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Battle Front Angels: HIV/AIDS Heroines of the '80s and '90s

November 15, 2012

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Dave R.

Dave R.

Give or take a year or two and depending on your personal history, we've been living and dying with HIV and AIDS for 30 years. Every year on World AIDS Day, we remember those who fell. However, in this morally topsy-turvy world, we don't always remember those who picked up our men, wiped their arses and their tears and unselfishly gave help, humanity and dignity during what for many were last weeks and months. We damn well should because without the thousands across the world who gave their time when nobody else would, a lot fewer of us would be around to talk about it today.

I'm talking about people who saw a need, rolled up their sleeves, swallowed their fears, ignored the stigmas and opposition, even from some of those they were nursing, and just gave.

They were women; some lesbian, some straight, but all committed to making life easier for those in their care. For gay men it came as a total surprise; we didn't expect it of them and hadn't exactly seen them as comrades in sexual equality during the years when hedonism ruled and seemed never-ending. Yet when hospitals were isolating people and leaving them alone to die; when families had abandoned their sons and when nursing staff refused to treat AIDS patients, or gingerly entered the room in clothing and masks more suited to nuclear fall-out; many women decided that this was too big to ignore. They ignored the hysteria and paranoia and recognised the tragedy of what was happening. Thank God they did!

Many regular nurses refused to treat AIDS patients out of fear, or because their families and friends pressured them out of it. It wasn't such a cut and dried issue as you might think, especially in the early days when so little was known about AIDS. Fear played a huge role, especially amongst those who had never known a gay man and knew nobody who was sick with AIDS.

However, as soon as the devastation within the gay male community became apparent, many nurses formed groups to fight discrimination of people with AIDS and groups to support the victims and their families. It was at that point that thousands of lesbians decided to volunteer, or join nursing as a profession. This wasn't just in North America; it was in Europe, Australia and many other areas too. Without necessarily realising it, certain groups of women responded to a universal need; which was quite remarkable if you think about it.

More Information: Nursing (From the Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer Culture)

It was female nursing leaders who vehemently opposed mandatory HIV testing, a political move aimed specifically at gay men. They also encouraged the setting up of support systems, home help and hospice facilities for the dying and generally underpinned the social safety net when most health authorities just didn't want to know and were refusing funding.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many lesbian organisations were not sure about all this. They argued that gay men had offered little support to lesbians over the years and were often little more than contemptuous in social situations. "Would gay men have done the same if AIDS had affected women the same way?" they argued. It's a moot point; we'd like to think we would have but we'll never know because it turned out so differently.

At that moment, many gay men were traumatised. They were seeing their friends dying at astonishing rates; they were shocked and fearful, angry and frustrated and stunned into inactivity as people often are in war situations. Fortunately certain men like Larry Kramer had the presence of mind to organise opposition to Reagan-esque indifference, and many took to the streets to demand action for their dying friends; but it was women who took the leading role where it counted: on the wards and at the bedsides of men with horrible afflictions and little future.

Perhaps even more surprising were the different "sorts" of women who made such an effort. There are too many genuine heroines to mention in an article here but the following at least represent the movement as a whole. My apologies for leaving out so many but that doesn't diminish my awe and respect for people who did so much more than I would ever have dared.

Take for instance Mrs. Judith Peabody, a wealthy socialite and philanthropist, who "volunteered" for good causes much as her fellow ladies-who-lunch did and still do. However this was a lady who took her "duties" seriously and turned up one day at the office of Gay Men's Health Crisis and volunteered her services in support of people living with AIDS. Many patients and their families may remember Mrs. Peabody, clad in Yves St. Laurent, bringing meal trays into the rooms when the general nursing staff left them outside. This was a lady who walked the walk. She was criticised of course and many in her socialite circles took the "How could you!" attitude rather than joining in. Nevertheless, she raised a lot of society money and influenced a segment of society that had the resources to make a difference. That made her special.

More Information: Into the Breach, Clad in Adolfo

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