The HIV and LGBTQ+ communities recently lost a very special soul — beloved cabaret performer and activist Irene Soderberg.
I first met Irene in December 2018, when interviewing her to be featured in this publication’s annual Most Amazing People Living with HIV list for 2019, and have since considered her a friend and mentor. And I am not alone in my admiration for her. Her magical spirit touched many and anyone who knew Irene loved her.
Equal parts Liza Minelli, Lucille Ball, and Mae West, Soderberg was a force of nature who had become an iconic fixture in the LGBTQ and HIV communities for over 30 years. With her fabulous cabaret shows, the self-proclaimed “fairy godmother” of fundraising managed to raise millions for HIV causes. This had become important to her not only because she had lost countless friends during the initial AIDS epidemic, but because she was living with HIV herself.
“Three hundred close friends died in three years,” recalled Soderberg of those dark days. “Such tragedy — the humanity of so many incredible beings cut short in the prime of their lives. My reason for being was clear. It was my job to entertain, enlighten, and bring hope to a generation decimated by AIDS.”
Soderberg discovered she was HIV-positive in 1990 while living in San Francisco, learning she had acquired the virus from her then-husband. Despite her activism and support of those living with HIV, she remained quiet about her own status for a long time. However, frustrated with the lack of progress that had been made around HIV issues over the years, she decided later in life to come out about her status.
“I’m speaking out now,” Soderberg told CV Independent in 2013, “because it’s important people get inspiration and validation from whatever source they can.”
For her tireless activism and enormous financial contributions to HIV causes — not to mention the ray of light and positivity she was to queer and HIV-positive communities — San Francisco declared April 21 “Irene Soderberg Day” in 2002.
In more recent years, Soderberg settled in West Hollywood, where she become a beloved local icon in the queer community there. After battling several non-HIV-related health issues over the past few years, Soderberg passed away suddenly on May 31 at the age of 67.
The WeHo community, as well as all who knew her, is shocked and in mourning over her loss and have come together to plan a “Celebration of Irene’s Life” — a special musical memorial done “Irene-style!” The date will be set once quarantine restrictions have been lifted or significantly lessened, and a GoFundMe has been set up to raise funds for the event as well as Soderberg’s memorial fees. Any remaining funds will be used to honor Irene’s memory in other cities and donated to HIV organizations in her name.
“It is with unbearable sadness that we confirm that on Sunday, May 31st, Irene Soderberg, Fairy Godmother of unconditional Love and song, passed suddenly in her apartment,” reads the GoFundMe statement. “This was such a shock...we all thought we had much more time with her, and haven’t yet found a way to accept that her voice and her compassion, her wit and her laughter, her creativity and her courage, her JOY and her deep loyalty to and loving appreciation for every detail about every single person she met or sang for, are no longer here with us in the way our hearts counted on...but it seems so many have already felt Irene surrounding us with her love, her stubborn belief in the best of us...and, of course, with her feathers.”