Terri Wilder: Jacquie, can you tell me about the first time you heard about AIDS?
Jacquie Bishop: I had just come back from my first year of college. Just come out, right before I left for college. So was ready to be back in New York and ready to be in the gay community. There were whispers of a mysterious disease that was killing men, mostly, at that time. And you would hear about it—and friends, you see them one day, and they were big, beautiful men. You’d see them maybe a week later, and they’d dropped 250 pounds. And so, that was 1983.
TW: When did AIDS enter your life? You say you heard about it, but then when did you have a personal connection to it?
JB: As soon as I got back to New York, the disease was all over the place. And remember, at the time it was called GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency syndrome. So we didn’t know what it was, and we weren’t sure how it was transmitted. So there were concerns for women, as well. So, you know, in the bars, which was a large part of our social life at that point, at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in New York, I heard about it immediately.
TW: And what was your reaction when you heard about it?
JB: Basically, “What the fuck is going on?” Like, why are gay men and Haitians dying? I don’t ascribe, generally, to conspiracy theories. It’s like, gay male patients and some Africans. But it was really—it’s been harder as I’m older and know more in the public health sphere to not think it was, you know, something that was planted. I thought we just had to do something that people—you know, a very well-known poet at the time wrote a piece where he said, “Black and gay babies are dying.” And that was the clarion call for me. That was, I needed to do something.
TW: So what is the first thing that you did?
JB: I got a job. I had come home, and, like every student ever, I needed a job. I needed to get out of my mother’s house. She was not happy with [my] coming out, and I was fortunate that I needed a doctor’s appointment and I went to the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, which was the precursor to the Callen-Lorde Health Center. And Barbara Starrett saw on my chart that I was unemployed, and she needed a front desk person. And so Barbara hired me. It was my intention to go back to school immediately, but we didn’t have the money. So I worked for her. I worked for a doctor and learned everything I could, and she treats me as a medical assistant. So I would do three-site gonorrhea screening on men. You know, imagine a 19-year-old lesbian trying to figure stuff out, spending my day saying, you know, “Please smoke yourself so that you’re not totally erect and are totally flaccid. I’ll be back in a moment.”
TW: So as you worked at this practice, did the practice become a practice that started taking care of people with HIV, or was it mainly just a sexual health clinic?
JB: It was a private practice where she had clients she had for years. Many of her clients were gay men, and many of them were wealthy and well-known artists and were semi-closeted. Barbara was known for her discretion. I remember at that time, people could lose their jobs and their housing [for being LGBTQ]. Folks trusted her. We were trained on how to be discreet long before HIPAA, you know, to not discuss patients’ information outside of the office, et cetera. So I think it evolved more from a general practice, but she was always taking care of men. You know, when you looked at some of these guys’ health records, some of them she was seeing every other week, because at the time—well, you know, this was part of the sexual revolution. Poor, a lot of gay men, and so they were having sex quite often and with multiple partners in a given weekend. And so sometimes she was seeing them every other week for an STD.
TW: So as you were working there, what impact did that have on you in terms of wanting to do something to help people in the community that were being diagnosed with AIDS?
JB: I think it’s important that my first entrée into it was clinical, because I really did get to see firsthand the impact that the disease was having on the body. Thrush, herpes, zoster. I remember there was a man—all of them were beautiful. He got herpes zoster, which is a form of chicken pox, but with a compromised immune system, it can be very, very devastating. His entire side of side of his face had become deformed by the zoster, and side of his mouth. And at the same time, he also had thrush.
So for me, having some clinical experience with it helped me to understand just really how devastating this thing was, and that something needed to be done. It waylaid my academic career. I spent a lot of time, you know, during the time while I was working for Barbara, and then afterwards, I spent like 15 years in the field before I just couldn’t do it anymore. And in various capacities, you know, doing education, promoting the use of condoms using the information that we were learning about in terms of men and translating that for women, both women and bisexual men, and women who slept with women, and women who slept with women and men. I knew we needed to continue this, and there wasn’t a lot of people focusing on women at the time. There were some—they were great—but there weren’t enough of us.
TW: Were people supportive of your involvement? What happened when you told your friends, “Oh, I’m starting to work for this doctor. We’re starting to see patients coming in with AIDS. It’s making them really, really sick.” Like, what were reactions from family and friends?
