Sylvester James, Jr. (September 6, 1947 – December 16, 1988), was the first openly gay recording artist to gain international fame.
His first hit, Disco Heat, peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the fall of 1978.
It also reached #29 on the UK Singles Chart.
Sylvester was born in Watts, Los Angeles, to a middle-class family.
Sylvester knew that he was gay while still a child.
At the age of eight Sylvester had sex with an older man.
His Mother could not accept his homosexuality and neither could his church.
He left the church because the congregation disapproved of his homosexuality and he found friendship among a group of cross-dressers and transgender women who called themselves The Disquotays.
He moved to San Francisco in 1970 at the age of 22 where he found acceptance and fame.
“I’ve never been a crusader, but I’ve always been honest. I may not volunteer details to the media, but I’ve never believed in lying or denying what I am to anyone.” Sylvester, September 10, 1988
The English journalist Stephen Brogan described Sylvester as “a star who shined brightly. He only happened once. He was a radical and a visionary in terms of queerness, music and race.”
Sylvester was a man of integrity and courage and that courage is clear in this interview with the Los Angeles Times in September of 1988:
Sylvester learned three months ago that he has AIDS, and he has spent most of the last few weeks at home, trying to regain his strength.
While often plagued by fatigue, the singer, 40, was well enough last June to lead a gay pride parade in San Francisco, albeit from a wheelchair.
“I can’t walk very well anymore,” he said in a phone interview. “I have problems with my feet and sometimes the pain is unbearable. But I don’t like to take pain killers because of the side effects.”
Despite the physical setbacks, Sylvester insists that his outlook remains positive.
“I’ve been in situations I shouldn’t have been in. We all have. But I still think that I’m a good person and I don’t regret anything I’ve done in my life,” he said.
“Down the line, I hope I won’t be in a lot more pain. But I don’t dwell on that. I’ll be fine, because my spirit is fine.”
Sylvester says that while black people are 12% of the population, more than 25% of all reported AIDS cases in this country involve blacks.
“It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a gay, white male disease,” said the singer, who has long been openly frank about his homosexuality.
“The black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when we’ve been so hard hit by this disease. I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”
Sylvester, who rose to international fame during the late ’70s with such disco hits as “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real,” had been hospitalized three times before being diagnosed as having the AIDS virus.
“I’d been having throat problems and I thought it was bronchitis. I wasn’t worried. Having AIDS hadn’t even crossed my mind.”
Since that time he has spent five weeks in a hospital with pneumocystis, during which time he confronted his own mortality. “I was ready to go,” he said. “I made peace with that and I never thought, ‘Why me?’ I just accepted it.”
Sylvester died in his bed on December 16, 1988.
For a more complete biography of Sylvester I recommend this one at Pop Matters.