One Friday evening in the early summer of 1981, Thea and I were in Southampton preparing dinner when something on the news caught our attention: “The CDC reports that between October 1980 and May of 1981, five young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for pneumonia at three different hospitals in Los Angeles. Two have died.” A month later, the New York Times published its now-infamous article with the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” and alarms began to go off everywhere in our community.
We spent the next day taking turns on the phone, calling around to friends in the medical field. Thea confessed that one of her patients, a gay male, had been sick and canceled his last several appointments, but she clammed up after that, not wanting to break confidentiality. I learned that one of my male friends from the 1950s whom I’d mostly lost track of was also sick. Within the next two years, he and one of the other men in that group would be dead.
The speed with which AIDS took hold is terrifying to recall, and the memories of that period are horrid. By the end of 1981, officials estimated hundreds had died in the U.S., and soon, our downstairs neighbor Larry Kramer held the very first meeting of what would become the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Funeral invitations began to pour in, and by the mid-’80s, many of the gay men we knew were dead.
Until that point, gay men and women still rarely mixed. Once gay men started becoming sick, though, the wall between us collapsed. Lesbians stepped up to become caretakers when entire families turned against their sick male family members. Thea and I both knew that wallowing in feelings of helplessness wasn’t going to get us anywhere, so we began to attend demonstrations and small fundraisers, donating money to different advocacy groups. Since we moved in fairly affluent circles, we had friends who knew to hit us up for money, and we gave. It was the least we could do.
We’d always missed the Pride March in June because it happened on the weekend, and we spent those in Southampton. One Sunday night, at some point in the early ’80s, I suggested we take a quick drive around the Village before getting to the apartment to see what was left of the parade. Christopher Street was empty, but debris from the marchers and parties were scattered everywhere. I felt hollow and said, “Honey, let’s not miss it anymore.” From then on, we didn’t. I wasn’t quite ready to join the march myself, but we’d watch from the sideline and cheer everyone on.
An organization we supported that had risen out of the Stonewall riots, called the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, was growing fast as need for their help increased, and we were friendly with the group’s vice president, David Rothenberg. In 1983, a former school on West 13th Street was put up for sale by the city, and after some initial resistance, Mayor Ed Koch agreed to sell it to the Center for $1.5 million, with a down payment of $150,000 due by the end of the year. We donated money, along with almost 200 others, and the Center met its goal. When they tried to pay me back, I tore up the check.
I wish I could say my reason was purely altruistic, but the check they wrote had the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center right there in big words on it. I was fine being out in the community, but I wasn’t about to let my bank know that I was gay. Homosexuals in New York City had no legal rights in terms of being discriminated against in housing, employment and public accommodations, and still wouldn’t until 1986.
I did have something else to offer gay rights organizations besides money, though — my tech expertise. Early AIDS and gay rights organizations were very bare-bones, made up largely of volunteers who used whatever kinds of office materials they could get their hands on, and I began to help both the Center and the East End Gay Organization set up their early computer systems. For EEGO, I debugged their address databases for fund-raising mailers and newsletters, and at the Center, I wrote a program revision to their central database that allowed it to create gender designations so that mailings about events and services geared specifically toward women could be easily sorted. I also became involved with the Center’s social calendar, volunteering to help with dances and events. Due to her MS, Thea wasn’t able to join me for the setups, which involved a lot of physical activity like climbing ladders to tape paper flowers to the walls for decorations, but she came to each event with me.
The freedom of the ’70s felt like ages ago. Now there was always another struggle, be it political, with our government refusing to do anything about AIDS, or bureaucratic, with arguments within the gay organizations that, at the end of the day, were all trying to do the same thing: create change and acceptance of us. My new awareness of all the battles that needed to be fought always managed to snap me out of my sadness. I’d return to the apartment, energized and ready once more to mobilize and fight for our rights or make love with my beautiful Thea.
More often than not, both would happen in the same afternoon.
Adapted from A Wild and Precious Life by Edie Windsor with Joshua Lyon. Copyright © 2019 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.