JB: Oh, my family was totally freaked out. As was my first girlfriend. She wanted me to quit my job immediately. We didn’t know how the disease was transmitted. And one of the things I was thankful for with Barbara was she taught me how to not be afraid. She would teach us how to take the pump, how to do a vena puncture, just taking your blood, you know, and putting it in a tube. She taught us how to do it without gloves, because she believes that human touch was really important. So many of [her patients] had been cast out by family and friends. I mean, you know, this is pre-Ellen, this is pre-Friends. This is pre-, you know, all the trends, characters, and actors that we see. There weren’t that many. I mean, Paul Lynn was pretty much it.
There weren’t a lot of gay love models. It was Barbara who taught me about whole health, and seeing the person, not just their disease. And in terms of family, friends, like I said, I had a girlfriend at the time who desperately wanted me to quit my job. She was petrified that I was going to become contaminated and contaminate her. I think with my family, a lot of my family are in social services. My mother worked for child welfare in New York City. It wasn’t just a disease, it was homophobia.
TW: What about other like lesbian friends in your life, did you get any criticism?
JB: As many times as I’ve been interviewed on this topic, you’re the first person to ask this question. It was very hard. [Among] some feminists and lesbians, [there was] separation stuff going on. I don’t ascribe to on any level, whether separation of races or genders or whatever. You know, I have male friends. I have female friends, I have friendships across races. Probably, I haven’t spent time with many heterosexuals outside of work. That’s probably the place I draw the line.
A lot of women didn’t understand if I’m going to be an activist, if we’re going to be an advocate or if I’m going to use my writing skills to talk about things, why am I doing it with this, when there are so many issues facing women specifically that we needed to be working on. Women were losing their kids because their former male partners discovered they were lesbians or the courts discovered they were lesbian. So their parents just wanted to take their kids in. There was a lot of race stuff going on. It was the beginning of the crack years as well. There was a lot of pressure for those of us in a position to do something, to spend their time working on that, as well. And then I tried to incorporate as much as I could into what it was that I was doing.
TW: So, during this period that you were working this position, what was it like on a daily basis trying to help gay men with AIDS in New York City?
JB: Oh my God. It was a fun time. There was a lot of laughter and dark humor. We had a coworker, Tim Conley, he was fabulous. Former theater queen. On Monday mornings, Dr. Starrett would come in and tell us who had been admitted to the hospital over the weekend. We needed to pull their files. And she would need to do notes on them. She would also tell us who died.
Tim created what he called the “dead files.” Barbara would tell us who died, and Tim would go and grab their file and throw it into a box. There was a lot of cocaine, a lot of coke. It was the ’80s in New York City. It was basically snowing all over the place. There was a lot of alcohol, there was a lot of depression. There was a lot of feeling overwhelmed, there’s a lot of feeling like we were playing whack-a-mole. There was incredible indifference within medical institutions and policy people in the government and Ronald Reagan being in office. But there was also movement. ACT UP was in the lead of it, but they weren’t the only ones. There was a group called BAM, or Black AIDS Mobilization. They were doing stuff to get the word out into the Black communities.
It was energizing to be in New York City. New York itself at that time was an energizing place. It was rough. It was scary. Crime was really high. Graffiti was all over the place. But it was fun. And if you were young and you didn’t need a whole lot of money, rent control was real. And I probably never made more than $25,000 or $30,000 for the first eight years of my adult life. But you could live in a decent apartment and drink on the weekends or Tuesday night and get coke and grow up and grow. I feel like that time period I grew into my lesbianism, I grew into my sense of self. There was an urgency, like we were being pushed forward, because we had to get to the next person who was dying. We had to run to them. And whether it was in the practice or in your friendship circle or just some casual person who you would see at the community centers, you both were going in to attend different meetings on a Friday night, and you would see them every Friday, and then you wouldn’t. And you began to be afraid to ask how they’re doing. So it was many things. It was many, many things.
TW: Can you tell me a specific story about helping a gay man with AIDS, whether it’s a professional relationship or even a personal relationship?
JB: One in particular was the writer Assotto Saint, or Yves Lubin. Assotto was very well known in the community and nationally and started a press and became a publisher. And the press was called Galiens Press. And he was a big, beautiful, fair-skinned, biracial Haitian man. He was like 6’2”, 6’3”, feminine and masculine at the same time. Truly, truly unisex. He would wear leather chaps and lipstick. And had a gorgeous body, until he didn’t. Assotto and I, our birthdays were only two days apart, and we were writers and performing in the community a lot, often on the same program. I don’t ever think I was as good of a writer as he was, but he also was writing with a sense of urgency. Knowing that time was not on his side. And he would demand—not ask—demand your attention to the AIDS crisis: “People are dying.”
