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After 25 years of AIDS, a look back at a vibrant community quite nearly destroyed

When Perry Brass, Leonard Ebreo, and Mark Rabinowitz founded the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic in 1971, they had “no background in medicine, no background in public health,” Brass recalled.

The three gay men saw their peers getting sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis or gonorrhea, and those men could not get treatment delivered by sympathetic providers. They had no place to go to learn about these infections and how to prevent them.

“There was absolutely nothing available at the time for gay men to know about STDs, to address their bodies, to understand themselves in a health context,” said the 58-year-old Brass. Like many of the community members who came out in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the three men saw a need and they responded.

“While we were doing it, it seemed absolutely natural to do it,” Brass said. “If there was something that had to be done, you did it.”

Over time, the project, which advocated that gay men use condoms well before HIV appeared on the scene, merged with another clinic and moved from West 11th Street to an office in Sheridan Square and eventually to New York City’s gay community center. Today, it is based in Chelsea and it is called the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center.

The three men were part of the generation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people who founded the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal, the Human Rights Campaign, and a slew of national and local gay and AIDS organizations.

Just as the AIDS epidemic in America continues to impact gay men more than any other group, tens of thousands of gay and bisexual men were infected with HIV in the late ‘70s and the ‘80s. The vast majority of those men, including Ebreo and Rabinowitz, were killed by the disease.

And on June 5, as groups across the country mark 25 years since the first federal government report about AIDS cases in the U.S., the community institutions that those men helped build stand as their lasting contribution to the queer community.

The period following the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, the event that is seen as launching the modern gay rights movement, was for many in the queer community an extraordinary time.

Gay men and lesbians were still being arrested and prosecuted under state sodomy laws. They were still harassed by police. Coming out of the closet could cost an individual a job. But the community was also enjoying successes politically and socially.

The first openly gay and lesbian elected officials were put in office in the ’70s—in Massachusetts and Minnesota, and then elsewhere—and the first anti-discrimination laws were passed then. Some elected officials began publicly endorsing queer community causes.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association, responding to demands from some APA members and gay activists, removed homosexuality from its official list of disorders. As evidenced by the attendance at the annual marches that began in 1970 and commemorated the Stonewall riots, a growing part of the community was willing to be quite public.

With each victory, whether small or large, the community was emboldened.

“In the early days, we had so many successes we really surprised ourselves,” said Steve Ashkinazy, 56, and a founder of the Task Force in 1973, the Hetrick-Martin Institute for queer youth in 1979, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in 1983. “It seemed as if everything you touched turned to gold.”

Those victories also swelled the ranks of the community, according to David Carter, 53, the author of “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” a 2004 history.

“It was a very exciting time,” Carter said. “I think that one reason we were able to build on what people did in the ’70s is we now had a mass movement... Because you had that number of bodies, you had enough people to make a movement and the psychology was different. There was a community.”

That sense of community could be quite strong. In 1979, Ed Sederbaum, 60, ran “rap groups” at Identity House, a counseling center, and volunteered at the Gay Switchboard.

“I saw myself as committed to my fellow gay people,” he said. “It was certainly a shared value among people who were involved in community organizati­ons.”

Larry Mass arrived in New York City in 1979 after completing his medical residency in Boston.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “There was a sense that you were an embattled minority and you were fighting for your dignity and your rights... It was our time and we knew it.”

Mass was the first person to author a piece dealing with AIDS. His story, which was published in the New York Native in May of 1981, described a rare form of pneumonia seen in some New York City gay men. Mass wrote another 23 stories on AIDS between 1981 and 1983. That work was very much in keeping with the view that some people had of the queer community.

“On the one hand, there was a utopianism, but on the other hand there was also a lot of exclusion in this,” Brass said. “The vision was that we would form our own communities with our own institutions, our own media, our own healthcare, and our own families.”

The ‘70s saw growth in gay groups organized by politics, which typically ranged from the center to the far left, by profession, such as doctors, social workers, or teachers, or by any one of a number of other categories.

Antony Ward, 65, was finishing his doctoral work when he participated in establishing the Gay Academic Union in 1973. Its founders included the historians John D‘Emilio, Bert Hansen, Martin Duberman, and Jonathan Ned Katz. The union held its first conference that year which drew 325 scholars to New York City.

The academics “had common interests” and “swam in the same water,” but they also saw universities and colleges as places to “challenge homophobia and sexism,” Ward said.

“The impulse was militant,” he said. “We’re going to liberate universities, make them come to terms with their homophobia.”

For many gay men, a central feature of this community was sex. These were not solely furtive, anonymous sexual encounters. Gay men who were sexually active at the time report that their sex partners often became good friends or lovers.

“Sex was incredibly important,” said 58-year-old Mark A. Niedzolkowski. “You felt family, you felt connected. You had very intimate relations with your friends... It wasn’t unusual to go to a dinner party and there would only be one person there you hadn’t had sex with.”

For some, the sex also had the character of a political or social statement. To have sex with other men was to throw off the laws and mores that sought to bind gay men.

“I think it was countering all the inhibitions of society,” said Steve Ault, 59, who was a co-coordinator of the 1979 March on Washington, the first major gay protest in the nation’s capital. “In that sense, it was making a statement... Sex is good, sex is fine.”

And there were plenty of opportunities for sex. Men gathered in bathhouses, subway restrooms, clubs, city parks, bars with backrooms, and in trucks and warehouses in the West Village.

That sprawling sexual culture was replicated in cities across America. As powerful and as liberating as it was for many men, it also allowed HIV to spread widely in the gay community. AIDS fundamentally changed that sexual landscape. It also dramatically altered the gay community by killing many of the community’s best and brightest members. The disease destroyed the community those gay men had built.

Niedzolkowski recalled attending a dinner party in Soho in 1974 with a dozen other men. Those men were his family, he said. Just four are alive today and three still live in New York.

“One of my friends from that dinner party bought a house in the country so we would all have a place to go on the weekends,” he said. “Three of us go there now. There is a swimming pool, all of these bedrooms, and three us sitting at the dining table with all of these chairs. The dining room table would be full and all of these people would be bringing new people into our lives so that the family would not have shrunk. It would have grown. That was taken away.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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