In Leslie We Trust

May 6, 2013 in inQueery

It was an evening in April of 1987 when they decided to act. Leslie Ewing and her partner of five years, Rebecca, were in their mid-thirties and living comfortably in Oakland, California. With shifting gender politics, a negligent presidency, and a mysterious epidemic sweeping through the gay male community, the state of LGBTQ politics was contentious. The Supreme Court’s decision in Bowers v. Hardwick constituted a dangerous legal precedent for the community by upholding sodomy laws. Tensions were running high. Leslie and Rebecca were largely removed from much of this; they were going about their lives and directing most of their energy toward their involvement in the local women’s community. Still, the looming cultural anguish weighed heavily on them. When Rebecca read about an informational meeting in the Bay Area Reporter, she and Leslie decided it was time to pull their heads out of the sand.

This meeting, which was being hosted at the Pacific Center, turned out to be a civil disobedience training. By the end of the meeting, they had helped to form Queer and Present Danger, an affinity group of ACT-UP, and were preparing to attend the 1987 March on Washington. They joined many others in a demonstration at the Supreme Court and were arrested. This experience ignited a spark in Leslie and she has since devoted her entire career to working towards social justice. As the AIDS crisis was crippling the community both from the outside and the inside, she was determined to join the fight against a despairing situation.

Soon after, Leslie and Rebecca began volunteering with The NAMES quilt. People living with AIDS—which had been renamed from “Gay-Related Immune Disease” (GRID) only a few years before—had a maximum life expectancy of about eighteen months. This is integral to the way that AIDS activism was shaped in its infancy. Leslie describes activism at the time as “putting out fires.” Everything was time-sensitive. They had no choice but to focus their attention on the present and hope that the future would work out. The long hours of emotionally draining work were made possible by a tremendous sense of camaraderie. Much of their work consisted of receiving pieces of the quilt—each of which had a letter written by a loved one attached to it. The letters were, as Leslie puts it, the heart wrenching “tear-your-guts-out” kind. They were often written by lovers and friends because the families of those who had died did not care enough to write. Leslie and the other volunteers did their best to respond to every single one. Some people came in to make their own quilts because they knew that nobody else would make one in their memory. Many of them went on, albeit for a very short time, to join them in the volunteer effort.

Looking to the future was not a luxury afforded to AIDS activists in the late 1980s. The social and cultural effects of the crisis, however, were far-reaching. As the decades have passed, Leslie has observed the way that it has shaped our community—for better and for worse. She was kind enough to share some of her observations with us. As terrible as it was, the epidemic brought various groups together. People began to work together across lines of gender politics and different queer identities with sympathy for one another’s interests. Much of the activism for the rights of hospital patients was catalyzed by AIDS activism. The AIDS crisis marks the first time where patients were able to have a direct dialogue with the federal government; it was a prototype for other kinds of healthcare activism. In addition to this, Leslie and many of her fellow activists went on to join the fight for marriage equality. The skill-sets and model of activism provided by the crisis has been invaluable to LGBTQ community organizers.

AIDS affected people from all walks of life. According to Leslie, it seemed like almost an entire generation of gay men was going to be lost. This was devastating, especially considering that many young gay men looked to older gay men for support and shelter against widespread homophobia and familial rejection. As terrible as this was, it afforded the community a certain level of visibility. At the time, infection was not something that could be hidden. Skin conditions, cancers, and weight loss essentially forced people out of the closet. Most everybody knew of someone who was affected by the virus. Even as it threatened to destroy the community, it made a humanizing element of those with same sex desire more obvious to the general public.

The fight against AIDS is not yet over and there are new problems facing the queer community. Leslie remarks that the community is dynamic and continuously changing; the way we raise awareness about AIDS and HIV needs to reflect this. AIDS is usually thought of as only affecting gay men, as lesbians were not traditionally known to get it. As a result, most of the literature and educational resources are primarily (if not exclusively) focused on gay men’s experiences. The current resources ultimately fail to acknowledge the risks faced by transpeople. Many transmen, born biologically female, have not been properly educated on how to avoid getting HIV. If they identify as a gay, bisexual, or queer man after their transition, then they may experience a heightened level of vulnerability.

The struggle against HIV and AIDS continues outside of the queer community as well. While queer folks face many unique challenges with the disease, it is very much a global phenomenon. It has affected people of every race, gender identity, nationality, and orientation. Scientists all over the world are making great strides toward combating the virus. In the meantime, we have to do what we can to educate ourselves. If we can learn anything from people like Leslie, it is that progress is possible.

Joshua Peterson is a Staff Writer at InQueery.
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