Before AIDS: Gay Health Politics in the 1970s

Before AIDS: Gay Health Politics in the 1970s

Before AIDS: Gay Health Politics in the 1970s

Before AIDS: Gay Health Politics in the 1970s

Synopsis

The AIDS crisis of the 1980s looms large in recent histories of sexuality, medicine, and politics, and justly so--an unknown virus without a cure ravages an already persecuted minority, medical professionals are unprepared and sometimes unwilling to care for the sick, and a national health bureaucracy is slow to invest resources in finding a cure. Yet this widely accepted narrative, while accurate, creates the impression that the gay community lacked any capacity to address AIDS. In fact, as Katie Batza demonstrates in this path-breaking book, there was already a well-developed network of gay-health clinics in American cities when the epidemic struck, and these clinics served as the first responders to the disease. Before AIDS explores this heretofore unrecognized story, chronicling the development of a national gay health network by highlighting the origins of longstanding gay health institutions in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, placing them in a larger political context, and following them into the first five years of the AIDS crisis.

Like many other minority communities in the 1970s, gay men faced public health challenges that resulted as much from their political marginalization and social stigmatization as from any disease. Gay men mistrusted mainstream health institutions, fearing outing, ostracism, misdiagnosis, and the possibility that their sexuality itself would be treated as a medical condition. In response to these problems, a colorful cast of doctors and activists built a largely self-sufficient gay medical system that challenged, collaborated with, and educated mainstream health practitioners. Taking inspiration from rhetoric employed by the Black Panther, feminist, and anti-urban renewal movements, and putting government funding to new and often unintended uses, gay health activists of the 1970s changed the medical and political understandings of sexuality and health to reflect the new realities of their own sexual revolution.

Excerpt

The Holiday Club’s large sign, which encased the top quarter of the building and consisted of colorful, shimmering dish- sized sequins, made the architecture of the Howard Brown Health Center, which sat across the street at the corner of Irving Park and North Sheridan, especially unremarkable. the center first came to my attention as a building (not even an organization) in 2002 with the onset of my first Chicago winter, when I realized its gray concrete and muted tile façade provided a shield from the winter wind off Lake Michigan as I walked to and from the “El” stop closest to my apartment. Having grown up in Atlanta, I had never experienced an upper midwestern winter but quickly learned that wind defense during a six- block walk warranted switching to the other side of the street. Thus I abandoned the colorful Holiday Club for the more protected, if drab, Howard Brown building. As I became better acquainted with my new city, I learned that the Howard Brown Health Center served the lgbtq community specifically, and the building I had come to think of fondly as my personal windshield was just one of the organization’s many outposts. Curiosity piqued, I began to spend my long and solitary commutes imagining the organization’s origins and how it fit into to my growing understanding of Chicago’s lgbtq geography and history. in this way, the breathtakingly cold and beautiful winters of Chicago combined with the sturdy impermeability of a serendipitously located health clinic to inspire what eventually became this book.

Before conducting any research, I imagined that Howard Brown originated in the Chicago gay community’s response to the aids crisis. I assumed the same to be true of other well- known clinics serving the lgbtq community around the country, including Whitman- Walker in Washington, D.C., New York’s Callen- Lorde, and Boston’s Fenway. My daydreamed history . . .

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