Fag Hags, Divas and Moms:
The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community
My involvement in the AIDS community began in the late ’80s as a fundraiser in Chicago. I worked with several AIDS service organizations planning events and writing grant proposals, on staff and as a consultant. The picture you see here is of me with my assistant, Steve Showalter, at one of our events in 1990. He died a couple years later. By 1994, now married with a new baby, I burned out. I kept up on new treatment developments and marked World AIDS Day, but that was it.
In 2011, publisher Tracy Baim asked me contribute to Windy City Times’ “AIDS@30” series. I wasn’t sure I would remember anything, but I was wrong. I sat down at the computer and the keyboard fairly smoked. It wasn’t just that I was typing fast: it was a long-repressed anger at what I’d seen and experienced. Memories rushed back and overwhelmed me at times, even as I wrote a book, Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends. I was back in the community, joining ACT UP/NY, now as a writer and activist.
But it was a panel discussion – “The Women of ACT UP/NY: Fight Back! Fight AIDS!” – held at the New York Public Library in April, 2014 that gave me the idea for this book. The auditorium was full, and though I was familiar with a lot of what they discussed, my college-student daughter and many in the audience were not. The thought that popped into my head that night, the thought that I couldn’t dismiss, was “These stories need to be told.”
Let’s Be Honest: Does the World Really Need Another Book about AIDS?
I asked myself the same question. I checked the literature of the epidemic, sure that straight women had been included. But as important as many of those books are, they tend to be written by and reflect the experiences of gay men. Even books about women’s history give little or no notice to an epidemic that has raged for over thirty-five years: an epidemic that has affected straight women from the beginning and disproportionately affects women of color.
This book, then, is different. It fills a gap not only in the history of the AIDS epidemic, but in women’s history as well. It honors the contributions of straight women around the world who often rushed in when others ran away. It is, finally, Hidden Figures for the AIDS community.
Which brings us to the next question: Why me?
Between 2013 and 2016, I published a series of six small books about people grieving their friends. That series prepared me to write a much larger, more challenging book. My involvement in the AIDS community has earned me the respect of my peers, many of whom have already assisted in the research. And the book itself – the focus on the contributions of women who have largely gone unrecognized – has generated great interest from men and women alike.
By supporting this project, you’ll be part of something that is new, different, important and eagerly anticipated. How do I know that? Last fall a leading AIDS publication asked a few months ago when they can print an excerpt. Two bookstores already committed to book launch parties. Reviewers and magazine publishers have asked for the opportunity to help promote it. Organizations from San Francisco to New York, Montreal to London, are helping with the research.
When I started work on this book, I was wasn’t sure if anyone else thought it was interesting, much less important.
Within minutes of posting a request for leads on Facebook, I began receiving messages from people in the US and UK with names and contact information for women to interview. And they all said, “Thank you for doing this.” When most people think of the AIDS epidemic and who it impacted, they think of white, gay men. Women – whether HIV-positive or negative, volunteer or staff, family member or friend – are rarely considered.
There will certainly be recognizable names in the book: Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana, for example. But most of the women in it are the ones who gave of themselves without public recognition. They deserve to have their contributions honored. It’s time.
In 2015, I won the Christopher Hewitt Award for Creative Nonfiction from A&U Magazine for an AIDS-related essay, “Long-Term Survivor”. Until I wrote that, I did not consider myself a member of that club. I’m HIV-negative, so I assumed I was excluded. But I was wrong, because as Jeff Berry from TPAN (Test Positive Aware Network) insisted: “You were there.” Yes, I was, in those dark, frightening, angry early days of the epidemic. And so were a lot of other straight women who you will meet in the pages of this book.
Risks & Challenges
At this point the biggest challenge is the timeline. I’ve set World AIDS Day 2017 as my publication date. And yes, that’s pretty aggressive, especially considering that I broke my hand in late October and am still in rehab for it.
Although there are several agents interested in the book, I am proceeding on the assumption that I’m self-publishing, as I’ve successfully done with my other books.
However, no plan is perfect. If there is any delay, that would make publication March 1, 2018, the beginning of Women’s History Month. It seems like a long way off, but it’s really not.
Ways You Can Help
Money’s not everything, nor is it the only thing. And this book is simply not possible without the contributions of men and women around the world who are just as passionate about bringing these stories to life as I am.
Here are some important ways you can help:
- Support the project through the New York Foundation for the Arts and get a tax-deduction for your generosity.
- If you’re a straight woman who has been involved in the AIDS community at any time in the epidemic, share your story with me.
- If you know a straight woman who should be in the book, contact me.
- You can ‘like’ the Facebook page dedicated to the book.
- Follow me on Twitter or Pinterest, for updates and links to articles related to the book.
- Let your friends and family know about the book.
And know, too, that however you choose to support this book, your efforts are deeply appreciated. You’ll be helping create a book that will finally recognize the achievements of straight women around the world who have made a difference for over thirty-five years.