by: Dr. Gail Barouh
Most people point to the Stonewall riots of 1969 as the modern start date for the gay rights movement. Many people in the gay/lesbian community believe that the death of icon Judy Garland the week before the riots at the Stonewall Inn was the breaking point that pushed gays in Greenwich Village to basically say, “We’re tired of being harassed by cops and we’re not going to take it anymore.” However, gay rights gained little momentum in the decade that followed, especially when compared to the strides made by the women’s movement. While there were pockets in America where gay men and women could live openly, such as San Francisco, most gays spent the 1970s in, or at least close to, the closet.
That all began to change in 1980 when gay men were first diagnosed with AIDS. Suddenly their private lives could no longer be kept secret. Their employers, friends, neighbors, and families were told that their son, father, brother, uncle, grandson or friend was ill and would most likely die within nine months. The slogan “AIDS = Death” in many cases was also interpreted as “AIDS = Gay”.
In those dark, early years of the AIDS epidemic, so many people were afraid of contracting the disease that they refused to be near someone with AIDS. Realizing that it had no choice but to take care of its own, the LGBT community was born. Men and women came together as their partners and friends became sick. Prior to this time, gay men and lesbians were not united as a minority group with a single voice on a political or in many instances a social level. AIDS quickly unified them into a solid, core care group. As the epidemic progressed, they became the pioneers and heroes who advocated for their loved ones.
By the mid-1980s, these early AIDS advocates brought about some significant changes. AIDS designated units were started in hospitals across New York State and new not-for-profit AIDS organizations were established that quickly became part of mainstream America’s charities. Mainstream America also learned more about gay life as communities planned funeral services celebrating the lives, hopes and dreams of those who passed from AIDS. Suddenly funeral homes across the country had pictures, music and rituals that forever changed how we bury our loved ones. Out of the AIDS epidemic, spousal rights and domestic partnerships took hold, as same sex couples needed laws to provide for medical and financial benefits for their partners.
As the years progressed, people began to realize that the LGBT community was composed of real people who had the same hopes, dreams, and plans for their futures as everyone else. The walls of fear and stereotypes broke down as more people recognized that LGBT individuals were their neighbors, friends, doctors, civil service workers, mechanics, teachers, and the everyday business people with whom they interacted. More gay characters began to appear on television and in film, and movies like “Philadelphia” or plays like “Rent” and “Angels in America” put a human face, and heart, to AIDS.
History judges a society by how it responds to a crisis. AIDS forced gays and lesbians out of the shadows of our society and into the mainstream of everyday life. It planted the seed that grew into the gradual acceptance of gays by most Americans, followed by an acceptance of the fact all men — and women — are created equal and deserve the same rights, including the right to marry or serve openly in the military.
Whether they were unwitting soldiers in the fight for equal rights or frontline vocal advocates, the hundreds of thousands of gay men who died of AIDS did not die in vain. Their deaths opened the doors to the positive changes being enjoyed by all those who survived. As we celebrate the continuing legal recognition of same-sex marriage, Gay Pride and National HIV Testing day, it is fitting that we remember the sacrifices of those who came before.