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In Memoriam: Leslie Cochran, 1951-2012

Leslie as photographed in South Austin.
Photo courtesy
Leslie as photographed in South Austin.

An Austin icon has died.

Leslie Cochran, the cross-dressing, homeless citizen who for years was perched at the intersection of Sixth and Congress, passed away in a local hospice overnight.

For about 20 years, Leslie – a bearded man clad in heels, hose and even thongs — was a symbol of Austin weirdness.  His likeness has appeared in everything from ads to refrigerator magnets and countless photos with tourists on Sixth Street. Leslie was homeless – and he relied on tips for posing for those pictures.

He was born in Miami. But it wasn’t until he came to Austin in 1996 that Leslie became, well, Leslie.

His fortunes seemed to rise with Austin’s. In 2000, he ran for mayor against Kirk Watson, garnering nearly 8 percent of the vote. He ran again in 2003.

Mike Clark-Madison, former city editor at the Austin Chronicle, recalls his endorsement interview with Leslie: The candidate arrived dressed in women’s clothing. But rather than flamboyant attire, he wore a conservative blue power suit.

“He had actually thought about real issues that were facing the city, and not all of his ideas were particularly out there,” said Clark-Madison. “He certainly wasn’t the craziest person I ever dealt with running for office, by a long shot.”

Over the next several years Leslie remained in the public eye. But in 2009, he had a debilitating seizure which sent him to the hospital and into a coma. The incident marked a turning point for Leslie, as the impacts of his life on the street became more pronounced.

“Up until 2009, his situation was purely by choice, and he could have changed that. I think after that there was a level of cognitive ability where he really did need some help, but he was resistant to it,” said local activist and friend of Leslie, Debbie Russell.

Last month, Russell and another friend, Bob Biard, were helping Leslie prepare for a trip to Colorado, getting him an ID and a pair of Navy surplus pants (he wanted that kind, because it reminded him of his time in the Naval Reserve).

But then Leslie had a seizure near Biard's home in South Austin.

Leslie ended his days in an Austin hospice. He was inundated with letters and visitors thanking him for being an important part of the city’s culture. Beard says even at the end, Leslie was able to appreciate the community’s support.

“I think it made a real difference,” said Biard. “He’s laying there, barely able to move, and you’d just see this thumb’s up…  not able to speak, but just able to just give that gesture, like a big thank you.”

When another prominent homeless figure, Jennifer Gale, died on the streets in 2008, Austin leaders challenged the city to do better for its homeless.

Mike Clark-Madison says Leslie’s death speaks to a changing Austin. “A lot of what we have come to associate with Austin’s unique personality is stuff that happened by accident, that we didn’t plan for, that we didn’t have any system to support, and that we can’t really protect very well once it’s under threat,” he says. “And I think the story of Leslie Cochran kind of embodies all of that.”

And yet, friend Bob Biard says, Austinites can still learn a lot from Leslie.

“I think he was showing that he was going to be himself,” said Beard. “You should be yourself, don’t conform to other people’s notions of what [is] normal. And by doing that, every day’s a celebration.”

Leslie Cochran was 60 years old.

Funeral arrangements are pending, but Debbie Russell promises a “Leslie-style” memorial. The Austin City Council is proclaiming today “Leslie Day.”

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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