John Cooper-Lara also serves as president of Greg Dollgener Memorial AIDS Fund, which hosts MetroBall at S4 on June 8
M. M. ADJARIAN | Contributing Writer
John Cooper-Lara loves Oak Lawn. And that love shows in everything he does for the community.
This year, Cooper-Lara is again chairing Razzle Dazzle Dallas, a position he’s held since the event returned from its nine-year hiatus in 2011.
The Arizona native first came to Oak Lawn in 1988 when J.C. Penney, the company he worked for in Tucson, moved its corporate offices to North Texas. When Cooper-Lara relocated, he was working as a visual designer. By the time he left J.C. Penney in 1994, he was doing special events publicity.
A year later, Cooper-Lara lost his partner to AIDS. Personal tragedy spurred him and several of his friends who had suffered similar losses to form the Greg Dollgener AIDS Memorial Fund, a group dedicated to helping others in the LGBT community impacted by the disease.
Cooper-Lara now serves as president of GDAMF, which holds its largest fundraiser, MetroBall, on Friday night, June 8, during Razzle Dazzle Dallas.
“It was intended to be a tribute to Greg [Dollgener’s] teaching us how to be compassionate and supportive of the community and to carry on the memory by doing things to help people [in need], ” he said of the fund.
An important outgrowth of the GDAMF was the MetroBall, a Pride event intended to serve as a fundraiser for the organization. It made its formal debut in 2005 but existed more informally before then as a kind of backyard community party.
While these projects were taking shape, Cooper-Lara moved back to Tucson in 1998. His decision was motivated by a desire to be close to his parents, both of whom also work with HIV/AIDS organizations.
“Then I met somebody and ended up getting married,” he said. “We journeyed to Washington state and came back to Dallas from Washington in 2006.”
By the time Cooper-Lara had returned, the community party he had helped start had become the MetroBall, which was then in its second year. While its main goal was to raise money for the GDAMF and its activities, the MetroBall also aimed to foster awareness among teens and 20-somethings about HIV/AIDS.
“It’s a lot harder to engage a younger generation into the conversation about AIDS, especially where prevention and care are concerned,” Cooper-Lara says. “And so one of the ideas [behind MetroBall] was to create something that would attract a younger audience.”
In 2007, he was elected GDAMF president. Cooper-Lara immediately became part of the emerging conversation among community volunteers, members of the Cedar Springs Merchants Association and those working within HIV/AIDS service organizations about reviving Razzle Dazzle.
“The old Razzle Dazzle, [which started in 1979 and ended in 2002], was a one-night event,” he says. “But we felt it was important to create a festival that was responsive to the diversity of the community. That’s why we have events that go from Wednesday, June 6, to Saturday, June 9 — it’s to give everybody a chance to participate.”
The LGBT community had evolved considerably since the first Razzle Dazzle. Not only had it grown stronger and more self-aware, but it was also beginning to lay even more vocal claim to marriage and parenting rights for its members.
“We wanted to make Razzle Dazzle family-friendly,” Cooper-Lara explains. “[The gay community is made up of] a diverse group of people now who have adopted children, surrogate children and children from prior marriages.”
The GDAMF president and his fellow activists also wanted to create an event that would put Oak Lawn — and Dallas — in the national spotlight.
“When it comes to June Pride events, Razzle Dazzle is one of the first ones in the country on the [Pride] schedule. We want for people from all over the country to come to Dallas and join the celebration,” he says.
If attendance numbers are any indicator of the kind of success Cooper-Lara is looking for, he may see his wish fulfilled sooner rather than later. An estimated 15,000 people took part in festivities in 2011. But this year, the Razzle Dazzle steering committee expects that number to climb to more than 25,000.
Part of what drives Cooper-Lara to keep striving on behalf of the gay community is the memory of the partner and friends he lost to AIDS, as well as the work his parents have done in Tucson to help people and families suffering from HIV/AIDS. But another part is the need he feels to give back to a community that helped him define — and honor — who he was.
“[When I came out], I met some seniors in the gay community,” he said. “They told me I had a history and that I was somebody. My job is to bring the next generation [forward]. They need to know that they’re not alone and that there’s a place for them because they’ll be the ones to carry on the battles long after I quit doing this.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 1, 2012.