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.
When I started on this book, I wasn’t sure if anyone was interested. So I put out a call on social media. 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 are 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. And while there isn’t room for all of them in the book, they all deserve to have their contributions honored. It’s time.
“Fag Hags, Divas and Moms is clear-eyed in telling its story, despite the emotional content of the profiles. It truly engages the reader — with facts, not sentimentality. I learned so much I didn’t know before. This is an impressive and important work.” —M.K. Czerwiec, author of Taking Turns: Stories from HIV Care
“Fag Hags, Divas and Moms is just what the world needs right now: A comprehensive, accessible, informative, deep, and hilarious understanding of the role of women and the historic breadth of revolutionary AIDS activism. For the younger generation, it is a reminder of the giant shoulders we stand on.” —Dan Glass, ACT UP London
“This wonderful book gives the reader a lens into those women that worked behind the scenes, politically and socially. Most compelling is the care of the exiled, outcast and dying. Ms. Noe gives voice to those many of us did not hear back in the 1980s and 1990s. It is a much-needed part of the history of the AIDS epidemic.” —Ellen Matzer, co-author of Nurses on the Inside: On the Frontline of the NYC AIDS Epidemic
Check out my visit to Feast of Fun podcast here.