By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
Those who know me well know that, at my best, I aspire to be a Care Bear.
For those of you unfamiliar with Care Bears, they were a group of brightly colored bear characters introduced in the 1980s, each embodying a specific trait (sharing, sportsmanship, caring, etc.), with a collective goal of making the world a better place. If I ever had to nominate the official “Care Bear of San Diego”, I would look no further than “Big Mike” Phillips.
Phillips has been a fixture in San Diego since 1989, well-known and respected for his efforts in fundraising, and as a photographer (often gratis) for advocacy events in the community. He has also been employed as a bartender in many of our historic and existing “watering holes”, for which he is well remembered. As a matter of fact, when I sat down to lunch with Phillips to discuss his life in San Diego, he was heartily greeted by a former patron of Bourbon Street San Diego (now Parks and Rec), who recalled his friendly service.
Phillips has been in San Diego since 1989, when he came out to support a friend who was dying of AIDS, and receiving care at UC San Diego. At the time, he called San Antonio, Texas home, where he worked as a bartender. In addition to the beautiful weather and beaches, Phillips was singularly impressed by the loving way in which the San Diego community, and the volunteers and staff at Being Alive, supported individuals living with HIV/AIDS. What cemented San Diego as his home, however, was a promise to his dying friend.
“He said to me, ‘Big Mike, I want you to promise me, and yourself, that you will give San Diego one year, and you’ll fall in love with the city, the way I did,’” Phillips explained. “On Aug. 18, 1989, I went home and sold my things and moved to San Diego. In addition to that promise, after the way I saw Being Alive and the community allow my friend to pass with dignity, I became committed to supporting the HIV community every year.”
His first bartending position in San Diego was at the Brass Rail, and he began witnessing the fundraisers at the bar, especially those of the Imperial Court de San Diego. In addition to the funds raised by the event, he was often moved enough by the cause to donate up to half of his night’s tips, as well. Phillips discussed this with fellow Brass Rail bartender and friend, Nigel Mayer, and they began discussing how this could be leveraged toward a broader fundraising effort.
Around this same time, it came to their attention that Special Delivery, a nonprofit that provides meals to individuals living with HIV/AIDS, was in need of funding. Phillips and Mayer took to the phones and called every bar they could think of and invited 135 bartenders to participate. They also reached out to Michael Portantino, publisher of Gay and Lesbian Times, to ask for donated advertising space. Portantino committed to give them the cover of the issue and a two-page spread, if they could pull together a sizable number of participants.
“To enroll, we asked all the bartenders to meet at the Balboa Park Fountain and, as of 10:30 that morning, there were only three of us there,” he recalled. “Then, at around 10:45, the bartenders started pouring in, and we ended up with 128 people enrolled, who committed to giving 50 percent of their tips for the Bar Employees Charitable Fundraiser.”
This event morphed into “Ordinary Miracles,” an annual fundraiser that lasted through the 1990s, and raised thousands of dollars for various nonprofits throughout San Diego. During this time, before the prevalence of social media, apps and even the internet, he maintained a presence through personal calls, letters, and even ads in the local publications, inviting folks to join him, wherever he might be working at the time. At the center of his persona, is gratitude and active engagement.
“One thing I’ve learned, is to pay attention to life, across the entire spectrum of the community,” he said. “I constantly try to open myself up to both teaching and learning. And when I’ve put myself out there, I am constantly humbled by the way people and businesses have responded to my requests for support.”
While Phillips focuses on the positive, he is also informed by the darker events he experienced.
“Before moving to San Diego, I had an experience where my high school friend, who was HIV-positive, had a seizure in my arms,” he remembered. “When the emergency crew arrived, they put him on a stretcher and began going through his wallet. They asked if I was his friend, and then accosted me for not having told them that ‘his friend had AIDS,’ and then literally flipped the stretcher and dropped him on his face. No human being should be treated like trash.
“Seeing the complete opposite in San Diego,” Phillips continued, “made it easy for me to make that promise to my friend. Why would I want to leave a city so full of compassion?”
Year after year, Big Mike has made good on his commitment to advocacy, using his birthday as a platform to raise funds and awareness for nonprofit organizations. He also has served on boards and committees in many of the organizations that provide advocacy today, such as The Center and The Rob Benzon Foundation. Additionally, he has further embraced to art of photography, as a way to give back.
“This love started in high school, when I worked selling ads for our yearbook,” Philips recalled. “I loved seeing images come to life in our darkroom. While, thanks to my friend Joey Arrudo buying me a digital camera, I graduated to electronic files, I still love bringing out the best in people. There’s a joy in seeing people see themselves in the best possible light!”
Big Mike Phillips continues to bring light into San Diego and can be found at both “Top of the Bay” on Fridays at the Porto Vista Hotel rooftop bar and at Oscar Wilde’s in Hillcrest. Of course, you’ll also catch him at many events, and he always encourages you to come and say “Hi”!
— Ian Morton has been in San Diego for over 20 years, working in the LGBTQ and HIV fields. He is currently a full-time student and works with the San Diego Black LGBTQ Coalition and the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ Youth Conference. Recommendations for individuals and groups to highlight in Profiles in Advocacy may be emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.