeles Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

"Girl, are you seriously caking on your face right now?" Rodriguez, AKA Sissy Pantz, asked Smith, an eyebrow raised as Smith contoured his cheeks. Another man came over to borrow Smith's deep red lipstick, waving at his children and husband playing nearby.

As a volunteer walked through the crowd handing out safe-sex kits, a drag queen emcee started things off by yelling, "I am declaring the bathrooms gender free today!"

Steve Siler, the cheerleaders' hunky, shirtless bat boy, stood on the first-base line, wearing short-shorts and a waist apron holding a purple can of Aquanet hairspray. He sprayed the cheerleaders down.

"How flammable are they? Very. By the end of the game, I wouldn't smoke a cigarette anywhere near them," he said.

When the game ended, home plate was covered in glitter. The cheerleaders lost — but, they said, they sure looked pretty. Fox, squeezed into multiple girdles, couldn't get the participant medal over his gigantic wig. Another sweating cheerleader whipped out a silicon bra insert.

Laughing in the crowd was the family of Enrique Ornelas, a longtime cheerleader called Tallula who died of liver disease in October.

Revelers cheer the West Hollywood Cheerleaders as they march down Santa Monica Blvd during the Gay Pride parade in West Hollywood.
Revelers cheer the West Hollywood Cheerleaders as they march down Santa Monica Blvd during the Gay Pride parade in West Hollywood. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Ornelas learned he was HIV positive in 2009 and, as a cheerleader, worked hard to fight the stigma of the disease, said his partner, Peter Riddall. The cheerleaders visited in the hospital just before he died.

"It was very important to him that people knew that just because he gave them a hug they weren't going to get infected, or if you gave him a kiss," said his sister, Adriana Ornelas Perez. "He was just a normal person with a disease that is still misunderstood."

Days after his death, Ornelas' family marched in the Palm Springs Pride parade with the cheerleaders. They carried his platform leather boots, filled with roses.

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On June 12, the morning of the L.A. Pride parade, Peterson was getting ready to do his makeup when he heard that someone had walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando and murdered 49 people. He sent a text message to Fox: they needed to be extra vigilant for the squad that day.

Under gray skies, just after officials announced the arrest of a heavily-armed man who'd planned to come to the parade, a volunteer warned the cheerleaders: "The fundamentalists, they will be shouting. Just ignore them."

But stepping out onto Santa Monica Boulevard in their matching white sneakers, "The Safety Dance" blaring, the cheerleaders were all pep. The crowd danced along.

"I love men in uniform!" one cheerleader shouted playfully at one of the many police officers along the route.

Fox wore a massive blonde wig, bright blue eye shadow and pearls. He took selfies with people in the crowd and high-fived his fellow cheerleaders.

His pom poms bouncing as he strode down the street, the boy from a cattle ranch in Montana smiled at no one — and everyone.

Twitter: @haileybranson

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