As the 50th anniversary of Stonewall approaches, my mind is not so much on the gay liberation movement of the 1970s, but rather on the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. How did the disease affect the movement? How might LGBT+ history have unfolded if there had been no epidemic? And what was happening in New Orleans at the time?
In some ways, AIDS had the inadvertent effect of humanizing the gay community. As more and more people became sick, straight people began to have epiphanies—”Oh, I didn’t realize my neighbor, co-worker, etc. was gay.” In this regard, AIDS, to some degree, put a face—humanized—gay men.
For the truly closed-minded, however, it had the opposite effect. Religious leaders consistently preached that the dreaded disease was God’s judgment on a wicked lifestyle. In the minds of many, AIDS reinforced deeply entrenched, negative societal stereotypes about gay men, namely that they were promiscuous and sick and perverted and worthy of whatever punishment God or Nature might mete out.
By 1988, there was a local chapter of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in New Orleans. ACT UP had been founded in New York City in 1987 as a direct action group to raise awareness about the epidemic, and more specifically, the lack of adequate funding allocated by the government to fight the disease. New Orleans ACT UP met weekly at the NO/AIDS Task Force headquarters. In New Orleans, as elsewhere, there was much about which to act up.
New Orleans ACT UP staged a protest at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in 1988. Specifically, the group protested the fact that state funding for AZT, the only FDA-approved drug for the treatment of AIDS at the time, which was about to run out. Protesters formed what they called a “human billboard” at the entrance to the convention. Protesters held signs and panels from the national AIDS Memorial Quilt and distributed leaflets indignantly questioning why the state and city should spend $800,000 hosting the Republican Convention and not spend a dime on AIDS. ACT UP New York sent a delegation to assist with the protest, but the out-of-towners did not get along well with local ACT UP members. In a 1992 interview Doug Robertson remembered, “ACT UP New York came down for the Republican convention and destroyed us.” The tactics of the New York group turned off the locals and membership dropped dramatically.
The local chapter also called attention to discrimination within the criminal justice system against people living with AIDS. There was a 1991 class action lawsuit against Sherriff Charles Foti alleging maltreatment of inmates in the parish prison and in 1992, ACT UP held a press conference in front of the criminal courthouse to call attention to police brutality. Specifically, the press conference recounted the case of an incarcerated man who had been beaten by police during an arrest at his home on minor charges. In the course of the beating, the man, who was HIV positive, bled on one of the officer’s shirts. The man was charged with attempted murder and booked into Orleans Parish Prison, where he was denied medical treatment.
This homophobic attitude permeated the criminal justice system. The District Attorney’s office had a policy of charging persons arrested for prostitution with the crime of knowingly transmitting HIV. Attorney Mark Gonzalez, who was a member of ACT UP, testified to the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Lesbian and Gay Issues in 1989 about a client of his who was the victim this policy. Several police officers had barged into this man’s French Quarter apartment, without a warrant, and arrested him on drug possession charges, even though police found no drugs at the scene. During the arrest, the police noticed a bottle of AZT and told him as they were taking him to jail, “not to worry about the charges—you’ll probably die of AIDS in jail.”
In 1990, ACT UP, which then consisted of only half a dozen members, managed to stage a protest at City Hall in which 500 people participated. Several people were arrested, including City Councilman Johnny Jackson. The group was protesting inadequate funding. ACT UP also waged letter writing and petition campaigns to be sent to Governor Buddy Roemer and Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary David Ramsey demanding $3 million worth of funding for Charity Hospital’s C-100 Outpatient Clinic. In addition to letters, the group also flooded the Governor’s Office with postcards depicting a coffin with the succinct message: “This is the alternative to C-100 full funding!”
Funding for research and treatment was not the only thing lacking. Ignorance of the disease and the lack of effective treatments created a real need for education and outreach in the early 1980s. Led by Ted Wisniewski, who while doing his residency at Charity Hospital saw the need first-hand, several medical professionals and others in New Orleans began meeting to discuss ways to address the crisis. Some of these people included Rue Morrison, Thomas Norman, Robert Kremitzki, Louise McFarland, Harlee Kutezen, Leonard Doty, Richard Devlin, Craig Henry, Henry Schmidt, Carole Pindaro, Jim Kellogg, Brobson Lutz, Jonathan Clemmer, and Father Bob Pawell. Out of these meetings, the NO/AIDS Task Force (now Crescent Care) was born in 1983.
Eventually, medical research led to the development of effective treatments that no longer rendered a positive diagnosis as a death sentence. And gradually, as celebrities like Rock Hudson, Liberace, Greg Louganis, and Magic Johnson, were publicly identified as HIV positive, fear and ignorance regarding the disease began to subside. By 1995, New Orleans would have three living facilities for those living with HIV / AIDS–Project Lazarus, Trinity House, and Belle Reve.
Although a cure remains elusive, one wonders not only how HIV/AIDS changed the course of LGBT+ history, but also how different the history of HIV/AIDS would have been without ACT UP.