Last days of Gail Lang
A local icon brings the gay and lesbian community together
“Oh, mayor, I can’t believe this! You’re the best,” exclaimed a surprised Gail Lang when she saw Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo enter her bedroom recently. “The mayor is in my bed—wait ’til the neighbors hear this. … Oh my God!”
That Sacramento’s esteemed mayor was seen in bed—on top of the covers, please—with arguably one of the city’s most well-known lesbian icons could raise an eyebrow or two. Under different circumstances. At a different time.
But the mayor was at Lang’s house October 30, an unusually sunny autumn morning, to pay her respects to a woman whose life, for many in the local gay and lesbian community, symbolized the seemingly effortless merging of activism and personal evolution.
Lang was dying. But she obviously still had people to see.
Within seconds of their embrace, the two women fell into an easy conversation that dissolved into giggles when Lang wrapped a long, black-and-silver feather boa around herself and the mayor and asked her friend and local photographer Tina Reynolds to snap a few pics. (Following Lang’s diagnosis of stomach cancer on October 9, she decided that everyone coming to visit her, upon their first visit, would have to be photographed with her—in bed. At last count, there were more than 100 photos in the growing collage.)
As Fargo and Lang discussed their backgrounds, the women discovered an interesting connection: Lang hailed from Buffalo, N.Y., and Fargo’s great-great-great-uncle was the mayor of Buffalo in the 1890s.
“The only other mayor in our family,” Fargo noted.
She then asked Lang to bring her up to date on what is perhaps Lang’s best-known project: the Lavender Library. Formally known as the Lavender Library, Archives and Cultural Exchange of Sacramento Inc. (or LLACE), the Lavender Library serves the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities as a lending library and archive as well as a site for cultural activities. It is an all-volunteer-run, donation-supported nonprofit community organization and boasts the largest lending stock of videos, documentaries, newspapers, books and magazines of its kind, some dating back to the earliest periods of the gay-rights movement.
Lang’s brainchild, co-founded with Michael Bennett in the late 1990s, is located at 1414 21st Street. The library grew out of Lang’s belief that preserving and sharing gay and lesbian culture was necessary to promote understanding and tolerance throughout the Sacramento community at large.
“She’s still actively recruiting,” said longtime friend Barbara Mendeola, “telling everyone that the library’s vision must grow and will only survive if people continue to volunteer.
“That’ll be her last breath,” Mendeola added, sharing a laugh with Lang’s sister, Debra J. Quattrini, about her friend’s well-known nonstop energy, still evident in Lang’s final days.
When Fargo said she would like to visit, Lang snapped to, directing one of the library’s board members, who was a frequent visitor at the house, to “set up a tour for the mayor—anytime she wants.”
Before she left, Fargo commended Lang for “making such a tremendous contribution to the city of Sacramento” and apologized for not being able to stay longer before her next appointment.
“Oh, that’s OK,” Lang said, grinning mischievously. “That’s what we call a quickie!”
As the mayor exited the house, friends and family who witnessed the exchange were happy to see Lang’s spirits up, as she reportedly had had a difficult morning.
Although Lang clearly felt honored by Fargo’s visit, truth be told, Fargo was but one of dozens who had made their way to Lang’s house in the preceding three weeks, traveling from the East Coast, Bay Area, Sacramento and beyond to exchange and renew memories, offer strength and support, and say goodbye.
Just a few weeks earlier, Lang had become embroiled in a controversy over the Pulp Fiction display at the Sacramento Public Library’s main branch. An exhibit of vintage paperback book covers, put together by Lang at the request of the library, had offended a few patrons and was relocated from the first-floor foyer to the fourth floor—a move that caused initial outrage in the LGBT community.
“She felt she had to pick her battles at this point,” her sister said. “And she wasn’t going to battle the public library. What she did do, however, was forge another relationship, and that’s what she’s always been passionate about.”
SN&R had contacted Lang earlier, requesting an interview on the subject. Lang said she would prefer to let the story drop. “My priorities have changed,” she said. “I’m dying.”
In subsequent visits at Lang’s home, she told SN&R that after her diagnosis, she thought she would have about three months to get her affairs in order.
A week and a half later, Lang said, the tumors in her stomach had grown so large and so hard that she could no longer wear jeans.
“So, at that point, I’m thinking, ‘This is going faster than I thought,’” Lang said. “So, I sped things up, called in the troops and said, ‘This is what we’ve got to do.’”
