Jimmy Mack is a survivor.
You wouldn’t know it by chatting with the jovial, amiable man, but over the years he’s weathered more personal storms than most, from coming out of the closet in the 1970s to overcoming alcoholism and testing positive for HIV. But this resilient and strong man, who grew up in Westhampton Beach with a well-to-do family who supported him every step of the way, has emerged from those storms a strong and compassionate activist—even as he’s endured massive loss along the way.
“In my college years, I wanted to fight being gay,” Mack recalls. “I was engaged to a girl!” When his engagement fell apart, he returned to Westhampton Beach and worked at the former Club Pierre, a gay-owned establishment filled with gay employees. “I told Pierre, ‘Listen, I’m gay.’ They all knew it. And Pierre said, ‘Look at these gorgeous waiters, which one would you like?’ He was joking, but I wound up dating this guy who worked there named Frank.” Soon, Mack’s family caught on. His father, the former Chief of Radiology at Southampton Hospital who Mack describes as a “man of few words,” was shockingly supportive for the time. I had told my parents—I was still living at home—that I was spending the night at Frank’s. My parents called me in, and this was about 1979 or 1980, and they said, ‘We put two and two together, and if you’re gay, we will love you no matter what. And if any of our friends have a problem with it, they will no longer be our friends.’” But Mack’s parents gave him a word of caution: “You can be as open as you want to here in the Hamptons and New York, but you will go places in this world where people will want to hurt you because of it.”
Mack’s family also welcomed Frank with open arms, and Frank is still considered a member of his family today, even though they’re no longer dating. Frank also represents something important to Mack. “He’s one of the few gay men from my past who is still alive.”
But as Mack came out to support and love, the world was about to challenge him in ways no one predicted. Mack experienced what he believes was his first AIDS-related symptom in 1981 in the form of shigella, an infectious disease that causes diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. Like many men who experienced unusual symptoms or bouts of illness, Mack wouldn’t be officially diagnosed with HIV for several years. He also dealt with alcoholism, and was met with support from his family and “chosen” family from the gay community. Sadly, most of that chosen family is gone. “Pierre died of AIDS. All the other waiters except Frank and I died of AIDS at Club Pierre,” he says. “There are so few left. My entire family, of which Pierre was my gay father…I lost every one of them. Fortunately, I was with some of them when they passed and was sober and could guide them through it. You can’t even imagine what it was like to lose your whole community.”
Today, Mack is thriving. He is sober and married to Brian Mott. He receives HIV treatment and care at the Edie Windsor Center in Southampton, and co-hosts Edie’s Backyard BBQ with Judith Kasen-Windsor. Mack is also an EMT with the Southampton Volunteer Ambulance, and he and Mott are on the host committee for Sunset on the Beach, which benefits the LGBT Network’s Hamptons Center in Sag Harbor.
And though he’s been hit with hardship after hardship, Mack has a positive outlook. “My coming out story was so different,” he says. “I love to tell it. It should be everyone’s experience. I’m truly grateful and blessed for that experience.”
Next: An out doctor works to destigmatize HIV, finds a life with his husband on the East End and yearns for a more open community.