Battle Front Angels: HIV/AIDS Heroines of the '80s and '90s
November 15, 2012
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We shouldn't forget the media women who brought the story to the public in an honest and hard-hitting way. The newspapers and television in those days generally reflected the political distaste for anything HIV-related and writing a story about AIDS wasn't always a good career move. In 1983, in the early days of the epidemic, Maureen Dowd wrote a piece for the New York Times that was brutally confrontational for most of its readers and for that reason, won no awards and almost lost Maureen Dowd her job. It was eventually published a few weeks before Christmas, at the front of the Metro section, but it was touch and go. The full article can be seen via the link below and will show how brave Ms. Dowd actually was writing such a truth at such a newspaper.
More Information: For Victims of AIDS, Support in a Lonely Siege
In Australia, the story was much the same. Many lesbian nurses worked at St. Vincent's Hospital in New South Wales and once again, when the general nursing staff refused, or was reluctant to care for AIDS patients, lesbian nurses stepped in and volunteered in significant numbers. One of those was Ann Maree Sweeney:
I started working with AIDS patients in 1989. I was 21 years old, Catholic, just out of university and just coming to grips with my sexuality. I had NO idea what I was in for. I experienced the depths of despair, but also the essence of love -- true love. I wasn't ready for the roller coaster, but who was?
That must have been the case for almost all the nurses caring for the sick and dying. How could they be aware? Men were losing all vestiges of dignity to the virus and being reduced to skeletal shadows of their former selves. These women had to care for people with a sickness that was entirely new and had physically very challenging symptoms and that must have been incredibly hard. The fact that they did it anyway ... sometimes words aren't enough!
Sometimes five men were dying in a week at St Vincent's. Eighteen-year-olds. Twenty-two-year-olds. It was awful. People were literally shitting and bleeding to death. Nothing we could do would stop it. Not to mention pneumonia, the blindness or the AIDS dementia process. But at the same time as the horrid virus was tearing our hearts out, dykes and poofs were rocking together -- partying, loving, caring and consoling. Our mates were dying, we were united. The poofs needed us strong women to do the dirty work and we were willing.
More Information: Lemon AIDS: LOTL (history of lesbian health care workers in New South Wales)
One of the nurses who worked during the worst years and is still working at the famous Ward 86, at San Francisco General Hospital, is Diane Jones. She has something interesting to say about how little attitudes have changed. On hearing that they are HIV positive:
"People still have the same reaction now that they did 30 years ago -- it's a universal reaction," she said. "The first thought is that they're going to die, the second is that they can't tell anyone and the third, if they're a woman, is that they can't have children. And none of those is true."
And she should know. How sad that all that incredible work to educate people about HIV, and how it can be treated in 2012, has still not permeated society so that stereotypes and stigmas are eliminated.
More Information: 30 Years of AIDS: Different Angles
Another direct reference to the work of Diane Jones can be found in an interview with Clifford L. Morrison for a University of California account of the AIDS epidemic and the response of the nursing profession:
Lesbian nurses had a totally different approach to it. Diane Jones was certainly one of the first ones, and one of those people that I will always hold in high esteem and will love forever. She can do no wrong in my eyes. They knew that they weren't at risk, even at that point, but they saw it as a bigger issue. One of the things that I think the public really wasn't aware of is that there was, particularly in this community, not a lot of cooperation, not a lot of good feeling between lesbians and gay men, because we were all competing for the same little piece of pie.
More Information: Still More on Ward 5B
It could be said that we haven't been grateful enough since, either. Not many gay men march for breast or ovarian cancer research; or fight for more recognition of the passive sexual infection of women, leading to disease and even infertility. Gay men aren't leading the fight against rape and exploitation either; but we should, because these are the issues that the other sexes are facing in 2012 and it should be payback time.
Let's just remember, once again, that so many women swallowed their squeamishness and fed, clothed, bathed and comforted AIDS patients during their worst days. They talked them through their traumas, did their laundry, cleaned up vomit, urine, faeces and blood-soaked clothes and sheets. We should be eternally grateful; these women should be lauded at every World AIDS Day gathering and given the due recognition they deserve.
This article is about the women at the time; this is not meant to demean the equal contributions of many men.
More information can be found here:
Why Gay Men Should Step Up for Women's Health & Reproductive Rights (An alternative feminist view)
Dave R. is a frequent contributor to TheBody.com and a lay expert on neuropathy and HIV, though he writes eloquently about many topics. He is English but has been living in the Netherlands since 1986.
Read Dave's blog HIV, Neuropathy and More: Avoiding Becoming a Nervous Wreck.
Vulnerability and Empowerment: At the International AIDS Conference, an Examination of Sexual Abuse and Violence Against Women -- and Men
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