And they came—by the dozens. Within a couple of days, friends reported, there were no fewer than four pages of names of volunteers ready to assume any number of tasks, from taking shifts at the house to organizing doctor visits, arranging for hospice care, picking up Lang’s relatives and friends at the airport, or running film over to Rite Aid for one-hour processing.
On any given day during the month of October, Lang’s house ran like a well-oiled machine, all the while staying open for three separate two-hour shifts in which Lang could receive visitors throughout the day.
All of this, Lang said, helped conserve her strength, enabling her to make the kind of transition she wanted.
“I’m so fortunate. I’m so grateful,” she said a week before she died. “To have so many good friends—men and women, straight and queer, all ages. … Possibly, what goes around, comes around,” she continued, looking around her bedroom and hearing the laughing voices of friends in the hallway. “I’ve never been afraid to ask people for help, and so, people ask me for help. I mean, that’s just how it’s done.”
At least, that’s how it’s always been done in “Gail’s World”—the term used by Lang’s friends and family to describe the energy and feeling surrounding Lang and the people who moved through her life.
Diane Tanchak, whose friendship with Lang spanned 30 years and who was one of Lang’s first girlfriends back in New York, looked around the room and marveled, “You know, if I were to throw a party and invite all of my friends, I’d have to hand out boxing gloves. I mean, they just wouldn’t all get along. But it’s amazing to me that everyone who has come here, all of Gail’s friends, just do.
“Gail just has this way about her. … She has individual connections with everyone, yet everyone gets along with everyone else, even if they’ve never met before. It’s really quite amazing when you think about it.”
“Amazing” was a word heard often around Lang’s house during the final week of her life.
Having visited her sister a couple of years ago, Quattrini said she already had some idea of the level of support Lang had in her community, “but nothing prepared me for what I saw when I got out here this time.
“I must have met 50 people the first day! And everyone was willing to do anything. I saw just how much love surrounded her.”
Quattrini recalled how she and Lang spent five months taking care of their mother seven years ago before she died, also of cancer.
“My mom’s gift to us was us finding each other and knowing each other as adults,” Quattrini said. “Gail is very compassionate, very generous, giving and a very funny person.”
When asked to describe Lang’s imprint on Sacramento’s LGBT community, friends contended it has been more than Lang’s founding of the Lavender Library, more than the coming-out groups she led, more than even the success of getting an exhibit in the rotunda of the state Capitol during the month of June (said to be the first-ever such display of gay and lesbian accomplishments in any state capitol in the nation).
“She’s not only a leader, she’s a supporter,” Liz Stephens said. “It’s her love for people that brings it all together.”
“Her focus has not only been the books and literature,” said Marghe Covino, one of Lang’s closest friends and a well-known activist in the community herself. “It was in taking the focus off sexuality and putting it on culture, gay culture.
“Her voice is somewhat unique in our community. She helped define the culture—music, art, literature—and how those things have influenced not only our community but the mainstream, as well. But I’ve seen an evolution in Gail, as well, over the last couple of years. It wasn’t isolationist; call it separatist. She was more interested in making sure our community understood the importance of our culture than she was in making everyone else understand. Yet, she still continued to reach out. She is, was, a work in progress.”
Dorothea Dix, the 19th-century American social reformer, once said, “I think even lying on my bed I can still do something.”
Four days before her death, Lang was still working on behalf of her beloved library.
“Gail, they want to know the date when the grant application is due,” a friend shouted from the next room after answering the phone. Lang took the call from her bed. After talking for a moment, she hung up, saying to no one in particular, “Boy, I hope they can figure this out.”
Still, Lang expressed conviction that her vision for the library and the LGBT community would continue after her death.
“I hope for more understanding, education, participation with the Lavender Library and all that [its] purpose and mission stands for,” said Lang. “We’re a cultural part of Sacramento, and I absolutely expect that to continue.”
As for how she hoped she would be remembered, Lang said, “I’m Jewish, so that means we live on the memories we leave behind. So, I hope I’ve left many memories that make people smile.”
Lang died November 2. She would have been 53 in December.
Reynolds, who shot the 2004 Women Who Partner with Women breast-health calendar that featured Lang in the month of September, will donate all proceeds from the sale of 50 copies signed by Lang to the Lavender Library ($15 at www.sacsisterhood.com). Also, a memorial fund has been set up in Lang’s name at www.lavenderlibrary.org.