With more than a decade of front-row involvement in St. Louis’ queer community, James Lesch, 34, feels right at home in the thick of things. At the same time, in spite of the fact that there is almost always something brewing, he’s widely known – and respected – for his ability to stay above the fray.
Two years ago, Lesch left the legendary queer publication Vital Voice and joined St. Louis Effort for AIDS, which was integrated into Vivent Health last year. Lesch leads fundraising for the organization, which he believes sets the standard for providing integrated services, all under one roof, to those living with HIV.
“We have an onsite pharmacy, which is important to people who need their prescription filled but don’t have transportation,” he says.
Lesch first immersed himself in the city’s queer community when he moved to the heart of St. Louis from the suburbs in 2008. As a teenager in suburban Oakville, after being fired from a part-time restaurant job for not showing, his parents, restaurant owners themselves, explained to his boss that they were trying to teach him a work ethic. When he returned to work, he overheard someone asking about “that no-show guy.”
Years later, employed as a doorman at Erney’s 32 in the Grove, Jimmy No Show was born when the house DJ failed to show, and a bartender who knew Jimmy’s appreciation for music asked him to fill in on fly. He insists he owes his DJ career to the crash course provided by Billboard-reporting DJ Danny Morris. After graduating from St. Louis University, he became an intern at Vital Voice, where he rose through the ranks from being the squirrel mascot to publisher and partner.
Over the course of his decade at Vital Voice, the world changed dramatically. “I’m part of the last generation that had to go to gay bars for a sense of community, connections and support,” he says. “Sometimes that meant coming to the table with people you maybe weren’t wild about. I had to learn to understand that even though everyone’s not on the same page, we’re all in this together.”
Does Lesch believe that the Internet and the proliferation of “the apps” have destroyed the gay community? Absolutely not. But he acknowledges a palpable tension among those with differing views. As usual, Lesch empathizes with almost all perspectives, but he stridently avoids being in the midst of community spats. While he respects the passion and commitment that often fuel Facebook brawls, he resists chiming in.
“I used to be very quick to rush to someone’s defense, or take sides,” he says. These days he prefers connecting with friends, such as Jordan Braxton, Christine Elbert and Joan Lipkin – also Out in STL honorees. “They are three of my rocks who help me process my feelings so that I don’t need to use the Internet as a diary,” he says. “When I left Vital Voice and came here I put a lot of thought into that transition, and I trusted their experience and wisdom absolutely.
And he’s never been happier. “I absolutely love this job, the people and the work we do,” he says.
Like nearly everyone else, Lesch is now living — and working — in a world that’s radically different than it was just a few months ago. Since mid-March, Vivent’s clinic has become an emergency-only facility, the food pantry and pharmacy have transitioned to delivery services, and everyone is working remotely.
“Being a public health organization, we’re putting public health first and foremost,” Lesch says matter of factly. “I’m really proud of how our team came together to make sure everyone living with HIV had uninterrupted access to service. It speaks to how dedicated we are to the community and the people we serve.”
Like many organizations, Vivent has cancelled all of its events until further notice. That includes Dining Out for Life, the agency’s signature event, which Lesch says was all but ready to go when the pandemic hit.
Fundraising, he says, is more important than ever. “We can’t offer a boozy night out or a fun dinner, but we still need support,” Lesch says. Donations can be made at www.viventhealth.org/give.