top of page

LGBTQ History is OUR History --- Pass it On!

History is not passed on from parent to child in our community. It's rarely mentioned (if at all) in elementary school school and we don't learn much about it high school either. That's why it's important to learn and share as much as we can, so the voices of the past are not silenced. We, as elders, can pass the stories on to youth in our community. Each week we'll be bringing you a piece of LGBTQ history -- these stories are curated by SAGE Upstate Board Chair Margaret Himley, Professor of Writing and LGBT Studies (emerita). 

Early 1980s Mobilizing

     At a meeting in August of 1981, Larry Kramer and others meeting in his NYC apartment founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), a community-based organization dedicated to meeting the needs of the community throughout the emerging AIDS crisis.
     The GMHC continues to work “to end the AIDS epidemic and uplift the lives of all affected” ( It began with a hotline, a newsletter, an office on West 22nd Street, and a buddy program to assist PWAs (persons with AIDS) with their daily needs. They fundraised and they litigated discrimination suits.
  They first started publishing safer sex guidelines in 1984. 

   In January 1983 San Francisco General Hospital opened Ward 86, the world’s first dedicated outpatient clinic for people with AIDS: “The clinic develops the San Francisco Model of Care, a holistic approach that focuses not only on medical care but also on making patients comfortable, providing them with resources they need to deal with the many challenges of living with AIDS, and allowing patients facing severe social stigma to live, and in many cases die, with dignity. This compassionate model is adopted by medical professionals around the world and sets the standard for excellence in treating HIV-AIDS patients” (Timeline).     

    The Normal Heart, a largely autobiographical play written by Larry Kramer, dramatizes the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in NYC between 1981-1984. It is a polemical drama, capturing the anger and outrage (and tensions) of a group of gay men and their allies as they confront this new disease in their personal lives, as they demand government funding for more research, as they create organizations to provide support for those with HIV/AIDS. The Normal Heart was also produced as a television drama film directed by Ryan Murphy, based on the original play. It debuted on HBO on May 24, 2014. We will look at ACT-UP in our next installment.

The Rhetoric of  early HIV/AIDS

Picture1 rare cancer.jpg

This 1981 article was the first announcement in mainstream media of the beginning of what came to be the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Seemingly healthy gay men suddenly presented with purple lesions, a form of cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma; swollen lymph nodes; and pneumocystis carinii pneumonia – and they were dying.
     Confusion and panic about this gay cancer or GRID (gay-related  immunodeficiency) spread quickly, linking the disease to identities – yes, mainly homosexuals, but also Haitians, heroin addicts, and hemophiliacs (the 4 H’s).
     Hypotheses based on the so-called ‘gay lifestyle’ emerged – that a particular
supply of amyl nitrate or poppers was contaminated, that sperm could destroy the
immune system (women as the ‘natural’ receptacle had evolved to deal with it, but
men were vulnerable), that sex with multiple partners could cause a viral tidal
wave that would crush the immune system (“An Epidemic of Signification”).
Newspapers reported that victims of this disease had had as many as 1,000 sexual
partners. Scientists wondered if ‘gay promiscuity’ was the cause, and HIV/AIDS
was read as “the outward and visible sign of an imagined depravity of will” (“The
Spectacle of AIDS”)

Tragically, early on, gay men were read as both victim and vector of the disease. Epidemiology was replaced by a moral etiology of disease. Sex, death, and homosexuality converged in the figure of the gay man dying of HIV/AIDS. 

     As HIV/AIDS became more and more identified as a ‘gay disease,’ others were encouraged to take comfort in the belief that it was confined to the gay community and not spreadable to the so-called ‘general population’ (as if we weren’t part of the general population!). Sexism and homophobia went to work – women and heterosexuals were deemed ‘safe’ from the disease.
     Getting HIV/AIDS was about who you were, not what you did – that is, about identities, not practices. “There is little doubt that for some people the AIDS crisis [lent] force to their fear and hatred of gays” (“An Epidemic of Signification”). This led to a second
epidemic of discrimination – one in housing, employment, and public accommodation for persons with HIV/AIDS and those associated with them. The government initially did little to address the crisis.

As images of men sick and dying crossed TV screens and filled newspapers, the disease became a spectacle – overdetermined images to watch from a distance with horror, but from the supposed safety of monogamous, heterosexual homes. It was happening to ‘them,’ not to ‘us’ (“The Spectacle of AIDS”).
     Activists and artists worked to counter those images with work that captured with love and respect the realities of living with HIV/AIDS, such as the powerful documentary Silverlake Life, which traces in intimate detail the lives of two men both diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, Tom Joslin and Mark Massi. It’s a powerful film,
a loving testament, and a haunting and very, very painful reminder of those early days of HIV/AIDS and all the friends and lovers we lost. The film is devastating, heartbreaking, and real (


Tell yourself: None of this ever had to happen. And then go make it
stop, with whatever breath you have left. Grief is a sword, or it is
nothing." -- Paul Monette (30 years ago, AIDS activist) 

     We will turn in the next installments to the powerful protests and calls for action and community mobilizations that challenged these early discourses and representations – and made a big difference.


