Nfld. & Labrador

HIV/AIDS activist Sara Sexton of St. John's dies at 97

Sara Sexton of St. John's, a HIV/AIDS activist and mother of the late Tommy Sexton, has passed away at the age of 97.
HIV/AIDS activist Sara Sexton of St. John's, who turned 97 last month, died Friday morning in St. John's. (CBC/Sherry Vivian)

A St. John's woman who spent years educating people about HIV/AIDs following the death of her high-profile son has died.

Sara Sexton, who turned 97 last month and was well-known for her storytelling and high-energy lifestyle, died Friday morning.

"I thank God every day for how good my life has been," Sexton told CBC News in January 2018.

Sexton grew up in a family of 11, including nine brothers, so she learned early on to stand up for herself.

Former CBC Here & Now host Debbie Cooper, right, interviews Sexton at her home in January 2018. (Here & Now)

She was the mother of one of Newfoundland and Labrador's best-known comedians, Tommy Sexton, who died of AIDS in 1993 at 36.

Like her son, Sara Sexton was known for her sense of humour.

"I think we can't live without a sense of humour.… It's like a cure, being able to laugh heartily," she told former Here & Now host Debbie Cooper two years ago.

Tree Walsh remembers the humour she showed throughout their friendship, and also the power she wielded during their 14 years together on the Newfoundland and Labrador AIDS Committee.

"She was like a whirlwind," Walsh said. "She came into a room and just exuded this passion for life."

Sexton is known by young adults in the province because of the advocacy work she did in high schools. She travelled the province giving presentations on the risks of HIV/AIDS, in a way that abolished the stigma surrounding the illness.

"[She was] talking about being gay and the risks to HIV just like nan was talking to everybody, you know? So it touched everybody on a personal level," Walsh said.

Tree Walsh worked alongside Sara Sexton in the effort to bring education and awareness to HIV/AIDS in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as acceptance of those fighting the disease. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

Sexton led an active lifestyle that included bowling and dancing well into her 90s, and played Scrabble and cribbage to keep her mind sharp.

Her son's death drew attention to HIV/AIDS in the province, and the Sexton family responded by raising money for a shelter for others with the disease. That shelter opened in 2006.

Even into her twilight years, Sexton worked to raise money and awareness about the disease, and was not shy about sharing her thoughts on death.

She was a devout Roman Catholic, and believed there was a "wonderful place waiting" after she died.

"I'm hoping they'll accept me. And besides, Tommy is up there — and I know Tommy can make even God laugh," she once said.

Her Catholicism and advocacy for the LGBT community was a rare combination, especially in the early '90s, but Walsh said it spoke to Sexton's overall message to everyone she encountered.

"I think it's that love supersedes everything."

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