Courtesy Colin Murphy
Joan Rivers (center) honors Daniel Flier (left) and John Allen (right) for co-founding Saint Louis Effort for AIDS.
In 2014, my editor at the LGBTQ publication Vital Voice
sent me to interview St. Louis Effort for AIDS co-founder and 1982 Miss Gay Missouri America Daniel Flier, a.k.a. Vanessa Vincent. While Flier was kind, humble and very approachable, he was an intimidating assignment. I was more of a gossip columnist and often at odds with the community, while Flier was the embodiment of “community.” He was someone who carried our people during our darkest chapter, a patron saint.
Dan Flier was on the cover of the Riverfront Times in 1985 for challenging cross-dressing laws.
I sat in the parlor of his tasteful St. Louis Hills home and took notes as he told me about the early days of the AIDS crisis. He spoke of terminal hospital patients — including 34 of his close friends in the first two years — who weren’t fed nor bathed, often left to lie in their own excrement. He spoke of pets dying in apartments. A celebrated stylist, he told me about doing after-hours haircuts for those who no longer felt presentable due to lesions and open sores.
I thanked him for speaking with me and then went home and wept.
Just last month, friends announced that Flier was put in hospice care after his battle with prostate cancer. He passed away on the last Sunday in May.
Many of the tributes posted since to Flier’s Facebook page echoed that of Jennicka Fierz: “When I was in a room full of entertainers, I felt I didn’t belong in, Daniel Flier / Vanessa Vincent made me change my mind. One of the kindest people I’ve ever met.”
As Vanessa Vincent, Flier won Miss Gay Illinois in 1981 and was crowned Miss Gay Missouri the following year. A master emcee, Flier used his fame to bring awareness to the AIDS crisis and became known for his ability to silence a crowded bar, often doing so to convey urgent messages.
Courtesy Colin Murphy
Vanessa Vincent won Miss Gay Illinois in 1981 and was crowned Miss Gay Missouri the following year.
In 1985, with a $6,000 budget, Flier and John Allen founded Saint Louis Effort for AIDS, securing nonprofit status in December that year. The organization, which is now part of the Vivent Health umbrella, provides resources and services for those at risk or living with HIV.
“Daniel was my true north,” says Colin Murphy, co-owner, editor and COO of #Boom Media. “I don’t think I’ll ever encounter another individual on this planet who commanded such respect just for being who he was.”
At 19, Murphy and his then-boyfriend met Flier as Vanessa and were struck by the attention the star gave them. The following year, Murphy was diagnosed with HIV and given a prognosis of only 15 months.
Courtesy Chris Andoe
Daniel Flier passed away on the May 31 after a battle with prostate cancer.
“At a review show, I went up to Daniel to tell him my secret,” Murphy recalls. “He’d just given a rousing speech about HIV/AIDS and how we were going to beat this, and we had a whole community right there along with us. Daniel didn’t blink. He just gave me the biggest hug and said, ‘You’re gonna be OK, kid. We’ve got you. And you’re gonna fight this.’ We’ve been friends ever since. Daniel was thrilled that I thrived and made it to the new drugs and devoted my life and talent to community service. He was my biggest champion, but he gave me the hope to hang on with his calls and frank talk."
Murphy recalls Flier’s impatience for “fools,” “liars” and “hypocrites.”
“But at the same time, he was the most giving, compassionate, loving person I’ve ever known,” Murphy adds. “Hundreds of us are mourning the loss of our best friend. Now, it’s not possible to have a hundred best friends. But he made us feel that way. And his contributions to our LGBTQ+ community will not be matched.”
Underlying everything Flier did was a clear belief in the value and dignity of every person, regardless of their station, health or appearance. Throughout his life, time and again, he rose to the occasion and did the hard work that needed to be done.
Courtesy Colin Murphy
Daniel Flier in his bartending days.
It was in one of those early days of the AIDS crisis that Flier went to check on a dying man, finding a tray of cold food outside the door.
“Has he eaten?” Flier asked a nearby nurse who shrugged in response.
“If you’ll get me a fresh tray of food I’ll bring it to him,” he told her.
“You don’t want to go in there,” she said.
“You’re right. I don’t want to go in there, but I’m going to.”
For many who were sick and forsaken, Daniel Flier was their only friend. While the community mourns this incredible loss, we can only imagine the hero's welcome he’s receiving on the other side.