Living in San Diego for the past 30 years has profoundly changed my life in so many positive ways. I came here from San Antonio, Texas to be with my best friend in the world as he was dying of AIDS. It was during this time that I was introduced to so many HIV/AIDS organizations and charity groups. I had, for the very first time, witnessed such loving, kindness and compassion for others that I never saw in Texas. It was because of those dedicated people and organizations that my best friend was showed such dignity, whereas in Texas, he was literally put into a closet while he was in the hospital because the AIDS ward was full. San Diego was compassionate to him till the day he died by showing him comfort, caring and most of all, love.
I started my very first job at the Brass Rail as a bartender and quickly got to learn about the Imperial Court de San Diego and its members. Every Wednesday and Sunday nights, the Imperial Court would have a drag show to benefit the court system; in those early days, a lot of those shows still benefited the AIDS community. In fact, when Nigel Mayer and I co-founded our charity organization Ordinary Miracles, it was the Imperial Court that was one of our very first sponsors and continued to be until we ended it. After I joined the membership of the Imperial Court back in the 1990s and served three terms as board president, we stopped doing Ordinary Miracles.
It was during these years that I met one of our community’s hardest-working volunteers — in fact, we call each other brothers, me being the oldest and much wiser, of course (he would question that comment). Michael Lochner, who is a strong and no-nonsense kind of guy, with his snow-white hair, has grown in our community as a dependable and respected leader in our community as well as in the HIV/AIDS community. The story of his love for the people he represents and works so hard to make sure they have a better life has become part of his legacy of his life here in San Diego. Most people who know Michael call him Mikie, taking the name Mikie Too after one of our most respected leaders and mentors of the Imperial Court, LaLa Too.
He grew up in Rochester, New York in a family of seven siblings, and being the oldest of four boys and three girls is where he probably got his leadership skills. Growing up in such a large family comes with a lot of responsibilities as the first born. Raised in a strict Roman Catholic environment, he was still a strong-minded individual who found out at an early age that he had a voice and used it to stand up for what he strongly believed in. It was when he was 19, he came out to his family, but not in the way he had planned. He found himself using his voice then, which opened a new journey in his life, and he has never looked back since. In 1990, Mikie took a HIV test, but waited four years to hear the results. In February 1994, he was told he was HIV-positive and by November of 1994, Mikie was diagnosed with AIDS. This began his career as an AIDS activist. Mikie told me his story about the first time he participated in the Rochester, New York AIDS Walk, where he was accompanied by one of his very close friends. During the walk, a news reporter started harassing his friend to speak to the camera, which he did not feel comfortable doing. Mikie blurted out, “Leave him alone! He’s walking with me because I’m HIV-positive.” By the time Mikie got home, his Mom was waiting for him and she wasn’t too happy, saying: “Really Michael? Your grandfather saw you on the news. You couldn’t tell your family first? We had to learn this on the evening news?” That evening, Mikie outed himself as both being gay and HIV-positive to his family. His parents did not receive the news very well. In fact, one Sunday evening, Mikie found himself with his Mom and Dad, their best friends, the pastor of Holy Cross and one of the nuns sitting around the kitchen table. They had gathered to discuss his lifestyle and how him being gay and HIV-positive was not a part of God’s plan for him. Well, that made Mikie decide it was time to move so he could be his honest self. He relocated to Deerfield Beach, Florida to give his parents and his family time to hopefully become more accepting — which they were over the years. After two years in Florida, he made his way back to Rochester.
In 1999, Mikie made the bold decision to move to San Diego to get a fresh start. In fact, he jumped right into getting involved with the Ryan White Program process back in 2000. In 2001, he joined the San Diego HIV Consumer Council, and a few years later became vice chair of the HIV Consumer Council. In 2009, Mikie joined the HIV Planning Council and in a short time, was elected vice chair. It seemed like Mikie had finally figured out why he moved to San Diego — it had opened doors for him to be able to fight for those living with HIV/AIDS like he was and be their voice. Since moving to San Diego, Mikie has and continues to be a part of the HIV/AIDS community, whether as an advocate or planning member, and his passion will always be to ensure that the HIV/AIDS community has a seat at the table.
I really cannot pinpoint when Mike and I actually became great friends, but I have been involved with many Imperial Court events and seen him there being involved. I served as the president of the board for the Nicky Awards a couple of times and I noticed he was always there to help. As the years went by, he himself became more involved with the leadership roles of the Imperial Court, running for the position of Prince Royal and winning, then becoming Emperor — his title is the Majestic Scorpion Emperor XLIII Mikie Too. Mikie credits his involvement under the reign of the Black Scorpion Emperor Chris Grinston and Diamond Rainbow Empress Selena Dia. He is currently serving his third term as president of the board. I have had the honor to work with Mikie as he has chaired the Scott Carlson/Dan Febal Thanksgiving Community Dinner for almost a decade; chaired the annual Children’s Easter Egg Hunt for a number of years; and been on the board of the Nicky Awards and co-chaired with LaLa Too and I as well for the past several years. It seems like if the court is doing something, there is Mikie making sure it happens. The Imperial Court has become a family to him and allows him a way to give back and add meaning to his life.
On a personal level, not only have Mikie and I worked together for years with the Imperial Court, we have worked together with other charity organizations to help raise money and bring awareness as well. In fact, just before the coronavirus pandemic, Mikie, along with Miguel Donaty, Shannon Wagner and I, put together the 30th Anniversary of Being Alive event, which raised much-needed money. It’s always fun and hard work but we both love working together for the better cause.
One of the best parts of Mikie’s life here in San Diego is when he met the one person who has become his partner, William Gary Graves (he goes by Gary). They met online in 2018 and a few months later, Gary came to visit. Mikie says one of the things he remembers most that first night was the $104 cab ride from the airport to his place. Wow, that was expensive (I never asked why it cost so much). While Gary was here visiting, Mikie received a call that his mother was dying. He asked Gary if he would stay and take care of his dog Spirit, to which he agreed. After Mikie buried his beloved mother and came home, they hit it off really well and have been together ever since. Gary is an incredible chef, which has Mikie always bragging about how delicious his meals are at home. Both Gary and their dog Spirit (who was a gift to Mikie from the Imperial Court board of directors after his step down as Prince Royal in 2014) keep him on his toes. She is a pit bull with the sweetest temperament but thinks she is the watchdog of the neighborhood.
I am honored and proud to know such a wonderful human being, a man who has become my brother, mentor and role model. We have our families that are given but then we have the families we choose as we grow in life. San Diego has become better for having such a loud voice for the HIV/AIDS community and for the many lives Mikie has touched though his charitable work. He will tell you he is a shy person, but that is far from the truth. He has earned the friendships of U.S. Congress members and Senators, state elected officials to the last several San Diego mayors, and activists who have worked closely with him. He was appointed by our very own Nicole Murray Ramirez, the head of the International Court System and a national activist as King Father of the Imperial Court de San Diego, to a title of leadership in appreciation for his hard work.
Thank you, Michael Lochner, for taking that chance to move to San Diego in 1999 — you have made the world a better place.
To contact Mikie:
Email: [email protected]
Facebook: Michael Lochner