(Art above: One image, three gay artists: Bill T. Jones, body painted by Keith Haring, London, 1983; photograph by Tseng Kwong Chi © Muna Tseng Dance Projects Inc., New York. Artwork: © Keith Haring Foundation, New York.)
In the way that people often dismiss the 1960s by joking they can barely remember it — as though for every American it was an endless festival of sex, drugs, and rock and roll — so too is there temptation to sum up the decades that followed as an orgy of sexual liberation (the '70s) and the ensuing consequences of the AIDS epidemic (the 1980s). For generations, people — except HIV researchers and medical experts who dismiss the idea — have tried to suggest a causal link, as though one begat the other. But in doing so, they dismiss what a truly revolutionary act loving and having sex with whomever you choose really was. All across America, people were following their real passions, coming out about parts of themselves long repressed, and living out and proud for the first time in their lives. Being open helped gays and lesbians find each other and, soon, cities across the country experienced surges in the number of gay neighborhoods, which sprung up in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston.
From working-class bar dykes to lesbian feminists (many of whom were bisexual but embracing the radical, political choice to be with women in a patriarchy defined by what Adrienne Rich termed “compulsory heterosexuality”), plenty of queer women in the 1970s and early ’80s found themselves in the company of other women.
Gay and bi men embraced the new openness too, daring to venture into public spaces and exploring nontraditional relationships, newfound sexual freedoms, and an escape from the tyranny of restrictive masculine roles.
Back then, trans women often had different words for who they were, but many were in the same social circles as gay men. Living with high levels of violence and discrimination, they too discovered newfound freedoms to exist as they were, labels be damned.
Sure, people of color as well as transgender and bisexual folks were often fighting for attention from the margins, compared to the relatively more financially secure and established white gay men. Others felt forced to choose between the enduring quest for their sexual freedoms (as gay rights were thought of then) or women’s rights and the freedom of gender expression, or an escape from racial or sexual violence, and raw invisibility.
As the new decade dawned, ushering in the 1980s’ generation of greed and power, men who had sex with each other, at least some of the time, began getting sick. Eventually so did straight African-American folks. Within a decade, the disease would have a name (HIV, the virus that could lead to AIDS) and we would know that every orientation, every race, every gender was at risk. But hardest hit, especially in those early days, were gay and bi men and the transgender women who had sex with them.
The disease that later became known as AIDS was first identified in medical journals in 1981 (President Ronald Reagan’s first year in office). As AIDS became a national health crisis, Reagan’s administration remained silent.
Despite more than 16,000 Americans dying from complications of AIDS between 1981 and 1986, Reagan did not use the term “AIDS” in public until nearly five years into his administration.
Facing annihilation, gay men took it upon themselves to found organizations like Gay Men’s Health Crisis (1982) and AmFAR (1985) to save their own lives and combat the disease.
In the background, religous leaders like Rev. Jerry Falwell told followers “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals”; politicians like Lyndon LaRouche suggested people with HIV be quarantined; and Reagan’s own communications director, Pat Buchanan, argued that AIDS was nature’s revenge on gay men.
By the time Reagan addressed the issue of AIDS at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington, D.C. — after learning his friend, actor Rock Hudson, had been diagnosed — nearly 21,000 people had died from the disease and it had already spread to 113 countries with over 50,000 cases worldwide.
Reagan’s acknowledgment of the disease proved to be too late to stop the epidemic, and his response was almost entirely ineffective.
In 1987, Burroughs Wellcome introduced AZT, the first anti-HIV drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But we soon learned the drugs, prescribed at a much higher dose than what was actually necessary, were deadly too.
When the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was founded in New York City in 1987 (spreading to Los Angeles and other cities soon after), protests and die-ins in the streets in front of drugmakers' offices eventually led to the funding of more HIV research and, a decade later, a breakthrough in creating different and more effective antiretroviral medications.
The fight against HIV and AIDS was one that started and ended with the people. Because of the incredible courage of activists and advocates, many people with HIV survived decades longer than expected. Their activism literally saved lives and changed the trajectory of the epidemic. For LGBT activists, it was a reminder that we could not be silenced, we would not shrink away, or allow anyone to pray away the gay. Queers were here to stay.
Reagan later apologized for his neglect of the epidemic, but by then it was far too late. His legacy had been written.
There were two other enduring legacies of that time. First, the renaissance in queer arts and its enmeshment with activism, illustrated by choreographer Bill T. Jones; photographers Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie, and Tseng Kwong Chi; filmmaker Marlon Riggs; performance artist Essex Hemphil; and multimedia artists Keith Haring, Gregg Bordowitz, David Wojnarowicz, Ray Navarro, and Avram Finkelstein, a member of the AIDS art collective Gran Fury, which created the Silence=Death image. (Another Gran Fury fave was the multicultural billboard Kissing Doesn’t Kill, which showed a black man and white woman kissing, two women kissing, and two men kissing.)
ACT UP shook us up, stormed the National Institutes of Health and once engulfed the suburban Virginia home of North Carolina’s very antigay Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in a giant canvas condom that read “Helms Is Deadlier Than a Virus.”
Today, many of those aging ACT UP warriors are teaching a new wave of activists how to resist using ACT UP, Queer Nation, and Lesbian Avengers-style tactics.
The other enduring legacy was that while hundreds of our friends and lovers were dying swiftly, AIDS brought men and women together. In the 1970s, even the heads of the largest progressive gay and lesbian group, the Gay National Task Force, Charlie Brydon and Lucia Valeska were at odds, with Valeska telling gay men to keep it in their pants and arguing that gay public sex was hampering the quest for civil rights.
But, as Lillian Faderman once wrote in these pages, even the most militant lesbian feminist was moved by the “suffering of gay men in the AIDS holocaust.” Women stepped up to help care for the sick, to orchestrate social services and food banks and hospices, and to keep gay organizations afloat.
We put our differences aside and saw each other as family — dysfunctional, sure, but a collectively oppressed rainbow family in which we could, in sickness and health, rely only on each other.