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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). 

It all started with an angry speech by Larry Kramer, who asked the everyone on one side of the audience to stand up: “At the rate we are going, you could be dead in less than five years.” He argued that we had to become more visible and more militant to push the

FDA to expedite the testing and approval of AIDS drugs. Two days later 300 people established ACT UP.

A wonderful book called  AIDS/DEMO/GRAPHICS by Douglas /Crimp demonstrates the brilliance of ACT UP activists and graphic artists. It’s first graphic SILENCE=DEATH illustrates the style and strategy of AIDS activism.

The emblem depends on your knowing that the pink triangle was used as a marker of gay men in Nazi concentration camps and that it had been repositioned (pointing up) and reclaimed as a symbol of gay liberation. These two annihilations of gay men and lesbians are compressed into this striking graphic (14). 

In an interview with Sarah Schulman called “ACT UP: A History of AIDS/HIV Activism” on NPR (, Schulman talks about the energy and success of ACT UP: “I think any political movement for it to be successful has to be a place that makes the participants' lives better. If you're just joining a political movement out of some kind of sense of responsibility and burden, it's not going to work. That's why Emma Goldman famously said, "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution." ACT UP was a dance. It was a place that was life affirming. It was sex positive. It was all about being effective. And it was filled with very young people who are very energetic and desperate for change.”


She notes too that ACT UP was a complex and diverse organization that drew on the knowledge and skills of a wide range of people:


“The women and people of color in ACT UP tended to come from previous movements, and of the white gay men, only the older men came from gay liberation. The younger men tended to have had no political experience at all. So people who came from Latin American student movements against fascism, from the Black Panthers, from CORE and certainly from the reproductive rights movement, the women's peace movement, those people came in with political ideas and also with ways of running movements that ACT UP really needed. And they had a huge impact on the movement.”

To learn more, watch “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP,” a documentary film produced by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Shulman about the beginning of ACT UP, based on oral histories and rare archival footage. The film brings you into meetings, affinity groups, and different approaches to civil disobedience. You can see the planning and execution of a dozen major actions, such as Seize Control of the FDA (


Check out too Voices from the Front – a video created by the collective Testing the Limits (

   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.

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. 

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”)

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.

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