And if I dared challenge him on other issues of the time: crack, violence in the community, and other things: “None of that matters, my dear, because we’re all dying of AIDS.” OK. So he could be a little difficult. But he was a wonderful man, and he was a wonderful friend, and he was very caring in so many ways. Towards the end of his life, I was out of a job again, and he hired me to help him get his apartment in order, get his affairs in order, and to begin the process of donating his materials to the Schomburg museum. So I got to spend six or seven hours a day with him, for four or five days a week, for months. It was beautiful. It was hard. It was depressing. It was funny. He had this cute apartment on 16th Street over a supermarket, I’m not sure if it’s still there: the Yellow Balcony.
On the day that he died, a group of us were there, including his mother, who was still a nurse or maybe a retired nurse, and there were maybe, I don’t know, six or eight of us there, maybe more. And he had grown up Catholic and was very against the Church, and he felt the Church had betrayed citizens, him as a gay man, the gay community. The cardinal at the time was very homophobic and believed the virus was God’s wrath. His mother, on the other hand, is still very Catholic and so he had a friend who was a minister, maybe a priest even—because he had made it clear to anybody he could still talk to, he did not want anything religious around his death.
We were in a circle around his bed for a while, and he was taking his last breath, and there was no way to know when he would actually die. So we started drifting out of the room, and his mother was sitting by his bed. And at some point, she was the only person in the room. And then we heard her scream, and then we ran back into the room and Assotto was dead. So his mother immediately wanted us to fold his hands across his chest like somebody laying in a casket in an X score. We were standing in the same circle around the bed, and his mother implored the minister to please say a prayer before his spirit would leave, so the spirit could leave the body. And we all just sort of looked at each other like, “Are you going to be the one to tell a mother—a Black mother—'No?’” “Go ahead.”
TW: I have a question: You said he died in 1984?
TW: Oh, ’94. OK.
JB: Yeah, he wanted to live long enough for Gay Pride. He died right before July 1. I don’t remember the exact date. So he could hear the parade.
TW: So it sounds like, you know, in ’94, people could pick up the phone and call a funeral home and they would come and take the body.
JB: Only some would. This was a funeral home in the Village, and they were basically, at least in Manhattan, the go-to place. Other funeral homes were [unfriendly], especially if the parents came through [saying we] have a 29-year-old boy dying of a heart attack. Nope. That’s not what he died from. But you know, the homophobia was real. Even in cases where parents had no relationship with their child anymore because they were gay, it was—there was no domestic partnership. There was nothing that a partner or friends could do except to watch the shit show that was coming.
TW: So what made you leave the medical practice?
JB: Other job opportunities, I guess. It was time to move on. I’d been there for a couple of years. You know, it was a small practice. There was only three of us, so there wasn’t mobility unless I went to medical school overnight. I learned a lot from Barbara, and I’m forever grateful. She changed the trajectory of my life. I thought I was going to be a writer, and I was writing and I was working, you know, freelance for a feminist newspaper and stuff at the time—for free. Sort of like what people do today. I thought I’d go back to school and become a journalist and then go and get my master’s and become a senator and then eventually become the first Black female president.
Michelle Obama might beat me to that now. We can hope. But there was still always a need. There was still always something else. And I have spent a large part of my adult career, especially while in New York, working within the LGBT community or working on LGBT-related projects. And part of it was my own maturation, and part of it was what was available, and part of that was what I know and what was easy. There’s definitely survivor’s guilt in that. I haven’t had sex with men, I’m not a gay man, but I have done risky things with women that could have put me at some exposure. But the numbers were always low. You know, there was a study in Italy at the time where there were, I think it was 20-something people, and six women had HIV, but it was discovered that they were bisexual and two of them were sex workers.
So there still was no study on women who have sex with women only, and who’ve only had sex with women, that convince me that I was at risk. So I kept diving in headfirst and created programs. I took what I learned from Barbara and the resources that being there, being exposed to very middle class, upper-middle-class settings of health care and brought them to various other communities. I worked in Brooklyn and worked for a Black organization for a while. I worked in Harlem—all of these organizations, no matter how big or small, were terribly under-resourced. I worked for gay and lesbian groups that were doing a multitude of things, but AIDS was always the overwhelming issue and, quite honestly, the best-funded issue. And so a lot of organizations had to kind of—you know, public health or education was not their primary thing. Eventually it became so.