Little Jimmy Scott


jimmy scott record.jfif

“In my adult life, people have looked at me as an oddity; I've been called a queer, a little girl, an old woman, a freak and a fag. As a singer, I've been criticized for sounding feminine. They say I don't belong in any category, male or female, pop or jazz. But early on, I saw my suffering as my salvation. Once I knew that, I understood God had put me in this strange little package for a reason. All I needed was the courage to be me."  -- Little Jimmy Scott as quoted in Them. Little Jimmy Scott was a jazz vocalist that didn't really get the shot at fame that he deserved. He influenced many others in the music industry, though, including Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Dinah Washington, Lou Reed, and more. You can read about him in Them here. If you'd like to listen to him, here's a sampling

j scott.jfif

Marsha P Johnson

"History isn't something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities." -- Marsha P. Johnson. Some of the work to find justice for Johnson is discussed in David France's 2017 documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (<>).  

To learn more:  [1]


Audre Lorde

She described herself as “black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, warrior." She spent her life and her creative abilities fighting injustices at the intersections of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. Born in NYC to West Indian immigrant parents, she started reading poetry early in her life. She memorized poems, and when people would ask her a question, she could recite a poem to express her feelings. When she was 12 or 13, she started writing and publishing her own poems in her own voice. 

   Her early collections of poetry include The First Cities (1968), Cables to Rage (1970), and From A Land Where Other People Live (1972), which was nominated for a National Book Award. Later works like The Black Unicorn (1978) included powerful poems of protest. 


Influential Civil Rights Leader, Bayard Rustin

 Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) served as a close advisor to Martin Luther King and was one of the most influential activists in the civil rights movement. He organized and led protests in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. He co-founded the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE).    Rustin was gay, and some questioned his role in the civil rights movement, but MLK wrote in 1960 that "We are thoroughly committed to the method of nonviolence in our struggle and we are convinced that Bayard's expertness and commitment in this area will be of inestimable value." MLK valued Rustin's knowledge of organizing, his contacts, and his organizational ability. To learn more, listen to Eric Marcus's episode about Rustin on the podcast Making Gay History (<>).

History of the word "Gay"

Historically, when did the word ‘gay’ stop meaning (just) happy or bright and lively looking, and start meaning same-sex identity? Find out more here: “The Decline and Fall of the ‘H’ Word” --

First Gay Pride Parade in Syracuse

   Syracuse Pride '85 was the first local outdoor public rally to celebrate LGBTQ people. Harry Freeman-Jones, chair of the organizing committee, said, "The frustration in the gay community is so great, that we feel the need to make some kind of public statement."  In defiance of a court ruling, about 100 members of the LGBTQ community gathered in Columbus Circle to commemorate the birth of the modern gay rights movement. The police did not interfere, and Willard Doswell, then president of the conference, and Jeanne Staunton, a member, stood at the podium and declared "Gay and Lesbian Pride Day."

Read the Post Standard articles about the event here.


Queer Spaces: As we look back at the lives and experiences of different LGBTQ people, we come across references to places and communities, to specific locations, which give us a glimpse into how LGBTQ folks fashioned their lives in different cultural and political contexts. The abandoned piers of the Hudson River in NY in the 1970s are documented in the book Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront by Jonathan Weinberg. A new film documents Casa Susanna, an early 1960’s bungalow camp in the Catskills frequented by  cross-dressing men and transgender women spent weekends at Casa Susanna -- check out the trailer here: a bungalow camp in the Catskills. Check out this trailer from a new documentary on Casa Susanna  (   The Lesbian Herstory Archives was founded in 1974 and first housed on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Find out more about its history and explore the digital resources here: <

1970s Gay Liberation Strategies: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P Johnson and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries at (<


Uprisings before Stonewall: Queer Resistance. Find out more about: the seven riots that set the stage for Stonewall; the 1958 Do-Nuts riot in Los Angeles; the 1961 brawl at Black Nite in Milwaukee,  and the 1966 'sip-in' protests here. Find out about the Compton's Cafeteria riot in 1966 in San Francisco here


Should Marriage Between Homosexuals Be Permitted? A 1974 Debate

The Advocates was a series of debates recorded at Boston's Faneuil Hall, with a moderator facilitating a discussion of national and international issues. On May 2, 1974, the topic of debate was: Should Marriage Between Homosexuals Be Permitted? Enjoy the debate, video and transcript, here.

Digital Transgender Archive :  An extensive online hub that gathers digitized historical materials and born-digital materials from archival holdings throughout the world. See postcards of female and male impersonators and crossdressers between 1900-1931 here.  Listen to contemporary oral histories of trans people color in NYC recorded by SAGE here. View the board game, "All Dressed Up" here.

Reclaiming Early LGBTQ Cultures:  Queer Bronzeville:  (<>).

To learn more read around in Queer Bronzeville by Tristan Cabello, which tells this history of African American gays and lesbians on Chicago's South Side. Or learn more about early LGBTQ culture in NYC by reading around in When Brooklyn was Queer by Hugh Ryan. See (<>). 

Harry Hay, who helped to establish the Mattachine Society and Radical Faeires.

See the Mattachine Newsletter, One here and an interview with Harry here

Barbara Gittings, a lifelong proponent of LGBTQ rights, including work with the Daughters of Bilitis.

See a collection of her papers here.   See issues of Daughters of Bilitis Newsletter, The Ladder, here

bottom of page