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#277: Feminism and Aids

Like many radical movements, the gay liberation movement faced the challenges of surviving oppression’s assaults, maintaining its momentum, broadening its appeal beyond narrow circles, and avoiding cooptation (Jay & Young, 1992; Power, 1995; Sears, 2005; Thompson, 1994; Valocchi, 2001). The dynamics and implications of this shift are complex, and largely lie beyond the scope of this chapter. However, the largely white and relatively affluent nature of the early gay movement (Barrett & Pollack, 2006; Bernstein, 2002; D’Emilio, 1997, 2000, 2002; 2014; Richardson, 2005; Valocchi, 1999b); the fear-inducing impact of government repression against the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s (Churchill & Vander Wall, 1990); and conformist pressures in gay culture (Connell, 1992; Milton & MacDonald, 1984; Taywaditep, 2002) have been implicated in the early moves away from a more expansive view – closer to the feminism that had given rise to the gay liberation movement – of gay male possibilities.
Political and ideological tensions in gay communities and the gay movement were refracted, in the early 1980s, through the devastating effects of the coming of AIDS (Armstrong, 2002; Herek, 1999; Herek & Greene, 1995; Jonsen & Stryker, 1993). Thousands became fatally ill – not only gay men, but largely gay men – with a disease whose causes were unknown. The medical establishment was slow to mobilize desperately needed research efforts (Herek & Glunt, 1988) and reluctant or unwilling to provide needed healthcare (Grmek, 1993). The intense homophobia that shaped early reactions to AIDS is difficult but important to remember. Evangelical Christian voices welcomed AIDS as God’s way of ridding society of gay men (Fetner, 2008), and voices in the gay movement felt the epidemic must have arisen as a product of a government conspiracy against gay men (Ross, Essien & Torres, 2006). Anti-gay hatred, and fear, fueled danger, and had their impact.
Activist organizations, such as the Aids Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) (Gould, 2002),` and community-built and -run organizations in which gay men and our allies cared for people with AIDS (Kayal, 1993) necessarily became the focus of organizing efforts in gay men’s communities. A largely untold aspect of this period involves the many feminist women who helped take care of gay men, when the gay male community’s resources were taxed by the political and human demands of the early phases of the epidemic. I received my first HIV test from one such lesbian feminist woman, who helped me overcome my terror. I do not know her name, but I owe her my life.
The discovery of protease inhibitors was a direct result of AIDS activists confronting the political and scientific establishments and insisting on new research directions and access to healthcare, and mental health and social services, to combat AIDS (Gould 2002). With this and related discoveries, AIDS is now, for those with access to care, a chronic, manageable disease (Fee & Fox, 1992).
These welcome advances were, in significant part the result of efforts of radical elements of the 1980s gay movement. But AIDS before protease inhibitors also brought with it the loss of thousands of the first gay male activists. The impacts – social, political, and psychological (Jonsen & Stryker, 1993; Morin, Charles & Malyon, 1984) – have been heavy. For a time, the politics of survival overcame the politics of possibility, and such changes, once established, are difficult to shift.

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#277: Feminism and Aids

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2018). #277: Feminism and Aids. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 16, 2018, from


Last updated: 28 Feb 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 28 Feb 2018
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