TW: Tell me about a policy that you helped create.
JB: Education for direct-care service providers. Helping people to understand that they were dealing with individuals; they weren’t dealing with a concept or a “homosexual.” No, his name is John Smith. He’s 32 years old, and these are his presenting issues. Again, this is a time where health care workers would not bring food into the room. They would leave it in the hallway and slide it over. They wouldn’t feed them. They didn’t want to touch them. They didn’t want to take their blood. So, you know, we people, their chosen family, friends, volunteers, we’re the ones who made sure that they ate and who made sure that doctors and clinicians provided the care that they needed, or at least tried to do that.
TW: What would you say you’re most proud of from that time period in the ’80s?
JB: Being there, being a witness. The work I did, I think it helped some people. Maybe I helped to calm somebody down. Maybe we made somebody laugh in their most desperate times. I worked for a research organization. Our lead clinician was dying, and he would come to work every day, but it was clear that he wasn’t making it. A couple of us would volunteer to go to his apartment and do some cooking for him, and I would spend four or five hours cooking food and putting it in individual servings and putting it in this freezer. So me being there and hopefully bringing comfort to someone.
TW: What would you do differently if you could?
JB: I would apologize to all the women I ever told to use a dental dam. I’m really, really sorry about that. That’s what we were being told to tell you. It was a stupid thing. I thought it was stupid, but it was best practices at the time. So if you ever used the dental dam because I told you to, I apologize. What would I do differently? I would go to school sooner. I would have completed it. I was on the 18-year plan. I started when I was 17; I finished when I was 35. I would have finished my education sooner so that I could have risen in the ranks to tell these stories, to help different models of providing service and care. Without a degree, even with all of the experiences, there were times when my voice was muted, so I would’ve gone to school sooner. The rest of it we lived, we loved, we laughed, and some people died. And in between, we had some great sex, a couple of lines of coke and sex in the bathroom at the Duchess, the Clit Club.
TW: Being a witness and a part of that time, how have you found ways to stay sane? I mean, it was a holocaust, It was trauma every single day.
JB: And I live with it every day. I talk about this with my friends who were a part of that time, because other people will never understand that what we survived was a holocaust. What we survived was seeing people turn into ghosts in front of us, or zombies. To see their bodies—open sores, I mean it was horrible, but we had to keep moving, because there was somebody else that we had to get to a finish line of one sort or another. And all the support workers, support groups, et cetera. A friend of mine was telling me a story about working at GMHC and they would have staff support groups. And at the same time, the men in particular kept seroconverting while working with the largest, most powerful HIV organization in the country. So there is a lot of trauma. I live with it every day. There’s a low-grade depression that I am absolutely positive is a result of that.
TW: And you’ve mentioned several times about writing and your performance art—can you talk about that and how that’s connected to that time and how you use that to maybe cope?
JB: I was lucky to be able to traverse various communities of writers. I was at Hunter College when Audre Lorde was still there, and I got to have drinks with her at the lesbian bar, Peaches and Cream on 72nd Street. After school, I got to see classes, workshop classes with Jewelle Gomez. I got to talk to Cheryl Clarke about what it is to be a writer. Joan Nestle is my gay godmother, you know, one of the founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. So there was just so much opportunity and stuff going on and ways to be that was so exciting. And again, I’m really, really, really glad to have been present, to be accountable, and to be challenged. So folks would call me to write. And I did a lot of erotica writing and wrote general stuff about relationships, and maybe I shouldn’t have.
I talked a lot about sex, which is something I’m very thankful for gay men about. Because I think it made me have a healthier perspective about sex, about sexual relationships, about intimacy—because there are so many options. So there were so many things that I was comfortable talking about and getting other people to talk about, creating space, not just taking up space. And so, there was a balance, and I don’t think the overwhelming sense of depression hit me until later in life, because there was this balance. There were, at one point, like five gay bars within walking distance. So the goal of the evening was to hit each bar during happy hour and get your little stamp so that you can then choose which one you’re going to really hang out at for the night. It was gold. It wasn’t necessarily a good goal, but it was fun. It was New York.